Friday, June 24, 2005

Shelach: A Documentary Analysis

[Meredith warning]

Parshat Shelach contains the famous story of the "spies:" twelve men sent by Moses to scout the Promised Land before the Israelites enter it. A number of doublets and contradictions have led critical scholars to the conclusion that the spies narrative as it appears in the Torah is actually a conflation of two versions of the same story (although there are differences of opinion with regard to the details, as always). The following are some of the problems that a source-critical approach to the text helps resolve:

1. Moses sends the delegation of spies twice, once in Numbers 13:3 and once in 13:17.
2. The spies offer two separate reports, one in 13:27-29 and one in 13:32-33.
3. God grows angry over the incident twice, once in 14:11-12 and once in 14:26-35. (He seems to be placated in between.)
4. Caleb is twice exempted from the punishment meted on the other spies, once in 14:24, and once in 14:38, where he is joined by Joshua.

1. In 13:21, the spies are said to tour the entire Promised Land, "from the Wilderness of Zin to the entrance to Hamath," while in 13:22-24 they travel only as far north as Hebron.
2. In 13:26, the spies issue their report to Moses and Aaron, yet in 13:27 the recipient of the information is identified by means of a singular pronoun.
3. In 13:27, the spies concede that the land is "flowing with milk and honey," yet in 13:32 they describe it as a "land that devours its inhabitants."
4. In 14:24, Caleb is told that he, alone among the spies, will enter the Promised Land. This contradicts 14:30, in which both Caleb and Joshua are told that they will enter the land.

These doublets and contradictions, along with stylistic considerations, serve as guidelines for dividing the narrative into two documentary sources, as follows:

Priestly version (P):
13:1-17a: At God's command, Moses appoints twelve heads of tribes to scout the land, and dispaches them from the Wilderness of Paran.
13:21: The spies tour the land, all the way to its northernmost point.
13:25-26: The spies return and display the land's fruit.
13:32: The spies issue their report to Moses and Aaron, stating that Canaan is not only unconquerable, but a "land that devours its inhabitants."
14:1a, 2-3: The Israelites are disheartened and refuse to enter Canaan.
14:5: Moses and Aaron prostrate themselves, presumably in anticipation of divine wrath.
14:6-10a: Caleb and Joshua attempt to encourage the Israelites to proceed with the conquest. The Israelites respond by calling for them to be stoned.
14: 26-35: God decrees that the Israelites will wander the wilderness until the present sinful generation dies off. The period of wandering will be forty years.
14:36-38: The spies die in a plague. Joshua and Caleb are exempted from the punishment.

Jahwistic version (J):
13:17b-20: Moses dispaches the spies.
13:22-25: The spies tour the southern portion of the land (the future kingdom of Judah).
13:27-29: The spies issue their report to Moses, stating that the land is "flowing with milk and honey," but that the inhabitants are giants and and their cities are fortified.
13:30: Caleb alone affirms that the Israelites are capable of conquering the land.
13:31,33: The spies counter Caleb's claim, stating that the land is unconquerable.
14:1b, 4: The people are disheartened and refuse to enter Canaan.
14:11-12: God threatens to destroy the Israelites by plague.
14:13-19: Moses dissuades God from committing such a brash act.
14:20-25: God concedes not to destroy the Israelites, instead issuing a lesser punishment of wandering the desert until the present generation has died off.
14:39-45: Unable to accept their sentence, the remorseful (or fickle) Israelites attempt to penetrate the land. However, God and the Ark of the Covenant remain at the camp rather than accompanying them into battle, and they are roundly defeated by the land's inhabitants.

The two versions of the story have the same basic contours. In both versions, Moses sends a delegation of spies to tour the land of Canaan. The spies return with a report that dipleases God, including an assertion that the land's inhabitants are physically large and hence formidable. Both versions include "good" spies who attempt encourage the Israelites to enter the land, to no avail. In both versions, the older generation of Israelites are condemned to die in the wilderness as a punishment for their cowardice and lack of faith. The heroes alone are exempted from the punishment.

The similarities between the stories, however, bring their differences into relief. Some of these differences are merely factual, but others betray a variance in ideology. For example:

1. J, who is generally believed to have lived in the southern kingdom of Judah, has the spies explore the southern portion of the land alone. This suggests that, as far as J was concerned, the land promised to the Israelites comprised the south alone. For P, on the other hand, the full extent of the later united monarchy was vital and had to be included in the story.

2. In a similar vein, J's hero is Caleb, a representative of Judah, the leading southern tribe, whereas P adds Joshua, a representative of Ephraim, the most powerful tribe of the north. In part, the inclusion of Joshua has an expository function: P, who knows of the tradition of Joshua's conquest of Canaan, must explain why Joshua, unlike the other members of the Exodus generation, had the opportunity to enter the Promised Land. However, Joshua's inclusion also seems to serve an ideological end: Just as Caleb's faithfulness earns his decendents title to the land that he traverses in J (14:24), Joshua's faithfulness in P might be said to have earned the Ephraimites -- and, by extension, the entire northern kingdom -- title to their territory.

3. I(n J, the spies admit that the land is bountiful, but protest that its inhabitants are mighty and the cities impregnable. In P, their offense is greater, for they impugn the land itself. The people's transgression is greater in P as well, for when Caleb and Joshua assert that Canaan is a bountiful land and can be conquered, the people not only refuse to believe them, but call for them to be stoned. In keeping with the severity of the spies' offense, they meet a particularly severe punishment, dying in a plague rather than wandering the wilderness with the other Israelites of their generation.

4. The two versions of the narrative reflect the respective theologies of P and J. In J. In J, God has humanlike emotions, first wrathfully decreeing death for the entire nation, and later relenting when Moses intercedes on their behalf. Moses influences God by appealing to his capacity for forgiveness as wells as his pride. If he destroys the Israelites, Moses argues, the nations who have heard of his might will lose their awe of him, supposing that he was unable to lead the people to victory. In P, on the other hand, God's stance remains constant from the outset. Moses' only role in this story is to obey God. Even the act of reconnaissance itself is a response to a direct divine command. This is, in fact, the most praiseworthy form of behavior in P.

The strongest support for this division analysis of the text comes from Deuteronomy 1:19-46, which recounts the story of the spies according to the J version. As in J, Moses sends the spies on his own initiative rather than as a response to divine command; the spies depart from Kadesh-barnea rather than the Wilderness of Paran; the expedition reaches Nahal Eshkol, not the entrance to Hamath; the spies report that the land is "good"; there is no mention of the plague that consumes the guilty spies in P; there is a reference to the unsuccessful attempt to penetrate Canaan that ensues in J after the punishment is issued. Most strikingly, the deuteronomist, who clearly knows of Joshua and his role in leading the people into Canaan, does not mention Joshua among the spies. Linguistic parallels to the J narrative reinforce the notion that it served as the basis for the deuteronomic version of the story.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

BeHa'alotcha: God's Glory Revisited

[Insert standard Meredith warning here.]

Earlier, I suggested that the Cloud of Glory that rested over the Tabernacle might be a Priestly version of the pillar that guided the Israelites through the wilderness, which appeared as a cloud of smoke by day (when the smoke obscured the fiery center) and a fire by night (when darkness obscured the smoke). A passage from this week's parsha seems to support this notion (though its authorship is contested):

On the day that the Tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the Tabernacle, the Tent of Testimony, and in the evening it hovered over the Tabernacle in the likeness of fire until morning. It was always so: The cloud covered it [the Tabernacle], and it appeared as fire at night. And whenever the cloud rose from the tent, the Israelites would travel, and wherever the cloud rested, the Israelites would encamp (Numbers 9:15-18).

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Festival of Cheese

A popular but somewhat elusive Ashkenazi custom dictates that dairy products be eaten on Shavuot. Midrash Tanchuma (Ki Tissa 9) derives the custom from the idea that milk symbolizes Torah, which is based on the phrase "honey and milk are under your tongue" (Song of Songs 4:11). The land of Israel, in which the rite of presenting the first fruits of the land was performed on Shavuot, is likewise described as "flowing with milk and honey." Indeed, Central European Jews once favored honey cake for dessert on Shavuot, according to Gil Marks' World of Jewish Cooking (p. 314).

Another explanation for the practice derives from Psalm 68:16, which describes Sinai as har gevunim, a "jagged mountain." The word gevunim resembles the Hebrew word for cheese, gevinah. One kabbalistic explanation derives the custom from the gematria (numerical value) of the Hebrew word for milk, chalav, which is equal to forty, the number of days that Moses spent on Sinai. Another derives it from the first letters of the words describing the festival meal offering, minchah chadashah ladonai beshavuoteichem, "an offering of new grain for the Lord on your Shavuot festival," which together spell mi-chalav, "from milk."

Better-known than any of these is the explanation given by the Mishnah Berurah (494:3), which has it that upon returning home after the revelation of the Torah, along with the detailed "oral laws" pertaining to the slaughtering and consumption of meat, the Israelites realized that they could no longer eat the meat they had prepared or use their knives and pots, which were not kosher. Thus, they were forced to eat dairy and parve foods (presumably raw). A variant on this tradition has it that before receiving the Torah, the Israelites thought that dairy products might be considered part of a living animal, which may not be eaten according to the seven Noahide commandments. When they received the Torah and learned that milk was one of the foods with which the land of Israel was associated (e.g. Exodus 13:5), they realized that it could not be forbidden.* They immediately rejoiced with a dairy meal.

Other explanations attribute more pragmatic motives to the Israelites. According to one, the people fasted for three days in preparation for receiving the Torah. When they returned, they were so hungry that they did not have the patience to prepare meat, and resorted to eating dairy instead. According to another, receiving the Torah took so long, that by the time the Israelites returned, their milk had turned to cheese.

Yet another explanation is based on a midrash cited in the Talmud (B. Sotah 12a), which sets the date of Moses' rescue by Pharaoh's daughter at the sixth of Sivan (the date of Shavuot) and states that Moses refused to suckle from Pharaoh's daughter because she was a gentile. For this reason, Moses' mother became his wet nurse. The milk consumed on Shavuot, according to this explanation, reminds us of an important stage in Moses' infancy. An alternative explanation associates the practice with the infancy of corporate Israel, which only truly became a people upon receiving the Torah. Some describe God's granting of the Torah as an act of loving kindness, similar to that of a mother nursing her child. Others focus on the Torah itself as a fundamental source of life, analagous to breast milk. A very different explanation associates meat with a negative aspect of the Sinai experience: the sin of the golden calf. According to this explanation, Jews avoid meat on Shavuot so as not to remind God of their sin.

Perhaps the oddest explanation is based on the Zohar, which compares the seven weeks of sefirat ha-omer (between Passover and Shavuot) to the seven days following a woman's period, during which rabbinic law forbids her contact with her husband. After being separated from God through exile in Egypt, Israel (and her divine counterpart, the shekhinah) had to wait seven "clean" or "white" "weeks of days" before being purified at Sinai through knowledge of the Torah and finally reuniting with God (or, in the shekhinah's case, the aspect of God known as tiferet) in the great cosmic sexual encounter that was the Sinai theophony.** This transition from menstrual impurity to purity is described as a transformation of blood into milk (Be'er Heitev OH 494:3).

Because of the rabbinic dictum that "there is no joy without meat and wine," many observant households (not including mine) make sure to eat a meat meal on Shavuot in addition to a dairy meal. Some commentators cite this practice in their explanations of the custom of eating dairy. Thus, the Remah (OH 494:3) compares the two types of food eaten on Shavuot (meat and dairy) to the two cooked foods eaten on Passover (egg and shank bone), which commemorate the two sacrifices offered on the holiday. A variant on this explanation invokes the two leavened loaves offered on Shavuot. Alternatively, the consumption of both meat and dairy is related to the juxtaposition of the prohibition against cooking a calf in its mother's milk with the commandment to offer the first fruits of the land to God (Exodus 23:19; 34:26), a ritual performed on Shavuot in Temple times. Another explanation relates to the combination of meat and dairy served by Abraham to the three angels in Genesis 18:8. According to Midrash Rabba, the angels were angry at Moses for removing the Torah from heaven and bringing it to earth, but God prevented them from attacking him by reminding them of Abraham's hospitality. Thus, a meal of meat and dairy made it possible for the Torah to be given to Israel.

Isaac Klein, author of A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, prefers a more rationalist explanation, which he attributes to Hirshovitz, author of Otsar Kol Minhagei Yeshurun ("Collection of all the Customs of Jeshurun"). Klein explains (p. 151): "Meat is the food of those who know no restraint.. . . Eating dairy dishes on Shavu'ot is a reminder that the Torah is given to him who lives the sober life rather than that of pleasure." (Needless to say, the dairy meals eaten in this household on Shavuot are completely out of keeping with Hirshovitz's explanation.)

The presence of so many explanations for a single custom may be a testament to the endless creativity of the Jewish people, but it also draws attention to the fact that no one of these explanations is particularly convincing (although some are highly entertaining). The most probable reason for the practice of eating dairy on Shavuot is that pastoral communities tend to produce most of their cheese in the spring, when sheep, cows, and goats suckle their young. Because of this, springtime festivals the world over tend to feature butter and cheese.

This in no way lessens my enthusiasm for the traditional Shavuot fare of Ashkenazi Jews: blintzes and cheesecake. Although I've never met a cheesecake I didn't like, I have to agree with DH that the very best recipe comes from Joan Nathan's The Jewish Holiday Kitchen.*** Beaten egg whites make this cake delightfully fluffy, without deminishing the richness imparted by the cream cheese and sour cream. Without further ado:

The Very Best Cheesecake

6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup graham cracker crumbs
6 eggs, separated
1 pound cream cheese
1 pound sour cream
1 cup sugar
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons flour

1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Grease the sides of a 9-inch springform pan.

2. Melt the butter and combine with the graham cracker crumbs. Press the crumbs into the bottom of the pan. Save some crumbs.

3. Combine the egg yolks, cream cheese, sour cream, sugar, lemon juice, vanilla, and flour. Beat very well until light and fluffy.

4. Beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold into cream cheese mixture. Pour the batter into the pan and sprinkle with the remaining graham cracker crumbs.

5. Bake 1 hour. Turn off oven and leave cake in the oven 1 additional hour. Then leave the oven door ajar 30 minutes more.

Chag Sameach!

*This line of reasoning comes from B. Berachot 6b.
**This encounter is repeated each Shavuot at halakhic midnight. You can catch it by staying up for the traditional all-night Torah learning session, or tikkun.
***In fact, it was tasting this cake at my in-law's that convinced me that I had to buy the book.

What's Going On?

Good question, but I'm not in the mood to answer it right now. Suffice it to say that posts on the parsha may or may not resume after Shavuot. In the meantime, I'll be blogging about food.