Monday, August 13, 2012

Even the Sages Had Difficulty Pronouncing "Ch"

Although the names of the months are of Babylonian origin, there is Midrashic literature that fleshes out the deeper meanings behind these names. One such Midrash is attributed to Rebbi Pinchas the talmid of the Kalir (Tosefos mention that the Kalir is the Tanna Rebbi Eliezer the son of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai) and is referred to as "Kiddush Yerachim D'Rebbi Pinchas" ("The Sanctification of the Months by Rebbi Pinchas"). (See Torah Sheleimah Miluim Parshas Bo, 178)

Rebbi Pinchas mentions that Elul, the month we are beginning, is called Elul (אלול) because of the shofar that is blown throughout this month in preparation for Rosh Hashana. A shofar is a hollowed out instrument and can be referred to as being Chalul (חלול - meaning hollow). The root of this word חלל can be seen with a similar application when used to describe a flute, a Chalil (חליל).

Perhaps, the fact that a shofar is hollow is not just a random attribute, but personifies part of the nature of what it is displaying in this month. Elul is clearly the time when preparation for Tishrei, the next month, is happening. People repent and awaken early to say selichos in order to be meritorious in the judgment of Rosh Hashana. According to Rebbi Eliezer the world was created on 25 Elul, but Rosh Hashana is not until 1 Tishrei because that is when the days of Creation ceased and the world was ready to run appropriately with man at its helm. (See Rosh Hashana 10b) Thus, one sees directly that Elul is like a hollow tube; a mechanism that displays the concept of a conduit. Its sole purpose is to connect and prepare one for that which comes out the end of it, Tishrei.

Grammarians, please do not worry! There is precedent for the exchange of a ח for an א, so the change from חלול to אלול should not seem so scary. In Parshas VaYishlach we are taught of Yaakov Avinu's famous battle with an angel. The pasuk states, ",ויאבק איש עמו" which means, "And he wrestled with the man." (Bereishis 32:25) The word used for wrestle ויאבק (VaYeAvek) is not a common word and the Ramban mentions that this word's origins literally come from those that mean that the two became intertwined as if embracing. Continues the Ramban that the Sages had difficulty pronouncing the letter ח and often either swallowed it or expressed it as an א. (Ramban Bereishis 32:25) Apparently, this was common enough that the Torah itself recognizes this pronunciation regarding this battle and uses ויאבק instead of ויחבק (VaYeChavek) which means to embrace. Therefore, when discussing the names of the months which are Babylonian it stands to reason that these letters would be easily interchangeable.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Showering in Dust

As mentioned in yesterday's post, this weekend will mark the Perseid meteor shower. That post reflected on some of the significance one can find in meteor showers that is applicable in one's personal life. Interestingly, the word for meteors in shas is zikos. Perhaps not so coincidentally, this week's haftarah discusses zikos, as well. (See Yishayah 50:11.)

In the haftarah the word is meant to describe Klal Yisrael and is referring to them as zikos, or igniters of fire. Because meteors appear as streaks of fire across the sky, the word zikos is applicable to them too.

Besides the symbolism mentioned in the last post, perhaps, there is added meaning when referring to this word usage in the haftarah. Many times, zikos, meteors, are the remnants of a comet that has passed through an area of space long ago. As Earth passes through that same area the dust particles left behind from that much earlier comet enter our atmosphere and flare up. This gives the appearance of a shower of meteors; hence the term for such events, meteor showers.

Essentially, the amazing spectacle seen from our planet is really the residual effect from many years past. This is something that is definitely attributable to Klal Yisrael. We are a nation built on the actions of our forefathers. In addition to trying to follow in their giant footsteps, it is often their merits that we are dependant on. Just like the comet left behind something that was imperceptible to us until the moment it interacts with the atmosphere, so too, our forefathers' actions were unnoticeable but still capable of affecting the world when necessary.

This haftarah has a significant amount of astronomical imagery within it. I discussed it at greater length in a post last year that you can read by clicking here.

Monday, August 6, 2012

All We Are is Dust In the Sky

This weekend will mark the peak of this year's Perseid meteor shower. As comets swing by our planet, they leave behind all sorts of dust and debris. Every year when Earth's orbit puts us into the dusty area of space, these particles enter our atmosphere. These particles then appear to flare up and, from our perspective, look like small stars that streak across the sky. In fact, many refer to such objects as shooting stars. On any given night there are a few particles that enter the atmosphere, but when we enter these dustier areas there are many more and the name meteor shower has been designated for these more active times.

There is an interesting halachah that if one sees a meteor he is to recite the brachah of oseh ma'aseh bereishis. This brachah can only be said on one meteor per night. (See Shulchan Aruch OC 227:1 and MB 227:1.)

Perhaps somewhat poetically, I find that reflecting on these types of events can give one both chizuk and mussar. A small piece of dust all of a sudden erupts into a fiery particle that, from Earth, appears to be a shooting star. As humans we have been created from dust, but we, too, are able to put on a great show and become great like the stars. However, we have to realize that our time here is fleeting. After a few moments these "stars" tend to burn out and leave no lasting mark. It is only the few larger particles that are big enough to survive the descent through the atmosphere and touch down to the ground. The vast majority leave no lasting impression.

This year's Perseid shower is not expected to be one of the more spectacular meteor showers. It is predicted to produce approximately one meteor per minute. Keep in mind that in many locations the sky conditions will not permit one to see the meteors that clearly.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Ancient Roots For Oxen (Amended)

When describing the bountiful plenty that Hashem will bestow upon us when we keep the Torah, the pasuk refers to cattle and sheep as follows:

"שגר אלפיך ועשתרות צאנך"

"The offspring of your cattle and your flocks of sheep." (Devarim 28:4)

While this is not the only time these words are used, they are used infrequently enough that the Rishonim feel it necessary to translate the words. (See their writings to Devarim 7:13) The words "שגר אלפיך ועשתרות" are usually not those found for offspring, cattle and flocks. Rather the more common "ילידי בקר ועדרים" seem more appropriate. (See Rashi Devarim 7:13)

The Ibn Ezra comments that the word usage may have some profoundly astronomical/astrological connection that was uncovered by "A great commentator from Sefarad," but the wording found in the Ibn Ezra's comments are difficult to understand and many have debated what he actually meant. (See Ibn Ezra Devarim 7:13)

While I am not sure if the following is what the Ibn Ezra intended, it does seem to be a plausible theory. It is important to recognize that the stars we see in the night sky appear to be in the same relative positions on any given day of the year. Meaning, if I go outside on August 5 of any given year at any specific time (at any given location), the stars seen in the sky will be identical to those seen the year before and the year after on that date at that time (at that location). While this seems to be the case, the truth is that the stars "move" approximately one degree every 72 years and thereby over large periods of time things will no longer appear the same. Over the course of any individual's lifetime (other than those that lived to biblical ages) one will not perceive this shift (called axial precession or the precession of the equinoxes). This phenomenon causes the mazal of any given month to appear to shift over long periods of time. For example, in the time of Chazal the mazal of the month of Adar was Dagim (Pisces) because that was positioned "behind" the sun that month. Nowadays Dagim has the sun "behind" it during the month of Nisan. This phenomenon has been mentioned by the Ibn Ezra in his foreword to Sefer HaTaamim and by the Rambam in his Mishneh Torah (see Yesodei HaTorah 3:7). The mazal of Nisan was given significant importance in ancient times since it displayed new growth and beginning. (See Ibn Ezra's Sefer HaTaamim)

When the world was created the mazal of the month of Nisan was Shor (Taurus) which has been symbolized by a bull since extremely ancient times. Later, due to the shift of axial precession, it shifted into the mazal of T'leh (Aries) which is shown as a ram or sheep. Perhaps, the expression of an ox as an אלף is because like the letter אלף it was first in the first position mazalos. The word שגר is perhaps used to describe the offspring of this ox because שגר often carries the connotation that the item has been cast away, as if rejected (see Jastrow's translation of this word). The flocks of sheep are perhaps referred to as עשתרות from the word עושר meaning riches. Since after the ox was cast away the mazal moved to T'leh enriching it and associating with it riches. (See Ibn Ezra's Reishis Chachma 2) In fact, Chazal deduce from this wording that raising sheep is very profitable and makes one rich. (Chullin 84b)

Additionally, the tenth month of the year, Teves, was associated with the sign of G'di (Capricorn[us]) during the time period that Klal Yisrael were leaving Mitzrayim. It remained with this association throughout the time of Chazal. Thus, the tenth month is associated with ovine creatures since a g'di is a goat which is a subcategory of the word in our pasuk, צאן. Perhaps, the עשתרות also has roots in the word עשר which means ten.