The Music of Halacha: Tied Up In Knots III: Aegypt & The Blind Owl
I began John Crowley’s “Aegypt” with full awareness that, despite its limpid and musical prose, its sheer abundance requires hard work to figure out connections, and perceive patterns and symbolism. It is about the basic human search for the things we once possessed.
Sadegh Hedayat’s “The Blind Owl” was the suicidal author’s celebration of life. Its symbolism and connections are quite clear: In Part I the narrator is a painter whose vocation is to paint a single picture on pen cases. In Part II, he is a writer telling his story with the pens in his painted pen case. The first part is in the form of a dream, while the second is the past in the form of a confession.
Two books filled with symbolism and connections; one demanding serious commitment before beginning.
I thought of these two strikingly different reading experiences, both of which demand making connections, or, in our context, “Tying the knots,” as I reflected on the question with which I closed the previous essay: “We fulfill an obligatory knot by simply tightening Tefillin, and yet the same action would not be a Shabbat knot. There seems to be different ideas of knotting for Shabbat and Tefillin.” Why would the Mitzvah knot of Tefillin not qualify as a biblically prohibited knot on Shabbat?
Both knots, Shabbat and Tefillin, are about connections. (See Tied Up In Knots I & II) The Tefillin’s physical knot may not be permanent, but hopefully, the connection between the words inside the Tefillin and their message to the person tying his Tefillin is.
I realized that the Tefillin and Shabbat knots parallel the differences between reading “Aegypt” and “The Blind Owl.” The differences explain why the Tefillin knot is considered Tying by the Torah and yet is not a prohibited Shabbat knot:
I think of tying my Tefillin as similar to reading “Aegypt.” I know before I begin that the physical tying is the simple part, as is the basic reading of the novel. The real work begins by making the connections after the knot is tied: The intention, awareness and effort to form the connection between my heart and actions. (The Mitzvah of tying is focused on the “Shel Yad,” the Tefillin on my arm.) The emphasis is on my work after tying the knot. The connection is not the knot itself, which is not physically permanent, but how I use the Tefillin after they are tied on my arm and long after I removed them.
Shabbat knots are more basic; similar to reading “The Blind Owl,” the emphasis is simpler and more direct. The issue is the basic knot and its function, not what I do with it after it is tied.
This is a powerful example of how a common physical action changes by virtue of its function according to Halacha. The same action is a Biblical knot for one thing but not for another. Halacha shapes the action. It changes our definitions of familiar actions. Halacha transforms lighting a Shabbat candle into something much different from lighting a candle during the week. Halacha changes what we eat through blessings, or laws, such as Matzah, that require us to eat. Halacha raises every conversation we have with a parent into territory rich with possibility to attach to God, as the Halachot of education our children elevate each interaction with them.
Halacha made me pause before tying the bag of leftover Challah. That pause became something eternal as it allowed me to bear witness to God’s creation of heaven and earth. A simple action of tying a bag became holy. That for me is the most magnificent Music of Halacha.