Follow by Email

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Reading Above the Line

The scribal marks appearing over a handful of words or letters in the Hebrew version of the Bible are called eser nekudot ("ten dots" -- there are ten instances in the Torah; five in other books), or puncta extraordinaria.  While the latter term may sound pretentious in casual conversation, it is still preferable to “stigmatized words,” another description that is in use.  These words may have problems, but they do not deserve to be stigmatized.

One of the most intriguing examples is found in Gen. 33:4, the opening scene of Jacob’s dreaded encounter with Esau.  Even the normally unpunctuated Torah scroll will have a dot above each letter of the word וישקהו.

וַיָּרָץ עֵשָׂו לִקְרָאתוֹ וַיְחַבְּקֵהוּ וַיִּפֹּל עַל צַוָּארָו וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ וַיִּבְכּוּ:

Rashi addresses the dots, quoting from Sifre:

וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ - נקוד עליו, ויש חולקין בדבר הזה בברייתא דספרי (בהעלותך סט), יש שדרשו נקודה זו לומר שלא נשקו בכל לבו. אמר ר' שמעון בן יוחאי הלכה היא בידוע שעשו שונא ליעקב, אלא שנכמרו רחמיו באותה שעה ונשקו בכל לבו: 

Hazal saw the dots as cause for derash; a signal for midrashic interpretation to account for a problem with the word underneath.  The first opinion cited by Rashi claims that the dots are meant to detract from the literal meaning of the word.  Since Esau’s greeting was only halfhearted, the word is marked with a sort of exegetical strikethrough.  On the other hand, R. Shimon bar Yohai views the dots more like an underline or italics, meant to emphasize the uniqueness of Esau’s behavior rather than diminish the literalness of the word.  The kiss was indeed heartfelt, according to Rabbi Shimon, but it was also extraordinary; an exception to the rule borne out by history that “Esau always hates Jacob.”

Interestingly, Rashi cites this midrash from Sifre, rather than its parallel version in Bereshit Rabba (78):

וַיָּרָץ עֵשָׂו לִקְרָאתוֹ וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ, נקוד עליו. אר"ש בן אלעזר . . . מלמד שנכמרו רחמיו באותה השעה ונשקו בכל לבו. אמר לו ר' ינאי אם כן למה נקוד עליו? אלא מלמד שלא בא לנשקו אלא לנשכו, ונעשה צוארו של אבינו יעקב של שיש וקהו שיניו של אותו רשע. ומה ת"ל וַיִּבְכּוּ? אלא זה בוכה על צוארו וזה בוכה על שיניו, ר' אבהו בשם ר' יוחנן מייתי לה מן הכא (שיר השירים ז) צוארך כמגדל השן וגו'.

The latter opinion in this version suggests we exegetically "modify" וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ ("he kissed him") and read it וַיִּשָּׁכֵהוּ  ("he bit him").  The dots allow us to completely overturn the simple meaning of the verse by changing – homiletically, not textually – one letter.  In favoring the Sifre version, perhaps Rashi believed that it is closer to the peshat; that dots may indicate a word marked for emphasis or for “erasure” – again, on the level of midrash, rather than textual criticism – but that the marks could not suggest such a radically non-literal reading as found in Bereshit Rabba.  Ibn Ezra, for one, believed that the story of Esau biting Jacob’s neck was very far from peshat.  In his own characteristically sharp words: 

הדרש על נקודות וישקהו טוב הוא לעתיקי משדים, כי על דרך הפשט לא חשב עשו לעשות רע לאחיו, והעד ויבכו, כאשר עשה יוסף עם אחיו
On another instance of supra-linear punctuation in Genesis (19:33), וְלֹא-יָדַע בְּשִׁכְבָהּ וּבְקוּמָהּ, Rashi makes a fairly clear statement to the effect that dots are midrashic deletion marks.  There is a dot above the second vav in the word וּבְקוּמָהּ.  Rashi makes the following comment:

ובקומה - של בכירה נקוד, לומר הרי הוא כאילו לא נכתב, לומר שבקומה ידע ואף על פי כן לא נשמר ליל שני מלשתות.

The phrase I highlighted is missing from standard editions of Rashi’s commentary (e.g., Mikraot Gedolot), but appears in those based on the defus rishon, the incunabulum of Rashi’s commentary from 1475, printed in Reggio di Calabria in Southern Italy, and one of the first printed Hebrew books (e.g., ed. Chavel, Mossad Harav Kook, 1982).  This line in Rashi's comment, “[the dot] tells us that [the word] is as if not written,” was likely seen by some editors as dangerously close to the idea of textual emendation of the Torah by the Masoretes, in the same way that certain explicit references by Rashi to the alteration of biblical verses (tikkun soferim) were excised from his commentary (on tikkun soferim see, e.g., the following Seforim Blog post; on Rashi’s view of supra-linear dots, see also Bava Metzia 87a, s.v. limda דכל נקודה עוקרת התיבה שאינה אלא לדרשה). 

Rabbi David Weiss Halivni offers a thorough treatment of the eser nekudot in his Peshat and Derash (1991) and Revelation Restored (1997).  Halivni writes both as a traditionalist and as an academic scholar of rabbinic literature.  His thesis – in a summary that will not do justice to his erudition, or to the precision and elegance of his writing – is as follows:  Ezra, the prophet-scribe, and his colleagues inherited a Torah that had become “maculate” due to neglect, i.e., because of the culture of idolatry and syncretism which dominated the First Temple period.  In reintroducing Torah Law to a people eager for instruction, Ezra had to overcome the human maculation of the divine Torah.  One of the methods Ezra used to accomplish this was to place marks over corrupted texts.  Halivni cites a much-discussed passage on the nekudot in Bemidbar Rabba (3:13) which preserves the memory of Ezra’s role in this process:

וי"א למה נקוד. אלא כך אמר עזרא: אם יבא אליהו ויאמר, למה כתבת אותן? אומר לו כבר נקדתי עליהם. ואם יאמר לי, יפה כתבת! כבר אמחוק נקודותיהן מעליהן.
Some give another reason why the dots were inserted.  Ezra reasoned thus:  If Elijah comes and asks, “Why have you written these words?” I shall answer, “That is why I dotted these passages.”  And if he says to me, “You have done well in having written them,” I shall erase the dots above them (Translation from David Weiss Halivni, Revelation Restored, p. 17).

Other sources from the literature of Hazal (e.g., Sanhedrin 21b), refer to Ezra's role in the revelation as close to that of Moses.  The idea of textual emendation by Ezra was understandably downplayed over the generations, Halivni suggests, in order to emphasize the sanctity of the written word.  But evidence of such activity remains in these midrashic passages.

Theories dealing with changes to the text of the Torah may cause bnei Torah much confusion and discomfort, as they fly in the face of the most popular, and most radical, notions regarding the Masoretic text.  One such idea is Maimonides’ Eighth Principle of Faith, which states that the Torah we possess today is exactly the same – to the letter – as the one given to Moses on Sinai.  Without minimizing the problem, it is important to be aware of Maimonides’ detractors on this matter and also to view the Eighth Principle in its theological and historical context, both of which have been facilitated by Dr. Marc B. Shapiro in The Limits of Orthodox Theology (2004). (The theological issue goes well beyond Maimonides’ Principles of Faith and is addressed in detail by Halivni in Peshat and Derash).  The question of when, or even whether, to introduce traditional students to modern critical views of the eser nekudot, as well as other aspects of modern biblical scholarship, must be carefully considered by educators.

That the nekudot may be understood -- on the level of peshat -- as scribal marks casting doubt on the underlying words, can be visualized in the recent online publication of five Dead Sea Scrolls (on an Israel Museum website powered by Google).  In the Great Isaiah Scroll, viewable here and below, we see two examples, in nearby verses, of supra-linear dots (both within the column designated XXIX).  

The first example is from Isaiah 36:4, where the words מלך יהודה are marked in exactly the same manner as the eser nekudot.  The second is from 36:7, where dots were added above the word בירושלים.  In both cases, the marked words are absent in the Masoretic (i.e., our) version of Isaiah.  I am not suggesting that the dots in the Isaiah Scroll are perfectly analogous to those in the Torah, especially since the latter were, in the end, preserved along with the words below.  Furthermore, the notations in the Isaiah Scroll may have been driven by an unknown sectarian agenda.  Still, there is enough similarity here – lehavdil – to warrant comparison and to at least begin a discussion, even among bnei Torah.   

Returning to our original example from the reunion of Jacob and Esau (Gen. 33:4), I suspect that supra-linear marks over וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ were originally added for structural reasons, related to the proper flow of the verse.  Note how the word וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ is placed directly between two phrases, וַיִּפֹּל עַל-צַוָּארָו – hugging – and וַיִּבְכּוּ – crying.  However, in three other instances in Genesis, crying follows hugging immediately, without interruption:

45:14   וַיִּפֹּל עַל-צַוְּארֵי בִנְיָמִן-אָחִיו וַיֵּבְךְּ וּבִנְיָמִן בָּכָה עַל-צַוָּארָיו:
46:29   וַיֶּאְסֹר יוֹסֵף מֶרְכַּבְתּוֹ וַיַּעַל לִקְרַאת-יִשְֹרָאֵל אָבִיו גּשְׁנָה וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו וַיִּפֹּל עַל-צַוָּארָיו וַיֵּבְךְּ עַל-צַוָּארָיו עוֹד:
50:1  וַיִּפֹּל יוֹסֵף עַל-פְּנֵי אָבִיו וַיֵּבְךְּ עָלָיו וַיִּשַּׁק-לוֹ
This is perhaps the simplest explanation for Masoretic uncertainty regarding וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Waving the Lulav

The practice of נענועים (na'anu'im) -- waving and shaking the four Sukkot species in all directions -- begs for explanation.  It is an ancient ritual; though not mentioned in the Bible, it is cited in early rabbinic sources.  But despite its centrality to the Sukkot service, it remains mysterious even to insiders.

The halakhic significance of נענועים should not be minimized.  While the details of how and when to wave the lulav vary by community, the act of waving itself is considered much more than a mere “custom” in the halakhic literature. Technically, the halakhah requires only lifting or holding the four species to fulfill the mitzvah. But
early sources view na’anu’im as the essential, even defining, aspect of arba minim.  Two halakhot recorded in the Mishnah, regarding a lulav’s minimum size and the appropriate age to begin performing the mitzvah, make this clear:

לולב שיש בו שלשה טפחים כדי לנענע בו, כשר (משנה סוכה ג:א)  
קטן היודע לנענע, חייב בלולב  (משנה סוכה ג:טו)
Another tannaitic source (Tosefta Berakhot 3:19, quoted in Bavli Berakhot 30a) lists na’anu’im in parallel with blowing the shofar and reading the Megillah.  As a shofar is clearly intended for blowing and a Megillah for reading, the purpose of the four species, in this formulation, is for waving:

היה משכים לצאת לדרך נוטל שופר ותוקע, לולב ומנענע, מגילה וקורא בהן ומתפלל. ולכשיגיע זמן קריאת שמע קורא.

It appears that נענועים is more closely linked to the four species obligation than any other action (see, however, the Talmudic passage below where Raba implies that waving is considered only שירי מצוה - ancillary to the primary mitzvah).
The Talmud offers two reasons for waving the lulav, which it compares to the biblical תנופה, the waving of bread and sheep offerings on Shavuot (Sukka 37b, with modified Soncino translation below):

 אמר רבי יוחנן: מוליך ומביא ־ למי שהארבע רוחות שלו, מעלה ומוריד ־ למי שהשמים והארץ שלו. במערבא מתנו הכי, אמר רבי חמא בר עוקבא אמר רבי יוסי ברבי חנינא: מוליך ומביא ־ כדי לעצור רוחות רעות, מעלה ומוריד ־ כדי לעצור טללים רעים. אמר רבי יוסי בר אבין, ואיתימא רבי יוסי בר זבילא: זאת אומרת ,שירי מצוה מעכבין את הפורענות. שהרי תנופה שירי מצוה היא, ועוצרת רוחות וטללים רעים. ואמר רבא: וכן בלולב. רב אחא בר יעקב ממטי ליה ומייתי ליה, אמר: דין גירא בעיניה דסטנא. ולאו מלתא היא, משום דאתי לאיגרויי ביה.
R. Johanan explained, One waves them to and fro in honor of Him to Whom the four directions belong, and up and down in acknowledgment of Him to Whom are Heaven and Earth. In the Land of Israel they taught us thus: R. Hama b. ‘Ukba stated in the name of R. Jose son of R. Hanina, He waves them to and fro in order to restrain harmful winds; up and down, in order to restrain harmful dews. R. Jose b. Abin, or, as some say, R. Jose b. Zebila, observed, This implies that even the ancillary parts of a commandment prevent calamities; for the waving is obviously ancillary to the commandment, and yet it shuts out harmful winds and harmful dews. In connection with this Raba remarked, And so with the lulav. R. Aha b. Jacob used to wave it to and fro, saying, ‘This is an arrow in the eye of Satan’.* This, however, is not proper, since Satan might in consequence be provoked against him.

The reasons proposed here by the Sages - omni-directional waving of the four species acknowledges God's omnipresence; waving restrains harmful weather - reflect two major themes of Sukkot: Thanksgiving for the completed harvest, and prayer for the upcoming rainy season.  As Sukkot is the holiday on which we pray for the upcoming rains, we can readily understand how shaking the lulav could be linked with a desire to “restrain harmful winds and dews.”  It is also very reasonable that on the biblical Thanksgiving festival, we grasp the four harvest species and ritually wave them in all directions, to signify God’s omnipresence and his control over the agricultural cycle.  

Medieval Talmudists added to the Talmud's reasons.  For example, Tosafot (Sukka 37b, s.v. Be-Hodu) cites the juxtaposition of verses in I Chron. (16:33-35) to account for the Mishnah's requirement to wave the lulav while reciting specific verses within the Hallel prayer:
אָז יְרַנְּנוּ עֲצֵי הַיָּעַר מִלִּפְנֵי ה’ כִּי-בָא לִשְׁפּוֹט אֶת-הָאָרֶץ: הוֹדוּ לַה’ כִּי טוֹב כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ: וְאִמְרוּ הוֹשִׁיעֵנוּ אֱ-לֹהֵי יִשְׁעֵנוּ וְקַבְּצֵנוּ וְהַצִּילֵנוּ מִן-הַגּוֹיִם לְהֹדוֹת לְשֵׁם קָדְשֶׁךָ לְהִשְׁתַּבֵּחַ בִּתְהִלָּתֶךָ:

In this view, shaking the lulav mimics treetops blowing around in the wind, a sign of nature’s joy and delight in God's presence.  By waving the lulav, we demonstrate that our human songs of praise for God are in harmony with nature's songs. 

There are several biblical poems, especially in Psalms and Isaiah, where trees, mountains, and rivers "sing" (יְרַנְּנוּ) and "clap" (יִמְחֲאוּ-כָף) for God or for Israel:

יַעֲלֹ֣ז שָׂ֭דַי וְכָל־אֲשֶׁר־בּ֑וֹ אָ֥ז יְ֝רַנְּנ֗וּ כָּל־עֲצֵי־יָֽעַר׃ (תהלים צו:יב)

הָרִיעוּ לַה' כָּל-הָאָרֶץ פִּצְחוּ וְרַנְּנוּ וְזַמֵּרוּ: זַמְּרוּ לַה' בְּכִנּוֹר בְּכִנּוֹר וְקוֹל זִמְרָה . . . נְהָרוֹת יִמְחֲאוּ-כָף יַחַד הָרִים יְרַנֵּנו
(תהלים צח:ד)

(הֶהָרִים וְהַגְּבָעוֹת יִפְצְחוּ לִפְנֵיכֶם רִנָּה וְכָל-עֲצֵי הַשָּׂדֶה יִמְחֲאוּ-כָף (ישעיה נה:י

Each of these natural phenomena generate impressive sounds and, in the poet's imagination, joyful song; mountains also seem to sing as the wind rushes through their trees.

In one of its rabbinic usages, the word נענוע itself connotes song and music; e.g., Tosefta Sanhedrin 12:5:

רבי עקיבא אומר המנענע קולו בשיר השירים בבית המשתה ועושה אותו כמין זמר אין לו חלק לעולם

A similar musical usage is employed by the author of שמיני אשפוך, a piyyut for Maariv on Shemini Azeret, when he refers to playing a new eighth string -- there were previously seven -- on the harp of the future Temple:
שמיני לעודף שמחה לראות / לנענע שמיני בעשותו נוראות

I recently came across an intriguing and novel approach to the origin of na’anu’im.  Moshe Zeev Sole suggests that waving the four species derives from an ancient desire to create a sort of artificial wind, by which to remind the angel appointed on the wind and rain to fulfill his annual duties.**  He does not present any evidence for this claim. Leaving that aside, this theurgical interpretation – one which sees the ritual as an attempt to influence the behavior of a divinity – may make na’anu’im seem primitive and obsolete.  Today, it is laughable to imagine that anyone would shake a lulav to awaken a wind spirit.  

To be fair, a theurgical element also appears to underlie the latter part of the Talmudic passage above, which refers to "restraining harmful winds and dews” and to shooting “an arrow in the eye of Satan” by means of waving the lulav (see Maharsha's commentary, ad loc.).  Even if that were true, however, in its conclusion, the Talmud is uncomfortable with the idea of using the lulav to fight Satan. In an attempt, perhaps, to suppress overt theurgy, the Talmud rejects R. Aha's practice of invoking Satan’s name explicitly during na’anu’im.

In fact, we are already familiar with the "angel of rain" from another context in the Sukkot Machzor.  He is mentioned in the opening line of Tefillat Geshem, recited on Shemini Azeret: אף ברי אותת שם שר מטר – “The prince of rain has been
named Af Beri.”  Even if not addressed directly, the שר מטר was clearly seen by Eleazar Ha-Kalir, the prayer's circa-seventh-century composer, as a prominent force in bringing rain.

When considering such theories regarding the origins of religious practices, it is important not to confuse origin with meaning.  Whatever the historical origin (real or presumed) of a practice, its meaning is far more significant - at least to those observing it.  Meaning is highly subjective and can come from a variety of sources.  For some, meaning and origin are intertwined: Insight into the origin of a practice may indeed enrich its meaning.  But historical origin need not exclude other variables from the determination of meaning.  Over the centuries, ta'ame ha-mitzvot and ta'ame ha-minhagim have been highly dynamic and open to widely varying creative interpretation precisely because they deal not so much with origin as with meaning, which changes with time and place.

As modern people and as heirs to the rationalist tradition within Judaism, we tend – for good reason – to minimize the role of angels and demons in our tradition.  It is understandable, then, that the “wind angel” theory of na’anu’im causes us much discomfort.  On the other hand, even as moderns we may allow ourselves to draw inspiration from the idea of waving the lulav in order to generate a musical wind – taken by itself, perhaps, and with apologies to any meteorological angel who may feel left out. The idea is not too distant, after all, from Tosafot’s suggestion that na’anu’im represent the joining of nature’s personified song with human paeans of joy and thanksgiving following the harvest; of אָז יְרַנְּנוּ עֲצֵי הַיָּעַר  in concert with הוֹדוּ לַה כִּי-טוֹב.

* Sharp objects, natural or man-made, shown piercing an eye was a common motif in the ancient war on the evil eye.  See, for example, this second century Roman mosaic from Antioch.

**Ha-Moadim Ve-Hamikra, (Jerusalem: Mabat, 1985), pp. 83ff. The author (1908-1994) was trained at the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin and wrote several volumes on various topics in philosophy and Jewish Studies. A brief biography in David Tidhar's recently digitized Entziklopedia Le-Halutze Ha-Yishuv U-Vonav is available here.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Clouds of Honor and Sukkot

בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כָּל-הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְֹרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת: לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְֹרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי ה' אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם:

Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are Israelites born shall dwell in booths. That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23:42-43)

Aside from this secondary reference, where does the Torah state that the Israelites constructed booths in the desert following the exodus?  There is no explicit record of such an event either in Exodus or in Deuteronomy.  Yet, in this passage from Leviticus, it is recalled as if it were a well-known milestone in Israel's early history. This problem likely gave rise to a dispute among the Sages on the meaning of the words כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי in this passage.  An early midrash, in Sifra (Emor 17:11), sets up the opposing views:

לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְֹרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. רבי אליעזר אומר סוכות ממש היו. רבי עקיבא אומר בַסֻּכּוֹת -- ענני כבוד היו

Rabbi Eliezer’s interpretation, סוכות ממש היו -- these were real, “brick-and-mortar” structures -- is based on a literal reading of this passage, and appears to disregard the lack of an earlier reference to the event.  The identification of סוכות with divine clouds, on the other hand, seems quite non-literal and non-intuitive, even if it refers to something mentioned previously in Exodus, i.e., the “cloud-pillar” which guided the Israelites through their travels in the desert (Ex. 13:21). The clouds which first appeared after the exodus are clearly R. Akiva’s inspiration for reading clouds into this context.  But what real connection is there between “booths” and “clouds” that allows for such a seemingly tenuous identification?  

I will attempt to show that סוכות interpreted as ענני כבוד -- “clouds of honor” -- is strongly suggested by the biblical text, and is not merely the product of free-ranging midrashic creativity.  I will also address the underlying meaning of the clouds.

Our tradition has long taken the booths-as-clouds position.  This interpretation may be familiar from Rashi’s commentary on the Torah (Lev. 23:43); in fact, young yeshiva students may not even be aware of an opposing view.  Rashi’s comment on the phrase כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי is categorical, stated in only two words: ענני כבוד (cf. Onkelos - אֲרֵי בִמְטָלַת עֲנָנִין אוֹתֵיבִית יַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל).  No allowance is made, as is common elsewhere in Rashi's commentary, for a davar aher -- an alternative explanation.  As it happens, Rashi's position here is consistent with another statement he makes, in his Talmud commentary, taking for granted that “being surrounded by clouds of honor” is the literal meaning -- the peshat -- of the words כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי.  In an offhand remark within a discussion on the maximum height of a sukka (Sukka 2a), Rashi adds the following:

למען ידעו ־ עשה סוכה שישיבתה ניכרת לך, דכתיב יֵדְעוּ כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי ־ צויתי לישב, הכי דריש ליה.  ואף על גב דאין יוצא מידי פשוטו דהיקף ענני כבוד, מיהו דרשינן ליה לדרשה.

We do not normally expect Halakha to weigh in on exegetical problems.  In this case, however, “clouds of honor” has taken on a normative status; it is cited in both the Tur and Shulhan Arukh as the authoritative, and exclusive, reason for the mitzva of sukka (OH 625) .

I stated earlier that outside of Leviticus the Bible makes no mention of booth-dwelling following the exodus.  But from the perspective of the Sages this is not completely accurate.  Some among them did, in fact, see such a reference in a passage from Exodus regarding the Israelites’ first encampment in the desert.  The following midrash (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Bo 14) on וַיִּסְעוּ בְנֵי-יִשְֹרָאֵל מֵרַעְמְסֵס סֻכֹּתָה (Ex. 12:37) cites the dispute mentioned earlier on the word סוכות, quoting the views of the same protagonists, R. Eliezer and R. Akiva.  In this passage, the midrash tries to account for סוכות as a place name:

וַיִּסְעוּ בְנֵי-יִשְֹרָאֵל מֵרַעְמְסֵס סֻכֹּתָה. סוכות ממש דכתיב (בראשית ל״ג:יז) וְיַעֲקֹב נָסַע סֻכֹּתָה, דברי רבי אליעזר. וחכמים אומרים אין סוכות אלא מקום שנאמר (שמות יג:כ), וַיִּסְעוּ מִסֻּכֹּת וַיַּחֲנוּ בְאֵתָם, מה איתם מקום אף סוכות מקום. רבי עקיבא אומר אין סוכות אלא ענני כבוד שנאמר (ישעיה ד:ה-ו) וּבָרָא ה' עַל כָּל-מְכוֹן הַר-צִיּוֹן וְעַל-מִקְרָאֶהָ עָנָן יוֹמָם וְעָשָׁן וְנֹגַהּ אֵשׁ לֶהָבָה לָיְלָה כִּי עַל-כָּל-כָּבוֹד חֻפָּה: וְסֻכָּה תִּהְיֶה לְצֵל-יוֹמָם מֵחֹרֶב וּלְמַחְסֶה וּלְמִסְתּוֹר מִזֶּרֶם וּמִמָּטָר.

Here we have three opinions regarding סוכות, where Israel camped between Ramses and Etam: It refers to real booths (Jacob also built booths, in a different location, and named the place סוכות); it is nothing more than a place name (just like Etam, the next station in the desert); or, in R. Akiva's exegesis of the verses in both Genesis and Leviticus, סוכות are clouds (Isaiah uses the words עָנָן and סֻכָּה in parallel).

Aside from the Isaiah verse cited in the previous midrash, several additional biblical poems use the words עָנָן and סֻכָּה -- or variations -- in parallel, or even within the same phrase.  Here are four additional examples:

  1. יָשֶׁת חשֶׁךְ סִתְרוֹ סְבִיבוֹתָיו סֻכָּתוֹ חֶשְׁכַת-מַיִם עָבֵי שְׁחָקִים (Psalms 18:12; cf. II Samuel 22:12)
  2. פָּרַשֹ עָנָן לְמָסָךְ וְאֵשׁ לְהָאִיר לָיְלָה  (Psalms 105:39)  
  3. אַף אִם-יָבִין מִפְרְשֵֹי-עָב תְּשֻׁאוֹת סֻכָּתוֹ   (Job 36:29)   
  4. סַכּוֹתָה בֶעָנָן לָךְ מֵעֲבוֹר תְּפִלָּה  (Lamentations 3:44)  
Note that the image of clouds and booths (or tents) take on a variety of meanings in these verses.  They are a veil which keeps God hidden from man (nos. 1,3), a canopy spread over Israel for protection (Isaiah 4:5-6 and no. 2), and, in an ironic play on the canopy metaphor, they become a barrier blocking Israel’s prayers after the Babylonian exile (no. 4). They represent heavenly protection (God covering Israel) as well as the distance and mystery of the divine (God covering himself).  But in all of these examples, עָנָן and סֻכָּה echo each other through parallelism and metaphor.  This interplay of images surely contributed to reading כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי as heavenly clouds, especially since הוֹשַׁבְתִּי, "I made to dwell," implies a divinely constructed dwelling.

There is also a very strong contextual link between עָנָן and סֻכָּה in Exodus (12:20-23), within the “pillar of cloud” passage:   

וַיִּסְעוּ מִסֻּכֹּת וַיַּחֲנוּ בְאֵתָם בִּקְצֵה הַמִּדְבָּר: וַה’ הֹלֵךְ לִפְנֵיהֶם יוֹמָם בְּעַמּוּד עָנָן לַנְחֹתָם הַדֶּרֶךְ וְלַיְלָה בְּעַמּוּד אֵשׁ לְהָאִיר לָהֶם לָלֶכֶת יוֹמָם וָלָיְלָה: לֹא-יָמִישׁ עַמּוּד הֶעָנָן יוֹמָם וְעַמּוּד הָאֵשׁ לָיְלָה לִפְנֵי הָעָם:

In this case, the link is based on the interpretive technique of adjoining verses, semikhut pesukim.  Note how the second verse, about the divine cloud, immediately follows the report of the journey from Sukkot to Etam.  I believe this suggested to R. Akiva, possibly more than any other clue, that Sukkot -- the very first station outside of Egypt -- was the location where the cloud first appeared.  Sukkot (the place) of Exodus 12 must have been named for this great providential event; that is, it was called Sukkot in honor of divine clouds, rather than man-made tents which are, after all, absent from the exodus narrative.  And, applying this line of exegesis even further, R. Akiva concluded that בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי of Leviticus 23 also refers to divine clouds.  When the Torah tells us that Sukkot (the holiday) recalls “that I made the children of Israel to dwell 'בַסֻּכּוֹת' when I brought them out of the land of Egypt,” it refers quite literally to the event immediately following the exodus from Egypt, i.e., the arrival at a place that came to be known as Sukkot, because of clouds, rather than tents. 

In fact, the linkage between clouds and Sukkot (the place) is already implied in Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai (Bo 12), in a passage parallel to the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael cited above:

 סוכותה.  ר' עקיבה אומ' סוכות ממש עשו להן בסוכות. ר' אליעזר אומ' סוכות ענני כבוד באו וחנו על גגי רעמסס. מושלו משל, למה הדבר דומה? לחתן שהביא אפריון לפתח ביתה של כלה כדי שתכנס לו מיד 

Note the explicit linkage in R. Eliezer's view between the clouds and Ramses, the station immediately preceding Sukkot, where the Exodus began.

(I was pleased to discover that David Zvi Hoffmann takes this overall approach in Das Buch Leviticus, 1906; Hebrew edition, Sefer Vayikra, Jerusalem, 1976, v. 2, pp. 206ff.)

Now that we have established a textual connection between tents and divine clouds, here are some thoughts on the meaning of "clouds of honor":

The ענני כבוד of the Sages are based on biblical imagery that we have cited above, but only on a subset of those images.  The clouds imagined by the Sages are intimate and protective rather than numinous or glorious. They represent the Shekhina in its familiar, maternal form.  These are not the same clouds which descended on Sinai accompanied by fire and thunder, or which filled the Tabernacle and Solomon's Temple when each was dedicated.  When God appears in a cloud, the Bible often calls his presence 'כְבוֹד ה (e.g., Ex. 16:10, 24:17, 40:34).  The King James Version translates this phrase as the "glory of God."  But the ענני כבוד of the Sages are different.  Rather than a symbol of God's overwhelming glory, they are a sign of God's honor and love for Israel.

The Mekhilta (Petihta Beshalah) states that the pillar of cloud was a widely visible display of affection designed to honor Israel in the eyes of the nations - כך הודיע הקב״ה חבתן של ישראל לאומות העולם שהוא בעצמו הלך לפניהם שיהיו נוהגים עמהם בכבוד.  Therefore, we may conclude that the "כבוד" in ענני כבוד belongs to Israel, rather than to God.  For this reason I have translated this term as "clouds of honor" rather than "clouds of glory."  (The contrast between glory and honor is wonderfully illustrated in the KJV's dual translation of כבוד within a single biblical verse, Prov. 25:2: כְּבֹד אֱלֹהִים הַסְתֵּר דָּבָר וּכְבֹד מְלָכִים חֲקֹר דָּבָר - KJV: "It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter").

The Midrash associates the clouds of honor with parental and even romantic imagery from the Bible. With imagery drawn from the Ha'azinu poem, the Sages portray God enveloping Israel in the desert as a mother or father shields a young child:

(Deuteronomy 32:10)  יִמְצָאֵהוּ בְּאֶרֶץ מִדְבָּר וּבְתֹהוּ יְלֵל יְשִׁמֹן יְסֹבֲבֶנְהוּ יְבוֹנֲנֵהוּ יִצְּרֶנְהוּ כְּאִישׁוֹן עֵינוֹ 
(Bemidbar Rabba 2:6) יְסֹבֲבֶנְהוּ - שהקיפן בענני כבוד

Using an even more intimate metaphor, the Sages compare the clouds to the surrounding embrace of the male lover in the Song of Songs (2:6; Midrash Zuta, ed. Buber, 2):

שְֹמֹאלוֹ תַּחַת לְרֹאשִׁי. אלו ענני הכבוד שהיו מקיפים את ישראל מלמעלה ומלמטה

In yet another midrash (Shir Ha-Shirim Rabba 2) on the same verse, סוכות and clouds are again tied together, though here the divine clouds are imagined in Israel's future rather than its past:

שְֹמֹאלוֹ תַּחַת לְרֹאשִׁי, זו סוכה, וִימִינוֹ תְּחַבְּקֵנִי, זה ענן שכינה לעתיד לבא הה"ד (ישעיהו ס') לֹא-יִהְיֶה-לָּךְ עוֹד הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ לְאוֹר יוֹמָם וּלְנֹגַהּ הַיָּרֵחַ לֹא-יָאִיר לָךְ. מי מאיר לך? (שם) וְהָיָה-לָךְ ה' לְאוֹר עוֹלָם.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

"A Wise and Understanding People"

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִֹיתֶם כִּי הִוא חָכְמַתְכֶם וּבִינַתְכֶם לְעֵינֵי הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְעוּן אֵת כָּל-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה וְאָמְרוּ רַק עַם-חָכָם וְנָבוֹן הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה: כִּי מִי-גוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ אֱ-לֹהִים קְרֹבִים אֵלָיו כַּה' אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ בְּכָל-קָרְאֵנוּ אֵלָיו: וּמִי גּוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ חֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים צַדִּיקִם כְּכֹל הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם

Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.  For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon him for?  And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?

In its simplest reading, this passage (Deuteronomy 4:6-8) states that knowledge of the mitzvot will naturally elicit admiration for Israel from the nations.  It thus presumes that the commandments have a universal, even self-evident, quality.  It is as if to say: When it comes to the Torah, what’s not to like?  

But, in reality, the idea that the world can easily identify with our laws is not at all obvious.  In fact, we have been taught from an early age that the moral barriers between Israel and the nations are too high to overcome.  When God offered the Torah to each of Israel’s neighbors, as we know from the oft-repeated midrash, they rejected it as fundamentally incompatible with their core beliefs and practices.  

This latter view may have led some of the Sages to minimize the scope of the verses above.  For example, Rabbi Shmuel (Shabbat 75a) attributes the “wisdom and understanding” of this passage to one particular aspect of the law, astronomical/calendrical calculation. Such wisdom is undeniably universal:

אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר רבי יוחנן: מנין שמצוה על האדם לחשב תקופות ומזלות? ־ שנאמר (דברים ד) ושמרתם ועשיתם כי היא חכמתכם ובינתכם לעיני העמים. איזו חכמה ובינה שהיא לעיני העמים? ־ הוי אומר זה חישוב תקופות ומזלות

Mastery of astronomy -- an empirical, objective science -- will surely impress the nations. But particularistic laws, such as Shabbat and kashrut, could never achieve the same result.

The Rambam, on the other hand, has a maximalist reading of these verses.  He cites them in the Guide of the Perplexed (III:31) within an impassioned argument for the existence of intelligible reasons for all the mitzvot, including the hukkim.  After all, he says, the hukkim are singled out in this passage:

. . . The sole object of the Law is to benefit us. Thus we explained the Scriptural passage, "for our good always, that He might preserve us alive, as it is this day" (Deut. 6:24). Again, "which shall hear all those statutes (hukkim), and say, surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people" (ibid. 4:6). He thus says that even every one of these "statutes" convinces all nations of the wisdom and understanding it includes.  But if no reason could be found for these statutes, if they produced no advantage and removed no evil, why then should he who believes in them and follows them be wise, reasonable, and so excellent as to raise the admiration of all nations? But the truth is undoubtedly as we have said, that every one of the six hundred and thirteen precepts serves to inculcate some truth, to remove some erroneous opinion, to establish proper relations in society, to diminish evil, to train in good manners or to warn against bad habits.

This view suits a medieval rationalist such as Maimonides, with his full confidence in the rational basis of the mitzvot.  Since the ta’am of every mitzva is based on some universally accepted good, it is only natural that the mitzvot display “wisdom and understanding” that can be universally acknowledged.  

It is interesting to contrast this view with that of the Netziv (R. Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, Ha'amek Davar, Deut. 4:6).  Like the amora R. Shmuel, he too narrows the subject of these verses, but in a different way.  For the Netziv, they refer to the Oral Law, i.e., the Talmud.  The Oral rather than the Written Law, he says, will one day be seen as the defining achievement of the Jewish people in the eyes of the world, as the logic and methodology of the Oral Law -- this, according to the Netziv, is how one should interpret the word hukkim -- are clearly the product of Israel’s “wisdom and understanding.” The ever-expanding Talmud, even more than the written Torah, will bring honor to the Jewish people:

As you continuously add to the abundance of the (Oral) Law, over and above the Written Law, the nations of the world will be amazed (to discover) how expansive and exalted is (the Oral Law), due to the wisdom and understanding of Israel.