Journalist and non-observant Jew A. J. Jacobs, needing a subject for his next book and interested in the roots of his heritage, decides to spend a year attempting to follow the Bible literally. Like everyone who decides to spend a year doing some extreme thing and write a book about it, as far as I can tell, he is well-to-do and living in a swank New York City apartment.

The overleaf shows photos of him throughout the year, as he begins as a baby-faced, clean-shaven cutie and then, due to the laws about not cutting hair or shaving, progresses through various stages of unkempt and ends up looking like an artist's conception of Early Man. His wife does not follow the laws with him, and eventually gets so annoyed with one of his prohibitions, against not only touching a menstruating woman but against sitting anywhere where one has sat, that she vengefully sits on every chair in the apartment, leaving him to crouch unhappily on the floor. (His female editor at Esquire, upon learning of this requirement, emails him a spreadsheet of her menstrual cycle.)

I heard about this book and wrote it off as a publicity stunt likely to produce unfunny one-liners, shallow insights, cheap shots at fundamentalists, and gloppy sentiment. I started reading it while waiting for assistance at a bookshop, and became so intrigued and amused that I bought it. Amazingly, this is actually a good book: the humor is funny, the insights aren't all obvious, the fundamentalists are taken seriously (though not reverently), and the sentiment, while there, avoids gloppiness.

Jacobs has obsessive-compulsive disorder, and writes in a funny but not mocking manner about how his mental illness meshes with the ritualistic qualities of some of his observances. (He find that they mesh very well indeed, so much so that he find that his normal OCD symptoms diminish. He theorizes that he just needs to do some sort of repetitive and contaminant-avoiding rituals, and what they are doesn't really matter.)

Since Jacobs is Jewish, he primarily concentrates on the Torah and Old Testament, and meets with a lot of Jews of various sects, including a guy whose job is to inspect clothing for mixed fibers who moonlights as a provider of pigeon eggs (via the pigeon roosting on his window ledge) for a truly obscure ritual. One of the things Jacobs eventually figures out is that the practice is Judaism is largely communal, so trying to do everything by himself is not only missing the point, but makes many of the most important holidays less meaningful than they might have been the year before.

It's a very enjoyable read, a bit scattershot but with lots of fascinating history-geeking and some genuinely mind-expanding moments, like when Jacobs meets some Samaritans in Israel (they still exist, but in very small numbers) and muses, What if history had taken a left turn? What if the Samaritan Torah had become the standard, and millions of Semitic faithful flooded to Mount Gerizim every year to sacrifice lambs, except for a few hundred people called the Jews, who worshipped at an obscure site known as the Western Wall?

(I am now imagining an entire alternate history of all the Abrahamic faiths, as it also has significance in Islam.)

Something I've always believed, but which Jacobs vividly demonstrates, is that it's impossible to follow the Bible literally. It's an enormous text with variant translations and versions and alternates and apocrypha, scholars can't decide what some words and phrases ever meant, and large portions contradict each other. Even the most devoted and fundamentalist adherent is still picking and choosing which parts are important and which aren't, and what the laws really mean and how to follow them in the present day.

This might offend people more religious than myself, but I assume you know who you are. I liked it a lot.

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
Journalist and non-observant Jew A. J. Jacobs, needing a subject for his next book and interested in the roots of his heritage, decides to spend a year attempting to follow the Bible literally. Like everyone who decides to spend a year doing some extreme thing and write a book about it, as far as I can tell, he is well-to-do and living in a swank New York City apartment.

The overleaf shows photos of him throughout the year, as he begins as a baby-faced, clean-shaven cutie and then, due to the laws about not cutting hair or shaving, progresses through various stages of unkempt and ends up looking like an artist's conception of Early Man. His wife does not follow the laws with him, and eventually gets so annoyed with one of his prohibitions, against not only touching a menstruating woman but against sitting anywhere where one has sat, that she vengefully sits on every chair in the apartment, leaving him to crouch unhappily on the floor. (His female editor at Esquire, upon learning of this requirement, emails him a spreadsheet of her menstrual cycle.)

I heard about this book and wrote it off as a publicity stunt likely to produce unfunny one-liners, shallow insights, cheap shots at fundamentalists, and gloppy sentiment. I started reading it while waiting for assistance at a bookshop, and became so intrigued and amused that I bought it. Amazingly, this is actually a good book: the humor is funny, the insights aren't all obvious, the fundamentalists are taken seriously (though not reverently), and the sentiment, while there, avoids gloppiness.

Jacobs has obsessive-compulsive disorder, and writes in a funny but not mocking manner about how his mental illness meshes with the ritualistic qualities of some of his observances. (He find that they mesh very well indeed, so much so that he find that his normal OCD symptoms diminish. He theorizes that he just needs to do some sort of repetitive and contaminant-avoiding rituals, and what they are doesn't really matter.)

Since Jacobs is Jewish, he primarily concentrates on the Torah and Old Testament, and meets with a lot of Jews of various sects, including a guy whose job is to inspect clothing for mixed fibers who moonlights as a provider of pigeon eggs (via the pigeon roosting on his window ledge) for a truly obscure ritual. One of the things Jacobs eventually figures out is that the practice is Judaism is largely communal, so trying to do everything by himself is not only missing the point, but makes many of the most important holidays less meaningful than they might have been the year before.

It's a very enjoyable read, a bit scattershot but with lots of fascinating history-geeking and some genuinely mind-expanding moments, like when Jacobs meets some Samaritans in Israel (they still exist, but in very small numbers) and muses, What if history had taken a left turn? What if the Samaritan Torah had become the standard, and millions of Semitic faithful flooded to Mount Gerizim every year to sacrifice lambs, except for a few hundred people called the Jews, who worshipped at an obscure site known as the Western Wall?

(I am now imagining an entire alternate history of all the Abrahamic faiths, as it also has significance in Islam.)

Something I've always believed, but which Jacobs vividly demonstrates, is that it's impossible to follow the Bible literally. It's an enormous text with variant translations and versions and alternates and apocrypha, scholars can't decide what some words and phrases ever meant, and large portions contradict each other. Even the most devoted and fundamentalist adherent is still picking and choosing which parts are important and which aren't, and what the laws really mean and how to follow them in the present day.

This might offend people more religious than myself, but I assume you know who you are. I liked it a lot.

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
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