Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Magical snow

Several of the Harry Potter books mention snow, and talk about Hogwarts students bewitching snowballs to fly at other kids or into high-up windows.

As you may have heard, it's snowing right now in the truly magical city of Jerusalem, which is a once-every-few-years experience.

In honor of the snow in Jerusalem, I thought I'd write a little bit about what Jewish writings say about snow.

Of course, we all know that snow is somewhat magical from a purely scientific perspective. In general, all substances in the world contract as they get colder. This is part of the fundamental way that the elements work. But water is the one element that actually gets somewhat bigger as it freezes, absorbing air. If this didn't happen, water life would be destroyed when a lake froze, since it would be dragged to the bottom under sinking ice. But because of this unique property of water, the tops of lakes freeze, the ice floats and provides insulation, and lake life is preserved. Snow also provides a layer of insulation for everything under it. Just another magical property of the world that enables life.

So what do Jewish writings say about snow? I found some fun things in a book called "HaNoten Sheleg" that was written in Israel (in Hebrew) a few years ago.

The one mystical thing I found about snow is that kabbalistic writings connect snow to forgetfulness. This is because the gematria numerical value of the word snow, "sheleg" (שלג) is the same as the gematria of the word forgetfulness, "shikcha" (שכחה). Based on this, books of kabalah teach that anyone who takes snow, especially freshly-fallen snow, and rubs it on his forehead three times, while concentrating on the letter "alef" (א), will earn Divine help in remembering things, against forgetfulness.

I certainly don't claim to understand Kabalah, but I saw this quoted from the AirZal and Rabbi Chayim Vital.

Personally, for anyone who wants a magical remedy for forgetfullness, I have another suggestion: study!

Other Jewish writings concerning snow are less mystical.

For example, there is a debate between scholars whether eating snow (or ice cream) is considered drinking or eating. If you put snow in your mouth, are you eating something or drinking something? This has some ramifications in Jewish law. For example, if eating snow is considered eating, then eating a handful will need a blessing to be said afterwards. But if eating snow is considered drinking, since a handful of snow is actually a tiny amount of water, no blessing will be needed. For eating it depends on solid volume, for drinking it depends on liquid volume. The consensus seems to be that snow, as well as ice cream, is considered more like drinking than eating, and so no blessing is required afterwards.

Another debate among scholars is whether it's permitted on the Sabbath to make and throw a snowball. Some say that taking a bunch of seperate "stuff" like snow, and constructing from it a new thing (the ball) that didn't exist before, is considered an act of creation, and would be prohibited (Shmitas Shabbos Ke'Hilchasa, Rivevos Efrayim). But others say that snowballs don't last long enough to be considered creations, since they will either break apart, or melt, or mix into other snow, so making them is permitted (Be'er Moshe, Piskei Teshuvos).

I hope all Jerusalem readers continue to enjoy the snow, and that everyone has a great winter!

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