King David’s Mother: She Stands for Us

Shavuot (Pentecost), among its many aspects, is the traditional death date of King David. This is an opportunity to return to my theme “Of King David’s Women,” and this time, I want to tell you about David’s mother. She’s mentioned twice in the Bible, but like most of its female characters, she has no name. And so the sages filled in the blanks in riotous color. They said her name was Nitzevet, which means “standing woman.”

Life in the Hareem. John Lewis (1858). Wikimedia Commons.

In Psalm 69:8, David wrote: “I am a foreigner to my own family, a stranger to my own mother’s children.” Why, the sages asked. They found the answer in the convoluted path David’s family took on its way to establishing the best known dynasty in Judeo-Christian tradition.

David was the great-grandson of the Moabite Ruth, whose story we read on Shavuot and who famously joined her fate to the Israelites. But Jesse, after years of marriage to the Israelite Nitzevet, the mother of his seven sons, suddenly realized that as a prominent public figure, his part-Moabite status was an impediment.

Jewish tradition accords Ruth high honors but the law in Deut. 23:3 explicitly forbade intermarriage with Moabites. So, the sages said, Jesse felt compelled to cast Nitzevet out. This was for Nitzevet’s own good, they said – Jesse didn’t want to impugn Nitzevet’s status as the wife of a despised Moabite.

The separation lasted for three years. Jesse became lonely and wanted more children. And so he took a Canaanite slave woman, who could provide him with a child of unquestionable lineage. This was possible, it was said, because if Jesse were to emancipate the slave, their children could be recognized as full-fledged members of the tribe.

Compassion Births a Plan

What an awkward, painful situation. Nitzevet and the slave woman, living alongside each other, meeting every day at the loom, the grinding stone or over the cooking fire, neither of them with any real way out. And then, out of compassion, the slave woman came up with a plan, using one of the few tools biblical women had: subterfuge. She would switch places with Nitzevet on Jesse’s sleeping pallet that night. This apparently worked well enough, because Nitzevet became pregnant.

But from the moment her pregnancy began to show, Nitzevet’s own sons, ignorant of the bedroom switch, shunned and shamed her as an adulteress. The conscience-panged Jesse forbade his sons to harm her or the child, and eventually Nitzevet gave birth – to David. Jesse recognized the child as his own, although, like some biblical Cinderella, David was relegated to shepherd status, distanced from the family, a “stranger,” “hated without reason” (Psalm 69:4). Only twenty-eight years later – when Samuel the prophet anointed David king of Israel “in the midst of his brothers” (1 Samuel 16:12–13) – was the dignity of both mother and son restored. According to one source, it was at this point that Nitzevet uttered the words ascribed to David in Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected….”

Anointing of David, Veronese, 16th century. Wikimedia Commons.

What’s the Moral?

Some people in their anguish distance themselves from God, and some come closer. David, it was said, was among the latter. Women commentators have put a new gloss on the moral. They say Nitzevet is the one to be admired for bearing her pain with dignity and faith and for passing on her strength to her son David. What’s more, the story of “Standing Woman” doesn’t end in the Bible or its interpretations over the ages. It’s timeless and universal. Nitzevet stands for us. We can change the ending.

 

 

Further reading:

Chana Weisberg, “Nitzevet, Mother of David: the Bold Voice of Silence. https://www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/280331/jewish/Nitzevet-Mother-of-David.htm#comments

The legend of Nitzevet is based, among other sources, on the following sources:

Babylonian Talmud Baba Batra 91a.

Eliyahu KiTov. Sefer HaTodaah, 1958 (Hebrew on line http://sifrei.blogspot.co.il/2014/03/blog-post_9.html, p. 302­–303, the section on Sivan and Shavuot tells about Nitzevet). English translation, Feldheim, 1998.

 Yalkut HaMachiri http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=32637&st=&pgnum=205 (Hebrew).

 

Chickpeas and Parched Grain: the Lunch Date that Launched a Dynasty

What’s the connection between an Israeli culinary favorite and women of Scripture?

Our next major religious festival is Pentecost, on May 20. But in between is another holiday. No, not Lag B’Omer, which we marked last week, on the 33rd day between Passover and Pentecost. I’m talking about International Hummus Day, marked on May 13. Google it.

A hummus field in Galilee, with Mount Tabor in the background. Photo: Eitan F, Wikimedia Commons.

This blog is about hummus, which is mentioned in the Bible once, in the story of Ruth, though not by that name.  In Ruth 2:14, Boaz said to our heroine, who’d been hard at work harvesting his barley all morning: “Come here, and eat of the bread, and dip your piece of bread in the vinegar.” Hard to imagine serving vinegar to a hungry lady you want to impress…not even balsamic vinegar, as the Israeli author Meir Shalev has pointed out, and not even “wine vinegar” as the New International Version translated the Hebrew word hometz (that’s the modern Hebrew word for vinegar). And elsewhere in the Bible where hometz is mentioned, it’s not something you’d consume by choice (Prov. 10:26, Psalm 69:21, for example, and see Matt. 27: 48). So what was the dip? Some say it must have been hummus – pureed chickpeas.

Fresh hummus before toasting.

When we adjust our biblical lens to imagine Boaz offering Ruth pita dipped in hummus rather than vinegar, it becomes a different story, literally. Hummus  with a little olive oil, salt, garlic and lemon (in our day that is, no lemons in the Bible), is delish, and apparently for Boaz, it was a surefire way to get a second date.

Everybody likes to try the pureed version of hummus when they come to Israel. I’d like to tell you about a less well-known way to enjoy it. The next course of that memorable Bethlehem lunch date was parched grain, a biblical staple. “Parching” basically meant toasting the green, still-sweet heads of grain in a pan over the fire. You can do the same thing with hummus in the pod. And I do just that,  for the few weeks a year I can get it fresh in the fruit and veggie shop in our neighboring village of Abu Ghosh. But if you’re not going to be passing through Abu Ghosh or an open-air Israeli or Middle Eastern market any time soon, I’ve been told that in the U.S. you can sometimes find fresh hummus at farmers’ markets and specialty stores.  So here goes: Heat a medium-size skillet with a tablespoon of olive oil and sprinkle some sea salt in the bottom. Place a layer of fresh hummus, right in the pod, in the pan and shake it around for a few minutes, browning it nicely on all sides. That’s it. Put the whole pod into your mouth to get the salty flavor, holding on to the end of it, then pop out the chickpeas (two or three per pod usually), remove the pod and discard. Hands get oily, have napkins handy. Fun for the whole family, and an idea for a little home-school project.

Fresh hummus in my skillet, almost ready to munch on.

Speaking of the whole family, as you snack on your toasted hummus, or dip your pita in hummus puree for that matter, you can teach a Bible lesson on charity from the book of Ruth: Remember how Ruth, whose great-grandson was King David, went out to glean? She was harvesting the stalks in the corners of the field that Boaz had left for the poor, as commanded by Leviticus 23: 22:  “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field…You shall leave them for the poor and for the stranger.” As the ancient Jewish sages said: “Why was the Book of Ruth written? To teach us the greatness of reward for deeds of lovingkindness” (Ruth Rabba 2:14).

Happy International Hummus Day.

The Gleaners, by 19th-century artist Jean-François_Millet. The artist was criticized in his day for too “social-minded” a subject.

 

For further reading:

“Toasted grain” makes a dramatic appearance early in my historical novel, The Scroll (Koren).

For more about biblical foods check out my Food at the Time of the Bible, Women at the Time of the Bible (Palphot), and Teach it to Your Children: How Kids Lived in Bible Days (Avi Media).

 

 

 

The Budding Biblical Promise

In memory of my late mother-in-law, Tamar Vamosh, a Holocaust survivor, who loved flowers, life and The Mikado

A pomegranate bud in my garden.

I’d like to take a break in my series on the women in King David’s life and today, Holocaust Memorial Day, when sorrow over the past and worry over the future plague so many, turn to thoughts of beauty and hope spurred by biblical springtime. Such thoughts were the “weapons” that my late mother-in-law, Tamar, a Holocaust survivor, wielded to win her battle to live and love after the Holocaust had robbed her of so much.

I’d like to share today how Scripture’s original Hebrew deepens our understanding of springtime in the Holy Land.  Passover is behind us, and we’ve begun the seven-week period before Pentecost (Lev. 23:15–16) known as “the counting of the Omer.”  This was and still can be a fearful time for Holy Land farmers. Most of the rainy season is over. But a downpour, not to mention a hailstorm, could destroy ripening grain (Exod. 9:18), while a sudden searing wind from the desert was the mortal enemy of tiny olive blossoms and budding grapes (Job. 15:33). Farmers sighed in relief as each day was counted toward the calming of the skies and a successful harvest (omer means “sheaf” in Hebrew).

Grape buds on our vine, planted 30 years ago by Abu Ghrazi, from the nearby Palestinian village of Bidu, as a gift from his own vineyard.

As my husband Arik and I strolled last week along a forest path near my community of Har Adar, we saw some beautiful flowers blossoming. “How about that,” I remarked: “There are the flowers that the Song of Songs talks about.”

“What flowers,” asked my better half.

Arik is a native-born Israeli. He and I, a native-born member of the Trentonite Tribe of New Jersey, communicate in both Hebrew and English, often in the same sentence, in a language alternatively known as Heblish or Engbrew. But when it comes to the Bible, Arik relies on the original Hebrew, and in that regard has been my teacher for 37 years now. Hence, his question.

“Well, you know, I pontificated confidently, “in the Song of Songs, it says: ‘For lo, the winter is passed/The rain is over and gone/The flowers appear on the earth/and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land” (Song of Songs 2:11–12).

After a spirited digression to explain to Arik what “Lo,” means, not to mention “the voice of the turtle,” we got back to our subject: “It doesn’t mean wildflowers,” Arik corrected me, “it means fruit-tree buds.” We immediately turned to The Oracle (Google) to compare the Hebrew and English of the verse in question. Arik was right, of course. The word in Hebrew is nitzanim, buds. But couldn’t they be wildflower buds, I persisted?

White, sage-leaved rock rose (Cistus salviifolius Lotem Marvani).

Probably not, I realized as we continued down the path. Back in New Jersey it was “April showers bring May flowers.” The King James translators must had the same idea in mind, picturing the Holy Land spring based on their experience of the English countryside. But by April in Israel, we hope and pray the heavy showers are over and thus: “the rains are over and gone.” The colorful tapestries of wildflowers – cyclamens and anemones among them – which had appeared with the first rains of fall (the Bible’s “former rains,” Joel 2:23) – have wilted and dried. They’ve been “thrown into the furnace” (Matthew 6:30), that is, burned under the Holy Land sun.

Sage leaf rock rose (Cistus salviifolius Lotem Marvani).

Maccabee’s blood (Helichrysum sanguineum), also known as red everlasting or red cudweed (Esther Inbar, Wikimedia Commons).

A few flowers still come out now, like the blushing pink or white rock rose, mustard plants that create brilliant yellow carpets, and the tiny, droplet-like flower known locally as Maccabee’s blood. In contrast, the verse in Song of Songs is telling us about the budding fruit trees like the pomegranate and the olive, on which people’s livelihood depended in ancient times.

Flowers or buds, fruit trees or wild blooms, Hebrew or English, springtime hope and renewal can be common ground wherever we live. In this case, I can’t help recalling, of all things, the words of The Mikado’s Nanki-Poo: “That’s what we mean when we say that a thing/is welcome as flowers that bloom in the spring.”

 

An apple blossom from a tree in our front yard, which daughter Maya planted under a rock as a child – just to see what would happen! Apples are not indigenous in the Holy Land (“apple” means something else in the Bible, wouldn’t you know), but I couldn’t resist sharing.

For more about  Hebrew and the agricultural cycle in the Holy Land, see:

Miriam Feinberg Vamosh, “Where the Language Meets the Land .”

Miriam Feinberg Vamosh, Food at the Time of the Bible: From Adam’s Apple to the Last Supper (Palphot), pp. 7, 24, 37.

Nogah Hareuveni, Nature in Our Biblical Heritage.

This Passover, a Tiny, Inspiring Find

Woman holding a coin from the Jewish revolt, Jerusalem March 2018. Courtesy of Eilat Mazar/ the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

When I saw the photo at right, provided to the press by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and archaeologist Eilat Mazar, my mouth dropped open. It’s as if reality raided my literary imagination (instead of the other way around!). There she is! The unnamed woman in this picture ponders a tiny Jewish rebel coin she grasps. It was one of a trove discovered in Mazar’s Ophel excavation in Jerusalem south of the Temple Mount. Even the stone walls in the background eerily recall the scene from The Scroll, a scene that played out (in my mind’s eye) at the fortress of Masada, after the destruction of the Temple. Here’s the scene as I wrote it:

The stone was loose and she pried it out easily. Behind it lay a small bronze box, whose top was beaten into a delicate chain of rosettes. Inside was…a purse with the twelve silver shekels, with which her mother had entrusted her after her father was killed. It would easily pay the first three months’ rent on the house in which they would live after they left Masada, her mother had said—triumphant, of course…after the last of the conqueror’s soldiers had left Judea forever. More than two years had passed since she had last opened the coin purse. It had had no value for her on the mountain. Neither did a single little bronze coin, minted in the white-hot forge of the revolt, brought to the fortress by refugees from the fallen city. Now it gleamed dully at her when she opened up the purse. Its inscription “Jerusalem the Holy,” seemed to mock her.

Mazar and her team found the tiny bronze coin together with dozens of others in a cave south of the Temple Mount. The finds unearthed in the cave take us back to the last desperate days of the first revolt of the Jews against the Romans (66–70 AD). Numerous pottery fragments were also found, mainly jars and cooking pots. The dates on the coins and their inscriptions reflect the backdrop of the times I sought to bring alive in The Scroll.

These coins bore the mark – literally – of the Jewish rebels’ fight for independence.  The coins, which by their very minting rejected Roman dominion, bore unmistakable Jewish symbols such as the Four Species, invoking the Feast of Tabernacles and joyous pilgrimage to the Temple. Moreover, they advertised each year of Jewish freedom. The legend on the earlier coins reads: “Year 2 of the freedom [herut] of Zion,” proclaiming the hope for liberation, just at hand, they believed. But, as Mazar pointed out, seared into the later coins, produced after the deadly Roman siege on Jerusalem had begun, was a cry for divine intervention: “Year 4 of the redemption [geulat] Zion.”

The cave in which the coins were discovered is a large one – 21 x 47 feet. The archaeologists say that one amazing aspect of the discovery is that such a large cave, which was partially visible to boot, was never again reused after the Temple was destroyed.  It’s almost as if  it was waiting for Mazar’s team to reveal it to us, to remind us of the precious gift of freedom that we celebrate on Passover.

As for the fate of my imaginary character and her coin in The Scroll? Hint: She was one of the survivors of Masada. She trod the same desperate road as the rebels who left those coins behind in the cave, until she reached her destiny’s crossroad. For me, she symbolizes every woman of faith who  chooses life against unimaginable odds.

Some of the Jewish rebellion coins, recently discovered in Jerusalem. Courtesy of Eilat Mazar/the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

May  this Passover and Easter bring the blessings of renewed strength and hope for all.

 

Leafy-Vine-Stitched-8-Inch

Want to know more?

The Scroll; An Unforgettable Holiday Read

Women of The Scroll and Women of the Bible – Advanced Level Survival Skills Instructors 

Beyond The Dovekeepers  

The Midwives of the Exodus: Yours, Mine or Ours?

There are so many nameless women in the Bible, and yet the two midwives in the Exodus story who stood up to Pharaoh and saved the Israelite babies get two names each in ancient rabbinic literature. According to one account, the midwives’ names, Shiphrah and Puah (Ex. 1:15), were code names for Miriam and Jochebed, Moses’ sister and mother. Shiphrah was Jochebed, the story goes, because Shiphrah means “cared for” and Jochebed used her skills to care for newborns. Puah equals Miriam because Puah means “cry out” – and Miriam would “cry out through the Holy Spirit, ‘my mother will bear a son who will be the savior of Israel’” (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 11b).

Pharaoh and the Midwives, The Golden Haggadah, 14th century. Wikimedia commons.

The numerous permutations of the midwife story in rabbinic literature throughout the ages, extending even to a talmudic debate (Sotah 11b) over the birthing room equipment, shows how intrigued the sages were with these two women. They intrigue me too. But what I want to know is where they got the courage to resist the will of Egypt’s all-powerful sovereign, at the risk of their own lives.

Who were they?

Perhaps because of Shiphrah and Puah’s association with Miriam and Jochebed, we usually imagine the midwives as Hebrew women. In Hebrew, the Bible calls them hameyaldot ha’ivriot, which is usually taken to mean “the Hebrew midwives.” But this term might also mean “the midwives of the Hebrew women.” So for all we know, they might have been Egyptian, or perhaps from from Nubia (partly today’s Sudan), which was ruled by Egypt in various periods.  To the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, it was obvious that the midwives were Egyptian (Antiquities 2, 205).

So, the sages conceded, the midwives may not have been Hebrews. Still, they couldn’t resist making them honorary members of the tribe – according to some medieval sources they were “righteous converts” to Judaism.

Resistance personified

But I like to think of them as full-fledged Egyptian women; “righteous gentiles,” we’d call them today, saving lives oblivious to ethnicity, endangering their own to do so. And I learned that it was ethnic prejudice and hatred for the Hebrews, the “other” in this saga, that defeated Pharaoh’s own plot against them. When he finds out that the Hebrew babies’ lives were spared, blinded by his own ignorance, he falls for the midwives’ unlikely argument – a ruse – that Hebrew women give birth faster than Egyptian women  – so fast that they can’t get there in time to take their babies away.

I like to imagine those brave biblical midwives carrying out their task unconcerned with the identity of their patients – like medical professionals today, sworn to equally treat every human being who comes to them in need, “whether common or distinguished, friend or foe,” as the oath of the Israeli army medical corps states.

A Palestinian baby injured in a car accident last year was breastfed by a Jewish ER nurse after he refused to take a bottle. The baby’s mother had sustained a serious head injury and his  aunts asked the nurse, Ula Ostrowski-Zak, to help find someone to nurse him. Ula  volunteered. “I breastfed him like I do my own son….I’m here all night. It seemed so straightforward,” she told Ynet news at the time. (Photo: Hadassah Hospital Spokesperson)

These mysterious biblical women, perhaps of another nation, delivered the children of Israel – literally – in their hour of need. There’s no time like the festival of freedom, especially this year, to remember the message Jochebed’s son and Miriam’s brother brought down from the mountain:  “When a foreigner, a stranger, resides among you in your land, do not do them wrong” (Lev. 19:33).

When opportunities come our way, whether extraordinary or mundane, to be there for the other – and our lives are full of them these days wherever we live – here’s a thought: Without the midwives of the Hebrew women, we would never have gotten to the Red Sea shore, much less have crossed it.

 

Leafy-Vine-Stitched-8-Inch.

Want to know more?

Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11b, midwives, birth stool: http://www.come-and-hear.com/sotah/sotah_11.html#PARTb 

A. Brenner. A Feminist Companion to Exodus and Deuteronomy, pp. 23–24.

C. Meyers (ed.). Women in Scripture, pp. 127, 156, 185.

M. Feinberg Vamosh. Women at the Time of the Bible, pp. 49–51.

Women of The Scroll and Women of the Bible – Advanced Level Survival Skills Instructors

The Scroll – An Unforgettable Holiday Read

Alright, Danessa, I’ll tell them! That’s my late mother, chief cheerleader in all my endeavors, whose passing we commemorate on Passover eve. Now that I’m working hard to help get the word out about my first historical novel, The Scroll, there she is, persistent as ever. You’ve got a website! So use it! So alright, already, mom, I’ll tell them:

The Scroll is a multi-generational historical novel about the survivors of the famous last stand of the Jewish rebels of Masada against the Roman army. Its story line is drawn from a real archaeological find – the divorce document of a real-life woman named Miriam, issued at Masada. The story begins on Masada’s final, horrific day. Over the three generations that follow, its characters must choose between nation and family, and finally, between life and death. Will they learn the lesson of Masada’s downfall, or will enemies – within and without – rob it from them? Though it deals with events that took place two millennia ago, The Scroll will help you make sense of the complexities of today’s Israel and the choices its leaders make. It is chock full of meticulously researched, colorful details of ancient daily life, religion, politics and society, which will stir the imagination of readers fascinated by those times.

This Easter and Passover I hope you’ll make The Scroll your holiday reading. And consider purchasing The Scroll  as a gift for participants on your upcoming Israel tour or your book club. Please contact me for discounts on bulk orders. Order here, through Koren Books, or Amazon.

Happy Holidays!

 

 

A Purim Tale for 2018: Bless the Other

Ancient Jewish sages taught that Mordecai the Jew saved gentiles, too. This is a tale for our times.

There’s no holiday like Purim to combine a story of the survival of the Jewish people against the enemy all around, women’s empowerment, an odious villain whose name we drown out with noisemakers, and kings, queens and courtiers in a glittering palace setting. It’s a holiday just begging to be celebrated with revelry and costume (and food of course). But this, for a change, I hope, is not about that. This is about an issue with us now that no amount of noise-making can drown out.

An article by Talmudic scholar Yakov Z. Meyer for Purim 2010 that appeared in Haaretz opened my eyes to this issue: Early in the Book of Esther, which we read last night in Jerusalem synagogues, we’ve got what seems to be a literary device – how to place Esther squarely in the sights of King Ahasuerus as more than the beautiful virgin after whom he lusted, to replace Vashti, who refused to be a victim of his drunken bidding. Esther’s cousin Mordecai, lurking around the gates of the palace in which he has insinuated his comely cousin, hears two of King Ahasuerus’ guards plotting to kill the sovereign. Mordecai gets word to Esther, who reports it to the king, who has the two traitors executed.

Mordecai and Esther (Aert de Gelder, 1645-1727)

Meyer introduces us to a midrash that zeros in precisely on this device:  Since Mordecai is a Jew and Ahasuerus is not, the midrash asks, why should Mordechai have cared about the king? Meyer tells us that Rabbi Judah answers by enumerating biblical instances where Israelites reached out to aid non-Israelites. Rabbi Judah recalls that Jacob, interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams. Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams. The midrash then goes on to say: “If they (the gentiles) are in trouble, they consult with us and we reveal the answer to them” (Bereshit Rabba 39:12)

According to Meyer, Rabbi Judah cites Psalm 119:100: “I am wiser than my elders” (I quote the translation of this verse, in Hebrew: mizkenim etbonan, rather than the translation that appeared in Meyer’s article, but either translation makes the point.) We are to understand that Rabbi Judah is saying in Mordecai’s name: “I can do even better than those who came before me who helped non-Jews;  I’ll save this non-Jew’s life.” Rabbi Judah’s interlocutor, Rabbi Nehemiah, quotes from Genesis 12:3, where God tells Abraham: “In thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). Thus, Meyer says, God defines not only the relationship between Abraham and his descendants, but between us and the other, which to me means those not of our culture, faith or nation. That relationship is one in which we endeavor to bless the other by our actions.

According to Meyer, the midrash asks a question, why should Mordecai help non-Jews, that might mislead us into thinking this passage is ethnocentric, to say the least, only to give the answer that Jews are obliged to be anything but.

This brings me to a Talmudic saying that seems on the surface to justify helping our own people before we help others. It is often quoted these days by those (including, recently, our interior minister, who is a rabbi) blithely trying to justify withholding or withdrawing assistance to the African asylum seekers in Israel who now face deportation to countries where their lives are in danger . That quote is: “The poor of your own city come first.”

People don’t know that this isn’t the whole statement, and believe it means the ancient sages who interpreted the Bible are giving them license to delay or avoid caring for a person of a different race, religion, or nationality.  Such a dictum would certainly mean Mordecai should not have warned a non-Jewish king of his impending assassination.

But the verse has more: In the Talmud (Baba Metzia 31b) this dictum appears a discussion that seems to revolve around one word: a Hebrew grammatical construction translated as “surely.” The sages list a number of verses where the word “surely” appears as a kind of emphasis. One of these is Deuteronomy 15:11: “Thou shalt surely open thy hand unto thy poor and needy brother, in thy land.” In the same vein as the sages’ question about Mordecai’s “strange” obligation to a gentile king, one of the sages responds regarding this verse:  “I know this only of the poor of thine own city. Whence do I know it is of the poor of another city? From the expression: Thou shalt surely open. That is, in all cases.”

Only when we take the verse in its entirety can we recognize and appreciate the ancient Jewish commitment to care for all in need. Anything else, anything less, is a masquerade fit only for a drunken Purim party.

Of King David’s Women: Tamar, Symbol of Survival

The date palm speaks of justice and survival in the biblical world of #MeToo

On this upcoming Tu B’Shvat, the New Year of Trees, my thoughts go to King David’s daughter Tamar, whose name means date palm. Tamar was raped, then scorned and cast out by her half-brother (2 Sam. 13). Ironically, the tree for which Tamar was named is a biblical symbol of survival, of life itself, thriving as it does in oases, surrounded by desolation, seen from a distance by parched and desperate travelers. In its bounty it is compared to the rewards of righteousness (Psalm 92:13) and to justice (Judges 4:5).

“The Rape of Tamar,” Alexander Cabanel, 19th century. Wikimedia Commons.

Its scientific name is Phoenix dactifera. In this name, we can find a symbol of hope as well. Some say the legendary phoenix – the bird who ended its life in a blaze and whose successor rose from the ashes – might have gotten its name from a characteristic the bird shares with the date palm: After a fire, it is reborn from shoots that spring from its innermost surviving parts.

The date palm as a “giving tree” became a symbol in early Christianity and in Islam as well. An infancy narrative attributed to St. Jerome depicts Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the desert. When Mary says she is hungry and thirsty, the baby Jesus commands a date palm to bend down, give his mother its fruit and reveal a spring of pure water. The Quran also tells this story.

Among the magnificent mosaics discovered in 1992 at the Kathisma, The Church of Mary’s Seat, on the Jerusalem–Bethlehem road, is this date palm that immortalizes the legend of  Mary’s “giving tree.” Courtesy of  Dr. Rina Avner.

The courtroom of the biblical heroine Deborah was under a date palm, and so the tamar became a symbol of justice. But for David’s daughter, there would be no true justice in the biblical telling. Her brother Absalom meticulously planned and executed his revenge on her attacker, but even this he did not share with his sister. His advice to her sounds all too familiar: Just put it behind you. Don’t tell anyone. As for David, when he heard what happened, he “became angry.” No more. Neither man gave Tamar what we now know victims need most after such a trauma – recognition, validation, comfort.

Tamar as a Flower

Tamar has entered the botanical world not only in the name of a tree, but, oddly, together with her attacker, as a flower: the pansy. In Hebrew it’s known as Amnon v’Tamar, by way of a Russian legend about a brother and sister, Ivan and Maria (which is the name for pansy in Russian), separated in childhood, who are reunited as adults and fall in love. God takes pity on them and turns them into a two-tone blossom, each symbolizing a different color, so they can stay together forever. These star-crossed Russian lovers were transformed into a prince and princess of Israel, abuser and victim, by none other than the Russian-born Hebrew poet Shaul Tchernichovsky, who translated the legend into Hebrew and sought a biblical name and theme for his protagonists.

Pansy. The gold is Tchernichovksy’s Tamar (Maria in the Russian legend); the purple, Amnon (Ivan). Wikimedia Commons.

Absalom killed Amnon, and fled from his father. And David mourned. Not because one son had killed another, but because David longed for Absalom. Did David also long to have acted differently? Did he regret not having spoken up for his daughter and punished Amnon with his own hand (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:3)?

Where is David’s mourning for Tamar? Where, indeed, is she? Must her only trace after the crime against her be in her name – given by Absalom to his daughter, perhaps out of guilt over abandoning his sister?

Hope in the Future

This is where I want to go in my next historical novel. According to an ancient legend I’ll be weaving into it, Tamar was once again threatened, and once again, it happened in the place where she should have felt safest, among her own family (this time, on her mother’s side). But this story ends in hope. This Tamar, who once placed ashes on her head in mourning, like the women in my first historical novel, The Scroll, will rise from the ashes.

Big Tamar with little Tamar and her mother Maya, cutting cookies, shaping the future, 2015.

As did Tamar, my mother-in-law and who passed away just three months ago at age 87. Tamar was her adopted name. When she was about 16, after the liberation of the Budapest ghetto where she survived the Holocaust, Vera, as she was known then, cared for orphaned Jewish children getting ready to go to Palestine. The group’s leaders gave everyone a Hebrew name, to prepare for the future they hoped for in the land of their ancestors. “You’ll be Tamar,” they told her, because you’re tall and lovely like a tamar“– a date palm (Song of Songs 7:7–8).

Like Tamar, the daughter of David, my mother-in-law was left unprotected in a world of unimaginable cruelty, and she rose from the ashes to reestablish her family – our family. Let’s work so that her great-granddaughter, also named Tamar, the descendent of strong, heroic women on both sides, will know a better world.

  Leafy-Vine-Stitched-8-Inch

Further reading

Pseudo-Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 20. http://gnosis.org/library/psudomat.htm.

Philologos. “Named for a Rapist.” The Forward, Feb. 24, 2010. https://forward.com/culture/126322/named-for-a-rapist/

Feinberg-Vamosh, M. Food at the Time of the Bible. Herzliya, Israel, n.d. P. 40.

Lowin, S.L. Arabic and Hebrew Love Poems in Al-Andalus. New York, 2013.