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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Hibut Arava: An imitative threshing ritual?

The beating of willow branches into the ground on Hoshana Rabba (חיבוט ערבה) is a mysterious ritual on an unusual festival-within-a-festival.  A definitive explanation of its origins and meaning has eluded scholars.  Not surprisingly, the custom has given rise to a wide variety of interpretations that tend to be esoteric or strained.

“Brook willows” are one of the four biblically mandated species for Sukkot, but nowhere in the Bible is there a reference to an independent ritual to be performed with a willow branch.  The Mishna and Talmud, however, speak of a separate willow ritual they assign nearly biblical status.

The rabbis describe an elaborate Temple ritual in which the priests carried tall willow branches around the altar while they blew shofars and recited verses from the Hallel prayer.  The willow bearers circled the altar once each day; seven times on the seventh day.

After the destruction of the Temple, a somewhat diminished version of the willow ceremony continued in the synagogue.  On each day of Sukkot, worshipers circle the bima once, Lulav and Etrog in hand, while reciting Hoshanot hymns (after the constant refrain of hosha na, or "please save us").  The seventh day of Sukkot is Hoshana Rabba -- the "Great Hoshana Day" -- when congregants make seven revolutions around the bima with the four species.  For the concluding hymns, they replace the Lulav and Etrog with a set of five willow branches.

In post-Temple times, without an altar, what should one do with the willow branches?  The Talmud describes a ritual it calls חיבוט -- a word whose meaning, in this context, is not entirely clear.

Rashi defines חיבוט as נענוע (shaking or waving), the same term the rabbis use to describe the ritual pointing and shaking of the four species in all directions. The analogy is thoroughly reasonable, as there is nothing explicit in the Talmud about beating specifically on the ground. But Rashi held the minority view. Maimonides and others took חיבוט to mean beating, though not necessarily on the ground.  This remains the most common practice.

The ground-beating tradition is at least as old as the Geonim. In a responsum, Rabbi Tzemah Gaon takes this type of performance for granted, and offers the following two explanations:

וששאלתם לענין ערבה שחובטין אותה בקרקע, מהו? הכי חזינן דערבה דומה לשפתים והיא באה לכפר עליהם מכאן ולהלאה "יתן בעפר פיהו אולי יש תקוה." ומשמא דקדמונאי אמרו, חביטא אמאי? משום "כל כלי יוצר עליך לא יצלח וכל לשון תקום אתך וגו'" -- משום דעד כאן ביומין אלין השטן מקטרג וישראל ביומין אלין דנפישי מצות מבטלי ליה מכאן ולהלאה כל שפה דיקום עלייהו לא יכול לשלטאה ויהא נפיל בארעא 

The midrash compares each of the four species to a part of the human body.  Willow leaves are said to resemble lips. Drawing on this simile, Rabbi Tzemah links חיבוט ערבה to atonement, in one of two ways: The willow beater symbolically “puts his mouth in the dust” (Lamentations 3:29), a sign of expiating sin, preemptively, for the coming year.  Alternatively, the willow evokes the mouth of Satan, whose slanders against the Children of Israel will be cast down to the ground and fail (see Isaiah 54:17) by virtue of the numerous mitzvot we perform in this season. (Note that R. Tzemah does not speak here of Hoshana Rabba as a day of atonement for the previous year -- in both explanations he describes a prophylactic ritual (מכאן ולהלאה). This is forward-looking atonement.)

Hoshana Rabba took on increasing significance in the medieval period. Kabbalists, especially, viewed the holiday as the culmination of the atonement cycle: It is, after all, the last day of Sukkot, on which Mishna Rosh Ha-Shanah says the entire world is “judged for rainfall.” Nahmanides, Sefer Hasidim, and others refer to the day as יום החתום -- i.e., when divine reckonings are "sealed" even more permanently than on Yom Kippur.  In the Zohar, it is the day on which God delivers פתקין (written notices) to settle his judgments from Yom Kippur. 

By the sixteenth century, Lurianic Kabbalah had elevated חיבוט ערבה to a previously unknown level, describing it in dramatic theurgical terms (the idea, often related to magic, that human rituals properly performed will influence the divine realm).

The Ari's theology is based on the theological system of ten divine sefirot (emanations or hypostases of God). In the Lurianic exegesis of willow beating, willow branches symbolize the sefira of gevura (“might” or restraint), associated with the divine quality of strict justice. The ground represents malkhut (“kingdom”), the lowest sefira, deeply connected to the Shekhina -- the feminine, maternal form of divinity and a representation of God’s mercy. Furthermore, Lurianic Kabbalah ascribes five aspects to gevura corresponding to the five sofit letters, מנצפ״ך.

Tying all of these elements together, according to the Lurianic tradition: On the final judgment day of the year, one must take exactly five branches, beat them exactly five times, no more and no less, and only on the ground.  The idea is to unite -- or “marry” -- the sefirot of gevura and malkhut and thereby “sweeten” God’s strict justice.  (Note the practical halakhic consequences of this theoretical interpretation.  Maimonides, in contrast, codified a relatively amorphous requirement of "one or several branches . . . which are beaten on the ground or on a vessel, two or three times . . .")

The interplay of theology and practice is striking: A completely innovative theurgical narrative generates a set of newly defined halakhic parameters, precisely calibrated to achieve its desired effect, for an existing though loosely defined ritual practice.

This metaphysical process is spelled out in the yehi ratzon prayer recited following חיבוט ערבה, a text that is found with minor variations in both Sephardic and Ashkenazic siddurim:

וְהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה תִּתֵּן בִּשְׁכִינַת עֻזֶּךָ חָמֵשׁ גְּבוּרוֹת מְמֻתָּקוֹת עַל יְדֵי חֲבִיטַת עֲרָבָה מִנְהַג נְבִיאֶיךָ הַקְּדוֹשִׁים וְתִתְעוֹרֵר הָאַהֲבָה בֵּינֵיהֶם וּתְנַשְּׁקֵנוּ מִנְּשִׁיקוֹת פִּיךָ מַמְתֶּקֶת כָּל הַגְּבוּרוֹת וְכָל הַדִּינִין וְתָאִיר לִשְׁכִינַת עֻזֶּךָ בְשֵׁם (יו"ד ה"א וא"ו) שֶׁהוּא טַל אוֹרוֹת טַלֶּך 

This new interpretation is typical of Lurianic Kabbalah: An ancient, sacred ritual is said to exert a harmonizing influence on dynamic “intradivine” qualities (Gershom Scholem’s phrase) and must conform in every detail to the proscribed procedure.

In fact, this particular explanation combines two of the four recurring themes found in Kabbalistic explanations of the mitzvot and liturgy, as defined by Scholem (see “Tradition and New Creation in the Ritual of the Kabbalists” in On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism):

1. Harmony between the rigid powers of judgment and the flowing powers of mercy.
2. The sacred marriage, or conjunctio of the masculine and feminine.
3. Redemption of the Shekhina from its entanglement in the “other side.”
4. Defense against, or mastery over, the “other side.” 

While maintaining strict adherence to tradition, the pursuit of philosophically relevant meaning in the mitzvot and their related customs has long preoccupied Jewish thinkers.  The project persists to this day, especially when the origins of a particular practice are murky and its meaning obscure.

In our case, modern students of Jewish ritual appear to be unsatisfied with the enduring Lurianic narrative.  Like the Ari himself, they bring innovative interpretive approaches to bear on the problem.  A survey of three recently published theories regarding the origins of חיבוט ערבה demonstrates the range of creative possibilities such a suggestive but cryptic ritual can inspire. 

In a detailed history of the custom, Bradley Shavit Artson weighs various interpretations but concludes that beating the leaves off willow branches ultimately has a technical halakhic purpose, “to disqualify the aravot from any further ritual function.”

Zev Farber argues that circling around the altar during Hoshanot was meant to summon God’s presence to receive our prayers for rain, just as the circuits around Jericho in the Book of Joshua summoned God to destroy the city’s walls. But summoning the divine presence entails great risk to man (see, e.g., the death of Nadav and Avihu). The beating of willows on Hoshana Rabba, he says, has an apotropaic purpose, to “protect the Jews from any negative consequences that might have come with the summoning of God to hear our prayers.”

In another recent attempt at uncovering the origins of this custom, Steven Weiner points to a prophecy of Haggai (chapter 2) addressing the returning exiles who were disappointed by the diminished new Temple in Jerusalem. This prophecy was given on the twenty-first day of Tishrei, which is the permanent date of Hoshana Rabba. Among the notable images in the prophecy is the following: “For thus says the Lord of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land.” After carefully arguing his case, the author concludes that “the seemingly bizarre ritual of shaking branches and striking the ground expressed profound longing for (and faith in) a more perfect גאולה, by vividly acting out the vision of חגי that one day God will bring a fully redemptive ‘upheaval’ when His presence returns to ‘shake’ the earth and overthrow all oppressors.”

These theories are all highly original and they may deepen the intellectual appreciation and spirituality of the willow beating.  I do not find them historically plausible or religiously compelling.  Critically, and unlike the explanations of R. Tzemah Gaon and the Ari, I do not believe any of them sufficiently addresses the ritual as a function of the major themes of Hoshana Rabba.

My own view on the origins and meaning of חיבוט ערבה lacks conclusive evidence -- for now, it will remain conjecture. Perhaps someone will be inspired to conduct the scholarly heavy lifting that will either confirm or disprove my hypothesis. 

But this much we know: In both Jewish and Greek cultures, the willow represented water.  The Hoshanot ceremony -- in both primitive agrarian and modern societies -- is most fundamentally a supplication for rain and, as mentioned, an ancient rabbinic tradition considered Hoshana Rabba the final day of judgment for the imminent rainy season -- on Shemini Azeret, the very next day, we begin praying for rain on a daily basis. Several piyyutim for Hoshanot petition God for rain, for a fruitful harvest, and for protection from agricultural diseases and crop failure (אדון המושיע; אדם ובהמה; אדמה מארר; למען תמים; תענה אמונים).

Praying for rain at the beginning of winter is essentially the same as praying for a bountiful harvest in the coming summer. And, considering the overall appearance of a willow branch, not only does it evoke water, it also resembles a stalk of grain. I believe חיבוט ערבה was originally intended to augur the threshing of grain at the harvest, the final stage in the agricultural cycle. 

Supporting evidence comes from the biblical usage of חבט.  Conjugations of this root appear five times: Four of the five instances refer to threshing grain (e.g., Judges 6:11 - וְגִדְעוֹן בְּנוֹ חֹבֵט חִטִּים בַּגַּת); the fifth to harvesting olives by striking their branches (Deut. 24:20). While the usage of חבט in rabbinic Hebrew goes well beyond its literal sense (it became a loan word for hitting something or someone), the word retained its original meaning of threshing grain by hand on the ground, especially in contrast to more efficient techniques.*  It is the primary usage of the word that was intended, I believe, by the original act and the original linguistic expression of חיבוט ערבה.  This was an imitative, symbolic threshing ritual at the start of the rainy season performed in anticipation of harvesting grain on the threshing floor half a year later.

We generally observe religious customs simply because they are customary. But despite the genuine religious feelings and the sense of historical continuity and communal fellowship that accompany participation in any religious ritual -- including a mysterious ritual -- we are often left unsatisfied by performing a symbolic act whose symbolism remains inaccessible.  (Imagine, for example, a Passover Seder without the Haggadah's explanation of the symbolic foods -- such a Seder, stripped of its exoteric meaning, might be called mysterious rather than symbolic). Whatever your position on rationalizing the biblical commandments, it would be difficult to argue that beating the willow on Hoshana Rabba must be accepted as an unintelligible hok (a non-rational decree).

One might even say that for the richest religious experience, “symbols require kavvana.”

__________

*The distinction between חובט -- manual threshing -- and דש, by means of a sledge pulled by an animal, is readily apparent in Mishna Terumot 9:3:

החובט משובח. והדש, כיצד יעשה? תולה קפיפות בצווארי בהמה, ונותן לתוכן מאותו המין; ונמצא לא זומם את הבהמה, ולא מאכיל את התרומה..

I am grateful to my son Yehuda נ״י for pointing me to this mishna.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Pharaoh's three advisers

רבותינו ז"ל דרשו דרשה מפתיעה על הפסוק (שמות א:י) "הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה לוֹ פֶּן־יִרְבֶּה וְהָיָה כִּי־תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם־הוּא עַל־שֹׂנְאֵינוּ וְנִלְחַם־בָּנוּ וְעָלָה מִן־הָאָרֶץ"׃


א"ר חייא בר אבא א"ר סימאי, שלשה היו באותה עצה: בלעם, ואיוב, ויתרו. בלעם שיעץ - נהרג, איוב ששתק - נידון ביסורין, יתרו שברח - זכו מבני בניו שישבו בלשכת הגזית, שנאמר: (דברי הימים א' ב) "וּמִשְׁפְּחוֹת סֹפְרִים יֹשְׁבֵי יַעְבֵּץ תִּרְעָתִים שִׁמְעָתִים שׂוּכָתִים הֵמָּה הַקִּינִים הַבָּאִים מֵחַמַּת אֲבִי בֵית־רֵכָב", וכתיב: (שופטים א) "וּבְנֵי קֵינִי חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה עָלוּ מֵעִיר הַתְּמָרִים אֶת־בְּנֵי יְהוּדָה מִדְבַּר יְהוּדָה אֲשֶׁר בְּנֶגֶב עֲרָד וַיֵּלֶךְ וַיֵּשֶׁב אֶת־הָעָם." (סוטה יא. ומקורות מקבילות)
יש לתמוה: מנין להם לחז"ל שדווקא שלש הדמויות האלו השתתפו בהתיעצות עם פרעה בקנוניה נגד בני ישראל?

התשובה, כנראה, נמצאת בפסוקים במקרא שבהם נאמר במפורש שהאישים הנזכרים – בלעם, איוב, ויתרו – הצטיינו בייעוץ לפני מלכים ומנהיגים.[1]


יתרו, כמובן, יעץ למשה למנות שופטים כדי להקל על העול המשפטי של המחוקק הטרוד:

עַתָּה שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי אִיעָצְךָ וִיהִי אֱ-לֹהִים עִמָּךְ הֱיֵה אַתָּה לָעָם מוּל הָאֱ-לֹהִים וְהֵבֵאתָ אַתָּה אֶת־הַדְּבָרִים אֶל־הָאֱ-לֹהִים׃ (שמות יח:יט)
וכידוע, יתרו הוא לא רק חותנו של משה, הוא גם הכהן הגדול של מדין, מדינה קרובה למצרים. חז"ל הניחו בצדק שפרעה היה מתייעץ במנהיגים מכובדים של העמים השכנים.
גם בלעם עסק בשרותי ייעוץ למלכים, אם לא במפורש לפרעה מלך מצרים, הלא כך הוא מציע לבלק מלך מואב:

וְעַתָּה הִנְנִי הוֹלֵךְ לְעַמִּי לְכָה אִיעָצְךָ אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה הָעָם הַזֶּה לְעַמְּךָ בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים׃ (במדבר כד:יד)
ואם בלעם היה המומחה הגדול לקללות של העולם העתיק, ועתיד היה לנסות לקלל את עם ישראל, בודאי גם ייקרא להשתתף בתכנון המצרי לנגש את העם-בתוך-עם ההולך וגדל.
ולבסוף, איוב. בפרק כט מספרו, איוב נושא קינה על חייו האבודים. לפני שעברו עליו כל מיני אסונות מחרידות, הוא עמד בשיא הקריירה שלו.  היה מיקירי עירו, נכבד ונערץ בעיני ראשי הקהילה.  מנהיגים פוליטיים בקשו את חוות דעתו על הבעיות החמורות ביותר העומדות על הפרק.  וכך הוא מתגעגע במרירות:  
מִי־יִתְּנֵנִי כְיַרְחֵי־קֶדֶם כִּימֵי אֱ-לוֹהַּ יִשְׁמְרֵנִי׃
בְּהִלּוֹ נֵרוֹ עֲלֵי רֹאשִׁי לְאוֹרוֹ אֵלֶךְ חֹשֶׁךְ׃
כַּאֲשֶׁר הָיִיתִי בִּימֵי חָרְפִּי בְּסוֹד אֱ-לוֹהַּ עֲלֵי אָהֳלִי׃
בְּצֵאתִי שַׁעַר עֲלֵי־קָרֶת בָּרְחוֹב אָכִין מוֹשָׁבִי׃ . . .
רָאוּנִי נְעָרִים וְנֶחְבָּאוּ וִישִׁישִׁים קָמוּ עָמָדוּ׃
שָׂרִים עָצְרוּ בְמִלִּים וְכַף יָשִׂימוּ לְפִיהֶם׃
קוֹל־נְגִידִים נֶחְבָּאוּ וּלְשׁוֹנָם לְחִכָּם דָּבֵקָה׃ . . .
לִי־שָׁמְעוּ וְיִחֵלּוּ וְיִדְּמוּ לְמוֹ עֲצָתִי׃[2]
ככל הנראה, פסוקים אלו עמדו לנגד עיניו של רבי סימאי כשדרש את דרשתו על שלשה אישים – שלמראית עין אין להם כל קשר – שיעצו (או לא יעצו) לפרעה.
אני מודה לחותני הרב ד"ר מיכאל דוד שמידמן שליט"א, מעין מתגבר של חידושי תורה, שנתן לי את ההשראה לחקור את מקורותיה של הדרשה, לבני היקרים שתרמו למחקר, ולגיסתי שירה קופל שערכה את הטקסט.





[1] גם אחיתופל נודע כיועץ מומחה (שמואל ב טז׃כג), אבל חי הרבה לאחר תקופת שעבוד מצרים – הדרשה מציעה תרחיש סביר מבחינה היסטורית.  בקשר לתקופה בה חי איוב, ישנן בתלמוד דעות שונות (בבא בתרא טו). לפי אחת מהן, "ימי שנותיו של איוב, משעה שנכנסו ישראל למצרים ועד שיצאו."   


[2]  אפשר שהרב זאב וולף איינהרן (מהרז״ו) רמז לפסוק הזה בפירושו לשמות רבה א׃ט. אבל העיקר חסר מן הספר.