Friday, July 18, 2014

Above Scrutiny

“The cobbler’s children have no shoes!” So declares the pithy aphorism regarding one of the ironies of life. Centuries prior to the first recording of this phrase, however, the Talmud discussed two artisan families who made it a point of honor that their children did not benefit from their particular craft.

“The house of Garmu was expert in preparing the [Temple] Showbread (by heating the ovens from within and baking the dough from within so that it never became moldy)...For the following was their memory honored: Never was fine bread to be found in their children's hand, lest people say: These feed from the [preparation of] the showbread...They of the house of Abtinas were expert in preparing the incense [for the Temple service] (and only the smoke of the incense they prepared ascended in a perfectly straight stack of smoke)...Never did a bride of their house go forth perfumed, and when they married a woman from elsewhere they expressly forbade her to do so lest people say: From [the preparation of] the incense they are perfuming themselves. [About both families it is said that they did so] to fulfill the command, “You shall be clean before the Lord and before Israel” (Talmud Yoma 38a).

The Talmud discusses these families in parallel paragraphs. Both families are at first criticized for not sharing their secret skills. After the sages brought in specialists from Alexandria who failed to replicate their specialties, they both sought out higher wages. When asked why they would not teach their art, they are both reported to have said, “In our father’s house they know that this House [the Temple] will be destroyed, and perhaps an unworthy man would learn it and then proceed to serve an idol with it” (ibid).

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