Monday, April 02, 2007

leil shimurim

In the book of Shmot (12:42) we find a very well known description of the night of (or preceding) the Exodus and describing all future Seder nights:

לֵיל שִׁמֻּרִים הוּא לַה', לְהוֹצִיאָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: הוּא-הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה לַה', שִׁמֻּרִים לְכָל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְדֹרֹתָם.

The JPS translates this verse as follows:

"That was for the Lord a night of vigil to bring them out of the land of Egypt; that same night is the Lord's, one of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages".
There are many explanations and interpretations of ליל שמורים leil shimurim - "night of vigil". They generally are based on the idea that the root שמר means "to watch, keep, protect" - but who was watching who and when? Was God watching the Jews? Are the Jews to keep the holiday? Is there still protection on that night? I won't go into all these issues, but Sarna points out an interesting irony. The Talmud notes that on the night of Pesach the Jews are under greater protection, however during the Middle Ages in Christian Europe, they actually had to be more vigilant, for the Christians would accuse them with the blood libel specifically on Pesach night.

However, this is not the only way to understand "leil shimurim". The Ramban hints to a different approach in his commentary (Chavel translation):

The intent of this is "that this night set aside by God to bring Israel out of Egypt is unto the Eternal. That is to say, it is to be sanctified to His Name. [It is] a night of watching for all the children of Israel throughout their generations, meaning that they are to observe it by worshiping Him through the eating of the Passover-offering, the remembering of the miracles, and the reciting of praise and thanksgiving to His name", just as He said And thou shalt keep this ordinance (Shmot 13:10) And He further said, Observe the month of Aviv, and keep the Passover (Devarim 16:1).

Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra explained that the intent of the expression, It was a night of watching unto the Eternal, is that God watched the Israelites and did not suffer the destroyer to come into their homes. This is not correct, since Scripture continues to state, It was a night of watching ... for bringing them out from the Land of Egypt.

The Ramban is saying here that leil shimurim means more than just that the Jews were protected on that night, but rather on that night they need to eat the Pesach sacrifice, remember the miracles and praise God - in other words, the Seder experience. Kaddari, in addition to quoting the Ramban, points out that shimurim has an Arabic cognate that means "stay awake all night" (this could of course be connected back to the word shomer meaning "guard", for guards stay awake all night.)

Goldschmidt in his Haggadah, quotes Derenbourg as saying that the Arabic word samara means to "entertain all night", and the Bedouins sit in front of their tents at night talking in what is called Samaroun. If the linguistic connection is accurate, then the story of the Rabbis staying up all night discussing the Exodus has a strong basis in the phrase leil shimurim.

The root שמר has many derivatives in Hebrew, most of them with a clear connection to each other: shomer שומר - "guard", shamran שמרן - "conservative", mishamer משמר - "preservative". However, I had trouble connecting one particular word, shmarim שמרים - "yeast", to this set.

Passing Phrase also has trouble making a connection, and provides this conjecture:

The root of the word "meshamer" is ShMR, which means watch or keep. Anything that is made to stay a long time is called "meshumar" (Jerusalem Talmud Pesachim 34). In modern Hebrew, products in cans which can stick around until the next war or electrical outage would be called "shemurim." Long life milk would be "chalav meshumar" or "chalav amid." Interesting enough, from the same root, we have the word for yeast, "shemarim." I guess it's related because it has to be watched after you add it to the dough.

While it's a good guess, I don't think it's accurate historically.

We find the word shemarim in a few locations in the Bible, and throughout Rabbinic literature as well. In all of these sources, it only means "lees, dregs" - the residue remaining after wine ferments. Klein connects this word back to the root שמר - meaning "to keep" - what is "kept" after the fermentation process. (As an aside, my kids tend to mix up the concept of שמר as "saving" and "watching". When we say we're going out for the night, they often ask "Who will save on us?", a literal translation of מי ישמור עלינו - "who will watch us?".)

Now it's true that yeast is what creates the fermentation, and the residue is formed of dead yeast. But the origin of the word shemarim seems to indicate that it always meant "residue, remnant", and never meant active yeast. Additionally, Ben Yehuda's dictionary does not include one source that mentions shemarim in the context of baking bread or cakes, although this is the common meaning in Modern Hebrew (Even-Shoshan defines shemarim first as yeast, second as lees.). I do see that according to the Hebrew Language Academy site, in a 1938 dictionary of kitchen terms has reference to shemarim as yeast, and ugat shmarim עוגת שמרים as yeast cake. But it is not clear to me why Ben Yehuda didn't include this meaning. I'd be very happy to hear from any readers who can show me a source that discusses the development of the word.

In the meantime, I did find this interesting post by Orrin Tilevitz on Mail-Jewish, which discusses a common misconception - that yeast is forbidden on Pesach:

To the extent this myth exists - and I don't know anybody who thinks baking soda and baking powder are inherently not kosher for Passover - it may be a result of the widespread mistranslation of the word "se'or" (see, e.g., Exodus 12:15). Beginning with the King James and continuing through the original JPS and the current Art Scroll translations, the word is rendered as "leavening", which could include baking powder and soda - or, for that matter, egg whites. I once spoke to an Orthodox rabbi who told me that "se'or" meant yeast, and therefore yeast was inherently prohibited on Pesach. (My response was to ask whether he drank wine on Pesach, a question lost on him because he seemed not to understand what fermentation was.) But se'or doesn't mean any of these things. It actually means "sourdough starter" (see, e.g., Rav Saadia Gaon's commentary, and the supercommentary on it, in Torat Chaim), which is a mixture of flour, water and yeast spores from that air, that is left to ferment, in the process of which the yeast grows. AFIK, until recent times sourdough starter was the leavening agent in bread; bakers in chazal's era did not have yeast as a separate product.
So perhaps Ben Yehuda wasn't aware of yeast as we know it today (despite the relatively short gap between his death in 1922 and the publication of that cookbook in 1938.)

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