Sunday, October 22, 2006

Heshvan (Months)

Introduction: The Month as a Unit

Judaism is nearly unique in having a solar-lunar calendar—that is, one based both upon the cycles of the moon and upon the changes in season controlled by the sun. Unlike the Western calendar, in which the months are arbitrary divisions of 30 or 31 days, the first day of each Hebrew month corresponds to the actual beginning of the lunar cycle; unlike the Muslim calendar, which consists of twelve lunar months that wander over the year, the Hebrew months each have fixed positions in the cycle of summer and winter, rain and sun, sowing, planting and harvesting. The only other calendars of this type, as far as I know, are those of the Far East—the traditional Tibetan and Han (Chinese) calendars.

There is much to be said about this delicate balance between sun and moon, both in terms of the complex technical adjustments required to maintain it—leap years of intercalated months 7 out of every 19 years, and the “fine tuning” accomplished through interruptions of the clocklike alternation of 30 and 29-day months—as well as in terms of the philosophical symbolism of sun and moon, linear and cyclical perceptions of time.

The importance of the moon is greatly reduced in modern society, where people are accustomed to walking on city streets that are illuminated all night by electricity, or to drive in cars which carry their own headlights. But in pre-modern times, especially walking at night in the countryside, one was keenly aware of the phases of moon (see, e.g., the novels of Thomas Hardy). The full moon brilliantly illuminated one’s path; for at least half a dozen days in mid-month, it is bright enough to cast clear shadows, or even to read by. Indeed, in my experience as an army reservist who often served at remote outposts without electricity, I learned to value and make use of moonlight; I met those, such as one particularly keen-sighted Bedouin tracer, who could detect the reflection of moonlight on a metal sign over a kilometer away.

In Midrash and Zohar, the moon is associated with the people Israel (“Who shall can raise up Jacob, for he is small”), with the Divine attribute of Malkhut, and with the feminine. The moon’s cyclical appearances, constantly waxing and waning, are seen as an apt metaphor for the fortunes of the people Israel, oft persecuted and suffering constant changes in fortune, but constantly returning to life with renewed vitality. The sun and the moon correspond mythically to gold and silver, to man and woman, to large and the small—but also to the fixed and steady vs. the elusive and constantly changing. A famous midrash (for text and discussion, see the archives for August 2005 on my blog) declares that God Himself seeks atonement for “diminishing the moon”—i.e., for the inherent injustice entailed in relegating certain forces or beings to secondary importance.

The association of the moon with woman, related to her monthly biological cycles, is an obvious one. The very word used in English for these cycles, “menstruation,” derives from the Latin mensis, for moon. Today, with a certain type of self-awareness on the part of many religious women, there is a renewed interest among many women in the observance of Rosh Hodesh—whether as a focus for public prayer, as among the “Women of the Wall,” or as an occasion for joint study and celebration. The meaning of the Hebrew months has also emerged as a popular topic for women’s classes. One widely used source for this is B’nai Yissakhar, a Hasidic book by Rabbi Zvi Elimelekh of Dinow (d. 1841), disciple of the Kozhnitzer Maggid (i.e., 3rd generation of Hasidism), organized around the theme of the different months. In his scheme, each month has its own special tikkun, an area upon which to focus one’s religious work, as well as its own letter of the alphabet, organ of the body, permutation of letters of the Divine name, one of the twelve tribes, etc.

The lunar cycles also invite interest in astrological symbols. Regardless of what one thinks about astrological influence upon human life (a subject about which there was sharp debate in medieval Judaism, between those who accepted it as part of their objective knowledge of the world and those, like Rambam, who rejected it as “stupidity” and akin to pagan worship), the signs of the various months are used in symbolic or iconographic ways in Judaism. Some old-fashioned festival mahzorim illustrate the piyyutim for Geshem—the prayer for rain recited on Shmini Atzeret—with woodcuts of the twelve zodiacal signs. In similar spirit, a calligrapher friend makes illuminated ketubot based upon the birth signs of the bride and groom. Among the interesting correspondences: the sign of Libra, “the scales,” falls in Tishrei, the month of the Days of Awe when God “weighs” our deeds; Aries, “the goat,” falls in Nissan, the month of Passover with its Pascal goat or lamb; Gemini, “the twins,” corresponds to Sivan, the month of Shavuot, celebrating the Sinaitic covenant between God and Israel (twins = two-ness = relationship)—and so on.

Heshvan: “Fall is at the windows and in my heart”

Strangely, the actual names of the months are in fact of non-Jewish origin, taken from Babylonian culture—the Torah identifies the months simply by number, Nissan, the month of the Exodus from Egypt, being the first month (see Exod 12:1-2). The official name for the present month, Marheshvan, is taken from the Accadian, varhu shamnu, “the eighth month.” Its popular name, “Heshvan,” is a shortened form, considered incorrect by some lexicographers. It is a single word, Marheshvan, not “Mar Heshvan,” as often thought by Israeli school-children, who grow up thinking of the Mar (Mr.) as a kind of honorific; nor is it “bitter” simply because it is one of the few months completely bereft of festive days. In 1 Kings 6:38 the month is referred to as yerah bul.

Its zodiacal symbol is Scorpio (akrav), the scorpion, a lethally poisonous insect— probably the most sinister of all the signs of the zodiac. One of the interesting habits of the scorpion is that it only eats food that it has itself killed, ignoring things that are already dead. Thus a young man of my acquaintance, who during a certain period of his checkered career kept a live scorpion, needed to trap live beetles, ladybugs, ants and the like to feed his “pet.” One might, by way of derush, see this as emblematic of Heshvan in a certain way —a month that in part derives its vitality from the residue of the previous month. Indeed, there are certain people who derive their own life-energy from the vitality of others. The trick is, of course, how to move on from that point to become “self-motivating,” to generate ones own source of inner life and joy without drawing parasitically on others.

Heshvan is most often thought of as the month of the Yoreh—the time of the first rain in Israel (remembering that in Israel there are only two real seasons—yemot hahamah, the hot, sunny days of summer, and the cold, rainy and often cloudy and windy days of winter, yemot hegeshamim). Quite appropriately, the Torah reading for the first Shabbat of Heshvan is that of Noah and the Flood—a Shabbat that is often marked by rain, or at least by wind and clouds. The rainy season leaves an important mark on the liturgy: the phrase mashiv haruah umorid hageshem, “he who turns about the wind and brings down the rain,” is recited in the second blessing of the Amidah from Simhat Torah on; while the phrase tal umatar, “give dew and rain,” is added to the weekday petitionary prayers, in the blessing concerning the fruitfulness of the earth, from the 7th of Heshvan in Israel (this year, the evening of Tuesday, November 8). Strangely, in the Diaspora it is always introduced according to the Gregorian date, on December 5th.

Rain is an essential component of life, the basic fructifying element of the world, too often taken for granted in our modern culture (much like the moon itself). One hardly needs to belabor the point that abundant water is a basic requirement of human sustenance: without rain, no grain, fruits, or vegetables can grow, resulting in starvation and even death (note the famines in Africa in recent years). Hence its central role in prayers, serving also as a link to our agrarian past and roots. The Sages of old considered the “key of rain” as one of the central “keys” held by the Almighty, which He only rarely shares with flesh and blood—comparable to the “key” of childbirth, of healing the sick, and of reviving the dead.

In modern society, with its great material prosperity and dizzying variety of consumer products, we have lost our ties with the elemental realities of life on this earth. At time, with the encroaching threats of polluted air, massive climatic change, the disappearance of numerous natural species of flora and fauna, not to mention the threat posed by nuclear weaponry, that this age of plenty may yet prove to have been a passing moment in the history of mankind, which more often than not has been marked by the elemental struggle for survival. Even the economic struggles of those who experience a sense of real difficulty and pressure in providing their needs are of a different order than those of, say, the farmer in antiquity who prayed for rain so that his crops might grow and his children not starve. A point deserving of reflection.

A puzzling halakhic phenomenon: the Talmud refers to this prayer simply as “asking for rain,” implying that an entire prayer ought to be devoted to the subject. For reasons that are not clear to me, the Ashkenazim fulfill this instruction by adding merely two words to the blessing of barekh aleinu: “ten tal umatar al p’nei ha-adamah” (“give rain and dew on the face of the earth”), whereas the Sephardim alter the entire text of this blessing in wintertime, making it into a full-scale prayer for rain— an idea which, as I said, seems far closer to the Talmud’s original intent. For the benefit of those who have Hebrew fonts, the text of this blessing follows:

ברך עלינו יי אלקינו את השנה הזאת ואת כל מיני תבואתה לטובה, ותן טל ומטר לברכה על פני האדמה, ורווה פני תבל, ושבע את העולם כולו מטובך, ומלא ידינו מברכותיך ומעושר מתנות ידיך. שמרה והצילה שנה זו מכל דבר רע, ומכל מיני משחית, ומכל מיני פורענות, ועשה לה תקוה טובה ואחרית שלום. חוס ורחם עליה ועל כל תבואתה ופרותיה, וברכה בגשמי רצון ברכה ונדבה. ותהא אחריתה חיים ושבע ושלום ושובע וברכה כשנים הטובות לברכה, כי אל טוב ומטיב אתה ומברך השנים. ברוך אתה יי מברך השנים.
Bless this year for us, O Lord our God, with all kinds of produce for good, and give dew and rain for blessing upon the face of the earth, quench the face of the earth, and satisfy the entire world with Your bounty. Fill our hands with Your blessings and the richness of the gift of Your hands. Protect and save this year from any bad thing, and from all kinds of destruction, and from all mishap, and make for it good hope and a peaceful end. Have pity and compassion upon it and upon all its yield and fruit, and bless it with free and blessed and generous rain. May its end be life and sustenance and peace and fullness and blessing as in the good years, for You are a good and beneficent God who blesses the years. Blessed are You, O Lord, who blesses the years.

The liturgical phrase, mashiv haruah umorid hageshem, may also be read on a metaphoric level: “He turns back the sprit (ruah = both wind = spirit) and brings down the material (geshem may be read as rain, or as “matter”). Reciting Geshem on the very last of the festival days of Tishrei, one strongly feels the sense of Heshvan as the quintessential month of hullin—of secular, mundane life, of ordinary “days of small things” following one after another, without the intense spiritual energy of the Days of Turning and the festival days of Sukkot that follow in their wake. The challenge of this month, so to speak, is how to carry the spiritual high, the sense of elevation and joy and solemnity and inner renewal that can be experienced on the festival days of Tishrei, into the dull, uneventful, (and often gray and cloudy) weekdays of Heshvan and thereafter?

My grandfather used to tell the story of a shteitl Jew looking at the third volume of Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim, with pages upon page devoted to each of the special days of Tishrei in turn, in great, even minute detail. Then, following the laws of Simhat Torah, one turns the page, and immediately—there is Hanukkah. “Why couldn’t the author have put in even one page with a few potatoes and some firewood to help us get through the winter”?

The Book of Beginnings

In terms of its Torah readings, Heshvan is very much a time of beginnings—a month during which we read the opening parshiyot of the Torah, concerned with the basic questions of the nature of man, of what it means to be a human being. If we include the tail-end of Tishrei, during this period we read roughly the first half of the Book of Genesis: Bereshit, Noah, Lekh Lekha, Vayera, & Hayyei Sarah—comprising, together, the origins of mankind and the beginnings of what was to become the Jewish people—the founding of the clan or family of Abraham, the father of the covenant.

One could spend an entire lifetime studying just Parshat Bereshit: the mystery of Creation, the issues posed by the integration of a faith understanding of beginnings with modern cosmology; but also, perhaps even more central, the basic questions of what is known today as philosophical anthropology: What is man? How does one deal with the basic dualities of human existence: the ambivalence between freedom and determinism, biology and consciousness; the nature of our sexuality and the issues presented by the changing roles of man and woman; the problematic issues of our innate instinct for toward aggression and violence; man’s Promethean drive for infinite knowledge and control. All these have their origins, so to speak, in the Garden of Eden. I hope to address these issues in two, or possibly three, major essays, now in preparation: “The One and the Two: God, Man and Woman”; “From Cain to Hiroshima—and Beyond”; “Adam and Prometheus: The Seductiveness of Unlimited Knowledge.”

On Biography: A Month of Yahrzeits:

But there is another sense in which Heshvan may be thought of as “the month of man” as well. The following may be a purely subjective, personal association, but for me Heshvan is a month filled with yahrzeits—anniversaries of the deaths of people who died prematurely, in sudden and unexpected ways. This is of course the month in which Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated (12th Heshvan), an event which is still felt in Israel as a kind of traumatic watershed. It is also the month when Shlomo Carlebach died, one year before Rabin, of a sudden massive heart attack (16th Heshvan). Both men, though on either side of 70, were still very much in the middle of their active lives. On a personal level, both of my mother’s brothers, Earl and Joe Gallant, died during Heshvan (the 7th and 14th, respectively)—my first real encounter, occurring in my later childhood years, with the death of people whom I knew and whose presence in my life would leave a hole—and both, again, were sudden. Most shocking of all, a young woman, Beckie Collins, daughter of a close friend, died suddenly at age 22 of an unsuspected heart defect (also 12th Heshvan, but in 1996). Finally, a man remembered by most as a demagogue and hate-monger, who symbolized certain boundaries or dangers in Jewish and Israeli public life—Rav Meir Kahane, founder and leader of the extremist Kakh movement—was assassinated on the 18th of Heshvan in 1990.

The death of an individual raises the issue of biography—of the mystery of the life of any and every man, and his personality. Rav Soloveitchik often stated that the institution of the hesped, the eulogy delivered at a funeral or one the various memorial occasions—shivah, sheloshim, the end of the first year, subsequent yahrzeits—is not intended merely as a “tear-jerker,” to elicit weeping at the passing of a beloved person. He saw its function as biographical—to attempt to describe, understand, insofar as possible even to evaluate, the life of the deceased: who he was, what his life was about, his contribution to his milieu—whether that of family, community, or the Jewish people as a whole. The Rav, himself a master of the art of the eulogy, would quote the verse “from afar God was seen by me.” While a person is alive, we see him, we encounter him in the street, in the marketplace, in the synagogue, in the home; we speak with him, we think we know him. Suddenly, he is gone, and we ask ourselves: who was this person, really?

For various reasons which I will not elaborate here, over the past year I have given some thought to the issues involved in writing biography. To begin with: is it permitted at all for a religious Jew to write biography? Like other traditional cultures, traditional Judaism views the entire enterprise with some scepticism. To begin with, why bother? Is biography Torah? Few biographies were written in the medieval world, and those that were were mostly for edifying purpose, not to uncover the “truth” of a person’s inner life. Its purpose was to provide an example of a holy life, a model to be emulated. Such is still the fashion in Haredi circles to this day; in the Christian world, too, there were and still are pietistic “lives of saints,” hagiographies celebrating the lives and wondrous deeds of holy individuals. They were all models of self-discipline, even as small children, devoted long hours to study or prayer, were models of selflessness and kindness, etc. Where I have know the subjects of such biographies, I have invariably found them to involve distortion and falsification of the person’s life, if not downright untruths.

An interesting experience I had some years ago illustrates the pre-modern attitude to biography. A certain group of people were involved in a scholarly project concerning the Lehem Mishneh, R. Abraham de Boton, one of the “armor bearers” or classical commentators on Rambam, who lived in 16th century Salonica (which, I learned, was a flourishing Jewish community and arguably the most important center of Jewish learning in its day). I was asked to translate a eulogy of his father, R. Moses de Boton, given by R. Moses Almosnino, consisting of twenty pages of closely-set, old-fashioned Hebrew type. In the entire eulogy, there were perhaps two or three lines that told the reader whom the deceased was and what he did during his life. The vast bulk of the sermon was, first, reflections on the meaning of death generally (the question posed was: Why are people sad when someone dies, since the deceased is in fact ascending to a higher, better place than where he was?), and second, an exegesis of David’s lament on the death of Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam 1) —one of the most beautiful biblical poems but hardly relevant to the question that would be asked by a modern reader—Nu, so who was this Moses de Boton anyway?

There are those who say that biography as such, in the modern sense, began during the Renaissance, with the emergence of humanism, with its greater sense of the individual and its interest in the human being per se. All this is not to slight earlier biographies, whether of the confessional genre, such as the autobiography of Augustine of Carthage, or those written in the world of Greco-Roman cultural orbit, which perhaps had more interest in the individual, such as Plutarch’s Lives.

A second problem: how deeply may one delve into the life of the deceased? To what extent may one reveal the secrets of another person’s life, which he/she may have taken pains to conceal during his own lifetime? Isn’t there more than a measure of lashon hara, of gossip and talebearing, involved in the whole enterprise? (Indeed, in the general, secular world, a certain genre of biography is notorious for its seeking out the scurrilous, and there have been more than a few public scandals and law-suits surrounding biographies.) But beyond that, for the religious Jew there is a certain sense of reverence for the human personality; a sense of something sacred about the human being, if only because of man being created in God’s image. Surely a certain sense of reticence must apply to the dead as well as to the living, if not more so.

On the other hand, for that selfsame reason, recalling the life of a person may also be approached as a religious act. If man is created in God’s image, then each person is in a certain sense a facet of the Divine, and his story is in some way a piece of the great cosmic Torah. God is ineffable, unknowable; but the reflection of the Divine that is found in a human life, is something that we can fathom, if only in partial measure.

Yet all this must be approached with great trepidation and reticence, with fear and trembling. Not only in the fear of violating privacy, of shaming the memory of the dead (and irritating living relatives), whether inadvertently or not, but also out if the sense that one doesn’t, and can never know, the complete truth. Every person is, in the end, a mystery. What really motivated him or her? What—in the case of an artist, writer, composer, thinker, inventor—was the mysterious source of their creativity? At times, one can sense the tension between the persona presented to the world and the inner core; at others, one may sense its presence, but does not know what it is. To quote an old Hasidic phrase, “he reveals a handbreadth and conceals two thousand ells.”


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