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Thought for the Day: Separating the Mundane from the Holy One Step at a Time

One of my favorite examples of pseudo intellectual snobbery is use of the phrase "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny".  The concept (largely discredited in the biological world, according to the Wikipedia article) is that the developing embryo goes through the same stages that the species as a whole did while it was evolving.  When I say largely discredited I mean, of course, among those who still cling to the primitive belief in evolution.  (Aside: When confronted by someone talking that way, I just respond that I prefer to eschew obfuscation and speak simply.  That usually quiets them down or they turn away in disdain; both equally fine for my purposes.)

The concept, however, that themes are repeated at different levels is interesting.  My chavrusos are all tired of hearing me say that Chazal are not deriving concepts from p'sukim, but showing how a certain concept is reflected in different p'sukim.  It is more than halacha, though.  Whole conceptual frameworks can be reflected in the way we do things.

Case in point: havdala.  Havdala is the ceremony we use to mark a distinction between the holy and profane as we are transitioning from a time of greater holiness to lesser holiness.  The Shulchan Aruch (OC 296:1) says the the ceremony is to be done in a very particular order: wine, spices, candle, havdala (the actual bracha of "ha'mavdil bein kodesh l'chol").  The Shulchan Aruch is so concerned about the order that it even gives a mnemonic: YaVNeH -- Yayin, B'samim, Ner, Havdala.  There are t'shuvos on what to do if one makes a mistake in the order.  Why so serious?

The Dirshu Mishna Bruraa quotes the Mateh Yehuda as explaining that the ceremony proceeds from the more physical of our senses to the more ethereal.  We start with taste (the wine; and yes I know we don't taste it till the end, that is for technical reasons regarding hefsek).  Next is smell, less solid but still particulate based.  Vision, now entering the realm of pure energy.  Finally we come to the intellect, which is where the real separation actually happens.

But wait; there's more!  That same order is reflected in how are body is composed, from lower to higher.  The lowest level is the mouth and tongue, where taste happens.  Then the nose for smell.  Higher yet are the eyes for vision.  Finally we come to the brain -- where all sensations actually occur -- the seat of intellect.

It's almost like someone planned this all out.


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