Tetzaveh: Something to Notice

Outside the Curtain

“You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly [ner tamid]. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the LORD. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.”
— Exodus/Shemot 27:20-21, JPS/Plaut*
[English bracketed words in the original]

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Tetzaveh: A Path to Follow

A bell and a pomegranate: erotic poetry and bellman’s verses…

And you shall make on its hem pomegranates of indigo and purple and crimson, on its hem all around, and golden bells within them all around. A golden bell and a pomegranate [paamon zahav v’rimon], a golden bell and a pomegranate, on the hem of the robe all around [al shulei hamil saviv].

A golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate. The sheer splendor of the ornamentation is evoked in poetic incantation through the repetition of the phrase. Judah Halevi, the great medieval Hebrew poet, echoes these words in a delicate, richly sensual love poem, registering an imaginative responsiveness to the sumptuous sensuality of the language here.
— Exodus/Shemot 28:33-34, Alter**

Alter doesn’t give a citation for the “delicate, richly sensual love poem,” its name or first line. (Alas, poor footnote, I knew him well!)*

It seems likely that Alter is referencing the poem T. Carmi, The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse,** entitles “Song of Farewell” or “Why, O Fair One?”:

Mah lach, tz’viya, tim’n’i tzirayich
midor, tz’laav malui tzirayich

[Why, O fair one, do you withhold your envoys
from the lover whose heart is filled with pain of you?

lu acharei moti b’aznei yaaleh
kol pa’amon zahav alei shulayich

[Oh, after my death, let me still hear
the sound of the golden bells on the hem of your skirt]
–Judah Halevi, T. Carmi’s translation

This type of poem — using biblical imagery for human, sometimes erotic, themes — is quite different from Halevi’s religious poetry. One interesting path to follow is to read a few of Halevi’s poems — and those of his fellow medieval writers — with different subjects or aims. Consider the contrast between religious and secular uses of biblical language and images, described in Alter’s Canon and Creativity: Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture.**


Double Canonicity

Where Shall I Find You?” — one of Halevi’s religious works — references the Cherubim, for example, from the portion Terumah. This is meant to evoke God’s dwelling place and a longing for a relationship with the divine.

The poem above, on the other hand, uses imagery from the portion Tetzeveh, referencing priestly garb, but unabashedly describes human passion — “radical freedom of allusive play with the Bible” (Alter, p. 47).

Such free use of biblical language might seem blasphemous “from a doctrinal point of view,” Alter writes. “[B]ut the poet does it without compunction, for in his sense of the literary canonicity of the Bible, considerations of doctrine are suspended” (p.50). The Bible, in this view, is a “literary repository of the language of the culture” (p.48).

To read more about Hebrew poets’ varying use of biblical texts, see Canon and Creativity.

*The Bell’s Path

To follow another, somewhat diversionary, path, consider the trail of the bell itself, rather than that of the lush biblical description. Plaut** notes — in reference to Exodus/Shemot 28:34 — that bells were widely used to ward off evil. He cites James Frazer (Folklore in the Old Testament, 1919, and The Golden Bough, 1922), noting that the older work was “updated and republished in Gaster’s book.” This book, in turn —Myth, Legend and Custom in the Old Testament, by Theodor H. Gaster (NY: Harper and Row, 1969) — is listed fully in Plaut’s bibliography and cited by footnote and endnote (yeah!!).

(According to Frazer, as in the poem from Milton here quoted, bells had a prophylactic function, and hence the High Priest was to have a bell attached to his garments so that when he entered the sanctuary he would not die, 28:35)

…the bellman’s drowsy charm
To bless the doors from nightly harm. — John Milton***

What Plaut doesn’t say, but I find interesting, is that night watchmen in the 17th and 18th Centuries CE regaled their customers with rhymes designed to elicit gratuities at the Christmas holidays.

“The benediction which thus broke the stillness of the night was usually cast in a poetical form of such unparalleled atrocity that bellman’s verses have been proverbial ever since” (Frazer , p.456…through Google Books, you can read the entire chapter on “The Golden Bell,” and Frazer cites Lord Macaulay’s History of England, 1871, also available through Google, should you desire further details about bellman and their verses.)

Thus, this one pair of bible verses is associated with some of the best-loved and most reviled poetry ever.** Please see Source Materials for full citations and additional information on Torah translations and commentaries. Note: Tetzaveh is also transliterated Tetsaveh or T’tzavveh.

***Plaut doesn’t name Milton’s poem: Il Penseroso, 1633.

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The “Opening the Book” series is presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.
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Tetzaveh: Language and Translation

You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly [ner tamid]. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting outside the curtain which is over the Pact, from evening to morning before the LORD. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.

[Note:] Kindling lamps regularly. The lights were to be kindled on the lampstand previously described. The translation of [ner tamid] as “perpetual light” or “eternal light” is grammatically inaccurate and is also contradicted by verse 21. (The so-called ner tamid of the synagogue is of much later origin.) — Exodus/Shemot 27:20-21, JPS/Plaut* and commentary

Cassuto* says that tamid is “intrinsically capable of two interpretations: it can mean ‘continuously, without interruption’ — that is the lamps would never be extinguished, either by day or by night; or it can signify ‘regularly’ — that is, the lamps would burn every night; on no night would its light be wanting — as in the expression [olat tamid, ‘continual burnt offering’].” He concludes that the “second sense is more probable” from context.

In addition, Cassuto says that “ner [‘lamp’] is used here in a collective sense: ‘lamps’ or ‘candelabrum.’

For more on the ancient lamp(s), see, e.g., Wikipedia’s article.

Here’s a quick reference on the later, synagogue “ner tamid.” To the right is an example of a new photovoltaic “ner tamid,” designed to save energy; this one was installed at Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, Evanston, IL.


*Please see Source Materials for complete commentary and Torah/translation citations. Note: Tetzaveh is also transliterated Tetsaveh or T’tzavveh.

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The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.
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Tetzaveh: Great Source(s)

“And it [a robe hemmed with bells] shall be upon Aaron when he serves, so that its sound shall be heard when he comes into [v’nishma kolo b’bo-o] the sanctum before the Lord and when he goes out, that he shall not die.”
— Exodus/Shemot 28:31-38, Alter* translation [bracketed material added]

R. Simeon ben Yohai said: The man who enters his own house, or needless to say the house of his fellow man unexpectedly, the Holy One hates, and I too do not exactly love him.

Rav said: Do not enter your city nor even your own home unexpectedly [footnote: without informing your kin of your coming].

While R. Yohanan was about to go in to inquire about the welfare of R. Hanina, he would first clear his throat in keeping with “And his voice shall be heard when he goeth in [v’nishma kolo b’bo-o] ” (Exod. 28:35)
— Bialik & Ravnitsky, Sefer Ha-Aggadah* (citation to Lev Rabbah 21:8)

Alter notes: “In the ancient Near East, the inner sanctum was a dangerous place. Any misstep or involuntary trespass of the sacred paraphernalia could bring death…The sound of the ringing golden bells on Aaron’s hem goes before him as he enters the sanctum, serving an apotropaic function to shield him from harm in this zone of danger.”

Cassuto* says: “…shall be heard… for it is unseemly to enter the royal palace suddenly; propriety demands that the entry should be preceded by an announcement, and the priest should be careful not to go into the sanctuary irreverently. And likewise when he comes out, as he prostrates himself before departing, the sound of the bells, together with the act of prostration, will constitute a kind of parting blessing on leaving the sanctuary. Lest he die for not showing due reverence for the shrine.”

* See Source Materials for full citations. Note: Tetzaveh is also transliterated Tetsaveh or T’tzavveh.

—————————————————————–
The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group which for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.
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