Jacobs’s experience ultimately becomes about the author trying to be a better husband, better father, and a better man – all through the enabling influence of religion. Salvation may not lie within for the spiritual seeker, but the memoir, at the very least, does warm the soul.
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An agnostic may be compared to one who sits on the sideline of “The Big Game” without rooting for any particular team. After a while some spectators might get a little bored of watching the game, not having any sort of preference as to the outcome. Heck, why even show up? But in A.J. Jacobs’s whimsical second book, The Year of Living Biblically, the (once?) agnostic author decides not only to root for one team, he jumps right onto the field.
The concept of Jacobs’s social experiment may seem simple enough: he will live one whole year by the rules of the Bible as literally as possible. Jacobs stops eating pork, doesn’t wear clothes containing wool and linen, doesn’t work on Saturday, and, doesn’t touch his wife while she is in nidah, among other various laws.
But translating the written Torah literally can be quit bizarre to those not looking at the Oral Tradition; it can even be counter-productive. Without the deep metaphysical meaning behind tzitzit, the mitzvah of “wearing fringes” can be lost to the literal translator.
Jacobs, who is Jewish by birth, grew up without religion. For him, being Jewish was putting a Star of David atop the family Christmas tree. The idea of experiencing religion intrigues him, but he does bluntly state that part of the intrigue is to sell books. While this might tarnish the sincerity of his quest, Jacobs seems to truly become taken in by his spiritual journey.
For example, when he finally decides to actually wear tefillin, instead of binding handwritten passages of the Bible to his head and arm using rubber bands (?!), he is overcome with a sense of serenity. Jacobs doesn’t shave his beard, but comes to love his facial hair. He begins to appreciate Shabbos with a sense of zeal and peacefulness. Praying becomes a multi-daily part of his life, and he enjoys it, much to his surprise. In fact it is still a part of his life.
The Year of Living Biblically is really about a secular man trying to get a better understanding of religion. While Jacobs’s tone is light and humorous, he does avoid, as often as possible, making a mockery of the Torah (it should be noted that Jacobs decides to follow dictates found in the Christian Bible as well). He points out that while he could fulfill the commandment of “being fruitful and multiply” by growing some apple trees and helping his niece with her algebra homework, it probably wasn’t what G-d had in mind behind the first mitzvah in the Torah.
So he and his most patient wife Julie set out to have another child – no matter what it takes. The Bible commands that one should stone adulterers. Heaving rocks at people could wind Jacobs up in prison, so he wisely decides to toss minuscule pebbles at any known adulterer he may encounter; after all, the Bible never says how big the stones should be.
During the course of his biblical year Jacobs sets out to meet and experience many different sects of Jews and Christians in America. This gives him a broader sense of religion in the USA, but also gives the book a multi-faith marketability. He attends a service given by Jerry Falwell (months before he passed away), and spends an enlightening weekend with the Amish.
He also celebrates Simchat Torah with Lubavitch Jews in Crown Heights. It was this lebedig experience that Jacobs has called the “spiritual high” of his year of living biblically. “It totally changed my paradigm,” Jacobs says in an interview with The Jewish Press. “I had always thought of Orthodox and Chassidic Jews as being very serious. But at  I got to see the joy religion can provide.”
Jacobs even flies to Israel in order to fulfill certain biblical laws that only apply to the Holy Land (e.g. tithing his produce). While he’s in Israel Jacobs decides to meet the few remaining Samaritans and Karaites, and to meet his Hindu Guru – turned Orthodox – rabbi ex-uncle Gil.
All of these encounters add to the narrative appeal of the novel; at times Jacobs becomes something of an oddly religious Gulliver during his travels.
Rabbi Shmuly Boteach, an acquaintance of Jacobs, recently quipped that Jacobs’s book is basically ripping off his life, and those of all Orthodox Jews. Indeed, many Torah observant readers might find Jacobs’s project somewhat offensive. Some may feel that Jacobs should never have embarked on such a journey without the sincere intent of pursuing a religious life; something that it would seem was never in the game plan at the onset.
But to Jacobs’s credit he treats religion as respectfully as possible, and even goes out of his way to fulfill some of the Torah’s lesser observed mitzvot (e.g. Jacobs actually manages to perform Shiluach HaKan, the sending away of the mother bird when taking her eggs, a mitzvah that few Jews have ever had the opportunity to practice).
In person Jacobs has a humble and unassuming likeability. Talking to him for more than two minutes, one can plainly see that Jacobs in no way wished to attack or mock organized religion, that he in fact has a yearning for greater theological knowledge, to this day.
While The Year of Living Biblically is another gimmicky attempt by Jacobs to disconnect himself from the social norm for the sake of humor and prestige (in his last book, The Know-It-All, he read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica in a year), the book still manages to display an earnest solemnity.