Posted in feasts, israel, specific Hebrew words on May 26th, 2010 by yf

After the feast of Shavuot follow the summer months. It is a long haul through the summer heat from the spring festivals – concluded by Shavuot – to the autumn festivals. The Hebrew tells us of the nature of this time and our task.

In Israel, the main fig harvest is in summerIn Israel, the two main harvests are in spring and autumn. Summer is the time of ripening fruit: the main harvest of grapes, figs, peaches, apples and pears are gathered in late summer.* Summer is also the time of waiting for the autumn rains. If they fail, then starvation threatens by spring.

The Hebrew for summer qayits can also mean ‘summer fruits’. It derives from the word quwts meaning ‘to clip’ or ‘to awake’ or (by extension) ‘to watch’. A similar sounding word quts means ‘to end’.

In Israel, the grape harvest is in summerThese meanings are brought together in the Hebrew Bible.

The gap between the spring and autumn feasts corresponds to the gap between Moses bringing down the commandments from the mountain top the first time and the second time. In between, is the discovery of Israel worshipping the golden calf, the consequences (Moses breaking the tablets, the death of 3,000 in Israel and reorganisation in the camp) and the return by Moses to the mountain top to receive the commandments again.

So, it is no surprise that summer – the period of this long interlude – is a time of judgment in the Bible (Isaiah 16:9, 18:6; Jeremiah 48:32; Amos 8:1-2). In Amos 8:1-2, the Lord shows the prophet a basket of summer fruit (qayits) and then says that the end (quts) has come for “My people Israel” – a play on words. Ezekiel 7 speaks of the end (qayits) of Israel being awakened (quwts) against her.

Therefore, we need to make good use of the summer – to be ourselves awake and to gather food (Proverbs 6:8, 10:5, 30:25), the summer fruits, so that the wine and dried figs may be prepared. The summer tests us. Are we fruitful? As we shall see, the autumn brings the results.

*Figs also provide a smaller, early harvest in June as well as a pre-harvest of tiny immature figs in April/May that promise later fruitfulness.

The nature of waiting

Posted in feasts, specific Hebrew words on May 16th, 2010 by yf

The count down to Shavuot (Pentecost) is a time of waiting – just as a child counts the days hopefully to the day a parent will return or a present is due to be received.

counting the days to shavuotHebrew captures the nature of this waiting in the word qavah, often translated as ‘wait for’ or ‘hope for’. The root of the word comes from qav, meaning cord – as in a measuring cord. Time is measured out but qavah also means binding together. It shows the binding together that can occur through waiting. As the modern English phrase puts it, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

We have seen how Adam was impatient for a companion and other early speeches in the Bible show longing or impatience for another human being to solve things or meet our lack. There are, then, two questions – how we wait, and what or who we wait for.

The Bible tells us to “wait for the Lord, … yes, wait for the Lord” (Psalm 27:14): “qavahqavah”. We are told both to wait and to bind together with the Lord. This is our preparation and our test. We can be measured by how we wait.

Heaps & heaps

Posted in covenant, feasts, israel, specific Hebrew words on May 8th, 2010 by yf

Following Passover is a time of preparation marked by counting: a count down. But preparing and counting down to what?

From the day after Passover, we are told to keep tally of seven sabbaths and to keep tally of fifty days to the day after the seventh sabbath (Leviticus 23:15-16). This brings us to the feast of Shavuot (weeks), also known as Pentecost from the Latin for fifty. At Shavuot a new grain offering is made.

The double instruction to count shows that the Lord really wants us to number the days between the two feasts. Various traditions and methods for the days of ‘counting the omer’ have developed.* Device for counting the omer and showing the blessingsThe omer is the measure or heap of grain that is offered on the day after Passover. So, we are counting the heaps.

Passover marks Israel’s escape from Egypt. Shavuot, by rabbincial calculation, marks the day the Ten Commandments were given to Moses. In Hebraic understanding, this is the marriage covenant of God with Israel, with the sabbath as its symbol: the wedding ring to mark Israel’s commitment to the Creator and the Creator’s commitment to her.

The days of counting mark the period between the two: building on ‘freedom from’ in order to be ready for ‘commitment to’. In these days, we are counting our blessings – heaps and heaps – whilst waiting and preparing.

The agricultural year in Israel mirrors this. The barley harvest is at Passover, barley being an early crop. Shavuot is the feast of the general harvest and in particular the wheat harvest. Between is an anxious time of waiting, for the Spring weather is changeable and the crops vulnerable. The harvest could fail. The Hebrew for the hot dry wind, chamsin, that blows at this time derives from the Arabic word for fifty since the wind can last fifty days.

The fifty days of counting the omer and of the chamsin are to prepare and mature the freed Egyptian slave girl so that she is ready for her marriage covenant. Freedom in itself is only a first step and the trials that follow are a preparation for something greater. This time of excitement and thanksgiving can also be a time of failure if not used well. The seven sabbaths are seven reminders of what is at stake.

*In Jewish tradition, each day has a different blessing and significance. The illustration is of a device that counts the days and shows the blessing for each day.

Passover contemplation 2

Posted in feasts, specific Hebrew words on April 5th, 2010 by yf

The Passover night, which is different from all other nights, is repeated each year across the millenia. This is more than a reminder of distant events, for Hebrew treats time differently from Indo-European languages and cultures (which include Greek and English).

Those languages have verb tenses for past, present and future. Hebrew has only two verb tenses: the perfect tense for actions that have been completed, the imperfect tense for actions not yet completed. The tenses relate to action, not time.
watch with Hebrew characters

A Hebrew speaker would not ‘spend time’ or be ‘short of time’. The Tanach (Old Testament) lacks terms for the abstract concepts of time, or of past, present, and future. The Hebrew word et (translated ‘time’) refers to the point or duration of an action. In Hebrew time is not like another spatial dimension: things do not happen ‘in time’. Things happen and the happenings map time. The future does not lie before us but consists of the actions that are not yet complete.

In this way, we each move in and produce the stream of events that comprise history. The present is part of future history; past actions repeated today or not yet complete are part of that future.

In the Passover meal, the past is made present and future – alive and part of the ongoing making of history. As the traditional Passover haggadah (service) says: “In every generation, each individual should feel as though they had gone out from Egypt.”

This is a Biblical pattern. Moses, in speaking to a later generation than those who received the Ten Commandments, says:

“The Lord did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, with all of us alive here today. The Lord spoke to you face to face at the mountain from the midst of the fire…” (Deuteronomy 5:4)

This same pattern of identification with “our fathers” through action is also found in the New Testament when Paul (addressing gentiles) speaks of the exodus of “our fathers” from Egypt in 1 Corinthians 10:11.

History is worked out through our ongoing actions. The Passover celebration shows us both what came before us and that it continues with us and through us.

A Passover contemplation

Posted in feasts, israel, specific Hebrew words on March 26th, 2010 by yf

We will be away for Pesach (Passover), so a contemplation for the week.

Passover is probably the oldest continously celebrated religious festival in the world: from the frightened rush out of Egypt, to the early years in the Holy Land, to a Jerusalem crowded with festal pilgrims coming to the Temple, to the terrible feast of CE70 when the Romans laid siege to the city, to the feasts celebrated in the diaspora in mansions or hovels or hiding places, to the return to the Land but with enemies at the gate and within.

Each year the movement from sorrow to joy, each year the same questions, each year a memorial to the same events in Pharaoh’s Egypt, each year the same hope – symbolised by the empty chair at the table reserved for the return of Elijah.

One can view this as folk memory or ritual. Or as a God given feast. If God given, what does He want us to learn from this night that is different from all other nights, repeated each year across the millenia? The Hebrew for remembrance – zeker – has the sense of speaking or acting out the memory. The little word zek means ‘pure’ or ‘clean’. So, in remembering together the memorial is built and we are cleansed.Traditional Passover meal

The central event remembered is the Passover itself: the tenth plague when all the first born in Egypt were slain, except in those houses where the Passover lamb had been sacrificed and its blood daubed on the doorposts and lintel. Death passed over those houses. That event lies at the heart of the night that is different from all other nights. That event is the most memorialised event in Jewish – and human – history.


Chag Pesach Sameach (Happy Passover)

Purim 2: no noose

Posted in feasts, specific Hebrew words on February 27th, 2010 by yf

Esther the name of the heroine of the book of Esther comes from the same root as natsar, meaning hidden. “Hidden” suggests that we should look for some hidden, that is prophetic, message in Esther. One surprise is the fate of Haman, the enemy of Mordechai and the Jewish people. He erects a gallows to hang Mordechai from (Esther 5:14) but ends up hung from it himself (7:9-10). But was he hung?

The Hebrew words used are talah (suspend) and es (tree or wooden thing). One or both words are used to describe legal executions under the Egyptians (Genesis 40:22), Mesopotamians (Lamentations 5:!2) and Persians (Esther 2:12) as well as the general statement in Deuteronomy 21:23 that he who hangs on a tree is cursed. Ancient reliefs and the Roman historian Heroditus (History 3:125, 159) identify such ‘hanging’ as impalement and then llfting up the victim on display. The Roman form of crucifixion was a development of this. The noose was not used, presumably because hanging was an insufficiently awful form of execution.

Haman's punishmentThe execution of Haman marks the salvation of the Jewish people from a terrible threat. At the feast of Purim, Jewish people celebrate this in playful fashion by reading the book of Esther with cheers and boos in appropriate places and, for example, hanging a toy figurine representing Haman. In the early centuries CE, the custom was to crucify and burn the figurine but this proved unwise in Christian countries. Michelangelo’s Punishment of Haman in the Sistine Chapel (left) shows him being crucified.

As if by agreement, both synagogue and church have substituted the less awkward figure of Haman suspended by a noose from a gallows. What this hides is that:
– anti-semitism in the Christian church has made the cross symbolic of those who are enemies of the Jewish people
– salvation for the Jews may yet be associated with such a symbol and the curse upon he who ‘hangs from a tree’.

Purim 1: the cause of the trouble

Posted in feasts, israel, temple on February 22nd, 2010 by yf

The feast of Purim ( this year 28 February) marks the triumph of the Jewish people against the threat of obliteration, recorded in the book of Esther.

Most Jews then lived within the vast Persian empire.  A royal decree was issued for their destruction on the day of purim, but why did this deadly threat emerge at this time?  There are three threads – one more obvious than the others.

First, the dominant courtier of the day, Haman, was angered  by the refusal of the Jew, Mordechi, to bow to him and vowed revenge: a conflict between courtiers.

Second, Haman was an Amalkite, a people with a deep hatred of the Jews.    In 1 Samuel 15, Saul disobeys God’s instructions to wipe them out and kill their king, Agag.   Five centuries later, Haman (a descendent of Agag) plots against Mordechi (a descendent of Saul) and his people.

cup from Jerusalem templeGo deeper for a third thread.  The book of Esther covers a period when the religious Jews had returned to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem: in fulfilment of prophecy and with the agreement of the previous king, Cyrus (see the book of Nehemiah). Those remaining in Susa, the royal capital, had seemingly set that aside.  Indeed, Esther is the only book in the Bible not to mention God.

The opening chapter of Esther records that Ahasuerus gives a banquet for his  princes and nobles at which he displayed his riches and then another one, lasting several days, for all those in Susa.  Drinks were served in golden vessels of various kinds (Esther 1:7).  Traditional Judaic sources (e.g. Megillah 12a, Yalkut Shimoni) record that the sacred vessels from the Jerusalem temple were used.

Previously, king Belshazar, had drunk from those same cups at a feast in deliberate contempt of the God of Israel (Daniel 5).  Consequently, he received a terrifying vision and perished that same night.  Ahasuerus did not suffer the same fate, presumably because his action was not so defiant.  But the Jews of Susa participated with him and should have known better.

Whilst the pagan king Belshazar suffered the consequences immediately, God is more patient with the Jews.  But still the deadly threat emerges, for His hand of protection has been removed from them.  Yet, through Mordechi and Esther, the Lord provides a solution.  Israel nearly brings destruction on herself but is saved and her would-be destroyers (Haman and co) are themselves destroyed instead.  Hence, the feast.