Year of Living Biblically: A Book Review

By: Hannah Spadafora   

Living life according to biblical law is not as tainted with antiquated notions as it seems to be. While some today see many biblical proscriptions as irrelevant or irrational, A.J. Jacobs in The Year of Living Biblically: One man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible shows a different side to the matter. Throughout the year long transformation documented in his book, Jacobs’ life goes from being a secular endeavor to a routine suitable for living a biblical existence. 

Jacobs approaches important questions in his memoirs, including the following insightful and deceptively mundane, questions:  How does one go about choosing to forgo the apparent split between religion and science perceived in the modern world and instead make the decision to practice religious tradition as divine mandate? What does it take to overcome the many obstacles to this practice which may arise in the mind of someone raised in the rational post-enlightenment period? And other important questions, such as: Is the shirt you’re wearing made of two different materials?; When was the last time you had a drugless mindful rave-like celebration in God’s name (a la Simchas Torah, a Hasidic commemoration of the communities yearly reading of the five books of Moses)?; and, when did you last sacrifice a live animal in order to reinforce the notion of God as a judge, while affirming to oneself the humble truth of one’s own mortality?  

The mini adventures of experience Jacobs undertakes vary widely, from transformations of aspects of ordinary life to the bible’s ideas of good living, to the adding of unusual (sometimes unthinkable) religious rituals to his life. This is sometimes amusing; as it is in the descriptions of the reactions he gets from walking around in all white, with tassels attached to his sleeves and an old timey beard decorating his face or sometimes teeth-clenchingly hard to read (did I mention the chicken sacrifice?), but always very thorough; he accomplishes his project at the expense of changing the way he eats, dresses, grooms and interacts with the world, all which have a noticeable impact on the way he thinks. 

Jacobs admits approaching this project from the perspective of an agnostic; despite biological roots in Judaism, he had a secular upbringing that’s left him “about as Jewish as the Olive Garden is Italian. Which is to say, not very.” (4). Being a writer for Esquire, having a wife who (seemingly from his descriptions) has at least slightly feminist leanings in life, and living in New York City does a lot in the way of providing extra levels of opposition to his accomplishing his mission. While some of the values he commits to exploring are the clichés that always come to mind when the modern person thinks of biblical notions of sin (such as his grappling with lust, envy and anger), many have to do with a matter even more unthinkable to modern man—the surrender of control of his life in matters where the Bible (nor any other source we’ve encountered since then) has not provided clear logic behind the requirements. 

This book is more than just how one reconciles the accepted norms of today with the laws given by the bible; the radical steps undertaken to shun modern normalcy for biblical adherence offer an interesting look at the application of exactly how one might go about applying each major lesson and detailed law the Judeo-Christian scripture provides to life in contemporary America. In order to weave together a coherent system to follow for his year-long memoir, he consulted religious experts from a number of religious communities. He visits biblical literalists and atheists, Hasidic Jews, and the Amish. He even goes so far as to call up the Jehovah’s Witnesses to request they knock on his door. 

The more significant matters he considers during this year are things such as whether in-vitro fertilization is biblically prohibited.  He decides it is not prohibited using an example from the bible showing that good things can come from complicated situations as well as the command to go forth and multiply.  And he explores the question of exactly what keeping the Sabbath, essentially a day put there for one to do nothing, entails.  He finally discovers the answers and the value in silence.  He undergoes such feats as: blowing a rams horn or shofar to signal the start of every month, avoids making any graven images, opting instead for two-dimensional shapes even when he’s playing with his son, refrains from touching all women for fear of their being ‘unclean’ that week, even carries around a chair to ensure he never sits somewhere an ‘unclean’ woman may have, the consulting of a shatnez (mixed fiber) tester to make sure the cloth of what he wears is only made of one kind of fiber, and the adherence to biblical laws about eating which besides providing forbiddance against cheeseburgers, also lead to the tasting of a cricket.  All of these trials he finds offer something valuable for his narrative; that is, conflicts the modern reader may relate to because of their own difficulties maintaining a life of religious practice in the modern era. 

While it is amusing for the reader to see what it takes for Jacobs to change his life in order to live according to Biblical law, it is enlightening to see what this commitment gives him as well. This is the part of the narrative which is especially interesting to the modern secular, to those who do not practice their religion in strict “biblical” ways, or to the person wondering how on earth one can still find meaning in systems of practice grounded in times so far in the past that they are alien to our world today. 

Having faith requires a trust in something one does not have proof of; as soon as personal concrete proof is presented, information about the subject is regarded as knowledge, and then one has only to trust their findings to maintain the faith. Granting us access into his mind, the reader is bound to notice how inescapable Jacobs finds his confrontation with deep faith to be, as well as the impression it leaves on him. 

Indeed, it is not hard to imagine the level of doubt one must feel when being told that one must refrain from actions that seem to have no moral bearing, one way or the other, such as the commandment against “graven images”, which many conventional religious groups see as being a bar from creating art/photography of all types; not to mention the many other obscure biblical laws. We live in an age of strong individualistic wills, an age where people believe in being firmly in control of their lives and destinies; far from the time of Abraham proving himself willing to sacrifice Isaac, ‘God said so’ is often seen as an inadequate reason by itself to determine ones course of action. 

There are of course many good reasons one can find for why this re-evaluation of following the bible to the “T” has occurred, both biblical and modern. In the former category there are examples such as the Christian justifications of breaking mitzvoth; as Christ’s advent is understood to free us from such past bindings in favor of more compassionate living.  In the latter line of thought lie fields such as psychology, which show the detriment of applying regular corporal punishment to children. While these are extremely reasonable to the modern mind, this book is not meant to justify what we already know to be true from our subjective points of view, but allows us to step outside ourselves and be led, along with author, into a dark tunnel of deepened faith.  

Jacobs recognizes from the beginning the peril this journey entails; if one’s attachment to agnosticism does get shaken, isn’t it possible he might fall through the cracks, becoming so religiously engrossed as to lose all sense of the identity he previously built up? Indeed, that is somewhat what has to occur for one to take on biblical living in an authentic manner; faith requires a step to the edge where reason is cast into oblivion, a shedding of the skin one has sewn from pieces of opinionated logic so one can find the trust to don a fashion not of their own making. It is the hardest thing to submit to, but it earns one the feeling that there is a given solution to every struggle one faces, a meaning which carries itself over to even the commonplace activities of everyday life.  

The Year of Living Biblically is well written; the author approaches his subject in a well thought out approach and relates the odd juxtapositions he encounters with humor which he passes on to his audience in the retelling of his story.  I was at first dismayed by the elimination of the Quran in his considerations, as it is right to consider Islam as a member of the Abrahamic traditions, but I can understand how that may have made his journey too difficult to synthesize together in a concise narrative. While I do not want to spoil every surprise of how far-reaching of subject matter The Year of Living Biblically touches upon, it would seem right to say that Jacobs left his journey the same way he leaves his readers–with a much greater appreciation for the meaning religious adherents find in their practices.  A.J. Jacobs succeeded in finding meaning during his Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible and this book will be of great value to anyone who is either looking for similar meaning, or anyone who wants a laugh at the sometimes comic situations that occur from the odd placement of a biblical path through a modern landscape.

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