Archive for June, 2013

June 26, 2013 1:42 am CDT

Pinchas–When 7 = 1

“In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded.”  (Num. 29:1)

Jewish tradition adopted the new moon of the seventh month as the start of the new year, Rosh Hashanah. The oddity of having the New Year begin in the seventh month comes from the fact that two calendrical systems are reflected in the Bible: one in which the new year begins in the fall, and one beginning in the spring, as the Babylonian year did.

The calendar in this section of Numbers  is an interesting hybrid: the year begins in the fall, but the month is reckoned according to the spring beginning.  (Note that the months here are numbered, not named. This is typical of the Babylonian reckoning.)  One reason for highlighting the seventh month rather than the first might be an analogy with the Sabbath. Just as the Sabbath offering amounts to twice the daily offering, so the offering for the “seventh” new Moon is twice the usual offering for the new moon.

In any case, despite the Babylonian reckoning beginning the year in the spring, an autumnal inception for the year is very old. It is reflected in Exodus 23:16, an early text, and in an even earlier inscription known as the Gezer calendar (10th century BC, found at Tel Jazari 18 miles NW of Jerusalem).

June 26, 2013 1:33 am CDT

Pinchas–Shemini Atzeret

“On the eighth [hashemeni] day [of Sukkot] you shall have a solemn gathering [atzeret]: you shall not work at your occupations.”  (Num. 29:35)

We are given no further information about the nature of this holiday beyond this verse.  This indistinctness led to much discussion in rabbinic literature about whether the eighth day, known as Shemini Atzeret, is the end of Sukkoth or a completely independent festival.   The rabbis interpreted this verse to mean that God asks all those who made the pilgrimage for Sukkoth to tarry (atzeret, from the root “to hold back”) with Him one additional day, and concluded that Shemini Atzeret is an independent festival.  In Jewish tradition, the only characteristic ritual for Shemini Atzeret is a special prayer for rain.

As with many holidays, the rabbis ordained a second day for the celebration of Shemini Atzeret outside the land of Israel. Beginning around the 10th century CE, this second day of Shemini Atzeret began to take on the character of a festival of Torah, because on the Sabbath following Shemini Atzeret the annual cycle of reading the Torah was begun again by going back to the beginning of the book of Genesis.  The festival became known as Simchat Torah, “rejoicing in the Torah.” Today, the joyous character of Simchat Torah has overwhelmed the virtually ritualless Shemini Atzeret.

June 20, 2013 6:19 pm CDT

Balak–Mah Tovu

“How fair are your tents, O Jacob,
     Your encampments, O Israel!”  (Num. 24:5)

The Jewish prayer service does not begin with a call to prayer, nor words of praise, entreaty or benediction (though of course the service contains many examples of all of these).  We begin, instead, with the above-quoted words from the prophet Balaam.   In reciting them we step outside ourselves and behold ourselves, as from a mountaintop, encamped on the plain.  We are beautiful in our array, in our collective effect.

By opening the service in this way we  invoke “synagogue space” which is, as Rabbi Jim Goodman writes, “a large space, much larger than it looks because when you walk through these doors, you walk into Casablanca, into Jerusalem, into Minsk, into Baghdad, into Strasbourg—into this space where Jews have sung the same song to God for generations.  When you enter here, you have entered a larger space than you see.  Does it belong to you or do you belong to it?

“We belong to something bigger than ourselves. We belong to God, we belong to the Jewish people, we belong to history, we belong to our glories and our defeats, we belong to each other, and we belong to ourselves.”    We locate ourselves within these concentric circles, and let the community’s energy and intention bear us up as on eagle’s wings.

This link will take you to a lovely, classical/concert setting of these words by composer Ernst Bloch.  If you can carve out a tiny oasis of quiet right now, listen to at least the first three minutes, the very beginning of the service.  [The Hebrew translates thus:  How fair are your tents, O Jacob, / Your encampments, O Israel!”  (Num. 24:5)  As for me, through the abundance of your steadfast love, I will come into your house; I will bow down toward your holy temple  in awe of you.” (Psalm 5:7)]

June 20, 2013 6:07 pm CDT

Balak–Why the NSA should read Talmud

“Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe.”  (Numbers 24:2)

The Talmud has a different take on “how fair are your tents.”  From tractate Bava Batra:

“‘Balaam . . . saw Israel.’  What did he see? He saw that their tent openings were not facing each other, so that they could not peek into each other’s tents. Admiring their modesty and decency, Balaam declared, ‘People such as these deserve to have the Shechinah* rest upon them.’ ” (60a).

*the divine presence

June 12, 2013 10:01 pm CDT

Hukkat–The Song of the Well

Then Israel sang this song:
“Spring up, O well! –sing to it!—
well that the leaders dug,
that the nobles of the people delved,
with the scepter, with the staff.”   (Num. 21:17-18)

“Then Israel sang this song . . . .”  The same words that introduce the Song of the Sea introduce this “Song of the Well.” Both songs date to the earliest phase of biblical poetry, both start with an exhortation in the imperative, and both involve water in some form. Other than that, they are quite different. The imperative in the hymnic Song of the Sea enjoins Israel to praise God for the deliverance of the nation; the Sea symbolizes the power and threat of the nether world. But water is no threat here, but a necessity for survival.   And there is no summons to praise God; rather, the imperative in this incantation is addressed to the well itself, as if the assembled tribes (note the absence of named leaders like Moses and Miriam) could sing the water into bubbling up to the surface.

June 12, 2013 9:58 pm CDT

Hukkat–The Ballad of Heshbon

Therefore the bards say,
“Come to Heshbon!  Firmly built
and well-founded is Sihon’s city.
For fire came out from Heshbon,
flame from the city of Sihon.
It devoured Ar of Moab,
the notables of Arnon’s high places. (Num. 21:27-28)

Here we have another piece of archaic poetry inserted into the narrative. Its composition is attributed to the moshelim, variously translated “bards” (NJV) or “ballad singers” (RSV) or even “rhapsodes” (Alter). The root mashal means “to be like” and is used for a variety of literary forms, from proverbs to parables to poems.

Talmudic sages and modern scholars agree that the ballad singers who first sang this poem were Amorite, and that they sung it to celebrate a victory over Moab.  Perhaps, as Milgrom conjectures, the poem is inserted here to prove that Israel seized Heshbon not from the Moabites (whose territory was off limits to them) but the Amorites. Or it could simply be an attempt to flesh out an otherwise skeletal history from an ancient source. This is not the only place that the Hebrew Bible incorporates literature from outside Israel.

June 6, 2013 9:06 am CDT


“We are lost, all of us are lost!  Whoever so much as comes near the Lord’s Tabernacle will die.  Alas, we are doomed!”  (Numbers 17:28)

The rebellions narrated earlier in this parsha were directed primarily against the priestly leadership of Aaron. The punishment of the rebels was intended to answer this challenge and establish the authority of the established priestly caste. However, it is typical of the deteriorating morale that we witness in the book of Numbers that the people draw from these punishments a different lesson: that they face a dire, mortal threat from the presence of the Sanctuary.  Having overreached in their assumption that the holiness of all Israel gives priestly access to any member, they now exaggerate the danger of any approach to the tabernacle whatsoever.

The verses that follow (18:1-7) not only clarify what constitutes encroachment, but place responsibility for enforcing it on the priestly and Levitical guards. If they fail to prevent encroachment, it is they, not the people, who will be punished.

June 6, 2013 9:03 am CDT

Korah–“God is my Portion”

And the LORD said to Aaron, “You shall have no territorial share among them, or own any portion in their midst; I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel.”    (Numbers 18:20)

Because the priests and Levites receive divine gifts (enumerated in this chapter beginning with v. 8), God is considered their portion (heleq) and they are not allotted any land within Israel.   This situation is reflected in the name Hilkiah (meaning “Yah is my portion”), which was the name of several priests mentioned in the Bible (2 Kings 22:10, etc.) and was found on the personal seal of a priest in Jerusalem, dated around 600 BC.

This motif is adopted in the piety of the Psalms for the faithful in general: “Whom else do I have in the heavens, and beside You whom would I want on earth?  Though my body and mind waste away, God is the rock of my life and my portion forever.”  (Ps. 73: 27-28)  And the author of Ecclesiastes counsels that one should enjoy one’s portion, even as he observes that one can find no profit in life.