Saturday, December 24, 2016

Pharaoh's ministers

After Pharaoh's two ministers had their dreams interpreted by Yosef, one was returned to his position, while the other was executed. Why did they deserve these different fates?

Perhaps the answer comes from how they decided to seek Yosef's interpretation. The cupbearer heard Yosef say "Does not God have interpretations? Tell me [your dream]". Thus, he wanted to hear God's message (as conveyed by Yosef). Meanwhile, regarding the baker, the Torah says "The baker saw that [Yosef] had interpreted well". This can be understood to mean that Yosef gave a positive interpretation to the first dream, so the baker expected a positive interpretation as well.

If the first minister wanted to listen to God, while the second minister only cared about his selfish good, is it surprising that the first was rewarded and the second punished?


Over Shabbat I heard the following idea, which was apparently thought of by a contemporary secular Israeli Tanach enthusiast (I forget the name, I heard it from my friend MS). The idea: In Yosef's second dream, there were 13 heavenly bodies bowing down to him. Yosef was 17 years old when his story began, and 30 years old when he became deputy to Pharaoh. Just as the 7 cows represent 7 years, so the 13 heavenly bodies represent 13 years. Yosef should have known that he would only be elevated at age 30, and so when at age 28 he begged the cupbearer to remember him, this was considered improper behavior.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

The shofar in Mussaf

There may not be less than ten [verses for] Malchuyot, ten for Zichronot, ten for Shofarot. Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri says: If one said three of each, he fulfills his obligation. (Mishna Rosh Hashana 4:6)

Mussaf for Rosh Hashana is unusual. Where else do we have Biblical verses inserted into blessings? Occasionally we see a single verse being inserted as a proof-text, for example in the Aneinu prayer for fast days ("Answer us before we call out, as it says: It shall be that before they call out I will answer them"). But once you have one good proof-text, there is no need for another one. There is certainly no need for a set number of verses - 10 in our case. In fact, according to the Mishna above, it doesn't even matter which verses you choose (within reason) as long as there are 10 of them! Why should there be such an unusual requirement?

The following idea is speculative, but it rings true to me. The different opinions in the Mishna require either 10 or 3 verses. In the context of Rosh Hashana, these numbers do not seem to be random. 10 are the number of shofar blasts we blow after Malchuyot (and Zichronot, and Shofarot). 3 is the number of blasts we would blow, if we knew what a "teruah" was meant to be!

So here is my hypothesis. Once a time, the practice was to recite a verse, and then immediately blow the shofar once. You would recite "With trumpets and the sound of the shofar, blow before the King Hashem" (Tehilim 98:6) and then you would do exactly that. You would blow the shofar along with your Zichronot, making the day a "zichron teruah" (Vayikra 23:24) in the literal sense. And you would recite "The voice of the shofar grew steadily stronger, Moshe would speak and God would answer him aloud" (Shemot 19:19) and then blow the shofar, reenacting the giving of the Torah at Sinai. I think all of Mussaf would gain an extra level of powerfulness if conducted this way.

How does this work out halachically?

Shofar is an unusual mitzvah in that if you blow the blasts one by one, with interruptions between them, you still fulfill the mitzvah. This means that inserting them into mussaf in between verses is not a problem.

A complication arises with the number 10. In theory we blow the shofar 3 or 9, not 10, times for each blessing. This is because we are supposed to do a tekiah-"teruah"-tekiah set for each blessing. We don't know exactly what the required "teruah" is, so we do three different options, one of them tekiah-shevarim-teruah-tekiah (in case the halachic "teruah" is our shevarim-teruah). But this shevarim-teruah is technically considered a single blast, so it would be strange to assign two verses to it, and inserting a verse between the shevarim and the teruah would likely be a forbidden interruption. As a further complication, the number 10 is mentioned in the Mishna, while it seems likely that the uncertainty over the "teruah" did not arise until later.

Let us leave the number 10, then, and move to R' Yohanan ben Nuri's opinion, that only 3 verses are required. These three would match well the tekiah-teruah-tekiah of the basic halacha. An unanswered question here is why some verses would correspond to tekiah, and others to teruah, without a clear justification. A further issue is that R' Yohanan ben Nuri's opinion in the previous mishna is that one recites Malchuyot in the 3rd blessing of Mussaf, but only blows the shofar in the 4th blessing (and 5th and 6th for Zichronot and Shofarot, like we do). So the same R' Yohanan ben Nuri who provides us with the number 3, also disconnects the verses from the shofar blasts!

On the bottom line, I think all these halachic issues can be overcome (with 3 verses being the more likely direction to go in, even though we cannot follow R' Yohanan ben Nuri's opinion across the board).

I thought of this idea before or during Mussaf (I forget which) on the first day of Rosh Hashana this year. It made my Mussaf that day more meaningful, as I envisioned the shofar blasts that could have once accompanied each verse. But it made my second day's Mussaf less meaningful, as I saw Mussaf as a broken version of the original shofar-using prayer, rather than a verbal composition that stands on its own! So I can't really say whether having read this post will be spiritually positive or negative for you. But I think the idea is a fascinating possibility, so here you go.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Egyptian in Israel

There are several rivers in or near Israel, whose Hebrew names begin with the syllable "Yar". These include Yarden, Yarkon, and Yarmuk. Yarden and Yarkon are mentioned in Tanach; the first recorded mention of Yarmuk is in the Roman period. Two more rivers - Yabok and Arnon - might hypothetically begin with a distorted version of "Yar". Israel is semi-arid and only a small number of rivers exist there. Of this small number, it’s surprising that so many begin with the same or similar syllable.

It is often proposed to explain this by saying that before the Hebrew/Canaanite language was spoken in Israel, a different language was spoken, and in this language "yar" was the word for river. So the "Den" river was called Yar Den, and when Hebrew/Canaanite became the local language, "Yarden" was retained as a name. Similarly for the other rivers.

What language could it be that was spoken in Israel before Hebrew?

Look around online, and you will find claims that "yar" means river in ancient Egyptian or Akkadian. If you look in online dictionaries for these two languages, in both the main word for "river" does not resemble "yar". But in the Bible "ye'or" is used to refer to Egyptian rivers (the Nile or one of its branches), and according to the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon, this is derived from the Egyptian "iotr" which can be shortened to "io'r". So Egyptian seems like the most likely source for a word "yar". Based on this, we can hypothesize that before Hebrew/Canaanite was spoken in Israel, a language related to Egyptian was. We don't know if this language became extinct through assimilation or violent conquest, but either way it left only a handful of traces, perhaps including our river names.

Thinking about this last night, I thought of an entirely different line of evidence that Egyptian was once spoken in Israel. In Breishit 10, the genealogy of the 70 nations descended from Noach, Canaan is mentioned as a son of Ham, along with Mitzraim, Kush (Ethiopia), and Put (?). This is even though the Hebrew/Canaanite language is Semitic, so one would expect Canaan to be descended from Shem! Evidently the Torah sees something Hamitic about Canaan, even though the local language at the time of the Torah was Semitic.

To be fair, everything I have said so far is speculation, rather than clear-cut proofs. But when you take two "puzzle pieces" from completely different places (hypotheses based on geography and on genealogies), and find that the pieces "match", each of the two hypotheses looks much stronger than it did before.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The cloud in Pekudei

Parshat Pekudei ends with a description of the cloud that descended upon the Mishkan upon its completion:

The cloud covered the Ohel Moed, and the glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan. Moshe was unable to enter the Ohel Moed, because the cloud rested on it, and the glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan. (40:34-35)

Here are some thoughts about this cloud.

Ohel Moed vs Mishkan

The "Ohel Moed" and "Mishkan" are general names for the sanctuary, but each name also refers to one specific part of the sanctuary.

In the initial command to build a sanctuary, Moshe is told to "make curtains of goat-hide, for an 'ohel' upon the 'mishkan'" (26:7). Here, the "mishkan" is a cloth tent, and the "ohel" is a goat-hide tent placed upon it.

This explains the different uses of "ohel" and "mishkan" in the above verses. The cloud *above* the sanctuary is described in relation to the ohel, and the cloud *within* the sanctuary in relation to the mishkan.

The purpose of the cloud

This cloud wasn't a normal thing. It prevented anyone from entering the Mishkan, but normally, priests would enter the Mishkan at least once a day to perform services like lighting the Menorah. So why did this special one-time cloud appear?

To explain this, let's look at an earlier, similar event involving a cloud:
Moshe went up to the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of Hashem dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days, and He called to Moshe on the seventh day from out of the cloud. The appearance of the glory of Hashem was like fire burning on the peak of the mountain, in view of the children of Israel. Moshe entered the cloud, and went up the mountain, and Moshe was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. (24:15-18)

There are a number of similarities between this cloud and the cloud that covered the Mishkan:

  • In both cases, an unusual cloud descends to cover the holy site. (Apparently Mount Sinai had previously not been covered by clouds, despite the involvement of clouds in the Sinai revelation).
  • With the Mishkan, a "cloud" was present above the Mishkan, while the "glory of Hashem" was present within the Mishkan. Similarly here, the "glory of Hashem" dwelt on the mountain, while the "cloud" covered the mountain. Both terms are present, and arguably there is the same order, with the "cloud" physically above the "glory of Hashem".
  • At Sinai, after six days of Moshe waiting outside the cloud, God calls to Moshe and he enters the cloud and receives the Torah. Similarly, in the Mishkan, God calls to Moshe. This command is found in the first verse of Vayikra, and is followed by the laws of sacrifices.

What is the point of these similarities?

One of the main purposes of the Mishkan is described in Shemot 25:21-22:

"You shall place the cover upon the ark, above it; and in the ark, you shall place the Testimony I will give you. I will meet you there, and I will speak with you from above the cover, between the two cherubs upon the ark of testimony, all that I shall command you regarding the children of Israel."

We see that the Mishkan was a place for revelation. The Sinai revelation was a one-time event, but the continued issuing of commandments (like those in Vayikra) was supposed to occur in the Mishkan.

I think this explains the similarities between the cloud at Sinai and the cloud at the Mishkan. To indicate to Moshe and the people that the revelation from the Mishkan had the same status as that at Sinai, God designed the cloud-appearance in the Mishkan to evoke that which occurred at Sinai.