Vayikra & Kedoshim: Guilty Speech

March 10, 2022 at 9:54 pm | Posted in Kedoshim, Va-etchannan, Vayikra, Yitro | Leave a comment

I thought that when the Jewish cycle of readings reached the book of Leviticus, I would be too busy moving my 92-year-old mother to write a post. I also thought there was nothing about the Ten Commandments in the book’s first Torah portion, Vayikra.

I was wrong on both counts. But next week the packing and moving begin!

The Third Commandment

The “Ten Commandments” appear both in Exodus (in the Torah portion Yitro) and Deuteronomy (in the portion Va-etchanan). The first commandment prohibits other gods, and the second prohibits idols. The third commandment reads:

You must not raise the name of Y-H-V-H, your God, for a worthless reason,1 since Y-H-V-H will not acquit anyone who raises [God’s] name for a worthless reason. (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11)

“Raising” the name of God means using God’s name in an oath, vow, or promise, according to the Talmud tractate Shevuot (“Oaths”). This tractate distinguishes two kinds of worthless oaths:

  • empty oaths that use God’s name to declare something true when it is either false or impossible;2 and
  • false oaths that use God’s name to make a promise that the speaker does not carry out.3

One Talmudic example of an empty oath is attaching God’s name to the declaration: “If I did not see a camel flying through the air!”4

Kedoshim: Any Name

Does the third commandment prohibit swearing by any of God’s names for a worthless reason, or only swearing by God’s four-letter personal name? The text is ambiguous. A command from God in the “holiness code” which appears later in the book of Leviticus in the portion Kedoshim elaborates:

Velo tishavu in my name for a falsehood; then you would profane the name of your God. (Leviticus 19:12)

velo tishavu (וְלֺא־תִשָּׁבְעוּ) = and you must not swear, vow, or pledge. (From the root verb shava.)

The author of Sifra, a commentary on Leviticus from early in the Talmudic period, wrote that the third commandment could be interpreted as forbidding a worthless use only of God’s personal name Y-H-V-H. Therefore the command in Kedoshim says “in my name” — any name that I have. 5

According to this reasoning, the Torah tells us not to profane any name of God by misusing it. Yet people who are in the habit of swearing might argue that they are not demeaning God when they say something harmless.

A deceitful vow is unethical whether the speaker swears by God or not. But is it really so bad to use one of God’s names in an empty way?

Yes, according to both this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, and the later portion Kedoshim.

Vayikra and Kedoshim: An Empty Oath

This week’s Torah portion lists the correct offerings to bring to the altar for various purposes, including two types of atonement for inadvertently disobeying God’s rules: a reparation-offering (chattat, חַטָּאת), and a guilt-offering (asham, אָשָׁם).6 The section on reparation-offerings specifically addresses a harmless or empty violation of the third commandment:

… Or a person tishava with the lips, to do evil or to do good—whatever a human [says] bishevuah—and it was hidden from him; and then he realizes that he is carrying guilt because of one of these [oaths]; then it shall be that he shall accept guilt for one of these, and he shall confess what he did wrong concerning it. (Leviticus 5:4-5)

tishava (תִשָׁבַע) = swears, vows, or pledges in God’s name. (A form of the verb shava, שׁבע = swore an oath, vowed, or pledged using God’s name.)

bishevuah (בִּשְׁבֻעָה) = in a oath or vow using God’s name. (Also from the root verb shava.)

In this case the person is guilty merely of misusing God’s name, even if the outcome is good. The text goes on to prescribe that after the person realizes what they said and confesses to using God’s name for a worthless reason, they must bring a female sheep or goat to the altar as a reparation-offering.

What needs to be repaired? Swearing a pointless or empty oath is like swearing a false oath in the portion Kedoshim; it “would profane the name of your God.” 12th-century commentator Ibn Ezra wrote:

“Now the one who is constantly swearing, although there is no need for him to do so publicly, desecrates the name of God without deriving any benefit from his act.7

This forbidden act is different from the ninth commandment, which prohibits a witness in court from affirming a falsehood. Violating the ninth commandment can harm another person. Violating the third commandment cannot harm God, but it does demean God.

Vayikra: A Compounding Oath

The section on guilt-offerings in this week’s Torah portion considers a case in which one person inadvertently takes or keeps the property of another, and then the perpetrator swears they did nothing wrong.

And it shall be when he does a misdeed and realizes his guilt, then he will restore the robbed item that he robbed, or the deposit that was deposited with him, or the lost item that he found, or anything that yishava about falsely. And he will make amends for it by its principal and a fifth of it in addition; he will give it at that time to the one whose it is, as compensation for guilt. (Leviticus 5:23-24)

yishava (יִשָּׁבַע) = he swears in God’s name. (Another form of the verb shava.)

This time the perpetrator must compensate the victim, and also bring a ram as a guilt-offering to God.

Vayikra: Forgiveness

And the priest will make atonement for him in front of God, and he will be pardoned for everything that he did to incur guilt. (Leviticus 5:26)

The third commandment says God will not acquit anyone who swears an empty or false vow in God’s name. Yet God’s instructions in Vayikra say that after making recompense and offering the appropriate animal to God, the perpetrator will be pardoned. In other words, although the person who swears falsely will not be declared innocent, that person may still be forgiven.

This week’s Torah portion sets out the requirements for forgiveness: perpetrators must realize what they did wrong, confess it, compensate their victims, and make a public offering to God.

This model for forgiveness from God can also work to get forgiveness from a human. Although some crimes seem unforgivable to us, we are generally willing to forgive people for committing lesser crimes or doing personal harm if they recognize what they did, apologize, provide whatever recompense is possible, and—if they violated a civil law—serve their sentence.

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Although confession, apology, and forgiveness can be done all year round, Jews set aside the month of Elul (in the late summer or early fall) for searching our consciences, apologizing to our fellow humans, and accepting the apologies of others. After Elul ends, we confess our sins against God and beseech God for forgiveness on Yom Kippur.

I find that in real life, only some of the people who have harmed me apologize. I figure the others do not realize that they said anything wrong—but although I can pardon them for their ignorance, I do not fully forgive them in my heart.

This week’s Torah portion does not say what to do if someone transgresses inadvertently and does not realize it. But the portion Kedoshim, later in Leviticus, says:

You must not hate your brother in your heart; you must definitely reprove your comrade, and then  you will not carry guilt because of him. (Leviticus 19:17)

One standard interpretation of this directive is that you must alert your fellow human beings to the consequences of their bad behaviors, so they become motivated to change their ways. But perhaps it is also good to let people know what they did that hurt you, so they receive an opportunity to realize it and apologize to you.

I wonder if I will ever be both brave and thoughtful enough to provide this kind of information, gently, to someone I wish I could forgive?

  1. lashaveh (לַשָּׁוְא) = for a worthless reason; in emptiness or in falsehood. (The traditional English translation is “in vain”.)
  2. Talmud Bavli, Shevuot
  3. Talmud Bavli, Shevuot
  4. Talmud Bavli, Shevuot 29a, Mishna.
  5. Sifra is a commentary on Leviticus written in 250-350 C.E. that influenced the Talmud. This quote is from Sifra, Kedoshim, Section 2:6, translated in sefaria.org.
  6. See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2.
  7. Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, translated in sefaria.org.

 

Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 3

February 3, 2022 at 10:55 pm | Posted in Mishpatim, Va-etchannan, Yitro | Leave a comment

Ten Commandments by Jekuthiel Sofer, 1768

Universal ethical principles are relevant in all places and times. While the first four of the Ten Commandments1 are religious injunctions rather than universal ethical rules, the last six are sometimes considered universal.

In my last two blog posts I discussed commandments five through eight,2 and suggested that the following versions would be more comprehensively relevant:

  1. Parents must respect their children, and children must respect their parents. (To replace “Honor your father and your mother.”)
  2. You must not kill except to prevent someone from being killed. (To replace “You must not kill-without-a-legal-sanction.”)
  3. You must not break a vow to another person without formally dissolving it first. (To replace “You must not commit adultery-between-a-man-and a married-woman.”)
  4. You must not covertly take what rightfully belongs to another. (To replace “You must not steal.”)

What about commandments nine and ten, on false testimony and coveting? Are they morally relative, guides to good behavior only within Ancient Israelite culture? Are they moral absolutes? Or do they, too, need some revision to become universal ethical precepts?

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The Ninth Commandment

Witness stand, by Ida Libby Dengrove

Lo ta-aneh against your fellow [as] a witness to a falsehood. (Exodus/Shemot 20:13)

lo ta-aneh (ֺלֺא תַעֲנֶה) = you must not answer, testify; stoop.

Like the previous four commandments, the ninth is followed by more specific statutes in Mishpatim, last week’s Torah portion.

You must not take up an empty rumor. You shall not put in your hand with the wicked to become a malicious witness. (Exodus 23:1)

In other words, ethical witnesses in a court of law must testify only to what they have perceived with their own senses, discounting anything they have heard that might be a rumor, and ignoring what other witnesses say. (In Torah law, a person cannot be convicted without the testimony of at least two witnesses.3)

You must not follow rabim for evil, and lo ta-aneh on a legal dispute to turn aside [and] follow the majority4 to mislead. (Exodus 23:2)

Using that definition, this law specifies that a witness must not support popular sentiment against the defendant by making misleading statements.

Ibn Ezra pointed out that even a large number of witnesses can be wrong: “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil. If you see many people testifying concerning something that you know nothing of, do not say to yourself all of these people cannot be lying.”5

The book of Exodus continues by warning witnesses not to give misleading testimony in order to help out the poor.6

And you must not favor the powerless in his legal dispute. (Exodus 23:3)

Kindness to the poor is an important moral value in the Torah,7 but when someone is being tried for a crime, honesty is more important.

Is honesty always the best policy? Many cultures consider a “white lie” harmless and even ethical when it is used to avoid hurting someone’s feelings and has no negative consequences. A “white lie” might include rejecting an invitation by falsely saying you are busy that night, or complimenting someone on a new haircut that you actually think is ugly.

The ninth commandment only addresses giving honest testimony as a witness. But is honesty always the best, most ethical policy when you are testifying to legal authorities? What if you live in a society that punishes the crime of shoplifting with death or the loss of a hand, and you hold the conviction that this punishment is unethical? Should you tell a falsehood?

Your society would consider it ethical to report everything you saw the shoplifter do. But if your own belief is morally better, complete honesty as a witness cannot be a universal ethical precept.

However, the ninth commandment only says: You must not testify against your fellow as a witness to a falsehood. It does not require full disclosure in a morally difficult situation, but only prohibits lying when a falsehood could result in conviction and punishment of an innocent person.

This strict interpretation of the ninth commandment is relevant in all cultures. It could even be rephrased to cover situations outside of court, and remain a universal principle:

You must not speak falsehood in order to cause harm to another.

The Tenth Commandment

The other nine commandments all forbid or require certain actions. (Commandment five, “Honor your father and your mother”, requires certain actions rather than an internal feeling of honor or respect. See my post Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1.) At first glance, the final commandment seems to be forbidding a feeling rather than an action.

Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s House, postcard by The Rose Co., 1908

Lo tachmod your fellow’s house; lo tachmod your fellow’s wife, or his male slave, or his female slave, or his bull, or his donkey, or anything that belongs to your fellow. (Exodus 20:14)

lo tachmod (לֺא תַחְמֺד) = you must not covet, crave, desire to possess. (From the root verb chamad, חָמַד = desired and tried to acquire, coveted, craved.)

Although many of the other commandments are elaborated by statutes given in the Torah portion Mishpatim, no laws in Mishpatim refer to coveting or craving.8

Another way to determine the meaning of the tenth commandment is to look at how the verb chamad is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.9 In ten of the twenty occurrences of the verb chamad, it is connected with taking possession of the thing coveted. Therefore some commentary has interpreted the tenth commandment as prohibiting robbery, under the assumption that coveting inevitably leads to an attempt to steal by force.10

The repetition of the tenth commandment in the book of Deuteronomy is worded slightly differently, putting another man’s wife first, and using a synonym to prohibit an unhealthy desire for any other possessions:

And lo tachmod your fellow’s wife, and lo titaveh your fellow’s house, his field, or his male slave, or his female slave or his bull, or his donkey, or anything that belongs to your fellow. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 5:18)

lo titaveh (לֺא תִתְאַוֶּה) = you must not crave. (A form of the verb aveh, אוּה = craved, longed for.)

Why does Deuteronomy use the verb chamad only for coveting someone else’s wife, and the verb aveh for everything else? The Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael claims that craving leads to coveting, and coveting leads to robbing.11 Certainly the verb aveh indicates a visceral desire; out of the 27 times it appears in the Hebrew Bible, thirteen are about craving a particular food or drink.12

But why does the tenth commandment prohibit coveting rather than the action that follows it, the attempt to take by force? I suspect that the Torah is distinguishing between taking a fellow Israelite’s possessions when one is obsessed with desire, from taking foreigners’ possessions when one is authorized to do so in war. The Torah is full of commands to the Israelites to strip the Canaanites of all their possessions as they conquer the land. Other rules in the Torah discuss the correct ways of taking booty in battles with other countries. This is not the kind of robbing the Torah would include in the Ten Commandments.

Those who covet what belongs to others also harm themselves; envious obsession does not make for a happy life.  But is it possible to legislate feelings?

Yes, according to 11th-century commentator Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra. He wrote that just as a man does not desire to sleep with his mother, although she be beautiful, because he has been trained from his childhood to know that she is prohibited to him,” sensible people may notice that certain people or things owned by others are desirable, but they dismiss any covetous thoughts about possessions that are obviously off-limits.13

The remaining question is why the tenth commandment prohibits a feeling, when the other nine commandments prohibit or require an action.

While classic commentary claims that the tenth commandment really prohibits the act of robbery, I would argue that this final commandment caps the Decalogue by implying that obsessive thoughts about illegal deeds can lead to everything the Torah considers evil, from worshiping other gods (Commandment 1) to murder (6), adultery (7), and theft (8). Failing to honor one’s parents(5) could be the result of nursing resentment against them for their own bad deeds, and giving false testimony (9) could be the result of a consuming desire for popularity in the crowd that is accusing the defendant.

Therefore an appropriate update of the tenth commandment could be simply:

You must not covet anything that belongs to another person.

An alternative that encompasses a wider range of negative obsessions is:

You must not dwell on desires that would cause harm to others.

  1. The “Ten Commandments” is the popular English designation for the ten precepts God utters at Mount Sinai, listed in both Exodus 20:2-14 (in the Torah portion Yitro) and Deuteronomy 5:6-18 (in Va-etchanan).
  2. See Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1 and Part 2.
  3. At least two witnesses are required for conviction in a legal case according to Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15.
  4. Many English verstions of Exodus 23:2 including the standard JPS (Jewish Publication Society) translation, interpret the word rabim (רַבִּים) as the wealthy, even though its usual meaning is “the many”. But the Talmud, Rashi, and at least two careful modern translations interpret rabim as the many or the majority.4 Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia 59b, Chullin 11a, Sanhedrin 2a. Rashi on 23:2. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 448. Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses, Schocken Books, New York, 1983, p. 383.
  5. 17th-century commentator Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, translated in sefaria.org.
  6. Exodus 23:6-8 instructs judges not to bend the truth to help or harm the poor, as well as to reject bribes—presumably from the wealthy. Also see Leviticus 19:15.
  7. g. Exodus 22:20-26 in the Torah portion Mishpatim, which also reiterates the commandment against favoring the poor in a legal case (Exodus 23:3).
  8. The laws in Mishpatim on theft (Exodus 21:37-22:3 and 22:6-8) are more closely related to the eighth commandment, “You must not steal”, and are covered in my post Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 2.
  9. See Leonard Greenspoon, “Do Not Covet: Is It a Feeling or an Action?”, https://www.thetorah.com/article/do-not-covet-is-it-a-feeling-or-an-action.
  10. The proof text given in Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 20:14:1-3 (2nd-3rd century C.E.) and other early commentaries is Micah 2:1-2. This line of reasoning considers the eighth commandment, “You must not steal”, a prohibition against kidnapping a man who is not the property of anyone else. (E.g. Sanhedrin 86a).
  11. Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 20:14:1-3, from sefaria.org.
  12. Numbers 11:4, 11:34, and 34:10; Deuteronomy 12:20 and 14:26; 1 Samuel 2:16; 2 Samuel 23:15 and 1 Chronicles 11:17; Micah 7:1; Psalm 106:13-14; Proverbs 23:3 and 23:6.
  13. Translation of Ibn Ezra in sefaria.org.

Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 2

January 27, 2022 at 9:20 pm | Posted in Mishpatim, Va-etchannan, Yitro | Leave a comment

Are the last six of the Ten Commandments universal ethical precepts, good for all places and times? Or are they morally relative, guides only to correct behavior within the ancient Israelite culture?

Last week’s post1 examined commandments five (honoring parents) and six (no killing). This week, Part 2 will assess commandments seven (no adultery) and eight (no stealing). Check in next week for the last two commandments, on false testimony and coveting.

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The Seventh Commandment

Lo tinaf. (Exodus 20:13)

lo tinaf (לֺא תִנְאָף) = you must not commit adultery. (From the verb na-af, נַאַף = committed adultery between a man and a married or engaged woman.)

Bathsheba, by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1889. (King David, the peeping tom at the upper left, commits adultery with her.)

Adultery in the Hebrew bible is consensual sexual intercourse between a married or engaged woman and a man who is not her husband or fiancé. This type of liaison was such a serious transgression in Ancient Israel that the Torah prescribes the death penalty for both partners.

And a man who yinaf with a man’s wife, who yinaf with the wife of his fellow, he shall definitely be put to death, the no-eif and the no-afet. (Leviticus 20:10)

yinaf (יִנְאַף) = he commits adultery. (Another conjugation of the verb na-af.)

no-eif (נֺאֵף) = the male adulterer. (From the root verb na-af.)

no-afet (נֺאָפֶת) = the female adulterer. (From the root verb na-af.)

Yet it is not wrong in the Torah for a married man to have sex with a woman other than his wife, as long as she is single and not living with her father—i.e. if she is a prostitute, or perhaps an independent widow. It is also acceptable for a man to have a second wife, a concubine, or a female slave acquired for sexual purposes.

A woman, however, can belong to only one man.

Most women in the Torah who are not slaves are the property of their fathers or their husbands. Therefore when a man commits adultery he is, in effect, stealing another man’s property.

What if a man has sex with a virgin who still belongs to her father? The law for this specific case is given in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim (“Laws”), and it applies whether the man is married or unmarried:

And if a man persuades a virgin who is not engaged, and lies down with her, he must give her a marriage contract to be his wife. [But] if her father definitely refuses to give her to him, he must weigh out the same amount of silver as in the marriage contract for virgins. (Exodus 22:15-16)

Either way, the seducer’s payment goes to the virgin’s father, since she is her father’s property.

When a society grants women equal rights and autonomy, so they are no longer property, the Hebrew Bible’s reason for condemning adultery vanishes. Does that mean it is not immoral in Western society today for a married person to have sex outside the marriage?

In that case, adultery is unethical for a different reason. When people of any gender commit themselves to fidelity in marriage, they make a vow in front of witnesses. This is a promise and a binding contract. It is unethical to violate the terms of a contract while it is still in force. Only after divorce proceedings have been filed to end that type of marriage can a person add a sexual partner without committing an immoral deed.

The seventh commandment would be universally relevant if it were phrased this way:

You must not break a vow to another person without formally dissolving it first.

This version would cover not only exclusive marriage vows but all formal vows, including employment agreements and other legal contracts. The Torah also considers vows sacred obligations whether they are made to God or to other humans.2

The Eighth Commandment

After the commandment prohibiting the theft of a man’s wife or fiancée comes a commandment prohibiting other kinds of theft.

Lo tignov. (Exodus 20:14)

lo tignov (לֺא תִגְנֺב) = you must not steal, you must not covertly take what rightfully belongs to another. (From the verb ganav, גָּנַב = stole.)

Pickpocket detail from The Fortune Teller, by Georges de La Tour, ca. 1630

The eighth commandment covers kidnapping a man or boy,3 as well as stealing livestock, silver, or other goods. This week’s portion, Mishpatim, gives the penalties for several kinds of stealing.

Vegoneiv a man and sells him, and [the man] is found in his possession, he shall definitely be put to death. If a man yignov a bull or a lamb and slaughters it or sells it, he must pay compensation with five cattle to replace the bull, or four sheep to replace the lamb. (Exodus 21:16-17)

vegoneiv (וְגֹנֵב) = and one who steals. (From the same root as ganav.)

yignov (יִגְנֺב) = he steals. (Another form of the verb ganav.)

A thief must also pay compensation for stealing an animal and keeping it:

If hagenavah is found alive in his possession, from a bull to a donkey to a lamb, he must pay compensation for double [the value]. (Exodus 22:3)

hagenavah (הַגְּנֵבָה) = the stolen item. (From the root verb ganav.)

In other words, someone who “steals” or kidnaps a male human being gets the death penalty;4 but someone who steals livestock (or an inanimate object) must pay the owner compensation worth significantly more than the stolen item.

Anyone but a sociopath would consider kidnapping a human worse than stealing an animal or object. And all human cultures consider it unethical to steal what really belongs to another. But cultures differ on what can be rightfully owned by an individual, and what is owned in common by the social group or the state.

When Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wrote “Property is theft!”,5 he expressed his opposition to private ownership of land. Karl Marx opposed the private ownership of both land and the means of production.6 Socialism approves of individual ownership of land and businesses up to a point, but reserves ownership of the largest and most indispensable industries and utilities for the state. Capitalism, which is becoming the dominant economic culture in the world, supports individual and corporate ownership of almost everything except human beings, accepting state ownership only in areas that serve the interests of corporations.

Theft certainly covers one individual stealing from another. But is it theft when a corporation or a government entity legally takes something from an individual? Who rightfully owns what?

Another issue is that stealing, goneiv (גֺּוֵב), implies taking what belongs to another by stealth, covertly. Appropriating something that belongs to another overtly, by force, is robbing, gozeil (גּוֹזֵל) in Biblical Hebrew.

I proposed rephrasing the eighth commandment slightly:

You must not covertly take what rightfully belongs to another.

We form our own opinions about what rightfully belongs to the state, to a corporation, or to an individual, and judge the morality of a particular covert appropriation of something accordingly. However, the legality of the particular appropriation is determined by the state.

  1. Yitro, Mishpatim, and Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1.
  2. g. Numbers 30:2-10.
  3. A woman “steals” (vatignov) an underage boy and hides him in 2 Kings 11:2.
  4. One girl is kidnapped in the Hebrew Bible in order to be seduced (Genesis 34:1-4). Women and girls are also seized as booty in war.
  5. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Qu’est-ce que la propriété? ou, Recherches sur le principe du droit et du gouvernement, Paris, 1840.
  6. Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Vol. III, Verlag von Otto Meisner, Publisher, 1867.

 

Yitro, Mishpatim, & Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1

January 18, 2022 at 8:25 pm | Posted in Masey, Mishpatim, Shoftim, Va-etchannan, Yitro | 3 Comments

Moses on south frieze of Supreme Court building, by Adolph Weinman

The “Ten Commandments”1 are fundamental precepts, good for all time, right? Well, maybe.

The first four of the ten commandments (which appear in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, in the book of Exodus, and again in Va-etchanan in the book of Deuteronomy) are religious injunctions. They prohibit having other gods,2 making or worshiping idols, swearing falsely in the name of God,3 and working on the holy seventh day of the week, Shabbat. These four commandments are hardly universal precepts, since they do not apply to people with other religions (including atheism).

The next six commandments, however, are about ethics, i.e. the right way to treat other people:

  1. Honor your father and your mother …
  2. You must not kill.
  3. You must not commit adultery.
  4. You must not steal.
  5. You must not testify falsely.
  6. You must not covet …

Not all of these commandments are easy to interpret outside the context of the social customs of the Ancient Near East.  Does that mean they are morally relative, guides only to correct behavior within the ancient Israelite culture? Or are they nevertheless moral absolutes, still relevant today?

This week’s post examines commandments five and six. Next week, Part 2 will assess commandments seven and eight. The week after that, Part 3 will explore the last two commandments.

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The Fifth Commandment

Kabeid your father and your mother, so that your days will be long on the earth that God, your God, is giving to you. (Exodus/Shemot 20:12)

kabeid (כַּבֵּד) = honor, treat as important. (From the same root as the adjective kabeid, כַּבֵּד = heavy, weighty, impressive, oppressive, dull, hard.)

According to traditional commentary, if you honor your parents, your children will honor you.4 That means your adult children will make sure you are well fed and housed when you can no longer manage on your own, and therefore you will indeed live longer. (No wonder having children is a top priority in the Torah!)5

Maimonides wrote that in addition to making sure our parents have food, clothing, and shelter, we must be indulgent with them if they have dementia. When adult children can no long bear the strain of tending such a parent, they may hire others to take care of them.6

Honoring one’s parents goes beyond providing for their physical needs in the Torah. Next week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, assigns the death penalty to the crime of hitting parents, or even speaking ill of them.

And one who strikes his father or his mother shall certainly be put to death. (Exodus 21:15)

And mekaleil his father or his mother shall certainly be put to death. (Exodus 21:17)

mekaleil (מְקַלֵּל) = one who belittles, one who curses.

There is no penalty in the Hebrew bible for a parent hitting or belittling a child. Hitting children in order to discipline them is considered a good deed in the book of Proverbs.7 Elsewhere parents are required to teach their children certain laws and traditions from the Torah,8 but the bible is silent about child abuse or neglect.9

This silence reflects the culture of the Ancient Near East, in which underage children were the property of their fathers and had no rights of their own. In other cultures, child abuse and neglect are considered criminal, and the ethical standard is for parents to treat their children with kindness and respect them as individuals, while still teaching them acceptable behavior in their society.

The fifth commandment implies that we should treat our parents with respect whether they deserve it or not.10 This may be a worthy aspiration, but when parents have seriously abused or neglected children while they were growing up, honoring and taking care of these bad parents could make the lives of their adult children unbearable.

I believe the fifth commandment should not be a universal ethical rule as it stands. I would amend it this way:

Parents must respect their children, and children must respect their parents.

The Sixth Commandment

The Servants of Absalom Killing Amnon, Heinrich Aldegrever, 1540

Lo tirtzach. (Exodus 20:13)

lo tirtzach (לֺא תִרְצָח) = you must not kill without a legal sanction. (From the verb ratzach, רָצַח.)

This commandment is sometimes translated into English as “You shall not kill” and sometimes as “You shall not murder”. Does the Torah distinguish between accidental manslaughter and deliberate murder?

The death penalty is prescribed only for pre-meditated murder in next week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim.

One who strikes down a man so that he dies, he [the one who struck] shall certainly be put to death. [However, if it was] one who did not stalk him, but God let [the one who died] fall by his hand, I will appoint a place for you where he can flee. But if someone plots against his fellow to kill him with cunning, from [even] my altar you shall take him to die. (Exodus 21:12-14)

More specifics are given in the Torah portion Masey in the book of Numbers, which also uses a form of the same verb as in the sixth commandment: ratzach.11 Here God orders the Israelites to set aside six cities of refuge once they have conquered Canaan.

… cities of refuge they shall be for you, and a rotzeiach who struck down a life inadvertently will flee there.” (Numbers 35:11)

rotzeiach (רֺצֵַח) = someone who commits either  premeditated murder or involuntary manslaughter. (The participle form of the verb ratzach).

Then God tells Moses:

But if one struck with an iron implement and [the victim] died, he is a rotzeiach and the rotzeiach must certainly be put to death. … Or [if] in enmity he struck him with his hand and [the victim] died, he shall certainly be put to death. (Numbers 35:16, 35:21)

Someone who kills accidentally can live in exile; someone who kills deliberately (either out of hatred or by using an implement well-known to cause death) gets the death penalty. The executioner, in that case, is the “redeemer of bloodshed”, a designated avenger from the family of the deceased victim. The commandment against killing does not apply to the avenger.

Nor does it apply to soldiers who kill enemies in battle. The Torah never criticizes the Israelites for starting a war, regardless of the reason. Moses only rules (in the Torah portion Shoftim in Deuteronomy) that when the Israelites attack a town outside Canaan merely in order to expand their territory or get some booty, they must first offer the option of “peaceful” surrender.

And if [the town] answers you with peace and opens itself to you, then all the people found inside it will be yours for forced labor, and they must serve you. But if it does not make peace with you, and does battle, and you besiege it, and God places it in your hand, then you shall put all its males to the edge of the sword. However, the women and the little ones and the livestock and everything that is in the town, all its plunder you shall plunder for yourself … However, in the towns of these peoples [Canaanites] which God, your God, is giving you as a hereditary possession, you shall not let a soul live. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 20:11-16)

These two approaches to conquest were considered ethical in the Ancient Near East. But today, an increasing number of people believe that even when a killing is legal, it may not be ethical.

Many people would agree with the commandment lo tirtzach, you must not kill without a legal sanction. But standards have changed for when it should be legal to kill someone. The death penalty is now banned in a majority of countries in the world, and is controversial in the United States.

War, on the other hand, is still an option for every nation. But some acts during war are now considered war crimes, and there is more interest in minimizing the deaths of non-combatants. Most people condone killing in self-defense, whether it is killing an individual who is about to kill you, or fighting a nation that has attacked yours. But is initiating a war justified if the purpose is to defend the citizens of an allied nation, or to defend a principle such as democracy?

A basic moral rule must be brief and express an ethical ideal, even if there are gray and cloudy areas in its application. The sixth commandment, which merely says “You must not ratzach” (You must not kill without a legal sanction) meets this requirement as it stands.

But I believe that too many types of killing have been legal, in both ancient Israelite and modern Western societies. An ethical ideal, in my opinion, would be more restricted. So I would like to propose this amended sixth commandment:

You must not kill except to prevent someone from being killed.

*

Next week I will address what the seventh and eighth commandments mean when they prohibit adultery and theft—then and now.

  1. Exodus 20:1 introduces what we call “the Ten Commandments” in English with “And God spoke all these devarim”. Devarim, דְּבָרִים = words, statements, things. In Deuteronomy, Moses calls the ten “commandments” the devar of God; devar is the singular of devarim.
  2. See my 2011 post Yitro: Not in My Face.
  3. See my 2014 post Yitro: The Power of the Name.
  4. E.g. the Book of Sirach, 3:1-16 (second century B.C.E.)
  5. In first-world countries today, the whole society pays various taxes to take care of its aged population through various taxes. Yet when old people can no longer manage certain tasks themselves, their adult children are still expected to meet some obligations.
  6. Maimonides (12th-century Moses ben Maimon or “Rambam”), Mishneh Torah, book 14, treatise 3, chapter 6:10, as quoted in Edward Hoffman, The Wisdom of Maimonides, Trumpeter, Boston, 2008, p. 114-115.
  7. Proverbs 13:24, 19:18, 22:15, 29:15.
  8. E.g. Exodus 13:8; Deuteronomy 6:6-7 and 11:19.
  9. One father, Jepthah/Yiptach, vows that if God gives him success in battle he will offer to God whatever comes out of his house first when he returns. He is dismayed when his daughter runs out to greet him. But this father is portrayed as foolish, not abusive. He immediately grants her request for a two-month postponement so she can “cry over her virginity”. The cautionary tale ends without clarifying whether Yiptach’s daughter was slaughtered at the altar or given to the local sanctuary. (Judges 11:30-35)
  10. See my 2015 post Yitro: The Heaviness of Honoring Parents. The Book of Sirach adds: Help your father in his old age, and do not grieve him as long as he lives; Even if he is lacking in understanding, show forbearance …”
  11. For more on the words ratzach and rotzeiach, see Marty Lockshin, “Does the Torah Differentiate between Murder and Killing?”, thetorah.com.

 

Eikev & Judges: Love or Kill the Stranger?

July 27, 2021 at 10:00 pm | Posted in Eikev, Judges, Shoftim, Va-etchannan | 1 Comment

Are foreigners neighbors or enemies?  Should you befriend them or kill them?

This week’s Torah portion, Eikev (“on the heels of”), appears to promote both points of view.

Love the stranger

And you must love the geir, for you were geirim in the land of Egypt.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 10:19)

geir (גֵּר), plural geirim (גֵּרִים) = immigrant, resident alien.  (Not any “stranger”; only a foreigner who has settled down in another country.)

The command to be good to the immigrant appears many times in the Torah.1  In this week’s iteration, Moses warns his people not to act like the Egyptians, who mistreated the multiplying family of Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) when they were resident aliens in Pharaoh’s kingdom.2  He anticipates that after the Israelites have conquered Canaan and settled down, there will be individual immigrants who should be treated with the same fairness and compassion as anyone else in the land.

Kill the stranger

But this ethical rule does not apply to the Canaanites already living in the land the Israelites are about to conquer.  In last week’s Torah portion, Va-etchanan, Moses says:

You must dedicate them to destruction.  You must not cut a treaty with them, and you must not show them mercy.  You must not give them your daughters, nor give their daughters to your sons … because they would turn your children away from [God], and they would serve other gods … Instead … you must tear down their altars and smash their standing stones and cut down their goddess posts and burn their images in fire.  (Deuteronomy 7:2-5)

In the portion Eikev, Moses repeats the call for genocide of the Canaanites.

And you must eat up all the peoples that God, your God, is giving to you.  You must not look at them with compassion.  And you must not serve their gods, because it would be a trap for you.  (Deuteronomy 7:16)

Why?

Why does the God-character tell the Israelites to be kind to new immigrants, but to exterminate the existing population of Canaan?

If the Israelites had succeeded in conquering all of Canaan and killing its whole population, the injunction in Eikev could be viewed as a post-genocide justification: “We had to wipe them out because God told us to”.  But the book of Judges, which opens with an account of territories that the Israelite tribes partially conquered, reports that the original Canaanites continued to live in their midst.3

Therefore the exhortation to exterminate all the Canaanites serves a different purpose: to emphasize that nothing is more important for the Israelites than sticking to their own religion.  This agenda appears in the passages above from both Va-etchanan and Eikev.

The God-character portrayed in the books of Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, and 1 Samuel explicitly approves of genocide when the perpetrators are Israelites, and the victims worship a different god and occupy land that God has designated for the Israelites.4 No exceptions are made for infants or atheists.

In the book of Numbers, the land designated for Israelites includes not only Canaan, but also the region on the east bank of the Jordan River.  God helps the Israelites conquer the kingdoms of Cheshbon and Bashan, where two and a half of the twelve tribes will live.

War Against the Midianites, detail, by Balthasar Bernards, ca. 1720-1728

While they are camping at Peor, preparing to cross the Jordan, the Israelites accept invitations from the Midianites there to worship the god of Peor (Baal-Peor).  The God-character is enraged with jealousy, and (after wiping out 24,000 Israelites with a plague), orders the surviving men of Israel to kill all the Midianites around Peor: men, women, and male children.5

In next week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, Moses says that when the Israelites go to war to conquer a town outside the lands God has given them, they must first invite the town to surrender peacefully.  If the town accepts this offer, all its residents can continue to live there, as long as they provide labor for Israelites projects.However,

In the towns of those peoples that God, your God, is giving to you as a permanent possession, you must not let a soul live.  … so that they will not teach you to do all the taboo things that they do for their gods … (Deuteronomy 20:16, 20:18)

Thus the real issue is whether foreigners will help or hamper the Israelites in serving their God.

The Torah promotes friendly assimilation of new immigrants because they can be required to observe some basic Israelite religious practices.  The Torah rules that geirim must refrain from eating leavened bread during the week of Passover,7 refrain from working on the sabbath or Yom Kippur,8 refrain from eating an animal’s blood,9 obey the Israelite sexual prohibitions,10 refrain from giving children to the god Molekh,11 refrain using God’s name in an insult or curse,12 follow the laws of purity after exposure to a human corpse,13 and listen to a reading of the Torah every seven years.14

Immigrants who obey all these rules are not likely to worship other gods openly, or entice Israelites to join them in worship.

But what will the Israelites do when they are the immigrants, a large population settling Canaan by force?  Since they do not wipe out the indigenous peoples, will they start worshiping the local gods the way they did in Peor?

The answer in the book of Judges is a resounding yes.

The Israelites did what was bad in the eyes of God, and they served the be-alim.  And they abandoned God, the God of their forefathers, the one who brought them out of the land of Egypt.  And they went after other gods from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and they bowed down to them, and [thus] they offended God.  (Judges 2:11-12)

be-alim (בְּעָלִים) = plural of baal (בַּעַל) = owner; a male Canaanite god.

Canaanite religions seemed to be so enticing that they were hard to resist.15

Another solution

From an ethical point of view, sharing the land of Canaan with its indigenous inhabitants is far better than committing genocide.  Why don’t Moses and the God-character in the Torah find a more ethical way to keep the Israelites from worshiping other gods?

Persuading the Israelites that no other gods exist is not the answer.  Moses tried this earlier in the book of Deuteronomy, saying:

You yourselves have seen for the knowledge that God is the God; there is no other than he alone.  (Deuteronomy 4:35)

But the people are not psychologically ready for monotheism.  Threats do not work either.  The portion Eikev includes two of many statements in the Torah that God will kill the Israelites if they worship other gods:

And it will be if you actually forget God, your God, and you go after other gods and serve them and bow down to them, I call witness against you this day that you will truly perish.  (Deuteronomy 8:19)

Guard yourselves lest your heart deceives you and you desert and serve other gods and bow down to them.  Then God’s anger will heat up against you and shut the heavens, and there will be no rain and the earth will not give its produce, and you will quickly perish from upon the good land that God is giving to you.  (Deuteronomy 11:16-17)

Perhaps at this stage, the Israelites need dazzling visual displays to reinforce their commitment to their religion.  The Canaanites have glittering gold and silver idols.  The Israelites have a single invisible god who only occasionally manifests as a miraculous fire.

The book of Judges points out that the sight of miracles made all the difference.

And the people served God all the days of Joshua and all the days of the elders who came after Joshua, who had seen all the great deeds of God that [God] did for Israel.  (Judges 2:7)

Elijah and King Ahab see divine fire, Zurich Bible, 1531

If the Israelites cannot yet stick to their own God without miracles, an occasional miracle might help to keep the religion going until the people become able to adopt a more sophisticated idea of God.  An example is when Elijah when Elijah sets up two altars, one for God and one for Baal, and asks the people of the northern kingdom of Israel to make their choice.  God sends down fire to consume the offerings, and the Israelites respond by attacking the priests of Baal.16

A miracle in every generation might have kept the Israelites away from Canaanite religion.  At least it would be a better solution than genocide.

Even today many people cannot relate to an invisible, abstract god.  Some people still use icons and other shiny objects to support their religious resolve.  Others still need miracles, and gladly interpret apparent coincidences as the hand of God.  If these religious practices strengthen their commitment to ethical behavior, then they are well worth it.

But a god that sanctions murder is not worth worshiping.  Killing the infidel is a practice that has continued somewhere in the world to this day.  May it cease in our own time.

  1. See my blog post Mishpatim: The Immigrant, including the footnotes.
  2. Moses also makes this point in Exodus 23:9.
  3. Judges 1:21-33.
  4. Divine commands for genocide of seven Canaanite peoples include Exodus 23:28-33, Deuteronomy 7:1-5, 7:16, 7:24, 20:16-18; and Joshua 8:2, 10:40. The God-character commands genocide of the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15:2-3.
  5. See my posts on “How to Stop a Plague”, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
  6. Deuteronomy 20:10-11.
  7. Exodus 12:19.
  8. Exodus 20:10, 23:12; Leviticus 16:29; Deuteronomy 5:14.
  9. Leviticus 17:10-13.
  10. Leviticus 18:26.
  11. Leviticus 20:3.
  12. Leviticus 24:16.
  13. Numbers 19:10.
  14. Deuteronomy 31:12.
  15. Even in the 6th century B.C.E. people were worshiping “the Queen of Heaven” (Jeremiah 7:18)
  16. 1 Kings 18:20-40.

 

Lamentations, Va-etchannan, & Vayeishev: The Pit

July 14, 2021 at 8:48 pm | Posted in Lamentations, Va-etchannan, Vayeishev | Leave a comment

Dig a deep hole in the ground and you have a pit, a bor in Hebrew.  In the bible you can use it as a dungeon, or line it with cement and use it as a cistern to store water. A bor is also part of the underworld where the souls of the dead go.

Roman Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, by Francesco Hayez

This Sunday is Tisha B’Av, the annual Jewish day of fasting that commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple—both the first temple, razed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., and the second temple, razed by the Romans in 70 C.E.  On Tisha B’Av it is customary to read the book of Lamentations/Eykhah, a series of five poems which mourn the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian army.

The first poem opens with the word Eykhah (“How can it be?”)1 and expresses the desolation of the ruins of Jerusalem.  The second poem, which also begins Eykhah, calls the destruction “the day of God’s wrath” over the misdeeds of Jerusalem’s people.  The fourth and fifth poems combine the two themes, with emphasis on starvation and being at the mercy of the enemy.

The third poem, however, reads like one of the personal psalms in which the ancient poets feel as if they are near death, and plead with God to bring them back to life and take vengeance against their enemies.2  Only in verse 40 does the third poem of Lamentations switch from “I” to “we”, urging all the people of Jerusalem to plead with God for forgiveness and rescue.

     Let us check on our ways and cross-examine [ourselves], and turn back to God!  (Lamentations 3:40)3

The first person singular returns with:

     Streams of water go down from my eyes over the shattering of my people.  (Lamentations 3:48)

Shortly after that, the narrator, identifying with Jerusalem, claims that the Babylonians did not actually need the city.

     My enemies actually hunted me like a bird, for no reason.

     They silenced my life in the bor, and in their hand was a stone against me.

     The waters rose over my head.  I thought: “I am ended!”

     I called your name, God, from the bottom of the bor.

     May you hear my voice!  Do not shut your ear to my spirit, to my cry for help!  (Lamentations/Eykhah 3:52-56)

bor (בּוֹר) = a pit; a cistern, a dungeon, a synonym for Sheol.

Here the bor is not a physical cistern or dungeon, but a poetic image for Sheol, the underworld of the souls of the dead.  Bor is used at least 21 times in the Hebrew Bible to indicate either Sheol or the lowest region of Sheol, but this is the only such reference that includes water.  Souls never drown after they are dead in ancient Hebrew mythology.  Thus the narrator of this poem is not dead, but despairing of life.  The poet uses the images of both stone and water, comparing the bor of Sheol to a cistern filling up with water.

The narrator, like all the citizens of defeated Jerusalem, is trapped—unable to float to the surface and escape.

A full cistern

Next week Jews read from Va-etchanan (“And I implored”), the second Torah portion of the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim.  In this portion cisterns are listed as assets that the Israelites will enjoy once they conquer the land of Canaan:

… cities big and good that you did not build, and houses filled with everything good that you did not fill, excavated borot that you did not excavate, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.  And you will eat and you will be satisfied.  [Then] take heed, lest you forget God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.  (Deuteronomy 6:10-12)

borot (בֺּרוֹת) = plural of bor.

How lovely to move into a land already dotted with cisterns that collect and store water for the dry season!  Moses reminds his people not to take the cisterns for granted, since they did not excavate them.  Canaanites dug them, and the Israelites will conquer Canaan only with God’s help.4

The books of Exodus through Joshua treat the conquest of Canaan as an unmitigated good, since it results in fertile land for the Israelites, not to mention pre-existing amenities such as cities, houses, and cisterns.  The bible does not consider the Canaanite point of view.

But I can imagine poets from the various conquered peoples of Canaan writing laments after the Israelites besiege and loot their cities, destroy their temples, and kill many of their people.  The conquest of Canaan by the Israelites under Joshua is the same story as the conquest of Judah by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar; only the names and dates change.

An empty cistern

Cisterns holding water are mentioned twelve times in the Hebrew Bible.  Dry cisterns and dry pits are mentioned at least 31 times.  They serve as hiding places,5 a warrior throws bodies of the slain into them,6 and large animals fall in.7  Psalm 7:16 refers to a man falling into a pit he dug himself, a fine image of being caught in your own trap.8

Since the walls of an empty cistern are covered with cement, they do not provide handholds for a human to climb out.  The only escape is for someone at the top to throw you a rope.

At least thirteen times the bible mentions a dry bor, it was  excavated to serve as a dungeon.  Five times in Genesis, in the portion Vayeishev (“And he settled”), the bor is an empty cistern that Joseph’s older brothers use as an ad-hoc prison.

They see Joseph coming up the road to check on them, and they know he will give a negative report to their father, as usual.

Joseph pulled up from the pit, by James J.J. Tissot

And they said, each man to his brother: “Hey!  Here comes the master of dreams!  And now let’s go murder him, and let’s throw him into one of the borot, and we can say a wicked beast ate him.  Then we’ll see what happens to his dreams!”    And Reuben said to them: “Don’t shed blood!  Throw him into this bor that is in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him!”—in order to rescue him from their hand and return him to his father.  And it happened when Joseph came up to his brothers.  They stripped his tunic off Joseph, the fancy tunic that he had on, and they took him and threw him into the bor.  And there was no water; the bor was empty. (Genesis 37:20-24)

It would take about two weeks for a healthy adolescent like Joseph to die of dehydration at the bottom of the pit, less if there were no shade.  Before Reuben can return with a rope to rescue him, Judah sells Joseph to a caravan.  The traders pull him up out of the bor and take him to Egypt as a slave.

*

A deep hole in the ground is beneficial when it becomes a cistern full of water, or the basement of a building.9  But when it is used as a dungeon, the captive will die unless given food and water.  A prisoner in a dungeon can hope for a reprieve or a rescue, but if the bor is Sheol you can only be saved if God heeds your prayer as you go down.  There is no life after death in that bor; at best the disembodied souls lie in eternal sleep.10

Today, when we are depressed we feel “down”, trapped in a mysterious place without life or meaning.  In English we call it “a pit of despair”.

May everyone who sinks into a pit find a way to cry out for help and be rescued, whether the rescuer is a fellow human being or the voice of God within.

  1. See my post Devarim, Isaiah, & Lamentations: Desperation.
  2. g. Psalms 28, 30 and 88, all of which mention bor as a synonym for Sheol.
  3. Since the poem is an acrostic, verse 40 must begin with the letter nun, נ. When the prefix nun is attached to verbs in the perfect tense, it indicates the second person plural.  However, the prefix nun can also be used to indicate the simple passive (nifal) verb stem, and there are many other words that begin with a nun, so switching to the second person plural for a word beginning with nun is a deliberate choice on the part of the poet.
  4. See my post Eikev, Va-etchannan, & Noach: Who Built It?
  5. 1 Samuel 13:6, 1 Chronicles 11:17-18, and Proverbs 28:17.
  6. Jeremiah 41:7-9 and 1 Chronicles 11:17-18.
  7. Exodus 21:33-34, 2 Samuel 23:20, and 1 Chronicles 11:22.
  8. Psalm 7:16.
  9. The word bor is not used for a basement in the bible; the substructure of a building is called a yesod (יְסוֹד) = foundation, base.
  10. Unless they are disturbed by a diviner such as the witch of Endor, who summons the ghost of Samuel to speak briefly with King Saul in 1 Samuel 28:7-20.

Re-eih: Eyebrows for the Dead

August 14, 2020 at 9:45 am | Posted in Amos, Ezekiel, Isaiah 1, Jeremiah, Re-eih, Va-etchannan | Leave a comment

You are children to God, your God; you must not gash yourselves, and you must not put a karchah between your eyes for the dead.  Because you are a holy people to God, your God, and God chose you for [God’s] personal property out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 14:1-2)

karchah (קָרְחָה) = baldness; a patch of skin shaved bald.

Moses forbids two mourning practices in this week’s Torah portion, Re-eih (“See”): gashing your skin, and shaving “between your eyes”.

By the Waters of Babylon, by Gebhard Fugel, 1920

Other mourning practices mentioned in the Hebrew Bible include wailing, tearing your clothes, wearing sackcloth around your hips, and sitting in ashes.  These are never forbidden (though priests are only allowed to do mourning rituals for their immediate family members)1.

But in the bible people also mourn by gashing, scarring, or tattooing their skin and by shaving the side of the head or beard, all prohibited in Leviticus/Vayikra 19:27-28.

Unholy shaving

Shaving the hair off some part of the head seems to have been a common way to express grief in the Ancient Near East, at least for men and possibly also for women.2  The grief might be for the death of a family member, or for the death of a whole city.  Isaiah’s prophecy about the downfall of Moab includes these lines:

          Moab wails;

               On every head is karchah,

               Every beard is shaven.  (Isaiah 15:2)

Ezekiel prophesies the doom of Tyre to the north and predicts:

          Vehikriychu for you a karchah

               And they will wrap themselves in sackcloth.

          And they will weep to you with a bitter soul

               Bitter rites of mourning.  (Ezekiel 27:31)

vehikriychu (וְהִקְרִיחוּ) = and they will shave or pluck bald.

When Jeremiah prophesies that God will send the Egyptian army to destroy the Philistine city of Gaza, he declares:

Karchah will come to Gaza.”  (Jeremiah 47:5)

That says it all; so many people in Gaza will be killed that everyone left will be in mourning, shaven partly bald.

Even in the Israelite kingdoms of Samaria and Judah, when God is about to destroy the capital city, God wants people to make bald patches on their heads.  Perhaps the God-character makes an exception to the commandments against shaving as mourning because God wants to see a dramatic reaction when “he” destroys a whole nation of Israelites.

Amos predicts God will bring down Samaria and reports that God said:

          I will change your festivals into rites of mourning

               And all your songs into dirges.

          And I will put sackcloth over every pair of hips

              And on every head karchah.  (Amos 8:10)

Isaiah complains that the Israelites of Judah forgot God during their preparation for the siege of Jerusalem.  He says:

          My lord the God of Hosts called, on that day,

               For weeping and for rites of mourning,

               And for karchah and for tying on sackcloth.  (Isaiah 22:12)

Holy shaving

Any mourning observance, including shaving your beard, the side of your face, or “between your eyes”, makes a person ritually impure and therefore unable to approach God in the sanctuary.  Mourners and anyone else exposed to death must be purified again before they can enter the courtyard of the temple or Tent of Meeting.

Leviticus explains that priests must avoid mourning rituals because their job requires being holy, and therefore ritually pure, at all times:

Yikrechu not karchah on their head, and the side of their beard they must not shave, and their flesh they must not tattoo with tattoos.  Holy they must be to their God, and they must not profane the name of their God …  (Leviticus 21:5-6)

yikrechu (יִקְרְחוּ) = they shall not make bald, they must not shave bald.  (From the same root as karchah.)

Yet other kinds of shaving are explicitly holy.  The Torah calls for Levites to shave their whole bodies when they are consecrated,3 for nazirites to shave their heads when their period of abstaining from wine and hair care is  completed,4 and for people with a skin disease to shave off all their hair when they are officially cured and rejoin the community5.

In these three examples the shaven person is ritually pure and makes an offering at the altar.

Right between the eyes

This week’s Torah portion prohibits shaving a bald spot “between your eyes”.  Where is that?

When I wrote an earlier version of this post in August 2011, I searched for other biblical references to anything between a person’s eyes.  I found only four, all referring to the placement of reminders of God’s teaching on your hand and “between your eyes”.  (Exodus 13:9 calls for a zikaron (זִכָּרוֹן), a memorial or reminder, between your eyes.  The other three references, Exodus 13:16, Deuteronomy 6:8, and Deuteronomy 11:18, call for a totafot, a word which appears only in these three sentences.)

The most well-known reference, in the Torah portion Va-etchannan, became the first paragraph of the Shema section6 of evening and morning prayers.

And these words that I command you today shall be upon your heart.  And you shall repeat them to your children, and you shall speak them when you stay in your house and when you go out on the road, and when you lie down and when you get up.  And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be totafot between your eyes.  And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.  (Deuteronomy 6:6-9)

totafot (טוֹטָפוֹת) = ornaments worn low on the forehead.

One possibility for totafot

This definition is speculative; scholars have not yet determined what totafot were.  According to the Talmud a totefet (possibly a singular form of totafot) was an ornament or sachet attached to the front edge of a woman’s hairnet, at the center of a band that went from ear to ear7—at the point where other Asian cultures imagine the third eye,

Some translators replace the word totafot with tefillin.  But a head tefillin is tied onto the top of the head, above the forehead, rather than between and just above the eyebrows.  Although totafot are located in a different place, they are supposed to be reminders of what God did or commanded, so they may have contained tiny scrolls like tefillin.

If so, the text for the totafot in Exodus would be: “With a strong hand God brought you out from Egypt”.  The two passages in Deuteronomy indicate a different text, since both are lists of reminders for obeying “these words that I command you today”.  The closest thing to a commandment preceding both lists of reminders is: “And you shall love God, your God, with all your heart and all with your soul” (Deuteronomy 6:5, 11:13)—i.e. you shall love God with your whole mind and body.

With or without a text, the purpose of wearing totafot in Exodus is to be grateful that God rescued your people from slavery in Egypt, and the purpose in Deuteronomy is to remember to love God completely.  The placement of totafot approximately between one’s eyes makes them reminders that everything one sees should be experienced from the viewpoint of appreciating and loving God.

If you shaved off part of each eyebrow, the part near the nose, your face would have a bald spot, a blank patch, right where you were supposed to place the totafot.

In this week’s Torah portion, the prohibition against shaving between the eyes for the dead is bracketed by “You are children to God” and “You are a holy people”.  God comes first.  Remembering to love God is more important than remembering a dead human being, however beloved.

Later in Deuteronomy, Moses exhorts the people to “choose life”.8  Although all humans die, and we suffer when someone we love dies, we are not supposed to give up on our own lives.  So just as we must not gash our skin in mourning, we must not disfigure the spot between the eyes where the totafot would go.

You are children to God, your God; you must not gash yourselves, and you must not put a karchah between your eyes for the dead.  Because you are a holy people to God, your God …    (Deuteronomy/Devarim 14:1-2)

May we all embrace life, even in the face of suffering and death.

  1. Leviticus 21:5.
  2. Most of the Hebrew Bible is about the world of men, and many of God’s rules are written from a male viewpoint. The closest the bible comes to describing mourning practices for women is in the rules for when a man brings home a female war captive. She must be given a month to weep for her father and mother before her owner can take her to bed.  At the beginning of the month she shall “shave her head”.  This is either a mourning ritual for women, or way to reduce the man’s lust so he can stay away for the required month.  (Deuteronomy 21:10-13).
  3. Levites shave their whole bodies in Numbers 8:11 just before they come to the sanctuary to be offered to God.
  4. Nazirites shave their heads at the end of their period of abstention in Numbers 5:18. The hair that remained uncut and untended during the period of their vow is holy, and is put on the fire of the altar along with the usual grain and animal offerings for God. The shaving is also holy, since it takes place in the sanctuary at the altar.
  5. People with the skin disease tzara-at shave all their hair, including their eyebrows, seven days after they are pronounced cured in Leviticus 14:8-9.
  6. The “Shema” is the prayer in Deuteronomy 6:4. There are several possible translations (see my post Va-etchannan: All in One) but I usually prefer “Listen, Israel: God is our god; God is one”. The “Shema section” in Jewish prayerbook begins with the Shema and continues with three paragraphs of instructions about ways to remember God’s rules (Deuteronomy 6:5-9, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41).  The first two include  totafot.
  7. Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 57b.
  8. Deuteronomy 30:19-20.

Va-etchannan: Living

July 30, 2020 at 11:02 am | Posted in Va-etchannan | Leave a comment

A living god

Revelation at Mt. Sinai, artist unknown

The first time the God of Israel is called “a living god” is in this week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan (“And I implored”).  Moses reminds the new generation of Israelites that when their parents were at Mount Sinai the revelation of God terrified them.  They begged Moses to be their intermediary because they were afraid that if they listened any longer to the voice of God they would die.  They justified their fear by adding:

“Because who, of all flesh, has heard the voice of a god chayyim speaking from the middle of the fire, as we have, vayechi?”  (Deuteronomy 5:23)

chayyim (חַיִּים) = plural of the adjective chai (חַי) = alive, living.  (As nouns, both chai and chayyim = life.  Derived from the root verb chayah, חָיָה = lived.)

vayechi (וַיֶּחִי) = and survived.  (A form of the verb chayah.)

The Israelites were not monotheists at that point; they assumed that there were other living gods who may well have spoken from the middle of a fire.  The Hebrew Bible refers to “a living god” eleven more times,1 always in reference to the God of Israel.

What is a “living god”?

When Joshua orders the priests to carry the ark to the edge of the Jordan, he tells the Israelites that God will make the river part.

“By this you will know that a god chayyim is close to you and will definitely drive out from before you the Canaanites …”  (Joshua 3:10)

The implication is that a living god can take action in the world, like a living person.  A dead god is at best an inanimate and powerless idol.

Jeremiah draws this contrast in one of many biblical passages railing against statues of gods:

          And as one they are stupid and foolish,

               [Their] foundation emptiness, a piece of wood,

         Silver hammered flat from Tarshish …

               The work of a craftsman and the hand of a smith …

          But God is truly a god;

               [God] is a god chayyim,

               And king forever.

          From his fury the earth quakes,

               And nations are not able to contain [God’s] wrath.

          Thus you shall say to them: “Gods that have not made the heavens and the earth shall perish …”  (Jeremiah 10:8-11)

Staying alive

Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, life is a characteristic not only of humans but also of all other animals (but not plants); one word for “animal” is chayyah (חַיָּה) = living creature.  God gives all of us both life and death.2

Moses warns the Israelites three times in this week’s Torah portion that they must follow God’s rules in order to keep on living.

“And now, Israel, pay attention to the decrees and to the laws that I am teaching you to do, so that ticheyu and you will enter and occupy the land that God, the God of your fathers, is giving to you.”  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 4:1)

ticheyu (תִּחְיוּ) = you will live, you will stay alive.  (A form of the verb chayah.)

Here Moses means that if the Israelites obey all the rules, then God will let them live and ensure that they occupy the land of Canaan; but if they do not obey the rules, God will kill them.  He gives an example of when people disobeyed one of God’s fundamental rules: exclusive worship.

Bronze Baal

“Your eyes saw … what God did in Baal Peor, that God, your God, wiped out everyone who followed [the god of] Baal Peor from your midst.  But you who stuck to God, your God, all of you are chayyim today.”  (Deuteronomy 4:3-4)

Later, Moses says the people must:

“… observe all [God’s] decrees and commandments that I order you [to follow], you and your child and the child of your child, all the days of chayyekha, so that your days will be long.”  (Deuteronomy 6:2)

chayyekha (חַיֶּיךָ) = your life, your lifespan.  (A form of the noun chayyim.)

In this context, the reward for obeying all God’s rules is not just survival, but a long life.  Still later in the portion Va-etchnnan, Moses says:

“Then God commanded us to do all these decrees, to be in awe of God, our God, for our own good always, lechayyoteinu as today.  And we will be righteous when we observe and do all these commands before God, our God, as [God] commanded us.”  (Deuteronomy 6:24-25)

lechayyoteinu (לְחַיֺּתֵנוּ) = to keep us alive.  (A form of the verb chayah.)

This time either following the rules or being in awe of God, or both, seem to result directly in both staying alive and being righteous.  God tells the Israelites what the rules are in order to help them live longer and better lives.

In Moses’ three statements connecting God’s rules with life, the words for living mean 1) not being killed, 2) having a long life, and 3) being sustained by doing the right things.

What good is life?

The Hebrew Bible assumes, realistically, that most people want to keep on living; only a few characters question whether living on is worthwhile.  Life is also desirable in the bible because it lets humans, like God, take action in the world, in “the land of the living (chayyim)”.3  There is no life after death; the animating souls of everyone who dies go down to the land of the dead, Sheol, where they lie inert, unable to do anything.

Two of the actions in the land of the living that God wants from the Israelites are to have children and to occupy Canaan.  In next week’s Torah portion, Eikev, Moses says:

All the commands that I command you today you shall observe and do, so that ticheyun and you will increase and you will enter and possess the land that God promised to your fathers.  (Deuteronomy 8:1)

ticheyun (תִּחְיוּן) = you will live.  (Another form of the verb chayah.)

Today we might value life because only the living can create things that delight us, and only the living can work on restoring this planet that we have occupied and degraded.

The Torah also assumes that God wants the praise and thanks of humans, which only the living can do.4  In the book of Isaiah, King Hezekiah writes a poem thanking God for his recovery from a grave illness.

          For Sheol does not thank you

               [nor] death praise You;

          Those who go down to the pit cannot hope

               For your faithfulness.

          Chai, chai,

               only he can thank you

               as I do today… (Isaiah 38:18-19)

Today we can still praise and thank God, though we might use different words, or stop to meditate with silent awe and joy.  We can appreciate everything in the world that humans did not make, from the sun to the ocean to life itself.

Here’s to life!  Lechayyim!

  1. References to “a living God” take the form elohim chayyim (Deuteronomy 5:23, 1 Samuel 17:26 and 17:36, Jeremiah 10:10 and 23:36) or elohim chai (2 Kings 19:4 and 16, Isaiah 37:4 and 17, Hosea 2:1) or eil chayyim (Joshua 3:10, Psalm 84:3). I am not including the name of the spring in the wilderness where an angel of God speaks to Hagar: Be-eir Lachai Ro-i (בְּאֵר לַחַי רֺאִי) = Spring of the Living One [who] Sees Me (Genesis 16:14).
  2. Deuteronomy 32:39, 1 Samuel 2:6, 2 Kings 5:7.
  3. The phrase “land of the living”/eretz chayyim occurs in Isaiah 38:11 and 53:8; Jeremiah 11:19; Ezekiel 26:20; Psalms 27:13, 52:7, 116:9,and 142:6; and Job 28:13.
  4. Also see Psalms 6:6, 42:9, 85:7, 88:11-14, 115:17.

 

Repost: Devarim & Va-etchannan

August 7, 2019 at 9:16 am | Posted in Devarim, Va-etchannan | Leave a comment

A journey begins before you leave.  We won’t begin our journey to new lands until September, but for most of August we are immersed in sorting through our worldly goods and packing them for storage.  So I am starting to post links to my favorite past blog posts this week.  (See my note at the end of last week’s post, Massey: Stages of a Journey.)

Next week I am taking a break from sorting and packing to see family in Alaska.  So I decided to share my post from 2015 about the Torah portions for both this week and next:

Devarim & Va-etchannan: Enough Already

Eikev, Va-etchannan, & Noach: Who Built It?

August 1, 2018 at 10:02 pm | Posted in Eikev, Noach, Va-etchannan | 2 Comments

Five Kings of Midian Slain by Israel, 1728

The Israelites are camped on the east bank of the Jordan River, ready and willing to cross over and do to the native populations of Canaan what they have already done to the Amorites and Midianites east of the Jordan: burn all their towns, kill all their men, and take over all their land—with God’s explicit approval and assistance.1

I will explore the evolution of and biblical justifications for this ethnic cleansing in next week’s post, Re-eih: Ownership.  This week, let’s look at how Moses says the Israelites should act after their conquest.

In last week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan, Moses warns the Israelites not to feel entitled after they have taken everything the Canaanites own.

And it will happen when God, your God, brings you into the land that was sworn to your forefathers … cities great and good that lo vanita, and houses filled with everything good that you did not fill, stone-hewn cisterns that you did not hew out of stone, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.  And you will eat and you will be satisfied.  Guard yourself, lest you forget God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 6:10-12)

lo vanita you did not build.  lo (לֺא) = not + banita (בָּנִיתָ) = you built.  (A form of the verb banah, בָּנָה = built, constructed, fortified, rebuilt; built up a family.)

Once the Israelites own everything the previous inhabitants built and planted, they will have an easy head start in their new life.  But Moses does not tell the Israelites to be grateful for the labor of generations of Canaanites.  He only warns them not to forget that everything they own is a gift from God.

This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, takes the idea of God’s gift farther.

Guard yourself lest you forget God, your God, and fail to guard [God’s] commandments and laws and decrees, which I, myself, am commanding you this day—lest you eat and you are satisfied, and tivneh good houses, and you dwell in them; and your herds and flocks increase, and silver and gold increases for you, and everything that is yours increases; and then your heart is arrogant and you forget God, your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.  (Deuteronomy 8:11-14)

tivneh (תִּבְנֶה) = you build, fortify, build up.   (Another form of the verb banah.)

Here Moses points out that even if the Israelites do build their own houses and bring in their own livestock, wealth in the land they have conquered is not guaranteed.  What you build yourself, as well as what you take from someone else, is a gift from God.

In general, the Hebrew Bible uses the verb “create” (bara, בָּרָא) for what God does, and “build” (banah, בָּנָה) for what humans do, using materials God created.2  People in the bible build many things just to improve their lives, including houses, towns, walls, and livestock pens.  But sometimes humans build for the sake of their own self-importance, and sometimes they build to honor God.

 

Building a name

After the story of Noah and the flood, the humans on earth figure out how to make bricks and mortar them with bitumen.

Tower of Babel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1563

And they said: “Come, nivneh for ourselves a city and a tower [with] its head in the heavens, and we will make for ourselves a name, lest we scatter over the face of all the earth.”  And God went down to look at the city and the tower than the descendants of the human banu.  (Genesis 11:4-5)

nivneh (נִבִנֶה) = let us build.

banu (בָּנוּ) = they built.

Noah’s descendants start to build a single city for the whole human population, with a tower that intrudes on God’s realm, the heavens.  They want to make a “name” or reputation for themselves.  (Since there are no other humans, perhaps that want a reputation among creatures in the heavens.)  God takes them seriously, believing that humankind is indeed capable of doing too much.  So God decides to scatter them—just what the city-builders fear most—so that they will develop different languages and become mutually incomprehensible.

And [God] scattered them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off libanot the city.  Therefore it was called by the name Bavel, because there God confused the lips of the whole earth … (Genesis 11:8)

libanot (לִבְנֺת) = building.

Bavel (בָּבֶל) = Babylon.3

City gate at Megiddo

Building a city can be problematic in the Torah.  The building of the city and tower of Bavel is portrayed as an exercise in arrogance.  In Egypt, the Israelites are forced to build two brick storage-cities for Pharaoh, Pitom and Rameses.4  Later, King Solomon embarks on building projects in the cities of Jerusalem, Megiddo, Chatzor, and Gazer, all using the forced labor of the remaining natives of Canaan.5  Building a city, palace, or fortress means that the some human beings are likely to lord it over others.

In the Torah portion Va-etchannan, Moses warns the Israelites not to feel self-important when they are living in cities and towns that the natives had already built.  After all, they could not kill or drive away those natives without God’s help.

In the Torah portion Eikev, Moses reminds the Israelites not to let their prosperity in their “promised land” make them arrogant, and not to forget that God brought them out of slavery in Egypt.

 

Building for God

Living in cities built by other people leads to egotism.  But other kinds of building are for the sake of God.

First Temple reconstruction in Bible Museum, Amsterdam

Noah builds the ark at God’s command, but after the flood has receded he builds an altar for animal sacrifices to God on his own initiative. 6  It is the first of many altars men build to worship God.  In the book of Exodus, all the Israelites, men and women, cooperate to build the portable tent-sanctuary for God.  In the first book of Kings, King Solomon enslaves native Canaanites to build his own palace and several fortresses, but he uses the same forced labor to build the first temple for God in Jerusalem.

The bible praises those who build altars and sanctuaries for God, just as it criticizes those who forget their debt to God when they build or take over cities.  But what about the overlords’ dependence on people they defeated and enslaved?  The bible considers only the Israelite point of view.  No gratitude for the labor of non-Israelites is required.

I pray that all of us today may recognize that nobody becomes wealthy without help.  Nobody builds something without the raw materials this world provides, and nobody builds something without the present or past work of other human beings.

As Moses reminds us, may we be grateful to what is not human (whether we call it God or nature) for everything we have, even the air we breathe.  And as Moses fails to remind us, may we also be grateful for the labor of other human beings—even if we consider them Canaanites.

  1. Numbers 21:21-25, 21:33-35, and 31:1-12.
  2. One exception is when God uses the side of the human protype, adam, to “build” a female counterpart (Genesis 2:22), although in Genesis 1:27 and 5:2 God “creates” female and male humans.  Psalms 69, 78, and 102 refer poetically to God as the builder of Tzion or the cities of Judah.  Another exception is when Joshua tells the Josephites to “create” farmland for themselves by clear-cutting forests in the hill-country (Joshua 17:15-18), although they will only be using materials God created, i.e. trees, fire, and dirt.
  3. The name Bavel comes from the Babylonian god Beil, but the Torah might also be alluding to the sound of foreign languages the Israelites encountered during their enforced exile in Babylonia in the 6th century BCE.
  4. Exodus 1:11.
  5. 1 Kings 9:15-20.
  6. Although both Cain and Abel make offerings to God, the first altar mentioned in the Torah is built by Noah after the flood (Genesis 8:20).
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