Thursday, February 2, 2017

"Aviv" and "Nisan": Case studies in adaptation over originality - Torah portion Bo

Moses speaks to the people, "Remember this day when you exited Egypt," and then goes on to actually name the month:
הַיּוֹם אַתֶּם יֹצְאִים בְּחֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב Today you are exiting, in the month of Aviv. (Ex 13:4)
Why is this unusual? Because in the Torah, months are only ever referred to by number, except on occasion for the month of "Aviv." But Aviv is not just a name like "March" (named after Mars, the Roman god of war) - it's a descriptive term which pertains to the agricultural season. We actually encounter the word aviv a few chapters earlier, in the plague of hail:
וְהַפִּשְׁתָּה וְהַשְּׂעֹרָה נֻכָּתָה כִּי הַשְּׂעֹרָה אָבִיב וְהַפִּשְׁתָּה גִּבְעֹל And the flax and the barley were struck down, because the barley was a fresh ear (aviv) and the flax was budding. (Ex 9:31)
Meaning, the crops were devastated because they had already started to bloom. An aviv is a fresh, green ear, appearing in late winter or early spring (depending on the crop and location). That's as opposed to the golden, sun-parched ear that's reaped at the harvest. Or as opposed to crops too early in their growth to be damaged by hail, as mentioned in the next verse:
וְהַחִטָּה וְהַכֻּסֶּמֶת לֹא נֻכּוּ כִּי אֲפִילֹת הֵנָּה And the wheat and the spelt were not struck down, because they were late crops (lit. dark). (Ex 9:32)
An "aviv" (fresh ear) of barley
Rashi says these crops were soft and supple and therefore wouldn't break off because of the hail. "Dark" in that case might indicate their relatively dark shade of green. Ibn Ezra says the crops were covered in darkness, "concealed," meaning they were still underground. They're later crops in the annual cycle. Barley and flax ripen before wheat and spelt.

Apart from the agricultural angle, the name Aviv gives us a window into an ancient calendar system, of which Aviv was just one month out of the year. The Book of Kings gives us three more months: Ziv, Eitanim, and Bul. These names were seemingly in use during the Israelite monarchy and are assumed by scholars to be part of a wider Canaanite/regional calendar system, since names like Bul are also found in Phoenician inscriptions.

In fact some scholars posit three calendars used by Israelites/Jews in antiquity: First was the Canaanite calendar (Aviv, Ziv, etc.), followed by the numerical calendar (First Month, Second Month, etc.), and finally the Babylonian calendar (Nisan, Iyar, etc.).

"Gezer" agricultural calendar, c. 925 B.C.E.
This is not just a question of naming schemes but also of switching between systems. For instance, the Babylonian calendar was lunar-based with intercalation and is the basis of the Jewish calendar we use today. But the Canaanite calendar may have been solar-based, which would have meant a major shift in our method of timekeeping.

But that is the point - historically we've been a people who shift. We adapt to the surrounding culture and its norms, put our own spin on it, and in some cases even sanctify it.

For instance, we create drashot (homiletic interpretations) based on the Babylonian month names. The most famous is Elul, taken as an acronym for ani ledodi vedodi li, "I am my beloved, and my beloved is mine" (Song of Songs 6:3). The month of Nisan is taken as hinting to the nisim ("miracles") of the Exodus from Egypt. The last two letters in Kislev numerically add up to 36, the total number of candles lit over the duration Hanukkah. And the list goes on.

Yet it is indisputable that the months of Elul, Nisan, Kislev are merely Hebraicized adaptations of the Babylonian months of Ulūlu, Nisānu, and Kislimu, which are themselves adaptations of Sumerian names predating the Babylonian exile by over 1500 years!

In other words, far be it from being part of a sacred, God-given tradition, the names of the months were co-opted by Jews in exile (as we did previously in Israel/Canaan with their months) and incorporated as part of the tradition. And that includes the month of Tamuz, which is really "Dumuzi," the Mesopotamian god of food and vegetation. Yet even Tamuz is taken as an acronym-anagram for "the times of repentance are forthcoming." Did Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, to whom this acronym is attributed, know that Tamuz was really a Babylonian deity? Maybe he did but nonetheless saw a larger meaning in it. It's an interesting point to ponder I think.

Of course, the calendar is by no means the only thing we've co-opted and made our own. The shapes of the Hebrew letters as we know them today are an evolution of Imperial Aramaic script. The Hebrew language was a dialect of Canaanite. (Abraham would not have been told "lech lecha" in Hebrew but the equivalent in Sumerian.) Sacrifices and the Temple layout were an adaptation of worship rites in Iron Age Levant. Even certain narratives in the Torah (humans created out of clay, floods used to destroy the world, babies in a basket of reeds placed in the river, etc.) seem to have been common themes at the time - though who borrowed from whom can always be debated. And it holds true today. What we think of as "Jewish" food, music, clothing, etc. is more often than not an adaptation of European or Middle Eastern culture.

Some people may find these kinds of facts jarring. "No, we were the first!" Well, I say being first is overrated. So is having a "pure" source for things we take as sacred or traditional.

Far more important than originality is the ability to adapt and thrive. More important than the source of our traditions is what we do with them, how well our traditions serve us. So yes, by all means, keep on darshening the names of the months, even Tamuz. Just acknowledge that many of these things aren't "inherently sacred." Rather, it's our effort to interject meaning in our lives, imbue within ourselves a sense of positive purpose in the world, and all the while retaining a distinct identity as a Jewish civilization, which is the sacred act.


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