Jewish Mythbusters

We need a Snopes for Jewish life. You know, some kind of site where people can enter “facts” that they know about Judaism to see if they’re true. (Maybe we could call it Shnapps.)

While we’re waiting for such a site to get launched, I’m happy to provide this installment of Jewish Mythbusters–persistent Jewish urban legends that keep making the rounds no matter how silly or unbelievable they may be.


1. If you drop the Torah, you have to fast for 40 days.

First, you should realize that dropping a Torah scroll is an extremely rare occurrence.

I can’t imagine going a couple hours before figuring out what I’m eating next. Forty days? Where did this number come from? Why does every Hebrew school kid seem to have this questionable factoid at their fingertips? Why does every relative at a bar mitzvah think they’re being so funny when they tell the kid, “Careful you don’t drop the Torah so we don’t have to fast for 40 days!”

The number 40 was probably batted around because it served as a logical counterpart to the 40 days it took for the Israelites to receive the Torah. So while there’s no set procedure for the very few times this might actually occur, Jews might decide to create a day of study and/or have people donate money to tzedakah to acknowledge the sanctity of the Torah scroll. If there were many people present who witnessed the Torah falling, each person might fast for a short time during the day and then come together for a study session. The best way to react to this unfortunate event is to turn it into a teachable moment as well as an opportunity to bring community together and engage in acts of tikkun olam.

But no need to cancel your dinner plans next month.

2. A person with a tattoo can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

If this were true, we’d be stacking bodies up like firewood trying to figure out where to put them all.

True, Jewish law prohibits getting a tattoo, because one is not supposed to mark or scar our bodies, which are seen as God’s work. (An obvious exception of which is circumcision, which is specifically commanded). But fashions and trends come and go, and many people, Jews and non-Jews alike, choose to get a tattoo. I can assure you that when the time comes, no one will take a look at your little butterfly and turn you away.

Stay tuned for more installments of Jewish Mythbusters. Do you have an example of something that just doesn’t sound quite right but you keep hearing about it? Let me know and I’ll report back to you…


Cantor Matt Axelrod has served Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains, NJ since 1990. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a national officer of the Cantors Assembly. Cantor Axelrod is the author of Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider's Guide, and Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays: From Shofar to Seder.

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