Liebes on Elior
Children of the sun vs. children of the moon
By Yehuda Liebes
"Mikdash Umerkava, Kohanim Umalachim, Heikhal
Veheikhalot Bamistika Hayehudit Hakduma" ("The Temple and Chariot, Priests
and Angels, Sanctuary and Heavenly Sanctuaries in Early Jewish Mysticism")
by Rachel Elior, Hebrew University/Magnes Press, 337 pages, forthcoming in
English from Littman Library, Oxford
In her new book, Prof. Rachel Elior
deals with a very important chapter in the history of the Jewish religion,
and brings it back to the forefront of the research agenda. Even when her
conclusions are not new, she organizes them in sharp formulations that stimulate
new thought. The origin of Jewish mysticism is described here thus: A group
of priests (kohanim) from the house of Zadok, who were expelled from the high
priesthood before the Hasmonean rebellion, organized as a separatist cult
with an oppositionist mystical philosophy. This belief is elucidated in the
Judean Desert scrolls and the apocalyptic apocrypha, particularly in the
Book of Jubilees and the Book of Enoch. Thus, the belief of the "separatist
priesthood" (as Elior calls it), also becomes the source of the mysticism
of the Middle Ages (that is beyond the scope of this book), which is to a
large extent a continuation of the sanctuaries literature.
The mysticism of this literature is based, according to Elior, in the experience
of the Temple. After the terrestrial Temple was taken away from the circles
of the separatist priesthood, they focused on the Temple that is built in
the heavens, where the servitors and psalmists are not human beings, but rather
angels and seraphs. The heavenly bodies also play an important role for them
- especially the sun, the great light that determines precisely the true
calendar of the year. This is also the calendar for worship, a calendar from
which it is forbidden to deviate, as did the usurpers from the house of the
Hasmoneans who were in control of the terrestrial Temple and followed a calendar
that was based mainly on the moon.
Priests of the sun
I do not disagree with the centrality of the experience of the Temple in
Jewish mysticism. Indeed, this conclusion could be applied further to other
sources and other periods, such as the beginnings of the kabbala in Europe
in the Middle Ages, as Haviva Pedaya showed recently in her book "Name and
Sanctuary in the Teaching of R. Isaac the Blind." This is also true of "Sefer
Yetsira" ("The Book of Creation"). The importance of the Temple in the world
of this work is stressed in my book, "Ars Poetica in Sefer Yetsira," and
accordingly, I suggested moving back the date of this text to the last days
of the Temple. I am glad, incidentally, that my comments were accepted by
Elior, who bases herself on them, and calls Sefer Yetsira "an early priestly
composition from the first century C.E."
However, the phrase "priestly composition" is not mine. And here I would
like to bring up a general reservation: The Temple and its rites are not
the private business of priests. Moreover: The priests' very status derives
from the attitude toward the Temple and its rites on the part of the general
public. Attributing the Templistic beliefs specifically to the priestly circles
looks like an expansion of the concept of the "priestly source" in Bible
criticism, which I believe was born in the minds of Protestants who hated
the Temple and the priesthood, and I do not recommend carrying it forward
into later Judaism.
Similarly, the celestial Temple is not an innovation of oppositionist elements,
nor is it necessarily an alternative to the terrestrial Temple. From the outset,
apparently, the terrestrial temple was built in the image of the celestial
one, and both of them exist in parallel, as the ark and the cherubs represented
the divine chariot in the clouds. Both Temples can be objects of contemplation
and reverence at one and the same time, as the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekial
testify in their visions of the chariot and the celestial sanctuary, while
the terrestrial one still stood.
Overall, it would seem that the study of the Second Temple exaggerates with
respect to sectarianism. The connection that emerges from Scripture between
directions of thought and social groups is less perfect and definite than
that which arises from the research studies. I do not deny, of course, the
existence of a sectarian element in the literature of the "separatist priesthood,"
in that it holds to the solar calendar and argues against the accepted calendar,
but the border that separates the camps is not clearly maintained in most
of the texts, and it seems that it would be more correct to speak of opposing
directions of thought that are set forth vis-a-vis each other in various ways.
Sometimes these occur within a single text in a tension that creates various
syntheses, some of which are most fruitful for religious thought.
Such a "mixture" can be found in the Second Temple period, and indeed with
respect to the issue of the calendar. The priests during the last days of
the Second Temple were mostly Sadducees, and this name apparently preserves
a hint of their association with the house of Zadok, although in origin they
were from the house of the Hasmoneans. These priests opposed the Pharisees
on many issues, and perhaps also on determining the date of the festival
of Shavuot, yet they did not subscribe to the solar calendar, and celebrated
the rest of the holidays together with the Pharisees.
The body of the apocalyptic literature, too, does not maintain a completely
unified stance on the question of the lunar and the solar calendars, which,
according to Elior, is the watershed at which the sects split. As compared
to the blunt stance of the Book of Jubilees against "those who look at the
moon that will corrupt the dates," the Book of Enoch devotes a great deal
of space to calculations of the lunar year, and gives the name rosh hodesh
(head or beginning of the month) to the time at which the beginnings of the
lunar month and the solar month coincide.
The solar element in Judaism is not an innovation of the apocryphal literature.
Some say that this began before Moses, in the religious innovations of Pharaoh
Akhenaten. In the Bible, at any rate, this element exists, and it shines
with impressive luminosity in some of the Psalms (8, 19). Sun worship was
even conducted in the Temple, to which the Prophet Ezekiel (8:16) testifies
Observation of the sun and the stars was an important religious element in
Second Temple Judaism. The first of the Greeks who encountered Judaism (such
as Hecataeus), were especially impressed by this element, which in their opinion
characterized the religion of Israel. (It was also not absent from internal
Jewish sources.) The Greeks, it must be said, were not only impressed by
this mode of Judaism, but also added to it and influenced it themselves. In
Greek thought, especially that linked to the name of Pythagoras, there is
an interesting connection between astronomical and mathematical speculations,
which is also the case in Philo, in his discussion of the importance of the
Sabbath and the number 7. This combination also characterizes the Book of
Jubilees, the Book of Enoch and the Megilloth literature, which base their
calendars both on calculations of solar motion and on the number 7 and its
multiples. Though something of this duality is also found in the biblical
literature and the Mesopotamian background literature, the Hellenistic context
cannot be ignored and this is lacking in Elior's book.
The original calendar
A crucial question, with respect both to the issue of sectarianism and to
the status of the sun and the moon in the history of the Jewish religion,
is that of which calendar was in fact used during the days of the house of
Zadok, before the Hasmonean revolt. Elior does not give an explicit answer,
but she describes at length, and apparently agrees with, the position of
the Book of Jubilees, which implies that it was the solar calendar. In recent
years, several studies of this issue have been published that, based on various
hints and calculations garnered from the texts, give priority to the solar
But, in my opinion, this should not be accepted. The textual hints are given
to various interpretations, and other evidence can be brought to refute them,
first and foremost Psalm 104, one of the most ancient of the Psalms (which
has also been found to parallel the Hymns of Akhenaten, the man of the sun):
"He appointed the moon for seasons" (19). But a determination in this matter
is dependent on far more general and theoretical historical, scholarly and
First of all, we have in our possession a wealth of sources that describe
the purification of the Temple during the time of Judah Maccabee, and the
revisions that were made then, and in them there is not a hint of a change
in the calendar, though such a change would have been far more important
than all the other amendments.
Secondly, the very concept of a month that is approximately 30 days long
was formed only because of the moon. The Hebrew word for month, hodesh, has
its source in the three-letter root indicating "new" and "renewal," and another
word for month, yareah, is also a word for "moon." Evidence can also be brought
from other languages and cultures. In Arabic, for example, "month" is shahar,
which is connected to the Hebrew word for crescent or crescent moon, sahar,
and the same holds true in the languages of Europe, such as Greek, Latin,
German and English ("month" is connected to "moon"). It has been found that
in these cultures, too, the moon came first, and in certain cases (such as
Rome), we know exactly when and how the lunar calendar was replaced by a
solar calendar. I know of no example of a solar calendar being replaced by
a lunar calendar. Therefore we can extrapolate from the rule to the particular
Moreover, in the history of the Jewish religion itself, it is possible to
locate the beginning of the process of the detachment from the lunar calendar.
The Jewish concept of the Sabbath is connected, according to many scholars,
to the Mesopotamian "Shapatu" day. This day, called "the day of the heart's
rest," was marked on the day of the full moon, and along with it, the days
of the new moon and the days of the half moon were also marked, so that the
interval between these dates was about seven days. Apparently only later,
because of the importance of the number 7, the sanctity of this number became
more cardinal than the connection with the moon, and the Sabbath day was
"disconnected" from the day of the full moon.
In the dispute between the Sadducees and the Pharisees about the date of the
counting of the Omer, both sides base themselves on Leviticus 23:15-16: "And
ye shall count unto you on the morrow after the Sabbath." The Sadducees interpret
the Sabbath in the usual sense of the word, whereas according the Pharisees,
the Sabbath here refers to the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover, which
falls on the night of the full moon). It would seem that the Pharisees are
innovating here high-handedly, contrary to the literal meaning of the text,
although it appears rather that there is confirmation here of the philological
rule that tends toward the more difficult reading (lectio difficilior), as
according to the ancient connection between the Sabbath and the day of the
full moon, which is a holiday, and the more likely way is that of the Pharisees,
who preserved the custom of their ancestors.
In seems to me that in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, there is also
a trace of the period during which the weeks and the moons were connected.
Philo links the four phases of the moon to the number 7 and the idea of the
Sabbath, and also expresses admiration for the number 28, the number of days
in a month that derives from this method, while ignoring the fact that in
reality, the lunar month is 29 or 30 days long.
The status of the moon
It emerges, then, that the modifiers and innovators were in fact the people
of the "separatist priesthood," and not the moon people, who clung to an ancient
tradition. The rabbis used the lunar calendar not because they thought that
the height of perfection was the moon and its course. They also knew that
"the moon corrupts the dates," in the language of the Book of Jubilees. Moreover,
according to Rabban Gamliel, the moon is capricious and behaves without any
strict rule, as opposed to the sun, which sticks to its timing.
According to the rabbis, the lunar capriciousness has a source in a flaw
that occurred in the moon right in the six days of Creation. Midrash Bereshit
Raba (10:4), interprets "Thus the heavens and the earth were finished" (Genesis
2:1) as "the language of blow and blight," as the constellations slowed down
their original motion because of the sin of the first man or some other fault
that occurred during the six days of Creation. It is possible to see here
an antithesis to Philo, who continues the Greek philosophy and admires the
cosmic perfection that is expressed in this verse.
More famous than this is the myth of the waning of the moon, one of the versions
of which I will cite here (in translation from the Aramaic texts):
"Rabbi Shimon Ben Pazi made the comparison: It is written (Genesis 1:16):
`And God made two great lights, the greater light and the lesser light.'
The Moon said to the Holy One, blessed be He: Lord of the universe, is it
possible that two kings will use one and the same crown? He said to her:
Go shrink yourself. The Moon said to Him: Lord of the universe, as I have
said something fair before You, shall I shrink myself? He said to her: Go
and rule both day and night. The Moon said to Him: What is the good of that?
Of what use is a candle at noon? He said to her: Go and Israel will count
days and years by you.
"The Moon said to Him: The sun, too. It is not possible that they will not
count periods by him as well, as is written (Genesis 1:14): `And let them
be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years.' (He said to the Moon:)
Go, and righteous men will be called after you - the small Jacob, the small
Samuel, the small David. Seeing that her mind was not at rest, the Holy One,
blessed be He, said: I have been made to atone for shrinking the Moon. And
this is what Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish said: What difference does a kid as
a sin offering make, about which is said `she' (Numbers 28:15)? The Holy
One, blessed be He, said: This kid shall be atonement for shrinking the Moon."
We shall confine ourselves here to noting the contrast between the spirit
of this story and the distance and reverence with respect to the celestial
world in the literature of the separatist priesthood. This story is notable
for its far-reaching personalization and the psychological tangle expressed
in the argument in which neither the Moon nor the Holy One, blessed be He,
come out really well. The Moon because of her argumentativeness, and the
Holy One, blessed be He - because of his kingly arbitrariness (in this version,
the Holy One, blessed be He, admits that He has discriminated against the
Moon, and in another version, in Bereshit Raba 6:3, His sin is that he behaved
too well toward her).
It is the little people, Israel, who are somehow above these two celestial
rivals, and it is within their power to bring both of them a bit of succor:
for the Holy One, blessed be He, a sacrificial kid to atone for His sin,
and for the Moon, the invocation of her by holy men, and the identification
with her in her smallness.
Apparently, the Jews were also in need of a consolation prize like this.
Their connection to the moon derived precisely from its eclipses and its
smallness, which enabled them to identify with it. A lunar eclipse is therefore
considered a bad omen for Israel (Sukkah 29:71), and the new moon symbolized
the birth of the Messiah. Hence, it was customary to announce the appearance
of the new moon with the secret signal "David, King of Israel, lives and
exists" (Rosh Hashanah 35:71).
This identification is very much stressed in the blessing on the new moon:
"With His word, He created the heavens, and with the breath of His mouth,
all the hosts thereof. A statute and time did He place for them, that they
should not deviate from their assigned tasks. Happily and joyously they do
the will of their Maker. Workers of truth whose works are truth. And unto
the moon He said that it should renew itself, a glorious crown to those born
of the womb, who will renew themselves like the moon that is just born, and
exalt their Creator for the name of the glory of His kingdom" (Sanhedrin
It would appear that the prayer here is not just for Israel to renew itself
like the newborn moon, but also for the moon itself. It also seems that in
the words "a statute and a time You did place for them," there is more of
a request than a statement, as well as in "workers of truth whose works are
truth." And perhaps because of this, because of the suspicion that this sentence
does not express the whole truth, it was changed in a number of manuscripts,
as well as in the Nusach Ashkenaz liturgy, to "worker of truth whose work
is truth" (and also because of the astrological connotations of the first
version). And perhaps the difference between "workers of truth" and "worker
of truth" is not actually very great, because out of so much identification
by the people with the moon, they also identified it to a large extent with
the God of Israel, who "sorrows in all their sorrows."
The feminine character of the moon may be found, for example, in the late
midrash of Rabbi Eliezer (45), who finds here the root of the women's custom
of not doing work at the time of the new moon, which was already developed
in the legal rabbinical literature of the Middle Ages. But in a passage attributed
to "Sefer Hasidim," a more general and mythical significance is attributed
to this: "When a sentence of destruction is passed on the haters of Israel,
the moon goes into eclipse, like (Jeremiah 31:15), `Rachel weeping for her
children.' And why is woman compared to the moon? To tell you that just as
the moon waxes for half a month, so for half a month the woman is valid with
her husband and for half the month she is sequestered from her husband in
her menstrual impurity. And that just as the moon reposes at night, so it
is with the woman, who `comes in the evening'" (Esther 2:14).
Here the moon is Rachel, the mother of the nation and the symbol of the congregation
of Israel, and from here it is but one step to the teaching of the kabbala
- that great treasure that fuses together the elements of ancient Jewish myth,
that of the "separatist priesthood" as well as that of the sages of the Talmud.
Here, a place is found both for the sun and for the moon, whose coupling
engenders perfection in the present and redemption in the future. The kabbalists,
like the sages of the generations that preceded them, valued the sun more,
and attributed to it the status of seniority. But they, too, identify more
with the moon. Moonlight exactly suited the religious feeling of the sages
of the Zohar as they rose for midnight studies to mend the world (which was
beautifully described by researcher Melila Hellner-Eshed in her doctoral
thesis), in the footsteps of the living King David, whom they described as
a somnambulant like themselves.
Yehuda Liebes is a professor in the
department of Jewish thought at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.