PARSHAT MISHPATIM – Shabbat Shekalim

Saturday 22nd February 2020 27th Shevat 5780


Exodus 21:1-24:18; Jeremiah 34:8-22, 33:25-26; Romans 6:12-23

(by Marcus Mordecai Schwartz, Director, Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Beit Midrash; Assistant Professor, Talmud and Rabbinic)

In 1976 the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg published a book called The Cheese and the Worms, an account and analysis of a 16th-century Inquisition trial. The defendant in this trial was a miller from the Friuli region of Italy named Menocchio. Among the heresies that he stood accused of was his apparent claim that the world came into existence through a process of putrefaction. Here are his words at the trial as Ginzburg reports them. Menocchio said:

I have said that, in my opinion, all was chaos, that is, earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together; and out of that bulk a mass formed—just as cheese is made out of milk—and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels. The most holy majesty decreed that these should be God and the angels, and among that number of angels there was also God, he too having been created out of that mass at the same time . . .

Aside from the Gnostic influence (positing the existence of an inferior divine being as well as a more remote superior God), the truly creative bit of cosmology here is the idea that the world curdled itself into existence. He describes the primordial chaos—the tohu vavohu of Genesis 1—as akin to milk before the cheese-making process. Despite the strangeness of the description, and its fantastical imaginings, I do think there is an inspiring insight contained within his description of his personal cosmology.

It is undoubtedly true that we associate milk with motherhood and new life. It is no great leap to imagine that the world originates in something like milk. Indeed, this concept may stand behind Exod. 23:19, a verse we read in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Mishpatim:

The choice first fr