Friday, May 9, 2008

Parashat Emor: What is the Point of the Bread of the Wave-Offering?

by Daniel Pinner

“And you will count for yourselves, from the day after the day of rest [i.e. the first day of Pesach] – from the day of your bringing the Omer of the Wave-Offering – seven weeks; they will be complete. Until the day after the seventh week, you will count fifty days, and then you will sacrifice a new meal-offering to Hashem. From your habitations you shall bring the Bread of the Wave-Offering – two [loaves] of two tenths of an ephah, made of fine flour, baked leavened; first-offerings to Hashem. And you will sacrifice, with the Bread, seven unblemished lambs in their first year, one young bull, and two rams; they will be an elevation-offering to Hashem. And their meal-offerings and their libation-offerings are a fire-offering – a satisfying aroma to Hashem” (Leviticus 23:15-18).

The most obvious question here is: Why does the Torah not specify the date of Shavuot? This is the only Festival whose date is not given explicitly; all the other Festivals are specified as falling on the fifteenth day of the first month, the first day of the seventh month, the fifteenth day of the seventh month, and so on. So why is Shavuot on the fiftieth day after the second day of Pesach? Why does the Torah not specify “on the sixth day of the third month”?

Quite simply, because Shavuot does not always occur on the sixth of Sivan. Of course, in our fixed calendar, as determined by Hillel II in the year 4119 (359 C.E.), Nissan always has 30 days and Iyyar always has 29 days, so Shavuot always falls on sixth of Sivan. But in the days of the Sanhedrin, when each Rosh Hodesh was determined by observing the new moon, and both Nissan and Iyyar could have had either 29 or 30 days, Shavuot could fall on the fifth, the sixth or the seventh of Sivan.

In commanding us to bring the Bread of the Wave-Offering, there is a peculiarity in the Hebrew text: Mi-mo’shvoteichem tavi’u lechem ha-t’nufah (“from your habitations you shall bring the Bread of the Wave-Offering”), says the Torah; and in the word tavi’u (“you shall bring”), the alef has a dagesh (a point in the middle). But grammatically, there is no reason for this dagesh; more than that – alef is one of five letters that can never have a dagesh according to the rules of Hebrew grammar.

But as we know, there are several places in the Tanach where the text displays grammatical peculiarities; and there are three instances throughout the Tanach of an alef with a dagesh – each instance in the verb “bring”. The first is in the verse, “Joseph came to the house, and they [his brothers] brought him the offering that was in their hands to the house; and they prostrated themselves to him to the ground” (Genesis 43:26). In the verb va-yavi’u (“they brought”), there is a dagesh in the alef.

The second alef with a dagesh is in the verse in this week’s Parashah. The third is in the verse: “And they brought us – by the benevolence of the Hand of our God toward us – a wise man, of the descendants of Mahli, [grand]son of Levi, son of Israel; also Sherebiah with his sons and brethren – eighteen in all” (Ezra 8:18). In this verse, too, the verb va-yavi’u (“they brought”), has a dagesh in the alef.

What, then, is the significance of this unwarranted dagesh? And what is the common denominator that unites all these three verses?

The grammatical function of the dagesh is to emphasise or to double a letter (which is precisely the reason that alef, a silent letter, cannot take a dagesh: a silent letter can be neither emphasised nor doubled). In Cabbalistic thought, alef represents G-d: the gematria (numerical value) of alef is 1, symbolising the One G-d; alef is a cognate of the word aluf (“master”), also an appellation of God; and the first word in the Torah that begins with an alef is Elokim – G-d. So by inserting a dagesh into an alef against the usual rules of grammar, thereby emphasising the alef in a way that grabs our attention, the Tanach draws our attention to G-d’s presence.

It is in this light that we examine these three verses. “Joseph came to the house, and they [his brothers] brought him the offering that was in their hands to the house; and they prostrated themselves to him to the ground”. This is the episode when the eleven brothers returned to Egypt and, not recognizing the viceroy of Egypt as their long-lost brother, brought gifts from Israel to appease him after they found that the money they had paid for the grain the first time had been mysteriously returned to them. Rashi explains the phrase “to the house” to mean “from the prozdor [corridor] to the traklin [banquet-hall]”. What does this enigmatic statement mean? What lesson does Rashi teach when he says that Joseph coming “to the house” means that he entered “from the corridor to the banquet-hall”?

I suggest that Rashi, in his usual telegraphically brief style, is alluding to Rabbi Ya’akov’s saying: “This world is like a prozdor leading to the next world. Prepare yourself in the prozdor, in order to enter the traklin” (Pirkei Avot 4:21). When Joseph entered the house to confront his brothers, he was symbolically preparing the nation for its future tasks: he was teaching his brothers – the fathers of the Tribes, the founders of the Nation – that in order to achieve their great spiritual potential, they had to prepare themselves to enter from the prozdor to the traklin. As the Ramban notes (commentary to Genesis 37:10), this is the verse where Joseph’s childhood dreams of greatness begin to be fulfilled. On another level, the entire Egyptian experience was no more than a prozdor leading to the traklin of the Land of Israel – “the Palace of the King” (see Numbers Rabbah 19:13; Tanhuma, Hukkat 10 et al). Only by passing through the prozdor of Egypt could they enter the traklin of Israel. By emphasising the alef, the representation of G-d, the Torah subtly hints that the brothers bringing their offering was part of G-d’s plan of exile, slavery, and eventual redemption.

Similarly in the verse from Ezra: while still in exile in Babylon, Ezra was preparing the Jews there for their return to Israel, there to begin rebuilding Jewish sovereignty. He had gathered the Israelites and the Kohanim, but the Levites were missing; so he dispatched several men to search out the Levites – who would, of course, be indispensable for restoring the Temple service: “And they brought us – by the benevolence of the Hand of our G-d toward us – a wise man, of the descendants of Mahli, [grand]son of Levi”. Thus Ezra was able to begin the return to Israel, with the three castes of Israel – Israelites, Levites, and Kohanim. Again, by putting the dagesh in the alef, by emphasising G-d’s role in bringing the Levites to Ezra, the Tanach subtly hints at G-d’s orchestration of events to end the Babylonian exile.

We now return to the verse in this week’s Parashah: “From your habitations you shall bring the Bread of the Wave-Offering,” commands the Torah. When the Holy Temple stood, we were forbidden to eat chadash – new grain, produce of the new crop of the harvest season that begins in the spring-time – until an omer-measure of ground barley had been offered up on the second day of Pesach (usually in the morning). This reinforces the recognition that the crops come from God, and not from human labour or random “natural” forces.

Immediately after the destruction of the Holy Temple,“Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai decreed that…throughout the day of wave-offering [the omer, i.e. the second day of Pesach], new grain is forbidden” (Mishnah, Rosh ha-Shana 4:3). This reinforces the belief that though our Temple yet lies in ruins, it might be re-built at any moment and the wave-offering restored, and therefore we do not eat chadash for that entire day in anticipation of bringing the omer-measure of ground barley.

Rashi picks up on the word mi-mo’shvoteichem (“from your habitations”), and explains: “‘From your habitations’ – and not from outside of Israel” (paraphrasing Sifra, Leviticus 13:1). Only from Israel are we to bring the Bread of the Wave-Offering.
The Torah places the dagesh in the alef of the word tavi’u (“you shall bring”), emphasising – ever so subtly – that bringing the omer-barley sacrifice is intimately intertwined with the Land of Israel and with faith in the One G-d. That one tiny point in the middle of the alef has such great significance: faith in G-d, believing – no, knowing! – that our long exile was part of the divine plan for the world, that the redemption which began in our own generation is not merely one more national liberation movement, one more Prussia, Yugoslavia, or Jordan that makes a brief entry on the stage of world history, fumes and rants, then crumbles into the dust of the past.

Particularly this year, when we read this section on the fifth of Iyyar, on Yom ha-Atzma’ut, look at that alef, and understand the point of the bread of the Wave-Offering. Believing in the eternal G-d of Israel has never been easier than in our blessed generation. Just as G-d directed the Egyptian exile from its inception, just as He directed the Babylonian exile and return, so too did He direct the final exile and its current finish.


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