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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.

Calendar watershed

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 angrily.

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 calendar.

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 linguistic considerations.

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 Jewish case.

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).

Rising above

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 42:71).

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.



© Copyright 2003 Larry Yudelson.
Last update: 4/6/2003; 3:30:45 AM.