Biological Basis for Passover Rituals: Avoid Contagion!

Take Away – As a Shabbos goy getting ready to pay 1$ for old food and cooking utensils – I can have empathy for the countless generations of Hebrews that struggled to survive endemic disease and environmental death threats during the times the Torah rules were made-up.

Adventures of the Shabbos Goy

I am not Jewish by either genes or culture.  Still, the “ best and brightest” people I know, in general, are Jewish.  My outsider and goy status is always a source of irony and humor to me – I do have funny stories.  As an ironic humorous and extended “bit” I have declared myself a shabbos goy (SG).  There is a whole other funny and interesting story there.  I am pretty much all Irish and raised catholic – my genetic proclivity is to love stories and people.  Much to the annoyance of my brilliant Jewish friends and business associates.

In full disclosure, I am also a complete non-believer – in anything.  I have never met anyone with fewer beliefs – I have even been kicked out of two atheist-humanist groups.  FYI, atheist/humanists are very dogmatic, anti-religion and anti-science.  Once again with paradox and irony, I have had many fundamentalist clients and friends.  I am not anti-religion or any stories people tell themselves.   Folklore and old stories about supernatural things is always intriguing to me.

Most recently, I am meeting young people in the modern Orthodox community, primarily based in NYC.  My most brilliant new Jewish friend is Aryeh Younger who is a force to be reckoned, now and in the future, in the young Jewish intellectual community.  He is also a blogger with TOI.

This week he asked me to be the SB with regard to buying his old food and utensils during Passover.  He said it would just cost me a dollar and I figured I would come out ahead in the deal.  Much more interesting is the whole very ancient and complicated set of ideas and rituals around all of this.  Learning about all of this is great fun – and I see a biological logic to it all.  Lord knows, there is a lot!?

Chometz and “Let’s Make a Deal!”

Aryeh is very gracious and has sent me links to the description of these rituals.  For example:  “What’s the Truth about . . . the Sale of Chametz on Pesach?”  Wow!  You have to be brilliant to follow all this stuff!

I have a keen interest in old belief systems.  I am a marketer, and scholar of brain and behavioral science, and these are by far the oldest and strongest “marketing campaigns” of all time.  Each regional culture around the globe has their own version from about 2000 years ago.  Belief Hindu beliefs’ are the earliest by a few thousand years.  I am a skeptic on belief systems causing behavior – it is unproven one way or the other – but certainly active and very detailed beliefs systems and ideas accompany many behaviors.  I suspect no rituals and behavior-idea traditions are longer or stronger than the Jewish ones.

Certainly, no intellectual tradition and set of practices is older, more codified nor more productive than the Jewish intellectual traditions…by many measures.

So, I look forward to learning more details about any and all Talumdic traditions and the intracacies of thought, writing, discussion and behavior.

I have no idea what Aryeh has in store for me in this “trade” – but I have my dollar and am ready.

Biology Is Always the First Cause

Of course, the immensely elaborate traditions and rituals around any religious practices/behaviors would not have been passed along through so many different generations if they did not help the individuals who practiced them.  In evolutionary terms you can’t pass anything on, genes, ideas or anything else, if you don’t survive to have kids.  The more kids you have the more you pass on – literally and figuratively.  Pretty simple.

Biology is fundamentally economic.  Life for any animal is always a matter of energy exchange.  The individual gives energy to get, hopefully more, energy back.  So we can presume that all the brain energy, and behaviors, accompanying the rituals in Torah have had some biological pay-off.

A recent study of stigma and prejudice against mentally ill people offers a hint at what may be at work.  The finding is that contact with mentally ill people, even casual or distant, is often unconsciously associated with infectious disease risk.  This study is not so far-fetched.  Remember that most of the rituals involve proscriptions and avoiding things that could be seen at threatening.  Certainly, the “threat-system”, fear, disgust and ideas about purity, cleanliness and impurity, and thus potential disease, are central to all rituals.  For example, water and bathing and food preparation rules, so central to avoiding contagion of pathogens (viruses, germs, worms, etc), are core rituals.

There is a lot that could be said here but let’s close with a few quotes from the study that suggest that cultural rules, behaviors and ideas at some point likely protected individuals from infection.  Infection and sudden death was a massive survival challenge in the days when religious practices were developed. – and actually until the middle of the last century!

Religious ideas and practices are dismissed as magical thinking and superstition, but imagine preliterate and early societies coping with many diseases are sudden, fast moving and fatal as Ebola – many times in one lifetime!  Yes, ritual washing and food contagion beliefs could save many lives.

“In response to the recurrent threat of infectious disease, a variety of species appear to have evolved behavioral adaptations to counter pathogen threat… Among humans, it is believed that infectious disease was perhaps the single greatest contributor to morbidity and mortality ancestrally. In response, there exists a behavioral immune system – a psychological system designed to promote the avoidance of potential pathogen carriers. When pathogen concerns are salient, people respond to heuristic disease cues with a range of affective (e.g., disgust), cognitive (e.g., attention), and behavioral (e.g., avoidance) reactions that ultimately serve to protect oneself from possible sources of infection…Over perceiving disease cues and frequently committing false-positive errors is an adaptive response to ambiguous environmental threat. This bias leads people to interpret any deviation from the norm to be evidence for parasitic infection, and has been used to explain prejudice towards immigrants and foreigners, the physically disabled, the elderly, and the obese.” Source: Evolutionary Psychology 2014. 12(4): 706-718  “Sick in the Head? Pathogen Concerns Bias Implicit Perceptions of Mental Illness. – Erik M. Lund, et. al.

Specifically, in the Israel, and the Middle East the threats and medical burden of disease and pathogens has always been severe.  Strict rules appear to be best and the norm for the local relgiions.  For example in recent analysis of Crusader stool samples:

“Under a microscope, the researchers saw that the samples contained the eggs of two of the world’s most common and widespread intestinal parasites: whipworms, which cause the infection known as trichocephalus, and giant roundworms, the largest of the nematodes found in human intestines, with adults that can grow to more than 1 foot (30 centimeters) long. (!!)

People with a light load of these worms may experience no symptoms.  But when whipworms and giant roundworms heavily colonize the digestive tract, they compete with their hosts for food, siphoning off the nutrients that would normally be absorbed in the intestines.  Eggs of the parasites pass through the feces and spread to other hosts by ingestion (say, when a human doesn’t wash their hands and spreads the parasite to food or other objects that get consumed). That means infections are most common in places with poor hygiene and sanitation as well as areas where human waste is used as fertilizer or where people defecate in the soil.
Mitchell has estimated that during a two- or three-year crusade expedition, noblemen and clergy were just as likely to die in battle as they were to succumb to malnutrition and disease. Presumably, the risk of malnutrition would have been even worse for poor foot soldiers with fewer resources. The new study suggests that parasites likely contributed to the demise of many soldiers who died of starvation or disease.”  Source: “Ancient Toilet Reveals Parasites in Crusader Poop”

The daily, environmental life and death threats to the early Israeli’s are unmanageable.  We can speculate that strict rituals were one way of coping with contagion and preventing disease – which was endemic.  It looks like the creation of religious rituals and beliefs were correlated with those immediate and urgent existential struggles – a long time ago..

About the Author
Elmer Rich is interested in evidence-based problem-solving in professional, business and policy work. With an M.S. in Lifespan Developmental Psychology from University of Chicago, he works as a professional marketer and communicator in B2B/technical topics in financial services.