Shavuot

King David’s Mother: She Stands for Us

Shavuot (Pentecost), among its many aspects, is the traditional death date of King David. This is an opportunity to return to my theme “Of King David’s Women,” and this time, I want to tell you about David’s mother. She’s mentioned twice in the Bible, but like most of its female characters, she has no name. And so the sages filled in the blanks in riotous color. They said her name was Nitzevet, which means “standing woman.”

Life in the Hareem. John Lewis (1858). Wikimedia Commons.

In Psalm 69:8, David wrote: “I am a foreigner to my own family, a stranger to my own mother’s children.” Why, the sages asked. They found the answer in the convoluted path David’s family took on its way to establishing the best known dynasty in Judeo-Christian tradition.

David was the great-grandson of the Moabite Ruth, whose story we read on Shavuot and who famously joined her fate to the Israelites. But Jesse, after years of marriage to the Israelite Nitzevet, the mother of his seven sons, suddenly realized that as a prominent public figure, his part-Moabite status was an impediment.

Jewish tradition accords Ruth high honors but the law in Deut. 23:3 explicitly forbade intermarriage with Moabites. So, the sages said, Jesse felt compelled to cast Nitzevet out. This was for Nitzevet’s own good, they said – Jesse didn’t want to impugn Nitzevet’s status as the wife of a despised Moabite.

The separation lasted for three years. Jesse became lonely and wanted more children. And so he took a Canaanite slave woman, who could provide him with a child of unquestionable lineage. This was possible, it was said, because if Jesse were to emancipate the slave, their children could be recognized as full-fledged members of the tribe.

Compassion Births a Plan

What an awkward, painful situation. Nitzevet and the slave woman, living alongside each other, meeting every day at the loom, the grinding stone or over the cooking fire, neither of them with any real way out. And then, out of compassion, the slave woman came up with a plan, using one of the few tools biblical women had: subterfuge. She would switch places with Nitzevet on Jesse’s sleeping pallet that night. This apparently worked well enough, because Nitzevet became pregnant.

But from the moment her pregnancy began to show, Nitzevet’s own sons, ignorant of the bedroom switch, shunned and shamed her as an adulteress. The conscience-panged Jesse forbade his sons to harm her or the child, and eventually Nitzevet gave birth – to David. Jesse recognized the child as his own, although, like some biblical Cinderella, David was relegated to shepherd status, distanced from the family, a “stranger,” “hated without reason” (Psalm 69:4). Only twenty-eight years later – when Samuel the prophet anointed David king of Israel “in the midst of his brothers” (1 Samuel 16:12–13) – was the dignity of both mother and son restored. According to one source, it was at this point that Nitzevet uttered the words ascribed to David in Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected….”

Anointing of David, Veronese, 16th century. Wikimedia Commons.

What’s the Moral?

Some people in their anguish distance themselves from God, and some come closer. David, it was said, was among the latter. Women commentators have put a new gloss on the moral. They say Nitzevet is the one to be admired for bearing her pain with dignity and faith and for passing on her strength to her son David. What’s more, the story of “Standing Woman” doesn’t end in the Bible or its interpretations over the ages. It’s timeless and universal. Nitzevet stands for us. We can change the ending.

 

 

Further reading:

Chana Weisberg, “Nitzevet, Mother of David: the Bold Voice of Silence. https://www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/280331/jewish/Nitzevet-Mother-of-David.htm#comments

The legend of Nitzevet is based, among other sources, on the following sources:

Babylonian Talmud Baba Batra 91a.

Eliyahu KiTov. Sefer HaTodaah, 1958 (Hebrew on line http://sifrei.blogspot.co.il/2014/03/blog-post_9.html, p. 302­–303, the section on Sivan and Shavuot tells about Nitzevet). English translation, Feldheim, 1998.

 Yalkut HaMachiri http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=32637&st=&pgnum=205 (Hebrew).

 

It’s About Then, it’s About Now, it’s About Time

 

 

Disaster, success, gleaning, growing

 

How will this turn out? Will some cataclysmic event occur while it’s underway? What will it mean for our future? Those are the questions we’ve been asking ourselves these days, that’s for sure, but no, they have nothing to do with the recent presidential visit. They are the same questions people have been asking themselves at this season in this part of the world (and not only) for thousands of years. The season? Between Passover and Pentecost, the time of the Counting of the Omer. Omer is the Hebrew word for a measure of grain – equal to about six gallons. In the Holy Land spring, barley and wheat are harvested in the season between Passover and Pentecost. The counting took place over seven weeks, 49 days (Pentecost means “weeks” in Greek).

A grain field at harvest time, near the Yarkon Springs, Israel. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

Hope, anticipation, almost unbearable tension, dread – sound familiar?  We all experience them, but they were hallmarks of this season in that biblical counting of the passing days. In later times, mourning rituals became associated with this period, although no one can say for certain why . Nogah Hareuveni, founder of Neot Kedumim Biblical Landscape Reserve, wrote that it was because the weather in the Holy Land is very capricious around now. With everything from the “latter rains” to hail storms and heat waves, these 49 days of the Omer were “ripe” with potential for either disaster or success of the harvest, putting people into a very somber state of mind. That’s why the Bible commands sacrificing part of a successful harvest in thanksgiving.

Granddaughter Eliah, all decked out with her basket of fruits to take to pre-school to celebrate Shavuot/Pentecost. Photo: Maya Dubinsky

According to a fifteenth-century scholar, Rabbi Yitzhak Arama, Psalm 67, which in Hebrew is said to have 49 words – one for each day of the counting – should be recited each day of the Omer. Have a look at this beautiful piece of Hebrew poetry and notice the universalist sentiment it shares.

And speaking of sharing, like Passover, Pentecost is a holiday Judaism and Christianity share – according to Acts 2, the Holy Spirit descended on a group of Jerusalemites from all over the world during this very festival. If you study more about Pentecost/Shavuot in the Hebrew Scriptures, you will doing one of my favorite things: focusing on what unites us instead of what divides us.

Enlargements of Israeli children’s drawings on the walls of Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv, under the motto: “Embracing our Differences.” Psalm 67 tells us that whatever our differences, we’re all in this together. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

Eventually, Jews began associating the Feast of Weeks with the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, based on the opening verse of Exodus 19, where the words “that same day” seem to mean  the “festival of the giving of the Torah” and the Feast of Weeks/Shavuot/Pentecost coincided on the calendar.

Ruth

On Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth in synagogue. Why? One tradition says Ruth and Naomi came from Moab to Bethlehem around this time of year, and Ruth’s accepting the Israelites as her own people recalls the Israelites’ acceptance of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

The story of Ruth is, among many things, the saga of a widow – one of the most disenfranchised and at-risk members of biblical society – who  leaves home and everything familiar, accompanies her mother-in-law Naomi all the way through the burning desert (a feat in itself, and not only because of the weather…) from Moab east of the Jordan to Naomi’s home in Bethlehem, to embark on a new life.  It is Ruth’s courage and conviction that propel her forward through history, an example to us down to this very day: She  is the ancestress of King David (who, tradition says, died on Shavuot) and as such, earns her place in the genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:5).

And as we read of Ruth gleaning in the fields of Boaz, we learn how Boaz obeyed the biblical injunction to leave the corners of his field unshorn so the poor could take this part of the harvest home (Lev. 23:22). “Why are you so kind to me, to single me out, when I am a foreigner?” (Ruth 2:10), Ruth asks Boaz. In expounding on the connection between this story and Leviticus 23:22, Prof. Judith A. Kates says in the wonderful book Reading Ruth: “Ruth is relying on one of the fundamental principles of Torah law…Leviticus makes it clear that we should understand this obligation as a mode of connection to God…acknowledging that what we have is ultimately a gift to be shared.”

Don’t you agree?

Happy Shavuot/Happy Pentecost!

 

Recommended Reading

Miriam Feinberg Vamosh, Food at the Time of the Bible: From Adam’s Apple to the Last Supper (Herzliya, Israel: Palphot, n.d.)

Nogah Hareuveni, Nature in our Biblical Heritage (Kiryat Ono, Israel: Neot Kedumim, 1980)

Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer (eds.), Reading Ruth (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994)

Where the Language Meets the Land

In honor of the holiday, here are some Hebrew expressions to share with members of your Bible study group – they’ll love learning them!

At Shavuot/Pentecost our holy days once again occur in tandem, as they did on Passover. And of course, it’s more than just the dates on the calendar. Pentecost tells the sacred story of a unique global convergence of languages in Jerusalem. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Shavuot, the end of the period known as the Counting of the Omer, has come to mark the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses at Sinai. It’s also is the time we read the story of Ruth, a woman from another religion and culture, no less than another world in those days, who obstinately entwined her fate with ours; Ruth is the great-grandmother of King David and this, too, is part of the bridge of shared tradition that we work to strengthen.

Ruth, harvesting in the fields of Boaz, detail from a painting by Oleg Trabish. Courtesy: Palphot.

Ruth, harvesting in the fields of Boaz, detail from a painting by Oleg Trabish. Courtesy: Palphot

Another tradition of the Shavuot holiday is an intensive night of Bible study. And so, of all directions I could go this time, I hope this blog will be a gift with value if you love the Hebrew word, like I do. You can build entire Bible studies just around these and many others expressions that I’ll save for another time. And as I did in my blog on Hulda’s tomb, I invite you to contact me and share some some of the biblical expressions you’ve come across that we still use; I’d love to publish them here.

As in any language, “lost in translation” can be a problem with Hebrew.  Hebrew is regarded by some as a simple language because it’s built on roots, as your Hebrew teacher may have explained. That means that once you know one word you know many. But sometimes roots grow in unexpected directions, don’t they? My favorite example comes from an article I recently edited, where the very erudite academic author wrote that he had arrived at his conclusions by “crucifying the information.”  Luckily, my knowledge of Hebrew kicked in, and it took me only the briefest “whaaaa?” moment for me to realize that he actually meant cross-referencing the information! The connection is in the three-letter root tz – l- v which in Hebrew’s economic way, give us crucify, cross reference, crossroad, and many other terms.

But back to Hebrew expressions. Many ancient expressions are still used both in modern Hebrew and in English. Here are some of these and how we use them now:  “nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9) – ho-hum, been there done that; “double-edged sword” (Psalms 149:6; Prov. 5:4, Heb. 4:12) – hey, watch out, that could come back to haunt you; “by the skin of my teeth” (Job 19:20) – whew, that was a close call; and “scapegoat” ­– pin it on some poor guy and head for the hills (Lev. 16:21–26).

Two expressions, still used in Hebrew but that never crossed the translation divide, come from the land itself. I thought of both of them on the trip I am fortunate enough to drive every week now, through some of the most evocative countryside in Israel – to the Jezreel Valley village of Kfar Yezekiel to visit my new grandbaby, Dan.

China and Sinai

 This one doesn’t come from the Bible, but the source is a way to enrich your Bible study; it’s downright cool to be able to drop something into the discourse like “Well, according to the medieval commentator Rashi…”:

The expression is based on verses in the Torah portion we read a few weeks ago: Leviticus 25:1–2. “The Lord spoke to Moses at Mount Sinai: ‘Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land must observe a Sabbath to the Lord.’”

The sign reads: “Here we also keep the Sabbath of the Land”  Mount Gilboa is in the background. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

The sign reads: “Here we also keep the Sabbath of the Land.” To the east, behind the sign, you can see Mount Gilboa in the background. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

As I pass the Megiddo Junction, with Mount Gilboa on my right and the Hill of Moreh straight ahead, I notice a sign put up haphazardly in the field, flanked by grain fields, another symbol of Shavuot, ripening under the spring sun: The sign, surrounded by weeds, says: “This field keeps the Sabbath of rest for the land.” Perhaps surprisingly to some readers, this is not the norm in the Holy Land; hence, the signs that have popped up here and there during this sabbatical year.

The Hebrew word for the “Sabbath of the land” is shmitah.  The expression I want to share with you is  ma inyan shmita etzl Har Sinai? That means “what does the sabbatical of the land have to do with Mount Sinai?” (It’s catchier in Hebrew, trust me.) The abovementioned Rashi, scholars say, asked the question because he wondered why, when the Bible says all the commandments were given from Sinai, this one was singled out as having been given from Mount Sinai (Lev. 25:1). Was it more important than the others? Or was it to say that it is just as important as all the others, even if it doesn’t seem applicable to everyone at all times in all places in the world?

Wild barley ripening near Tel Jezreel. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

Wild barley ripening near Tel Jezreel. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

And so, when Hebrew speakers wonder what in the world one thing, anything, has to do with another, they ask: “What does the sabbatical of the land have to do with Mount Sinai?” (I date myself by recalling a parallel saying: “What does that have to do with the price of tea in China” but actually, since the price of everything in China now has to do with everything in the world  I guess we need a different expression anyhow.)

Adding insult to injury, in a really, really bad way

 The last leg of my weekly journey to grand-Dan takes me past the fascinating biblical archaeological site of Tel Jezreel. Then comes a winding bit of road that dips right down to the valley floor. On the right is a rather jarring sight  – a sort of ski slope, complete with artificial snow and a ski-lift –  a creative attempt by local entrepreneurs to get folks to spend more time and money in the valley after they’ve run out of biblical sites to explore, countryside restaurants to enjoy and hikes to take. Right down the road from the ski slope is the likely location of the vineyard that Queen Jezebel goaded her husband Ahab into stealing from its rightful owner, the hapless Naboth (1 Kings 21). Not only did he steal it, the Bible says, but Jezebel had Naboth framed for blasphemy and executed. Well, along came the prophet Elijah with chilling words that to this day Hebrew newspapers and pundits use when they want to say that so-and-so (usually a politician) has done something not only dastardly, but then doubled up on the dastardliness. The expression is: Haratzakhta vegam yarashta, which means:  “Have you killed and also taken possession?” “Insult to injury,” the equivalent expression in English, pales in comparison, don’t you agree?

 

The Jezreel Valley floor, not far from the likely site of Naboth’s vineyard as seen on a hazy spring day from from Tel Jezreel. Photo:  Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

The Jezreel Valley floor, not far from the likely site of Naboth’s vineyard, as seen on a hazy spring day from Tel Jezreel. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

Your kids and grandkids will enjoy learning about Hebrew language and expressions in Teach it to Your Children, How Kids Lived in Bible Days.

 Read more about Jezebel in  Women at the time of the Bible.

 Read more about Shavuot/the Feast of Weeks in Food at the time of the Bible: From Adam’s Apple to the Last Supper