Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Midsummer Night's Learning?

The Gemara focusses on how the sun begins to lose its power on the 15 of Av. (Bava Basra 121b) Interestingly, the Rashbam mentions that the nights begin to get longer on 15 Av, and since one isn't working at night this means that he has more time to delve into Torah study. The obvious question that one should ask is that the solstice occurs in Tammuz (hence the name Tekufas Tammuz) and it is on that day (usually June 21) that the nights start to get shorter. That is why Shakespeare called it a Midsummer Night's Dream since "midsummer" used to refer to the solstice and it is a short night with quick dreams (although now we call that the first day of summer). This is now 44 days after this point that the days have been getting noticeably shorter, what could the Rashbam mean?

Perhaps the answer lies in how the nights gets longer. In the beginning of summer when the solstice occurs, it is true that the nights get longer, but they begin their growth by first having a later daybreak time. If one looks at a zmanim chart he will see that in the beginning of summer nightfall stays relatively the same, it is daybreak that gets later and later. It is around 15 Av that nightfall begins to get earlier, as well.

Maybe the Rashbam is not assuming that the individual is going to rise from bed earlier than daybreak, rather, he assumes that the person will end his day in the fields at nightfall. If the person goes to sleep at the same time every night then he will have more time for learning once nightfall gets earlier. Thus, one of the defining features of 15 Av is that Torah study becomes easier without even having ot put in much extra effort. It is displaying a bracha how Hashem tries to make it easy, at times, for us to benefit from His holy Torah study.

Monday, July 23, 2012

A Mistaken Translation? (Artscroll Kinos)

The Kinos read on Tisha B'Av are peppered with many astronomical allusions. Some outright such as the fifth Kinah, read at night, that goes through the mourning of the twelve zodiacal constellations and others that use terminology to emphasize a point but do not outright discuss the night sky. A basic knowledge of the celestial objects opens a new dimension to seeing some of the powerful symbolism found in these heart wrenching lamentations. Unfortunately, lack of such knowledge often leads to misinterpretation.

Last year I was using the Artscroll Kinos (copyright 1991) and I noticed what appears to me to be an example of a mistranslation of one such Kinah. Earlier this evening I was in shul davening Maariv and I noticed that they had come out with their new linear translation and I immediately opened to this Kinah to see if any changes were made. I found that changes were made, but it appears that the original intent of the author is still not being expressed by this translation.

The Kinah is number 37 (ציון קחי כל צרי גלעד) states:

"נראה בתמוז כסיל בך יעלה כי שאר כל החדשים לבד זה בחדריך"

The first translation was:

"The constellation Orion is visible everywhere [except in Israel] in the month of Tammuz, for it only ascends above you [Israel] during one of the other months [Sivan], while [in Tammuz] it remains concealed in your inner chambers."

The translator must have realized that he was butchering the original text. The actual Hebrew seems to be discussing how Orion is seen in Tammuz, presumably in Israel since that is the location of the rest of the items in the Kinah, and during the rest of the months it seems to be elsewhere. My guess is that the translator did some research and found that Orion is not visible in the Middle East during the summer month of Tammuz. Because he assumed the original text must make sense, he had to force this other interpretation into the words. Unfortunately, it does not seem to capture the true intent of the author. I am also not sure where the "everywhere" that Orion is visible in Tammuz is. The entire Middle East and a significant portion of the Northern Hemisphere, currently, do not see Orion during this month.

Since I did not purchase the new linear translation, I do not have it in front of me, but the new translation of the line went something like this:

"In Tammuz, Antares visibly rises in you for in all the other months it is in your chambers [Southern Hemisphere]."

You will notice that the new translator abandoned the conventional Orion as his translation for "כסיל" and instead picked the lesser translation, Antares. I suspect he did so partially for the reasons cited above. While the vast majority of Rishonim maintain that "כסיל" is the constellation Orion, the Ibn Ezra maintains that it is the bright red star Antares that is found in the constellation Scorpius. (Ibn Ezra Iyov 38:31) Although this is a very unconventional translation, there is reason to suspect that it is accurate as it has been suggested that the author of this Kinah may have been the Ibn Ezra himself. Kudos to the new translation, but unfortunately it still is hard to hear.

Antares is seen in Yerushalayim in Tammuz, but what does it mean that the other months Antares finds itself in the Southern Hemisphere? Antares is visible (at least at some time during the night) for eleven out of the twelve months of the year in Yerushalayim. Rashi even mentions this fact in Rosh Hashana (11b).

I would like to offer a simple and clear translation for this line. By doing so I think it also becomes apparent that the Ibn Ezra is not the author of this Kinah. Before I give the translation, let me give some background. The stars have slowly shifted from their positions that they were in at the time of Chazal and even from the time of the Rishonim (I am referring to their relative position). The phenomenon that causes this is referred to as the precession of the equinoxes. I believe the reason for the mistranslation is because the translators researched what the current sky looks like and not the ancient sky as it was in the times of the author!!!

In the time of Chazal, Orion was first visible during Tammuz. Prior to Tammuz its appearance in the sky was occurring in daytime and its stars were out shined by daylight. In the eleventh - thirteenth century, when the Kinah was written, Orion still first became visible during Tammuz albeit later in the month. Its visibility was just before sunrise and it therefore was seen at daybreak. The stars and constellations that rise with the Sun are considered to be coming to power. (Rashi Rosh Hashana 11b) Therefore, even though Orion is visible in many other months, it may be considered to be more powerful in Tammuz and in the rest of the months it may be considered to be less of a force. Nowadays, it takes until the middle of Av for it to become visible meaning that it is invisible during Tammuz. If the translator would have looked to the star visibility times as they were in the times of the original author, he could have taken a very simple translation:

"The visibility of Orion in Tammuz is seen rising in you, for in all other months other than this it is in your chambers (meaning not in a position of power)."

May Hashem cause that this Kinah will not be read and cried over this coming Tisha B'Av since hopefully we will be rejoicing after finding true salvation after close to two thousand years!

Spies in the Skies: Tisha B'Av

In this week's parsha we are taught that 12 spies were sent into Canaan. Unfortunately, when they returned, on the 9 of Av, they gave a dismal report laced with blasphemy. The people complained bitterly and they were sentenced to die in the Wilderness. Only their children would enter the Promised Land, and even they would have to wait forty years to do so. In addition, this day, Tisha B'Av, was designated for tragedy, something it has lived up to since this original verdict was decreed.

Interestingly, if one looks to the sky on many of the important events throughout biblical history, one sometimes finds rare astronomical happenings. Even more fascinating is that these occurrences often fit the historical moment based on the astrological framework set forth by the Ibn Ezra in his Reishis Chachma. In this instance, the moon was "touching" Saturn. Since the moon is significantly closer to our planet than Saturn, it sometimes appears to pass in front of this distant planet. Sometimes the entire planet is hidden behind the moon and sometimes it is only partially behind the moon. The latter gives the impression as if the two are touching. Both types of "conjunctions" are extremely rare.

On the night of the first Tisha B'Av the moon was partially blocking Saturn. This, says the Ibn Ezra, is an extremely ominous sign. (Reshis Chachma 7) Even more interesting is that the Ibn Ezra maintains that when Saturn is touching an illuminated side of the moon it is not as bad, but when it is touching a darker part it portends horrible consequences. (Ibid.) In the instance of the first Tisha B'Av it was touching a dark part.

I do not know if the following also plays a role in the astrological happenings, but I find it interesting that the moon is considered by Chazal to represent the Jewish nation, (Midrash Tehillim 22; also see Rabbeinu Bacheye Shemos 12:2) and Saturn is considered to be their astrological sign. (Reishis Chachma 4) This ominous sign so intertwined with the Jewish people happening on the most tragic day of the Jewish year cannot be mere coincidence. (The small dot to the left of the moon just below the illuminated part is Saturn. I left it encircled and marked by the program used to recreate the sky, Stellarium. I apologize if the recreation did not come out clearly).




Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Lion of the Mikdash

We are now entering the month of Av, the month represented by Mazal Aryeh (Leo). This mazal is depicted as a lion. Unfortunately, in this month both batei mikdash were destroyed and we continue to mourn them. It is very interesting to see that one would have thought that the month symbolized by a regal creature, a lion, is currently seen as the month where we recognize that we have been exiled from our land and feel powerless.

Perhaps, if not for our sins, the nature of the month would truly represent malchus, royalty. Perhaps, it is specifically in this month that those aspiring for greatness are cast away if they do not live up to the high standard required to demonstrate such nobility. It is of note that the beis hamikdash is referred to as Ariel, meaning the lion of God. We are taught that the structure of the beis hamikdash also conjured up the image of a lion. Like a lion, it was wide and robust looking from the front and narrowed as it extended backwards.

Because we did not live up to the standard required to possess such a regal structure, it was taken from us. The lion of Ariel was taken in the month of Aryeh the mazal of the lion. May we soon merit to its rebuilding and true repentance for all our sins.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What's Your Sign?

Tomorrow is my birthday, July 11, and this got me thinking about whether the proper way for one to determine his astrological sign is to use his birthday based on the solar calendar, or if he should use the lunar month in which he was born. For me there would not be a difference because July 11 is Cancer and my Hebrew birthday, 6 Tammuz, also is in the month of Sartan (Cancer). However, because the start and end of the Hebrew months do not always occur on the same dates of the solar calendar, for some people the solar calendar would produce one sign for them and the Hebrew calendar another.

The standard way to refer to the astrological signs in Jewish literature has been to assign a sign to each month. Thus, Nissan is T'leh (Aries), Iyar is Shor (Taurus), etc. Using these references, one would have assumed that the Jewish system of astrological signs is not dependent on the solar calendar and that one would disregard his "English birthday" and only use his Hebrew birthday to determine his sign.

The reason why this might not be the case is because it is plausible that when Chazal mention that Nissan is T'leh, they only meant that on average the majority of Nissan is T'leh, but they really agree that the astrological signs are based on the solar calendar. Before you stop reading and wonder why I would make such an assertion, let me explain why this actually seems to be the way many Rishonim understand the system.

Rashi and the R. Avraham ibn Ezra both seem to suggest that the Jewish astrological system is really based on the solar calendar. When describing why each month has its specific sign, Rashi clearly mentions that it is based on the sun's position relative to the stars in the sky. (See Rashi Rosh Hashanah 11b; also see Rashi Rosh Hashanah 11a and Tosefos Rosh Hashanah 2b that mention that sometimes when Chazal refer to a month they are really referring to the corresponding solar month. ) This is a clear reference to the solar calendar as the lunar months would have no bearing on the sun's position in the sky. (Of course, axial precession has caused the apparent position of the stars to shift but that is a discussion for a different post.) The ibn Ezra's books on astrology, Reishis Chachmah and Sefer Hata'amim, also clearly indicate that the system is predicated on the solar calendar. If this is the case then it would seem that the proper way to determine one's astrological sign would be to take one's "English birthday" and not their Hebrew birthday.

Although the above seems to express the opinions of Rashi and the ibn Ezra, it is certainly not unanimously agreed upon by all Rishonim. When commenting on the passage from Beshalach that discusses the war with Amalek, the Chizkuni mentions that people born in the month of Adar II have no astrological sign whatsoever. There are only twelve signs and they have been "used up" by the time you get to the thirteenth month of the year!!! This explanation makes it very clear that the Chizkuni understands the astrological signs of Jewish people to be dependent on the Hebrew months and not the solar calendar.

Thus, it seems that there are two opinions as to how to determine one's astrological sign. As I mentioned above, for me the two systems yield the same result. However, for some people they may not really know which is their birth sign as there is a debate amongst the Rishonim as to how to determine it.