Beha-alotkha: Facing It

June 20, 2019 at 12:55 pm | Posted in Beha-alotkha | Leave a comment

One face is dark brown.  One face is white with disease.  One face radiates bright light.

Dark

circa 400 BCE, Greek

The dark face belongs to Moses’ wife in this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“when you are drawing up”).

Miriam spoke, and Aaron, be-Moses on account of the Kushite wife that he had taken; for he had taken a Kushite wife.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 12:1)

be- (בְּ) = a prepositional prefix.  Like most prepositions, be- has many meanings.  In this context, be- = with, against.  (In the word beha-alotkha, be- = when.)

The ambiguity of the preposition be- has led to two interpretations of Miriam and Aaron’s complaint:

1) Miriam and Aaron speak privately with Moses on behalf of his wife, because he is not treating her properly.  What is he doing wrong?  Withholding sex from her, according to the Midrash Rabbah and later commentary.1  This interpretation provides one explanation of the next verse:

And they said: “Is it indeed only be-Moses God spoke?  Isn’t it also banu He spoke?”  (Numbers 12:2)

be- (בְּ) = In this context, the preposition be- = with, through.

banu (בָּנוּ) = with us, through us. Banu = be-(בְּ) + -anu (נוּT) = a suffix indicating a first personal plural pronoun as an object.

According to the commentary, Miriam and Aaron are saying that God speaks with them (or through them, when they serve as prophets), but they still have sex with their spouses.  Even if God speaks more often with and through Moses, that is no excuse for him to deprive his wife.

Moses and His Ethiopian Wife, by Jacob Jordaen, 1650

2) Miriam and Aaron speak publicly against Moses, complaining about his mixed marriage.

In Exodus/Shemot Moses’ wife was Tziporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest.  But this week, in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, she is only called “the Kushite”.  Kush is the land south of Egypt, noted in the bible for people with very dark skin.2

Some commentators have argued that Tziporah is “the Kushite wife”, so-called either because she had darker skin than usual for a woman in the ancient Near East, or because “kush” also means beautiful, or because there was also a land of Kushites in Arabia.3

But others wrote that Moses had two wives, Tziporah and an Ethiopian.  Josephus told one version of an extrabiblical adventure for Moses in Ethiopia, where he supposedly served as an Egyptian general in his youth, won a war, and married the defeated king’s daughter.4

Whether the wife in this week’s Torah portion is a Midianite or a Kushite, the complaint about Moses’ marriage implies racism.  Yet the first five books of the bible are only concerned about marrying outside one’s religion.5  The Torah repeatedly tells us not to cheat or oppress foreign immigrants (see my post Mishpatim: The Immigrant).  Even the book of Ezra, which requires Israelite men to separate from non-Israelite wives, describes these foreign women in terms of their religious practices.6  And the book of Ruth is an example of a virtuous mixed marriage between an Israelite and a Moabite.

Moses’ wife, Midianite or Kushite, presumably converted, like Ruth.  So Miriam and Aaron may well find her acceptable, regardless of the color of her face.

*

When I see people who look markedly different from me and my family, I try to catch their eye, and then smile at them.  If they smile back, we might exchange a greeting.  Then as I walk on I feel brighter—and safer.  The stranger is not a threat after all, but someone like me.

Why do so many of my fellow citizens hate the stranger, the man with “black” skin, the immigrant who speaks a different language, the woman who dresses like a Muslim?  I know the answer: because they are afraid, and it feels better to turn fear into anger.

At least it does for many people.  One advantage of being scared of everyone as a child, even girls who looked like me, is that now timidity is an old friend.  When I grew up I made a habit of smiling at people who do look like me, as well as those who don’t, and exchanging a greetings with them, too.  Then as I walk on I feel brighter—and safer.

White

by Ernest Christophe, 1876

The white face belongs to Moses’ sister, Miriam.

After Miriam and Aaron speak with or against Moses, God orders the three siblings to report to the Tent of Meeting.  According to God, the problem is that Miriam and Aaron are claiming to be prophets equal to Moses.  God declares that nobody is equal to Moses, and adds:

“Why were you not afraid to speak be- my servant, be-Moses?”  (Numbers 12:8)

In this context, the preposition be- means “against”.  God is angry, and Miriam is the instigator of the complaint.

And the cloud moved away from over the tent, and hey!  Miriam had a skin disease like snow!  Aaron vayifein Miriam, and hey!  Skin disease!  (Numbers 12:10)

vayifein (וַיִּפֵן) = turned to face.  (From the same root as paneh, פָּנֶה = face.)

Leucoderma

Miriam’s skin disease is tzara-at, which make skin look dead-white and depressed compared to the surrounding skin.  (See my post Tzaria & 2 Kings: A Sign of Arrogance.)  The book of Exodus decrees that anyone with that skin disease must live outside the camp until it has healed.

Aaron begs Moses to intercede with God, saying:

“Please don’t let her be like one who is dead going out from the womb of his mother, and half his flesh looks eaten.”  (Numbers 12:12)

Moses prays, and God promises that Miriam’s skin disease will last for only seven days, but she must live outside the camp in shame for those seven days.

Moses is separated from his wife indefinitely, because his whole being is engaged in being God’s prophet.  Miriam is separated from the community for seven days, because she was too self-absorbed to see that Moses is a different kind of prophet.

*

Like Miriam, I can become so absorbed in my own desires and my own calling that I forget other people have different desires and different callings.  I write about the Torah, but I do not embrace every aspect of Jewish tradition.  Some Jews are meticulous about halakhah, the rules for behavior in every aspect of life.  Some are absorbed in the mysticism of kabbalah.  (I have encountered the same two types among Christians.)

I do not understand these people, any more than Miriam understood her brother Moses.  Nevertheless I have been guilty of speaking against them, declaring that both approaches are irrational.  They are irrational to me.  But my mind works differently from the mind of a strictly observant Jew or the mind of a mystic, even if our faces are similar.

When I express my own truth too loudly, I am like Miriam declaring that she is a prophet, too, so she knows Moses is wrong to be celibate.

Miriam blanches when God reveals her error.  She knows she must isolate herself until she has healed.  When I realize I have forgotten that individuals are different behind their faces, I feel ashamed and I retreat for a while.

Bright

The burning face belongs to Moses himself.  He acquires radiant skin in the book of Exodus, after seeing God’s “back” on Mount Sinai.

Moses, by James Tissot

When Moses went in before God to speak with [God], he would remove the veil until after he went out; and he went out and spoke to the children of Israel what had been commanded.  And the Israelites saw the penei Moses, that the penei Moses radiated light.  Then Moses put the veil back over panav until he came to speak with [God again].  (Exodus/Shemot 34:34-35)

penei (פְּנֵי) = face of.  (From paneh, פָּנֶה = face.)

panav (פָּנָו) = his face.  (Also from paneh, פָּנֶה = face.)

When Moses passes on God’s commands, he leaves his face exposed.  His glowing skin demonstrates that he is not an ordinary prophet like Miriam or Aaron.

But when he is not speaking with God or passing on God’s instructions, Moses veils his face.  The radiance of his skin is too overwhelming for the Israelites to see as they go about their daily tasks.

I imagine that if the skin all over his body also glows, marital relations would be difficult.  Even if Moses’ wife kept her eyes shut, could they touch one another the way they used to?  This physical explanation for Moses’ celibacy does not occur to Miriam or Aaron.

Nor does it occur to them that Moses never gets time off from listening for God.  God has conversations with Moses all the time, but Miriam and Aaron are summoned when God wants to speak with them.  In this week’s Torah portion,

Suddenly God said to Moses and to Aaron and to Miriam: “Go, the three of you, to the Tent of Meeting.”  So the three of them went.  And God came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the entrance of the tent, and called out: “Aaron and Miriam!”  (Numbers 12:4-5)

Then God reminds them that they are ordinary prophets, not comparable with Moses.

*

Several friendly Muslim women in our apartment complex wear a hijab whenever they leave their apartments.  Their hair and necks are covered, but their faces are exposed, so when I meet them in the laundry room we can easily exchange smiles and greetings.

But once I passed a woman in the grocery story wearing a burka, so her face was completely covered.  She could see through the mesh panel in front of her eyes, but I could not see her eyes, and therefore I could not meet them.  I smiled in her direction, but I could discern no response.  I felt as if I were smiling at a rock draped in cloth.

The woman in the burka was more isolated than Miriam during the seven days she lived outside the camp because of her skin disease.  And her isolation was deliberate.

Is Moses that isolated when he wears his veil around the camp?  What would it be like to give up all ordinary human contact?  What would you get in exchange for losing your face?

  1. Midrash Tanchuma (a 6th to 9th-century collection of allegories and homilies) assumes in Tzav 13 that Moses stopped having sexual relations with his wife. So do Exodus Rabbah 46:13 and Deuteronomy Rabbah 11:10 (10th to 12th century collections of imaginative commentary, part of the Midrash Rabbah), and Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki).
  2. Being a Kushite indicates a genetic skin color in Jeremiah 36:14: “Can a Kushite change his skin?  Or a leopard his spots?”  It is a derogatory term in Amos 9:7, where God says challengingly: “Aren’t you like the Kushites to me, children of Israel?”
  3. E.g. Sifrei Badmidbar (a 3rd-century CE commentary on Numbers), 12:99; Midrash Tanchuma, Tzav 13; and Rashi.  Tziporah might be unusually dark-skinned because she spends her days out in the sun, like the female narrator in Song of Songs 1:5-6.
  4. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, in Antiquities 2:252-253 (circa 93 CE), told one version of the Ethiopian marriage story invented by an unknown Judean sometimes between the 6th and 3rd centuries BCE.
  5. However, Deuteronomy 23:4-7 prohibits a Moabite or Edomite from converting.
  6. Ezra 9:1-2.

 

Haftarat Naso—Judges: Spot the Angel

June 11, 2019 at 9:47 pm | Posted in Judges, Naso | Leave a comment

Abraham bows
to a malakh, detail by J..J. Tissot

Would you recognize an angel if you saw one?

The Hebrew Bible usually calls an angel a malakh (מַלְאַךְ = messenger) of God.  A messenger of God appears to a human being and delivers its message, then disappears again.  Frequently the angel looks like a man at first, though occasionally it looks unnatural from the beginning, like the burning bush Moses sees,1 or it is only a disembodied voice.2

(Angels with wings appear to Isaiah, but they are called serafim, and each has six wings.)

A malakh of God drives the action in the beginning of the story of Samson in the book of Judges, which is the haftarah reading accompanying this week’s Torah portion, Naso.3  The story introduces a man from the tribe of Dan named Manoach.  He and his wife are childless.

A malakh of God appeared to the woman, and he said to her: “Hey, please! You are childless and you have not given birth, but you shall conceive and give birth to a son. So now guard yourself, please, and don’t you drink wine or alcohol, and don’t you eat anything ritually impure.  Because here you are, pregnant, and you will give birth to a son.  And a razor must not go over his head, because the boy will be a nazir of God from the womb.  And he will begin to rescue Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” (Judges 13:3-5)

Samson and Delilah,
by Gustave Dore, detail

nazir (נָזִיר) = someone consecrated to God through abstaining from wine, haircuts, and mourning.  (From the root verb nazar, נזר = dedicate to a god; exercise abstention.)

Becoming a nazir is a choice, according to this week’s Torah portion.  Only an adult man or woman may make the vow to live as a nazir for a period of time.4  Yet in the haftarah, neither Samson nor his mother gets to choose whether or not to make a vow.

After the annunciation, the woman whose status has suddenly changed from childless to pregnant goes into the house.5

The woman came in, and she said to her husband, saying: “A man of God came to me, and his appearance was like the appearance of a malakh of the God, very awesome.  And I did not ask him where he was from, and he did not tell me his name.”  (Judges 13:6)

Why is the woman outside, where men traditionally worked, while Manoach is inside the house, where women worked?

The woman tells Manoach that the angel looked like a man, but more awesome.  She knows an angel when she sees one, and she knows enough not to ask the kind of personal questions you would ask a human traveler, such as where he came from or what his name is.

She continues:

“And he said to me: “Here you are, pregnant!  And you will give birth to a son.  And you, don’t you drink wine or strong drink, and don’t you eat anything ritually impure, because the boy will be a nazir of God from the womb until the day he dies.”  (Judges 13:7)

It does not occur to Manoach that anyone else might have impregnated his wife, or that she might have actually seen an angel.  Furthermore, although she says what the angel told her to do while she is pregnant, Manoach does not take her word for it.

Then Manoach pleaded with God, and he said: “If you please, my lord, the man of the God whom you sent, please may he come again to us, and teach us what we should do for the boy who will be born.”  And the God heard the voice of Manoach.  And the malakh of the God again came to the woman—”  (Judges 13:8-9)

The malakh of God does not appear to Manoach.  So his wife runs home and tells her husband what she saw.

And Manoach got up and followed his wife, and he came to the man and he said to him: “Are you the man who spoke to the woman?”  And he said: “I am.”  (Judges 13:11)

Manoach does not refer to his wife by her name, or even as “my wife”, but merely calls her “the woman”.

I remember the sexism in the United States in the early 1960’s, when it was common for men to refer to their spouses as “the wife” or “the little woman”.  I was surprised, as a child, to hear my father refer to my mother that way when he was chatting with a fellow man.  The traditional male role in the 1960’s also included working outside the home, as it did in Canaan in the 11th century BCE.

Manoach asks the malakh of God what they should do about the boy.  The angel replies:

“From everything I said to the woman she must guard herself: she must not eat from anything that goes out from a grapevine, and she must not drink wine or strong drink, and she must not eat anything ritually impure.  Everything that I commanded her, she must observe.”  (Judges 13:13-14)

Manoach did not believe his wife, but now that he has confirmation from a strange man, he is satisfied.  However, he still does not believe his wife’s assessment that the man is really an angel.

And Manoach said to the malakh of God: “Let us detain [you], please, and we will prepare a goat-kid for you.”  But the malakh of God said to Manoach: “If you detain me, I cannot eat your food, and if you prepare a rising-offering, offer it up to God.”  Because Manoach did not know that he was a malakh of God.  (Judges 13:15)

Manoach still does not grasp the situation.  But he is eager to find some way to be polite to the man who has promised his wife a son.

Sacrifice of Manoah, by Eustache Le Sueur, 1640-1650

And Manoach said to the malakh of God: “Who—  Your name?  Because when your word comes [true], then we can honor you.”  And the messenger of God said to him: “Why do you ask for my name?  It is a mystery!”  (Judges 13:17-18)

Manoach prepares a goat-kid and a grain-offering for God, and lights a fire to roast them.

And the flame was climbing from upon the altar toward the heavens, and the malakh of God went up in a flame from the altar.  And Manoach and his wife saw, and they fell on their faces to the ground.  And the malakh of God did not appear again to Manoach or to his wife.  That was when Manoach knew that he was a malakh of God.  (Judges 13:20-21)

*

Why does it take so long for Manoach to realize the visitor was an angel, when his wife notices something numinous about the “man” right away?

Part of the reason must be for comic effect.  But I think Manoach’s inability to recognize what is in front of him is also related to his sexism.

The bible portrays society in ancient Israel realistically, so its laws assume that men own all the land, and women are dependent on their men: their fathers before marriage, their husbands during marriage, and their sons after they are widowed.  But the bible does not portray women as interchangeable or stupid or unworthy of being listened to.  (In Genesis 21:12, God even tells Abraham: “Everything that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice.”  And he obeys his wife.)

Maybe if a man cannot listen to his wife, he has trouble listening to a malakh of God.  Maybe if he cannot see his wife as a human being who might do something surprising, he cannot see someone who looks superficially like a man as someone who might really be an angel.  This applies not just to men, but to women and all humans who classify people into categories instead of being curious about them as individuals.

Would you recognize an angel if you saw one?

  1. Exodus 3:2-3, which is also an example of how an angel’s voice becomes God’s voice.
  2. e. the angel who speaks to Abraham in Genesis 22:11-16.
  3. Every week of the year is assigned its own Torah portion (from the first five books of the bible, the Torah) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the Prophets). The haftarah for Naso is Judges 13:2-13:25.
  4. See my post Naso: Distanced by Hair.
  5. For arguments in favor of the angel doing the impregnating, see Marc Zvi Brettler, “Who Was Samson’s Real Father?”, thetorah.com.

Bemidbar: Two Kinds of Troops

June 5, 2019 at 5:43 pm | Posted in Bemidbar | 1 Comment

Battle with the Amalekites, by J. Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1860

The Israelite ex-slaves won their first battle, but it was a close call.  The tribe of Amalek attacked them in the wilderness between Egypt and Mt. Sinai, in the book of Exodus/Shemot.  Moses asked his aide, Joshua, to choose some men to fight back.  They eventually defeated the Amalekites only because Moses was sitting on a hill above, holding up the staff of God with the the help of two men.1  It was an ad-hoc battle; none of the Israelite men had been organized or prepared.

But when the Israelites leave Mt. Sinai in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, over a year later, they are heading for the southern border of Canaan, only an 11-day march away.2  And this time they expect to be the ones doing the attacking, as they began the process of conquering the “promised land”—with God’s help.

The first Torah portion in the book of Numbers, also called Bemidbar (“in the wilderness of”)3 describes the organization of the Israelites into formations for marching and camping.  God tells Moses:

“Take a head-count of the whole congregation of the sons of Israel by their clans, by their ancestral houses, by counting the names of every male, head by head.  From age 20 years and above, everyone going out in the tzava of Israel, you shall enroll them for their tzava, you and Aaron.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 1:2-3)

tzava (צָבָא) = army, troop; military service.  (This noun was later extended to include any community of people engaged in organized service for a specific purpose.  But in the bible from Genesis through Malachi, it always refers either to human military troops, or to God’s organization of the stars or divine forces.4)

“Everyone going into the tzava” turns out to be all the adult men of every tribe except Levi.  As Moses and his committee count the adult men in each tribe, the Torah introduces the total with:

every male from the age of 20 years and above, everyone going out in the tzava: those enrolled from the tribe of …5

This week’s Torah portion lists twelve tribes going out in the tzava; it splits the tribe of Joseph into two tribes, named after his two sons Efrayim and Menasheh.  That makes Levi the thirteenth tribe of Israelites.

However, the tribe of Levi you shall not enroll, and you shall not count their heads among the sons of Israel.  (Numbers 1:49)

Are the Levite men excused from military service?  Not quite.  Instead of being assigned to battalions, they are assigned to guard duty.

Enroll the Levites over the Dwelling-Place of the Testimony, and over all the equipment that belongs to it.  They shall carry the Dwelling-Place and all its equipment, and they themselves shall attend to it, and they shall camp surrounding the Dwelling-Place.  (Numbers 1:50)

The “Dwelling-Place” (mishkan, מִשְׁכַּן )  is God’s part-time residence, also called the Tent of Meeting since Moses receives the instructions from God there.  This tent contains the most sacred objects: the ark, the menorah, the bread table, and the incense altar.  The priests must wrap these sacred objects when it is time to move, since even Levites may not see them.

from Collectie Nederland

The Levites actually camp outside the walls of the courtyard around the tent, to make sure that no one from the other tribes gets too close at the wrong time.

When pulling out, the Levites shall take down the Dwelling-Place, and when setting up camp, the Levites shall erect it.  But an unauthorized person who comes close shall be put to death.  (Numbers 1:51)

The Torah portion Bemidbar does not say who is responsible for putting an interloper to death.    The Talmud suggests that the death would be “at the hand of Heaven”,6 but the only example in the Torah of a mysterious death of a trespasser is in Leviticus/Vayikra, when two newly ordained priests, Nadav and Avihu, bring unauthorized incense all the way into the Holy of Holies at the back of the tent.7

from Sacra Parallela, 9th century Byzantine

Then are the Levites themselves responsible for putting an interloper to death?  Perhaps.  Later in the book of Numbers, some Midianite women of Moab entice Israelite men into worshiping their local god.  The God of Israel is enraged and punishes the Israelites the usual way, with an indiscriminate plague.  Then a Shimonite man and a Midianite woman enter the Tent of Meeting to fornicate, and a Levite named Pinchas runs in and skewers them.  Levites are supposed to serve in the courtyard around the tent, not inside the tent itself.  But the epidemic abruptly ends, and God rewards Pinchas with priesthood.8

This episode correlates with the next instruction in this week’s Torah portion:

And the Israelites shall camp, each man in his camp, and each man in his division, for their tzava.  But the Levites shall camp surrounding the Dwelling-Place of the Testimony, so that the rage of God will not fall on the congregation of the Israelites; and the Levites shall guard the custody of the Dwelling Place of the Testimony.  (Numbers 1:52-53)

If an unauthorized person got too close to God’s Dwelling-Place, or even entered it, God’s anger would be triggered, and that would trigger an epidemic.  Although the God-character in the Torah wants the Israelites to take over Canaan, this character has an anger management problem.  (See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.)  Therefore the Levites get their own military service: guarding the Dwelling-Place of God, who is a loose cannon.

The Israelite men from the other twelve tribes are enrolled in the army from age 20 and over.  But the Levite men are enrolled from the ages of 30 to 50.9

Take a head-count of the sons of Kehat among the sons of Levi, by their clans, by their ancestral houses, from age 30 years and above up to 50 years, everyone who comes for tzava, to do tasks at the Tent of Meeting.  (Numbers 4:2-3)

The Kehatites are assigned the duty of carrying the sacred objects from inside the Dwelling Place from one campsite to the next.  Next week’s Torah portion, Naso, assigns porterage duties to the other two branches of the Levite tribe.  Each list of duties begins the same way as the first.

The traditional interpretation is that age limit of 30 to 50 years applied only to Levite porterage duties, and after age 50 these men still guarded the gates, as well as singing, collecting tithes, and instructing younger Levites.10  Rashi11 explained that while a 20-year-old is strong enough to fight, the strength to carry heavy objects is not fully developed until age 30.  After age 50, a man’s strength begins to diminish again.

But the Torah says three times that Levites age 30 to 50 comprise “everyone who comes for tzava, to do tasks at the Tent of Meeting.”  Since tzava means military service, this must refer to the task of guard duty at the Tent of Meeting.

Soldiers in an army must use weapons, obey commands, and distinguish whether their targets are members of the designated enemy.  The maturity and strength of a 20-year-old are sufficient.

Guards of God’s Dwelling Place would also carry weapons and be able to distinguish between insiders and interlopers.  In addition, they would need the ability to calibrate their warnings and actions to fit various situations, and to sense when the threat is urgent enough to risk an intervention that might be out of bounds, like Pinchas’ skewering.  No wonder this week’s portion set the lower limit at 30.

Then why is the upper limit age 50?  Was the Torah concerned about premature senility?

I doubt it.  What I have noticed in my own life is that many, though not all, people become less strict in their fifties or sixties.  We learn to accept the things that go wrong, and we forgive more easily.  We are better than ever at reasoning with potential trespassers, but less likely to shoot them.  We grow into a type of maturity that does not suit the severity of the religious rules in this part of the bible.

That is why I would make a poor guard for any strictly designated holy space, and a poor guardian of received religious tradition.  Yet I keep studying Torah and I keep writing this blog.  It is a calling.  I interpret the angry, immature God-character who often appears in the Torah as a reflection of limitations in the humans who struggled to turn divine inspiration into stories and a code of rules.  But I also seek out the inspirations behind the text, and the God behind the God-character.

I am glad I am disqualified, on several counts, from being enrolled in the military service of Levites.

  1. Exodus 17:8-13.
  2. Deuteronomy 1:2. In Numbers 13:25-14:35, God dooms the Israelites to spend another 38 years in the wilderness before they cross into Canaan at a different border.
  3. Each weekly reading in the first five books of the bible is named after an important word in its first sentence (codified by Moses ben Maimon, a.k.a. Rambam or Maimonides, in the 12th century CE.) The name of the first portion in the book is also the name of the book.  The book of Numbers/Bemidbar begins:  Then God spoke to Moses bemidbar Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting …  Since bemidbar (“in the wilderness of”) is the construct form of the word bamidbar (“in the wilderness”), both Bemidbar and Bamidbar are used to name the book and the portion.
  4. Examples of God’s tzava are Genesis 2:1, in which tzava refers to stars, and Exodus 7:4, in which tzava refers to God’s power to make miracles. See my post Haftarat Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies on the name of God that includes the word Tzevaot, צְבָאוֹת, the plural of tzava.
  5. Numbers 1:20-21 (Reuven), 1:22-23 (Shimon), 1:24-25 (Gad), 1:26-27 (Judah), 1:28-29 (Yissakhar), 1:30-31 (Zevulun), 1:32-33 (Efrayim), 1:34-35 (Menasheh), 1:36-67 (Binyamin), 1:38-39 (Dan), 1:40-41 (Asheir), and 1:42-43 (Naftali).
  6. Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 84a.
  7. See my post Shemini: Fire Meets Fire.
  8. Numbers 25:6-15. See my post Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1.
  9. Levites are counted twice in this Torah portion. First all male Levites at least one month old are counted, and then declared official substitutes at the sanctuary for all non-Levite firstborn sons.  (Numbers 3:14-16, 3:39-51.)  The second count is for Levite men age 30-50 to engage in porterage duty.
  10. See my post Beha-alotkha & Ezra: Retirement Age.
  11. Rashi is the acronym of 11th-century rabbi and commentator Shlomoh Yitzchaki.

Bechukkotai: Why Obey?

May 29, 2019 at 1:35 pm | Posted in Bechukkotai | Leave a comment

Why should the Israelites obey God’s rules?  The last Torah portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, Bechukotai (“By my decrees”), answers the question with a carrot and a stick.

The carrot is that if they do obey, God will reward them with abundant produce from their crops; no attacks by wild beasts; either peace, or victory if they choose to go to war; and God’s presence in their midst.1

The stick is much longer.

But if you do not heed me and you do not do all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and if your soul is nauseated by my laws, so that you are not doing all my commands, voiding my covenant; then I on my part will do this to you: (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:14-16)

The first punishments God threatens are disease and raids by neighboring countries.  If the Israelites continue disobeying and gagging on God’s rules, the second round of punishments will be drought and crop failure.

Then the Torah changes the unacceptable attitude from nausea to either perverse opposition or disbelief.  God introduces the third round of punishments with:

And if you walk keri with me, and you are not willing to heed me, then I will go on striking at you …  (Leviticus 26:21)

keri (קֶרִי) = in perverse opposition; only by chance.

The word keri occurs only seven times in the Hebrew Bible, all seven in the Torah portion Bechukkotai.  Most older translations use the English word “contrary”, but some commentators posit that keri comes from the verb karah (קָרָה) = befell unexpectedly, happened by chance.2

Lion attack, Persepolis

When people in the Torah “walk with God”, they are following God’s rules and desires.  In this week’s Torah portion, when the Israelites walk in opposition to God, as if what happens to them comes only by chance and not by God’s will, then they will suffer.   In the third round of threats, God promises that wild beasts will kill their children and their cattle, and their roads will become empty.

The fourth round of threats begins:

And if these do not make you accept my discipline, and you walk keri with me, then I, even I, will walk by keri with you, and I will strike you …  (Leviticus 26:23-24)

Now God promises to oppose the Israelites and/or treat them as irrelevant to God’s will.  At this point God will let the enemies of the Israelites besiege their cities.  Everyone who crowds inside the city walls for shelter will be afflicted with disease and starve for lack of bread.

The fifth and final round of punishments also uses the word keri.

And if despite this you do not heed me, and you go with me by keri, then I will walk with you with a fury of keri, and I will punish you …  (Leviticus 26:27-28)

This time the starving Israelites will eat their own children, while God stands by.  God will destroy their hilltop shrines (because worshiping other gods is one of the ways the Israelites keep breaking God’s commandments).  Then their enemies will destroy their cities, the land will be desolated, and the people will be scattered in other countries.3

Assyrian & Babylonian Deportations

Modern scholars estimate that the list of blessings and punishments in this week’s Torah portion, like much of the book of Leviticus, was written sometime after the war of 589-587 BCE, when the Babylonian army finished conquering the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah, besieged and destroyed Jerusalem, and deported most of its upper classes and craftsmen.  (The northern kingdom of Israel had already been swallowed up by the Assyrian Empire a century and a half before.)  So the five levels of punishment had already happened when God’s speech was written.

By framing history as God’s prediction (or threat) at Mt. Sinai, the Torah drives home the idea that the downfall of the Israelites of Judah was their own fault.  God warned them, but they continued to walk keri with God, so of course they suffered the ultimate punishments.

Guilt is more effective than fear

The Torah portion Bechukkotai also shows that escalating punishments do not work.  The only effects of experiencing the helplessness of being without God’s protection are misery and excessive fear.

And I will bring the remainder of you faint-hearted into the lands of your enemies.  The sound of blowing leaves will pursue them, and they will flee as if fleeing from the sword, and they will fall although nobody is pursuing.  (Leviticus 26:36)

The image of running away from blowing leaves (commonly translated into English as “a driven leaf”) emphasizes that the deported Israelites live in a state of continuous anxiety.

Then you will become lost among the nations, and the land of your enemies will eat you up.  (Leviticus 26:38)

Being lost and eaten up may refer to death, or it may refer to assimilation.  Either way, there would be no more Israelites.  Nevertheless, God expects some of the exiles to feel not only faint-hearted, but also guilty.4  Once they recognize their guilt, there is hope for them.

Then they must confess their guilt and the guilt of their forefathers in failing to do their duty; that they were undutiful to me, and also that they walked by keri with me.  Indeed, I myself will walk by keri with them and I will bring them into the land of their enemies; perhaps that is when their uncircumcised heart will become humbled, perhaps that is when they will make amends for their wrongdoing. (Leviticus 26:40-41)

When the diminishing Israelites do confess and repent, they “circumcise” their hearts, making them open and sensitive to God’s word.  At that point God promises to remember the covenant with their ancestors Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham, and with the people God rescued from Egypt.5  The implication is that then God will rescue the remaining Israelites from Babylon and bring them back to their former land.

Why do the Israelites disobey and oppose their God?

Here are my favorite theories:

  1. When people stop studying God’s rules, they no longer understand them, so they don’t bother to obey them. They justify their disobedience by deciding they are superior to those who blindly obey stupid laws. Only someone who understands the reasons for divine laws can obey them with love.6
  2. When bad things happen, it is human nature to blame someone else and avoid introspection. We might blame other people, or we might blame God. Since we do not change our own behavior, nothing changes in the world. 7
  3. When we are taught only in terms of physical reward and punishment, we develop an unhealthy relationship with the authority figure. Either we mindlessly do anything to win the authority figure’s approval, or we live in continual fear, or we come to despise the authority figure and rebel against the rules.

What changes their minds about God?

Fear leads to temporary obedience, and reward and punishment work on a simple level with non-human animals and small children.  But as humans learn to think, we make their own judgments about right and wrong.  In this week’s Torah portion, people return to obeying and trusting God only when they come to believe they did something wrong, and feel guilty about it.  Then they want to make amends.

The very act of making amends by returning to their religion gives the Israelites meaning and purpose in their lives.  They can once again feel God’s presence in their midst.

*

I know I will never be a wholly observant Jew.  Jewish halakhah, the “way to walk”, is a corpus of religious laws refined over the centuries from the Talmud’s discussions of the laws in the Torah.  Some of these laws remain meaningless to me even when I study them.  Therefore (since I do not belong to a tight orthodox community where strict observance is at least good manners) I do not bother to observe those particular rules.

But I work hard to do the morally right thing, and whenever I realize I have failed, I feel guilty, and I do what I can to atone.  I find that virtue really is its own reward, bringing me courage and calmness even in adverse physical circumstances.  I also persist in noticing all creation with awe and wonder, which leads to gratitude and the feeling that life is meaningful.  Because I work on obeying moral principles and maintaining an attitude of awe and gratitude, I believe I am serving God with joy, not walking with God by keri.

May each of us find meaning in life.  And may we treat one another with mutual respect, so we can avoid the dead end of an authority figure commanding obedience—or else.

  1. See my post Bechukkotai & Jeremiah: The Inner Reward.
  2. 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that keri means unintentionally; going with God unintentionally is a form of rejection (Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra, Part 2, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2000, p. 951). 21st-century scholar Robert Alter translated keri as “encounter (against)” (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 663).  The Chabad translation is “happenstance” in  www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/9927.
  3. Leviticus 26:16-33.
  4. Leviticus 26:39.
  5. Leviticus 26:42, 26:45.
  6. Based on Hirsch, ibid., pp. 944-945; and Or Torah (Dov Baer Friedman of Miedzyrzec, 1804), translation by Arthur Green, in Speaking Torah, Vol. 1, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT, 2013, p. 310-311.
  7. Based on Adin Even-Steinsaltz, Talks on the Parasha, Maggid Books, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2015, p. 271.

Behar: Slave Owners

May 21, 2019 at 11:55 pm | Posted in Behar | 1 Comment

Shmitah Observance in Palestine, by Chief Rabbi Abraham Kook, 1924

Every seventh year is the shmitah year, the year of letting things drop, according to this week’s Torah portion, Behar (“On a mountain”).  That year the owners of fields must let them lie fallow, and the owners of vineyards must leave them unpruned, so the land can rest.

It will be a sabbath for the land; [its] food  is [only] for eating, for you yourself, and for your aved, and for your amah, and for your hired laborer [who is] resident with you.  And for your cattle and for the wild beasts that are in your land, they shall all come in to eat.  (Leviticus 25:6-7)

aved (עָבֶד) = a male slave or a servant.  (From the root verb avad, עָבַד = slaved, served, labored.)

Slave (noun) = a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them.

Servant (noun) = a person employed to perform duties for others, especially in a house, [or] a devoted and helpful follower.1

amah (אָמָה) = a female slave or a servant.

The list of people who can eat the produce of a field or vineyard during the seventh year includes the owner and his family, his male and female slaves, and his employees who live with him (as well as his livestock and any wild beasts that wander in).

Although the Torah uses the same word for a slave and a servant, whether male or female, native or foreign, in this passage the slaves are listed separately from the free employees who serve the master to earn wages.

Egyptian beating a slave

Slavery is an accepted part of society in the Torah, as it was throughout the ancient Near East.  In Exodus/Shemot, all the Israelites are slaves in Egypt until God rescues them and leads them through the wilderness.  In Exodus alone, God gives them more than a hundred laws at Mt. Sinai, from the Ten Commandments to case law such as:

If you acquire a Hebrew eved, six years ya-avod and in the seventh he shall leave free, without charge.  (Exodus 21:2)

ya-avod (יַעֲבֺד) = he shall serve.  (A form of the verb avad, עָבַד  = served or slaved.)

In other words, one can only acquire fellow Hebrews or Israelites as an indentured servants: debtors who are forced to work for their masters for a fixed period of time.  At the end of that time, they are free.  Israelites acquired their countrymen as indentured servants when impoverished men sold themselves or impoverished parents sold their children.  These temporary slaves could be redeemed at any time by a kinsman who paid off their owner.  If they were not redeemed, Exodus says, they must be given the option of freedom after six years.   (See my post Mishpatim: On Slavery.)

The lawgiving at Mt. Sinai continues in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, and returns to the subject of slavery in this week’s Torah portion.

And if your kinsman with you becomes poor and is sold to you, lo ta-avod him at the avodah of an aved.  (Leviticus/ Vayikra 25:39)

lo ta-avod (לֺא תַעֲבֺד) = you may not enslave, you may not force to work.  (From the root verb avad.)

avodah (עֲבֺדַה) = service, labor for another.  (Also from the root verb avad.)

In other words, you may not force a fellow Israelite to do the work of a foreign slave.  Israelite slaves must be treated like hired employees who live in the master’s household.  According to Sifra, that means their owner must provide them and their wives and children with food as well as lodging, and assign them work in a craft they already know.2   This week’s Torah portion prohibits charging indentured servants for their food and adding it to the debt they are working off.3

He shall become like a hired worker, like a temporary worker living with you.  Until the year of the yoveil, ya-avod you.  (Leviticus 25:40)

yoveil (יֺּבֵל) = ram; the year of remission, which comes every 50 years and is announced by the blowing of a ram’s horn.  (Called the “jubilee” in English.)

At this point, the law in Leviticus appears to disagree with the law in Exodus.  Leviticus says all Israelite slaves in the country must be freed every 50 years; Exodus says each Israelite slave must be freed after he has served for six years.

In the 11th century CE, Rashi wrote that an Israelite slave was freed either after his own six years of service were completed, or on the yoveil year, whichever came first.4

In the 19th century, S.R. Hirsch wrote that the slave who decided to remain with his master “forever” instead of being freed in the seventh year (Exodus 21:5-6) was nevertheless freed when either his master died, or the yoveil year began, whichever came first.5

But 21st-century translator and commentator Robert Alter wrote that the books of Exodus and Leviticus simply disagree on when an unredeemed Israelite slave must be freed.6  The Exodus version guarantees that after six years every Israelite slave can choose whether to go free or become a permanent slave.  The Leviticus version guarantees that when all Israelite slaves are freed in the yoveil year, they can go home to their own families’ plots of land, which are returned that year to the families that originally owned them.7

Then he shall leave you, he and his children with him, and he shall return to his clan and to the property of his forefathers.  (Leviticus 25: 41)

*

Even if Israelites sell themselves to resident aliens rather than to their fellow Israelites, their kinsmen have the option of redeeming them paying their master their purchase price.  And if no one redeems them, then they, too, must be released in the yoveil year.8

If he is not redeemed in these ways, then he shall leave in the year of the yoveil, he and his children with him.  Because the Israelites are avadim to me, my avadim, who I brought out from the land of Egypt.  I am God, your God.  (Leviticus 25:54-55)

avadim (עֲבַדִים) = slaves, servants.  (Plural of aved.)

Why must all Israelites who have sold themselves be freed, even if they have to wait up to 49 years?  Rashi wrote that “Because the Israelites are avadim to me” (Leviticus 25:55) means: “My contract came before.”9

An aved cannot have two masters.  And all Israelites are God’s servants, even God’s slaves.  Treating Israelites that you bought as if they were your exclusive property forever would violate God’s previous claim as their ultimate owner—and yours.

Assyrian army of Tiglath-Pilesar leads captives

*

A foreign slave, on the other hand, is permanent property, and can even be inherited.  The usual practice in the ancient Near East was to enslave foreigners captured in battle.

And your aved and your amah from the nations around you that became yours, from them you may acquire eved and amah.  And also you may acquire [slaves] from the children of the alien residents among you, and from their families they gave birth to while among you in your land.  And they shall become yours as property.  And you may bequeath them to your children after you to inherit as property forever …  (Leviticus 25:44-46)

The book of Leviticus does not think of non-Israelites as God’s people.  Anyone who does not serve the God of Israel can become a permanent slave of a human master.

*

In the United States, what made the difference between permanent slaves and temporary indentured servants was not religion or ethnicity, but “race”.  Until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 banned slavery, native Africans and their descendants, as well as some Native Americans, were seized and enslaved, resold, and inherited by European-Americans.  Their owners might choose to free them, but like the foreign slaves in the Torah, they had no right of redemption, nor a right to release after any number of years of service.  Impoverished Europeans and their American children could sell themselves as indentured servants, bound to obey their masters’ whims only until their contracts expired.

Today slavery is officially illegal everywhere in the world, but there are still millions of people who are acquired or inherited as property and forced to obey their owners.

What if we stopped separating people into “us” and “them”?  What if we had a God of Everybody, instead of a God of Israel or a God of (fill in the blank)?  What if we came to believe that all human beings are holy?  Would slavery disappear?

  1. Both definitions are from Concise Oxford English Dictionary, Tenth Edition, Oxford University Press, 2002.
  2. Sifra (a 3rd-century CE collection of legal commentary on Leviticus), Behar Chapter 7, translated in sefaria.org/Sifra%2C_Behar%2C_Chapter_7.3?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en.
  3. Leviticus 25:37.
  4. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) on Leviticus 25:40, translated at chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/9965.
  5. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on Exodus 21:6, translated by Daniel Haberman in The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Shemos, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2005, p. 370.
  6. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 658.
  7. See my post Behar: Owning Land.
  8. Leviticus 25:47-54.
  9. Rashi, ibid., on Leviticus 25:55.

Emor: Libations

May 15, 2019 at 1:23 pm | Posted in Emor, Vayishlach | 2 Comments

from Treasures of the Bible, Northrop, 1894

If you make an offering to God in the Hebrew Bible, out of gratitude or obedience or hope for a favor, how does God receive it?  If you offer one of your animals, a priest burns it on the altar and smoke rises to the sky; then God smells the “soothing odor”.1  Priests also burn grain offerings (usually topped with frankincense) on the main altar, and incense on the incense altar.  All of these offerings send aromatic smoke to the heavens, where God is imagined as dwelling when not visiting the earth.2

But what about an offering of wine?  How does God receive a libation?

Although the book of Leviticus/Vayikra gives detailed instructions about animal and grain offerings, libations are mentioned only in this week’s Torah portion, Emor (“Say”), and only as an afterthought.  The portion reviews six holy days during the year.3  The instructions for two of them include libations.

On the first day after the week of Passover, you must bring the first sheaf (omer) of your barley harvest to a priest, along with a sacrifice consisting of a yearling lamb and its corresponding grain-offering of fine flour mixed with oil, for a “soothing odor”

and its nesekh of wine, a quarter of a hin.  (Leviticus Vayikra 23:23)

nesekh (נֶסֶךְ) = poured-offering, libation.  Plural: nesakhim, נְסָכִים.  (From the root verb nasakh, נָסַךְ = pour out.)

A hin is about 1 ½ gallons, so a quarter of a hin would be about 6 cups or 1.4 liters of wine.  The passage does not say where the wine is poured.

At the end of seven weeks of the omer comes Shavuot, the only day of the year when leavened bread is brought to the altar.

And you shall offer with the bread seven unblemished yearling lambs, and one bull from the herd, and two rams; they shall be a rising-offering4 for God.  And their grain offerings and their nesakhim, a fire-offering, a soothing odor for God.  (Leviticus 23:18)

Does this mean that the nesakhim are part of the fire-offering?  If so, perhaps the priests pour the wine directly on the roasting meat and grain.  The addition of wine would enhance the aroma of the smoke for a while.

The passage about offerings on holy days in the Torah portion Emor concludes without any further information about libations:

These are the appointed times of God that you shall announce as holy assemblies for offering fire-offerings to God: rising-offering and grain-offering, slaughter-offering and nesakhim, each thing on its day.  (Leviticus 23:37)

*

Jacob makes the first poured-offering mentioned in the bible, after he wakes up from his dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder or stairway between heaven and earth.

from Cassell’s Family Bible, 1880

And Jacob erected a standing-marker in the place where [God] had spoken to him, a standing-marker of stone, vayaseikh on it a nesekh, vayitzok on it oil.  (Genesis/Bereishit 35:13)

vayaseikh (וַיַּסֵּךְ) = and he poured out. A form of the root verb nasakh, which usually means pouring a libation of wine. 5

vayitzok (וַיִּצֺק) = and he poured out.  A form of the verb yatzak (יָצַק), which usually means pouring oil, or pouring molten metal into a mold.  The bible never uses yatzak for wine.

Pouring oil on religious objects or on people’s heads consecrates them to God; both kings and priests must be anointed before they take up their new roles.  In Genesis, Jacob erects a standing-stone, pours a libation of wine as an offering to the God who spoke to him, and consecrates the stone to God by pouring oil on it.

Libation ceremony, Minoan, 1400 BCE, Hagia Triada

Nobody told him to do this.  But pouring out wine to the gods was a common practice in the ancient Near East as early as the 14th century BCE, when it was depicted in art and written texts by Egyptians, Minoans in Crete, Hittites in Anatolia, and Canaanites in Ugarit.  In these religious rituals, a libation for a god was poured into a bowl, which was sometimes set out along with a ritual meal in front of a statues of the god.6

The first time the God of Israel requests a libation in the bible is at Mt. Sinai, when God gives a partial job description for the new priests Moses is going to anoint.  Every day the priests must offer two yearling lambs on the altar, one in the morning and one in the evening, each accompanied by an offering of finely-ground wheat flour mixed with oil to make a patty—

—and a nesekh, a quarter of a hin of wine for one lamb.  And the second lamb you shall do during the evening; you shall do it like the grain-offering and its nesekh of the morning, for a soothing odor of fire for God.  (Exodus/Shemot 29:40-41)

This text also implies that the wine is poured over the roasting meat like a seasoning, to make its aroma especially soothing to God.  A sentence in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar is more explicit:

And wine you shall offer for the nesekh, half a hin, a fire-offering of soothing odor for God.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 15:10)

 *

According to the Hebrew Bible, nesakhim for the God of Israel must be poured by priests directly onto the altar, where meat and grain offerings are roasting.  Thus the fragrance of the wine can reach God through the smoke that ascends to the sky.

The only exceptions are Jacob’s impulsive libation in Genesis, and libations for other gods in the book of Jeremiah.

And the houses of Jerusalem and the houses of the kings of Judah will become like the place of Tofet7, the impure place, because of all the houses that sent up smoke from their roofs to all the army of the heavens, vehaseikh nesakhim to other gods.  (Jeremiah 19:13)

vehaseikh (וְהַסֵּךְ) = and poured out.  (A form of the verb nasakh.)

Jeremiah also rails against the practice of baking cakes for “the queen of the heavens” and pouring libations to her and other gods from their own rooftops.8  The problem is the worship of other gods, not the places where the libations are poured.

I wonder if Jacob, and the worshippers of the queen of heaven, and everyone who poured a libation onto a rooftop or into an empty bowl, had a more sophisticated and less literal concept of God.  A god who is pacified by the smell of aromatic smoke is like a thoughtless beast at the mercy of its physical sense.  But a god who appreciates symbolic acts of sharing by humans who present gifts instead of consuming all the wine or food themselves is like a mature human who understands thoughts.

*

Libation amphora, Second Temple coin

The Israelite concept of God had changed by the first century BCE, when King Herod remodeled the second temple in Jerusalem.  There was a gap between the new altar and its ramp that was only partly filled in; pipes descended from holes in the surface of the gap, according to the Talmud.  The priests poured nesakhim on the stone surface of the altar, rather than on the fire.  The wine pooled, then drained out through the holes at the edge where the altar abutted the ramp.

Talmudic claims compiled several centuries later include:

“… Rabbi Elazar bar Tzadok said: There was a small gap between the ramp and the altar west of the ramp, and once in seventy years young priests would descend there and gather from there the congealed wine left over from the libations that set over time, which resembled round cakes of dried and pressed figs.”  (Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 49a)9

“… Rabbi Yochanan said: The drainpipes built into the altar and extending beneath it were created from the six days of Creation … they are hollow and descend to the depths.”  (Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 49a)

“Resh Lakish said: When they pour wine onto the altar, they plug the top of the drainpipes so that the wine does not descend to the depths … the space between the altar and the ramp would fill with wine.”  (Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 49b)

Whether the drainpipes were plugged or unplugged, the wine was not evaporated in the altar fire.  Instead, the priests poured out the libations where everyone could see the wine pool over the stone surface of the altar.

Perhaps by then the people of Judah valued the gesture of giving their wine to God, and no longer needed to imagine God smelling it.

*

Today even our gifts to God are non-material.  We still donate money and food for those in need, and for the maintenance of our religious buildings and their staff.  But what do we donate to God?  Only our thankfulness, and our good deeds.

A God who appreciates those is an advanced God, indeed.

  1. See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.
  2. See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.
  3. Pesach, the omer, Shavuot, Rosh Shashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot (Leviticus 23.)
  4. “Rising-offering” is a literal translation of olah (עֹלָה), in which one or more whole animals are completely burned up, leaving no roasted meat for the priests or the donors. See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire OfferingsWithout Slaughter, Part 1.
  5. The verb nasakh (poured out) appears 25­­ times in the Hebrew Bible; 19 of those occurrences are about pouring out a libation of wine. The verb is also used once for pouring oil (Psalm 2:6), twice for pouring water (2 Samuel 23:16, 1 Chronicles 11:18), twice for pouring molten metal (Isaiah 40:19, 44:10), once when God pours out sleep (Isaiah 29:10), and once when God pours out wisdom (Proverbs 8:23).
  6. g. www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/libation; Adolf Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt, trans. by H.M. Tirard, Dover Publications, New York, 1971; Wikipedia, “Libations”, 5/11/2019.
  7. Tofet (תֺּפֶת) = spitting; a valley in Jerusalem where corpses were burned in wartime.
  8. Jeremiah 7:17-18, 32:29, 44:15-18.
  9. All translations from the Talmud in this essay are from The William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org/Sukkah?lang=bi.

 

Kedoshim: Vilification and Hindrance

May 8, 2019 at 11:39 am | Posted in Kedoshim | Leave a comment

De Vaartkapoen, by Tom Franzen, 1985

You must not kaleil the deaf, and you must not place in front of the blind a mikheshol; and you must fear your God.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:14)

kaleil (קַלֵּל) = curse, belittle, vilify.  (The actual Hebrew is lo (לֺא) = not + tikaleil (תְקַלֵּל) = you will curse, belittle, vilify.)

mikheshol (מִכְשֺׁל or מִכְשׁוֹל) = stumbling-block, obstacle, hindrance.

This commandment appears in what scholars call the “Holiness Code”: Leviticus 18:1-18 in this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim (“holy”).  The Holiness Code presents about 40 commandments, depending on how you count them.  It begins:

And God spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to the whole community of the Children of Israel, and you shall say to them:  Holy you must be, because holy am I, God, your God.”  (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:1-2)1

The ultimate commandment in the series is:

You shall love your fellow as yourself.  (Leviticus 19:18)

All but one or two of the 40 or so commandments in the Holiness Code are about human interactions.2  While the Ten Commandments are a list of ten important things God wants us to do, the Holiness Code gives instructions on how to be holy through ethical behavior, culminating with loving other people.3

Each rule in the Holiness Code can be analyzed in terms of how it helps us to love others.  “You must not kaleil the deaf, and you must not place in front of the blind a mikhesholappears to prohibit cruelty against the disabled.  Certainly an obstacle in the path of a blind person could result in physical damage.  The deaf might suffer psychological pain if they found out that someone had vilified them, or saw the angry faces of those cursing them.  But what if they never found out?

No Vilification

The Talmud compares “You must not kaleil the deaf” with an earlier biblical verse: “You must not kaleil God, nor put a curse on a chieftain among your people” (Exodus/Shemot 22:27).  The chieftains were among the most respected members of society, while the deaf are an example of “the most wretched”.  “From the fact that it is prohibited to curse even those people, it can be derived that it is prohibited to curse anyone.”4

According to Sefer Hachinukh, “we do not have the power to know in which way a curse impacts upon the one cursed … we know more generally that people are concerned about curses …”  Therefore curses may indeed have a mysterious effect on their targets.5

Maimonides wrote that the deeper reason for the prohibition is to rescue the person who is inclined to vilify others.  While one person might get revenge against someone who wronged him by “cursing and reviling, because he knows how much hurt and shame this will cause his enemy”, others are satisfied with blowing off steam, “uttering angry imprecations and curses, even though the other would not listen to them if he were present.  It is well known that hot-tempered and choleric persons find relief in this way …”6

by Hieronymous Bosch, circa 1500 CE

Is there anything wrong with this?  Yes, according, to Maimonides.  “Cursing is forbidden [even] in the case of the deaf, since the Torah is concerned not only with the one who is cursed, but also with the curser, who is told not to be vindictive and hot-tempered.”

Vindictive and hot-tempered people might love some of their fellow humans some of the time, but they also are inflamed by hatred.  The Holiness Code instructs them not to act on their hatred, even when they could get away with it.

No Obstruction

Similarly, “you must not place in front of the blind a mikhesholrefers not only to people who are literally blind, but to all people who are metaphorically near-sighted, particularly those who are incompetent, caught up in craving, immoral, or overwhelmed by passion.  They can easily be diverted into doing bad things by a stumbling-block.

Incompetence

Sifra interprets “blind” metaphorically, and says: “If he asks you for advice, do not give him advice that is unfit for him.  Do not say to him ‘Leave early in the morning,” so that robbers should assault him, [or] ‘Leave in the afternoon,’ so that he fall victim to the heat.”7

Those who give bad advice to naïve or slow-witted people in order to harm them may have cooler tempers than those who erupt in curses, but in both cases the perpetrators are treating people they dislike with contempt.

One must not deliberately give bad advice in any circumstance.  But according to Sefer HaChinukh, one must give what one believes is good advice.  “Guiding people and giving them good advice for all of their actions [is needed for] the ordering of the world and its civilization.”8

Craving

The Talmud also applies the prohibition about the blind to offering a cup of wine to a nazirite, someone who has made a vow not to drink wine.9  (See my post Haftarah Naso—Judges: Restraining the Abstainer.)  20th-century commentator Nehama Leibowitz pointed out that in this case the target “knows that the host’s offer contravenes his Nazirite vow.  There is no deception involved.  The host might plead: Did I force him or command him to drink?  Is he not to take it or refuse it?  But this is not so, the victim being blinded by his passions.”10

Immorality

Similarly, the “blind” person who is already a highwayman or a Jew-hater already knows that if he buys weapons, he is likely to use them to kill.  According to the Talmud, one is forbidden to sell weapons, chains, or weapons-grade iron to either Jewish bandits or hostile gentiles.11  That would be a case of placing a mikheshol in front of someone blinded by immorality.

Passion

The Talmud also counted provoking a dangerous passionate reaction also counts as placing a mikheshol, a hindrance, in front of the blind.  “It was related that the maidservant in Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s house saw a certain man who was striking his adult son.  She said: Let that man be excommunicated, due to the fact that he has transgressed the injunction: You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind.”  The rabbis agreed, “as the son is likely to become angry and strike his father back, thereby transgressing the severe prohibition against hitting one’s parent.”12

Leibowitz deduced that in this case, “no enticement is involved, but the mere provocation renders the father responsible for his son’s crime.”13

You must fear your God

Thus “You must not kaleil the deaf” means you must not curse, belittle, or vilify anyone, whether your target finds out or not.  Venting your vindictive hatred prevents you from reaching the condition in which you “love your fellow as yourself”.

“You must not place in front of the blind a mikhesholmeans you must not divert anyone into bad behavior.  You are responsible, and therefore guilty, if you do anything that deceives, tempts, encourages, or provokes other people to do things that harm themselves or others.

Why does the Torah add: “and you must fear your God”?  Rashi answers that those who vilify the “deaf” or make the “blind” stumble could plead that they meant well, and did not know their actions would have such awful results.  “Therefore, concerning this, it says, and you must fear your God, who knows your thoughts!14

*

When we vent our hatred, and when we cause others to misbehave, we can plead that we meant well.  We can get away with it, though the more perceptive people around us are likely to either shun us or reprove us.

But we will never be holy, and we will never be able to love our fellows as ourselves.  We will always be constricted by our own narrow-mindedness.  That is punishment enough.

May we all learn to redirect our petty angers and moral carelessness, so that we may all become holy, loving, and free.

  1. See my post Yitro: Not in my Face.
  2. The only rules in Leviticus 19:1-18 that do not directly involve human relationships are the prohibition against idols (Leviticus 19:4), and the requirement that the roasted meat from a wholeness-offering (shelamim) must be eaten within two days (Leviticus 19:5-8). However, the two-day deadline forces the person making the offering to invite guests and household members to eat.
  3. See my post Kedoshim: Reciprocal Holiness.
  4. Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 66a, The William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org/Sanhedrin.66a?lang=bi .
  5. Sefer Hachinukh, Commandment 231, in sefaria.org/Sefer_HaChinukh?lang=bi. This book explaining 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible was published anonymously in Spain in the 13th century CE.
  6. Maimonides (12th-century Moses ben Maimon, also known as Rambam), Sefer HaMitzvot (317). Translation from Rabbi J. Kapah, Mosad HaRav Kook, Jerusalem, 1958, in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vaiykra, The World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem, 1996, p. 301.
  7. Sifra, Kedoshim section 2, sefaria.org/Sifra?lang=bi. Sifra is a collection of commentary on Leviticus compiled in the third or fourth century CE.
  8. Sefer Hachinukh, Commandment 232, ibid.
  9. Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 22b, The William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org/Pesachim.22b?lang=bi.
  10. Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vaiykra, translated by Rafael Fisch & Avner Tomaschoff, The World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem, 1996, p. 310.
  11. Talmud Bavli, Avodah Zarah 15b & 16a, The William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org/Avodah_Zarah?lang=bi.
  12. Talmud Bavli, Moed Katan 17a, The William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org/Moed_Katan?lang=bi.
  13. Leibowitz, ibid.
  14. 11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki, commentary on Leviticus 19:14.

 

Acharey Mot: Azazel

May 1, 2019 at 4:30 pm | Posted in Acharey Mot, Yom Kippur | Leave a comment

The high priest may only enter the Holy of Holies once a year, according to this week’s Torah portion, Acharey Mot (“after the death”).1  On Yom Kippur (“Day of Atonement”), the high priest must burn incense inside the Holy of Holies and flick the blood of a bull and a goat on the ark.

drawing by Dugald Stewart Walker (1883-1937)

The bull is a sacrifice from the priests’ own herd, slaughtered to atone for anything he or his household did wrong during the past year.  The goat is one of two goats (se-irim) provided by the Israelite people.  The high priest (Aaron, in this Torah portion) gives one goat to God, burning its body and sprinkling its blood, to make atonement for all the people.2  The other goat carries away all the misdeeds the Israelites committed over the past year.

After the high priest bathes and puts on sacred linen garments,

Then he shall take the two se-irim and stand them in front of God at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.  And Aaron shall place lots on the two se-irim: one lot for God and one lot for Azazel.  Then Aaron shall bring forward the sa-ir for which the lot for God came up, and he shall make it the reparation-offering.  And the sa-ir for which the lot for Azazel came up, it shall stand alive in front of God, to make atonement upon it.  And he shall send it to Azazel in the wilderness.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 16:7-10)

sa-ir (שָׂעִיר) = hairy male goat; long hair; rain shower.  Plural: se-irim (שְׂעִרִם) = goats, goat-demons.

Azazel (עֲזָאזֵל) pronounced Azazeil = a proper name.

The name Azazel appears only three times in the Hebrew Bible, all three in the passage above.  Commentators have suggested that it is the name of a place, the name of a fallen angel, the name of a desert demon, or a symbol of chaos.

Azazel the cliff

And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the living sa-ir, and he shall confess over it all the crimes of the Israelites and all their transgressions for all their wrongdoing, and he shall place them on the head of the sa-ir, and send it by the hand of a designated man into the wilderness.  Then the sa-ir will carry off all the crimes on itself to a cut-off land; he shall send out the sa-ir into the wilderness.  (Leviticus 16:21-22)

In the time of the second temple in Jerusalem (516 BCE to 70 CE), the goat for Azazel was led out past seven stations and pushed off a cliff.  It died on the way down, its body broken by rocks.  The Talmud, redacted circa 500 CE but including a few eyewitness accounts from the final years of the second temple, assumed Azazel was the name of the cliff.3  Rashi, writing in the 11th century CE, explained that “a cut-off land” meant a cliff.4

The Talmud offers two proposals for the etymology of the place-name Azazel.  According to the sages Azazel means “rough and hard”, because it combines azaz (עַז עַז) = “strong, strong” and eil (אֵל), one of whose meanings is “strength, power”.  (Therefore the Azazel place is full of rocks.)  But according to the school of Rabbi Yishmael, the cliff is called Azazel “because it atones for the actions of Uza and Asael.  These are the names of sons of God who sinned with daughters of men (Genesis 6:2) and thereby caused the world to sin during the generation of the Flood.” 5

Azazel the fallen angel

Fallen Angel, by Odilon Redon, 19th century

None of “the sons of God” are named in Genesis.  The school of Rabbi Yishmael probably got the names Uza and Asael from a much later story identifying the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:2 with fallen angels called Watchers.  The earliest extant version of this story appears in the apocryphal Book of Enoch written in the third century BCE.  Here Shemyaza and Asael are the two chief leaders of 200 angels who descend to earth, land on Mt. Hermon (in the Golan Heights), and fornicate with human women, producing a race of giants.  Then the book focuses on the actions of Asael, now called Azazel.

And Azazel taught men to make swords, and daggers, and shields and breastplates.  And he showed them the things after these, and the art of making them: bracelets, and ornaments, and the art of making up the eyes and of beautifying the eyelids, and the most precious and choice stones, and all [kinds of] coloured dyes. And the world was changed.  And there was great impiety and much fornication, and they went astray, and all their ways became corrupt.”  (Book of Enoch, 8:1-2) 6

Thus in the Book of Enoch, the fallen angel Azazel not only fornicates with human women, but is responsible for the human evils of war and seduction.  God tells the angel Raphael to bind Azazel’s hands, throw him into darkness, and throw jagged stones on him—reminiscent of the rocks that kill the goat on Yom Kippur during the time of the second temple in Jerusalem.

In another apocryphal book, The Apocalypse of Abraham, Azazel is a fallen angel who serves as a satanic figure, tempting humans to lie and do evil deeds.  God says:  “Go, Azazel, into the untrodden parts of the earth!”7  This is reminiscent of sending the goat to Azazel in the cut-off land of the wilderness in this week’s Torah portion.

Azazel the desert demon

However, the whole concept of fallen angels was invented several centuries after the book of Leviticus was written.  There are no fallen angels in the Torah.  The Biblical Hebrew word for “angel” is the same as the word for “messenger”, malakh (מַלְאַךְ).  All angels that visit earth are simply God’s mouthpieces.

Azazel, by Colin de Plancy, 1882

Therefore some commentators concluded that the name Azazel in this week’s Torah portion refers not to any kind of angel, but to an ancient desert goat-demon.  Later in this week’s Torah portion, God tells Moses to tell the Israelites:

They must not slaughter any more of their slaughterings for the se-irim they are whoring after.  This will be a decree forever for them throughout their generations.  (Leviticus 17:7)

The people have not been sacrificing goats to other goats; here se-irim must mean gods or demons in the shape of goats.

The last book of the Hebrew Bible provides one other hint of a goat-god or goat-demon cult.  When the second book of Chronicles retells the story of how King Jereboam builds two temples in the northern kingdom of Israel, it states disapprovingly that he furnished them not only with golden calves, but also with se-irim (2 Chronicles 11:15).8

There may well have been a tradition involving goat-demons in ancient Canaan.  In the 12th century CE, Rambam wrote that some Sabeans worshipped demons who took the form of goats,9  and Ibn Ezra wrote that “lunatics who see these demons experience visions of goat-like creatures”.10

Azazel the symbol of chaos

What if Azazel is neither a place nor a supernatural being, but rather a personified concept?  Let’s look again at the etymology of the word.

The Talmud’s explanation that Azazel (עֲזָאזֵל) comes azaz (עַז עַז) = “strong, strong” and eil (אֵל) = “strength, power” is far-fetched, since it requires moving the letter aleph (א).  In Biblical Hebrew, related words often use different vowel sounds, and weak letters may appear and disappear.  But a strong letter such as an aleph is never moved to a different position.

One can, however, divide Azazel (עֲזָאזֵל) into az (עז) and azal (אָזַל) = disappear, go away.  The participle form of azal is ozeil (אֺזֵל) = disappearing.  So Azazel may mean “Disappearing Goat”: eiz (עֵז) = goat, she-goat, goat hair + azal (אָזַל) = disappear, go away.

21st century translator and commentator Robert Alter used this etymology, and also wrote that the lot for God represents civilization and order, while the lot for Azazel represents wilderness and chaos.  Thus the goat who carries the misdeeds of the Israelites symbolically takes them to the chaos, the tohu and bohu, that was present in Genesis 1:2 before God began creating the universe.11

*

Whether Azazel is a symbol, a demon, a fallen angel, or a place in the wilderness near Jerusalem, the goat (sa-ir) that gets the lot Azazel becomes the goat (eiz) that goes away into a land that is cut off from humans and disappears forever.  What could be better than to have all the crimes the community committed over the past year disappear forever?

Alas, our own wrongdoing does not completely disappear.  Even after we make atonement with God through whatever means our religions offer, we still remember our guilt.  And even if we are conscientious about acknowledging our bad deeds against other people and obtain their forgiveness, our former victims sometimes remember as well.  It is hard not to slip back into guilt or resentment.

But if we remember Azazel as the Disappearing Goat, perhaps we can turn our memories of missing the mark into reminders that humans can change and make new choices.

  1. The opening sentence of this week’s portion is: “God spoke to Moses after the death of two of Aaron’s sons, who came too close in front of God and died.” This opening underlines the danger of entering the Holy of Holies without permission.  See my post Shemimi: Fire Meets Fire.
  2. See my post Acharey Mot & Shemini: So He Will Not Die.
  3. Talmud Bavli, Yoma 67b, William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org.
  4. Rashi is the acronym of 11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
  5. After the mating of the “sons of God” and human women in Genesis 6:2, God sees in Genesis 6:5 “that the wickedness of humankind abounds on the earth”, and resolves to destroy everyone except Noah and his family.
  6. Translated by Miryam T. Brand, Outside the Bible, The Jewish Publication Society, 2013, p. 1370.
  7. Apocalypse of Abraham, translated by Alexander Kulik, Outside the Bible, The Jewish Publication Society, 2013, pp. 1465-1466. This apropcryphal book was originally composed in Aramaic in the first or second century CE.
  8. Jereboam, the first ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel after it secedes, builds two temples with golden calves as idols in 1 Kings 12:28-30.
  9. Rabbi Moses ben Maimon or Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 3:46.
  10. 12th-century Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, translated in sefaria.org/Ibn_Ezra_on_Leviticus.17.7.1?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en.
  11. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, pp. 612-613.

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 | Leave a 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.)

 

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