Sunday, August 29, 2010

One for God and one for Azazel

In the accounting of the Yom Kippur service in Vayikra (16), we are told that Aharon Hakohen must take two goats and stand them in front of the entrance of the “tent of meeting” (the Mishkan). Lots are to be placed upon the goats, where one will be designated for God and the other for “Azazel”. The goat for God will act as a sin offering, whereas the goat for “Azazel” is to be taken out into the wilderness and to be thrown to its death. This process is to be an atonement for the nation of Israel.

When explaining this peculiar service, Rashi provides a simple explanation that Azazel is to be understood as nothing more than a hard, tough mountain (as the word Az suggests). The Ramban (Nachmanides) brings both the explanation of Rashi and the Ibn Ezra, however attempts to provide more depth to the subject. Bereishis Rabbah (65: 10) is the first point of reference the Ramban uses to elucidate this practice. On the verse “the goat will bear upon itself all the iniquities”[1] (which is discussing the goat for Azazel) the Midrash tells us that “the goat” is referring to Esav[2] and “the iniquities” are referring to Yaakov. The Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer (46) explains that due to the previous observation of the Midrash Rabbah, one must understand that the goat for Azazel is to be given as a “bribe” to Samael (the angel of Esav) in order that he should not nullify the offering for God! The lot for God is to be a sacrificial offering whereas the lot for Azazel is no more than the goat with all of the sins of the nation of Israel upon it. The Ramban continues to quote the Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer which includes a lengthy monologue of Samael before God, advocating the praises of the sin free nation of Israel, rather than acting as their heavenly prosecutor.

What is perhaps most perplexing about the explanation of this event is that it seems as if it is an almost idolatrous ritual on a day which is assumed by many to be the Holiest day of the year (as well as a practice which is supposed to be cleansing us from our sins and not increasing them). This point is not missed by the Ramban, for he subsequently mentions that the Torah prohibits any form of subservience and worship of any celestial being apart from God. However, over here God is commanding the nation of Israel to send the goat to the ministering angel of destruction and desolation and it is not the nation of Israel who, out of their own volition, is worshipping a celestial being. The Ramban tells us that this angel (Samael) has dominion over the “stars of the sword, bloodshed, war, dispute, wounds, injury, divisiveness and desolation”. We are also told that Samael is the angel over the planet Mars, the nation of Edom (descendants of Esav) and the male and female goat. Additionally, Samael has under his influence demonic forces called mazikim (which are referred to in scripture as [male] goats). Since the angel has power and influence over these negative forces, the nation of Israel is commanded to appease it with the giving of the goat. However, the intention of the verse is not to suggest that the nation of Israel is giving an offering to Azazel (Samael), but rather they are merely performing the will of God who has commanded them to appease Samael in this manner.

An analogy is given by the Ramban, where a banquet is made for a master who commands those who made the banquet to give a small present to his servant. In no way would one assume that the banquet was made for the servant, rather all is made in honor of the master and the master, not wanting his servants to speak badly of his ways, gives a small portion to his servant. Similarly, both goats are a “gift” for God, and it is God who gives a small portion to his servant, Samael. This is the approach of the Ramban on the goat for Azazel.

Despite the attempted reconciliation of the externally peculiar practice which bears striking resemblance to idolatrous worship (even according to the Ramban) and is only differentiated by intention alone (that the nation of Israel is performing God’s will and not an “offering” to Azazel), several questions remain. Why on a day such as Yom Kippur are we commanded to perform a practice which has such a close resemblance to idolatry? Is the relationship between the atonement of the sins of Israel and the sending of this goat to Azazel one which can only be understood in the mystical vein of the Ramban or is there perhaps an alternative more rational explanation?

An answer to the latter question is provided by the Rambam (Maimonides) in his work “The guide for the perplexed”[3]. The function of the “scapegoat” (appropriately named) is presented as follows:

“The goat [of the Day of Atonement] that was sent [into the wilderness] (Lev. xvi. 20, seq.) served as an atonement for all serious transgressions more than any other sin-offering of the congregation. As it thus seemed to carry off all sins, it was not accepted as an ordinary sacrifice to be slaughtered, burnt, or even brought near the Sanctuary; it was removed as far as possible, and sent forth into a waste, uncultivated, uninhabited land.”[4]

One immediately notices the symbolic interpretation of the Rambam, in contrast with the Ramban. Since the goat was seen to carry off the sins, it was sent as far away as possible. Regarding the question of how the sending of the goat atones for the sins, the Rambam continues:

“There is no doubt that sins cannot be carried like a burden, and taken off the shoulder of one being to be laid on that of another being. But these ceremonies are of a symbolic character, and serve to impress men with a certain idea, and to induce them to repent; as if to say, we have freed ourselves of our previous deeds, have cast them behind our backs, and removed them from us as far as possible.”

The differences between these two approaches are striking, but perhaps not unexpected, for they are both attempting to forward their legacy of Jewish thought, namely the mystical/ kabbalistic approach and the rationalist approach. Whereas one advocates an interpretation which implies an interaction with the celestial or spiritual spheres, the other interprets it as a mechanism suited for the development of the human psyche. Whether one interprets this commandment as a bribe for the Angel of destruction or as a symbolic distancing from sin really depends upon which stream of Jewish thought one subscribes to. It seems as though there is and should be room for everyone.

[1] Vayikra 16: 23

[2] Esav is compared to a goat (Bereishis 27: 11)

[3] Section 3, Chapter 66

[4] Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides, Friedländer tr. [1904], at

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Origin of the Jewish Months

Akkadian (Assyro-Babylonian) Name of Month[1]

Hebrew (Jewish) Name of Month







Du uzu


















Although this post will not fully answer the previous questions regarding how the Jewish months were named, who named them and whether they have any relationship with the cultures of their time, it can begin to point us in the right direction. From the sources presented, it is clear that the names of the months were taken from other cultures, as we will see that the names of the months became known as they are today from the time the Jewish people spent in Babylonia. The names of the months according to these sources were, at least, influenced from Babylonian, Persian and Medean culture.

The Talmud Bavli in Rosh Hashanah (7a)[2] attempts to bring proofs to the suggestion that the “first month” as mentioned in the Torah is the month of Nissan. After several lines of attempted provision of proof and several refutations, Ravina tells us that we do not learn that the first month is Nissan from biblical exegesis; rather we know it from tradition. Tosafos[3] tells us that the tradition that they had was regarding the order of the names of the months. Tosafos points us towards the Talmud Yerushalmi which also discusses this matter.

The Talmud Yerushalmi[4] in Rosh Hashanah (1: 6) presents the statement of Rabbi Chanina (with a ה) who says that the names of the months “ascended” with the Jewish people from Babylonia. This is also echoed in the Midrash, Bereishis Rabbah (48: 9)[5], where Rabbi Chanina (with an א. Most probably the same person, just with Babylonian and “Palestinian” spelling differences) provides the identical statement. An interesting point to note is that not only were new names of months first seen in Babylonia, the names of the Angels also came from Babylonia(Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashanah)[6].

The Ramban (Nachmanides) solidifies this approach as well in his commentary within parshas Bo (Exodus 12: 2)[7]. The Ramban claims that initially the months had no names; rather the months were according to number (First month, second month, etc). The reason for their numerical characteristic, rather than a name, was due to the fact that all the months were to act as a reference for the first month, the month when the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt. In this manner, the months would all revolve around the most significant event of our History (at that time), much alike the manner in which the days of the week reference the Sabbath. The Ramban draws upon a verse in Jeremiah (16: 14) which indicates that the end of the Babylonian exile was also a turning point in history for the Jewish People. The verse states: “Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that it shall no more be said As the LORD liveth, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt, but As the LORD liveth, that brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north, and from all the countries whither He had driven them'; and I will bring them back into their land that I gave unto their fathers”. Therefore the months were given names which came from the Babylonian era (not that the names were only Babylonian, for the Ramban mentions that some of the names were from the Persians) in order to reference the “miracles” that God performed for the Jewish people with their redemption from the Babylonian exile. According to the Ramban, some of the names of the months are Persian in origin, and the places within the Prophets and Writings where it mentions the months are from the prophets who lived during the Babylonian (and Persian) era.

The names of seven of the months are found in the Prophets and Writings and they are all from the aforementioned time period. The months which are listed are Nissan, Sivan, Elul, Kislev, Tevet, Shevat and Adar and they are found in Nehemiah, Esther and Zechariah (See below for the biblical sources and their verses).

Name of Month

Biblical Source


Nehemiah 2, 1

Esther 3, 7


Esther 8, 9


Nehemiah 6, 15


Nehemiah 1, 1


Esther 2, 16


Zechariah 1, 7


Esther 3:7, 3:13, 8:12, 9:1, 9:15, 9:17, 9:19, 9:21

From the sources presented, it seems to be clear that the names of the months of the Jewish calendar are not Jewish in origin, rather Babylonian (and Persian). This leads my investigation towards identifying the origins of the names of the months of the Babylonians. Does their source lie in the mythologies of the Sumerian culture, such as Tammuz and Dumuzi, as mentioned in my earlier post, or somewhere else? I am currently looking at the book Legends of Babylon and Egypt in Relation to Hebrew Tradition by Leonard W King as well as Kramer’s book on Sumerian culture, in order to identify any relationship or parallels there might be. The chart at the beginning of the post reveals a striking example of the parallel between the Akkadian (Assyro-Babylonian) calendar and the Hebrew (Jewish calendar). The (re)search continues…

[1] Poebel A., (1938). The Names and the Order of the Old Persian and Elamite Months during the Achaemenian Period, The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, 55 (2), p. 130-141, The University of Chicago Press Stable.

[2] אלא אמר רבינא דבר זה מתורת משה רבינו לא למדנו מדברי קבלה למדנו

[3] מדברי קבלה למדנו - לא מצי למילף מכאן מינייהו כלל אם לא נאמר שהיתה קבלה בידם סדר שמות החדשים זה אחר זה והכי אמר בירושלמי שמות החדשים עלו בידם מבבל בראשונה בירח האיתנים שבו נולדו אבת בירח בול שבו כל העולם נובל והארץ עשויה בולות בולות שבו בולים לבהמה בבתיהם בירח זיו שבו זיו האילנות מכאן ואילך ויהי בחדש ניסן שנת עשרים ויהי בחדש כסלו שנת עשרים בחדש העשירי הוא חדש טבת:

[4] דא"ר חנינה שמות חדשים עלו בידם מבבל. בראשונה בירח האיתנים שבו נולדו אבות מתו אבות נפקדו אימהות. בראשונה בירח בול שבו העלה נובל והארץ עשויה בולות בולות. שבו בוללים לבהמה מתוך הבית. בראשונה בירח זיו שבו זיוו של עולם הצמחים ניכרין והאילנות ניכרין. מיכן והילך ויהי בחדש ניסן שנת עשרים ויהי בחדש כסליו שנת עשרים בחדש העשירי הוא חדש טבת.

[5] א"ר חנינא שמות חדשים עלו מבבל

[6] רשב"ל אמר אף שמות המלאכים עלו בידן מבבל. בראשונה ויעף אלי אחד מן השרפים שרפים עומדים ממעל לו מיכן והילך והאיש גבריאל כי אם מיכאל שרכם

[7] וטעם החדש הזה לכם ראש חדשים, שימנו אותו ישראל חדש הראשון, וממנו ימנו כל החדשים שני ושלישי עד תשלום השנה בשנים עשר חדש, כדי שיהיה זה זכרון בנס הגדול, כי בכל עת שנזכיר החדשים יהיה הנס נזכר, ועל כן אין לחדשים שם בתורה, אלא יאמר בחדש השלישי (להלן יט א), ואומר ויהי בשנה השנית בחדש השני נעלה הענן (במדבר י יא), ובחדש השביעי באחד לחודש וגו' (שם כט א), וכן כלם

וכבר הזכירו רבותינו זה הענין, ואמרו שמות חדשים עלו עמנו מבבל (ירושלמי ר"ה א ב, ב"ר מח ט), כי מתחלה לא היו להם שמות אצלנו, והסבה בזה, כי מתחלה היה מניינם זכר ליציאת מצרים, אבל כאשר עלינו מבבל ונתקיים מה שאמר הכתוב (ירמיה טז יד -טו) ולא יאמר עוד חי ה' אשר העלה את בני ישראל מארץ מצרים כי אם חי ה' אשר העלה ואשר הביא את בני ישראל מארץ צפון, חזרנו לקרא החדשים בשם שנקראים בארץ בבל, להזכיר כי שם עמדנו ומשם העלנו הש"י כי אלה השמות ניסן אייר וזולתם שמות פרסיים, ולא ימצא רק בספרי נביאי בבל (זכריה א ז, עזרא ו טו, נחמיה א א) ובמגילת אסתר (ג ז) ולכן אמר הכתוב בחדש הראשון הוא חדש ניסן, כמו הפיל פור הוא הגורל (שם) ועוד היום הגוים בארצות פרס ומדי כך הם קוראים אותם ניסן ותשרי וכלם כמונו והנה נזכיר בחדשים הגאולה השנית כאשר עשינו עד הנה בראשונה:

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Custom of Reciting Psalm 27 During the Month of Elul

There is a custom to recite psalm 27, L’David Hashem ori v’yish’i (see here for full Hebrew and English text of this psalm), from the beginning of the month of Elul (there is difference of opinion as to when this psalm should be said until) after prayer services. The source for this custom is relatively unclear and whether one should follow this custom is also under dispute. Dr. Shnayer Leiman (bio here and here) traces the origins of this custom and provides some interesting insights. The audio lecture can be found here. The following is a summary Dr. Leiman's lecture.

This custom is not mentioned in Shas or Shulchan Aruch, however the Mishna Brura סימן תקפא ס'ק ב' tells us that it is “our” custom to recite psalm 27 from the beginning of Elul until Yom Kippur. This raises a few questions, namely, what is the connection of this psalm to this period of time, why should one say it and what is the source of this custom?

The Mateh Ephraim (19th century, which predates the Mishna Brura) instructs one to follow this custom and the Elef L’mateh, commenting on the Mateh Ephraim, provides an explanation for the relationship of this psalm to this period of time which is based upon the Midrash Shocher Tov, a Midrash on Tehilim. The explanation provided is that ori refers to Rosh Hashana and yish’i refers to Yom Kippur, therefore it is appropriate to recite it during this period. There is also a further allusion in the psalm to Succos and therefore the Mateh Ephraim adds that it is his custom to recite this psalm until Shemini Atzeres (however the allusion to Succos is not found in the midrash). What is interesting to note regarding the Midrash is that the interpretation of the words referring to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur follows many other alternative interpretations which have no connection to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Furthermore, the Midrash does not instruct one to recite this psalm during this period of time. Therefore one must wonder whether this source is compelling enough for this custom to arise.

There are also several opinions which state that this custom should not be adhered to.
According to the customs of the Vilna Gaon found in Maaseh Rav אות נג, one should not say psalm 27 from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur (there is also no mention of Succos according to the Vilna Gaon). The Nitei Gavriel states that certain gedolim of various Chasidic dynasties also do not say psalm 27, such as Apter Chasidim, Zidichov, Kalev and Tsanz. The Otzer Chaim (minhagim of Tanz) says not to say it since it does not mention to do this in the Kavanos of the Arizal (This is also quite curious as there are many customs which are followed and are not mentioned in the Arizal).

It is claimed that the first time that one should say psalm 27 is found in Chemdas Yamim, This book of anonymous authorship is quite controversial since some have cautioned against its Sabbatean influences. Some of the hints to this influence may be due to the fact that in the Amsterdam print there is a picture of Natan Azati, the “prophet” of Shabetai Zvi, in the beginning of the book, as well as a poem which has within it an acrostic spelling out Ani Binyamin Natan ben Elisha Chaim (the name of Natan Azati). There it claims that it was the custom to say psalm 27 during the month of Elul.

Regarding the reasons as to why one should say this psalm, specifically during this period of time, the Shem Tov Katan (a kabbalistic work authored by R. Binyamin Beinish and published in 1706) explains that all those who say psalm 27 from Rosh Chodesh Elul until after Simchas Torah will have all their negative spiritual decrees against them nullified. Additionally, the Sefer Zechira (published in Hamburg in 1709, before the publication of Chemdas yamim) claims that all those who say this psalm morning and night will have all their days filled with good and the heavenly prosecutors will have no dominion over them! The nullification of negative spiritual decrees would be most appealing since the period of Elul until Yom Kippur (or Simchas Torah) is one which is directly connected to Divine judgment.

The final piece of the puzzle is to be found in the Nezer HaKodesh (minhagim of Ropshitz).There it says to say psalm 27 after prayer services. A story is related by Moshe David Strum (?) (Talna) who says that R. Avraham Shimon of Zelochov (Mashgiach of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin) once came to the beis midrash of R. Aryeh Leibish of Tsanz (grandson of R. Chaim Tzanzer) and asked the Avreichim why the Rebbe does not say psalm 27, whereas in Shinover (R. Chaim Tzanzer’s son) they do say it? The answer given explains the reason for the dispute amongst certain sects of Chasidim reciting this psalm as well as revealing the source for this custom. The story goes as follows. In the time of R. Eliyahu Baal Shem of Chelm (16th century, contemporary of the Maharshal) the ruler of Poland did not have children and consequently ordered the Jews to pray that he should have children. The repercussions for the prayers not being answered would be severe; all the Jews from Poland would be expelled. R. Eliyahu Baal Shem of Chelm told the ruler that he would have a son within 12 months! When the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem) used to tell over this story to his students he would tell them not to assume that this was an easy proclamation for R. Eliyahu Baal Shem. Initially R. Eliyahu Baal Shem of Chelm went to the “good” forces (angels?) to plead for a son for the ruler of Poland, they said no. Thereafter he went to the “evil” forces and they also said no, until he went the sitra achra himself to plead! The result of bargaining with these impure forces was that the two prayers that R. Eliyahu Baal Shem of Chelm instituted within the liturgy were going to be nullified. The two prayers which he instituted were the recitation of psalm 27 during the month of Elul (our topic at hand) and k’gavna (a portion of the Zohar recited after kabbalas Shabbos, immediately preceding Maariv). R. Avraham Shimon of Zelochov (the Rabbi who presented the question in the beginning of the story) said that the Apter Rav did not say 27 and R Elimelech of Lizhensk did not say K’gavna. This is why, explained R. Avraham Shimon of Zelochov, there is a difference of opinion regarding the recitation of psalm 27 amongst these Chasidic dynasties. Each student took on one custom and not the other (resulting in a fulfillment of the decree that the two instituted prayers by R. Eliyahu Baal Shem of Chelm were to be nullified).

From this interesting and elaborate story we see that the origin of the recital of psalm 27 during Elul is from R. Eliyahu Baal Shem of Chelm in the 16th century. The reason why certain Chasidim recite this psalm whereas others do not, is due to the custom that was accepted by his students in order to fulfill the decree that his two instituted prayers would be nullified. The reasons for the relevance of this psalm during Elul are those given by the Shem Tov Katan and the Sefer Zechira, that it has the power to wipe out the negative influences of the heavenly prosecutors! However, as mentioned before, the Vilna Gaon did not subscribe to this custom and ordered against it.

The questions that remain are why do Jews who are not of Chasidic descent recite this psalm? Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, what was the source upon which R. Eliyahu Baal Shem of Chelm saw fit to institute the recitation of the psalm as late as the 16th century, without any mention of the custom in the earlier works of our sages?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Hair Cutting Ceremony in Jewish Tradition

On Tuesday we celebrated the 3rd birthday of my second son which included birthday party and of course the upsherin or chalakah (ritual hair cutting). As per the Jewish custom, we let our son’s hair grow and did not cut it until his 3rd birthday. When considering the occasion of this ritual haircutting, I began to wonder what the source of this custom is. The common theme that I had heard was attributed to “deeper” Jewish sources comparing the child to a tree, whose fruit we do not take for the first three years of its growth, so too we are accustomed to not cutting the hair. Another idea for the child adorning a talis katan and kippah at this auspicious moment is an educational process whereby we bring the child into a more recognizable mindset of keeping mitvos by utilizing these external devices, talis katan, kippah and leaving the peyos (by cutting the hair). However, why at age 3, why not before or after?

I had once heard that Rabbi Sperber, in his encyclopedic work on Jewish customs entitled Minhagei Yisrael, discussed this very topic, and therefore on the eve of the upsherin I decided to do some research. The appropriate section is found in the 8th volume, 1st chapter, page 13. The sources which he brings are vast, ranging from kabbalistic “sources” to Medieval German folklore!

Although the custom of cutting a child’s hair at age 3 is not mentioned in shas or Poskim, there are several Jewish sources which allude to this custom and connection. These sources are the Talmud Yerushalmi (Peah), Midrash Tanchuma (Kedoshim) and a story relayed of the Arizal by one of the students of the Arizal.

1. (Yerushalmi Pe’ah 1: 4)

הלכה ד מתני' ...ובאילן האוג והחרובים האגוזים והשקדים והגפנים והרימונים הזיתים והתמרים חייבין בפיאה:
...כי תחבוט זיתך מה את ש"מ אמר רבי יונה לא תקיפו פאת ראשיכם

This is the place where the author of Yalkut Hatispores (ר. יוסף סערעבריאנסקי) suggests is an early allusion to the connection between cutting of one's hair and the laws of cutting the crop of the field.

2. Midrash Tanchuma (Kedoshim 14)
Based on the verse in Vayikra 19: 23

וְכִי תָבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ וּנְטַעְתֶּם כָּל עֵץ מַאֲכָל וַעֲרַלְתֶּם עָרְלָתוֹ אֶת פִּרְיוֹ שָׁלשׁ שָׁנִים יִהְיֶה לָכֶם עֲרֵלִים לֹא יֵאכל
The midrash states:

ונטעתם וערלתם הכתוב מדבר בתינוק שלש שנים יהיה לכם ערלים שאינו יכול להשיח ולא לדבר ובשנה הרביעית יהיה כל פריו קדש שאביו מקדישו לתורה

From here we see that a child is compared to a tree, whereby at 3 years it enters a new stage of development.

3. Pri Etz Chaim: Shaar Sefiras HaOmer 7 (Relayed by R. Yisrael Seruk to R. Chaim Vital). There it states that the Arizal tok his son to Meron to the Grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai to cut his hair. His wife was also there and they stayed for 3 days of celebration. One of the Rebbes of Lubavitch explained that emphasis on cutting of the hair and leaving the peyos was to signify the removal of the hair which is considered din (judgment) and the extension of rachamim (mercy) through leaving the peyos. According to Sperber, it is not mentioned explicitly that the child was 3 years old (although I have not seen this inside to verify that claim).

Sperber also traces the custom of not cutting a child’s (quite specifically a male, although not always limited to) hair to several non Jewish nations as well. The following sources are taken from the same chapter as previously cited.

• Robertson Smith in his Lectures on the Religion of the Semites claims that among the Hebrews and Arabs there was the custom of shaving the head or part of it and depositing it upon the tomb or funeral pyre. This was a type of hair “offering” (not in the official sense as in a korban, but ceremonial). (p. 20)
• The South Hungarian tent gypsies also have interesting rituals for when a child has their first haircut. (p. 20)
• The Ancient Greeks also had ceremonies dedicating the cutting of the first hair to the gods. It was an offering which signified a religious initiation entering into maturity. (p.21)
• In Roman times, we are told that Caesar held a great feast after shaving his beard, whereby the entire nation celebrated with festivities.
• Edward Lane in “The Manners and Customs of Modern Egyptians states that when a boy is 2 or 3 years old his head is shaven. Their ancestors observed this custom, and the weight of the hair in gold and silver was given to the poor. (p. 24)
• In medieval times in Germany, a boy’s hair was not cut until they were seven. The hair was taken to be a symbol of strength and cutting of the hair was assumed to weaken the body. Therefore, one waited until the body was strong enough to eventually cut the hair. (p. 19)

There seem to be many races and cultures that view the first haircutting as an important occasion and celebrate accordingly. Once again the question of how the Jewish tradition developed is quite open to interpretation since there are no clear sources documenting the origins of this custom. Nevertheless, our personal experience was positive and certainly signified a transition to a new stage of maturity for our son and my wife and I both hope he continues developing and transitioning into greater levels of maturity.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Jewish (?) month of Tammuz

The Sumerian King List and the Jewish Connection (?):

After Lugalbanda comes Dumuzi, who was a “major figure in a Sumerian “holy-marriage rite” and “dying-god” myth. Kramer suggests that the Hebrew month of Tammuz is derived from the name of this King and it was this that the prophet Ezekiel (8: 14) was shocked at the women of Jerusalem who were still lamenting his death in the 6th century B.C. Furthermore, the 17th day of the month which bears his name and the lamenting and fasting which is characteristic of this day is also suggested to go back to Sumerian past! (Kramer, 1971, p. 45).

Whilst I have not found any evidence within the works of our sages to corroborate this suggestion regarding the 17th of Tammuz, the biblical commentaries on the aforementioned verse in Ezekiel (8: 14) highlight the significance of the 1st of Tammuz in relation to idolatrous practice. The verse states:

וַיָּבֵא אֹתִי אֶל פֶּתַח שַׁעַר בֵּית יְדוָד אֲשֶׁר אֶל הַצָּפוֹנָה וְהִנֵּה שָׁם הַנָּשִׁים ישְׁבוֹת מְבַכּוֹת אֶת הַתַּמּוּז

(Then He brought me to the door of the gate of the LORD'S house which was toward the north; and, behold, there sat the women weeping for Tammuz)

Rashi, , Radak, Malbim and Metzudos David all comment that Tammuz was the name of a type of idol which appeared to weep with tears due to the heat. Most notably, the Radak and the Malbim quote Maimonides’ elucidation of this practice which is to be found in the “Guide” (Section 3, Ch. 29 ). There Maimonides states:

“In that book the following story is also related (On the Nabatean Agriculture, translated by Ibn Wahshiya): One of the idolatrous prophets, named Tammuz, called upon the king to worship the seven planets and the twelve constellations of the Zodiac: whereupon the king killed him in a dreadful manner. The night of his death the images from all parts of the land came together in the temple of Babylon which was devoted to the image of the Sun, the great golden image. This image, which was suspended between heaven and earth, came down into the midst of the temple, and surrounded by all other images commenced to mourn for Tammuz, and to relate what had befallen him. All other images cried and mourned the whole night; at dawn they flew away and returned to their temples in every corner of the earth. Hence the regular custom arose for the women to weep, lament, mourn, and cry for Tammuz on the first day of the month of Tammuz.”( Guide for the Perplexed, by Moses Maimonides, Friedländer tr. 1904)

Maimonides warns that the fables found in this book are replete with absurdities of idolatrous practice and one should not be misled by them, however he does not deny that these practices were indeed performed.

That which needs to be researched further is whether the use of the Jewish month of Tammuz can actually be attributed to this idol, as Kramer suggests, a concept which would be quite strange, for why would the Jewish people give a name to a month which has such connotations anathema to Torah observance? How the Jewish months were named, who named them and whether they have any relationship with the cultures of their time can also be included in further investigation.

Intro to the Sumerian Civilization

According to Samuel Noah Kramer, until the middle of the 19th century no one knew that “a Sumerian people and language had ever existed”! The Sumerians preceded the Semitic inhabitants of Assyria and Babylonia and it is suggested that it was they who invented the cuneiform system of writing, which had previously been attributed to the Semitic inhabitants of Assyria and Babylonia. The name “Sumerian” is attributed to Jules Oppert in 1869 which was based upon many inscriptions found of the early rulers titled “ King of Sumer and Akkad” (p.21). Over the next century, archeological excavations were carried out at certain sites within Iraq, such as Nippur, Lagash, Fara (ancient Shuruppak), Bismaya, Kish, Waka (also known as Uruk by Sumerians and Akkadians and Erech in the Bible), Ur (or Urim acc. To Sumerians), and al Ubaid.

Kramer informs us that the two important dates for Sumerian chronology are the end of the 3rd dynasty of Ur, “where the Sumerians lost their predominant political position in Mesopotamia and the beginning of the reign of the Hammurabi of Babylon”. These dates are approximately 1945 B.C. (the beginning of the decline) and 1750 B.C. (the takeover). There is enough conclusive archeological evidence to suggest that the Sumerian civilization dates back to 2500 B.C, however any further back than this, Kramer cautions, that it is dependent upon “archeological, stratigraphic, epigraphic inferences and the results of carbon-14 tests” which are not as conclusive as what was originally anticipated.

The Sumerians: Their History, Culture & Character by Noah Samuel Kramer

I recently picked up a book on the Sumerians entitled “The Sumerians: Their History, Culture & Character” by Noah Samuel Kramer.

One of the reasons why I decided to start reading this obscure book was that I had heard of the Sumerians, however had known absolutely nothing about them except that they were an ancient civilization that inhabited some area of the Middle East. Secondly, I feel that by coming to understand the sociological, religious, cultural, historical etc, impact of a major civilization particularly (although not limited to) in this region, it would help me to gain a more holistic view and understanding of the context and environment within which our forefathers and the Jewish religion were surrounded. Tracking the paths of history from beginning to end, from near and far, can allow one to view the entire process as one complex organism and allows for greater understanding of the influences and stimuli that characterize who we are today. The Jewish religion primarily lays claim to a Divine influence and transmission of text and tradition, and these observations are in no way an attempt to overlook that, however, how we choose to transmit this knowledge through particular language, practice and concepts can not be assumed to be impervious to external influence (even if it is merely the external husk alone). For myself, this is an attempt to contextualize – therefore one of my aims is also to create a timeline of Jewish History parallel to these ancient civilizations.

I will begin by giving an overview of some interesting aspects of the Sumerian culture as found in Kramer’s “The Sumerians” (1971), and hope to continue by noting any Jewish parallels of biblical references as well. This should not be assumed to be comprehensive and authoritative, rather an introduction.