Monday, June 22, 2009

Thoughts on Shelach

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Sefer Bamidbar (and perhaps Vayikra too) is that it alternates between stories and laws, several chapters of each at a time. While often no historical or chronological connection between adjacent stories and laws is apparent, it is accepted that there is a usually a clear thematic connection.

The most commonly cited case is in our parsha, which describes the spies who "tour" Israel, and the people's punishment for wanting to return to Egypt based on their report. These stories are followed by the mitzvah of tzitzit, which warns us not to "tour" with our evil inclinations, and reminds us that God "took us out of the land of Egypt to be our God" - implying that returning to Egypt means rejecting God.

Before the mitzvah of tzitzit are several other mitzvot - the "mincha" and libation offerings which much accompany animal sacrifices, and the separation of "hallah" - whose connection to the spies story is less clear. Admittedly, each of these laws is prefaced by "When you come to the land [of Israel]", and as Ibn Ezra and Ramban explain, this is an implied comforting promise that the next generation at least will reach the land. But is this preface really sufficient reason for all the laws to appear next to the spies story? To ask the question differently, what is the connection between the preface and the laws being prefaced?

Based on the preface, Chazal conclude that mincha and libations were not offered in the desert (at least by individuals). I would like to argue that beyond this textual reason, there is a clear practical reason why the laws could not have applied.

In the desert the Israelites had relatively many domestic animals. The tribes of Reuven and Gad had "many cattle" and chose their inheritance based on its pasture land (Bamidbar 32). Other tribes had fewer, but presumably not zero animals. Perhaps these animals were not enough to supply a sustainable diet of meat, hence the complaints in Behaalotecha. But they sufficed for slaughter and consumption on special occasions, or for a few sacrifices in the Mishkan.

While the people possessed some amount of meat, they apparently had no access to grain or wine. There is no indication that they performed any farming in the desert. Their main sustenance came from manna. Little rain falls where they were, watering crops with well or spring water would have been difficult, and planted crops might have to be abandoned at any time for an unannounced journey. If the Israelites had any wheat or wine, it likely came from trading with neighboring peoples. But the quantities that could reasonably be traded for were small.

In these circumstances, it makes sense that no mincha or libation offerings were required with sacrifices. It would be reasonable to ask Israelites to bring animal offerings. But they would find it almost impossible to bring wheat or grape products at the same time. Thus the mincha and libation laws did not apply in the desert. Hallah, too, depends on grain and could not have been separated in the desert.

Only upon reaching the land of Israel, where wheat and grapes were staple foods, would the laws take effect. As punishment for the spies episode, the people could not enter the land of Israel. But by studying and teaching these laws, they could prepare for the entry in the next generation. People who fail at a task often obtain some consolation when their children succeed at the same task. This is the comfort offered to the people by these laws, and the reason for their placement immediately after the story of the spies.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Uncovering nakedness

The Torah frequently used the expression "gilui ervah", "uncovering nakedness", to describe sexual encounters. Literally, this refers only to the removal of clothing, and physical contact is implied rather than stated. One assumes that this is a euphemism, used to ensure modesty when discussing immodest matters.

But there are problems with this understanding. In other places, such as Devarim 28:30, the Torah uses more explicit language. Why could the same language not have been used in the sexual laws, particularly when there is the danger of misunderstand the laws to prohibit stripping as well as actual intercourse?

An alternative suggested itself to me on Shavuot morning while hearing Ruth 4:4. There appears the phrase "gilui ozen", "uncovering an ear". From a concordance I learned that the phrase means to inform or command someone. This usage too departs from the literal meaning of "uncovering". You might assume that "uncovering" an ear means to get someone's attention, to make them receptive to speech which might come in the future. But here it means not only that the ear is exposed, but that words enter it and implant some idea in the listener's mind, causing the listener to act differently in the future.

Perhaps "uncovering" has the same additional connotations - penetration and implantation - when used to describe "nakedness". If so, then "uncovering nakedness" is not a euphemism, but a quite exact reference to sexual intercourse. It becomes clear that only the full sexual act is forbidden. Simply disrobing, while inappropriate, does not incur the death penalty.

This understanding of "uncovering" is perhaps supported by Vayikra 18:10: "Do not uncover the nakedness of your [granddaughters], for they are your nakedness." From this verse it appears there is something wrong with uncovering your own nakedness. People see themselves naked whenever they bathe and the Torah permits bathing. So the phrase "your nakedness" only makes sense, even as a metaphor, if "uncovering" means more than exposure.

More support comes from the fact that the phrase "gilui ervah" is used only regarding women. ("Uncovering your father's nakedness" in Vayikra 18:8 means to uncover your father's wife's nakedness, on the principle that married people "become one flesh", Breishit 2:24.) The only verse to mention a man's nakedness - Vayikra 20:17 - says that his nakedness is seen rather than uncovered. Meanwhile, his incestuous female partner's nakedness is both "seen" and "uncovered". Since the man is not penetrated, it appears that "uncovering" cannot be applied to him.

What is the practical difference between "seeing" and "uncovering"? To uncover something means to necessarily see it, and also implies an action performed by the observer to the observed. It is this active role that the phrases "uncovering ears" and "uncovering nakedness" both allude to.

You will undoubtedly accuse me of having a dirty mind, for basing this post on a comparison between the ear and female genitalia. But it is not me doing the comparison, it is the Hebrew language which used the same metaphor for both. And it is not dirty, in the sense that when I needed a metaphor for ears, genitals came to mind. Rather, when metaphors for both ears and genitals were needed, the same third option came to mind. Having cleared myself of the accusation of crudeness, hopefully you will appreciate the interpretation that I have now uncovered.