Articles

Women of the Bible

Their messages of endurance span the millennia

Some women of the Bible are so well known that we name our daughters after them – Sarah, Deborah, Mary, Martha. Others have left us familiar names, but less familiar stories, like Joanna of the New Testament, who put all her considerable resources at the disposal of Jesus. There’s fascination with the misdeeds of the infamous ones, like Jezebel and Delilah, as well as those of heroines like Rebekah. And there are some whose names we’ll never know, but whose stories still touch us – Jepthah’s daughter, the wise woman of Tekoa, the woman who touched Jesus’ robe and was healed.

Mary and Elizabeth meet. Detail of a mural at the Church of the Visitation, Ein Karem, Israel. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

As seekers of inspiration from Scripture, we try to imagine ourselves walking a mile in the sandals of these female Bible characters, especially women of faith like Hannah and Ruth. Many of the strong women of the Bible, like the midwives Shifrah and Puah, the matriarch Rachel, or Queen Esther (and her predecessor, Vashti, for that matter) possessed the secret of finding power in a society that thrived on taking it from them. And let’s recall Michal, David’s wife, who, like many of her scriptural sisters, had to resort to subterfuge to reach her goals.

Some of the women of the Bible became “leading ladies.” Miriam, for example, was both leader and prophet. Her impression on Jewish history was so great that legend has portrayed her as part of Jewish experience for millennia after her death. And then we have Mary Magdalene, whom Christian scholars like Mary R. Thompson consider an early leader in the Judeo-Christian community.

The Rape of Tamar, by the 17th-century artist Le Sueur.

We painfully recall Tamar, a rape victim of her own half-brother, and Dina, raped as part of a biblical political drama. These are women who had everything taken from them. The biblical telling, or rather not-telling, leaves us to imagine that they must never have gotten over their tragedy, a fate that pursues all too many of their modern-day sisters.

The barren women of the Bible teach us special lessons in faith and strength. There’s Manoah’s wife, Samson’s future mother, who believed more strongly than her husband in the angel’s message, and Hannah, Samuel’s mother; both dedicated their sons to divine service.  Hannah in her praise poem gloriously presages Mary’s song when she met Elizabeth, another barren-fruitful, faithful woman.  Both these paeans point to unifying aspects of our Judeo-Christian tradition and lead to a deeper understanding of the Hebrew roots of Christianity.

Woman kneading dough, terracotta, 12th century BCE, from the cemetery at Akhziv, Israel. Courtesy of Palphot

We are fortunate in the gift that archaeology has given us in unearthing the tools of their everyday existence. Real archaeological finds bring these women alive!  Most of them (like us) worked from dawn to dark. Perhaps the first multi-tasker in biblical history was the indomitable “woman of valor” of Proverbs 31.

Cover of The Scroll, depicting a woman marching from darkness into light.

In my historical novel, The Scroll, I sought to make the spirit of the strong women of the Bible pivotal in my plot. which begins with the fall of Masada. According to the historian Josephus there were two women survivors of Masada. One is my heroine in the first generation of The Scroll. She brings a message of female empowerment down through the generations. With it comes striving the for the elusive goal of Jewish unity, with which we still struggle today.

Delve into the stories of the women of the Bible and don’t be surprised to discover that in their stories, you’ll find your own.

I gratefully acknowledge the publisher of my book Women at the Time of the Bible, Palphot, for permission to use material from it for this article.

 

 

Singing but Often Unsung – Ancient Women Musicians

A recent discovery at “Solomon’s Mines” in Timna reveals the first evidence of women at this harsh desert site. It’s an intriguing prelude to the tradition of women musicians in the Bible and enriches our thoughts about the women of the Bible who came later.

Archaeologists excavating the ancient copper mines in Timna in southern Israel were startled, according to the recent report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, to find the 3,200-year-old remains of a woman. Touchingly, the skeletal remains of her fetus were entombed with her.

Pottery figurine of a pregnant woman. Akhziv, seventh–sixth centuries BCE. Courtesy of Palphot.

Why were the the experts startled? Archaeologist Erez Bar-Yosef of Tel Aviv University, digging at the site, explained to Haaretz that because Timna was not home, but rather a work site, prominent people who died there might be temporarily buried and eventually taken home for permanent interment. Slaves were accorded no real burial at all, Bar-Yosef said. Hence, most tombs they find are empty. But even when human remains were found, none were of women. Thus, this woman must have been someone special. She was important enough to be buried with jewelry – two beautiful, Egyptian-style glass beads were found – and what’s more, her final resting place was just 200 meters from the famous temple of Hathor, at the base of the massive cliffs known as Solomon’s Pillars.

Egyptian woman playing an instrument. From a fourteenth century BCE.

Tel Aviv University Egyptologist Deborah Sweeney told Haaretz that this apparently highly regarded woman may have been a singer or musician for Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of love, fertility, music and mines, whose image was incised millennia ago into the red rock of Solomon’s Pillars, high above the temple.

Women and music have been associated for ages in this part of the world, as attested by ancient figurines and plaques.  Nine sistra (musical rattles associated with the worship of Hathor) were found at Timna itself by its first excavator, Beno Rothenberg.

Reconstruction of a banquet scene, showing women musicians, common in Egyptian tomb decorations of aristocrats in the New Kingdom (1570–1070). Courtesy of Palphot.

Women in the Old Testament in Song and Dance

The dramatic discovery at Timna is a good opportunity to recall the female Bible characters who sang and danced in praise of God. While the role of women in the Bible seems often to have been limited to family and home, it was in song and dance that they could give full expression to their creativity and devotion to God in the public sphere. Perhaps the most famous songstress in the Bible – and one of its best-known women of faith – is Miriam, who led the women in song and dance by the Red Sea – “Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted…”(Exod. 15:20–21).

Biblical Miriam dancing and playing the tamborine, by contemporary artist Rikki Rothenberg. Courtesy of Rikki Rothenberg.

A New Psalm”

Deborah – one of the strong women of the Bible, sang a song of victory in battle in Judges 5. Later, Solomon says he had both men and women singers at his court (Eccl. 2:8). Also in Ecclesiastes (12:3–5) are references to slowing down in old age, one of which relates to women singers. “The daughters of music are brought down low.” The Apocrypha contains a magnificent praise poem by another of the strong women of the Bible, Judith: “Begin unto my God with timbrels, sing unto my Lord with cymbals: tune unto him a new psalm.”

And moving on to women of the New Testament, while according to Luke (1:46–55), Mary spoke the Magnificat, the text itself  appears in poetic style, and it became one of the earliest hymns, dating back to the beginning of Christianity.

Who was the “pregnant woman of Timna”? We hope the archaeologists will be able to tell us more in the future. She must have been a strong woman to have traveled so far and endured the rigors of the unforgiving desert. This woman lived on the cusp of Bible times, and in the southern reaches of the Bible lands.  And so we can call upon her to help us remember with love and admiration a long line of strong women of the Bible, who sing out to us to this very day.

In addition to her series on daily life in Bible days, Miriam Feinberg Vamosh is the author of The Scroll, a historical novel about a woman of Masada and her descendants over three generations, who faced the challenges we still face today.

For further reading:

“Archaeologists startled to find remains of pregnant woman buried in ‘King Solomon’s Mines,’ by Ariel David. Oct. 31, 2017. https://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/1.820180.

“A Joyful Noise: Music and Dance, in Women at the Time of the Bible, by Miriam Feinberg Vamosh (Palphot).

 

 

Path Perfect – Reclaiming Jezreel

Twentieth-century Lebanese poet Khalil Jibran, biblical Queen Jezebel and nineteenth-century scholar Edward Robinson all met up one day — at least in my imagination — at one of the most important biblical sites in northern Israel. Read all about it in the article I wrote about this exciting site, first published in the online magazine The Bible and Interpretation, and many thanks to Norma Franklin and Jennie Ebeling for their assistance!

 

Jezreel from The Bible and Interpretation

 

The “Fourbears” of Jewish Dispute and That’s No Typo

Façade of our synagogue in Har Adar. The doors feature the symbols of the Twelve Tribes; a theme of unity that we strive for today (“unity in diversity” would do just fine if we could get there).

Façade of our synagogue in Har Adar. The doors feature the symbols of the Twelve Tribes; a theme of unity that we strive for today (“unity in diversity” would do just fine if we could get there).

No that’s not a typo – I didn’t intend to write “forebears.”  And I’m not referring to a quartet of big furry animals either. That was just to get your attention. Seriously, these are the four groups in Jewish society in the days of Jesus that were the intellectual and spiritual ancestors of the Jewish People, and they knew how to be ferocious. Some of their roaring echoes right down to us today .  To be fair, scholars usually say only one of these four groups gave rise to modern Judaism, but I believe we can see them all among us today.

 

I haven’t followed the usual order  in which you  see these groups presented. Instead, you’ll see I’ve sandwiched the two most familiar groups between the lesser known, smaller sects – the Essenes and the Zealots – and as you read on, you’ll see why.

I’ve taken the descriptions mainly from the way the ancient Jewish historian Josephus describes these groups. You’ll find these in Josephus famous work,  Jewish Wars, II, 8.

The Sadducees

Alright, let’s start with what is perhaps the most famous of their beliefs because of the pun it gave rise to: The Sadducees did not believe in the afterlife, and so they were…”sad, u cee” (and this was invented before our texting kids thought “u” was the right spelling and would correct the spelling of the last word to “c”). The reason the Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife was because they rejected the interpretations of the Five Books of Moses that the other main group, the Pharisees based much of their belief on, and it is in these interpretations that believe in the afterlife becomes most prominent.

“You are quite wrong”

On this score, Jesus tells the Sadducees: “and as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?’ He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong” (Matt. 22:32).

The word “Sadduccee” is the Greek form of the Hebrew root tzadak which also gives us the name Tzadok (Zadok). That’s the name of the High Priest who annointed Solomon (1 Kings 1:39) and many scholars say this group traced its origin to him. Indeed, many of the Sadducees were priests and high officials in the Temple. As such, they controlled the worship, had access to enormous resources, and consequently were the high society of the day. They were educated folk, hence their association with the “scribes” – people who knew how to write and were therefore in charge of copying the Holy Scriptures as well as letters and other important documents that gave them a great deal of power. The Hebrew root word tzedek gives us all the words connected with righteous, including the word tzadkani, which we use today to mean “self-righteous.” Given the power that they wielded, perhaps they considered themselves “righteous.” Scholars also say that the Hebrew name for this group Tzdukim also comes from the way they viewed themselves – as the most righteous of all the Jews.

The Essenes

This group is most famous for living in the desert (scholars often say they are the ones who lived in the famous site of Qumran near the Dead Sea, and who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls), but according to Josephus, they also lived in cities, but in their own small groups. In the communities in which they lived they shared and shared alike, much like the early Christians.  The origin of their name is much less clear than any of the others. Many scholars connect it with the word “humble” or “pious” if it comes from Greek. If it comes from Hebrew, some connect it with the word “silent” or “secret” hashai. Particularly interesting is the idea that their name comes from an Aramaic word for healer, asa, viewing them as knowledgeble in this field. This is the way you will meet them in “The Scroll,  where imagine them as living on a slope above that ancient town, based on the Roman historian Pliny’s description of where they lived. However, most scholars interpret the words “above Ein Gedi” as meaning Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. The people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls clearly believed in the resurrection of the dead, which associates this group with the Pharisees (see below).

The Dead Sea Scrolls also show us how the way the people who wrote them, as many scholars presume, the Essenes, interpreted Scripture had a connection with the way the Gospels did. One example of this can be found in the “Habakkuk Commentary” one of the Dead Sea Scrolls on exhibit in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem.  This commentary on the biblical words of the prophet by that name quotes from the biblical text and then, basically, says “this is what it means, how it will be fulfilled in our time.” That is strikingly similar to the way Matthew interprets scripture, for example, Matthew 4:13–16. Perhaps the most significant example of this way of interpretation can be found in Luke 4:14-18, Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth (see below).

Moving ahead of myself for a moment, this was also the way the Pharisees interpreted Scripture, and, of course, the way both Jews and Christians interpret Scripture to this very day.

The Essenes, according to the Dead Sea Scrolls, also practiced ritual immersion to a greater extent than other Jewish people. Scholars have often pointed out that John the Baptist’s emphasis on water baptism may have come through his stay with this group at some time in his life.

The Essenes had a solar calendar, which was different from other Jews at the time, who observed the passage of the weeks and months, and the holidays, according to the lunar lunar cycle, as Jews do today.

The Zealots

This group, which was vehemently opposed to Roman rule, was founded by one Judas the Galilean, who is actually believed to have come from Gamla in the Golan Heights. Judas began a revolt against Roman rule following its demand for the censusRome demanded in the time of GoverorQuirinius (CITE). This Judas is also mentioned in Acts 5:36–38 as a failed messianic leader.  One of the early leaders of the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans (66-73 CE) Menahem, may have been a descendent of Judas; a cousin of Menahem was the leader of the rebels at Masada. There were many offshoots of this sect, including apparently the most extreme of them all, the Sicari, whose name means something like “dagger-wieldersThese people sometimes even killed other Jews who disagreed with their view of how Roman rule had to be cast off by any means, as soon as possible. Becausethis was the group who lived and died at Masada.“The Scroll” talks about them extensively.

The Pharisees

I have left this group until last because they are the stream of Jewish thought and practice from which all of us, Jews and Christians are the descendants. Sometimes it is hard for Christians to imagine that the first Christians came from this group, because Jesus criticizes them so harshly (Matt. 23:1-7 is one of the milder references), perhaps even more than the Sadducees. But everything we read in the New Testament about the method Jesus used to interpret Scripture and the way he engaged others in debate about it, is precisely the way the Pharisees believed was the way to go. For the Pharisees,  after the destruction of the Temple, when Jews sought new spiritual understanding, Scripture should not belong only to the Scribes, to the educated class. Everyone who goes to synagogue should be able to hear the words, be helped to understand them by teachers and preachers, and be able to respond if they disagreed. Perhaps the best example of this type of discourse is to be found in the abovementioned verses of Luke (4:14-28). Jesus reads a portion from the Prophets (the way we still do in synagogue in the Sabbath morning service today), in this case (Isaiah 61:1-2), and then comments on it, what today we would call the sermon.  Some people then begin commenting on Jesus’ words, first, apparently in a positive way, and then, with violent, uncontained anger.

This kind of challenge to Jesus’ words, appears elsewhere in the Gospels, one notable example being the query to Jesus as teacher that gave rise to the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Not only is teaching in this manner still part and parcel of the way we interpret Scripture, in Jewish tradition, challenging authority, one’s peers, debate and downright knock-down drag-out arguing, is part and parcel of Jewish culture.

To conclude this foray into Judaism’s ancient opposing sects, while I yearn for coexistence, I recognize that internal strife is part and parcel of Jewish culture. The eminent historian Prof. Yehuda Bauer said recently in a newspaper article: “Jewish culture is based on these internal conflicts…between the true prophets and the false prophets, in the splitting of the united kingdom into two rival kingdoms that fought each otherl in the disputes between Sadducees and Pharisees; between Hellenizers and Hasmoneias; between the religious establishment and the various Zeolots before the Great Revolt…The endless debates, from the Middle Ages to our own time, constitute the vitality of this people.”*

Solemn Assembly Time is Over – Get Your Umbrellas Ready

 

Happy Simchat Torah!

Happy Simchat Torah!

One of my earliest memories at Har Sinai Temple Sunday School in Trenton, New Jersey, is Simchat Torah. That’s the holiday that we celebrated last week, closing the week-long Feast of Tabernacles – and our High Holy Day season altogether. As a child, the holiday was inseparable from the fun and excitement of making Simchat Torah flags. We would intently transform Elmer’s Glue and multicolored glitter (with varying skills at getting the glitter within the lines) into a salient a symbol of our joy. Then, in the sanctuary during the service, we children waved our handiwork as the Torah scrolls were taken out of the Holy Ark.

Granddaughter Tamar and friend, and Simchat Torah flag, Tel Aviv

Granddaughter Tamar and friend, and Simchat Torah flag, Tel Aviv

 

As you delve into Jewish traditions in your search to better understanding Scripture, I’m sure you will enjoy learning about the joys of Simchat Torah. This is when the cycle of Torah reading is renewed at the holiday service with two Torah scrolls taken out of the Holy Ark so that the chanting of the last verse of Deuteronomy can be immediately followed by the first verse of Genesis.

But looking back to the origins of the holiday, we find that Simchat Torah as we know it first came into its own only in medieval times. What the Bible calls a day of “solemn rest” (Lev.  23:39) and “solemn assembly” (Num. 29:35; Neh. 8:18; 2 Chron. 7:9) because it was the end of one of the three pilgrimage festivals, may have been the best time to gather to bid friends and loved ones farewell, as everyone got ready to depart for far-flung homes after a week of celebration together in Jerusalem.  

That seems to be the point of the description in one ancient source, Tosefta Sukkah (4. 17): “On the eighth day the people were sent off and they blessed the king and went to their tents happy with goodly hearts for all the goodness that God did for David and his people Israel.”

 

The rains of blessing

Be glad then, ye children of Zion, and rejoice in the LORD your God; for He giveth you the former rain in just measure, and He causeth to come down for you the rain, the former rain and the latter rain, at the first (Joel 2:23).

Check out my article The ‘Fourbears’ of Jewish Dispute and That’s no Typo,” where you can learn about the Pharisees as Judaism’s teachers and worship leaders after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. It was at this time that the Amidah prayer was composed, which, among its 18 blessings, includes one describing the Almighty as: “He that causes the wind to blow and the rain to descend.”

 Notice the wording of the prayer. This is not a “prayer for rain” as we might first imagine,  say,  “Dear Almighty, please make it rain already, Amen.” Rather, it’s one that acknowledges the climate in the Holy Land – a rainless summer followed (hopefully) by enough winter precipitation to bring everything alive. That’s why our sages implanted in this prayer two versions, which they could switch out in the relevant season. One, which we recite starting at Passover when the dry season begins, calls on the Creator almost exactly like the prayer above, with one important difference: instead of mentioning rain, we settle for whatever the season brings, and so in this case the blessing calls on God as “He that causes the dew to fall.”

If you’ve been on a guided tour of Israel, you’ve probably seen one of the beautiful ancient synagogue mosaics that illustrate the passage of time by means of a zodiac wheel and the four seasons, for example in Tiberias, Beth Alpha, or Sepphoris.

Ancient synagogue mosaic, Tiberias. See winter, depicted as a woman holding an overflowing jar of water, in the left-hand corner. wwwgoisrael.com

Ancient synagogue mosaic, Tiberias. See winter, depicted as a woman holding an overflowing jar of water, in the left-hand corner. wwwgoisrael.com

The sixth-century Ein Gedi Synagogue, in Ein Gedi National Park near the Dead Sea, is another place to see a fascinating ancient synagogue mosaic. (Well, a copy of the ancient mosaic, the original is at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem.)  The most talked-about aspect of this archaeological and artistic wonder is its warning against revealing the “secret of the city” (a story for another time). This mosaic also cites the months of the year and even the signs of the Zodiac – but without the pictures we know from other synagogues, such as the one in Tiberias you see here. What the Ein Gedi synagogue does have, unusually, is a list of the biblical ancestors of the human race according to 1 Chron. 1:1-4.

Original Ein Gedi synagogue mosaic inscription.  Photo: Todd Bolen. Courtesy Todd Bolen, www.bibleplaces.com.

Original Ein Gedi synagogue mosaic inscription. Photo: Todd Bolen. Courtesy Todd Bolen, www.bibleplaces.com.

 

There seems to be a very particular reason the Ein Gedi congregation wrote the inscription this way – and it has to do with respect for God’s plan for the cycle of the year. Too little or too much rain can be life-threatening every year anew.  The Ein Gedi congregation, some 1,800 years ago, may have formulated their mosaic inscription this way to call on beloved biblical ancestors and on God, right in the midst of their listing of the seasons, so that: “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease” (Gen. 8:21–22). *

What an excellent verse with which to end our High Holy Day season and to launch into autumn and the blessed rains of winter that lie ahead.

*Michael Shashar, Sambatyon, Essays on Jewish Holidays. 1987, Jerusalem.

Sukkot – A Season for All Peoples – and a Time to Think Out of the Box

As a tour educator, when I have the privilege of explaining about our holiday of Sukkot to people of other faiths and cultures on guided tours of Israel, I sometimes like to call the holiday “the Jewish Thanksgiving” to draw attention to one of its facets – giving thanks to the Almighty for the bounty of the fall harvest. In our case the harvest does not include the plump orange pumpkins or shiny red apples of my childhood in the northeastern United States. Instead, here in the land of the Bible we give thanks for the harvest of the biblical fruits of the season (Exod. 23:16), such as grapes and olives, and for the strength for the hard work (in Bible days) of processing them into edible products.

Sweet grapes from our burgeoning vine, brought as a welcome-to-the-region gift and planted 28 years ago or so when we moved into our house, by Abu Ghazi, the “patriarch” of the workers from the neighboring Palestinian village, in a different era, who built our house.

Sweet grapes from our burgeoning vine, brought as a welcome-to-the-region gift and planted 28 years ago or so when we moved into our house, by Abu Ghazi, the “patriarch” of the workers from the neighboring Palestinian village who built our home. That was in a different era.

But like all biblical holidays, Sukkot has more than one layer of meaning. It commemorates the Israelites’ sojourn in flimsy “booths” put up during the wandering in Sinai (Lev. 42:53). For more about today’s tabernacles see my Sukkot holiday blog, “Turning Ourselves Inside Out.” In biblical times celebrants were commanded to take “choice fruits from the trees, and palm fronds, leafy branches and willows (Lev. 23:40) and wave them before the altar in the Temple. These plants are known as the Four Species, and today worshippers commemorate the Temple service by waving and shaking them at certain moments during morning prayers in the synagogue or at home. Yom Kippur, which we recently marked, is often considered a very personal kind of commemoration. But like Sukkot, it has universal aspects too. On Yom Kippur we recite the words “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples (Isa. 56:7). The Bible reading for the Yom Kippur afternoon service is the Book of Jonah, whose final verses reflect God’s loving concern for all peoples of the world.

As for Sukkot – we are taught that one universal aspect of Sukkot is the fact that the total number of sacrifices offered during Sukkot was 70 – the biblical number of all the world’s nations. If you’ve had the privilege of being in Jerusalem on Sukkot, one of the three pilgrimage holidays, you certainly sensed the Holy City as a true microcosm of all peoples.

 

An ancient family on Sukkot pilgrimage to Jerusalem, from my book Teach it to Your Children: How Kids Lived in Bible Days (drawing by Mira Hass)

An ancient family on Sukkot pilgrimage to Jerusalem, from my book Teach it to Your Children: How Kids Lived in Bible Days (drawing by Mira Hass)

In fact, the universal and the personal are never very far apart in our tradition. The shape of each of the Four Species reminded the ancient Jewish sages of different aspects of the human body. The lulav (the straight, closed palm frond) – the spine; the oval etrog (citron) – the heart; the small leaf of the myrtle bush – the eyes, and the longer leaf of the willow – the mouth. Holding the Four Species together and shaking them in every direction, the sages said, was a way of “enacting” Psalm 35:10 – praising God as the source of justice: “All my bones shall say: ‘Lord, who is like unto Thee, who deliverest the poor from him that is too strong for him, yea, the poor and the needy from him that spoileth him?’” For added inspiration, check out the connection of this thought to Paul’s counsel to the Romans (12:2). But for a broader, society-oriented take, I thank the rabbi of my hometown of Har Adar, Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg, for his remarks on the Four Species in an article published recently on Ynet. His thoughts, particularly about the etrog, actually do not echo my own, but they did lead me back to thinking about the etrog as a symbol of striving for a more perfect world. This ideal is woven into countless verses in the Bible; for example, one of my favorites is Jeremiah 22:3: “Execute ye justice and righteousness, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor; and do no wrong, do no violence, to the stranger, the fatherless, nor the widow, neither shed innocent blood in this place.”

Etrogs on display at the Har El Mall, near my home, Sukkot 2014

Etrogs on display at the Har El Mall, near my home, Sukkot 2014

Look at the picture I snapped of the Four Species stand in my local mall and you’ll see the green etrogs, set out in rows on the display table next to special cushioning material and boxes to protect it from damage. As you read more about Sukkot and the Four Species, you’ll learn that in Jewish tradition one can try to further honor God by performing commandments with the most perfect objects possible, a concept called in Hebrew hidur mitzvah – “embellishing the commandment.” One example of this is choosing the most beautiful etrog possible. However, to keep it beautiful, it has to be kept closed most of the time, nestled in its cushioning inside a sometimes very elaborate box, taking it out only for the blessing or brief display. But remembering the sages’ comparison of the etrog to the human heart,  let our “etrog” out of the box, to feel and see the invisible, especially “the stranger”  is the way to more powerfully pursue justice and righteousness in our society.

 

Etrogs (citrons) on sale for Sukkot

   Etrog, anyone? You can find out more about etrogs (not actually very tasty unless you make jam out of them) on pp. 48-49 of my book Food at the Time of the Bible: From Adam’s Apple to the Last Supper.

Happy Jewish New Year!

You Crown the Year with Your Bounty (Psalm 65:11)

The cycle of our year, based on the Bible and the climate in the Bible lands, reminds us of an important life lesson – we may and should always hope that better times will follow the hard ones – and if that’s a cliché, well then, so be it. We sure needed that lesson this summer, with the spasm of violence that engulfed us. But the Bible teaches us this lesson first and foremost in the climate of the Holy Land itself. We haven’t seen rain for seven months or so; our land is dry and brown except by the most stubbornly abundant springs – one of the Bible’s most salient symbols of redemption. That’s what makes this whole season – beginning with Rosh Hashannah, the New Year – a time of hope. Read on, and you’ll learn about some Jewish wisdom and customs about this holiday that launches what we call our High Holy Day season, and more – how to surprise your Jewish friends with the special greeting for this time of year. You’ll also find out how to prepare a special holiday appetizer and desert. This year Rosh Hashannah falls on September 25 and 26, but according to the Hebrew (lunar) calendar it always falls on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. Yes, it’s the driest time of year. Even the bulb of the sea squill, its tiny white flowers lining its tall, elegant stalk – the first to sense the changes in the air that herald fall in the land of the Bible – have not yet awakened and poked through the earth. In the Bible, Tishrei was the seventh month of the year and its first day was a “holy convocation” (Num. 29:1). Bible folk considered the year to begin with the month of Nissan, in the spring (Exod. 12:2). In fact, there were different “new years” for different purposes. Over the centuries, Jewish sages have poured meaning into the variations in the dates. The Maharal of Prague (1520–1609) taught that Nissan represents the life force of the year (no doubt connected with spring) while Tishrei represents the renewal of the soul. A traditions going all the way back to the Talmud is that the first of Tishrei was the day on which God created the world (Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashannah 11a).

Happy Birthday, World

One of the most important customs of Rosh Hashannah, the blowing of the shofar – a ram’s horn – also has to do with celebration the birthday of the world. In fact, it is called “the Day of the Sounding of the Shofar” and marks our Ten Days of Repentance that culminate in the highest point of our spiritual year – the Day of Atonement. What’s the connection between the shofar and the birthday of the world? According to the ninth-century Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, since Rosh Hashannah commemorates the beginning of creation, “in which the Holy One, blessed be He, created the world and ruled over it…this is similarly done for kings, blowing trumpets before them… to announce and declare their reign in every place.” The reason for a ram’s horn – notoriously hard to get a sound out of, bring one to Bible study and give everyone a try, you’ll see what I mean – is apparently first mentioned in the Talmud by Rabbi Abbahu, who lived in Caesarea: “The Holy one blessed by He, said ‘Blow before me the horn of a ram, to remind you of the binding of Isaac.’” The connection, of course, is that Abraham did not sacrifice Isaac, but rather a ram he found tied to a nearby bush (Gen. 12:13). Tishrei, being the birthday of creation, is our opportunity to commemorate and celebrate the reverence for life that is at the very core of our Judeo-Christian heritage. I am often asked “how should we pray for Israel?” My answer is always: Pray for wisdom for our leaders, and for the leaders of this region. And in this season, may your happy birthday wish/prayer to the world be to increase liberty and justice for all.

The Book of Life is Open

“Shannah Tova!” Chock-full of easy vowels (and none of those pesky gutturals for which Hebrew is famous), it literally means “a good year” in other words, Happy New Year! Now, for the advanced course. Rosh Hashannah begins the Ten Days of Repentance, culminating in Yom Kippur, when, if we are truly penitent for our sins of the previous year, and have asked forgiveness for wronging both God and other people our slate is wiped clean and we are written, as our tradition puts it, “in the book of life” for a good year ahead. And so, another greeting you can practice for the New Year is: Leshannah Tova Tee-ko-tay-vu, which means, “may you be inscribed for a good year.”

Let’s Eat

One Rosh Hashannah treat we serve at our holiday table is apple slices dipped in honey – as a symbol of a sweet year. Honey cake is often served for desert and makes a perfect hospitality offering too. And here’s a honey of a recipe – that goes back almost to the time of Jesus. The basis for the recipe is Song of Songs 2:5: “Strengthen me with raisins, refresh me with apples” (some Bibles translate apples as “flagons” whatever those are…). In the days of the Talmud, the sages were intrigued what this “raisin and apple love tonic” could have consisted of. Here’s what one rabbinic master, master chef that is, thought up, developed for your kitchen and mine by biblical and talmudic food expert Dr. Tova Dickstein and appears in my book Food at the Time of the Bible.

apples for apples and honey 2 for fall article

An apple tree in our front garden. Daughter Maya, now a mother herself, planted this tree when she was a toddler. Last year it gave no fruit and we were thinking it had run its course and would have to be cut down. But this year it bloomed and bore fruit again. An encouraging story of rejuvenation in honor of the New Year!

Ashishiyot

8 oz red lentils

1 tbl. whole wheat flower

4 tbl honey 1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1/4 C olive oil

Toast the lentils well in a frying pan. Grind them very fine into flour (Use a coffee grinder if available). Mix the lentil flour with the olive oil, making dough balls the size of ping pong balls. Flatten the balls into small pancakes. Heat additional olive oil in a frying pan and fry the pancakes gently on both sides until brown.

How a Book is Born – Teach it to Your Children: How Kids Lived in Bible Days

How a Book is Born_ Teach it To Your Children_ How Kids Lived in Bible Days_JerusalemPerspective com Online