Friday, May 13, 2005

Emor: Rabbinic Mathematics

[Note: I've altered this post somewhat since Shabbat. Persons by the name of Meredith are requested not to read the footnote.]

Today is the 19th day, that is, two weeks and five days in the counting of the Omer.

The commandment to count the omer (sheaves of wheat), in both days and weeks, comes from a literal reading of Lev. 23:15-16:

You shall count off seven full weeks from the day after the Sabbath, the day after you bring the sheaf (omer) of elevation. You shall count until the day after the seventh Sabbath, a total of fifty days; then you shall offer new grain to the Lord.

Although the sheaves and grain can no longer be offered, rabbinic tradition retains the practice of counting these forty-nine days, which are followed, on the fiftieth day, by a festival (Lev. 23:21), elsewhere called Shavuot. However, unlike Sadduceean, Christian, and Karaite traditions, which interpret the phrase “the day after the Sabbath” literally, rabbinic tradition mandates that the count begin on the second night of Passover (the first day being a “holy convocation,” a sort of pseudo-Sabbath). Last year, I finally heard an explanation for this counter-intuitive interpretation: the Rabbis wanted Shavuot to fall on the sixth day of the month of Sivan, the day of the Sinai theophany. While all three pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot) have agricultural and pastoral connotations, the Torah also associates Passover with the Exodus from Egypt and Sukkot with the journey through the wilderness. Only Shavuot is not anchored to Israel’s religious history. By making Shavuot “the day of the giving of our Torah,” the Rabbis made the holiday more durable: it could continue to have meaning when Jews no longer had a temple at which to offer sacrifices and had ceased to live in agricultural and pastoral communities.

This is all very well, except that the Torah does not explicitly state that the Israelites received the Torah on the sixth of Sivan. Exodus 19:1 does seem to suggest that they arrived in the Wilderness of Sinai on the first of Sivan (so Rashi), but the amount of time that elapsed between their arrival and the public theophany is unclear.* All that we know is that some time after the Israelites set up camp at the foot of Mount Sinai, Moses instructed them to devote three days (inclusive of the day on which the instruction was issued) to preparation for an encounter with God. In keeping with the tradition that this encounter occurred on the sixth of Sivan, the instructions must have been issued to the Israelites on the fourth day of the same month. Are there any textual clues on which the rabbis might have drawn to support the idea that precisely four days elapsed between the encampment and Moses' instruction?

Ibn Ezra suggests that Moses made two separate trips up and down the mountain in the period between the first and fourth days of Sivan: first, to have a conversation with God about the laws that the Israelites were about to receive (Ex. 19:3-6), which he later relayed to the people (Ex. 19:7-8), and then to have a second conversation with God regarding the three days of preparation (Ex. 19:9-13), which he also relayed to the people (Ex. 19:14-15). If each conversation occurred on a distinct day, the following chronology can be deduced:

1 Sivan: Arrival; Moses' first conversation with God (Ex. 19:3-6)
2 Sivan: Moses' first conversation with the people (Ex. 19:7-8)
3 Sivan: Moses' second conversation with God (Ex. 19:9-13)
4 Sivan: Moses' second conversation with the people (Ex. 19:14-15); Beginning of three days' preparation
5 Sivan: Preparation continues
6 Sivan: Israelites receive the commandments (Ex. 19:16-)

Does this interpretation provide sufficient reason for the rabbis to have chosen their interpretation of the laws regarding the counting of the omer? Or is it, rather, the sort of interpretation that would have arisen after the date for the receiving of the Torah had been fixed at the sixth of Sivan? I fear the latter, which is rather disappointing, as it leaves me with no explanation for the rabbinic interpretation of Lev. 23:15-16.

Two alternative explanations emerged from conversations that I had over Shabbat, but I’m not sure what I think of them:

1. The rabbis wanted Shavuot to fall at the earliest possible date. This may because (as Ibn Ezra suggests) only a brief period seems to have elapsed between the arrival at the Wilderness of Sinai and the theophany. (My reservation: Ex. 19:11-6 allows for multiple interpretations. The Rabbis could have easily decided that Moses’ interactions with God and the Israelites took longer than four days.)

2. The Rabbis wanted Shavuot to fall on a particular calendar date, which could be more easily associated with the theophany than a date that varied according to the year. (My reservation: prior to the fixing of the Jewish calendar, Shavuot could fall on either the fifth or the sixth of Sivan. Is there, then, such an advantage to setting the beginning of the counting of the omer at the second night of Passover?)


*In fact, the narrative sequence is quite convoluted, evidence of the multiple authorship of this pericope. That does not concern me here, however; right now, I am only interested in the rabbinic interpretation of the text, which takes for granted that the narrative is a coherent whole.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Parsha Backlog

I gave a d'var torah Friday night on parshat kedoshim, but I haven't had a chance to blog on the subject until now. The theme of the d'var torah was competing conceptions of holiness: the holiness of separation, which requires Israelites to separate themselves from other nations by observing commandments that impose divisions on the natural world, and the holiness of justice and compassion, which tends to minimize differences rather than accentuating them.

The idea "holiness through separation" is most clearly expressed in a passage toward the end of kedoshim (Leviticus 20:23-26):

You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you . . . I am Adonai your God, who has set you apart from other peoples. Therefore, you shall set apart the pure beast from the impure, and the impure bird from the pure, and you shall not make yourselves objectionable through the beasts, birds, and all that creeps upon the ground that I have set apart for you as impure. Thus shall you be holy to me, for I, Adonai, am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.

A number of precepts in the parsha seem directed toward enforcing this type of holiness, e.g. the prohibitions against interbreeding animals and plants and against wearing clothing made from a mixture of materials (19:19); the injunction against sorcery and consultation of spirits, which threatens the divisions between life and death and between human and supernatural (19:31); and the sexual prohibitions (20:10-21), which enforce differentiation between male and female, human and animal, pure and impure, kinship and marriage.

In contrast to these are the precepts that minimize difference, e.g. the injunctions to leave portions of one's produce to the poor (19:9-10) and to treat employees fairly (19:13), thereby reducing disparities in wealth; the injunction against recognizing differences in class when issuing judgement (19:15); and the commandment to "love one's fellow as oneself" (19:18). Perhaps most exemplary of this second type of holiness is the prohibition against oppressing the stranger, which is based on an explicit injunction to identify with the Other (19:33-34):

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress him. The stranger who resides with you shall be like a citizen among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Both types of holiness can be related to the principle of imitatio dei. The former demands that Israel behave as a unique people, separate from the world, just as God is unique and seperate from the world. The latter demands that human beings follow God's example in recognizing the godliness inherent in others:

As He clothes the naked, so must you clothe the naked. [As] the Holy One, Blessed be He, visited the sick, so must you visit the sick. [As] the Holy One, Blessed Be He, comforted mourners, so must you comfort mourners. [As] the Holy One, Blessed Be He, buried the dead, so must you bury the dead (Sotah 14a).

Is it possible to harmonize these two types of holiness, which so often seem to be in conflict with one another? The suggestion that I made Friday night was that our very struggle to balance these conceptions of holiness can itself be part of the pursuit of holiness. (A bit of a cop-out, but I think the idea has merit.) For this blog, I'm going to add another, somewhat more controversial suggestion, relating specifically to the sexual prohibitions.*

My suggestion is based on the historical observation that, while differentiation has always been a major aspect of Jewish practice, the specific divisions that we make have been fairly fluid. For example, the Torah prescribes an intricate system of differentiation between pure and impure, most aspects of which have fallen into disuse since the destruction of the second Temple. On the other hand, contemporary halakhah prescribes an intricate system for separating meat from dairy, a division that does not exist in the Torah per se. Similarly, while we uphold the Biblical prohibitions against adultery and incest, our framework for understanding them has changed. In the Bible, both the prohibition of adultury (as expressed in Lev. 20:10) and many of the incest prohibitions (as expressed in Lev. 18:7-16) are based on the idea that women "belong" to men, and that sex with another man's wife is akin to trespassing on his property. Today, we tend to view adultury as a violation of a mutual bond between two people, while incest is variously viewed as a violation of trust, an abuse of power, or an inappropriate "mixture" of two types of relationships. This shift, of course, is a result of our changed view of women, which can be regarded as a recognition of the godliness inherent in every human being, male or female.

To my mind (and I'm sure I'm not the first to have suggested this), changing our approach to homosexual relationships would simply be an extension of the shift in our approach to male-female relationships. The imperative of holiness through justice and compassion demands that we lessen our emphasis on the distinction between male and female and re-emphasize the boundaries created through mutual commitment.

*This is partly an attempt to compensate for missing parshat acharei mot, which also catalogues the sexual prohibitions (Lev. 18:6-23).