Saturday, April 08, 2017

The Pesach Story

Guest post

It will be Pesach in a few days. Millions of Jewish people, myself included, will be sitting around their tables with family and friends recounting the story of our ancestors' miraculous rescue from slavery in Egypt. What is it that we'll be discussing? Is it history, handed down to us as a faithful transmission of real events that happened to real people? Or is it mythology, grand, fantastic stories that happened long ago in a golden age? Stories meant to explain why the world is the way it is and to provide lessons that guide us in the best way to live our lives. And where does the holiday of Pesach come from? Has it been celebrated by all the generations since our ancestors left Egypt?

Navi tells us that Pesach has not been celebrated in an unbroken tradition passed from parent to child.

And the king commanded all the people, "Keep the Passover to the LORD your God, as it is written in this book of the covenant." For no such Passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during all the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah; but in the eighteenth year of King Josiah this Passover was kept to the LORD in Jerusalem. (2 Kings 23:21-23)

At the very least, Yoshiyahu was resurrecting a long-defunct holiday. More likely is that he, or the Dueteronmist Kohanim he supported, invented Pesach as an annual national holiday. The seminal event of Yoshiyahu's reign was the discovery of "the Book of the Law," thought to be Sefer Devarim and associated Dueteronomist works. It is in this sefer that Pesach, and many other laws, are defined. It guided Yoshiyahu's reforms in consolidating religious worship in the Beis HaMikdash in Yerushalayim under royal patronage and gave religious imprimatur to his ambitions to expand his kingdom. The Duteronomist works reflect the conditions in seventh-century Judah so closely that most scholars think that it was written at the time as part of Yoshiyahu's religious reforms and political ambitions. Its "discovery" during the renovation of the Beis HaMikdash was the first step in Yoshiyahu's plans.[1]

So Pesach hasn't been celebrated continuously since the events it memorializes, and it may have been a seventh-century BCE invention. But that still means that Jews have been celebrating Pesach for over two-and-a-half thousand years. What is it that we've been discussing at our sedarim for all of these centuries?

It almost certainly isn't the literal emancipation of two to three million Jewish slaves from bondage in Egypt. For one thing, the entire population of Egypt in the Late Bronze Age, when yetzias Mitzrayim took place, was three to three-and-a-half million people.[2] Two to three million people leaving Egypt would have left the country empty. There is no record, written or archaeological, of the demographic and economic devastation this would have caused.

There is also evidence that the number must have been much lower from the Torah itself.[3]  Hashem tells the Bnei Yisroel that he will drive out the inhabitants of Canaan slowly, because if the natives all left at once, "the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you."[4] Three million people would have been more than enough to fully populate the land. A few perakim later, the Torah describes Moshe as setting up a tent outside the camp, and everyone in the camp standing at the door to their tent and watching Moshe until he entered the tent.[5] A camp of three million people would have been enormous. All of the people couldn't possibly have watched Moshe walk to a tent some distance outside the camp. Nor would it have been practical for the people to go to the tent outside the camp to "inquire of the Lord," a distance that would have been several days' walk.

The story itself also provides clues that it isn't literal history. Details of the story of yetzias Mitzrayim have recognizable mythic motifs which would have resonated with the ancient Israelites who were its original audience. One of its central scenes, Krias Yam Suf, echoes these earlier myths. Marduk, a Mesopotamian god, split the sea serpent Tiamat in two to create the world of men, who live between her halves. Baal, a Canaanite god, battled with Yam, the god of seas and rivers, and tore him to pieces.

If our a ancestors didn't leave Egypt in a great mass, then what did happen? Is there any truth to the story at all?

There probably is some historical truth in it. Groups of slaves did escape from Egypt from time to time. And there are parts of the story that make sense in historical context, such as the decision to take the southern route rather than the more direct northern route. The northern trade route was protected by a string of Egyptian forts. So who were the group of escaped slaves that would become the Jewish people?

Archeologists have recovered hundreds of clay tablets that refer to a group called the "Habiru" or "Apiru." They were people on the fringes of society, bandits, fugitives,  and escaped slaves who lived in the Canaanite highlands at the edges of the settled Canaanite kingdoms.[6] The name of the group in Akkadian is similar to "Ivri." It may be that the Akkadian "Apiru" became  the Hebrew "Ivri."

With this in mind, we can reconstruct a probable historical Exodus. A group of slaves escaped from Egypt and spent some time at a desert oasis. From there, they joined the bands of Habiru in the Canaanite highlands. They brought with them their religion, a henotheistic faith with a jealous God Who commanded His followers to "Have no other gods before me," but didn't deny the existence of those other deities. They may have been influenced by the same currents in Egyptian society that led the pharaoh Akhenaton around the same time to briefly adopt the monotheistic worship of the sun-disc, Aten. In time the newcomers' religion was adopted by the rest of the Habiru, and the escaped slaves became the religious leaders. As latecomers, this new priestly class, who came to be known as Leviim, had no hereditary territory.[7]

The story of the slaves' escape from Egypt was adopted as a founding myth of the Habiru, even though most of them were not descended from that group. In the same way that the story of the Mayflower is one of the United States' founding myths, even though most Americans are not descended from the group that came over on the Mayflower. The highlands remained the Habiru's seat of power, even when their religion spread to the rest of Canaan. This was the center of the kingdom of Judah, from which the Jewish people got our name.

This is a story of real people. It is an epic that can speak to us across time, and in it can be seen the seeds of modern Enlightenment values. People who started as slaves, at the lowest rung of society, rose to regard themselves as the Chosen Nation and to spread their ideas around the world. Many of their laws were progressive for their time, stressing equality before the law (for free men, anyway). On Pesach we retell the myth of our origin as slaves and our redemption from bondage. We remind ourselves that we are descended from slaves, that society once considered our ancestors contemptible, and that those slaves, when given the opportunity, created a rich culture and mythos that has been one of the most influential in history.

Why was the historical story of leaving Egypt expressed as a myth? Why inflate the numbers and add other impossible elements? Were our ancestors trying to fool their audiences? Probably not. Myths were the genre that spoke to the original audience. It is an open question how literally ancient peoples took their myths. Did the ancient Mesopotamians really believe that the universe was literally made of a dismembered sea serpent? Did the Romans really believe that Remus and Romulus founded their city? Do Americans really believe that their country has its origins in the passengers on the Mayflower?

When the Babylonian priests entered the Holy of Holies in the great ziggurat during the New Year's festival to recite the Enumah Elish, they didn't believe that it was a literal account of creation, or that the gods had built the ziggurat, as their epic claimed. They knew that their ancestors had built the temple, and that it was maintained through their own mundane efforts. And they knew that no one knew what had happened during creation. The myth wasn't meant to convey history. It was meant to convey ideas. So too, the story of yetzias Mitzrayim is written as a myth, meant to convey ideas rather than history.[8]

Like the ancients, people today don't really believe in the literal truth of modern myths. Americans don't really believe that the United States had its origins in the passengers on the Mayflower. The myth expresses an ideal, not the historical reality. The ideal of religious freedom expressed in the Mayflower myth is historically inaccurate. The Pilgrims did leave England because the Church of England was intolerant of them, but that's not because the Church of England was generally intolerant. It was because the Puritans were so intolerant of other faiths and were exceedingly harsh towards religious infractions within their own congregations. Yet the myth of the Mayflower passengers coming to the New World in search of religious freedom informs Americans of their ideals.

The myth of yetzias Mitzrayim, while not historically accurate, informs the Jewish people of their ideals. Ideals of kindness towards even the least among us, for we were once slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. It sets its lessons in the mythic language of the Ancient Near East, yet it also tells us that we can be efficacious in realizing its ideals in the real world. It places common mythic elements like the splitting of the sea not it the age of the gods, as do the myths of Marduk and Baal, but in the age of men, the age in which we live.[9]

This post was inspired by a post a few days ago on another blog. That post discussed academic interpretations of yetzias mitzrayim that the author had seen on While the author expresses compassion for those who are "troubled" by an academic understanding of the Torah, he condemns interpretations informed by an understanding of Biblical scholarship and mythology as kefirah, and those who hold such views as apikorsim. He may be right, but being heretical and being true are not mutually exclusive. When the Catholic Church condemned Galileo for heresy, they were right that claiming the Earth orbits the Sun was heretical. And yet, it moves.

The author refused to allow any discussion of the views he condemned, as per his policy of protecting the innocent person with emunah peshutah who might stumble across it on his blog and be led astray. The reader is instead left with a one-sided impression of the rightness of the traditional view and the rishus of the academic /synthetic view of ancient Jewish history. The latter are bad because they are apikorsus, forbidden heretical ideas. Whether these ideas are true, whether they reflect reality, is irrelevant. They are apikorsus, and, it follows, one who accepts these ideas is an apikores and a rasha.

Of the four sons in the Hagaddah, I identify most with the Rasha, the questioner who doesn't take things for granted but, unlike the Hagaddah's interpretation of his question, is interested in the history and practices of his people, even if he doesn't take their theology for granted. I don't think we should have to believe in impossible things to have access to or benefit from the rich mythical and historical tradition all Jews are heirs to.

A story of a rag-tag group of slaves who escaped their bondage, eked out lives on the fringes of society, and rose to prominence as the creators of a mythos whose ideas are echoed by half the world's population and which have shaped the history of humanity is inspiring. More inspiring, to me, than a literal understanding of the Exodus myth, full of impossible things that I can't hope to emulate happening to people who have little agency. Myths communicate grand ideas, but history teaches us what real people have done, and inspires us to emulate them.

Other Pesach posts: What is Chometz?

[1] Finkelstein, I., & Silberman, N.A. (2001). The Bible Unearthed. New York, NY: The Free Press.
[2] Butzer, Karl W. (1999). "Demographics". In Bard, K. A., Shubert, S. Encyclopedia of the archaeology of ancient Egypt.
[3] Berman, J. (2015). Was There an Exodus? Mosaic.  Retrieved from
[4] Exodus 23:29
[5] Exodus 33:7-8
[6] Wolfe, R. (2011). From Habiru to Hebrews and Other Essays. Minneapolis, MN: Mill City Press. p. 2-3
[7] Wolfe, R. (2011). From Habiru to Hebrews and Other Essays. Minneapolis, MN: Mill City Press. p. 12
[8] Armstrong, K. (1994). A History of God. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 7, 9
[9] Armstrong, K. (1994). A History of God. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 19

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Kimchis's Careless Kohanim and the Flashy Princess

Guest post

My impression from what I've read and conversations I've had with friends who went to Bais Yaakov is that there are two frequently cited prooftexts for the importance of tznius. Particularly, for the primary importance tznius is given in frum women's religious life.

The first is the story of Kimchis. As the story is told to talmidos, Kimchis was zoche to have all seven of her sons serve as Kohen Gadol. The rabbonim asked her what she had done to merit this honor, and she replied that the beams of her house had never seen her hair. This proves how important tznius is. If you are careful about tznius, the girls are told, you will merit great things. Things like all of your sons serving in the highest religious position.

Unfortunately for those who want to use Kimchis's example as a guide to the ideal way a bas Yisrael should behave, there is more to the story. There are two versions of the story, one in the Yerushalmi[1] and one in the Bavli[2]. They have similar outlines, but different details.  In both stories, there is a woman named Kimchis whose son is the Kohen Gadol. He goes for a walk and some spit from a person he is talking to lands on him, making him taamei, and one of his brothers performs the avodah in his place. The names of the sons, the people the Kohen Gadol talks to, and the circumstances of his excursion are differ between the two versions of the story.

The differing details, including the name of the Kohen Gadol involved, make it likely that this was a folktale and/or a polemic rather than something that really happened. Both versions are subtly critical of the Kohen Gadol, and the story revolves around an issue of tumah and tahara, which was a point of contention between the Perushim and the Tzedukim[3]. The Tzedukim, the priestly class, thought that the common people didn't need to concern themselves with purity. It you were taamei, don't come to the Beis HaMikdash, but unless you were a cohen who needed to perform the avodah, it wasn't something to be concerned about. The Perushim, who were populists, felt that everyone should try to remain tahar.

In the version of the story in the Bavli, Kimchis's son Rabbi Yishmael was Kohen Gadol[4]. He apparently had a habit of carelessly conversing with people in the market, because twice saliva from a person he was talking with landed on his clothes and made him taamie. In one incident, his brother Yesheivav performs the avodah for him, and in the other, his brother Yosef. The Gemara quotes a bareisa that says all seven of Kimchis's sons served as Kohen Gadol, implying that Rabbi Yishmael was often  invalidated for service and his brothers had to fill in for him. 

This story is making fun of the Tzedukim, who claimed to be uniquely concerned about their purity. The Kohen Gadol, who should have been the most careful, became tammei all the time! So much for the Tzeduki claim that tumah and tahara were too much trouble for the commoners, concerns only for the elite. If even the most elite, the Kohen Gadol, couldn't stay tahor, then the Tzedukim could not claim ritual purity as their special concern.

The rabbonim asked Kimchis, "What did you do to merit this?" (Having all of your sons serve as Kohen Gadol.) Their question could be read as sarcastic, but Kimchis takes it at face value and answers that it was because of her exceptional purity, "In all my days, the beams of my house did not see the braids of my hair." The rabbis dismiss her explanation, saying that it was commonplace, nothing special, and none of the other women who had this practice were so rewarded for it. They refute Kimchis's suggestion that her Tzeduki devotion to purity is anything special or praiseworthy.

Kimchis, then, is not an exemplar of tznius who was rewarded for her exceptional modesty, but a foil for the rabbonim in a polemic about purity. Holding her up as a model a pure bas Yisroel should strive to emulate is to not only miss the point, but to mangle it.

The version of the story in the Yerushalmi is kinder to Kimchis, but harder on her son. In this version, the Kohen Gadol is named Shimon. He took a walk with the king on erev Yom Kippur. When a drop of spit from the king's mouth made him taamei, his brother Yehuda performed the avodah in his place. This is a stronger condemnation of Tzeduki claim of being an elite unuiqly concerned with purity than is the Bavli version of the story. Not only does the Kohen Gadol, the most elite member of the priestly class, carelessly allow himself to become tammei, he allows it to happen on erev Yom Kippur, when he is supposed to be sequestered to prevent exactly this sort of thing from happening. Nor was this a one time thing. It happened so often that all of his brothers serve as Kohen Gadol!

The biggest difference between the two versions of the story is that in the Yerushalmi version when Kimchis tells the rabbonim that she merited all of her sons serving as Kohen Gadol because her house never saw her hair (and in this version, her undergarments), they agree with her that this is praiseworthy. They praise her with the pasuk from tehillim[5], "Kol kevudah bas melech pnimia; Mimishbi'tzos zahav livusha," "All glorious is the princess within the palace; her clothing is of checker work interwoven with gold." Yet even here, the focus seems not to be on tznius, per se, but on reading the pasuk as describing cause and effect. The "princess," Kimchis, kept her "glory" hidden even in the "palace," her house, and therefore she merited "clothing… interwoven with gold," the clothing of the Kohen Gadol which are described as being interwoven with gold. Her care for her purity was the cause of her seven sons wearing the clothing of the Kohen Gadol. Yet even here, in their praise for her, one can detect the rabbonim poking fun at the idea of purity as a priestly concern. Kimchis's obsession with her purity might have merited her seven sons who served as Kohen Gadol, but what of the sons? They failed at keeping themselves pure.

The pasuk the rabbonim cite is the second commonly cited prooftext for the central importance of tznius for Jewish women. More accurately, the first half of the pasuk, "Kol kevudah bas melech pnimia," is repeated as a mantra for tznius. It's taken out of context and mistranslated as, "The glory of a princess is inside." A princess doesn't wear flashy clothes or draw attention to herself. She is reserved, and her glory is not in her physical appearance, but her inner attributes. Every bas Yisrael is a bas melech, the girls are told, and should comport themselves appropriately.

There is no small irony in trying to convince women that focusing on their appearance is improper with the first half of a pasuk that goes on to describe magnificent gold-embroidered clothing in its second half. This is not exactly a modest outfit. The pasuk is part of a passage describing the wedding procession of a princess. It is not a prescription of an ideal of modesty for the metaphorical daughters of the King, i.e., Jewish women to whom God is a King and Father. Rather, it is a description of a literal princess as she goes to meet her future husband in his palace.

So it seems that two of the frequently cited sources used to support the centrality of tznius in Jewish women's religious life are misunderstanding or misrepresentations of those sources. The story of Kimchis isn't a morality tale about a paragon of purity we should seek to emulate. It's a farce undercutting the Tzeduki claim that tummah and tahara were a special concern of the priestly elite.  And "Kol kevudah bas melech pnimia" isn't a prescription teaching Jewish women that they shouldn't focus on their appearance, but a truncated pasuk about a radiantly attired princess that's been quoted wildly out of context.

[1] Yerushalmi. Yoma 1:1 (38d)
[2] Bavli Yoma 47a
[3] Schiffman, L.H. (2003), Understanding Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism. Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Publishing House
[4] It's interesting that he's given the title "Rabbi," a Perushi honorific. At the same time the rabbonim are making fun of him in a polemic undermining the elitist attitudes of the Tzedukim, they also give him a title that lets them claim the position of Kohen Gadol for one of their own.
[5] Psalms 45

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Jared and Ivanka's Shabbos Inauguration Psak

It won't be a surprise to you to learn that I do not like Donald Trump, but you may be surprised to hear that I am tried of reading the petty and uninformed criticism of Jared and Ivanka's rabbinicaly sanctioned decision to use a car on the night of the Inauguration.

Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner Get Rabbinic Pass To Ride in Car on Inauguration Shabbat
Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner have been given a free rabbinical pass to travel by car following Donald Trump’s inauguration Friday.

I don't know if they got an actual psak or not, but they said they did. That's where the whole matter should end. If they spoke to a rabbi, and are relying on his ruling, their choice is no longer open to criticism.

Now, I fully admit to not being able to fully understand the rationale behind such a psak, as the parties they attended on Friday evening were optional, but at the same time, I know that being driven in a car is not the very worst thing a Jew can do on shabbos.

For example, I know from experience that a child under a certain age (6 or 9) can be driven home from the emergency room or hospital on shabbos, and an adult guardian can go along. I know, also from experience, that a doctor can be driven to the hospital on shabbos to perform ordinary, non-life saving services. And from experience again I know that if you're stuck on the road after the zman on Friday night, with kids and luggage a non-Jewish driver can pick you up and bring you to your destination.

So its not true to say, as many have, that the dispensation the Kushners received is available only for serious life-saving situations.

I am not especially well trained in psak halacha and as a result I can't tell you how the Trump case matches up with these examples of mine. Perhaps they do, perhaps they don't. The point though is that my own experiences satisfy me that their psak passes the smell test

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