Avot 3:23 Rabbi Elazar ben Chisma said: The laws about
the sacrifices of birds and the beginnings of a woman’s
ritually unclean period are essential ordinances; astronomy
and geometry are the seasonings, or ” side dishes” of wisdom.
Rabbi ben Chisma was renowned as a mathematician and for his knowledge of physics and astronomy.  However, he describes these sciences as parp’ra’ot – minor dishes of a meal, such as appetizers, desserts or salads. These add interest and complement the menu but are not the main dish or focus of the meal. The primary element around which the rest of the “meal” of one’s learning should be based, he advocates, is the Torah, the Word of God.
The Hebrew word, parp’ra’ot, apparently is derived from the Greek and can be connected with the English word ‘periphery’ – the outer rim of a circle, an area furthest from the center. What is of primary importance in one’s learning and development is the nourishing, life-giving Word of God. When the sciences can implement the application of the knowledge and ways of God, such as the use of technology in expanding honest business or the understanding of astronomy in computing the Hebrew months and annual Festival calendar, then they enhance the central and important focal point of life – God and His will.
Interestingly, in an article following the recent elections in Israel and the subsequent scrambling to build a coalition government, David M. Weinberg points out the importance of the “side dishes” in the presentation of a healthy, balanced meal. Addressing the fact that the Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) party, who have gained iron-fisted control over certain key social and government departments, are scornfully intolerant of any who are less “religious” than they are, including the Modern-Orthodox, pro-Zionist party, he writes: “Rolling back haredi influence on matters of religion and state is critical to the health and unity of this country. It’s time, once again, for the face of Torah and Jewish religion in public life to be one that is not ambivalent toward the Zionist enterprise, that does not scorn the rule of law and democratic institutions, that does not evince utter rejection of modernity, and that does not disparage and denigrate the secular public.” It seems there is a danger that a focus on the letter of God’s Word, to the exclusion of all else, can lead to a narrowing of vision and a hardening of heart against one’s brothers. God forbid.
In this verse of Pirkei Avot, Elazar Ben Chisma mentions two categories of Halacha (the normative laws for daily life based on the Torah). They are an interesting choice – the sacrifices of birds, kinin, and the subject of niddah, concerning the ritual purity and times of impurity of women. Why mention these from all the subjects found in the Torah? We may surmise that it is due to the fact that sacrifices and niddah are complex issues that require careful calculation. We see a clear illustration of a combination of the two in the gospels, when, after Yeshua’s birth, Mary ends her time of ritual impurity by taking the associated sacrifice of two birds to the Temple as a sacrifice offering. “And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they [Mary and Joseph] brought him [Yeshua] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Torah of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”
In Jewish life, the issue of family purity is seen as a vital, God-given way of infusing sanctity, as well as mystery and romance, into a marriage relationship. The timing of a married woman’s menstrual period is of great importance and needs to be carefully monitored. Whereas the sciences are practical and objective and the ideal is knowledge for knowledge’s sake, the goals of Divine law are entirely subjective and entwined with daily life on every level. Science cannot answer the deepest questions of the heart, such as, “Who am I in relation to the universe?” and ” What is my purpose in life?” It is God’s Word that is His gift to us; one that offers understanding and meaning and lights our way along the often perplexing and troubling, and yet wondrous, journey of life.
Conclusion of Chapter 3
Rabbi Chanan’yah Ben Akashai says: “The Holy One, blessed is He, wished to confer merit upon Israel, therefore He gave them Torah and mitzvot in abundance, as it is said, ‘The Lord desired, for the sake of His righteousness, that the Torah be made great and glorious'” (Isaiah 42:21).
We have reached the midway point of Pirkei Avot. We may agree that the tractate is comprised of a collection of teachings that share common aims to improve human relationships, to increase a person’s sense of responsibility to society, and to reveal each individual’s true purpose and God-given function in the world. Chazak, chazak – may we enjoy much strength and perseverance as we press forward into the final three chapters.
1. Talmud Bavli, Horayoth 10a
2. Rabbi Irving Bunim, Ethics from Sinai; 347
3. Israel HaYom, 5 Feb., 2013
4. Luke 2:22-24)