The Year of Living Biblically

I approached this book with some trepidation. The premise was intriguing: A.J. Jacobs,  a moderately well-known writer for Esquire, would attempt to go for a year literally following all the rules in the Bible. I knew that Jacobs wasn’t a fundamentalist (he writes, “I’m officially Jewish but I’m Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant”), so how would he approach this fundamentally impossible task?

With seriousness and humor — and the latter might put off readers who are deeply religious, even though the humor was in the service of a basically serious endeavor. And then there was the odd decision (odd for someone who is “officially” Jewish) to live the first part of the year with Old Testament injunctions and the second part with New Testament ones.

Jacobs attempted to follow over 700 rules. (You may be surprised at this number, but then again you probably didn’t take the required Bible course in tenth grade that I took.) Capsule summary:

Some rules were wise, some completely baffling. Some were baffling at first, then wise. Some were wise first then baffling.

Of course you want to know some of the specifics. Here are a few:


  • You shall not wear a “garment of cloth made of two kinds of stuff.” (Leviticus 19:19). At first, I thought this applied to any mixed fiber. So I cleared my closet of all polycotton T-shirts. But it turns out the truly forbidden combo is mixing wool and linen. Sadly, my only good suit – my wedding suit — contained both wool and linen. So I had to embargo it for a year.
  • If you are in a fistfight with another man, and his wife grabs your private parts, you “shall cut off her hand.” (Deuteronomy 25:11-12). Another rule you won’t find engraved outside many courthouses.
  • If you suspect your wife is cheating, you shall bring her to a priest, who will mix a potion of barley, water, and dust, which the woman shall drink. If she’s cheating, her stomach will swell. (Numbers 5:11-20).
  • If you set your slave free after six years, but he decides to stay, then you shall bring him to the doorpost and bore a hole in his ear. (Exodus 21:5).


  • You shall not marry your wife’s sister (Leviticus 18:18) It helps that my wife doesn’t have a sister.
  • You shall not plant your field with two kinds of seed (Leviticus 19:19). I did plant some cucumber seeds in some pots. But I kept it purely cukes.
  • You shall not eat eagles, vultures, black vultures, red kites, black kites, ravens, horned or screech owl, gull or any kind of hawk, the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, the white owl, the desert owl, the osprey, the stork, any kind of heron, the hoopoe and the bat.
  • Do not become a shrine prostitute (Deuteronomy 23;17) I didn’t become any kind of prostitute.

To find out more, read this fascinating book. It will surprise you. Or just become one of the nearly two million viewers who have watched Jacobs’s TED talk on the subject.

Categories: Books