Monday, 12 August 2019

Yemei Iyun Be-Tanakh 2019

Well, it's been a few years, but I managed to make it to a day of Herzog College's Yemei Iyun Betanach conference. It was great. Here's a quick summary of the five lectures I attended:

'סיפור מפוצל' במקרא - הסיבות לתופעה וחשיבות הזיהוי שלה

הרב סמט אלחנן 

Rav Elchanan Samet opened with a simple model for biblical structure: Tanach is divided into books which are divided into a series of Stories. The story is the basic unit of analysis. Therefore, when trying to understand the meaning of a text, it is critical to identify the boundaries of the story.

Most of the time finding the boundaries is easy, but sometimes is it is hard. Occasionally, it is hard because the editor of the book has split up the story, often by moving the end of the story to later in the book. This is done for various reasons, chronology is a common one. The stories of the tanach are arranged in chronological order, so if the end of a story takes place years later than it's beginning, it may get cut and pasted to the place in the book where it chronologically belongs.

The Rav gave a number of examples, including:
  • the purchase of Mearat Hamachpela and Sarah's burial
  • Yehoshua's spies and the saving of Rehav and her family
  • Yakov reunited with Yosef
  • The beginning/end chapters of Iyov
  • Tlafchad's daughters
In all of these cases, the stories have significant structural problems that can be solved by applying this model.

It occurs to me that this model of source Story, and subsequent editing is sometimes quite persuasive, but there is an alternative- Comples Structure. For instance Iyov. Rav Samet claims that we have an original story that was split and another unit, the dialogue between Iyov and his friends, inserted in the middle. It seems to me that an alternate explanation is that we have a single story composed with a complex structure. In general, how do we distinguish between simple stories edited together and a single complexly structued story?

בנות ירושלים ושומרי העיר בשיר השירים

הרב מדן יעקב 

Rav Medan claims that Shir Hashirim, and in particular the secondary characters in it, present a dialectical view of the non-Jewish nations and their relationship to God and Israel.

He begins by bringing various biblical and talmudic sources which present the nations alternately as those who keep us from God on one hand, and partners in relating to God on the other. In particular, he cites the passages relating to King Shlomo's marriage to wives and concubines from other nations.

Then, the Rav, reads various passages from Shir Hashirim. The Dod and Raaya are madly in love, then brought together, then kept apart, and so on. The Daughters of Jerusalem and the city's Guardsmen appear as rivals to that love, or as opponents to it. Yet at the climax of the story, they return as partners in the effort to reignite that love.

Rav Meidan brought various rabbinic sources on Christianity and Islam as examples of how the non-Jewish world act as partners in the path to monotheism.

הפרק היומי - עצת אחיתפל

הרב ד"ר לאו בנימין 

This was a lecture on the daily 929 chapter, Shmuel 2, Chapter 17. Rav Lau opened with the midrash describing how the Tehom threatened to flood the world and Achitofel's advice saved it, yet left the world dry.

He then moved on to Divrei Hayamim and other mentions of Achitofel. It appears that, in addition to being advisor to the king, Achitofel was actually Bat-Sheva's grandfather. Yeah, that Bat-Sheva. Achitofel's son, Bat-Sheva's father, is listed as one of David's elite troops and Bat-Sheva's husband is too, albeir of foreign birth.

He then reads us through the story of Avshalom's rise to power, which turns into a rebellion against his father. Achitofel plays the role of Kingmaker, carefully manipulating the will of the populace. Avshalom relies on Achitofel's advice until it appears that Achitofel is actually trying to avenge himself on David for his acts of adultery and murder related to his granddaughter. At this point, Avshalom ignores his advice and the rebellion fails.

Rav Lau paints Achitofel as an opponent to David, but not to the House of David. He supports the rebellion in order to set up a better Davidic monarch. When things get personal he ultimately fails.

מינויו של גדעון לשופט

הרב ד"ר קהת ברוך 

Rav Kehat begins by introducing concept of Sippur Bebuah, a model pioneered by Dr. Yair Zakovich. The idea is that, sometimes when the bible presents us with a story that parallels a previous story, the point is not the parallel itself, but the Antithesis it creates. We are meant to focus on the differences to understand the message of the parallelism.

He then brings literary parallels between Gidon and Moshe, Gidon and Avraham, and Gidon and Yaakov. Ultimately, what emerges is that Gidon, like Moshe, accepts God's mission, but unlike Avraham, he doesn't truly care for others. This character flaw comes to a head when he cruelly punishes his bretheren who didn't assist him during wartime and leads to his evaluation as a flawed hero.

מחקר התנ"ך – בעד ונגד

 ד"ר משגב חגי

Dr. Misgav began with a description of the three major branches of Academic Tanach Study. He argues that Tanach Academics generally fall into one of these largely disconnected disciplines. He ultimately argues that they would benefit from more interdisciplinary work. The three branches are:
  1. Literary/Philological
    1. Division into sources
    2. Literary theory/structure
  2. Archeological/Historical
    1. Use of archeology in understanding Biblical text
  3. Comparative Near East Literature
    1. Genre
    2. Myth
    3. Law
He  points out that all three attempt to give chronologies, which are often at odds with one another. 1 and 3 are often at odds over the message of a particular source.

Misgav opined that these all provide essential tools needed by the religious scholar to truly understand God's word. Yet these tools were developed by deniers of religion. He points out various movements by religious scholars to deal with the tools of academic tanach study, ultimately favoring approaches that adopt it. He compares this with Rav Kook's opinion of Secular/Religious Zionism.

I am reminded of Joran Peterson's explanation of why the world needs both Conservative and Liberal personalities. The Conservatives keep the current regime running efficiently, but are incapable of pioneering essential new ideas. The Liberals are not good at efficiently advancing the status quo, but are great at trying out new ideas, eventually finding hte next big idea to push Humanity forward. So to, it makes sense that largely secular renegades pioneered modern Tanach study rather than by Religious Traditionalists.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Enuma Elish and Bereshit

Published in 1996, Shin Shifra and Yakov Klein's בימים הרחוקים ההם is an anthology of Near Eastern literature, translated directly to Hebrew. The advantage of this sort of translation project, over say a translation to English, is that biblical Hebrew is much closer to the original language and can capture a lot more of the nuance and style of the original text.

The first entry in the book is Enuma Elish, a Babylonian account of Creation, found by archaeologists written in Akkadian Cuneiform on seven stone tablets. The tablets date back to the 7th century BCE, but some of the legends therein can be traced back as far as the Code of Hammurabi. So we are talking about a text, and ledgends that date back to Biblical times.

Here's a short chronology as a reference:
  • 1754 BCE Code of Hammurabi
  • 1600s BCE Abraham, Isaac, Jacob
  • 1312 BCE Matan Torah
  • 1000 BCE King David
  • 7th century BCE oldest known copy of Enuma Elish
  • 605 BCE First deportation of Babylonian Exile, start of Sefer Daniel

Enuma Elish is commonly cited for it's parallels with the Torah's creation story. The above chronology leaves us wondering about the direction of influence- is the Torah, in Genesis, giving us a "corrected" version of the common polytheistic myths of the day, or did the Babylonians draw influence from Genesis when they collected their creation myth cycle into a single work? In any case, Using Shin Shifra's translation, I would like to take a look at some of the reported parallels in the texts themselves.

The Number Seven

The first parallel is numerical. The Torah's account of creation in Bereshit 1 is organized into seven days. Enuma Elish's creation story is organized into seven tablets. A parallel suggestive of literary influence for certain. 

Separation of Waters

Both Enuma Elish and Sefer Bereshit begin with the separation of primordial waters. Let's compare:

בעת ממעל לא נקראו שמים (בשם)
מתחת אדמה בשם לא נזכרה
רק אפסו אב-ראשית מזריעם
והאם תאמת יולדת כלהם
מימיהם נבללו יחדו
(אנומה אליש, לוח א 1-5)

וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, וְחֹשֶׁךְ, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם; וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי רָקִיעַ בְּתוֹךְ הַמָּיִם, וִיהִי מַבְדִּיל, בֵּין מַיִם לָמָיִם.   וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-הָרָקִיעַ, וַיַּבְדֵּל בֵּין הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מִתַּחַת לָרָקִיעַ, וּבֵין הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מֵעַל לָרָקִיעַ; וַיְהִי-כֵן.   וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לָרָקִיעַ, שָׁמָיִם; וַיְהִי-עֶרֶב וַיְהִי-בֹקֶר, יוֹם שֵׁנִי
 (בראשית א:ב-ח)

In Enuma, it is worth noting that Apsu is the fresh subterranean waters while Tiamat is the God of the salty oceans. As such, both accounts begin with two sets of primordial waters, as yet unnamed, mixed together in chaos.

Bereshit actually describes the process of separation and naming, whereas in Enuma it is implied. On a theological level, the waters of Bereshit are component parts of God creation, while in Enuma Tiamat is a God personified. Apsu is not personified, but has religious significance and is the dwelling place of Ea who later is.

Creation of Sky/Waters

We already quoted the Torah's separation of the primordial waters to create the heavens. Similarly, Enuma describes how Marduk divides the sea god Tiamat's corpse to create the skies.

נח האדון, בגויתה התבונן
שסע את הפגר למען ברוא נפלאות
ויפלחנה כצדפה לשנים
חציה כונן ויקרה שמים
נטה יריעה, משמר הציב
לבל תגיר מימיה- צוה עליהם
התיצב האדון נכח האפסו, מושב נדמד
מדד האדון את המדות אשר לאפסו
(אנומה אליש, לוח ד 135-143)

The parallel between these passages is quite explicit. One significant difference through is that in Enuma, only one of the two primordial waters is divided. When was the Apsu(fresh waters) divided from Tiamat(salt waters)? Why doesn't Apsu participate in the creation of sky? In any case, Enuma's cosmology leaves us with a trinity of waters: the fresh waters, the ocean, and the sky, while the Torah only mentions the waters and the heavens.


Enuma describes the creation of the luminaries, as does the Torah. Unfortunately most of the text is lost to history, so a full comparison is not possible. The excerpt that we do have goes as follows:

הזריח ירח, על הלילה הפקידו
הועידו להיות עטרת הלילה, להודיע ימים
(לוח ה 12-13)

It declare the Moon's sovereignty over the night, which parallels the passage in Bereshit:

וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-שְׁנֵי הַמְּאֹרֹת הַגְּדֹלִים:  אֶת-הַמָּאוֹר הַגָּדֹל, לְמֶמְשֶׁלֶת הַיּוֹם, וְאֶת-הַמָּאוֹר הַקָּטֹן לְמֶמְשֶׁלֶת הַלַּיְלָה, וְאֵת הַכּוֹכָבִים.  וַיִּתֵּן אֹתָם אֱלֹהִים, בִּרְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמָיִם, לְהָאִיר, עַל-הָאָרֶץ. וְלִמְשֹׁל, בַּיּוֹם וּבַלַּיְלָה, וּלְהַבְדִּיל, בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ; וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים, כִּי-טוֹב.

Babel & Tower 

Both Enuma and Bereshit provide an origin story for the City-State of Babel. Enuma describes a city built by Marduk to house the central Temple/meeting place of the gods.

אבנה-נא בית, לו (יהי) מושב-מקדש
במקום ההוא לו (יהי) מלונכם, להכיל קהלכם
אקרה שמו בבל: בתי האלים הגדולים
אנחנו בקרבו נבנה מקדש
(לוח ה 122-130)

The Torah, on the other hand, begins by giving us Babel's origin as a mundane event among the descendants of Noach.

וְכוּשׁ, יָלַד אֶת-נִמְרֹד; הוּא הֵחֵל, לִהְיוֹת גִּבֹּר בָּאָרֶץ. הוּא-הָיָה גִבֹּר-צַיִד, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה; עַל-כֵּן, יֵאָמַר, כְּנִמְרד גִּבּוֹר צַיִד, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה.  וַתְּהִי רֵאשִׁית מַמְלַכְתּוֹ בָּבֶל, וְאֶרֶךְ וְאַכַּד וְכַלְנֵה, בְּאֶרֶץ, שִׁנְעָר(בראשית י:ח-ט)

This is followed in Chapter 11 by the Tower of Babel Story, a sharp, satyric origin story of Babel and it's Ziggurat-Temple. Babel is no house of God, rather it is a testament to Human arrogance and foolishness.

Man's creation

The Enuma finally arrives at the creation of Man in the sixth tablet.
דם אבלל, עצמות אצור
אעשה יצור, אדם יהי שמו
לו גם ישוה כבודם-לשנים יחלקו
(לוח ו 5-10)

Man is created from flesh and bones for the explicit purpose of doing worth that the gods would otherwise need to do. In the context of Babel and it's temple, the purpose of the Human society living in the city-state is to serve the gods in the temple.

Compare this with Man's creation in Bereshit 1 where man is the pinnacle of creation, and Bereshit 2 where he is given a purpose:

וַיִּקַּח יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן-עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ.
Man also has a duty, but it is as a caregiver, rather than mere slave to his betters.

Names of God

Much has been made of the two names of God used in the biblical creation story. Enuma takes this a step further, with the final tablet and a half being taken up by the 59 names/titles of Marduk.


In conclusion, the parallels between the creation stories of Bereshit and Enuma Elish are quite striking. At the same time, the direction of inspiration remain unclear. To what degree is Enuma drawing literary inspiration from the Hebrew Torah and to what degree is the Torah composed as a correction to popular Near-Eastern mythology of the day. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Esther Daniel and Yosef

Megillat Esther has a number of literary parallels with Sefer Daniel, and by extension with the story of Yosef in Egypt. Let's go over these parallels and what they might mean.

Court Tales


Both Daniel and Esther belong to the Near Eastern genre of Court Tales, focusing on a wise courtier and how he/she prevails over danger. In the Book of Daniel, Daniel and his companions use their wisdom to become personal advisors to the king in a rags-to-riches story. Their courtly rivals repeatedly attempt to do away with them, but they are miraculously saved each time.

Similarly, in Megilat Esther, Esther starts out a Judean orphan but finds herself marrying the king and becoming queen over the Persian empire. Haman plots to kill Mordechai and the rest of the Jews, but he and Esther overcome her rival courtier's murderous plots.

Children of Exile

The book of Daniel begins in the first generation of the Babylonian exile with our four heroes, Daniel, Hanania, Mishael, and Azaria, who have been taken from the Judean nobility as captives. They are brought into the Babylonian court to serve as advisors to King Nebuchadnezzar, yet they manage to maintain a certain separateness from their Imperial counterparts. The story features many parallel with Yosef in Egypt, the original captive-made-courtier.

In contrast, the book of Esther takes place over a century after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, after the fall of the Babylonian Empire and well into Persian rule. Nevertheless, the text associates Esther to the Judean exile, though Mordechai, thus setting her up as the Daniel/Yosef character.

ה אִישׁ יְהוּדִי, הָיָה בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה; וּשְׁמוֹ מָרְדֳּכַי, בֶּן יָאִיר בֶּן-שִׁמְעִי בֶּן-קִישׁ--אִישׁ יְמִינִי.  ו אֲשֶׁר הָגְלָה, מִירוּשָׁלַיִם, עִם-הַגֹּלָה אֲשֶׁר הָגְלְתָה, עִם יְכָנְיָה מֶלֶךְ-יְהוּדָה--אֲשֶׁר הֶגְלָה, נְבוּכַדְנֶצַּר מֶלֶךְ בָּבֶל.  ז וַיְהִי אֹמֵן אֶת-הֲדַסָּה, הִיא אֶסְתֵּר בַּת-דֹּדוֹ--כִּי אֵין לָהּ, אָב וָאֵם; וְהַנַּעֲרָה יְפַת-תֹּאַר, וְטוֹבַת מַרְאֶה, וּבְמוֹת אָבִיהָ וְאִמָּהּ, לְקָחָהּ מָרְדֳּכַי לוֹ לְבַת.(אסתר ב)

Note also, that the text contains other parallels, with all three emphasizing the good looks of the protagonist, as well as their dual Hebrew and local names.

The Party

In both Esther and Daniel, the king throws a wild party, has too much to drink, and makes a fateful decision.

In the fifth chapter of Daniel, Belshazzar throws a great party, has too much to drink and orders the Temple Vessels, looted during the conquest of Jerusalem, to be brought out and used in the course of the party. As a result, God punishes him and ends his reign, in favor of the Persians.

In the opening chapter of Esther, an intoxicated Ahasuerus calls for his wife to make a humiliating display before his friends, then chooses to de-throne her as punishment for her refusal to appear. This triggers Esther's rise to power. There is even an ambiguous reference to the vessels used in this party that implies a connection with Belshazzar's own folly.

ז וְהַשְׁקוֹת בִּכְלֵי זָהָב, וְכֵלִים מִכֵּלִים שׁוֹנִים; וְיֵין מַלְכוּת רָב, כְּיַד הַמֶּלֶךְ(אסתר א)

The Chief Eunuch

In the first chapter of Daniel, the lads find favor in the eyes of the Court Eunuch appointed to their care. As a result, he allows them the kosher diet they request.

Similarly, when Esther is brought into Ahasuerus' harem, she finds favor in the eyes of the Chief Eunuch, who provides her with better perfumes and food, thus establishing her role as the Daniel character.

This is all parallel to Yosef's experience with the warden in Egyptian prison:

 כא וַיְהִי יְהוָה אֶת-יוֹסֵף, וַיֵּט אֵלָיו חָסֶד; וַיִּתֵּן חִנּוֹ, בְּעֵינֵי שַׂר בֵּית-הַסֹּהַר.  כב וַיִּתֵּן שַׂר בֵּית-הַסֹּהַר, בְּיַד-יוֹסֵף, אֵת כָּל-הָאֲסִירִם, אֲשֶׁר בְּבֵית הַסֹּהַר; וְאֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עֹשִׂים שָׁם, הוּא הָיָה עֹשֶׂה.  כג אֵין שַׂר בֵּית-הַסֹּהַר, רֹאֶה אֶת-כָּל-מְאוּמָה בְּיָדוֹ, בַּאֲשֶׁר יְהוָה, אִתּוֹ; וַאֲשֶׁר-הוּא עֹשֶׂה, יְהוָה מַצְלִיחַ.

Risking One's Life for the Cause

One part of the Megilla that has always perplexed me is the degree to which the Megilla emphasizes the danger Esther is putting herself in by approaching her husband, the king in chapters 4 and 5. Can he really be so inaccessible to her? Do we really expect him to order her death if she approaches him uninvited? After all, he only recently had to deal with the fallout of executing his first wife in a drunken rage- isn't he going to be careful not to repeat this folly? Isn't all the fasting and prayer in anticipation of this meeting a bit overstated?

But once we note that Megillat Esther is drawing inspiration from Daniel, it makes sense. Daniel had his Lion's Den, and Esther needs a parallel life-or-death trial.

Note also, that both works include the challenges of surmounting a strict legal system whose laws cannot be revoked or overridden.

The Fate of the Rival Courtiers

In both narratives, the rival courtiers are punished with the very same fate they had planned for our hero, together with their families.  Haman and his sons are hung from the gallows he had built for Mordechai, and Daniel's rivals and their families are thrown into the same lion's den he spent the night in.

כה וַאֲמַר מַלְכָּא, וְהַיְתִיו גֻּבְרַיָּא אִלֵּךְ דִּי-אֲכַלוּ קַרְצוֹהִי דִּי דָנִיֵּאל, וּלְגוֹב אַרְיָוָתָא רְמוֹ, אִנּוּן בְּנֵיהוֹן וּנְשֵׁיהוֹן; וְלָא-מְטוֹ לְאַרְעִית גֻּבָּא, עַד דִּי-שְׁלִטוּ בְהוֹן אַרְיָוָתָא, וְכָל-גַּרְמֵיהוֹן, הַדִּקוּ.(דניאל ו)


Textual Parallels to Yosef

There are also a number of textual parallels between Esther and Yosef

  • The King orders the gathering grain/virgins at the advise of his counselors
  • Days of embalming/Days of perfume treatment
  • Yosef's daily overtures from Potiphar's wife/Mordichai's daily refusal to bow to Haman
  • Yakov's reluctant accent to send Binyamin, Esther's reluctant accent to approach the king
  • "How could I witness my Father's downfall"/"How could I witness my people's downfall?"
  • The giving of the signet ring by the king to the heroes

The Reason Behind the Intertextuality?

Now that we have covered the extensive parallels between these works, let's try to understand the meaning behind these parallels. The story of Esther presumably takes place over a number of years. Why does the story focus on scenes that parallel those in Daniel? Why are there so many literary nods to Daniel and Yosef's stories? Why did Queen Esther make these literary choices for her Megilla?

God's Place in the Narrative

Our sages have noted the lack of any explicit mention of God in the Megilla. Does that mean it is a secular story of courtly politics?

Perhaps it was unseemly for a Persian queen to mention the God of the Hebrews in her personal annals. As such Esther contains no mention of God in the text. But what about the subtext? By encoding references to Daniel and Yosef, stories where God's role in the hero's success is explicit, the Jewish reader will get the hidden message that Esther's success was also thanks to God intervention.

Esther's Legacy

The text's equating between Esther and Daniel/Yosef is also a statement on Esther's legacy. Esther could easily have been viewed as a Shimshon-like character: as a morally flawed individual who nevertheless served God's purposes and saves the Jewish people from their enemies.

Esther was a poor girl, taken as a royal concubine. She ultimately out-concubine's all the other concubines to become the wife of a notoriously lecherous Gentile King. Is she such a sterling Jewish heroine? Do we want our daughters to emulate her and become Great Concubines as well?

By equating Esther with Daniel and Yosef, archetypes of Jewish Faith in Exile, Esther joins their ranks. Yes, exile is hard, and may entail certain compromised circumstances, but ultimately we view Esther as a legitimate Diaspora Leader who put her life on the line for her people in the service of God.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Building a Camping Succah

As I previously mentioned, our decision to spend four night of Succot camping left us with the challenge of building a succah for our campsite. This succah needed to kosher, it needed to be transported compactly, and it needed to be easy to assemble once we reached the site.

The Frame

The Frame
The Minshayot in Sukka tell us that the minimal size of a kosher sukka is 10 tfachim high and 7 tfachim on each side. We estimate a tefach as 8cm so 80cmx56cmx56cm, which is quite compact. So how to construct our mini-sukka?

There are many guides for DIY sukkah construction using PVC pipes. The problem with this is that PVC pipes are less popular in Israel than in the US, so I found that I was very limited in terms of what I could buy.

On the other hand, the town where I live has hundreds of piles of agricultural waste and scrap wood, so I decided to see what scrap-wood I could find. After a few minutes of visiting the piles on my street I hit the jackpot: someone had thrown out a heavy wood Sukka wall with a bit of water damage. I brought it home, took it apart and soon had four posts and two interlocking beams. I salvaged some wood from my attic for another two beams and had a frame about 1 meter-cubed. I added some screws so that the beams could easily be locked together with heavy zip-ties upon reaching the campground.

The Walls

The gemara in Sukka specifies that the walls of a sukka must be strong enough to withstand a common wind. For the walls, my wife suggested using some old heavy plastic tablecloths we have lying around. I brought along a staple gun to fasten these to the wooden frame. I also brought a spade to bury the four sukka posts a couple centimeters in the ground to keep them stable so that there would be good tension in the wall fabric.

On a practical note, I'll just point out that the cheaper plastic tablecloth was stronger. The nicer, softer tablecloth had a tendency to tear where it was stapled to the posts, especially when a kid would lean against a wall. This problem wasn't terrible, but I did have to re-staple walls a couple of times, so pick your wall material carefully.

The Schach

Our Succah Fully Assembled
Due to limited room in the car, I had planned to forage for schach near our campsite, but when we stayed at my inlaws the first days of Sukkot, it turned out they had some extra palm fronds. We took these along to the campsite and it turned out to be a good decision since Ein Hemed is a very small, well-tended national park and there are not many branches lying around for the taking.

How to Schach?

A couple family members declared that to use palm fronds for schach, one must manually separate the individual leaves from one another. I had never heard of this, but I was worried that, after a few days in the sun, the individual leaves would droop into the succah, thus violating the prohibition of Dira Srucha. The Halacha states that schach whose tips hang under 10 Tfachim invalidates the succah.

היתה גבוהה מעשרה והוצין יורדין לתוך עשרה אפילו אם חמתן מרובה מצלתן פסולה(או"ח תרלג:ט)

I later asked for a clarification of this practice of separating the palm fronds and was given two possible answers:
  1. The Minhag of making sure one can see the stars through the schach(Yerushalmi, Succah 2:3)
  2. The rabbinic prohibition from using boards wider than 4 tfachim(Succah 14A)
Regarding the former, the prohibition of Dira Srucha should proceed the concern over seeing the stars. Besides that, I don't understand the claim, since at the extremities of the palm leaf there are gaps through which one can certainly see the stars.

Regarding the latter, the shulchan aruch repeates the gemara's language of "boards". Since palm leaves are not boards, nor do they look like a roof, the gzeira shouldn't apply. Here is a psak along those lines.

Camping on Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot

So I'm kicking off a short series of posts that are a bit different in the sense that they deals with practical halachic matters. The reason I'm writing these post is that I didn't find a lot of information on the Internet about how to keep shabbat while camping. Add Succot into the mix and you have a considerable Halachik construction problem on your hands. As such, I'd like to contribute my own little experience to this literature.

On a bit of a whim, we decided to do things a bit differently this Sukkot. We spent the couple days in Jerusalem at my inlaws, as usual, but then, rather than heading home to our own sukkah, we decided to spend four nights camping with our four kids in Ein Hemed. This plan for camping left us with a number of practical halachic issues to contend with:
  1. Build a sukkah in our campsite
  2. Build an Eruv so that we could carry on Shabbat Chol Hamoed within our campsite
  3. Build a camp shower to wash in general and especially on Erev Shabbat
  4. Prepare shabbat meals
  5. Prayer and minyanim
In this series of posts, we'll dive into some of these issues. For now, I'll leave you with the collections of guides to halachic camping that I found online:

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Abraham in Mesopotamia

Sefer Bereshit mentions a number of Eastern locations in Abraham's backround

  • Ur Kasdim- birthplace(Bereshit 11:28)
  • Haran- Terach settles there(Bereshit 11:31)
  • Aram Naharayim- Eliezer is sent there to find a wife for Yitzchak(Bereshit 24:10)
  • Padan Aram- Rivka, Lavan's sister, is described as being from there(Bereshit 25:20)
  • Petor- a river-side settlement. Bilam is from there(Bamidbar 22:5)

What is the relationship between these places?

Mesopotamia, the land between rivers, refers to a large area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Ur Kasdim is generally identified with the ancient city of Ur in Southern Mesopotamia(in modern Iraq), with it's port and ziggurat. The latter is similar to the Ziggurat of Babel, which likely is referred to in the tower of Babel narritive.

The scripture uses the names Haran, Aram Naharaim, and Padan Aram interchangably. These are generally identified with the ruins of the city Haran in Northern Mesopotamia(in modern day Turkey). Why so many names? Aram Naharayim literally means "Aramean Mesopotamia". Padan Aram means "Field of Aram", also presumably a name for the whole area. Haran is a particular settlement.

Finally, there is Petor. In Bamidbar(23:7) we hear it is in Aram, and in Devarim(23:5) it is called Aram Naharayim. Why does the scripture need to identify the geographic region that Petor belongs to?

Hazal approach to this question is to identify Bilam as related to Lavan. Although this isn't stated expicitly in the text, there are numerous literary and narritive parallels between Bilam and Lavan(see here). It completes the picture of the descendents of Midyan(Avraham's son), Moav(Avraham's nephew), and Lavan(Avraham's grand Nephew) plotting against the the primary Abrahamic line.

As to why Bilam's mission fails so completely, ending in his death, perhaps it relates to Lavan's promise(Bereshit 31:52)

עֵד הַגַּל הַזֶּה, וְעֵדָה הַמַּצֵּבָה: אִם-אָנִי, לֹא-אֶעֱבֹר אֵלֶיךָ אֶת-הַגַּל הַזֶּה, וְאִם-אַתָּה לֹא-תַעֲבֹר אֵלַי אֶת-הַגַּל הַזֶּה וְאֶת-הַמַּצֵּבָה הַזֹּאת, לְרָעָה. נגאֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם וֵאלֹהֵי נָחוֹר, יִשְׁפְּטוּ בֵינֵינוּ--אֱלֹהֵי, אֲבִיהֶם; וַיִּשָּׁבַע יַעֲקֹב, בְּפַחַד אָבִיו יִצְחָק. וַיִּזְבַּח יַעֲקֹב זֶבַח בָּהָר, וַיִּקְרָא לְאֶחָיו לֶאֱכָל-לָחֶם; וַיֹּאכְלוּ לֶחֶם, וַיָּלִינוּ בָּהָר.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Daniel and his Holy Companions

The first chapter of Sefer Daniel introduces us to four Judean boys: Daniel, Hananya, Mishael, and Azarya. Through no action of their own, they are chosen from among the Judean nobility to be trained as potential members of King Nebuchadnezzar's court. By the king's decree, they are to undergo a 3 year educational program in Chaldean language. How does Sefer Daniel view the exile and indoctrination of the cream of Judean youth?

Daniel and Yosef

For starters, there are numerous parallels between Daniel in this story and the account of Yosef in Pharoah's court in Genesis. These include:
  • Both are taken as captives into a strange land
  • Both are given foreign names in place of their Hebrew name
  • Both resist sin and assimilation
  • Both are granted wisdom and the ability to interpret dreams
  • Both appear before the king and impress him with said wisdom to the exclusion of the court magicians
  • Both become members of the King's court

These persistent parallels serve to orient the reader. The Book of Daniel is not an island. The foundation is is built on is the classic story of living faithfully in exile, the story of Yosef in Egypt. The Book of Daniel will go on to explore the same themes and expand on them. This is to the benefit of it's intended audience, the many subsequent generations of Jews who live as subjects of foreign powers. So what insights does Daniel 1 add on top of the Yosef story?

The Holy and the Profane

There are some apparently irrelevant details in verse 2 when describing Yehoyakim's defeat by the Babylonians:

וַיִּתֵּן אֲדֹנָי בְּיָדוֹ אֶת-יְהוֹיָקִים מֶלֶךְ-יְהוּדָה, וּמִקְצָת כְּלֵי בֵית-הָאֱלֹהִים, וַיְבִיאֵם אֶרֶץ-שִׁנְעָר, בֵּית אֱלֹהָיו; וְאֶת-הַכֵּלִים הֵבִיא, בֵּית אוֹצַר אֱלֹהָיו
Why is the capture of vessels from the Temple mentioned here, when it plays no further part in the story? One could argue that this is simply an intertextuality with Chapter 5, setting up the story where King Belshazar uses said vessels for his idolatrous party. This may be true, but it is worth noting that there are only a handful of textual connections between the stories in the first half of Daniel. For the most part, each story stands alone.

I'd like to suggest another possible reason for the mention of the temple vessels. The reader is meant to draw a parallel between the captive vessels in verse 2 and the captive youths in verse 3. Just as the holy vessels from Beit Hamikdash are being desecrated by being brought into a house of idolatry, so to are these noble Judean youths being desecrated by being indoctrinated into Babylonian culture.

This theme of desecrating the holy is further emphasized in verse 7, when the boys are given new Babylonian names:

וַיָּשֶׂם לָהֶם שַׂר הַסָּרִיסִים, שֵׁמוֹת; וַיָּשֶׂם לְדָנִיֵּאל בֵּלְטְשַׁאצַּר, וְלַחֲנַנְיָה שַׁדְרַךְ, וּלְמִישָׁאֵל מֵישַׁךְ, וְלַעֲזַרְיָה עֲבֵד נְגוֹ

What happens to the four companions' Hebrew names? Names that proclaim the glory of God:
  • Daniel- God Judges
  • Hananya- God is Gracious
  • Mishael- Who is like God?
  • Azarya- God Helps

The boys are instead given names of Babylonian Gods:

Just as the temple vessels are profaned with idolatry, so are the four Jewish youths profaned with idolatrous names.

Of Vessels and Vassals

Yet Nebuchadnezzar's irreverent plan immediately goes off the rails. In verse 8 Daniel makes a decision not to eat the non-kosher meat and wine provided to the King's servants:
וַיָּשֶׂם דָּנִיֵּאל עַל-לִבּוֹ, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִתְגָּאַל בְּפַת-בַּג הַמֶּלֶךְ וּבְיֵין מִשְׁתָּיו; וַיְבַקֵּשׁ מִשַּׂר הַסָּרִיסִים, אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִתְגָּאָל

Daniel and his companions refuse to allow themselves to be profaned by their immersion in Babylonian language and culture. They are careful not to ingest impure food and they presumably hold themselves aloof from other parts of Babylonian culture. God's response to their dedication is both immediate and substantial. They are blessed and quickly become the wisest advisors in the kingdom.

וְהַיְלָדִים הָאֵלֶּה אַרְבַּעְתָּם, נָתַן לָהֶם הָאֱלֹהִים מַדָּע וְהַשְׂכֵּל בְּכָל-סֵפֶר וְחָכְמָה; וְדָנִיֵּאל הֵבִין, בְּכָל-חָזוֹן וַחֲלֹמוֹת...וְכֹל, דְּבַר חָכְמַת בִּינָה, אֲשֶׁר-בִּקֵּשׁ מֵהֶם, הַמֶּלֶךְ--וַיִּמְצָאֵם עֶשֶׂר יָדוֹת, עַל כָּל-הַחַרְטֻמִּים הָאַשָּׁפִים, אֲשֶׁר, בְּכָל-מַלְכוּתוֹ

Daniel chapter 1 carries a powerful message to Jews living in times of exile. Yes, the Babylonians succeeded in capturing and profaning holy vessels of the temple, but people are not vessels. People can ultimately choose whether to allow themselves to be profaned or to retain their sanctity. And God himself will bless those who choose the more difficult path.