Columns - 2018

    Groundhog Vay

    In the depths of the Talmud, it is asked, "how much ground could a groundhog hog, if a groundhog could hog ground?"

    Today, people tired of wrestling with their winter coats ask, "who is that punk Satawney Phil, anyway?" Over fifteen hundred years ago, people tired of wrestling with the Talmud asked, "what's a groundhog?"

    After all, groundhogs are indigenous to North America, which is generally believed to be several miles from Jerusalem or Babylonia, where the Talmud (both versions) was assembled. Nonetheless, this prescient topic is brought to modern Judaism by the long-lost, recently discovered Mishnah tractate Bava Gump.

    The tractate that rocked the rabbinic world by asserting how shrimp can be kosher, rolls on with a great debate about this particularly seasonal holiday.

    Tradition as upheld today says that the groundhog seeing his shadow means six more weeks of winter, whereas not seeing his shadow means winter is over. Rabbi Telfon, the Great Communicator, insists this is backward. A groundhog seeing his shadow means the sun is out, and the sun makes warmer weather.

    Rabbi Telfon insists that avoiding six more weeks of winter should instead require the groundhog to see three of his shadow. "Shabbat ends with the sighting of three stars in the sky. Similarly, shouldn't winter end only when the groundhog sees three of his shadow on the ground?"

    Rabbi Telgraf, a predecessor of Rabbi Telfon's, asks, "doesn't that mean the groundhog should see three of his shadow in the sky?"

    Rabbi Selfon, a later rabbi, recounts why Judaism would place so much stock in seeing a shadow: Biblical precedent. According to Rabbi Selfon, when Moses saw the burning bush, and the bush was not consumed by the fire, the light from the fire also cast no shadow. Since this was a sign of hope for the future, not seeing one's shadow is taken to mean that better things are coming.

    Rabbi Telgraf disputes this midrash. Rabbi Selfon responds by asking the elder rabbi, "were you there?" Rabbi Telfon expresses his disdain, saying, "two words: vampires."

    Judaism has a centuries-old tradition that for every two rabbis there are three opinions. When a Sanhedrin would sit in judgment of legal cases, it had seventy-one rabbis on the hope that, between their combined one-hundred-six-and-a-half opinions, two would match.

    Why, then, is the meteorological fate of forty-two days each year left to a single groundhog? As alluded before, in the Middle East it was prohibitive to find any groundhogs, let alone seventy one. Nearly as difficult as finding a minyan today anywhere else. (In many North American cities it's easier to find a minyan of groundhogs.) Also, Phil has a pretty good agent.

    Is there a name for the six extra weeks of winter? Jewish tradition calls the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot the Omer. The three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B'Av are called Bein haMetzarim by both people who don't have to look it up. The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the Aseret Y'mai Teshuvah, literally, "ten days anywhere but temple."

    The Talmud doesn't specify a name for the extra six weeks of winter the groundhog can forecast. However, early in the Diasporic Era, French Jews began referring to it as the Omerde.

    What if February 2nd is on Shabbat? Rabbi Telfon says that seeing one's shadow is not exactly an effort. However, Rabbi Telgraf contends that after sleeping all winter it's more effort than Rabbi Telfon thinks. Rabbi Selfon asks, "what's a February?"

    Other debates include whether separate dishes are required for the extra six weeks of winter, and whether the celebration of Purim is altered in any way if it falls during the six weeks. In short, the Talmud considers impacts on the heaviness of costumes and the amount of alcohol consumed.

    Rabbi Telfon concludes with his underlying point about mammalian weather prognostication: Deriving religious significance from any kind of hog isn't kosher. "Besides," says Tarfon, "we live in a desert."

    Doug Brook is asking "how about a hand for the hog?" as he's directing Big River, the Huckleberry Finn musical next winter. To read past columns, visit For exclusive online content, like

    Copyright Doug Brook. All rights reserved.