Context is Everything

January 23, 2019

Actor Chris Pratt has jumped on the “Daniel fast” bandwagon, thrusting it into media spotlight.

The “Daniel fast,” for those who may not know, involves eating only things that grow from seeds, including fruits, vegetables and whole grains. People undertaking this diet avoid meat, dairy, sugar, fat, alcohol, caffeine and processed foods. Inspiration for this “fast” comes from the Biblical book of Daniel. In the first chapter, the title figure and his friends limit themselves to water and vegetables while serving in the court of Nebuchadnezzar. This was done strictly because Nebuchadnezzar’s kitchen wasn’t kosher. Not only was it not done for health reasons, the fact that Daniel, Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah (AKA Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) were able to flourish on such a diet was seen as a miracle. Make no mistake, given the option, Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (AKA Daniel, Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah) would have preferred to partake of meat, wine and other rich foods. Their motivation was kashrus – no more, no less.

The “Daniel fast” typically lasts for 21 days, based on another, unrelated fast that Daniel undertook, in chapter 10 of his book. In this case, he explicitly abstained from luxurious foods because he was in mourning. (We are given no indication of this fast’s impact on the state of his health.) I find it telling that people don’t “Daniel fast” for three years, as was done by Daniel, Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah (AKA – ah, you know!).

I’m not saying that the “Daniel fast” is a bad diet per se. It might be an excellent diet for weight loss (though weight loss was the opposite of what Daniel and his friends wanted). It’s just that saying that the diet undertaken by Daniel and company was done so for reasons of health – or that one could regularly expect the results they achieved – misses the point entirely. It’s completely out of context.

I had the same issue a few years ago, when “Ezekiel bread” was a popular dietary fad. “Ezekiel bread” is a form of “sprouted” bread. It is made from whole, sprouted wheat, barley, spelt, millet, soybeans and lentils. It takes its inspiration from the recipe that God gave the prophet Yechezkel in Ezekiel 4:9. Now, for all I know, Ezekiel bread might be the most delicious and healthful thing in the world but such was certainly not God’s intention in prescribing it to Yechezkel. The diet was commanded as part of a prophetic act because it was disgraceful for Yechezkel to eat. The Radak explains that this was a sign of the impending famine, in which people would not have access to sufficient wheat to make bread, forcing them to mix it with inferior ingredients. In fact, God originally commanded Yechezkel to bake this bread using human excrement as fuel but when the prophet balked, He permitted him to upgrade to cattle dung, which is less repulsive. (As with people not “Daniel fasting” for three years, I doubt very much that anyone uses this kind of fuel to bake their sprouted bread.)

So, yeah. The product might be excellent but the Bible certainly doesn’t recommend it for reasons of health per se. Again, the recipe is taken out of context.

Taking things out of context has a long history – sometimes humorous and sometimes insidious. Here are a few of the more entertaining variety:

  • Everyone thinks that the expression “blood is thicker than water” means that one’s family is more important than one’s friends. Actually, it means the exact opposite. It means that “blood” of a covenant (i.e., allegiances voluntarily undertaken) is stronger than the “water” of the womb (i.e., amniotic fluid, meaning relationships into which we’re born);
  • Carpe diem – Latin for “seize the day” – is understood as a call to spontaneity. Again, it actually means the opposite. The entire expression from which the phrase is taken is “carpe diem quam minimum credula postero” – “seize the day, relying as little as possible on the future.” The intention is actually similar to “never put off to tomorrow what can be done today.” Got a paper to write or a field to plow? Seize today and don’t rely on tomorrow! Far from a call to spontaneity, “carpe diem” beckons us to act responsibly;
  • The phrase “starve a cold, feed a fever” is taken as medical advice, albeit of dubious quality: eat when you have a fever but not when you have a cold. In fact, the intention is quite the reverse. The meaning is, “if you starve a cold, you’ll end up feeding a fever,” i.e., your condition will worsen. So, whether you have a cold or a fever, eat up, bubbeleh!

I could go on all day. When you and a friend have the same idea and you say, “great minds think alike,” you’re actually insulting yourselves. The quote in whole is “great minds think alike, though fools seldom differ.” It’s fools that generally have the same (trite) ideas according to the expression, not wise people. Similarly, “luck of the Irish” was originally a racist swipe at a country historically beset by conflict and famine. Falling in a hole and breaking your leg was “luck of the Irish,” not winning the lottery.

Taking aphorisms out of context so that people use them in the opposite of their original senses is harmless, perhaps amusing, but losing context can also be harmful. This is something Jews have had to contend with… well, pretty much for as long as there have been Jews.

Jewish Bible passages have long been used in attempts to convert Jews to other religions. Perhaps most famous of these is the attempt to read the doctrine of a virgin birth into Isaiah chapter 7. Even those with a modicum of Jewish education know that the word almah in Isaiah 7:14 means a young woman, not a virgin but, beyond that, just knowing the context of the chapter would preclude misinterpreting it as a messianic prophecy.

King Achaz of Judah was at war against the combined might of Aram and the northern kingdom of Israel (which had broken away from Judah in a civil war). He was rightly concerned so the prophet Isaiah came to assure him that he would ultimately emerge victorious. Isaiah gave Achaz the following sign:

“See that girl over there? She’s pregnant. She will have a son, whom she’ll call Immanuel. Before he’s old enough to know good from bad, the lands of the two kings whom you fear will be abandoned.”

Even if your Hebrew isn’t strong enough to know the difference between the words almah and besulah, or between the tenses meaning “she has conceived” and “she will conceive,” if you know the context of the quote, logic will tell you that it can’t refer to a birth that would occur 700 years after the death of King Achaz, since the entire purpose of the sign was to convince him of the outcome of a war in his lifetime!

Out of context quotes are a favorite of anti-Semitic web sites. They especially like out-of-context Talmud quotes, intended to make Jews look evil in general and “anti-gentile” in particular. One of the most reprehensible misrepresentations is the assertion, based on Kesubos 11b, that sexual relations are permitted with a girl under the age of three. I must stress most emphatically that this is not the case, it has never been the case and no authority has ever interpreted the law to support such a reading. While the Talmud there does discuss the possibility of such a thing occurring, it focuses strictly on the legal ramifications, such as the value of the girl’s future dowry. When it comes to such things, the Talmud rules that this act is of no legal impact (i.e., her dowry is unaffected). That is definitely not to suggest that such a violation is permissible, or without consequences for the offender.

Nowadays, we also have cropped, doctored and in other ways out-of-context photos and video with which to contend. How many photos of Israeli “atrocities” have been revealed as staged events? (Many.) Remember that photo of a Syrian child, ostensibly sleeping on his parents’ graves? Not only was that not taken in Syria, it turned out to be a posed art photo. How about the immigrant child in a cage? That turned out to be the child of protestors behind fencing they brought with them for illustrative purposes. As I write this, much of the Internet is apologizing to a group of high school students, whom they lambasted for allegedly accosting a Native American elder. The broader context of the video has revealed that what the briefer viral clip purported to show was not in fact what had occurred.

Taking things out of context can sometimes be relatively harmless. If you want to “Daniel fast,” that’s your prerogative. If you starve a cold, you might end up feeding a fever, though the use of folksy maxims as medical procedures is questionable in any event. But presenting things out of context can also be used to mislead people or to inspire hatred. If something sounds outrageous, it usually warrants further investigation.

One last thing: sometimes presenting things out of context may further religious or political agendas in which we firmly believe. Tempting as that may, it doesn’t justify misrepresenting facts. If your position is correct, convince others to come around to your way of thinking using actual proofs. If truth is on your side, there should never a need to resort to a “pious fraud.”

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.