Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Esther's Astronomical Identity Crisis

Various Midrashic and rabbinic sources compare Queen Esther to astronomical objects or phenomena. One of the interesting things about this is that there are several different possibilities suggested. It seems so peculiar that all these sources agree that Esther represents, or is associated, with a stellar object, but they do not seem to agree as to what that is.

The Gemara (Megillah 13a) mentions that the name Esther comes from Istahara (אסתהרא) which Rashi interprets to refer to the moon.

Targum Sheini (Esther 2:7), on the other hand, says that it is referring to the Greek word that refers to Venus.

Rashi (Yoma 29b), based on the Gemara, also associates Esther with a phenomenon referred to as Ayeles HaShachar. Parenthetically, the Passhegen HaKesav (Hebrew translation and elucidation of the Targum Sheini), on the earlier verse from Esther (as well as other achronim) maintains that Venus is what Chazal refer to as Ayeles HaShachar. Interestingly, the Yerushalmi (Berachos 4b) emphatically states that Ayeles HaShachar is not Venus. The Alei Yonah maintains that this is something called zodiacal light although his suggestion seems unlikely as the Yerushalmi describes its sighting prior to dawn around the vernal equinox and zodiacal light is not visible then. (Shameless plug: Please keep your eyes open for my, as of now unnamed, book about the astronomical references in the Torah coming out within the year IY"H. Ayeles HaShachar, as well as many other topics, will be discussed.)

Another interesting point, although I have not seen anyone make this connection outright, is the similarity between Esther and the name Istahara (איסטהרא). Although the English transliteration of this name is identical to the earlier Gemara's word used for the moon, one can see from the Hebrew spelling that it is a different name. The Yalkut Shimoni (Bereishis 366) tells of a story in which a young woman of this name maintained her purity and was not seduced by evil angels that had descended to earth and were seeking relationships with mortal women. To honor her fortitude and piety she was placed as a star in the heavens in the star cluster called the Pleiades (found in the constellation Taurus, see last week's post).

Regardless of her cosmic nature, I would like to wish everyone a Happy Purim that is truly out of this world.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Universally Cosmic Ten Commandments

The ancients used to express the visible cosmos as several concentric spheres that rotate around the earth. From our perspective, different objects appear to go around the earth at different speeds. Therefore, one could express that the cycle of the sun is one day. That of the moon could be expressed as a month and so on and so on. Each object, or objects, that had a perceived motion was considered to be on its own sphere (or orbit) and this was used to describe its motion. Nine such spheres are mentioned and they are: that of the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the regular stars and the last one was a wheel that turned in order to provide the motion for the lower spheres.

The Ibn Ezra (Shemos 20:14) utilizes this description of the visible universe to express how the Aseres HaDibros contain the elements of the entire universe as a whole. The first of these holy mitzvos is the belief that Hashem is God. The Ibn Ezra contends that this is the only one of these commandments that is not expressed in the spheres of the cosmos. This is very reasonable considering how Hashem is not part of this universe, rather, He is the One that created it.

The second commandment is the prohibition of believing in other gods. This corresponds to the outermost sphere. This is the sphere that rotates the lower spheres and, as such, is perceived to be influencing the entire cosmos. Therefore, this prohibition clearly states that we are not to believe that it is a force other than Hashem Himself that is controlling the universe.

The third commandment is not using Hashem's name for no reason. This, states the Ibn Ezra, corresponds to the next sphere, the one containing the fixed stars and all the constellations. Some of the most spectacular beauties of creation can be found in this area and, continues the Ibn Ezra, is where Hashem's glory can be perceived. This is similar to His Holy name. Many have contended that these stellar beauties serve no purpose and are useless in the creation, so the corresponding commandment tells us not to use the Holy Name for no reason.

The forth commandment is Shabbos and this corresponds to Saturn. Based on the order of astrology mentioned in the Gemara (see Shabbos 129b and Rashi), Shabbos day is influenced by Saturn. Saturn is one of the two worst astrological influences, the other being Mars. Friday night is considered to be influenced by Mars, and Shabbos is, therefore, considered to be the most perilous day of the week. Accordingly, contends the Ibn Ezra, one needs to refrain from mundane activities on this dangerous day and only focus on the service of Hashem. Shabbos is the way to do this.

The fifth commandment is honoring one's parents. The sphere this is reflecting is Jupiter's. The Ibn Ezra mentions that Jupiter is considered to be the most exalted of the astrological influences (its position in both Roman and Greek mythology reflect this) and it demonstrates the idea of honor. We must honor the appropriate people and we have this holy commandment.

The sixth is murder and is Mars' sphere. Mars is the astrological influence of war and blood and this is how it has been portrayed by the ancient civilizations (Greek and Roman mythology, once agin, reflect this).

The seventh is not having forbidden relationships and the sphere is that of Venus. Venus is the astrological force associated with these types of forbidden pleasures (the Greeks and Romans had this one too).

The eighth is the prohibition of stealing and corresponds to the sphere of sun. The sun was considered to overpower and take all that it wants, whether intended for it or a different entity. As such, we must learn to respect others' property and leave it in their possession.

The ninth is not testifying falsly and this is Mercury's sphere. Mercury was associated with talking.

The last is not coveting another's possessions and is the last sphere, the moon. The moon has always been associated with desire and this commandment makes us aware that we are to control our desires not just our actions.

Although we no longer utilize this method to describe the physics behind the movements in the universe, it still accurately depicts the perception of the universe from man's vantage point. The Aseres HaDibros, in this way, show that all of the universe is to be harnessed in the appropriate fashion in order to allow man to serve his Creator appropriately.