Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Scorpion's Forehead

This week we began the month of Elul. Elul is considered to be the time when we prepare ourselves to stand in judgment before Hashem on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Interestingly, a somewhat uncommon event will occur this Shabbos.

As we know, the moon is significantly closer to us than any of the stars and planets. As such, every so often the moon's path has it crossing in front of another celestial object. When this happens, the celestial object gets "covered" by the moon and is invisible until the moon passes. When the moon does this to the sun it is called an eclipse. When this event occurs to another object it is generally referred to as an occultation.

This Shabbos the moon will occult a fairly bright star, Dschubba (Delta Scorpii). This will be the brightest star occulted this year. Dschubba is in the constellation Scorpius and is envisioned as the forehead of the this celestial scorpion. In rabbinic literature the moon is often times symbolic of Klal Yisrael and Scorpius of the painful verdict of judgment. (See Midrash Tehillim 22 and Tanchuma Haazinu 1) The constellation of Scorpius is also associated with the Satan and it is he that tries to prosecute us during these holy days. However, we are able to find favor in Hashem's "eyes" and He allows for repentance especially during this time period. In fact, on Yom Kippur the Satan is rendered powerless.

May the symbolism of the moon's blotting out the light of Scorpius also come true as Klal Yisrael "blots" out and renders the Satan powerless as we find favor in Hashem's "eyes" with true repentance. For more information regarding when one can see this occultation click here.

Also, if anyone is interested in reading up on the halachos associated with astrology, magic, superstition, necromancy, Molech, divination, charms, and the like click here. These mitzvos can be found in this week's Parsha and The Rosh's son Rebbi Yehuda characterized them as being fundamentals upon which the entire Torah is based. He also declared that violations of them are why the exile has persisted. The above reading also attempts to discuss why this is the case.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Homeward Bound

Towards the end of the Parsha we are informed that when one visits the Holy Temple and offers his sacrifices on the holidays that he should not leave the city that day, rather, he should stay for at least one evening. (Devarim 16:7) A quick and interesting point about this mitzvah can be seen in the commentary offered by Rabbeinu Bachye.

Rabbeinu Bachye points out that Hashem decided to place this commandment in the section dealing with the laws of Pesach. This is because most of the men of Klal Yisrael had an obligation to ascend to the Holy Temple for the three major holidays and bring sacrifices. (Devarim 16:16) Rabbeinu Bachye cites from Chazal that Eretz Yisrael is 400 parsah by 400 parsah, and Yerushalyim is perfectly centered. As such, the most any inhabitant would have to travel would be 200 parsah. The average distance traveled per day is 10 parsah. (Pesachim 93b-94a). Doing the math, including the exclusion of the 7 Shabbosos and 1 day of the last day of Pesach during which this man cannot travel, shows that there is just enough time for someone from the most distant part of Eretz Yisrael to return home from
Pesach, stay for a day, and leave the next morning to go back to the Holy Temple for Shavuos! This can be seen from the fact that we are taught that upon leaving the Temple one may go back to "your" place of dwelling, see Devarim 16:7.

This is clearly not the case food someone living in the Diaspora. Either the Torah does not have such compassion for him since he should be in Eretz Yisrael. Or, since mitzvos were really given to be performed in Eretz Yisrael, as the Ramban mentions in several places, the nature of the mitzvah reflects this region (as clearly stated by the Ramban, this does not give one outside of Eretz Yisrael an excuse not to perform mitzvos). Or, the mitzvah to ascend for the holidays does not apply to those living outside of Eretz Yisrael. This last point is debated by many Acharonim.

If anybody has a suggestion if there is significance to the fact that after returning from his Shavuos pilgrimage this same individual will be home just in time for Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, I would love to hear that.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Navi's Sky

As mentioned last week, this week's Haftarah contains many words within a short section that also express astronomical/astrological terms. It seems more than just coincidence that this is occurring and, perhaps, is actually deliberate to provide imagery that enhances the meaning of the text. (Once again, I will use the translation from Artscroll's Tanach, but leave the word I am referring to in Hebrew.)

"Behold they will wear out like a garment; Ash (moth) will devour them." (Yeshaya 50:9) Ash is also the name of Ursa Major, the constellation that has the recognizable Big Dipper in it. In rabbinic literature it is also displayed as the constellation that the others appear to rotate around, thus, it appears that it is the center of the "wheels of the universe" and the point that seems to have all else move around it. This is significant since, to people in ancient times, this was symbolic of the item that appeared to keep the universe in balance and make sure that things continued properly. Here it could signify that through time and natural events the adversaries of Hashem will wither away and be forgotten.

"Though he may have walked in darkness with no Nogah light for himself, etc." (Ibid. 50:10) Nogah also refers to Venus and it is seen as the brightest of all stars. It rises often times just before dawn and is known as the Morning Star. As such, the one who fears Hashem, the subject in this verse, has walked without a guiding light, nor has he felt the dawn to his darkness was coming since he never witnessed a Morning Star.

"Behold all of you are igniters of fire, kindlers of Zikos (sparks), go in the flame of your fire, and in the Zikos (sparks) you have lit, etc." (Yeshaya 50:11) Zikos also can refer to either a comet or a shooting star. If it is intended to refer to shooting stars then it could mean that those who feared Hashem may have felt small and insignificant, but with their light they produced was brilliant. A shooting star is not actually a star, but a speck of dust that burns up as it enters the atmosphere. If it means a comet then just as a comet has its own orbit and seems to be a lonely celestial object, so too those that feared Hashem were small in comparison to those that did not. But they need to follow in the path they have blazed.

"Listen to me, O pursuers of Tzedek (righteousness), etc." (Yeshaya 51:1) Tzedek also means Jupiter. Jupiter is the largest of the planets and righteousness has been attributed to it historically by Chazal. As such, we refer to this planet as the object the other celestial objects were searching for.

Interestingly, the above verses are all one immediately after the other.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Heavenly Consolation

This week's Haftarah begins the seven of Haftaros of consolation. All can be found in Sefer Yeshaya and they are read between Tisha B'Av and Rosh Hashana as a way to reconnect and reestablish a loving relationship with Hashem. It has fascinated me that in the words of the Nevi'im one can sometimes see language that has a double meaning and could also be referring to the stars. While one could counter that some of this is coincidental, there is so much of this encrypted language, especially in Yeshaya, that it is hard to discount. This is especially since allusions to astronomical/astrological concepts and objects was something that was common back in those days.

This week's Haftarah is no exception (in fact, this week and next week seem to have more than the rest of these seven). The Pesukim state (translation from the Artscroll Tanach; I will transliterate the words that I am focusing on, though):

"[He is] like a shepherd who grazes his flock, who gathers the Tela'im (lambs) in his arm, etc." (Yeshaya 40:11) T'leh (pl. Tela'im) can also refer to Aries, the mazal of the month of Nissan which is the month which Hashem took his "sheep" to be His when He redeemed them from Egypt at the time of the Exodus.

"Who measured the waters in His palm, gauged the Heavens with a span, measured in a huge vessel the dust of the earth, and weighed mountains with a scale and hills with a Moznayim (balance)." (Yeshaya 40:12) Moznayim is the mazal of the month of Tishrei and connotes the judgment that is enacted by Hashem at that time.The scrutiny of this judgment exacted at all of the universe from the greatest to the smallest of Creation is His judgment and that concept seems consistent with the theme of this verse.

"Behold, all the nations are like a drop from a D'li (bucket) and are reckoned like the dust rubbing of a Moznayim (balance), etc." (Yeshaya 40:15) The Ibn Ezra teaches that D'li which is the mazal for the month of Shvat, is also the mazal that symbolizes Klal Yisrael. As such, it is befitting to mention that the other nations are like but a drop from this "bucket" and that they will be rendered like dust from Moznayim which as stated before is a display of Hashem's judgment. Meaning all the nations that did harm to us throughout the exile will be brought to justice.

Next week's Haftarah has a lot more than just these. Hopefully I will get a chance to post them for then.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Dog Days of Summer

With summer in full force and Tisha B'Av having just passed, I was reminded of a post from last year about Tisha B'Av that got me thinking. Last year I focused on the fact that many translations of Kinos seem to mistranslate a line from Kinah 37. The Kinah mentions how Orion seems to only rise in the month of Tammuz from Eretz Yisrael's vantage point. Click here for an depth discussion as to what the correct translation is and why the more common Kinos seem to have not translated this phrase properly.

I started thinking how last year I was so focused on the technical translation that for some reason I did not pay that much attention as to why this fact might be pertinent. Who really cares about Orion's rising? Why is it important that it is during Tammuz?

After thinking about this for a few minutes I thought that perhaps the author was portraying the fact that Orion (also known as Kesil, "The Fool") only has gained power in the beginning of the summer. The invading armies were succesful at breaching the walls of Yerushalayim in Tammuz, just like Orion seems to come to strength in this month. Recently I posted some of the Rema's statements that discuss how the constellation Leo (the lion of the month of Av) was displayed in the Beis HaMikdash and how it was replaced with Canis Major (Orion's hunting dog in the sky). It seems that Av can be either displayed as Leo, the Lion of royalty, or as the dog of the fool, Orion. See here.

Perhaps, the Kinah is teaching us that we must choose whether we want to act like royalty or like a fool. Interestingly, in the Kinah that precedes this one a mention of how the dogs dragged away the youth compared to lions can be found.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Leo and Av

With Tisha B'Av approaching, I thought that the following was appropriate. On Tisha B'Av we mourn the tragic loss of both Batei Mikdash as well as many other tragedies that have marred our past. Both Batei Mikdash were destroyed in this month of Av.

The Rema points out that the sign of Av is Leo, the Lion. This is a month when royalty should be able to shine. The Beis HaMikdash, Chazal mention, was designed in such a fashion as to give the appearance like a lion. It was broader in the front of the building than it was in the back. Additionally, the fire on the Mizbeach was initially shaped like a lion. That which it took the shape of a dog in the second Beis HaMikdash is also reminiscent of a lion, says the Rema. There are 12 main mazalos and 36 other constellations in the sky. Each of the twelve rules over 3 of the others. In Leo's domain is Canis Major which is depicted as a dog. Thus, Leo was represented on the Mizbeach in the second Beis HaMikdash, although a secondary figure was chosen to demonstrate that things were not the same as they had been in the first Beis HaMikdash.

Due to our sins the decree was sealed that royalty be taken from us and the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed. This happened in Av to demonstrate that the appearance of royalty was no longer being demonstrated by the Jews. Rather, Nevuchadnetzar, described both in Pesukim and by Chazal as a lion, came into the Mikdash, symbolized by the lion, and destroyed it in the month of the lion.

May we merit to witness the rebuilding of this holy temple very quickly!