Friday, December 9, 2016

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Vayeitzei 5777-Being Fruitbull

As I have stated before, some of the musings I have written for parashat Vayeitzei number among my favorites – it’s such a rich parasha – and I hope you’ll peruse the links at the end of this musing and enjoy some of the others.

The haftarah for parashat Vayeitze comes from Hosea, chapter 12, verse 13, to chapter 14 verse 10 (in Ashkenzic tradition. Sephardim read from chapter 11 and 12.) This particular haftarah offers up some interesting things. It is not a particularly coherent piece of text, with some uncertain meanings. Only in its first verse, 12:13, do we find the connection to the parasha:

וַיִּבְרַח יַֽעֲקֹב שְׂדֵה אֲרָם וַיַּֽעֲבֹד יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאִשָּׁה וּבְאִשָּׁה שָׁמָֽר

Jacob fled to the land of Aram
Israel served for a wife;
and for a wife he kept watch

That’s it – that’s all the clue we get. I suppose for our ancestors this was adequate to identify the parasha for which it was being substituted. The JPS translators even felt that further emendation was needed, so they added “[for sheep]”

Early on, we find a hapax legomenon, a word occurring only once in the Tanakh. Chapter 13, verse 1 starts with these three words:

כְּדַבֵּר אֶפְרַיִם רְתֵת

The last word is the hapax. The general scholarly consensus in the lexicons is that it means “trembling,” thus rendering the translation

When Ephraim spoke with trembling…

The remainder of that verse is a direct castigation of the Northern Kingdom for their sins. The next verse continues listing those sins – creating and worshipping idols. It contains two words whose translation can be debated:

וְעַתָּה ׀ יוֹסִפוּ לַֽחֲטֹא וַיַּֽעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם מַסֵּכָה מִכַּסְפָּם כִּתְבוּנָם עֲצַבִּים מַֽעֲשֵׂה חָֽרָשִׁים כֻּלֹּה לָהֶם הֵם אֹמְרִים זֹֽבְחֵי אָדָם עֲגָלִים יִשָּׁקֽוּן

They add sin to sin
making for themselves molten images,
skillfully making idols,
the work of artisans throughout.
They speak to them:
to [images] of calves, which people sacrifice, they offer kisses!

Note, first, how the JPS committee felt it necessary to add [images of] lest one be tempted to read the plain “to calves.” However, it’s the underlined words, zovchei adam, that are problematic. It’s perfectly legitimate to translate those words as “sacrificers of men.”

They speak to them:
to [images] of calves,[to] sacrificers of men, they offer kisses!

In the big picture, does it matter? The Northern tribes worshipped idols, spoke to them and offered kisses to them. Suggesting that they also spoke with, or consorted with those who sacrificed humans isn’t that big a leap – and, coming from Hosea, not all that unlikely.

In verses 4-6 of chapter 13, we are reminded that G”d has been our G”d since Egypt, that we were well cared for, and as a result forgot G”d. Those verses contain yet another hapax legomenon, in verse 5,


translated by consensus as “blazing heat” or “parched.”

Verse 9 presents another difficult bit of Hebrew for a clean translation.

שִֽׁחֶתְךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּֽי־בִי בְעֶזְרֶֽךָ

Confident they’ve gotten the essence, translators say:

You are done for Israel,
for those who can help you!

I’m not even sure what that means in English!

In verse 15, we get the opening words:

כִּי הוּא בֵּן אַחִים יַפְרִיא

which would seem to say “for he, son of brothers, will be fruitful” however, it is translated by the JPS as

for he [only] among the reeds shall be fruitful

citing what is known as an enclitic particle,adding a final mem to the word alef-khet-vav, meaning reeds. An enclitic particle is an ending that is sometimes added to a word for purposes of keeping a metrical form or for other purposes. (Others suggest the final mem is a scribal error.)

Ah yes, fruitful. A word of import, starting, as it were, in the commandment to Adam and Chava, p’ru uv’ru – be fruitful and multiply. which brings me to the verse in the haftarah that captured my attention this time, and prompted the title of this musing. Chapter 14 verse 3:

קְחוּ עִמָּכֶם דְּבָרִים וְשׁוּבוּ אֶל־יְהֹוָה אִמְרוּ אֵלָיו כָּל־תִּשָּׂא עָוֹן וְקַח־טוֹב וּנְשַׁלְּמָה פָרִים שְׂפָתֵֽינוּ

Take words with you
and return to the Eternal
and say:
Forgive all iniquity and accept the good:
and we shall offer the fruit of our lips.

And surprise – the scholars once again depend upon an enclitic particle (or for some a scribal error,) to render their translation. What the text actually says is:

and we shall fulfill bulls [of] our lips.

Some translate as pay instead of fulfill, a reasonable translation of the Hebrew. So which is it: fruit or bulls?

Well, at times I’ve preferred the “bulls” translation, as evidenced by the fact that I’ve written about this same verse as it also appears in the special hafatarah read on Shabbat Shuvah. It opens itself up for all sorts of wordplay, especially if you use the singular “bull” instead of “bulls.” There’s plenty of “bull” being spoken from plenty of lips, some of it even spoken in prayer or worship! (You can read more about this here

Let’s play with the scholarly consensus translation of offering the “fruit of our lips.” Offering the “bulls” of our lips makes a direct connection between actual animal sacrifice and the later substitute of prayer for that ritual. Just wait one second, however – Hosea is an 8th century BCE prophet. The northern Kingdom still had its own active sacrificial sites (Dan and Bethel) competing with the Jerusalem temple. There’s no need to substitute prayer for sacrifice. Both were being offered.

Prophets like Hosea, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and, of course, most of the prophets who come after them, had no great love of ritual sacrifice and the sacrificial cult. The path to the eventual final replacement of the sacrificial system with a system of prayers after the destruction of the second Temple was a long one, begun at least eight centuries earlier (and possibly before then.)

So, we know what the “bulls” of our lips are – words in place of cult sacrifices. What are “fruit” of our lips? Is Hosea using fruit as a singular or collective noun? Some fruits are sweet, some fruits are tart, and some fruits are bitter. So assuming fruit of our lips means something sweet is probably a leap too far.

A bull is a bull. A fruit can be many things.The word p’ri. fruit, in Hebrew is fascinating. As in English, it can be a singular noun or a collective noun. It can be the fruit of a tree, the fruit of a vine, the fruit of the ground, the fruit of the womb, offspring, or even the fruit of effort/labor/activity. Not so fast, however. The idea that there is some connection between the word p’ri, fruit, the verb root peh-resh-alef, to be fruitful, and the word par is not so far-fetched. In places it can mean a calf or young animal (and it parallels words in cognate languages that mean young animal) though it usually refers to an adult sacrificially-ready bull or steer. A calf is certainly the “fruit” of its mother’s womb.

Words are the fruits of our lips, or to be more exact, the fruit of the thought processes in our brains. A fruit implies an effort. Birthing requires effort. Even a tree growing fruit requires effort of a kind. Is this a way of perhaps telling us that what comes from our lips should require an effort to birth them, rather than their being perfunctory? Need this idea be restricted to prayer? Most commentators are more than happy to imply that Hosea is speaking of prayer here, but maybe that’s not it at all. After being told that we have stumbled in our iniquities, Hosea suggest we return to G”d taking words with us, and say:

Forgive all iniquity and accept the good
and we shall offer the fruit (bulls?) of our lips
Assyria cannot save us;
we shall ride on horses no more
never again shall we say “Our G”d”
to the works of our hands.
For in You [alone] the orphan finds compassion.

Might Hosea be speaking not just of prayer, but of all words that we utter? There must be effort to produce the fruit of our lips at all times. Our words must be considered. We shall not, for example, use our words to make gods of our idols. We should not use our words to hurt others, defame others, gossip about others. We must use our words for what is right and just, for what is good, and in the service of G”d.

While it might be easier and simple to infer that the words we are to take with us are, in this context, the words we need to confess our sins-a view shared by many commentators-I think I am starting to prefer the much broader reading I’ve outlined here. Doing so helps me lift the words of this haftarah from their context to mine. While I strongly believe that understanding biblical text in its context is essential, and is particularly useful when encountering texts that our troubling from our own worldview, I also believe that it is essential to find meaning in these ancient words for our own times. I will strive to always offer the fruit of my lips, and strive to have less bull spew forth from them.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2016 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Vayetze 5776 - Now and Then (Redux 5763)
Vayeitzei 5775 - Hapax Shabbat
Vayeitzei 5774 - Terms and Conditions Revisted
Vayeitze 5773 - Mandrakes and More
Vayeitze 5772 - Stumbling on Smooth Paths
Vayeitzei 5771 - Luz is No Loser
Vayeitzei 5769 - Going Down and Loving It!
Vayeitzei 5768 - Encounters
Vayeitzei 5767-Hapax On All Your Hapaxes
Vayetze 5766-Pakhad HaShem?
Vayetze 5765-Cows and Cranberries
Vayetze 5764-Terms and Conditions
Vayetze 5763-Now and Then
Vayetze 5762-Change in Perspective
Vayetze 5760-Taking Gd's Place

No comments: