Wednesday, April 27, 2011

baal and adon

When I was in eighth grade, I asked a rabbi a question. If we believe in only one God, why is God’s name in Hebrew a plural? I know I was thinking of the name Elohim אלו-הים, but I might have also been thinking of Adonai אדנ-י (which would seem to mean "my Lords"). I don’t believe the rabbi ever directly answered me, but did say something like, “Now that’s a good question.” My understanding at the time was that there was some significant theological significance to the plural forms. In more recent years, I would have assumed that some secular biblical scholars might attribute the plural forms to a polytheistic origin of the Israelite religion.

But due to a question a friend recently asked me, I’ve realized that the plural form doesn’t necessarily say much about the nature of God at all.  She asked why is it that a husband (in Hebrew) is a baal בעל, but the (single) owner (of a pet, or a company) is called baalim בעלים. (We've seen the phenomenon of a plural noun being treated as a singular one before, in our discussions about tavlin and Artzot Habrit.) At first I thought this might be a phenomenon only in Modern Hebrew, but I found baalim meaning "owner" a number of times in Biblical Hebrew (e.g. Shemot 21:29, Yishaya 1:3, Kohelet 5:12) and in the Mishna (Bava Metzia 8:1) as well. After digging a little deeper, I found that the same rule applies to the synonym adon אדון. While the singular form (referring to people, not God) is found in the Tanach (also on one occasion meaning “husband”, Bereshit 18:12), it is frequently found in the plural form adonim אדונים, even though that word is used as a singular meaning "lord, master" (see Yishaya 19:4, Malachi 1:6, and the many cases of אדוניך adonecha and אדוניו adonav in the story of Avraham's servant and the story of Yosef. In no place in the Tanach do the words אדונו or אדונך appear.)

Why is this? Both Rav Hirsch in his commentary on Bereshit 1:1 and Shadal in his essay "Tzelem Elohim" (printed in the collection Mechkerei HaYahadut, pg. 225) explain it as showing full sovereignty and authority over the subject (see also Rashi on Bereshit 35:7).

Hirsch writes:

Using a plural form to designate a plentitude of powers combined in one person is moreover by no means unusual in expressions of mastery and power in the Hebrew language, such as אדנים, בעלים. They always designate a person who possesses the various powers which rule over any object, to whom, accordingly, this object completely subjected in every direction.
Shadal adds that if adon was written in the singular, you might think that the subject would have this master, and additional masters as well.

Some people have claimed that because baal means both owner and husband, this implies that in Judaism the husband "owns" his wife. But as we have seen, there are two different words - baalim for owner, and baal for husband.

The case in Hoshea 2:18

וְהָיָה בַיּוֹם-הַהוּא נְאֻם-ה', תִּקְרְאִי אִישִׁי; וְלֹא-תִקְרְאִי-לִי עוֹד, בַּעְלִי

where in the future we will call God ishi אישי instead of baali בעלי (in the analogy of God as the husband and Israel as the wife) is referring to the negative connotations the word baal got from association with the Semitic deity “Ba’al”, as evidenced from the following verse:
וַהֲסִרֹתִי אֶת-שְׁמוֹת הַבְּעָלִים, מִפִּיהָ; וְלֹא-יִזָּכְרוּ עוֹד, בִּשְׁמָם
For I will remove the names of the Baalim from her mouth, and they shall nevermore be mentioned by name.
So we should not learn from it the nature of the husband / wife relationship in Judaism, although there are those in Israel who prefer to use "ishi" for husband based on this verse.(For more on ish and isha, see this post.)

In any case, the above principle applies to the title Elohim as well. It too has a few uses in the Bible where it refers to people, although it overwhelmingly is a term used for God. But the plurality here is, as Ibn Ezra says in his commentary on Bereshit 1:1, a “plural of respect” (pluralis excellentiae in Latin). This is similar to the “royal we” (pluralis maiestatis/majestatis in Latin) except that in general we don’t find cases of the sovereign referring to themselves in the plural. (For an excellent review of the meaning and usage of Elohim in the Tanakh, see the chapter “The Knowledge of God” in Man and God: Studies in Biblical Theology, by R’ Eliezer Berkovitz.)

In addition to the definitions “husband” and “owner”, baal is a prefix in compounds meaning “possessing”, as in baal habayit בעל הבית – “landlord, host”, baal kriya בעל קריאה (or the Yiddish influenced, more popular, although less grammatically correct baal koreh בעל קורא) – “the Torah reader” (who possesses the knowledge of how to read), and baal teshuva בעל תשובה – a Jew who has returned to following the laws of the Torah, literally “master of return” (in Israeli Hebrew chozer b’teshuva חוזר בתשובה seems more popular.) However, the phrases baal-peh בעל פה - "orally", and baal-korcho בעל-כרחו - "against his will" do not use our word baal, but rather the letter bet as a prefix followed by the preposition al על.

Yet, while baal had the sense of “possessing” even in Biblical Hebrew, adon was used either to refer to God or a “master” even through Rabbinic Hebrew. Since slavery is no longer practiced, and even political leaders do not have full sovereignty over citizens today, that took the punch out of the second meaning of adon. Today it is almost entirely used to mean "mister" or “sir”. This meaning was lost (either deliberately or not) on the New York Times journalist David Shipler, who wrote in 1984 that Arab cab drivers in Israel refer to Israelis as “My Lord”. As Shmuel Katz (here) and David Bar-Illan (here) pointed out, calling someone “adon” or “adoni” does not necessarily suggest any respect, perhaps actually the opposite…

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

shabbat hagadol

The Shabbat before Pesach is known as Shabbat Hagadol שבת הגדול - "The Great Sabbath". While the phrase "shabbat hagadol" appears in other contexts earlier in Rabbinic literature (such as in the Retze section of Birkat Hamazon), it is first mentioned as the shabbat before Pesach in the works of Rashi.

For example, in his book Sefer Hapardes, Rashi begins his explanation of the reason for this title by writing:

People are accustomed to calling the shabbat before Pesach "Shabbat Hagadol", but they do not know what makes this shabbat greater than any other. 

He then continues:

The Children of Israel went out of Egypt on a Thursday, as is recorded in Seder Olam. They prepared the lamb for the Pesach sacrifice on the previous shabbat, on the tenth of Nisan. When they were instructed to do so, they wondered: "If we sacrifice an animal which the Egyptians hold sacred, before their very eyes, they will surely stone us." But God told them: "Now you see the wondrous things which I will do for you." The Children of Israel thereupon each took a lamb and kept it for four days. When the Egyptians saw this, they wanted to rise up and take revenge, but they were stricken with all kinds of horrible afflictions and could do no harm to the Children of Israel. Because of the miracles which God performed on that day, the Shabbat before Pesach, it became known as Shabbat Hagadol.

This is a popular explanation, but it is possible to sense from his introduction that Rashi is giving one answer to a question that many people had asked over the years. And in fact, there are many other explanations given for the origin of the name.

Others say that the reason is found in the Haftara read on that day (according to the Levush only when that shabbat is the day immediately before Pesach), describing Messianic times,  and ends with the verse from Malachi 3:23:

הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ לָכֶם, אֵת אֵלִיָּה הַנָּבִיא--לִפְנֵי, בּוֹא יוֹם ה', הַגָּדוֹל, וְהַנּוֹרָא

Behold, I will send you Eliya the prophet before the coming of the great (hagadol) and terrifying day of God.

Just like other special shabbatot are named for their haftara (Shabbat Chazon, Shabbat Nachamu, Shabbat Shuva), according to this approach so is Shabbat Hagadol. Some point out that because it is named for the word, the day is called Shabbat Hagadol instead of Shabbat Gadol.

Others use the verse to answer the question why, if the word shabbat is feminine, why isn't the day called Shabbat Hagedola? However, this isn't such a serious question, as we find shabbat as a masculine noun in Biblical Hebrew - shabbat b'shabbato שבת בשבתו (Bamidbar 28:10, Yeshaya 66:23) and shomer shabbat mechalelo שומר שבת מחללו (Yeshaya 56:2). And later in Rabbinic Hebrew, shabbat appears in the masculine in the Amida prayer of Shaharit on shabbat - veyanuchu bo וינוחו בו, and in the greeting shabbat shalom u'mevorach שבת שלום ומבורך.

However, there are those that reject this explanation, since the other haftarot are all named for the first word read, and Shabbat Hagadol does not fit this pattern. Fishbane, in the JPS Haftarot points out that the connection between Shabbat Hagadol and the "great day" in the haftara is too obvious: certainly Rashi and others would have mentioned it had they read this haftara on that day. According to this article, both the Tur and the Levush claim that the haftara was chosen after the day had already been known as Shabbat Hagadol.

Another possible explanation (mentioned by the Shibolei Haleket) relates to the custom on that shabbat of the rabbi giving a long drasha (sermon) - maybe the longest of the year. This shabbat is compared to Yom Kippur, which is also called a "great fast" צומא רבה (Peah 7:4) because of the long prayers (not because of the length of the fast, which is the same as Tisha B'Av).. There are those that temper the cynicism of this approach by saying that it does refer to the sermon, but the day is called "great" because of the importance of the speech, the congregation or the rabbi, not as a complaint to its length. Others say that the custom of the drasha came after the name had been established, but it was originally called a long shabbat because many additional prayers were added on that day.

Other less familiar reasons given include:

  • Just like a child becomes an adult (gadol) when he accepts the mitzvot (bar mitzva), so too did the Jews when they accepted their first mitzva.
  • In the Torah, the omer offering is brought ממחרת השבת - the day following shabbat. According to Rabbinic tradition (and in opposition to the Sadducees and Karaites) the "shabbat" referred to in the verse is the first day of Pesach. So Shabbat Hagadol refers to the seventh day of the week, as compared to a lesser type of shabbat (in terms of prohibitions) on the first day of the holiday.
  • According to a midrash, during their slavery in Egypt the Jews did not work on shabbat. However, immediately following shabbat they would need to return to work (there's a parallel expression in the Israeli army - "every shabbat has a motzei shabbat", since soldiers can't be punished on shabbat itself). However, on this shabbat, the Jews were no longer slaves, so they didn't need to fear returning to their labors.
  • Some sources, particularly from Medieval Italian Jewry, seem to indicate that perhaps the Shabbat before every holiday was called "Shabbat Hagadol". However, it is possible that the name spread from the Shabbat before Pesach to the other holidays, instead of the other way around.

Although we stated that the name Shabbat Hagadol first appears as the shabbat before Pesach in Rashi's time, there are those (such as Zunz and later Safrai in the Haggadah of the Sages) who believe that it was probably called that going back much earlier. They note that in early Christian sources, such as John 19:31, we find mention of a "great sabbath". Therefore the term must have been used by Jews at the time. However, others reject this approach. For example, Sacha Stern in Calendar and Community: A History of the Jewish Calendar, 2nd Century BCE to 10th Century CE writes that the passage "is not relevant as it refers to the Sabbath following Passover" (along with other objections).

As usual, when we have so many explanations, the chance of any one of them being correct decreases. However, when it comes to Pesach - we have a tradition of asking many questions and studying as much as possible. So perhaps the origin of the name was not made clear so we could continue to learn about it every year...