August 2016

Oh Zion!  Surely you will ask after the well-being of your captives

Ones who seek your well-being and are the remnant of your flock

From West, East, North and South, promote the peace of near and far

As well as those bound by longing

Shedding tears like the dew on Mount Hermon

Wishing to shed them on your mountains

These are the words of Yehudah Ha-Levi, the great poet and philosopher of 12th century Spain.  It is taken from the collection of elegies, called in Hebrew Qinot, that we recite during the morning service of the Ninth of Av.  It is at the turn of the summer that we gather as a people to cry and moan for the afflictions we have suffered as a people.  We read in somber notes from our literature of suffering beginning with the catastrophe of Babylonian destruction and exile, traveling through the terrors of Roman rule, Crusade and Inquisition, and the night of the Holocaust.  It is a searing day.  

So why do it?  Because, it is a day of great strength. There is no more determined sound than when we rise at the end of our lamentations to chant Eli Zion.  It is not an expression of victory but of survival, and in the face of everything we have faced in history our survival is the greatest miracle imaginable.  That we still stand is testament to our ongoing purpose, the great need of repair that explains why 2500 years after the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon we are yet counted among the nations.

It is also a great day of unity.  R. Soloveitchik notes in his commentary that Ha-Levi’s poem starts “Oh Zion!  Surely you will ask after the well-being of your captives!” – implying that whatever worldly power holds us we are ultimately captives of Zion.  Throughout geography and history Jews are held together under our longing for the Land.  While in bad times we lament, and in good times we celebrate – our connection to Zion is the glue that holds all Jews together.  Though at times we feel the tie fray, our emotional attachment to the Land of Israel unites Jews across cultures and generations.

We are fortunate to live in a time when the Land is open to us, and we have witnessed great growth and beginning.  Rabbi Lerner and I will be leading a joint congregational trip to Israel in late April 2017, and I hope that many will be able to come along.   The fast for the Ninth of Av will begin in the evening of August 13 and continue on the morning of August 14.  I hope here too, that you will consider sitting in mourning and rising in defiance with us.  May the bounds of longing bind, bringing us together to shed tears of grief and joy.


Rabbi Bill Siemers


Mishneh Torah Hilchot Qiddush HaHodesh – Introduction (Continued)

הלכות קדוש החדש. מצות עשה אחת והיא לחשב ולידע ולקבוע באיזה יום הוא תחלת כל חדש וחדש מחדשי השנה. וביאור מצוה זו בפרקים אלו.

The Laws of the Sanctification of the Month

There is a single mitzvah in this category and it is to calculate, to know, and to determine which day is the beginning of each and every month of the year.  This mitzvah will be explained in the following chapters.

Part of the problem with trying to describe “the essence of Judaism” is that it keeps changing.  As rabbis, we find ourselves from time to time having to say stuff like “As Jews we have always believed . . .” because people expect that there should be stuff that we have always believed and that someone should be able to tell them what it is.  When parents are confronted by their children with the demands to explain why we have to be different than everyone else they want to have a brief, true and effective answer.  People become very impatient with hearing over and over how complicated things are.

Well, some things are complicated, but even when they aren’t it’s a special weakness of Jews or at least rabbis to like these complicated things.  One of my favorite portraits of this widespread desire among rabbis/intellectuals for the interesting and of its usually destructive outcomes of this drive is in Borges’ Death and the Compass:

“There’s no need to look for a Chimera, or a cat with three legs,” Treviranus was saying as he brandished an imperious cigar. “We all know that the Tetrarch of Galilee is the possessor of the finest sapphires in the world. Someone, intending to steal them, came in here by mistake. Yarmolinsky got up; the robber had to kill him. What do you think?”

“It’s possible, but not interesting,” Lonnrot answered. “You will reply that reality hasn’t the slightest need to be of interest. And I’ll answer you that reality may avoid the obligation to be interesting, but that hypotheses may not. In the hypothesis you have postulated, chance intervenes largely. Here lies a dead rabbi; I should prefer a purely rabbinical explanation; not the imaginary mischances of an imaginary robber.”

Treviranus answered ill-humoredly: “I am not interested in rabbinical explanations; I am interested in the capture of the man who stabbed this unknown person.”

You will want to read the whole thing.  The essence of the story is that intellectuals desire complexity even as it lures them to a bad end.  And rabbis desire complexity even when it undermines the institutions we serve.  For all of the talk about the need for nuance and shades of grey, the successful transmission of culture depends on the ability to give comprehensible and mostly uncomplicated answers.  To explain why we are going to study Hebrew instead of playing soccer, parents need a no-shades-of-gray answer and they correctly look to religious leaders to help them in formulating what they are going to say.  But for people who live within the bubble, the complexity is tolerable because we are devoted to making sense of disparate positions or are strangely empowered by the tension of living between strong and unreconciled claims.  Which is good for us, but we shouldn’t act so hurt and surprised when other people decide that they would rather take up yoga.

Having said all that, I can’t resist the complications.  I wrote yesterday about the my interest in this chapter of halacha as part of an assault on NOMA (non overlapping magisteria or the idea that science gets to do the natural world and religion gets to stick to morals), and indeed according to this introduction it is a commandment for Jews to do some mathematics – we have to calculate the day on which the new month falls.  So this is a challenge to the idea that we should partition ourselves into scientific and religious personalities.

But there are also very interesting incoherences that have to be navigating.  As I wrote above, the problem with describing something as the essence of Judaism is that the essence of Judaism keeps changing.  We see this in the case of the calendar, where an worldview of Judaism emerges in history displacing another competing system and then has to retreat.  And it has to do the the strange requirement to calculate the calendar.  Which will have to wait for another post.

Or Why We May Need More Math In Church

Mishneh Torah Hilchot Qiddush HaHodesh – Introduction

הלכות קדוש החדש. מצות עשה אחת והיא לחשב ולידע ולקבוע באיזה יום הוא תחלת כל חדש וחדש מחדשי השנה. וביאור מצוה זו בפרקים אלו.

The Laws of the Sanctification of the Month

There is a single mitzvah in this category and it is to calculate, to know, and to determine which day is the beginning of each and every month of the year.  This mitzvah will be explained in the following chapters.

I will begin with a confession, and that is that I am starting this project with the hopes of “unblocking” my writing.  I have several projects that I should be working on but am avoiding, and so I hope to get the words flowing with a little journal on the Rambam’s section on determining the new month.  So I confess to being blocked.

I’m not going to try to introduce the Mishneh Torah at the outset but bring up issues as we go along.  If you are among the dozens of people reading this and you decide you want a systematic background Halbertal’s book is real and spectacular.  I’m going to try to move through the Laws of the Sanctification of the Month in journal form.  Since I’m doing this to loosen the words in my head, it kind of is going to be about me.  Trying to rehearse a comprehensive view of the material is not going to help with what I need to do.

Like many people, I knew about the Mishneh Torah for a long time without realizing how wonderful it was.  When I began to explore Judaism and its books, I knew that there were several codes that one could consult if one needed to know what to do, but the whole idea of codes seemed pretty boring.  One doesn’t read a physiology textbook for fun (if “one” is normal), and with Mikra (the inside term for the Hebrew Bible) with its commentaries and with Talmud and philosophy why would anyone want to sit around reading codes?  I confess (again) that this was my own limited experience but this is what I was thinking.  (I had strong and stupid opinions.  I told Rabbi Burt Visotzky during my seminary admissions interview that I thought midrash was mostly a waste of time.)

Anyway, it was only when I started seminary and one of our seminar teachers, R. David Hoffman, assigned the introduction to the Mishneh Torah and our eyes fell upon the goal of the text (i.e. to replace all other rabbinic literature), and we learned that this book was the invention of a genre and to top it all off was never really equalled that I began to realize how myopic my view of codes was.

I suppose I should qualify all three of those claims.  It is disputed that Maimonides wanted to replace all previous rabbinic literature with the Mishneh Torah.  But he did write stuff like this (from the introduction):  

אלא דברים ברורים קרובים נכונים על פי המשפט אשר יתבאר מכל אלו החיבורים והפירושים הנמצאים מימות רבינו הקדוש ועד עכשיו. עד שיהיו כל הדינין גלויין לקטן ולגדול בדין כל מצוה ומצוה ובדין כל הדברים שתיקנו חכמים ונביאים. כללו של דבר כדי שלא יהא אדם צריך לחיבור אחר בעולם בדין מדיני ישראל אלא יהא חיבור זה מקבץ לתורה שבעל פה כולה עם התקנות והמנהגות והגזירות שנעשו מימות משה רבינו ועד חבור הגמרא וכמו שפירשו לנו הגאונים בכל חיבוריהם שחיברו אחר הגמרא. לפיכך קראתי שם חיבור זה משנה תורה. לפי שאדם קורא בתורה שבכתב תחלה ואחר כך קורא בזה

I’m not going to translate the whole thing, but the highlighted parts say, “In sum, one does not need any other composition whatsoever regarding the laws of Israel, only this summation of the entire Oral Torah (!)”, and “Therefore one could read (only) the written Torah (the Tanakh) and afterwards this book (!)”  Borrowing the title Mishneh Torah from, well, Moses’ own summation of the Torah a.k.a. the Book of Deuteronomy was also pretty audacious.  That there was nothing like Rambam’s code before probably requires less qualification, and the fact that subsequent codes are not as comprehensive is also pretty defensible, I think.  Anyone, it was with that introduction that I began to really groove to studying the Rambam.

Why I am fascinated by the laws for determining the month?  I’ve always been suspicious of the common assertion that there is a dichotomy between science and religion.  Most casual thinkers accept the formalization of this separation articulation by Stephen Jay Gould as Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA):  science gets to describe the natural world and religion gets to talk about morals.  That has always struck me as being based on a Christianized concept of religion, perhaps following in Augustine’s City of God/City of Man dichotomy.  I think that Judaism has a harder time with this dualism (or should have a harder time with this dualism given our “worldcenteredness”).  I think that Rambam’s presentation of these laws challenges that separation.  People who argue against prayer in public schools sometimes quip that prayer in school makes as much sense as math in church.  I am not in favor of prayer in public schools and I don’t go to church, but I think that it is hard to be a serious person while avoiding math.  Serious religions cannot avoid it either.

The Dog Days of Summer – August 2015

Dear Friends,

With all of the stipulations required to avoid calling down a calamity from heaven, I marvel at the beauty of this summer in Bangor.  The days have been pleasantly warm with deliciously cool nights.  Looking at the smokey hills that surround us, we remember how lucky we are to live in such an enchanting place.  I hope that you too are enjoying summer and all that it brings.

We still, though, have the bulk of the “Dog Days of Summer” in front of us, so there may be some mild discomfort in store.  The “Dog Days” have a rich pagan history, flowing from the observation of the ancients that the warmest time of the year was when Sirius (the “Dog Star”) rises with the sun.   From the Iliad:

Sirius rises late in the dark, liquid sky

On summer nights, star of stars,

Orion’s Dog they call it, brightest

Of all, but an evil portent, bringing heat

And fevers to suffering humanity.

So it is clear that what is happening at this time of year is more than a little humidity.  For the Egyptians, this period coincided with the annual flood of the Nile, which was a period of great danger but also of potential prosperity.  The “Dog Days” were a time of the year when the stakes were higher for good as well as bad.

It’s very telling that the period assigned to the “Dog Days” by the Romans, by the Farmer’s Almanac, and even by the Christian Book of Common Prayer (!) is forty days.  The number forty has resonance across all cultures and we too have a 40 day period of heightened religious sense at this time of year – the season of introspection and repentance that begins on the 1st of Elul (August 14 this year) and culminates on Yom Kippur.  Like the flooding of the Nile, the season of Elul and the High Holidays remind that life is laden with both risk and opportunity, and that realizing our potential in the time we have is not something that will be accomplished haphazardly but requires great care.  It is to this task that we turn in Elul.

We recognize that this cannot be a purely individual task.  At this time of year we need the tools of the tradition, study and prayer, but we also need each other.  It is the insight of Judaism that the greatest potential can be discovered when we act communally.   As the New Year approaches and we begin our self-examination, it is my hope that we heighten as well our efforts to support one another.  And may the “Dog Days of Summer” be as meaningful as we can make them (and with a minimal amount of humidity)


Rabbi Bill Siemers


Balaam Bilaam, Bilaam Balaam, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

330px-Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_122Every year when we prepare to read Parashat Balak, I get questions about why everyone else in the world calls the shady protagonist Balaam but Jews call him Bil’am (בִּלְעָם).  I’m happy to get this query because (unlike a lot of other inquiries I get) I can answer it.

One needs to start off with the information that the oldest tradition of writing the Hebrew scripture did not indicate short vowels.  The name of the magician summoned to curse the children of Israel was written בלעם, or in Roman equivalents BL’M (__ here represents ayin, which does not appear in Western alphabets).  The standard Jewish pronunciation Bil’am (בִּלְעָם) is found in the Tiberian tradition of pronunciation, which added the dots and lines that we are used to seeing in the Hebrew Bible and indicate the standard pronunciation.  The Tiberian tradition dates from roughly 800 – 1000 C.E.


Codex Vaticanus

A much earlier witness to the pronunciation of Hebrew can be found in the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible dating from probably sometime between 300 B.C.E and the beginning of the Christian Era.  The Septuagint transliterated proper names into Greek, and from these we have critical evidence as to how Hebrew was pronounced perhaps a thousand years before the “official” Jewish version was recorded.   The Septuagint (which we will abbreviate as LXX going forward) transliterates בלעם as Βαλαὰμ, which would be Balaam in Roman characters.  Because the LXX is adopted by Greek speaking Christians and becomes the basis for the Latin and other more popular versions of the Bible, most of the world says Balaam while Jews say Bil’am.

An instinctual reaction of Jews is to consider the Greek-based Balaam as a corruption.  Part of that defensiveness flows from the fact that the LXX was often used to criticize the Jewish tradition of scripture, and yes, it does grate a bit have our indigenous Hebrew scripture corrected according to a Greek translation. That the LXX survived primarily in the Christian tradition does not help matters.  And finally, it can be pointed out that since Greek has fewer consonants than Hebrew there is in fact a potential for corruption.  Take as an example יעקב (ya’aqob) in which two of the four consonants do not exist in Greek (the ayin and the quf) leading to Ιακωβος (yakobos).  בלעם itself has an ayin that does not go into the Greek as a consonant, but is reflected instead in the lengthening of the vowel of the second syllable (Balaam).

But with all of these qualifications, it is likely that the most prominent difference between the standard Jewish pronunciation (Bil’am) and that of the rest of the world (Balaam) is the vowel of the first syllable (i versus a), and in this instance it seems that the Greek transliteration does preserve the older form.  There is well-known tendency in Semitic languages for the short vowel a in CaCCaC (C = a consonant) to change to i CiCCaC.  This is often referred to as “attenuation” as the journey from a to i is a shortening.  This is considered to have happened early on in Hebrew with the prefixes for the verb (yiqtul in Hebrew but yaqtul in older forms – the ya– prefix is preserved in Arabic), but also to be an ongoing process that occurred later in nouns.  There are many examples among proper names.  For example Mary Magdalene (Μαρία ἡ Μαγδαληνήis) was called Magdalene after her hometown which was Magdal or ‘tower’.  The word for tower in Tiberian Hebrew is Migdol – so the theory would be that sometime after the name was recorded in Christian Scripture the pronunciation in Hebrew (through this phenomenon of attenuation) changed from Magdal to Migdal (and on to Migdol).  The name Mary itself probably reflects the original a vowel of Maryam – realized in Tiberian Hebrew as Miryam.  Likewise, Samson/Shimshon.  Our best conjecture then is that at the time of the LXX, the pronunciation was Bal’am which attenuated to Bil’am by the time of the Tiberians.

I know, pretty cool.  We take away from this that even while the pronunciation of the Torah was pretty conservative over a very long time (Bal’am to Bil’am over maybe 1000 years!), things are not completely static. I use this example to make two further points:  The first is that even though the Septuagint is thought of as an external book for Jews it did not start off that way.  Though it became Christian scripture it cannot be considered Christian scripture in origin, because it largely predates Christianity.  There are other contexts in which this is important to keep in mind.  The second point is that our fidelity to the Tiberian pronunciation does not hang on whether it is the “original” way of pronouncing Hebrew.  The enterprise of setting the proper vocalization of the Bible was conducted in an environment that formally recognized the existence of variants, of which decisions had to be made as to which one to use.   We pass over the alternatives when we read because we have to, not because they are not there.  Someone who came into a synagogue and pronounced Balaam instead of Bil’am would be rightly told to stop – not because his theory of historical phonology is off, but because we have an agreed tradition of how to pronounce that does not change in the face of scholarship.  I think that maintaining this duality of practice and theory is one of the things that permits outside learning and scholarship to thrive within Judaism, but that is a topic for another post.