Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Aramean nation?

MODERN ARAMAIC WATCH: Op-Ed: Is There Really an Aramean Nation? Are the Israeli Christians part of the ancient Aramean people rather than Arabs? (Dr. Mordechai Kedar, Arutz Sheva).
One of the last things Israel's Interior Minister Gideon Saar did before resigning from the Knesset was to recognize the Israeli Christians as members of the Aramean nation. The decision caused a media uproar, especially in the Arab sector, with most critics saying that there is no Aramaic nation and that the real reason for this step was an attempt to cause a split in the Arab population of Israel so as to "divide and conquer" and gain control of the Arab sector.

This calls for an investigation and an investigation into the veracity of an Aramean nation's existence must be conducted on two planes: the historic-lingual-religious one and the civilian one.

He argues that it is valid to think in terms of an Aramean nation. Background here. There are very complicated historical and linguistic issues involved, not to speak of the political ones, and more than a newspaper article or a blog post would be necessary to address them properly.

Past posts on speakers of Aramaic in Israel are here (scroll down to third story from bottom), here, here, and links.

The PhDiva on the Jobar Synagogue

DOROTHY KING: RIP the Jobar Synagogue, Syria. With pre-destruction photos.

Background here and links.

Blood moon tetrad part 2 - Sukkot

COSMIC SYNCHRONICITY WATCH: Is lunar eclipse at Sukkot an ominous sign? (Edmon J. Rodman, JTA). Excerpt:
Jeremy Schnittman, a research astrophysicist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and an observant Jew, is putting up his, so maybe we shouldn’t worry.

“The lunar tetrad event is perfectly normal,” Schnittman told JTA.

“Every night when you go outside on the first night of Sukkot, it is going to be a full moon. And every lunar eclipse happens during a full moon,” he said. “On average there are two lunar eclipses every year. The chance of having a lunar eclipse on Sukkot is one in six.

“The same is true for the first night of Pesach,” he said, demystifying what at first seems like an awesome coincidence.

But what about the fact that the eclipses fall on the two Jewish holidays?

“If there’s one on Sukkot, then there’s a very high chance that there will be one on Pesach,” said Schnittman, noting that the holidays are exactly six months apart.

“There’s been a lot of hubbub about ‘Four Blood Moons’ in a row,” he added. But once the plane of the orbits of the moon and earth are aligned so that an eclipse occurs, “it’s actually quite reasonable that you are going to get them again every six months for the next couple of years before the cycle moves a little bit out of alignment.”

As for the blood-like color, which is even mentioned in the book of Joel, Schnittman explained, “Full eclipses are always red. Just like the clouds on earth turn red during the sunset, during an eclipse the full moon turns red.”
So don't get excited; it's not a sign of the apocalypse. Last year's blood moon at Passover was noted and discussed here.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Yom Kippur

The obscure origins of Yom Kippur. It is the holiest day in Judaism, yet its intent has markedly changed and its practice today is a far cry from the rites of ancient times. (Elon Gilad, Haaretz). A long article with lots of good stuff in it. Excerpt:
Just when Yom Kippur began has been hotly debated by academics for over a century. The main question is whether it happened during the First Temple period. The evidence seems to indicate that it did not exist then.

Writing just after the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, Ezekiel seems unaware of Yom Kippur. It is not on his list of holidays to be observed when the Temple would be rebuilt.
A rare relic from the First Temple period (found in the City of David, referring to Bethlehem). Photo by: Clara Amit, IAA

Neither does Zecharia seem to have any notion of it when he instructed the Jews returning from captivity on observation of fast days. When Ezra reads the Torah to the returning Jews on the first of Tishrei, they learned that they need to prepare for Sukkot, but Yom Kippur is not mentioned. This is only proof of omission, but it’s all we have.

Thus, it seems that the three biblical mentions of the Day of Atonement (Numbers 29:7-11, Leviticus 16:1-34, and Leviticus 23:26-32) were inserted by priests during the Second Temple period to validate new rites added to purify the Temple in advance of the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar at the time, Sukkot.

The priests of the Jerusalem Temple who inaugurated Yom Kippur seem to have had the 12-day Babylonian festival marking the new year, Akitu, in mind, particularly the fifth day of Akitu, which has some striking similarities to Yom Kippur that are unlikely to be coincidence.

That fifth day involved a purification ceremony called kuppuru, which involved dragging a dead ram through the temple, supposedly purifying it of impurities. Kuppuru and its Hebrew cognate kippur meant “to uncover” or specifically in this case “to remove impurity,” which means a better translation of Yom Kippur to English would be "Day of Purification."
Again, read the article soon, before it goes behind the subscription paywall.

The root meaning of kippur may have been "to cover over," rather than "to uncover," but in any case its usage in the Hebrew Bible is "to expiate" or "atone for" sin. This is a somewhat different issue from removing impurity, which potentially involves ritual impurity, which is defiling but not sinful. The concepts of sin/atonement and impurity/purification do have some overlap in biblical Hebrew, but they are generally distinct ideas. I would stick with the translation "Day of Atonement."

For lots more on the Akitu Festival, see yesterday's post here and links, notably here. As I explain in the latter post, I don't see a direct connection between the Akitu Festival and Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur, but I do think it's possible that both descend from an indigenously Judean re-enthronement festival that operated on similar lines.

This article also discusses the scapegoat ceremony, on which see also here, and the Yom Kippur observances by the High Priest in the Second Temple period according to the Mishnah. For Yom Kippur in the Talmud, see here. For more on the mysterious figure Azazel in the biblical Yom Kippur rites, see here.

Remains of fourth-century CE earthquake at Hippos

EXCAVATION: Archaeological findings shed light on massive 363 CE earthquake in Galilee. University of Haifa archaeologists find bones crushed under a collapsed roof, a dove-shaped gold pendant and catapult ammunition at site near Lake Kinneret (Jerusalem Post).
University of Haifa archeologists recently discovered items which have shed light on an earthquake that occurred in 363 CE in the ancient city of Hippos that overlooks Lake Kinneret.

Hippos, near modern-day Kibbutz Ein Gev overlooking the lake (the Sea of Galilee), was the site of a Greco-Roman city-state. It is just on the Israeli side of the 1949 armistice line with Syria. Susita Mountain, on which Hippos was built, is between the Kinneret Valley and the southwestern Golan mountain range, about 2 kilometers east of the lake and rising 350 meters above it. Hippos was part of the Decapolis, Ten Cities that were culturally tied more closely to Greece and Rome than to the otherwise Semitic region.

Archeologists digging at the excavation site, founded as Antioch of Hippos by Seleucid settlers and known as Susita in Hebrew, uncovered a woman’s skeleton and a gold dove-shaped pendant under the tiles of a collapsed roof. In addition, they found the marble leg of a statue and artillery from some 2,000 years ago.

Cool pendant. For lots more ancient bling, see here and here and links. And for past posts on Hippos-Sussita, see here and links.

Old Church Slavonic inscription

THE SOPHIA GLOBE: Archaeological roundup: Finds in Bulgaria include ancient coins, a basilica and an inn in Philippopolis. One of the finds mentioned in this article sounds like an important discovery for Slavonic philology:
Also on September 23, it was announced that an inscription in Cyrillic script had been found on an architectural element at the residence of the ruler of one of Bulgaria’s ancient former capitals, Preslav. The inscription shows the name Karmih (Кармих) which archaeologists believe may have been the name of the builder.

Although in the middle of the ninth century the use of the Church Slavonic alphabet was widespread, archaeologists rarely encounter such surviving inscriptions.
Follow the link for a photo. For lots more on Old Church Slavonic and why it matters to PaleoJudaica, see here, here, here, and links.

Monday, September 29, 2014

$100K raised for Third Temple plans

TEMPLE MOUNT WATCH: Temple Institute Raises $100k for Third Temple Plans. The Temple Institute’s crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for architectural plans for the Third Temple has raised $100,000 (Yaakov Levi, Arutz Sheva).
The Temple Institute’s crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for the modern architectural plans for the Third Holy Temple in Jerusalem came to a close on Rosh Hashanah after surpassing its $100,000 goal in 60 days. The initiative began on the first day of the month of Av, when Jews commemorate the destruction of the ancient Holy Temples. Almost 900 pledges have come in from more than 30 countries worldwide.

Plan away, but don't get any ideas about doing any actual digging. Background and further commentary here and links.

Dovekeepers filming in Malta

Dovekeepers’ CBS Mini-series lands in Malta with filming to start shortly (Gozo News).
4-hour CBS Mini Series ‘The Dovekeepers’ is due to start shooting in Malta shortly. ‘The Dovekeepers’ is a CBS mini-series event from executive producer Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, which will be broadcast in 2015.

‘The Dovekeepers’ is based on Alice Hoffman’s acclaimed historical novel about four extraordinary women whose lives intersect in a fight for survival at the siege of Masada. Set in ancient Israel, ‘The Dovekeepers’ is based on true events of Masada in 70 CE. After being forced out of their home in Jerusalem by the Romans, 900 Jews were ensconced in a fortress at Masada, a mountain in the Judean desert.

Loosely based. Background here and links.

Herodian public buildings under Western Wall plaza

TEMPLE MOUNT WATCH: Western Wall plaza dig reveals structures dating back to Herod. ‘Significant, beautiful’ remains, including lavish public buildings, found by archaeologists 20 meters from — but not under — Temple Mount. (The Times of Israel).
The ongoing excavations, which are taking place beneath the Western Wall plaza in the former Mughrabi Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, feature a Mamluk-era caravansary dating to the Middle Ages and remains of lavish public buildings from the Herodian period, over 2,000 years ago, some 20 meters (65 feet) from the Temple Mount.

Reflections on the Babylonian New Year

THE AKITU FESTIVAL: Slapping the king on the cheek in ancient Babylon. The humiliation of the king during the New Year ritual served a double purpose. (Alexander Zvielli, Jerusalem Post). Excerpt:
It was only after the king finished this list of assurances, well prepared ahead of time, that the chief priest struck him hard upon the cheek, with an open hand but as strongly as he could. The blow had to be decisive and hard, for according to tradition tears had to flow from the king’s eyes as an indication that Bel (and his wife Beliya) were friendly, an omen which purported to assure king’s future success and the prosperity of the country. If there were no tears, this signified that Bel was angry, and thus that enemies were expected to rise up and bring about the king’s downfall. It is not known whether the rite could be repeated if tears failed to appear at the first stroke. But if the performance was satisfactory, and there was a steady flow of tears, then the arms, the scepter and the crown were restored to the king, who was now expected to be prosperous and could rule safely for another year.

The priests of the huge Assyrian or Babylonian temples were rather a sophisticated lot. Their knowledge of writing, astronomy and the basic rules of a prosperous religious establishment, their role as teachers, top officials in a good and efficient government, secured for them the top position on the social scale. They were the real power behind the throne and could postpone a new king’s official coronation and recognition for several years, until he had proved himself successful in battle, in the taxation of his own people and the well-organized armed plunder of foreign lands. The priests and their temples were the first to receive a share (the largest) of the tribute and plunder: innumerable slaves, gold, silver, wood, concubines and singers brought to them by the king’s conquests and robberies of the foreign lands. The priests taught the king and his chosen ancestors how to discipline the people and the army, all for their own benefit.

However, the humiliation of the king during the New Year ritual served a double purpose: It demonstrated to the king that without his crown, sword and scepter he was just another ordinary mortal, whose fate depended on the mighty gods and their humble servants.

He might have been all-powerful, ruling over the entire world, but the pain of being hit in the face in this manner was meant to make him humble, more aware of his duties and obligations, inspiring him to take care of his promises, or face consequences.
As for the political reflections, we've all encountered bureaucrats and politicians whom we thought could benefit from slapping, but it doesn't seem to have made the ancient Mesopotamian rulers notably more humble.

UPDATE: A couple of earlier posts on the Akitu Festival are here and here.

UPDATE (1 October): More here.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Hugoye 17.2

HUGOYE: JOURNAL OF SYRIAC STUDIES has published a new issue: Volume 17.2 (Summer 2014). Follow the link for the TOC and for links to the articles, etc., all online for free. This one has articles on Garshuni, plus the usual conference and project reports and book reviews.

Congratulations to Eelco Glas

FELLOWSHIP: Eelco Glas new Florentino García Martínez Research Master Scholar.
The Qumran Institute of the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen is delighted to announce that the second Florentino García Martínez Research Master Scholarship for excellent students has been awarded to Eelco Glas. Prof. Mladen Popovic presented him with the scholarship during the opening of the Academic Year in the Der Aa-kerk in Groningen on 3 September 2014.
Plus you get flowers with this one!

Follow the link for more information. And note this: "The call for applications for the Florentino García Martínez Scholarship for next year’s cohort in the Faculty’s Research Master in Religion and Culture will be published soon."

Last year's winner was noted here.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Sarshar, The Jews of Iran

The Jews of Iran: The History, Religion and Culture of a Community in the Islamic World
Houman Sarshar (author)

Hardback | In Stock | £60.00

Living continuously in Iran for over 2700 years, Jews have played an integral role in the history of the country. Frequently understood as a passive minority group, and often marginalized by the Zoroastrian and succeeding Muslim hegemony, the Jews of Iran are instead portrayed in this book as having had an active role in the development of Iranian history, society, and culture. Examining ancient texts, objects, and art from a wide range of times and places throughout Iranian history, as well as the medieval trade routes along which these would have travelled, The Jews of Iran offers in-depth analysis of the material and visual culture of this community. Additionally, an exploration of more modern accounts of Jewish women’s experiences sheds light on the social history and transformations of the Jews of Iran from the rule of Cyrus the Great (c. 600–530 BCE) to the Iranian Revolution of 1978/9. This long view of the Jewish cultural influence on Iran’s social, economic, and political development makes this book a unique contribution to the field of Judeo-Iranian studies and to the study of Iranian history.

Review of Calderon, A Bride for One Night

Ruth Calderon. A Bride for One Night: Talmud Tales. Trans. Ilana Kurshan. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press; Jewish Publication Society, 2014. xx + 163 pp. ISBN 978-0-8276-1209-9; ISBN 978-0-8276-1164-1; ISBN 978-0-8276-1165-8; ISBN 978-0-8276-1163-4.

Reviewed by Daniel Rosenberg
Published on H-Judaic (September, 2014)
Commissioned by Matthew A. Kraus
Her retellings are often gems, consistent with the best art of modern midrash of biblical texts, and compelling literary works in their own right. Her writing shows her to be a consummate and sensitive teacher who is deeply learned: in every paragraph of her retellings, explicit references to the full breadth of traditional Talmud study and history resonate to the mind’s ear of the classically and academically trained reader, and yet are presented accessibly and gently to the reader for whom this is the first encounter with them.
But the reviewer does have some reservations about the book from an academic perspective.

More on Ruth Calderon and her book is here and links.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Cairo Geniza at JTS

THE NEW YORK TIMES: The Cairo Geniza, Under Piecemeal Restoration (Eve M. Kahn).
Experts at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan are puzzling over curly bits of ancient paper recovered from a closet in a Cairo synagogue. Boxfuls of the formerly soggy and bug-infested fragments are undergoing delicate repairs and digitization in the hope that the texts can be reunited, at least virtually, with the rest of their manuscript pages, which are scattered at institutions worldwide.

In the late 1800s, European and American scholars, dealers and curiosity seekers took home parts of the trove, known as the Cairo Geniza, a Hebrew word for treasury. No one knows why Jews then did not follow the custom of burying their ruined paperwork. The material may have been torn apart intentionally, to prevent non-Jews from desecrating it, or accidentally, through mishandling.

The documents date to the ninth century and contain a babel of poetry, prayers, recipes, legal and family correspondence, doodles and accounting tallies, in languages including Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic and Judeo-Arabic. The layers of multicultural handwriting represent centuries of peaceful relations among Muslims and Jews in Arab lands.

The article has some interesting details about the conservation and digitization process. The Times also had a piece on work on the Cairo Geniza at Tel Aviv University last year, noted here. There is more on digitization of the Geniza fragments in the links in that post too. And for more on the Cairo Geniza, see here and oh so many links.

Also, a small correction to the above article. The final quoted paragraph implies that all the documents from the Cairo Geniza date to the ninth century. In fact, only a few are that early. The date range of the fragments is from about the ninth century or a little earlier all the way up to when the Geniza was cleared out in the late nineteenth century. But despite their relatively late date, some of the fragments are of comparatively very early manuscripts of classic Jewish texts such as the Mishnah, Talmud, Midrashim, Piyyutim, etc.

Phoenician alphabet sculpture

PHOENICIAN WATCH: One woman’s quest to bring the Phoenician alphabet to life (Elise Knutsen, Lebanon Daily Star).
BEIRUT: If identity crisis is among the most common pathologies suffered by Lebanese, Nayla Romanos Iliya has found the remedy, or at least the one for her. After living abroad for more than 20 years, Romanos Iliya rekindled an appreciation of her Lebanese heritage by creating sculptures based on the Phoenician alphabet. Born and raised in Beirut, Romanos Iliya was educated in French schools during the Civil War, before choosing to study architecture and design at the American University of Beirut.

It's good to have a hobby.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Astronomical discovery

CODEX CLIMACI RESCRIPTUS: Scholars Discover Early Astronomical Drawings. Undergraduate Students with Green Scholars Initiative Find 1,500-Year-Old Drawings of Constellations Hidden in Ancient Biblical Manuscript.
OKLAHOMA CITY, Sept. 19, 2014—

Museum of the Bible announced today that undergraduate students with its Green Scholars Initiative have discovered what may be among the earliest-known classical drawings of celestial constellations hidden under a layer of Greek text in a 1,500-year-old biblical manuscript. Additionally, the student-scholars at Tyndale House, an institution associated with the University of Cambridge, found the earliest manuscript attributed to Eratosthenes in the same document. The Greek mathematician, geographer and astronomer was the first to calculate the Earth’s circumference, the tilt of its axis and the inventor of geography.

The research, conducted in 2012 and 2013 at Cambridge, also uncovered the earliest copy of the opening of a work by Aratus, a Greek poet who was one of the first to write about constellations and other celestial phenomena.

The discoveries were made as students used high-tech, multispectral imaging on the Codex Climaci Rescriptus, an ancient codex purchased in 2009 as part of the Green Collection, one of the world’s largest private collections of rare biblical texts and artifacts. This is a palimpsest manuscript, meaning the writing underneath was rubbed out and written over as ancient scribes repurposed costly parchment in order to create a new document.

Follow the link for more details. Regular readers will recall that this manuscript is a palimpsest (i.e., a lower layer of writing has been erased and then over-written with new text). The top layer of writing has biblical texts in Greek, but the erased writing is gradually being recovered and includes biblical and other material in Aramaic, and now this. Background on the Codex Climaci Rescriptus is here and links. It was bought at auction in 2009 for the Green Collection (but cf. also here), about which there has been much controversy recently. I blog, you decide.

Esoteric and mystical traditions in b. Hagigah

THIS WEEK'S DAF YOMI COLUMN BY ADAM KIRSCH IN TABLET: The Talmud’s Mysticism Is Too Mindblowing Even for Its Students. Tread carefully, the rabbis warn, when seeking to understand creation or envision God.
Last week, Daf Yomi readers made the acquaintance of two angels: the Angel of Death, who shepherds the generations to the grave, and Duma, who rules over souls in the underworld. But this week, as we started chapter 2 of Tractate Chagiga, we plunged much deeper into the murky realms of the supernatural, as the rabbis pondered the two great secrets of Jewish mysticism: the account of Creation and the account of the Chariot. These subjects, the Talmud warns, are not to be taught promiscuously; they are so profound, and so potentially disturbing, that they can only be studied under strict limits. The “act of Creation,” we read in Chagiga 11b, can be taught only to one student at a time, and the Chariot—the name for the prophet Ezekiel’s baroque vision of the Godhead—cannot be taught at all. It must be studied alone, and then only if the student is “wise and understands on his own.”

There follows a good summary of the esoteric and mystical material in tractate Hagigah. Kirsch concludes:
Reading these pages, I couldn’t help wondering what the effect of reading Chagiga must have been on generations of Talmud students. Almost all of the Talmud, at least all that I’ve read so far, is extremely rational, lucid, and mundane. It approaches law with the tools of logic and strrives relentlessly for clear, full explanations of problems. No one could read, say, Tractate Eruvin and get carried away by spiritual raptures: You’re too busy trying to visualize right angles and calculate distances. Imagine spending years of your youth learning to think in this way and then coming upon Chagiga: It would be like entering a different world, in which logic flies out the window and all is allegory, vision, and dream. The accounts of the Creation and the Chariot feed a religious appetite that most of the Talmud seems designed to starve. What excitement these pages must have offered, what stimulus to imagination!

Too much stimulus, in fact—which is why the rabbis insisted so much on the need to restrict mysticism to the most sober and mature students. In Chagiga 14b, we read one of the most famous anecdotes in the whole Talmud, the one about the four sages who “entered the orchard”—that is, delved into supernatural mysteries—and what happened to them. Ben Azzai “glimpsed” God and immediately died; Ben Zoma glimpsed God and lost his mind; Elisha ben Avuya “chopped down the shoots,” meaning that he became an apostate. (His name is never mentioned in the Talmud, where he is referred to only as Acher, “the other.”) Only “Rabbi Akiva came out safely,” able to live with the divine knowledge he had gained. Clearly, the odds are stacked against the Jewish mystic. But in a tradition built around the pursuit of knowledge, it’s no wonder that so many generations of Jews refused to remain content with ignorance and made their ways, in fear and trembling, into the orchard.
It is likely that the compilers of the Babylonian Talmud were familiar, and not entirely comfortable with, some of the mystical traditions now preserved in the Hekhalot literature, on which more here and links, and more recently here, here, and here. There is a vast secondary literature on the subject, some recent volumes of which are noted here, here, here, and here. And I have some posts involving the story of the Four Who Entered Paradise here, here, here, and here and links.

Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.