Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Navigating 40 Years in the Wilderness by the Northern Stars

When camping in the Wilderness Klal Yisrael was instructed by God to assemble into four camps positioned in the four cardinal directions. The shevatim of Yehuda, Yissachar, and Zevulun were positioned eastward, Reuven, Shimon, and Gad in the south, Ephraim, Menashe, and Binyamin to the west, and Dan, Asher, and Naphtali occupied the north. The tribe of Levi was positioned in the interior of these camps and the mishkan was the focal point of the entire assembly. Additionally, each camp and shevet was given a banner to represent itself.

The Midrash HaGadol mentions that when God instructed Avraham to look heavenward and count the stars he saw the twelve signs of the zodiac circling Ursa Major. Avraham witnessed three zodiacal constellations in each direction and was taught that each set of three represented a specific segment of three shevatim of the encampment. Later, Yaakov recognized the significance of this teaching and, upon his deathbed, instructed his children to carry his casket in the same fashion with three shevatim positioned to each direction.

The northern constellation Ursa Major, otherwise known as the Great Bear, is a very distinct constellation. Its seven brightest stars form one of the most familiar asterisms, star patterns, the Big Dipper. Due to Earth’s rotation, most constellations rise and set, similar to the Sun; Ursa Major, however, is positioned so close to the Earth’s axial point that it never sets below the horizon. Rather, it appears to make a small circle around the northern focal point of the Earth’s rotation. As such, it appears that the other constellations continue to rotate around Ursa Major thus it is befitting that in the representation mentioned in the Midrash HaGadol Ursa Major was the center of the heavenly rotation.

As focus, Ursa Major portrays the central object that appears to hold together the celestial wheel. Yaakov was portrayed in similar fashion relative to his sons when he instructed them to carry his casket in like fashion. The mishkan and the Levi’im who carried it also express this very idea. The Rokeach extends this metaphor to tefillin and states that the three stitches found on each side of the box represent the three shevatim and three signs of the zodiac and the holy scrolls inside the box represent the mishkan.

By delving deeper into some other talmudic passages we will see that there is some more symbolism to be seen by the central figure of this celestial wheel, Agalah. The verses in Iyov state:

"עשה עש כסיל וכימה וחדרי תמן."

“He makes Ash, Orion, and the Pleiades, and the Southern Cross.”


"התציא מזרות בעתו ועיש על בניה תנחם."

“He brings forth the constellations in their times and Ayish finds consolation for her sons.”

When analyzing the identity of Ash and Ayish, the Talmud mentions:

"מאי עש אמר רב יהודה יותא מאי יותא אמרי לה זנב טלה ואמרי לה רישא דעגלא ומסתברא כמאן דאמר זנב טלה דכתיב ועיש על בניה תנחם אלמא חסרה ומתחזיא תלמוד כטרפא דטריף והאי דאזלא בתרה דאמרה לה הב לי בני שבשעה שהקדוש ברוך הוא בקש להביא מבול לעולם נטל שני כוכבים מכימה והביא מבול לעולם וכשבקש לסתמה נטל שני כוכבים מעיש וסתמה וליהדר לה אין הבור מתמלא מחוליתו אי נמי אין קטיגור נעשה סניגור וליברי לה תרי ככבי אחריני אין כל חדש תחת השמש אמר רב נחמן עתיד הקדוש ברוך הוא להחזירן לה שנאמר ועיש על בניה תנחם."

“What is Ash? Said Rav Yehuda, ‘[It is] Yota.’ What is Yota? Some say it is the tail of Aries and some say it is the head of Eglah. And it is logical [to acknowledge the identity] in accordance with the one who states that it is the tail of Aries as it is written, ‘And Ayish finds consolation for her sons.’ This indicates that something is missing and has been repaired just like a tail that appears torn. And that which she[, the tail of Ayish,] follows her[, the Pleiades,] is because she is saying to her give me my children [back]. For when the Holy One, blessed is He, desired to bring forth a deluge to the world He took two stars from the Pleiades and brought a deluge to the world. And when He desired to plug it up he took two stars from Ayish and plugged it up. And [why did He not] return [those same stars] to her? [Because] a hole will not fill from that which was dug from it. Alternatively [one could suggest] that the prosecutor does not became the defender. And [why did God not] create two other [new] stars for her? ‘There is nothing new under the Sun.’ Said Rav Nachman, ‘In the future the Holy One, blessed is He, will return them to her as it is stated, ‘And Ayish finds consolation for her two sons.’”

While it is certainly clear that the Talmud sides with the opinion that defines Ash and Ayish as the tail of Aries, the other opinion was not rejected completely. The Talmud merely stated that the first opinion seemed more logical. In fact, as we shall see, many later commentaries continued to utilize the other approach throughout their works. In order to understand this other opinion it is incumbent upon us to ascertain the identity of Eglah since this opinion maintains that the true identity of Ash and Ayish is the head of Eglah.

The word eglah is Hebrew for calf, but there is no known constellation that is depicted as a calf. The closest possible association to a calf found amongst the ancient constellations is Taurus, the Ox. One of the difficulties with this identification is that the Talmud normally refers to Taurus as Shor which means ox and not as Eglah. This objection is clearly not strong enough to completely discount the possibility of Eglah being Taurus as in other passages Rashi clearly identifies the talmudic constellation Eglah as Taurus. However, this assertion is rejected by Tosefos. One of the contentions that Tosefos have with Rashi’s approach is that the passage of Talmud that Rashi was commenting about mentioned that Eglah is always positioned in the north and Taurus, as well as all the zodiacal constellations, moves from east to west on a nightly basis. Tosefos do not offer an alternative suggestion, they merely state that Eglah must be something other than Taurus.

Perhaps Tosefos would maintain that the name of the constellation is actually not Eglah, but Agalah, the Wagon. The Hebrew words eglah and agalah are spelled identically because in Hebrew the vowels are not written with the letters thus both would be written as עגלה. The interpretation as Agalah is consistent with the Midrash HaGadol’s  identification of Ursa Major as Agalah. Ursa Major is a very northerly constellation and fits the description of the northerly constellation mentioned by the Talmud. Thus, it is probable that the other opinion considers the identity of Ash and Ayish to be Ursa Major.

Supporting this view is the Ibn Ezra who clearly states that Ash is Ursa Major which is called Agalah and also referred to as the Great Bear. Additionally, the Ralbag and Tosefos Rid contend that Ayish is Ursa Major. It is notable that in addition to their phenomenal biblical exegesis the Ibn Ezra and Ralbag were esteemed astronomers. The science of astronomy has honored both these sages by naming craters on the Moon after them, Abenezra and Rabbi Levi.

Now that we have established that many maintain that Ash, Ayish, and Agalah are all the same constellation, Ursa Major, let us see how that helps us better understand the center of the encampment. As stated above, the mishkan was the focus of the encampment of the nation. Surrounding the mishkan were the Levi’im who were designated to serve Aharon and it was Aharon and his children who were appointed with the service in the mishkan. Therefore, Aharon’s camp position and appointment as high priest distinguished him as the central figure of the camp. In this regard Aharon had a similar function to the role of Agalah, the center and focus of the constellations. Interestingly, the mishkan was transported by Levi’im via agalos, wagons, which conjure up the image of Agalah, the Wagon. Additionally, the Talmud informed us that it was for two children that Agalah seeks consolation, so too Aharon’s two sons died on the day the mishkan was inaugurated. Aharon was also considered to be the force that held together the rest of Bnai Yisrael in the way he interacted with the rest of the nation. We are taught that when individuals would quarrel it was Aharon who made the peace so that all the members of Bnai Yisrael would work together. Just like Agalah appears to hold the constellations together and turn them in perfect harmony, so too Aharon recognizes how each member of Klal Yisrael can work in tandem with the rest.

This post was initially written as a paper. I am unfamiliar with how to post the footnotes as part of the text. Instead I am making a pdf version of the original document available by clicking here.

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