Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Avodah Zarah in our Calendar?

This Shabbos will be 30 Sivan, the first day of Rosh Chodesh Tammuz. Even though the names of the months that we use are Babylonian in origin, Chazal still project deeper meaning and symblism into these words. (See Torah Sheleimah Miluim Bo p. 177) What is fascinating about Tammuz is that the drasha and the Babylonian meaning of the word are identical. Tammuz is the name of a pagan god. The first month of summer, Tammuz, was dedicated in his honor.

It pretty interesting to see how an abomination such as idol worship appears to plant roots in basic Jewish nomenclature. However, what is more interesting, perhaps, is how this relates to Parshas Chukas. The beginning of the Parsha discusses the concept of Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer. This service is performed in order to purify those that have come in contact with a corpse. It is comprised of a red heifer that is slaughtered and then incinerated to ash. The ashes are then mixed into a liquid mixture and sprinkled on the person needing purification. The process takes place outside the confines of the Beis HaMikdash.

The Ramban notes that this mysterious service appears somewhat pagan. The red color symbolizes doom and elements connected to Eisav and Mars. It was used by pagans to embody these unholy concepts. The necessity for the service to be performed outside the Holy Temple also give this unholy feeling.

It is therefore interesting to me to note that Chukas is ALWAYS read in Tammuz. This year is the closest thing to an exception that exists with it being read on the last day of Sivan, BUT that day is considered to be Rosh Chodesh Tammuz. Chukas will NEVER be read on a day of the year earlier than 30 Sivan and will NEVER be read in Av. Thus, we have the Parsha, whose mysterious reasoning gives the impression of idol worship and whose reasoning eludes us, being read in the month whose name connotes the same idea.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Four Seasons

As we are all familiar with, there are four seasons that we experience on Earth; spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Spring and autumn begin on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, and summer and winter begin on the summer and winter solstices. In rabbinic literature all four of these days are referred to as Tekufos.

Each Tekufah is called by the name of the month in which it usually occurs. Therefore, spring starts on Tekufas Nissan, summer on Tekufas Tammuz, autumn on Tekufas Tishrei, and winter on Tekufas Teves. There is an old custom to pour out any water that was in a vessel during the time of the Tekufah. Many reasons are given to explain the source of this custom (with some maintaining that it is not a valid custom), and one of the reasons given is that water turned to blood on these four days in specific times of our history. Therefore, it is harmful for one to drink water on these days.

On Tekufas Nissan the waters of Egypt turned to blood during the first of the Ten Plagues. On Tekufas Tammuz water turned to blood when Moshe Rabbeinu hit the rock, on Tekufas Tishrei the knife to be used to slaughter Yirzchak began sweating blood. On Tekufas Teves, Yiftach was forced to fulfill his vow to offer his daughter as a sacrifice thus causing bloodshed.

Interestingly enough, all four events are alluded to in this week's readings. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Parshas Chukas is often read around the time of one of these tekufos (a subject to be dealt with IY"H in another post this week). The reference to the hitting of the rock is clear with the event being recorded in this week's Parsha (although certain obscure Midrashim do assume that the event mentioned is actually the hitting of the rock found in Beshalach. See here for a discussion of this phenomenal Midrash.)

The tekufah of Nissan is referenced by the Torah's inclusion of the death of Miryam in this week's Parsha. This event happened on 1 Nissan which is a good reference to Tekufas Nissan. Tekufas Tishrei can be found be the discussion of the Parah Adumah. The Ramban teaches us that Parah Adumah and the sacrificial offerings of Yom Kippur were extremely similar in nature and meaning. Both were taken out of the Beis HaMikdash and give the appearance of idol worship. Thus, the allusion to Yom Kippur which is normally at the beginning of autumn can be seen in the beginning of the Parsha. The allusion to Tekufas Teves actually occurs in the Haftarah. In the Haftarah we are taught of the story of Yiftach and it includes the promise made by Yiftach (although I concede that it stops short of mentioning how his daughter became designated as the sacrifice; also due to this Shabbos being 30 Sivan the regular Haftarah will not be read and we will read the Haftarah for Rosh Chodesh).

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Astro Round Up

There are so many older pertinent posts to this week and its Parsha that I have decided to link them all below.

Well, some people were certainly shown quite a display this week with the lunar eclipse that happened on Wednesday night. Unfortunately, I am one of the many who could not view it since here in Baltimore it was daytime. Many find it philosophically disturbing that Chazal discuss eclipses as being ominous signs and nowadays we are able to calculate when they occur. This premise is based on a complete falsehood that Chazal were unable to predict eclipses. The truth is they were able to, for more details click here.

Similar to eclipses are events in which the Moon appears to cover a star or planet. Last year we mentioned (and illustrated with a computer simulation) one such fantastic event that occurred during the Meraglim's (spies mentioned in this week's Parsha) departure. The significance of such an event, as recorded by the Ibn Ezra, is too similar to the events that were happening to chalk up to coincidence. For more on this please click here.

Another fascinating idea from last year was an astronomical approach to resolving an old problem. Rashi in Beshalach teaches that there were seven days between the Exodus and the splitting of the sea. Yet, in the end of this week's Parsha he maintains there were eight. For this post click here.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Levi'im are the Real Stars

The Sefer Chareidim makes an interesting observation regarding the beginning of this week's Parsha. The Parsha begins with Aharon being informed of the lighting of the Menorah and this segment follows the end of last week's Parsha which discussed the Nesi'im inaugurating the Mizbeach with their sacrifices. The Midrash informs us that Aharon was depressed that the twelve Nesi'im were able to offer sacrifices to inaugurate the Mizbeach, but he was not. Hashem gave Aharon the mitzvah of Menorah and this pacified him.

The Chareidim mentions that we know that the twelve Nesi'im and their sacrifices corresponded to the twelve constellations of the zodiac. (See Bamidbar Rabbah) Thus, their actions were a display of the forces of nature uniting in the service of Hashem and that these heads of Shevet were symbolic of these forces. Aharon was shown that he represented something far superior than these forces of nature, that which is expressed in the Menorah. The Menorah's seven branches symbolize the seven ancient planets: the sun, moon, Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn. As all ancient astrologers were aware, these influences were considered superior to the twelve constellations. Perhaps this is because the constellations are considered the houses and places of these planets and it is the position of these planets that controls how the influence of the twelve constellations will be showered on Earth. (See Ibn Ezra's Reishis Chachma) (See here where a dissenting, albeit hard to understand approach is taken by Rav Eibshitz and here to see that Rav Eibshitz seems to have known of a system far different from the one found in most earlier sources.) Therefore, Aharon was shown that he was on a higher plane than the Nesi'im and that he need not worry.

The Chareidim then continues to mention that we then have all the Shevatim and Aharon represented in the sky with one exception, Levi. Where do the regular Levi'im find themselves? (This is reminiscent of Tosefos of Shvuos 14a's question that according to the opinion that the Levi'im were not considered part of the regular nation, with which korbon did they receive forgiveness on Yom Kippur as they were not included in the nation's nor in the kohanim's?) The Chareidim then offers the possibility that he Levi'im were represented by the regular stars of the sky. Interestingly, states the Chareidim, earlier in Sefer Bamidbar we were informed that the census of the Levi'im totalled 22,000. This, says the Chareidim, equals the amount of large stars in the sky.

The question I have is that the total number of visible stars is somewhat closer to 3,000 - 4,000. If the Chareidim maintains that big stars total 22,000 then what is considered small since he has already exceeded the visible amount? If he is referring to size or magnitude, then there will be far more than this number no matter what definition one will use for big.

Although I concede that the following does not fit well in the language used in the Chareidim, perhaps, he intended the following. Maybe he meant that the total amount of big stars is considered to be 1,022. This number was used by the Ibn Ezra (Reishis Chachma) and even by Ptolemy. (See this earlier post and comments for a little more perspective.) Even from the Chareidim's analysis of this portion one can see that he was familiar with these earlier sources. Perhaps, he reads the Hebrew of 22 X 1,000 to also homiletically be 1,000 + 22. Thus, the Levi'im are representative of the stars of the heavens.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Wrath of Grapes

Before I begin I would also like to refer you to a post from last year that shows some stiking similarities between certain elements of Greek mythology and certain Midrashim, specifically one associated with Matan Torah (since Shavuos is coming) and a reference to one associated with Sotah (this week's Parsha). Please click here to see Midrash Similar to Mythology.

While discussing the aspects of the Nazir in this week's Parsha, the Midrash Rabbah details some of the troubles that drinking wine can cause. In the course of its discussion the Midrash mentions that wine and deep wisdom are mutually exclusive. As wine goes in the wisdom goes out. (I have heard many interpret this line to mean that when one drinks wine he begins to tell his secrets, but the Midrash is clearly not saying that.) One begins to lose his abilities of reason and wisdom as he drinks. (Bamidbar Rabbah 10:18)

To express its point the Midrash compares wisdom to the Pleiades and wine to Scorpius. The Pleiades are a small cluster of stars that can be found in the constellation Taurus (see my earlier post The Rambam Knew Math which discusses that some regard this cluster to be in Aries) and Scorpius is a constellation that is associated with the month of Cheshvan. These two stellar objects are diametrically opposed in the sky and therefore can never be seen simultaneously in the sky. In order for one to be above the horizon the other must have set.

The Midrash continues that the Pleiades come out at a time when things begin to grow and ripen in the fields. Its month is that of Iyar and its time is springtime. This is comparable to wisdom which is productive and causes productivity. Scorpius, on the other hand, is symbolized as a scorpion whose distinguishing feature is that he kills his prey with his tail. Just like the venom comes from behind with regards to a scorpion, so too the wine affects its imbiber only after a duration of time.

I find it interesting that the Midrash finds some physical association with the Pleiades but only a symbolic one with Scorpius. While the Midrash got its point across one would have thought it could find two other objects that could be compared in similar terms. Perhaps one could suggest that the description of the scorpion also depicts the time of year that Scorpius represents, autumn. Cheshvan is the second month in autumn, but the time when preparation for winter is a little late. If one did not prepare well in Tishrei he may have thought he would be able to get through the winter. However, at some point in Cheshvan he will begin to notice his supply depleting and realize that he is not ready to struggle through the winter. The damage was done up front during Tishrei (and perhaps Elul) when the individual did not prepare wisely, but its repercussions are not felt until later in Cheshvan.(The comparison to the judgment of Rosh Hashana in Tishrei and the ensuing month is pretty obvious, as well.)

One can also not ask why the Pleiades does not symbolize anything associated with wisdom metaphorically, because it clearly does. Chazal express the Pleiades as appearing to be a cluster of stars that when observed more closely has more than even initially seen. (See Berachos 58b) Such is true wisdom that can appear impressive even on the surface level, however, the more one delves into it he sees there is so much more there.