Pesach, Metzora, & Chukat: Blood and Oregano

April 14, 2022 at 4:00 pm | Posted in Bo, Chukat, Metzora, Passover/Pesach | 1 Comment

Jews will gather around tables all over the world this Friday evening for the Passover seder, a ritual and story about God liberating the Israelites from Egypt. One highlight is when we chant the names of the ten plagues God inflicted on Egypt. After the name of each plague, we use one finger to remove a drop from the second of our four ceremonial cups of wine.1

Death of the Firstborn, Spanish Haggadah c. 1490

The tenth and final plague is makat bechorot, death of the firstborn; God takes the life of every firstborn in every family in Egypt—except for the Israelites who mark their doors so that God skips, or passes over, them.

Before the final plague, God tells Moses that each Israelite family must slaughter a lamb or goat kid on the fourteenth day of the month.

“Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel, on the houses in which they will eat it. And they shall eat the meat that night, roasted in fire, and unleavened flatbread; on bitter herbs they shall eat it.” (Exodus/Shemot 12:7-8)

After describing how the Israelites should eat standing up with their loins girded, ready to leave, God says:“… It is a Pesach for God.” (Exodus 12:11)

Pesach (פֶּסַח) = the sacrifice mandated in Exodus 12; the annual spring pilgrimage festival in the Torah; the annual observance of Passover. (From the root verb pasach, פָּסַח = limp, skip.)

“And the blood will be a sign on the houses where you are, and I will see the blood ufasachti over you, and you will not be afflicted with destruction when I strike in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:13)

ufasachti (וּפָסַחְתִּי) = and I will skip over you. (A form of the verb pasach.)

The animal blood both signals an escape from death and brings the recipient close to God—in these instructions and in two other rituals in the Torah in which the blood of  slaughtered animal is applied with branches of oregano.

1) Bo in Exodus (Pesach)

Moses adds oregano when he transmits God’s instructions to the Israelites.

Preparing for the Plague of the Firstborn, History Bible, Paris, c. 1390

“Then you shall take a bundle of eizov and you shall dip it into the blood that is in the basin, and touch some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts. And you must not let anyone go out from the door of his house until morning. Upasach, God, to strike dead the Egyptians, and [God] will see the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, upasach, God, the door and not let the destruction enter your houses to strike dead [your firstborn].  (Exodus 12:21-23)

eizov (אֵזֺב) = Syrian oregano, an aromatic perennial herb. (Traditionally translated as “hyssop”, although true hyssop does not grow in the Middle East.) Eizov grows in stony ground to a height of 3-4 feet; its stems are the longest in the oregano branch of the mint family.

upasach (וּפָסַח) = and he will pass over, skip over. (Another form of the verb pasach.)

In the above passage, the first upasach means that God will pass over Egypt, and the second upasach means that God will skip over the houses whose doorframes are painted with blood.

An omniscient god would already know which houses to skip. Either the God-character in this story is not omniscient, or God includes the blood painting for its emotional impact.

Up to this point in the book of Exodus, the Israelite slaves find it hard to believe that God is on their side. But when they discover that God has killed every firstborn in every house except theirs, they are (temporarily) reassured that God is indeed rescuing them, and they march out of Egypt into freedom “with a high hand”.2

Why does Moses specify that the Israelites should use a bunch of eizov to paint the blood? The only herbs God mentioned to him were generic bitter herbs, to be eaten with the roast lamb or goat. Oregano is savory, but not bitter. Perhaps Moses is afraid that the Israelites will find it eerie to paint with blood, and he hopes to comfort them with the good smell of oregano.

2) Metzora in Leviticus

Last week’s Torah portion, Metzora, describes four steps of purification for someone who has recovered from the skin disease tzara-at. Although this disease does not seem to be contagious, the white and scaly patches of skin are a reminder of death. If the tzara-at clears up, ritual purification is necessary so that the healed person can return to the community and to God’s sanctuary. (See my post Metzora: Time to Learn, Part 2.)

Two Birds, by Simon Fokke, 18th century

The first step is a ritual requiring two wild birds.

And the priest shall slaughter one bird in an earthenware vessel [held] over living water. The live bird he shall take, along with the cedar wood and the crimson dye and the eizov, and he shall dip them and the live bird into the blood of the bird [that was] slaughtered over living water. Then he shall sprinkle it on the one being purified from tzara-at seven times and purify him. And he shall send the live bird out over the open field. (Leviticus 14:5-6)

The ancient Israelites identified blood with the life-force (nefesh, נֶפֶשׁ) in a person or animal.3 Here the priest kills one bird and catches its lifeblood in a bowl held over fresh water, which is called “living water” in the bible. The priest dips the other bird into the blood of life and sets it free. The healed person who is watching knows deep down that God has rescued them and given them new life.

The cedar and crimson dye (made from shield-louse eggs) have no apparent purpose except to emphasize the red color of the blood.

The eizov is used to sprinkle blood on the person being purified. A bunch of branches covered with soft leaves can be used to paint blood on something, and also be shaken to sprinkle blood on someone. And shaking a bunch of eizov branches would release the good smell of oregano, a reminder that life will be savory again.

3) Chukat in Numbers

A purification ritual in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar uses blood and eizov to make a transition for someone who has been exposed to a human death, so that the person can return to the right state for worshiping God with the community.

First a perfect, unblemished red cow that has never carried a yoke is slaughtered outside the camp as a chatat (חַטָּאת), an offering to compensate for an inadvertent sin or lapse. Usually someone offers a chatat after realizing they have made an error in observance that separates them from God. The chatat in this Torah portion is unique because the offering is slaughtered and burned ahead of time, so that future people who find they have become separated from the divine through exposure to human death can make a virtual chatat.

Then Elazar the high priest shall take some of her [the cow’s] blood with his finger, and he shall flick some of the blood seven times in the direction of the front of the Tent of Meeting. (Numbers/Bemidbar 19:4)

This connects the cow’s life with God’s holy place. Next, Elazar watches while someone burns the entire cow, even its blood and dung.

And the priest shall take cedar wood and eizov and crimson dye, and throw them into the middle of the burning cow. (Numbers 19:6)

The ashes of the red cow in Chukat are gathered and stored in a ritually pure place, to be used to purify the following:

1) Anyone who is inside a tent where a human dies, and anyone who enters the tent for the next seven days (Numbers 19:14).

2) Anyone who touches a human corpse (even on a battlefield), or who touches a human bone, or who touches a grave (Numbers 19:16).

Eizov (Syrian oregano)

Then some of the ashes of the burning of the chatat will be taken and mixed with living water in a vessel. Then a ritually pure man shall take eizov and dip it in the water, and he shall sprinkle it over the tent and on all the vessels and on the souls who were there; or on the one who touched the bones, or the killed person, or the person who died [of natural causes], or the grave. And the ritually pure one shall sprinkle it on the third day and on the seventh day. Vechito on the seventh day. And he shall clean his clothes and he shall wash in water, and he will be ritually pure in the evening. (Numbers 19:17-19)

vechito (וְחִטּאוֹ) = and he will become free of his lapse. (From the same root as chatat.)

Anyone exposed to death who does not go through this process is excluded or “cut off” from the community. If they were not excluded, “the holy place of God would become impure”. (Numbers 19: 20)

*

Today we have no ritual to free us from the feeling of alienation that accompanies contact with death; there has been no ash from a pure red cow for two thousand years. Neither do we have a ritual to reintegrate with the community when we recover from a disfiguring condition that isolates us as tzara-at once did.

And today very few Jews in the world observe Passover by slaughtering a lamb and painting its blood on their doorframes with bunches of giant oregano—even during the current plague of Covid. The long ritual seder developed over the past millennium and a half focuses on freedom from slavery, not on fear that God will kill us.

Nevertheless, this Passover I am going to put a sprig of oregano on my seder plate, next to the bitter herbs. Even during times when we are crushed by the bitterness of physical or psychological slavery, life has savory moments.

  1. The custom of removing drops of wine is first mentioned in a Pesach sermon written by Rabbi Eleazer of Worms (1176–1238). The idea that we do it in sympathy for the Egyptians is based on Proverbs 24:17 and first appeared in commentary by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Löw (1812-1874).
  2. Numbers 33:3.
  3. Leviticus 17:14, Deuteronomy 12:23.

Bo: Pride and Ethics

January 5, 2022 at 10:52 am | Posted in Bo, Passover/Pesach, Va-eira | Leave a comment

Haggadah by Judah Pinḥas, Germany, 1747

Pharaoh wants the Israelites to stay in Egypt and serve him as corvée laborers making bricks and building cities. God wants the Israelites to walk out of Egypt, take over Canaan, and serve “him”.  In an effort to terrorize Pharaoh into letting the Israelites go, God afflicts Egypt with ten “plagues” or miraculous disasters: blood, frogs, lice, mixed vermin, cattle pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, utter darkness, and death of the firtborn.

The God-character reveals another divine agenda in last week’s Torah portion, Va-eira, just before the plague of hail.

Shalach my people so they can serve me! Because this time I myself sholeiach all my scourges into your heart and against your courtiers and against your people, so that you will see that there is none like me on all the earth. Indeed, by now shalachti my hand and struck you and your people with the pestilence, and you would have been effaced from the earth. However, for the sake of this I have let you stand: so that I can show you my power and make my name known throughout the earth.” (Exodus 9:14-16)

shalach (שַׁלַּח) = Send! Send forth! Send out! Let go! Release!

sholeiach (שֺׁלֵחַ) = am sending, am sending forth, am sending out, am letting go, am releasing.

shalachti (שָׁלַחְתִּי) = I sent, I could have sent, I could have stretched out, I could have released.

(Throughout the story of the ten plagues, forms of the verb shalach are used both when God releases a plague, and when anyone talks about Pharaoh releasing the Israelites.)

Before sending the hail, the God-character reveals that “his” other goal is to prove to the whole world that “he” is the most powerful god. Being recognized as the most powerful seems more important to the God depicted in the book of Exodus than any moral considerations.1

The ethical problem with the God-character’s actions is that the plagues afflict not only Pharaoh, but also the native Egyptians. Why should ordinary Egyptians suffer? Pharaoh is the one who keeps refusing to let the Israelites go; his people have no say in the matter.

Some commentators have claimed that all the Egyptian people are on Pharaoh’s side, so they deserve to be punished. But there is nothing in the text of the Torah to indicate this. Pharaoh issues a general order for “all his people” to throw male Israelite infants into the Nile in last week’s Torah portion, Shemot.2 But the Torah never reports an Egyptian actually doing so. The only Egyptians who act against Israelites in the book of Exodus are:

  • Pharaoh, who issues commands calling for their oppression and death.
  • Egyptian taskmasters supervising the corvée labor, who oppress and beat the Israelites.3
  • Pharaoh’s armed regiment of charioteers, who pursue them after they leave Egypt.4

Yet the other native Egyptians also suffer from God’s ten plagues. Is their suffering unavoidable collateral damage in the war between Pharaoh and God? Or does God choose miracles that harm the most people on purpose, in order to make a more dramatic display of power?

*

Plague of the Firstborn, Spanish haggadah c. 1490

The tenth and final plague, described in this week’s Torah portion, Bo, is death of the firstborn.

And it was the middle of the night, and God struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, to all the first-born of the livestock. (Exodus 12:29)

Only the Israelites receive God’s instructions to paint blood on their door frames and stay inside overnight to avoid the death of any of their first-born.5

Is this extreme unethical measure necessary in order to make Pharaoh submit? Or does the God-character kill every first-born in every Egyptian family merely in order to make a more dramatic display of power?

A necessary evil

The mass murder does appear to achieve the liberation of hundreds of thousands of oppressed Israelites.

And Pharaoh got up in the night, he and all his courtiers and all the Egyptians. And there was a great wailing outcry in Egypt, because there was no house without someone dead. And he summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and he said: “Arise, go out from among my people, you and also the Israelites, and go serve God, as you spoke! Take even your flocks and your herds, as you spoke, and go! And may you also bless me.” (Exodus 12:30-32)

Only after the death of the first-born does Pharaoh capitulate and tell the Israelites to go with everything Moses asked for. He even lowers himself by asking for a blessing, acknowledging that he cannot prosper again without God’s help.

Pharaoh loses his own first-born son, a blow that would shatter the hardest heart. But the wailing all over his capital city would reinforce his new despair. He may suspect that if he does not let the Israelites go now, the Egyptian people will revolt against him. The authority conferred upon him by the gods of Egypt no longer holds when the God of Israel is obviously more powerful.

A dramatic display

On the other hand, after three of the plagues (boils, locusts, and darkness) the Torah says that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart.6 What does this mean?

Pharaoh hardens his own heart after the plague of frogs, and continues to harden it four more times.7 He is in the habit of hardening his heart, and once we get into a habit, it can seem as if an outside force makes us keep doing it again and again. But in the text of Exodus, there is an outside force, and it is God. Before the plagues begin, the God-character tells Moses:

“And I myself will harden the heart of Pharaoh, and I will multiply my signs and my omens in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 7:3)

The God-character follows up on this promise by deliberately hardening Pharaoh’s heart three times when Pharaoh is softening and might give in. The God-character does not want Pharaoh to let the Israelites go before “he” is ready. And the God-character is only ready after “he” has a chance to commit the tenth and most emotionally devastating plague: the death of the firstborn.

Apparently the God-character is so fixated on the goal of demonstrating power that the full ten-step dramatic display, from blood to death, is worth postponing the liberation of the Israelites. Demonstrating power is also far more important to this God-character than minimizing the suffering of innocent Egyptians.

*

Red Sea in Golden Haggadah, c. 1320, Spain

After the final plague, the Israelites march into the wilderness, but Pharaoh changes his mind about letting them go. The God-character hardens Pharaoh’s heart one last time in next week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, and Pharaoh commands his charioteers to pursue the Israelites. This gives the God-character a chance to create another memorable miracle: the splitting of the Reed Sea, and the return of the waters in time to drown the Egyptian chariot regiment.8

And Israel saw the great power that God wielded against Egypt, and the people were awed by God, and they had faith in God and in [God’s] servant Moses. (Exodus 14:31)

This miracle impresses both the Egyptians and the Israelites with God’s power. The fact that it also avoids killing any innocent bystanders is probably incidental in the book of Exodus.

Although Exodus is based on older oral traditions, modern scholars estimate that it was written down in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C.E. About a thousand years later, the rabbis of the Talmud imagined a different sort of God responding to the death of the Egyptian soldiers.

At that time the ministering angels wanted to recite a song before the Holy One, Blessed be He. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to them: “My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before me?” (Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 39b and Megillah 10b)

As the ethics of the Israelites advanced, so did the ethics of their God.

  1. See Jerome M. Segal’s treatment of this theme in his book Joseph’s Bones: Understanding the Struggle Between God and Mankind in the Bible, Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, New York, 2007.
  2. Exodus 1:22.
  3. Exodus 1:13-14 reports unspecified ruthless oppression by the taskmasters; Exodus 2:11 and 5:15-16 report beatings.
  4. Pharaoh and his charioteers pursue the Israelites after Pharaoh changes his mind about letting them go in Exodus 14:6-10. The disciplined Egyptian charioteers advance at the Reed Sea in order to kill some Israelites and capture the rest, but God intervenes with a miracle.
  5. Exodus 12:6-7, 12:21-23.
  6. Exodus 9:12, 10:20, 10:27.
  7. Exodus 8:11, 8:15, 8:28, 9:7, 9:34.
  8. Exodus 14:5-30.

Passover, Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 2

April 1, 2021 at 12:51 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Passover/Pesach, Vayeishev | Leave a comment

The wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask; these are the four kinds of children in the Passover Seder.  Can we find them among Jacob’s progeny?

Last week I argued that out of the three of Jacob’s children with speaking roles in the book of Genesis, Reuben is an unwise wise child, and Judah is a reformed wicked child.  You can read that post here: Passover, Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 1.

The only other one of Jacob’s children who speaks is Joseph.  In the Passover Haggadah, the simple child says only, “What is this?”  Joseph says a great deal more.

Joseph: Complicated Simple Son

In fact, he talks too much.  By the time he is seventeen, four of his older brothers hate him because he brings bad reports of them to their father, Jacob.1  The rest hate him because he is Jacob’s favorite.  Joseph should notice their animosity, since “they could not speak to him in peace”.2

Joseph Reveals his Dream to his Brothers, by James J.J. Tissot

Yet he tells his brothers about two dreams in which they (thinly disguised as sheaves of grain, then as stars) are bowing down to him.3

Only a simple child would tell these dreams to brothers who already hate him.  Does Joseph realize how his older brothers feel?  Is he unable to imagine that they might lash out at him?

Their father, Jacob (who may also be deficient in emotional intelligence) sends Joseph off alone to check up on his brothers and their flocks.  As soon as he reaches them, they seize him, throw him into a pit, and argue about whether to kill him, let him slowly starve, or sell him as a slave.4  He pleads with them to no avail,5 and before the day is over he is a slave bound for Egypt.

The next time Joseph speaks is when his Egyptian master’s wife tries to seduce him, and he explains that he will not lie down with her because it would be wicked.6   It does not even occur to him to flatter her when he refuses her advances. She does not take his rejection well, and Joseph ends up in Pharaoh’s prison.

One morning in prison Joseph notices that two of his fellow prisoners, Pharaoh’s head butler and head baker, have “bad expressions”7—the first sign that he is noticing the feelings of others.  He asks them why, and they say there is no one to interpret their dreams.

Joseph in Prison, by James J.J. Tissot

Then Joseph said to them: “Aren’t dream interpretations for God?  Please tell me.”  (Genesis 40:8)

Is Joseph giving credit to God for his upcoming interpretations, or is he claiming that God gives him secret information?  Probably both.  Joseph’s predictions based on their dreams come true, and two years later when Pharaoh has a pair of puzzling dreams, the head butler recommends Joseph.

This time Joseph says God is revealing the future to Pharaoh through those dreams.8  The implication that God is giving Pharaoh, not Joseph, secret information indicates Joseph’s increasing sophistication.  He says the dreams are forecasting seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and throws in some advice: Pharaoh should appoint an insightful man to organize stockpiling and later distribution of food.  Impressed, Pharaoh appoints Joseph.  From then on, he is the viceroy of Egypt.9

When Joseph’s ten older brothers come to the viceroy to buy grain during the first year of famine they do not recognize him.  Joseph plays a complicated game, arranging elaborate tests to see if his brothers have reformed.10  Joseph’s premise is that he can judge his older brothers according to how they treat Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son and his new favorite.

Joseph still has grandiose impulses, and adds details to his game that are not strictly necessary.  For example, he invites them to dinner and seats them in order from oldest to youngest, although no Egyptian could guess their exact birth order.  They are astonished by his apparent magical power.11

The final test comes when Joseph plants a silver cup in Benjamin’s pack, then accuses him of stealing it and decrees that the punishment is to stay in Egypt as the viceroy’s slave.  Joseph’s ten older brothers say they are all guilty and they will all be slaves with him.  Even this is not enough for Joseph, who insists that only Benjamin will stay.12  Finally Judah breaks the deadlock by explaining that their father could not live without Benjamin.  Judah begs to be the viceroy’s slave instead of Benjamin, and Joseph finally breaks down and admits who he is.13

But there is one more complication.  Joseph is so attached to his role as the savior of Egypt, Canaan, and his own family, that he says:

“And now don’t worry and don’t be angry with yourselves because you sold me.  Because hey! God sent me ahead of you to save life.  For this was a pair of years of the famine in the midst of the land, and there will be five more years when there will be no plowing nor reaping …  So now, you did not send me here!  Rather, God did, and he placed me as a father-figure to Pharaoh and as a master to all his household and a ruler over all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:5-8)

By the end of this speech Joseph is bragging about his high position.  As Pharaoh’s 39-year-old viceroy, he is older and wiser than he was at age 17.  But he is still as full of himself as a simple child.  He is also full of his theory of divine providence (at least for him and his family), and does not see that his brothers need his forgiveness.

Joseph invites the whole extended family to live in Egypt and benefit from his munificence.  Yet when their father Jacob dies, his ten older sons send a message to Joseph begging for a pardon.  They still do not feel safe with a simple child who has absolute power over them and never explicitly forgave them.

Then Joseph said to them: “Don’t be afraid!  Am I instead of God?  And you, you planned evil for me, but God planned it for good, in order to bring about this time of keeping many people alive.  And now, don’t be afraid; I, myself, will provide for you and your little ones.”  And he comforted them, and he spoke to their hearts.  (Genesis 50:19-21)

Whatever Joseph says to comfort them works, and they have a change of heart.  But I wish one of Joseph’s brothers would protest, “What is this?”

Benjamin: Speechless Son

Jacob has nine sons who are not quoted in the Torah.  He also has a daughter, Dinah, who is silent about her own rape, the subsequent proposed marriage, and the murder of her would-be bridegroom.14  I am tempted to call Dinah the fourth child in the Passover Seder, the “child who does not know how to ask”, so I could grandstand about how women in the Ancient Near East were pawns and chattels of the men, deprived even of the right to speak for themselves.15

But if Reuben, Judah, and Joseph correspond to the three children who ask questions, then the fourth child, who is amazed by the Passover rituals but cannot put together a question, must be Benjamin.

Benjamin is the youngest of Jacob’s children, and the only one who does not commit or witness any terrible deeds.  He has not even been born when Dinah is raped and Jacob’s oldest sons massacre all the men in the town of Shekhem.  He is only a toddler in Jacob’s camp when Joseph’s older brothers sell him as a slave.  The first year Jacob sends his ten older sons to Egypt to buy grain, he does not let Benjamin go.  The second year, when Benjamin does go, he is a married man with children of his own—but he is leaving his father’s home for the first time in his life!

He is silent—probably flabbergasted—when the viceroy’s steward “finds” the silver cup in his pack and accuses him of stealing it.  Benjamin remains silent when his older brothers tell the viceroy they will all stay in Egypt and suffer the punishment of slavery.  Another man might protest at this point, but Benjamin is not used to making his own ethical decisions.

After the viceroy reveals that he is Joseph, he embraces Benjamin first.

And [Joseph] fell on the neck of Benjamin, his brother, and he sobbed, and Benjamin sobbed on his neck.  And he kissed all his brothers and he sobbed on them.  And after that his brothers spoke to him.  (Genesis 45:14-15)

Benjamin is the only one of Joseph’s brothers who sobs back.  He is overwhelmed by Joseph’s affection, and unlike his older brothers, he is innocent of any wrongdoing.  He can react freely, and non-verbally.

Like the fourth child in the Passover Seder, Benjamin is the baby of the family.  It does not even occur to him to question what is going on.  We do not learn whether he ever grows up.

  1. Genesis 37:2.
  2. Genesis 37:3-4.
  3. Genesis 37:5-9.
  4. Reuben argues that they should throw Joseph in the pit without killing him outright, implying that he will eventually die of dehydration.  Reuben’s plan is to sneak back and rescue him (Genesis 37:21-22).  Judah persuades his brothers to sell Joseph to a passing caravan (Genesis 37:26-28).
  5. Genesis 42:21.
  6. Genesis 39:8-9.
  7. Genesis 40:7.
  8. Genesis 41:25.
  9. Genesis 41:39-44.
  10. Genesis 42:9-25, 43:26-44:17.
  11. Genesis 43:33.
  12. Genesis 44:16-17.
  13. Genesis 44:18-45:3.
  14. Genesis 34:1-31.
  15. Except for Rebecca, who can say “yes” or “no” to her engagement to Isaac (Genesis 24:57-58).

 

Passover, Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 1

March 24, 2021 at 7:21 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Passover/Pesach, Vayeishev | 1 Comment

The number four is big in the Passover/Pesach seder.  The Haggadah (the script for the ritual) is punctuated by four cups of wine.  Between the first cup and the second, the youngest person present sings the four questions, we read about four rabbis who stayed up all night, and we answer questions from four kinds of children.

The Four Seder-night Sons, American Haggadah, circa 1920

“The Four Sons” Passover tradition is first reported in the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, and might date as early as the second century C.E.1

There are four sons: a wise son, a wicked son, a simple son, and one who does not know how to ask.  (Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, 13:14)2

The Torah prescribes what a father should say to a son on Pesach four times.3  Three of these instructions are preceded in the Torah by a hypothetical question from a child.  These three questions are similar in the Torah, the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, and the Haggadah:

  1. The “wise child”: “What are the terms and the decrees and the laws which God, our God, has commanded us?”
  2. The “wicked child”: “What does this service mean to you?”
  3. The “simple child”: “What is this?”
  4. The “child who does not know how to ask”.  (This child corresponds to an implied question about why everyone must eat only unleavened bread during the seven-day festival.  Moses gives the answer: “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying: This is because God did for me when I went free from Egypt.”  (Exodus 13:8))

The three questions may be similar, but the answers in the Haggadah leave out a lot of the information in the Torah, and one answer, to the so-called wicked child, is quite different.3  You can compare the Torah versions and the Haggadah versions in my 2019 post: Pesach: Changing Four Sons.

Every year as Pesach approaches, I enjoy playing with the idea of four kinds of children.  In 2012 I applied the four children model to Aaron’s four sons in this post: Shemini: Aaron’s Four SonsIn 2014 I wrote a post about the four children in terms of the four worlds of kabbalah in this post: Passover: Children of Four Worlds.

This year I am writing my book on morality in Genesis, and thinking about  Jacob’s twelve sons and one daughter.  Only three of his children get speaking roles in the Torah: Reuben, Judah, and Joseph.  Do they correspond to the three children who ask questions in the Haggadah?  What about the fourth child, the silent one?

Reuben: Unwise Son

Reuben, Jacob’s oldest son, is an unwise “wise child”.  I can imagine him asking for all the rules because he wants to do the right thing.  But then he blunders into some stupidity and messes it up.

When Joseph’s ten older brothers see him from a distance and plot to seize him, throw him into a pit, and kill him, Reuben says: “Let us not take his life!”  His brothers ignore him, so he waters down his protest.

And Reuben said to them: “Don’t shed blood!  Throw him into that pit that is in the wilderness, but don’t send a hand against him!”—in order to rescue him from their hand and restore him to his father.  (Genesis/Bereishit 37:22)

After Joseph is at the bottom of the pit, the other brothers sit down for a meal, but Reuben wanders away for some reason not recorded in the Torah.  Early commentators invented excuses for Reuben’s absence at the critical moment, but I maintain Reuben is not thinking clearly.  What could be more important than staying near the pit in case his murderous brothers suddenly decide to act?

And they do.  While Reuben is gone, Judah proposes selling Joseph as a slave to a passing caravan headed for Egypt.

And he [Reuben] returned to his brothers, and he said: “The boy is not here!  And I, where can I go?”  (Genesis 37:30)

Reuben intended to do the right thing, but he was not wise enough to carry it out properly.

Twenty-one years later, during the first year of a long famine, the viceroy of Egypt tells the ten brothers that he will not sell them grain again unless they bring their youngest brother down with them.  Back in Canaan the famine continues a second year, and the brothers try to persuade their father to let Benjamin go, even though he has become Jacob’s favorite now that Joseph is gone.  Reuben knows the whole family will starve to death unless his father lets Benjamin go, so he says:

“You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you!  Put him in my hand, and I myself will return him to you.”  (Genesis 42:37)

He sounds ready to make a noble sacrifice.  But why would Jacob want to kill two of his own grandsons?  Once again, Reuben tries to be the wise child who does the right thing, but what he actually does is far from wise.

Judah: Reformed Wicked Son

The “wicked son” in the Haggadah asks, “What does this service mean to you?”  In the Torah it is an innocent question, and the parent merely answers that they are making a Passover offering to God to remember when God smote the Egyptians but passed over their households.  But in the Haggadah and the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, the parent accuses this son of separating himself from other Jews by saying “you” instead of “us”.4

Judah, Jacob’s fourth son, starts out as selfish as the Haggadah’s version of the “wicked son”. When Joseph is naked at the bottom of the pit, Judah is the one who says:

“What is the profit if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?”  (Genesis 37:26)

He persuades his brothers to sell Joseph as a slave to a passing caravan instead, and they are paid 20 silver pieces for him.  At this point, Judah is indeed wicked, separating himself from any empathy toward his younger brother Joseph.  Later, he deprives his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar of her traditional right to stay in his family by having a child with her deceased husband’s nearest male relative.  Tamar deceives Judah in order to get pregnant by him, and when Judah sentences her to death for adultery, she produces evidence that he is the father of her unborn child.  Judah’s eyes are opened, and he admits he was wrong, saying: “She is more righteous than I am!”  (Genesis 38:26)

After that wake-up call, Judah exhibits the empathy that I believe is implied by the question “What does this service mean to you?”  I think the so-called wicked child is actually interested in the feelings of other people, like Judah later in his life.

When Jacob refuses to let Benjamin go to Egypt so his sons can buy food during the second year of famine, Judah is the one who finally makes him change his mind.

Then Judah said to his father, Israel: “I will bring him.  Send the young man with me, and we will get up and go, and we will live and not die—we and you and our little ones. I myself will be the pledge for him; from my hand you may seek him.  If I do not bring him back to you and produce him before you, I will be guilty to you forever.”  (Genesis 43:8)

Judah’s word is good; when the viceroy of Egypt plants a silver cup in Benjamin’s pack and accuses him of stealing it, Judah volunteers to be the viceroy’s slave instead of his brother.  This act, along with a moving story about Jacob’s love for Benjamin, turns the tide, and the viceroy confesses that he is actually their brother Joseph.  Thanks to Judah’s empathy, the family arrives at a happy ending.

*

Does Joseph, the third of Jacob’s children who has a speaking role in the Torah, correspond in any way to the Haggadah’s “simple son”?  And who is the silent child?  You can find out next week in Passover, Vayeishev, & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 2.

  1. The Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael collection of commentary on the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy written during the first through fourth centuries CE and by Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, his students, and subsequent commentators.  The four sons in the Mekhilta are alluded to in the Jerusalem Talmud, but not in the Babylonian Talmud.
  2. This quote and all subsequent quotes from the Mekhilta use the translation in sefaria.org/Mekhilta_d’Rabbi_Yishmael.
  3. Deuteronomy 6:20-24 (wise), Exodus 12:27 (wicked), Exodus 13:15 (simple), and Exodus 13:6-8 (silent).
  4. This is outrageous, since in the Torah the wise son’s question is “What are the duties and the decrees and the laws that God, our God, commanded to you?”

Pesach & Vayikra: Holy Matzah

April 6, 2020 at 6:59 pm | Posted in Ki Tisa, Passover/Pesach, Vayikra | Leave a comment

We interrupt this program of Torah readings from the book of Leviticus/ Vayikra to bring you a special announcement from the book of Exodus/Shemot:

Do not eat regular bread during the week of Passover.

Why not?

First Day of Pesach

Painting doorposts with blood, History Bible, Paris, 1390

On the first day of Passover/Pesach, the Torah reading (Exodus 12:21-51) includes tenth plague in Egypt, the death of the firstborn.  Moses tells the Israelites what each household must do on that day: slaughter a sheep and paint its blood around the door, so death will pass over their house.

Night falls while the Israelites are eating their slaughtered sheep.  The firstborn child in every house without blood around the door dies.  In the middle of the night Pharaoh and the other Egyptians urge the Israelites to leave the country at once, with no conditions.  The Israelites march away in the morning, taking all their livestock; some gold and silver the Egyptians “loan” them; and some household items, including bread dough and kneading troughs.  When they camp on the first night of their journey,

They baked the dough that they had brought out from Egypt as cakes of matzot, because it was not leavened, because they were driven out of Egypt and they were unable to tarry; and also they had not made provisions for themselves.  (Exodus 12:39)

matzot (מַצּוֹת) = plural of matzah (מַצָּה) = unleavened bread; a flat “loaf” of flour and water baked before any sourdough can make it rise.

Every year we read this specious reason for eating matzah during Passover, in the haggadah (script) for the seder (ritual meal) as well as in the Torah.  And every year I sigh with impatience.

People in the ancient Near East used sourdough, not yeast, to leaven their bread.  It takes about a week to make new sourdough starter and gradually add enough flour and water to do some baking.  So for thousands of years bakers have kept sourdough starter going in their kitchens.

A family packing hurriedly to leave the country might bring dry flour and a jar of sourdough starter.  Or they might bring dough that was already rising in preparation for baking later in the day.  But who would mix some flour with water and bring the damp lump without adding any of the sourdough starter right there on the shelf?

Saying that we eat only unleavened bread during the week of Pesach because our ancestors had no time to prepare leavened bread is an explanation that some young children enjoy.  But it has never satisfied me.

Last Day of Pesach

On the last day of the week of Pesach, the Torah reading is Deuteronomy 15:19-16:17, which combines eating the slaughter offering with eating the matzah, and adds some new details to the Pesach observance.

Israelites Leave Egypt, The Golden Haggadah, 14th century Spain

Observe the month of the green grain,1 and make the Pesach offering to God, your God, because in the month of the green grain God, your God, brought you out of Egypt at night.  You shall slaughter Pesach offerings from the flock and from the herd for God, your God, in the place where God chooses to make [God’s] name dwell.  You shall not eat leaven with it.  Seven days you shall eat it with matzot, the bread of wretchedness, because in a hasty flight you went out from the land of Egypt.  On account of [eating matzot], you shall remember the day you went out from the land of Egypt all the days of your life.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:1-3)

Here the purpose of eating both the animal offering and the matzot for a week is to remember the exodus from Egypt.  In Deuteronomy, we must do this at the temple, with everyone else who has come for the pilgrimage.

This passage adds that matzah is the bread of wretchedness,2 a statement repeated during the Pesach seder.3  Eating matzah reminds us of our own wretchedness and our inability to rise by our own efforts when we were in Egypt.

The hard labor imposed on the Israelites enslaved in Egypt gave them “shortness of breath” (or “shortness of spirit”; both translations are legitimate) so they could not listen to Moses talking about liberation.4  They could only cry bitterly, until God created the ten miraculous disasters that finally persuaded even the Pharaoh to let them leave Egypt.

We eat matzah during Pesach to remember that any freedom we have now is due to God’s compassion for us.

In the first century C.E. Philo of Alexandria initiated an explanation for eating matzah that we still repeat at many seders today: that leavening makes bread puff up like an arrogant person.  Eating flat matzah is a reminder of our humility before God.5

Pesach and Leviticus

This year another explanation for eating matzah occurred to me.  After reading about the matzot burned on the altar in various types of offerings to God in the first two Torah portions of Leviticus/Vayikra, I noticed that whenever the people make a grain offering6 to God, it is always unleavened.

The first Torah portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra describes several  acceptable types of afternoon grain offerings.  The first is:

… wheat flour; and he shall pour oil over it and place frankincense upon it.  And he shall bring it to the sons of Aaron, the priests, and one shall scoop from it … a memorial portion on the altar, a fire-offering, a fragrant aroma for God.   (Leviticus/Vayikra 2:1-2)

The Torah then describes four ways to cook the grain before offering it to God on the altar.  The mixture of flour and oil can be baked into matzot “loaves”, or into flat wafers.  It can be fried on a griddle, or cooked as soft dough in a pot.  But it must always be sprinkled with frankincense and salt before the priest breaks off a piece and lays it on the altar to burn up into smoke.  Furthermore, the grain offering must never be allowed to rise, and it must never include fruit syrup.

Any grain offering that you offer to God you shall not make leavened, for you must not make any sourdough or any syrup go up in smoke with a fire-offering for God.  You shall offer those to God as an offering of first-fruits, but they shall not be upon the altar, nor go up as a fragrant aroma.  (Leviticus 2:11-12)

Later the Torah describes the annual offering of first-fruits (and optional fruit syrups) on the holiday of Shavuot, which also prescribes an offering of two loaves of leavened bread from each pilgrim.  These offerings are presented to the priests at the sanctuary, but no part of them is burned on the altar for God.

Grain is also part of the wholeness-offering, given to express thanks or fulfill a pledge.  Besides slaughtering an animal at the altar, the donor brings:

 loaves of matzot mixed with oil, and wafers of matzot anointed with oil, and toasted flour mixed with oil.  Along with loaves of leavened bread, he shall offering his offering with his wholeness slaughter-offering.  (Leviticus 7:11-13)

Portions of the sacrificial animal and the unleavened grain offerings are burned on the altar.  But the leavened bread is all eaten by human beings: the officiating priest and the donor and his guests.  None of it is turned into smoke for God.

This means that during the week of Passover, we eat only the kind of grain that can be offered to God.  We remember that major transformations in our lives happen only by the grace of God, but we also, in effect, share bread with God.

Why?  In the Torah portion that comes after Pesach this year, Kedoshim, God declares:

You shall be holy, because I, God, your God, am holy.  (Leviticus 19:3)

Holiness is not a feeling in the Torah; the portion Kedoshim follows up that statement with a list of holy actions to take, both ethical and ritual.  But perhaps, when we eat matzah, we might remember we are eating the bread of God.  Maybe if that makes us feel more holy, we will act in a more holy way.  We will love our neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18) and share our food with the hungry (Pesach Haggadah).

  1. Aviv (אָבִיב) = green ears of grain; the first month of spring, later renamed Nissan in Hebrew.
  2. The Hebrew word is oni (עָני) = wretchedness, misery, poverty.
  3. In the Haggadah, matzah is called “ha-lachma anya”, an Aramaic phrase that means “the bread of wretchedness”.
  4. Exodus 6:9.
  5. See my post Pesach: Being Unleavened, Part 2.
  6. The afternoon grain offering is the minchah (מִנחָה)= allegiance-offering; a gift to a king as a sign of homage or respect; tribute.  See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2.
     

Song of Songs & 2 Isaiah: Love Sacred and Profane

April 24, 2019 at 9:04 pm | Posted in Hosea, Isaiah 2, Passover/Pesach, Song of Songs | Leave a comment

A single word can mean attraction, desire, passion, affection, or devotion.

In English, that word is “love”.  In Biblical Hebrew, it is ahavah (אַהֲבָה).

Song of Songs, Rothschild machzor, 15th century CE

The noun ahavah and its related verb, ahav (אָהַב), appear eighteen times in The Song of Songs/Shir Hashirim, the short biblical book that Jews traditionally read during the week of Passover/Pesach.  The first line in this series of interlocking poems sets the tone:

            Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth …  (The Song of Songs 1:2)

Soon the female speaker cries:

            Revive me with raisin cakes,

            Refresh me with quinces,

            Because I am faint with ahavah!  (Song of Songs 2:5)

The book frequently expresses erotic attraction by using metaphors from nature.  The woman’s breasts are compared to twin gazelle fawns, date clusters, grape clusters, and towers.1  In another example, the man says:

            A locked garden is my sister, my bride;

            A locked well, a sealed spring.

            Your limbs are an orchard of pomegranates

            And choice fruit …  (Song of Songs 4:12-13)

And the woman responds:

            Let my beloved come into his garden,

            And let him eat its choice fruit.  (Songs of Songs 4:16)

What is a book like this doing in the bible?  God is never mentioned in The Song of Songs.  Yet subsequent commentators, including Rashi,2 have argued that the whole book is an allegory for the love between the Israelites and God.

There is a precedent for this analogy.  In the 8th century BCE, Hosea portrayed the northern kingdom of Israel as the unfaithful wife of God.3  After him, several other biblical prophets portrayed the southern kingdom of Judah as God’s unfaithful wife, and the covenant between God and the people as a marriage contract.4  So the idea of using a human marriage as an analogy for the relationship between a people and God was well-known by the third or second century BCE, when The Song of Songs was written.  But the poetry in this book focuses on sexual love, not on the covenant of marriage.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Akiva argued for the inclusion of The Song of Songs in the biblical canon, declaring, “All eternity is not as worthwhile as the day the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all biblical books are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies.”5

Song of Songs, artist unknown

Perhaps some human beings have loved God with an ahavah similar to the sensual yearning of the lovers in The Song of Songs.  Maimonides wrote: “What is the proper form of the love of God?  It is that one should love God with a great, overpowering, fierce love as if he were love-sick for a woman and dwells on this constantly … for the whole of Song [of Songs] is a parable on this theme.”6

But it is hard to imagine God loving human beings that way.  Although the Torah presents us with an anthropomorphic God who feels rage, jealousy, and compassion, the God of Israel is different from other ancient Near Eastern gods in that God does not partner with a goddess, and never engages in sex.

Then how does God love humans?  In the Hebrew Bible divine love is not individual, but collective.  God loves the people of Israel, or Judah, or Jerusalem.  God loves those who follow God’s rules.  The reader is encouraged to be like God and love concepts such as justice and compassion.

The love of God sometimes seems like immature favoritism to a modern reader.  Out of love, God destroys the rivals or enemies of the Israelites.7  When the Israelites are “unfaithful” and worship other gods, God lashes out in jealousy and destroys them, either by afflicting them with plagues or making their enemies victorious.  Neither the people nor God seem mature enough for marriage.

In other biblical passages, God’s love is more like a good parent’s devotion.

            For Israel was a boy and ohaveihu

            And from Egypt I called to my son …  (Hosea 11:1)

ohaveihu (אֺהֲבֵהוּ) = I loved him.

Similarly, the second book of Isaiah recalls a time when God was kind to the people of Judah, the southern kingdom of Israelites.

            And [God] said: “Surely they are my people,

            Children who do not betray.”

            And [God] became their rescuer.  (Isaiah 63:8)

            … In ahavah and compassion, [God] redeemed them,

            Plucked them up and carried them all the days of old.

            But they, they rebelled

            And pained [God’s] holy spirit.

            And [God] turned against them as an enemy;

            [God] made war against them.  (Isaiah 63:9-10)

Then the people of Judah yearn to come home again to an affectionate “father” who is devoted to their welfare. They recall that:

            “… You, God, are our father,

            Our redeemer of old …  (Isaiah 63:16)

*

Why do we read The Song of Songs during Passover?  The Passover seder retells the story of God taking the Israelite slaves out of Egypt.  We repeat God’s promise:

I will take you as my people, and I will be your God.  (Exodus 6:7)

This could mean taking the Israelites as a metaphorical wife; the bible sometimes uses the word “take” (lakach, לָקַה) to mean have intercourse with or marry.  But it could also mean God adopts the Israelite slaves and their fellow-travelers out of compassion, as if they are children who need special care.  Then God treats them with affection and devotion, the ahavah of a parent—at least until they reject God and worship other gods.

Is there anything in The Song of Songs to connect human sensual desire with God’s ahavah?  I found one hint.  Three times in The Song of Songs, the erotic poetry is interrupted by this verse:

            I make you swear, daughters of Jerusalem,

            By deer or by gazelles of the field:

            Do not rouse or lay bare ahavah until it pleases!  (The Song of Songs 2:7, 3:5, and 8:4)

The female speaker is warning her friends not to rush into consummating a sexual attraction; wait until the ahavah is ripe.  She does not say what a ripe love is.  A more overpowering attraction?  Or a fuller relationship with the beloved that includes tenderness, friendship, affection, and devotion, as well as carnal desire?  For human beings, physical ahavah and spiritual ahavah are often inseparable.

May each of us find ahavah in our lives, whether it is passionate desire or affectionate devotion.  And may each of us learn how to turn toward the world with an open heart and ahavah.

  1. The Song of Songs 4:5, 7:4, 7:8, 7:9, 8:10.
  2. 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  3. Hosea 2:18-22.
  4. See Jeremiah 2:2, Ezekiel 16:3-14, and Second Isaiah 54:4-10 and 62:5.
  5. Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef (50-135 CE), quoted in Mishnah Yadayim 3:5.
  6. Maimonides, a.k.a. Moses ben Maimon or Rambam (12th century CE), Mishnah Torah, I: The Book of Knowledge, 10:3, Laws Concerning Repentance.
  7. For example, see Malachi 1:2.

Pesach: Changing Four Sons

April 16, 2019 at 2:29 pm | Posted in Bo, Passover/Pesach | 1 Comment

The wise one, the wicked one, the simple one, and the one who does not know how to ask.

These are the “Four Sons” in the haggadah (הַגָּדָה = The Telling), the guide to the Passover/Pesach seder.  Even haggadot that leave out many traditional sections still include the Four Sons (or in modern versions, Four Children) and label them that way.  If you go to a Pesach seder this Friday evening, you will encounter them.

Yet these four types of children have only a tenuous connection with the story of the exodus from Egypt in the Torah.  And telling that story is what Pesach is all about.

pesach (פֶּסַח) =  the animal sacrifice for Passover, the festival of Passover.  Plural: pesachim (פְּסָחִים).

The Torah prescribes what a father should say to a son on Pesach four times.  Three of these instructions are preceded by a hypothetical question from a child.

But the answers in the Haggadah are different from the answers in the Torah.  By about 200 CE the Jewish community in Babylon had labeled the sons in the four passages and changed the answers to be given by their fathers.

“The Four Sons” Pesach tradition is first reported in the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael.1  Who knows, maybe even Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha was the one who invented this section in the second century CE, and it became popular after his students recorded it.  The passage begins:

Four Sons in French haggadah, 1880’s

There are four sons: a wise son, a wicked son, a simple son, and one who does not know how to ask.  (Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, 13:14)2

A parental answer follows for each type of son.

Is it possible to combine the four explanations for children in the Torah with the Four Sons found in the Mekhilta and all traditional haggadot?  Here is my attempt.

 

The “Wise” One

The question of the first child comes from the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim:

If your son asks you in the future, saying: “What are the terms and the decrees and the regulations that God, our God, has commanded you?”  Then you shall say to your son: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand …  And then God commanded us to do all these decrees, to be in awe of God, our God, for our own good always, to keep us alive as on this day.”  (Deuteronomy 6:20-21, 6:24)

For about 1,800 years the haggadah has applied the child’s question to the rules of the Pesach seder:

Breaking off the afikoman

What does the wise son say?  “What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that God, our God, commanded us?”  You, likewise, open to him with the Pesach rule: “Nothing should be eaten after the Pesach afikoman.”2

Later haggadot say the parent should tell the child all the rules of Pesach, including the one that nothing must be eaten after the afikoman.  Although in the Torah this child says “commanded you”, the Mekhilta rewrites his question as “commanded usin order to make the boy look better.

Answering the child’s question in the context of Deuteronomy 6:20-25 would be a bootless enterprise.  If you responded with every rule in the Torah and how it is applied, both you and the child would fall asleep long before you could finish the task.  You could limit your list to the rules of the Pesach seder, including the afikoman; but why not bring up each rule when you actually apply it during the evening?

I recommend saying: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand.  So if we are wise we obey God’s rules, in awe and gratitude, and for our own good.  Because here we are, alive today!”  (Deuteronomy 6:21-24)

 

The “Wicked” One

The question of the second child comes from the book of Exodus/Shemot:

Take for yourselves an animal from the flock for your families and slaughter the pasach.  And you shall take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and daub it on the lintel and the two doorposts …  And God will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and God will pasach over the entrance …  And when your children say to you: “What is this service to you?”  Then you shall say: “It is a pasach slaughter for God, who pasach the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when [God] struck the Egyptians, but preserved our households.”  (Exodus/Shemot 12:21-23, 12:26-27)

pasach (פָּסַח) = (verb) limped, skipped; (noun) an alternate spelling of pesach (פֶּסַח).

In context, the children are asking about the service of daubing blood on the outside frame of the front door, to commemorate the action in the book of Exodus.  (Although pesach animals were slaughtered annually at the temple in Jerusalem until the second temple was destroyed in 70 CE, there is no evidence to date other than this passage in Exodus that the daubing of blood around doors was ever re-enacted.)

But the Mekhilta completely changes the meaning of the children’s question:

What does the wicked son say?  “What is this service to you?”—to you, and not to him.  Because he disassociated himself from the congregation and denied the foundation, you, likewise, blunt his teeth and tell him: “Because of this [that] God did for me when I went out of Egypt.”  For me and not for you.  Had you been there, you would not have been redeemed.

The father’s reply here sounds to me as if the questioner is not “the wicked son”, but “the son whose father hates him”.

The father makes the “wicked son” look bad by correctly quoting “What is this service to you?” and leaping to the conclusion that “to you” means the boy is disassociating himself from his parents and from other Jews.

This is a prejudiced assumption.  Perhaps the child is merely expressing curiosity about a particular Pesach service and its meaning to an adult.  The service in question is what the Israelites did in Egypt the night before they were freed: slaughtering a sheep or goat and daubing its blood on the lintel and doorposts of the front door.

I recommend answering: “Thanks to that service, God “skipped over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when [God] struck the Egyptians, but preserved our houses.  (Exodus 12:27)   And that is why we call this week Passover; the Hebrew name, Pesach, means skipped over.”

 

The “Simple” One

The third child’s question appears in Exodus after the instructions to sacrifice every firstborn male animal in the herd and flock to God, in commemoration of the tenth and final plague in Egypt.  A firstborn donkey is redeemed with a sheep sacrificed in its place.  The firstborn son of each human mother is also dedicated to God.

Death of the Firstborn, haggadah by Judah Pinḥas, Germany, 1747

But every firstborn human among your sons you shall redeem.  And when your son asks you in the future, saying: “What is this?”  Then you shall say to him: “By strength of hand God brought us out from Egypt, from the house of slavery.  And when Pharaoh hardened against sending us out, then God killed every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of humans to the firstborn of livestock.  Therefore I am slaughtering for God every male womb-opener, but every firstborn of my sons I must redeem.”  (Exodus 13:14-15)

The Mekhilta takes the question out of context and shortens the answer:

What does the simple son say?  “What is this?”  And you shall tell him: “With a mighty hand did God take us out of Egypt from the house of bondage.”

The best answer depends on what the simple child cannot find the words to describe.  If “this” is the Pesach seder, it suffices to answer: “This is the way we tell the story of how God rescued us from slavery in Egypt.”

But what if the child has qualms about God’s tenth plague in Egypt, the death of the firstborn?  I recommend reassuring your child (or your inner child) by explaining: “That was a miracle in the story.  Moses told our ancestors to commemorate it by sacrificing the firstborn of each cow, sheep, or goat at the altar, but to redeem every firstborn son by giving something different to God instead.  (Exodus 13:15)  Today we give money in honor of the firstborn.”

 

The Speechless One

Exodus tells the father what to say to his son about the festival of matzah without including any prompting question.

Seven days you shall eat matzah, and on the seventh day will be a festival for God.  Matzah shall be eaten for seven days, and nothing leavened shall be seen with you, and no sourdough shall be seen with you, throughout all your territory.  And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: “For the sake of what God did for me in taking me out from Egypt.”  (Exodus 13:6-8)

Modern biblical scholars suspect that there was already a festival of matzah in the spring, before the first grain harvest, and the Torah absorbed the pre-existing festival into the Pesach observance.4

Nevertheless, the Torah instructs us to explain the presence of matzah and the absence of leavened food during the week of Pesach in terms of the exodus.  And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: “For the sake of what God did for me in taking me out from Egypt.”  So does the Mekhilta:

And he who does not know how to ask, you open for him, as it is written: “And you shall tell your son on that day, etc.”

Like the answers for the “wicked” child and the “simple” child, the invented “son who does not know how to ask” gets an answer that ignores the point of the corresponding passage in the Torah—in this case instructions for the festival of matzah.

I recommend telling the speechless child: “For seven days we eat matzah, and avoid any baked goods with leavening.  Why do we do this?  For the sake of what God did for me in taking me out from Egypt.  (Exodus 13:6-8)  That’s what it says in the Torah, but what do you think it means?”  In this way you may encourage your child to ask questions and generate possible answers.

*

Pesach is when we must tell the story of the exodus from Egypt in a way that engages our children and the “children” inside us.  In order to do that, we can combine the traditions with our own creativity.  The Babylonian Talmud tractate Pesachim gives examples of spur-of-the moment alternatives to traditional sections.5  But if you would like to plan some alternatives in advance, you are welcome to use this blog post as a starting point.

  1. The Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael collection of commentary on the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy written during the first through fourth centuries CE and by Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, his students, and subsequent commentators and redactors. The rules and customs of Passover in the Mekhilta were probably written in the early third century CE, about the same time as Rabbi Yehudah Ha Nasi collected the mishnah of the Talmud.  The fours sons in the Mekhilta are alluded to in the Jerusalem Talmud, but not in the Babylonian Talmud.
  2. This quote and all subsequent quotes from the Mekhilta use the translation in sefaria.org/Mekhilta_d’Rabbi_Yishmael. They are all from 13:14.
  3. The afikomen is the final course or dessert of the Passover meal, consisting of half a piece of matzah separated and hidden early in the ritual.
  4. The only reason given in Exodus for observing the festival of matzah during Pesach is the sentence: “And they baked the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, flat rounds of matzah, because it had not leavened, because they were driven out from Egypt and they could not delay. They did not even make provisions for themselves.”  (Exodus 12:39)  But the Israelites have two week’s notice, and their only leaven is sourdough starter, which never runs out as long as a little is saved from each batch of bread.
  5. For example, Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 115b: “Abaye was sitting before Rabba when he was still a child. He saw that they were removing the table before him, and he said to those removing it: “We have not yet eaten, and you are taking the table away from us?”  Rabba said to him: “You have exempted us from reciting the questions of ‘Why is this night different’, as you have already asked what is special about the seder night.”  (Translation from www.sefaria.or/Pesachim 115b.)

 

Ki Tavo: A Perishing Aramean

August 29, 2018 at 8:12 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo, Passover/Pesach, Shavuot | 3 Comments

Still life by Caravaggio, 1605

Do we own land, prosper in business, or put food on the table entirely because of our own efforts?  The book of Deuteronomy/Devarim says no.  Moses tells the Israelites that they will conquer Canaan only with God’s help.  (See my post Re-eih: Ownership.)  Then they will acquire cities, houses, and farms that other people built.  (See my post Eikev, Va-etchannan, & Noach: Who Built It?)  After that they will build more houses, and all their enterprises will prosper, making their wealth increase.  Moses predicts they will then forget God, and think:

“My ability and the power of my hand made me this wealth.”  Then you must remember God, your God, who gives you the ability to make wealth …”  (Deuteronomy 8:11, 17-18)

Furthermore, the Israelites must not confuse taking possession of land, or inheriting it from their fathers, with actual ownership.1

Hey!  The heavens and the heavens of the heavens, the land and everything in it, belongs to God, your God.  (Deuteronomy 10:14)

*

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo (“When you come”), Moses prescribes an annual ritual to thank God for the land we pretend we own, and for the harvest we pretend comes exclusively from our own labors.

Bible card by Providence Lithograph Co., ca. 1900

You shall take some of the first of every fruit of the earth that you bring in from your land that God, your god, is giving to you.  And you shall place them in a basket and go to the place that God, your God, will choose to let [God’s] name dwell.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 26:2)

The place that “God will choose” is Jerusalem.2  The head of each household brings the basket to the temple. and affirms that the land on which his family grew the fruits is a gift from God.

And you shall come to whoever is the priest in those days, and you shall say to him: “I declare today to God, your God, that I came to the land that God swore to our forefathers to give to us.”  (Deuteronomy 26:3)

The priest sets the basket in front of the altar.

And you shall respond, and you shall say in front of God, your God: “Arami oveid avi.  And he went down to Egypt and he sojourned there with few men, but he became there a nation great and powerful and populous.”  (Deuteronomy 12:4-5)

Arami (אֲרַמִּי) = a male Aramean, a man from the country of Aram (roughly corresponding to present-day Syria).

oveid (אֺבֵד) = wandering lost; being ruined; perishing.  (Oveid is the kal participle of the verb avad, אָבַד, and implies that the subject is lost, ruined, or perishing.)3

avi (אָבִי) = my father, my forefather.

Who is the Arami?  The book of Genesis/Bereishit tells us that Abraham lives in the Aramean city of Charan (also called Paddan-Aram) before God tells him to go to Canaan.  Later in Genesis, Abraham’s grandson Jacob flees to Charan and lives there with his uncle Lavan for 20 years before returning to Canaan.  So we have three candidates for the Aramean in this declaration: Abraham, Lavan, or Jacob.  And only two of those, Abraham and his grandson Jacob, qualify as a forefather of the Israelites.

Rashi4 identified the Arami as Lavan and the avi as Jacob.  His interpretation, “Lavan sought to uproot everyone [all Jews] as he chased after Jacob,” requires translating Arami oveid avi as “An Aramean was ruining my forefather.”  But oveid cannot mean “ruining”, only “being ruined”.(see 3)  Furthermore, Biblical Hebrew grammar allows for an implied verb “to be” anywhere in the phrase Arami oveid avi, but not for the Arami to be the subject doing something to avi as a direct object.5  So Arami and avi must be the same person.

Rashbam6 recognized this, and identified the person as Abraham.  He associated oveid with wandering when one is exiled from one’s own land, and rephrased Arami oveid avi as “My father Abraham, an Arami was he, oveid and exiled from the land of Aram.”  Then he cited Genesis 12:1, where God tells Abraham: “Go forth from your land and from your relatives and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  If Aram is Abraham’s own land, Rashbam must have reasoned, then in Canaan he is an exile.

Calling Abraham an exile seems like a stretch to me.  Abraham hears God and decides to leave.  He brings along his wife, his nephew, the people who work for them, and the wealth he has accumulated in livestock and goods.  It sounds like a comfortable emigration.

Rashbam’s explanation also fails to account for the sentence immediately following Arami oveid avi in Deuteronomy 12:5 above.  Abraham and his household do visit Egypt, but the same group returns to Canaan after a very short sojourn there.  They may pick up a few Egyptian slaves, but Abraham’s returning household is far from being “a nation great and powerful and populous”.

That leaves Abraham’s grandson Jacob as the Arami who is the speaker’s forefather.  Jacob, a.k.a. “Israel”, moves to Egypt to join his son Joseph and brings along 66 of his descendants, not counting the wives of the adult men.7  These “children of Israel” stay in Egypt for 430 years.8  When they leave in the book of Exodus, there are “about 600,000 men on foot” along with their families and fellow travelers9—enough to count as a nation in the Ancient Near East.  The sentence following Arami oveid avi fits only Jacob.

If Jacob is the Aramean and “my forefather”, why is he called oveid?  The translation of oveid that best describes Jacob’s life at the time he emigrates to Egypt is “perishing”, since he and his extended family are suffering through a second year of famine in Canaan.  Therefore, Arami oveid avi should be translated: “A perishing Aramean was my forefather”.

A man bringing his first fruits to the temple does identify himself as an Israelite with these three words, but it would be simpler to say “Jacob is my forefather” or “Israel is my forefather”.  The clause Arami oveid avi acknowledges two other things: that his ancestors had not always lived in Canaan/Judah, and that at a critical time they were perishing in a famine.  Remembering these things, the farmer is more likely to feel grateful that God gave the Israelites land, and that the God who makes famines has provided him with agricultural abundance.

*

The recitation and ritual actions continue in this week’s Torah portion without mentioning that they are part of Shavuot, one of the three annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem dictated in the Torah.  In Exodus 34:22 Shavuot is described as a celebration the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and in Numbers 28:26 Shavuot is identified as the “Day of First Fruits” (Yom Habikkurim).

But the recitation beginning Arami oveid avi has also become part of Passover/PesachIn 220 C.E., when Judah HaNasi recorded the Mishnah (the core of the Talmud), the farmer’s declaration before the priest was already included in the seder (the Passover service at home around the table).10  It still is.

Arami oveid avi is a humbling opening line.  If God could let Jacob, one of God’s favorite people, come close to perishing of hunger, any of us might be ruined.  And every human being will eventually perish from this earth.

Yes, while we are alive we must cultivate our crops.  Our own efforts are necessary, but not sufficient, for prosperity; other necessary factors are out of our hands.  The good life is a fragile and temporary blessing.

May we notice the first fruit of every blessing in our lives, and express our gratitude.

(An earlier version of this essay was published in September 2011.)

  1. The real owner of the land is also revealed in Leviticus 25:23, when God declares: “But the land must not be sold to forfeit reacquisition, because the land is Mind; for you are resident aliens with Me.” (See my post Behar: Owning Land.)
  2. Modern critical scholars agree that the earliest form of book of Deuteronomy was written no earlier than the 7th century B.C.E., after the northern kingdom of Israel had been wiped out by the Assyrians, and the only remaining Israelite kingdom was Judah, with its capital and temple at Jerusalem.
  3. The piel participle, me-abeid (מְאַבֵּד = giving up as lost, ruining, letting perish) implies that the subject is abandoning, ruining, or destroying someone else.)
  4. Rashi is the acronym for 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  5. In Biblical Hebrew, if avi were a definite direct object instead of a subject, it would be preceded by the word et (אֶת).
  6. Rashbam is the acronym for Rashi’s grandson, the 12th-century rabbi Shmuel ben Meir.
  7. Genesis 46:26.
  8. Exodus 12:40. (In Genesis 15:13 God predicts it will be 400 years.)
  9. Exodus 1:7, 12:37-38.
  10. Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 116a, Mishnah.

Pesach & Psalm 118: Still Singing

April 3, 2018 at 12:25 pm | Posted in Passover/Pesach, Psalms/Tehilim | Leave a comment

After drinking, eating, talking, and singing our way through the Haggadah, we still have six more days of Passover/Pesach.  What do we do besides continuing our matzah diet, unleavened by any bread?

One of the 14 steps in the seder follows us all week: the Halleil (הַלֵּל = praise), consisting of Psalms 113-118.  The Levites sang these psalms in the second temple1 during the three pilgrimage festivals to Jerusalem:  Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. 2  All three festivals originated as harvest celebrations: Pesach for the first barley harvest, Shavuot for the first wheat and first fruits, and Sukkot at the end of the growing season, for all the other crops.  A harvest is a good reason to celebrate and praise God.

In my years of organizing Pesach seders and Shavuot and Sukkot services, I have been grateful that the Halleil includes Psalm 118.  Why?  Because the good lines in that psalm have inspired song and chant writers to come up with melodies.  Now, for the rest of the week of Pesach, I have the perfect excuse to keep on singing them!

Singing a verse again and again makes me ponder its meaning—which may be one reason we sing the psalms.  Here are my thoughts about some of the verses in Psalm 118:

118:1-4

Hodu l’Adonai ki tov,                         Thank God, because it is good,

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

Yomar na Yisrael,                               Let Israel please say:

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

Yomru na beit Aharon,                       Let the house of Aaron please say:

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

Yomru na yirey Adonai,                      Let yirey God please say:

          Ki le-olam chasdo!                             Because its kindness is everlasting!

yirey (יִרְאֵי) = those who are afraid of, those who are in awe of.

(Note:  In Hebrew, nouns and verbs have grammatical gender; in English they do not.  Therefore a masculine noun suffix or verb affix in Hebrew can be either masculine or neuter in English.  In this essay, I am translating references to God using “it” or “its”.)

Levites, from James Tissot, The Choristers

The first verses of Psalm 118 are scripted for call and response singing.  The choir, or choir leader, of the Levites invites three groups to respond. The first group, Israel, covers everyone present who is not a Levites or a priest.  The second group is the priests, whose hereditary office is traced back to Aaron in the Torah.  The third group is yirey God.3

It is tempting to consider the “yirey God” as the “God-fearers” of the Hellenistic period (the first through third century C.E.).  This was the name for people who had converted to worshipping the God of Israel, but did not go so far as to follow all the rules (such as circumcision).  One argument for this interpretation is that 118:4 calls for a class of people who are not “Israel”.  An argument against this interpretation is that Psalm 118 was probably written well before the first century C.E.

I can identify with the “yirey God”, despite my conversion to Judaism over 30 years ago, because I am not an ethnic Jew.  When the psalms were written, there were few apostates and few full converts; most of the people called “Israel” belonged by both birth and religion.  Today, when many people with Jewish ancestry live with no ties to the Jewish religion, and many converts are passionately engaged in that religion, I would appreciate a separate call for Jews by religion.4  We, too, can use a reminder that God’s “kindness is everlasting”.

118:14

Ozi vezimrat Yah,                               My strength vezimrat God,

          vayehi li liyshuah.                               and it became my rescue.

vezimrat (וְזִמְרָת) = and/or/but the zimrah of (a construct form of the noun zimrah).  Zimrah (זִמְרָה) = praising-song, melody, music.5

This line also appears in Exodus 15:2 in a song attributed to Moses, and is quoted in Isaiah 12:3.

English inserts the word “the” and forms of “to be” in places where Biblical Hebrew has no such connecting words.  Thus it is not always obvious, when translating from Hebrew to English, where to throw in the extra “the”, “is”, or “are”.  These grammatical differences mean there are at least two equally valid translations of Psalm 118:14:

“My own strength and song are of God!  And it [God] became my rescue!”  (Both the speaker’s strength and his song are attributed to God.  God rescues him by giving him superhuman strength and a song.)

“My own strength, and the song of God!  And it [the song of God] became my rescue!”  (The speaker has his own strength, but it is not enough to save him.  It is the song about God that rescues him—by calling in divine strength.)

When I sing verse 118:14, I imagine that singing in praise of God is giving me enough extra psychological strength to rescue me from my troubles.

118:19-20

Pitchu li shaarey tzedek                     Open to me the gates of righteousness

          Avo vam odeh Yah!                                         I will enter and praise God!

Zeh hashaar l’Adonai;                                    This is the gateway to God;

          Tzadikim yavo-u vo.                                    The righteous enter through it.

tzedek (צֶדֶק) = righteousness, what is right, what is just.

tzadikim (צַדִּיקִים) = (plural) the righteous, those who are innocent and in the right, those who act according to morality and justice.

When the Levites sang Psalm 118 in Jerusalem, the “gates of righteousness” probably referred to gates in the second temple complex.6  The pilgrimage festival may have included a ritual in which the double doors of a gate opened and the Levite choir sang while Judeans filed through.

The second temple had gates from the city into the outer courtyard (the “Court of Gentiles”); three gates from the outer courtyard into the eastern inner courtyard (the “Court of Women”) which only women and men of Israelite descent or full converts could enter; one gate from that court into the “Court of Israel” (for men only) with its view of the altar; and a curtained gate into the vestibule of the temple proper, which only priests were allowed to enter.

Was coming to the temple and worshiping the God of Israel enough to make someone righteous?  Or did stepping through the designated gate express a desire and commitment to become righteous?

The first time I sang this part of Psalm 118, I felt as if I were pretending I was already righteous and commanding the gates to open for me.  Then I realized that the request in 118:19 could also be a plea.  Now when I sing, I beg for the gates of righteous to open to me, so that I can receive whatever I need to become righteous.

Rashi7 wrote that the “gates of righteousness” were the entrances to synagogues and study halls.  I would agree that these are places where one can become more enlightened about righteousness—through an emotional channel in a synagogue service, and through an intellectual channel in a study hall.  But personal gates of righteousness may also open to us, if we ask.

*

As I sing Psalm 118, using different melodies for different sections, I think of God in terms of infinite kindness; I feel the strength of a divine source entering me as I sing to God; and I humble myself to pray for the ability to become righteous.

And all that comes before Psalm 118 reminds me to look again when I reject or feel rejected, since:

The stone the builders rejected

          Has become the cornerstone!  (118:22)

  1. Scholarly consensus is that Psalm 118 was written during the time of the “second temple” in Jerusalem. The Babylonians razed the first temple dedicated to the God of Israel in 586 B.C.E.  After the Persians conquered the Babylonians, King Cyrus decreed that exiles could return to their original lands and rebuild sites of worship.  Under Ezra and Nehemiah, returning exiles from Judah laid the foundations of a second temple on the site of the old one in Jerusalem.  The temple was completed in 516 B.C.E.
  2. The Talmud determined that only the “Half Halleil”, which abbreviates Psalms 116 and 117, should be recited during the last six days of Pesach (Arachin 10a-b).
  3. Psalm 115, earlier in the Halleil, appeals to the same three groups: Israel, the house of Aaron, and “yirey God”. In this case, the leader asks each group to trust in God, and the group responds: “Their help and their shield is he!”
  4. Converts are currently called “Jews by choice”, but I do not want to exclude people of Jewish ancestry who also choose to practice Judaism.
  5. In this verse only, zimrat is often translated as “the might of” or “the strength of” . Yet the root verb zamar, זָמַר, means “pruned” in the kal form, and “sang praises” or “made music” in the pi’el   There is only one verse in the Hebrew Bible in which zimrah or zimrat is not translated in terms of music: Genesis 43:11.  There Jacob lists six products he considers zimrat the land: four kinds of aromatic resin, fruit syrup, and almonds.  All these luxuries come from trees, and therefore could be considered “prunings”.
  6. Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century), The Hirsch Tehillim, Feldheim Publishers, Nanuet, NY, 2014, p. 968; Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2007, p. 417; The Koren Siddur (Nusach Sepharad), commentary by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2012, p. 771.
  7. 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.

Pesach: Miriam the Prophetess

March 27, 2018 at 9:09 am | Posted in Beha-alotkha, Beshallach, Passover/Pesach | Leave a comment

Pesach (פֶּסַח, “skipping”) means Passover.  Seder (סֵדֶר, “order”) means the dinner table ritual following the order in the Haggadah.  Haggadah (הַגָּדָה, “the telling”—a term that came into use in the 19th century) means the book of rituals, prayers, questions, four cups of wine, and stories.  The longest story, told while the second cup of wine sits on the table, is about the exodus from Egypt, up to the point when the pursuing Egyptian army drowns in the Reed Sea, and the newly-freed slaves celebrate on the far shore.

In the book of Exodus, Moses led the people in celebrating by singing a lengthy psalm.1

Miriam’s Song, 1909

Then Miriam the neviyah, the sister of Aaron, took the drum in her hand, and all the women went out after her, with drums and with circle-dances.  And Miriam chanted for them:

Sing to God, for He is high above the high;

horse and its rider He hurled into the sea.  (Exodus/Shemot 15:20-21)

neviyah (נְבִיאָה) = prophetess (the feminine form of navi (נָבִיא) = prophet).

Miriam is the first woman in the Torah to be called a neviyah.  She leads the women in singing as well as in tapping hand drums and dancing.2

Miriam is a character in three dramatic scenes in the Torah.  She is the resourceful young woman who, when the pharaoh’s daughter adopts her infant brother Moses, arranges for their own mother to be his paid wet-nurse.3  She is the leader of thousands of women in the scene above.  And later in the trek across the wilderness, she leads her brother Aaron in a joint complaint regarding Moses’ wife.  (See my post Beha-alotkha: Unnatural Skin.)  The two siblings point out that they are prophets, too:

“Has God spoken only with Moses?  Hasn’t He also spoken with us?”  And God heard.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 12:2)

by Johann Christoph Weigel, 1695

God calls Miriam, Aaron, and Moses to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and speaks to all three from the pillar of cloud—in order to tell them that Moses gets the most direct divine communication.

And [God] said: “Please listen to my words!  When there is a navi of God among you, I make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream.  Not so my servant Moses … I speak with him mouth to mouth, and in seeing, not in riddles, and he looks at the likeness of God.  (Numbers 12:6-8)

God afflicts Miriam with a temporary skin disease to underscore the point.  Nevertheless, in that scene Miriam is indeed a neviyah who hears God’s voice directly!

Miriam is mentioned in passing five times after this, including God’s speech in the book of Micah reminding the Israelites that God sent them three leaders for the exodus from Egypt: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 4

*

What is a navi or neviyah?  The Torah offers several paradigms.

  • Intercessor

The word navi first appears in the book of Genesis, when God tells King Avimelekh in a dream: “And now, return the wife of [Abraham], since he is a navi, and he can pray for you and you will live.” (Genesis 20.7)

Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, and an unnamed prophet in the first book of Kings are also prophets who have God’s ear and intercede with God to save other people.5

  • Spokesperson

The Torah introduces a second paradigm of a navi after the enslaved Israelites give up on Moses’ idea that God will liberate them.  When God tells Moses to speak to Pharaoh next, he tries to get out it, arguing that he has “uncircumcised lips”, i.e. he cannot speak well.6  But God has an answer for everything.

Then God said to Moses: “See, I place you as a god to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother will be your navi.”  (Exodus 7:1)

Moses and Aaron with Pharaoh, March Chagall, 1931

In other words, Aaron will act like a navi for Moses, hearing Moses speak and then passing on Moses’ words to the Egyptian court.  Obviously Moses is God’s navi, hearing God speak and passing on God’s words, though the Torah does not bother to say so until the end of Deuteronomy:  And never again in Israel rose a navi like Moses, who knew God face to face.  (Deuteronomy 34:10)

Moses and God have the longest, most frequent, and most direct conversations in the entire Hebrew Bible.  After Moses gets over his initial reluctance to speak, he fluently delivers God’s instructions, warnings, and hundreds of rules.7

Other prophets transmit God’s predictions, or warnings, about the future of kings or kingdoms if they do not change their ways.  These include all the major prophets (Isaiah through Malachi).

  • Ecstatic

The third kind of navi in the Hebrew Bible is one who goes into an altered state of consciousness characterized by an awareness of the divine and obliviousness to the world, and who does not return with any coherent message from God.  The first occurrence of this state in the Torah is when God shares some of Moses’ spirit or ruach with 70 elders.

And the spirit was upon them, vayitnabe-u, but they did not continue.  (Numbers 11:25)

Saul Before Samuel and the Prophets, by Benjamin West, 1812

vayitnabe-u (וַיּתְנַבְּאוּ) = and they acted like prophets, and they prophesied to themselves, and they spoke in ecstasy.  (From the same נבא root as navi.)

In both books of Samuel and both books of Kings, bands of prophets wander around making music, dancing, and babbling.  The bible explains the proverb “Is Saul, too, among the prophets?” first with a scene in which King Saul falls in with a band of prophets on the road and speaks in ecstasy like them, then with a scene in which not only babbles, but also strips naked.8

*

Miraim is the first of only five women called prophets in the Hebrew Bible. After her, two major prophetesses are spokespersons for God (type 2 above): Deborah, who summons a general and tells him to go to war;9 and Huldah, who authenticates a scroll as the word of God and utters two prophetic predictions.10  Two other prophetesses are mentioned only glancingly.11

Miriam is the only neviyah whom the bible reports as engaging in what might be ecstatic behavior: playing a drum, dancing, and singing on the shore of the Reed Sea.  But Miriam leads circle dances in complicated patterns that require concentration and planning.  She leads a coherent chant.  Rather than directing ecstatic worship, she is probably organizing a celebration of God as the victor in a war against the Egyptian charioteers.  Women customarily greeted soldiers returned from a victory with drumming, dancing, and singing.12

Although Miriam hears God’s voice, the Torah does not report her serving as either an intercessor or a spokesperson for God.

by Simeon Solomon, 1860

The Talmud attempts to fill the void by claiming that Miriam did pronounce a prophecy: that her mother would have a son who would save the Israelites from Egypt.  When Moses was born, according to this story, the whole house filled with light, and Miriam’s father exclaimed that his daughter’s prophecy had been fulfilled.13  This is a pleasant tale with no basis in the Torah.

A modern folk explanation is that Miriam must have had foreknowledge of the victory at the Reed Sea, and told the women to bring their drums.  Otherwise they would not have bothered to pack them, since they left their homes in Egypt in such a hurry that the dough had no time to rise in their kneading-troughs.14

This argument for Miriam’s power as a neviyah fails in the context of the larger story in Exodus.  The Israelite women were already packing all the gold, silver, jewelry, and clothing they “borrowed” from the Egyptians; they could easily add their hand drums and any their other sentimental and ritual objects.

*

Miriam may be called a neviyah because of other deeds not recorded in the bible.  Or she may simply be an exceptional person who has a close relationship with God.

A traditional Passover seder includes pouring a cup of wine for Elijah the navi.  Many a modern seder adds a ritual cup of water for Miriam the neviah.  (The water alludes to a Talmudic story that says a well of water followed the Israelites through the wilderness for 40 years thanks to the merit of Miriam.15)

I lift a cup for Miriam at Passover knowing that she may not be a neviyah in the sense of being an intercessor with God, a spokesperson for God, or a religious ecstatic.  I celebrate her lifelong wise leadership, and her ability to listen to God.  May we all learn to be a little more like Miriam the neviyah.

  1. Exodus 15:1-18. See my post Beshallach & Psalm 136: Miracle at Sea.
  2. Since the two lines of Miriam’s song are the same as the first two lines of the psalm ascribed to Moses, the women might sing them as a periodic refrain during the longer psalm. Most modern scholars consider either the entire psalm, or at least Miriam’s song, to be one of the oldest poems in the Torah (based on Frank M. Cross and David N. Freedman, Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1973).
  3. Exodus 2:4-8.
  4. When she dies in Numbers 20:1; in two genealogies listing her with her brothers Aaron and Moses, Numbers 26:59 and 1 Chronicles 5:29; in a warning about skin disease in Deuteronomy 24:9, and in Micah 6:3-4.
  5. Moses for the Israelite people in Exodus 32:9-14, Exodus 33:12-17, Numbers 11:1-2, and Numbers 21:6-9, and for Miriam in Numbers 12:10-15; Samuel for the Israelites in 7:5-10; Elijah to bring a dead boy back to life in 1 Kings 17:20-24; Elisha for the same reason in 2 Kings 4:8-37; an unnamed prophet for King Jereboam in 1 Kings 13:1-6.
  6. Exodus 6:12, 6:30. See my post Va-eria & Shemot: Uncircumcised, Part 2.
  7. The Talmud (Makkot 23b and Yevamot 47b) claims there are 613 commandments in the Torah.  It is hard to decide which rules should count, but 10th-century C.E. rabbi Saadiah ben Yosef Gaon found a way to list 613 in his Sefer Hamitzvot, and Maimonides (12th-century C.E. rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, nicknamed Rambam) came up with 613 for his book by the same name.
  8. 1 Samuel 10:10-12 and 19:18-24.
  9. Judges 4:4-16.
  10. 2 Kings 22:14-20.
  11. The unnamed wife of the first Isaiah (Isaiah 8:3) and Noadeyah, a false neviyah listed in Nehemiah 6:14.
  12. Judges 11:34, 1 Samuel 18:6-7.
  13. Talmud Bavli Megillah 14a.
  14. Exodus 12:34.
  15. Talmud Bavli Taanit 9a.
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