November 8, 2013

Legends of Luz

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3), opens with Jacob, en route from his parents’ home to the land of his mother’s people. He stops for the night and dreams of a ladder, its top in heaven and its bottom on earth, with angels traveling up and down. In the dream, God is “standing over him” and speaking to him. Upon awakening, Jacob names the place “Beth-El [House of God].” The Torah adds: “but previously the name of the city had been Luz.”

Rabbinic and later Jewish tradition offer a variety of comments on the two place names and their connection to Jacob’s experience. This post and tomorrow’s briefly explore two of these name-threads:

Immortal City

In Biblical Hebrew, “luz/לוז” means “almond” or “almond tree.” According to ancient legend, Luz was an interesting and important place:

And the man went into the land of the Hittites, and built a city, and called the name thereof Luz: which is the name thereof unto this day [Judges 1:26]. It has been taught: That is the Luz in which they dye the blue [tekhelet];* that is the Luz against which Sennacherib marched without disturbing it,** against which Nebuchadnezzar marched without destroying it, and even the Angel of Death has no permission to pass through it, but when the old men there become tired of life they go outside the wall and then die.
–Babyonian Talmud, 46b

Soncino Notes:
—*For the fringes (Num. XV, 38). The purpose of this statement and what follows is to illustrate the words ‘which is the name thereof unto this day’, showing that the city survived destruction and still exists.
—**By not plundering it and exiling the inhabitants.

Howard Schwartz, in Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism (see Source Materials), describes expansions of this legend. In Genesis Rabbah, the city is hidden by a large almond tree; inside the tree is a cave through which those who wish to die pass.

(Schwartz and many others say James Hilton’s Shangri-la is based on Luz, but other cultures have immortal-city legends, so I’m not sure about this.)

At least one Talmudic tale concerning Luz raises questions about the concept of a place where death cannot reach.

Where One Is Wanted

This story, found in tractate Sukkah and retold by Schwartz, makes a number of folklore-type assumptions: King Solomon is on chatting terms with the Angel of Death. Solomon commands spirits. Kingly duties include helping individual subjects out of trouble (like having the Angel of Death after them). It takes for granted the idea that death cannot visit Luz.

There were once two Cushites who attended on Solomon, and these were Elihoreph and Ahyah, the sons of Shisha, scribes [Kings 4:3], of Solomon. One day Solomon observed that the Angel of Death was sad. ‘Why’, he said to him, ‘art thou sad?’ — ‘Because’, he answered him, ‘they [in Heaven] have demanded from me the two Cushites who sit here.’ [Solomon thereupon] gave them in charge of the spirits* and sent them to the district of Luz.** When, however, they reached the [gate of the] district of Luz they died.

On the following day he observed that the Angel of Death was in cheerful spirits. ‘Why’, he said to him, ‘art thou cheerful?’ — ‘To the place’, the other replied, ‘where they expected them from me, thither didst thou send them.’ Solomon thereupon uttered the saying, ‘A man’s feet are responsible
for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted.’
— Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 53a

Soncino Notes:
—*Over whom Solomon had dominion (cf. Meg. 11b, on I Chron. XXIX, 23).
—**To save them from death. V. Gen. XXVIII, 19 and Judg. I, 23. Owing probably to the identification of this word with the one meaning ‘the indestructible bone of the vertebra’ (Lev. R., XVIII) tradition says that the Angel of Death had no power in Luz (v. Sot. 46b).

This story is surrounded by others exploring the concept of providence.

Another View of Luz

A contemporary teacher offers classes from a “spiritual laboratory” he calls “City of Luz.” Joel David Bakst says City of Luz is “an inter-dimensional city of higher consciousness that unites all branches of knowledge and fields of experience.” He links the website’s name to Jacob’s dream, mentioning that Luz is also known as the House of God [Beth El, see above] and the Gate to Heaven (Gen. 28:17).


Luz and NaBloPoMo

The Hebrew word “Luz/לוז” begins with a lamed. Lamed has the numerical equivalent of 30. This is the only apparent connection of today’s post to the number 30. I happened upon this city’s odd background in reviewing this week’s Torah reading. Tomorrow’s post will, then, have an even more tangential relationship to “thirty” — except that all Torah is connected….

As part of NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month), a cousin of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), “A Song Every Day” plans thirty daily posts with some connection to the number 30.NaBloPoMo_November_blogroll_large

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Breishit, literary analysis, mysticism, mythology, NaBloPoMo, Sotah, Sukkah

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