I attended an excellent performance this evening by the well-known radio personality and Jerusalem storyteller, Jacky Levy. For many years Levy has been telling stories about the old quaint neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Many of these are nostalgia-filled folktales that take place in the synagogues and shops of Nahlaot, where he lived until recently. But for the past few years, Levy has pioneered a new genre of storytelling that wonderfully restores the aggadot (legends) of talmudic literature to orality. The written Hebrew text is projected on a screen for everyone to read, but the storyteller doesn't simply read the words. He spins an elaborate tale out of the terse talmudic text. He adds dialogue peppered with modern slang. He adds contemporary allusions. He even inserts entire stories within the story. It's a bit of a meta-midrash, and it's very impressive when done correctly.
One of the stories that Levy told this evening comes from tractate Sotah of the Jerusalem Talmud (also Leviticus Rabbah 9:9) and contains lots of spitting, both good and bad. How could I have neglected to include this in my previous post? Here is the text in English translation:
This is a wonderful story for many reasons. First, it contains a strong female protagonist who behaves in a surprisingly modern manner. She enters the bet midrash to study Torah with a prominent sage instead of staying home to wait on her husband. Secondly, the wise sage has a sense of humor and is not afraid of dishonoring himself in public. His solution to the marital problem which he created is extremely clever because it satisfies everyone. Similarly, the punch line he delivers at the end is very slick. R. Meir wants to shut up his fawning disciples, so he says something shocking. He initially equates himself with God. But then he quickly turns this blasphemous statement on its head. If God is prepared to dishonor himself (by allowing an inscription containing his holy name to be dissolved in sacral water as part of the Sotah ritual) for the sake of marital peace, should not I be even more willing to dishonor myself? In Carnal Israel, Daniel Boyarin briefly discusses this story, noting that its underlying agenda is to show that "the function of the Sota ordeal was not to find out and punish guilty wives but to remove the jealousy of paranoid husbands, for this husband here is an analogue of the jealous husband of biblical times, and the spitting in the Rabbi's eye is an analogue of the ordeal" (p. 188).
Boyarin is no doubt correct, but I am most interested in how the spitting works in this story. The point of the story is not that Rabbi Meir is so humble that he is willing to have a woman spit in his face. Nor is the point that Rabbi Meir considers domestic peace (שלום בית) more important than his own honor. The point is that Rabbi Meir is able to make everyone happy through his quick thinking. His brilliant solution to the couple's fight is to made possible by the multifaceted meaning of spitting in the ancient world. In the mind of the husband, spitting in Rabbi Meir's face is an insult intended to teach him a lesson for keeping his wife away from home. Meir accepts his punishment but is able to reverse the meaning of this act by re-contextualizing in medical terms. He knows that he will have to get spit at, but he transforms the insult into an act of healing. There is a slight change in the act: rather than spitting once (combatively) in his face, the woman spits seven times (ritually) in his eye. But there is no difference in language between the two kinds of spitting; in both cases the Talmud uses the verb רקק. Here too, Rabbi Meir displays great wisdom. To ensure that the husband does not figure out the ruse, Meir redefines the meaning of seven spittings. Rather than being a ritual charm, seven becomes an illustration of the woman's extra zeal to fulfill her husband's vow.
So what is the lesson that can be learned from all this? Yesterday, I wondered if there is a connection between good and bad spitting in the ancient world. It appears that the answer is absolutely yes. The ancients appreciated the ambiguity of this heavily charged act and even exploited its multiple meanings for dramatic effect.
There has been much talk in the local and international media lately about the despicable behavior of religious Jews towards Christian sites and Christian clergy in and around the Old City of Jerusalem. Much of this has been vandalism of property, such as "price tag" attacks in which racist anti-Christian slogans are spray-painted in Hebrew on the facades of churches. In October, dozens of tombstones in the Mount Zion Protestant Cemetery were smashed. The most infuriating behavior, however, is the routine practice of spitting at Christian clergy as they walk through the streets. While this does not seem to be a totally new practice (Chabad has been spitting during the Aleinu prayer for generations), it has certainly taken off in Jerusalem in the last few years. The phenomenon also extends beyond Christians. In 2011, the spitting by a Haredi man at a seven-year old Jewish girl in Bet Shemesh made national headlines. Unfortunately, Israelis seem much less troubled by the spitting at Christians. Christian clergy get spit at all over the Old City, but the epicenter of this behavior seems to be Mount Zion, which contains several important Christian sites (Dormition Abbey, the Cenacle, Protestant Cemetery). It is also the site of the Diaspora Yeshiva which in recent year has attracted fundamentalist "hilltop youths" evicted from the West Bank by the Israeli police. It is presumed that the latter are responsible for the upswing in spitting incidents as well as many of the price-tag attacks.
All this spitting has got me thinking about the role that saliva plays in Judaism and Christianity. It's pretty obvious that today's Jewish acts of spitting directed at Christians are meant as an insult. Expectoration, like the violent discharge of other bodily fluids, is not usually regarded as an act of love. Yet there are many examples of good spitting in the ancient sources of both religions. Saliva was (and still is) believed to bring about healing, good fortune and to banish evil. Is there a connection between these two kinds of spitting?
Saliva was widely regarded in the ancient world as a medicine for a variety of afflictions, from blindness to epilepsy to various skin disorders.* Galen, the second century physician and surgeon from Pergamon, writes in his treatise On the Natural Faculties:
Pliny the Elder, the first century Roman polymath, writes in his Natural History:
*see the excellent article on this subject by G. Chowdharay-Best, "Notes on the Healing Properties of Saliva," Folklore 86:3/4 (1975), 195-200
There are three occurrences of Jesus healing by means of saliva in the gospels. In Mark 8:22-26 Jesus heals a blind man in Bethsaida by spreading saliva on his eyes. In Mark 7:31-37, Jesus heals a deaf man with a speech impediment by placing his fingers in the man's ears, spitting on his hand and touching the man's tongue. In John 9:1-12, he heals a blind man by spitting on the ground, forming a muddy paste in his hands and spreading the mixture on the man's eyes. After washing in the Pool of Siloam (pictured here), the man is miraculously healed:
The Babylonian Talmud also contains several references to saliva (רוק) as medicine. In Baba Batra 126b there is a discussion about how one can tell if a boy is the firstborn son of his father and not his mother. The answer? According to his spit:
Few modern people today use saliva as a medicine, although it should be noted that recently science has demonstrated that saliva does in fact contain wound-healing proteins called histatins. Many modern people, however, do believe that spitting will bring about good luck, or at least ward off bad luck. Baseball players have elaborate spitting rituals before they step into the batting box. Throughout the world, but especially in the Mediterranean Basin, people spit into the air three times to chase away the evil eye or the devil. This is the origin, for instance, of the phrase "tfu, tfu, tfu" that many Jews recite after announcing a piece of good news. Even Pliny talks about people in his day doing this, particularly boxers would spit in their glove to ensure that their punches would be strong. Perhaps this is the connection between good and bad spitting. Fundamentally, saliva is and was regarded as something undesirable, and the act of spitting seen as something vulgar. This is what provides its power to exorcise both demons and disease.
Merry Christmas to those who are celebrating. Last night, just 5 miles from my home, tens of thousands of (western) Christian pilgrims congregated in Manger Square, Bethlehem, to celebrate Christmas. Eastern Christians will do the same thirteen days from now, on January 6, which is December 25 according to the Julian calendar. The main event last night (televised around the world) was the Roman Catholic Midnight Mass which took place in the Church of St. Catherine. This is a Crusader structure that is attached to the real deal: the Church of the Nativity, a rare example of a Byzantine basilica in the Holy Land that is still standing. It is a magnificent building. Like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it was first built by the Empress Helena following her famous fact-finding mission to the Holy Land in 326-28. But unlike the Church of the Holy Sepulchre which was destroyed in 614, in 1009, and again in 1808, the Church of the Nativity pretty much looks as it did when Justinian renovated it in the 6th century. Apparently what saved it from the huge wave of destruction by the Persians in 614 were its mosaics depicting the Magi (wise men from the East), which convinced the conquerors it was not a church. Beneath the basilica is the church's raison d'être: a crypt containing the Nativity Grotto, the cave where Jesus was born. Cave? This is quite unlike the traditional images of Jesus in a wooden barn seen in nativity scenes (crèches) across Europe and North America.
How authentic is the Nativity Grotto in Bethlehem? It depends on what one means by "authentic". The historical Jesus was probably born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem. The earliest gospel, Mark, refers to him many times as "the Nazarene" and contains no birth account at all. It simply assumes that he was born in the same place where he spent his childhood. The two later gospels that do contain a Bethlehem birth scene, Matthew and Luke, clearly do so to imbue Jesus with the necessary Davidic qualities of the Messiah (cf. Micah 5:1). But these two gospels do not mention the birth taking place in a cave. Matthew says it was in a "house", while Luke mentions "a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn." The latter is the inspiration for the barnyard nativity scenes we are used to seeing at this time of year. So in terms of real-world authenticity, this site falls short. But there is a different kind of authenticity which comes from generations of pilgrims venerating a site. Let us call this imagined authenticity. In these terms, the Nativity Grotto is as authentic as they come. Pilgrims have been coming to pray at this cave since the third century (at least).
So where does the idea of a nativity cave come from? Two second century Christian texts - Justin's Dialogue with Trypho and the Protoevangelium of James - describe the birth of Jesus in a cave. We don't know where Justin's information comes from, but the fact that he mentions the cave is significant. In his Dialogue (78.5), Justin is very bothered by the fact that Trypho the Jew regards Jesus as yet another magician belonging to one the many mystery cults prevalent in the Roman Empire. The idea of a nativity cave is a big problem for Justin because it is very similar to the underground caves used for Mithraic initiation rites. So instead, Justin introduces the cave as a fulfillment of Hebrew Scripture. Isaiah 33:14 asks “Who among us can live with the devouring fire?" the answer to which is the righteous one, who is described as follows:
"he will live on the heights, his refuge will be the fortresses of rocks"
הוּא מְרוֹמִים יִשְׁכֹּן, מְצָדוֹת סְלָעִים מִשְׂגַּבּוֹ
Fortunately for Justin, the Septuagint alters the words of this verse to read, "he shall dwell in the lofty cave of the strong rock."
οὗτος οἰκήσει ἐν ὑψηλῷ σπηλαίῳ πέτρας ἰσχυρᾶς
The use of the word "cave" (spelaion) here provides Justin with the perfect defense against the charge of Mithraism. Jesus was born in a cave not because his parents were followers of a secretive underground mystery cult, but because he is the righteous one who "can live with the everlasting burning". Justin is thus the earliest author to write about the birth of Jesus in a cave, but he does not tell us anything about the cave's appearance in his own day.
The first author to describe the veneration of a specific cave in Bethlehem is none other than Origen, who writes:
With respect to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, if any one desires to have additional evidence from other sources, besides the prophecy of Micah and besides the history recorded in the gospels by the disciples of Jesus, he may observe that, in agreement with the narrative in the gospel regarding his birth, there is shown at Bethlehem the cave where he was born, and the manger in the cave where he was wrapped in swaddling clothes. What is shown there is famous in these parts even among people alien to true faith because it was in this cave that Jesus who is worshiped and admired by Christians was born. (Contra Celsum 1.51)
Origen's testimony is striking because it seems that he has actually seen the cave that he describes. Origen spent the second half of his life (231-254) in Caesarea Maritima, the capital of Roman Palestine. In his writings he alludes several times to visiting biblical sites, each time using the phrase "it is pointed out" (δείκνυται). This seems to be Origen's way of reassuring the reader that he was given a guided tour of the place in question, so his knowledge is reliable. Very few Christians engaged in pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the 3rd century. For the most part, the institution of pilgrimage only took off after the imperialization of Christianity in the mid-4th century. The Pilgrim of Bordeaux (333) is generally regarded as the earliest Christian to visit biblical sites in Palestine and write a travelogue, known as the Itinerarium Burdigalense. But at some point in the early third century Origen toured the holy land in search of places found in the Bible. What is so interesting is that he refers to the physical place here as "another source," as though it is comparable to the textual accounts found in the Old and New Testaments. This textualization of the land reminds me very much of the idea expressed in the title of J.M.P. Otts 1893 book, The Fifth Gospel: The Land where Jesus Lived. Of course, Origen does not mention anything about the date of Jesus' birth. The complicated question of how the Church settled on December 25 as the birth date is explored here.
Scriptural tattoos are a big trend in Christian America today. A lively debate is taking place among theologians over whether tattooing a biblical verse on one's body is a legitimate form of devotion or a vulgar violation of Leviticus 19:28. Popular verses include: John 3:16, Genesis 1:1, Galatians 2:20, Psalm 23 and many more. Particularly in vogue is having a scriptural tattoo in Hebrew or Greek, such as the example seen here.
But, uh oh! What happened here? This man wanted a massive tattoo of Psalm 23:4 in Greek (not clear why not Hebrew) to cover his torso, but he did not make sure to check that the text was correct! It seems that his computer turned every diacritical mark (i.e., accents and breathing marks over certain letters) into an additional character, making the text more or less nonsensical. He probably handed the tattoo artist a print-out and thought nothing more of it. Too bad he did not take the time to learn a bit of Greek before making this life changing decision! The corrected text is as follows:
ἐὰν γὰρ καὶ πορευθῶ ἐν μέσῳ σκιᾶς θανάτου, οὐ φοβηθήσομαι κακά, ὅτι σὺ μετ᾽ ἐμοῦ εἶ· ἡ ῥάβδος σου καὶ ἡ βακτηρία σου, αὐταί με παρεκάλεσαν.
"Even if I should walk in the middle of the shadow of death, I will not fear evil, because you are with me. Your rod and your staff, these have comforted me." (Psalm 22 :4)
Note, for example, that all the grave accents have been replaced with a period, and all the acute accents have become commas. Another interesting thing to notice is the word for "staff" in Greek is bakteria. When scientists first examined bacteria under a microscope in the 19th century, they saw tiny curved rods. Thus they gave it the Latin name bacterium which is a smaller version of the Greek baktron, a stick or rod. Incidentally, the long loaves of French bread known as "baguettes" are derived from the same root.
Over the past year I have served as an assistant to Judith Green on the writing of a new online Biblical Greek (koine) course. It is now complete and I encourage you to check it out. The course is offered by ETeacher, a company based in Israel that has had much success teaching Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic (as well as modern languages) online to students around the globe. This newest course (30 units) on which Judith and I collaborated is intended to prepare one to begin to read the New Testament and Septuagint in the original. The language of instruction is English, but it has already been translated into Spanish and Portuguese! The course has been approved by the Dept of Classics at Hebrew University and you can even take it for academic credit if you wish. One of the things I love about this course is the way it integrates archaeology and art history into the study of language. For example, there are several opportunities to decipher real Greek inscriptions on icons, mosaics, etc. Judith, who was my first Greek teacher in the MA program at the Rothberg School at Hebrew U (2003-4) did an amazing job including real Greek passages from the Bible (mostly the Gospels) from the earliest lessons. It is really exciting to be able to understand famous passages (such as the Lord's Prayer or the prologue to the Gospel of John) in the original Greek. Check it out!
The historic snowstorm of 2013 has finally ended. All in all, our corner of Jerusalem (750 meters above sea level) got hit with 60 cm of snow over three days. Neighborhoods at a higher elevation (e.g., Mt Scopus and Gilo are both above 800 meters) got closer to 80 cm. The last time this much snow fell in Jerusalem was February 5, 1950 (50 cm). The last time a significant amount of snow fell this early in the year was December 15, 1878 (43cm). It is unusual for big snowstorms to hit Israel in December because the Mediterranean Sea is still relatively warm. The all-time Jerusalem snow record, since they began keeping records? February 9, 1920 - 98 cm! This is known as the "Snowstorm of Tel Hai" because it took place a few days (March 1) before the famous Battle of Tel Hai in which Joseph Trumpeldor was killed. This battle was the first major incident of the Arab Riots of 1920. Usually this considered the formal opening of the Arab-Israeli conflict which is still going on today. Wouldn't it be poetic if the end to this century long war were brought about by an extraordinarily plentiful snowfall just as its beginning was? Here is a picture of Jaffa Road from February 9, 1920.
Although it has been over 48 hours since the snow stopped falling and the temperature is currently 8 degrees C, much of the city is still paralyzed. Schools are closed for the fourth day. Lots of people are still without electricity. Public transportation is intermittent. The major problem? Ice. During the day the strong sun melts the snow (which for the most part has not been properly cleared) and at night it freezes again leaving the roads covered in a vicious sheet of ice. Without snow tires, there is simply no way to drive up a hill like the one pictured above, right outside my house. By 11am everything is pretty much melted and life goes on as normal until the sun sets at 4pm and the cycle starts over again. Until a real warm front of air moves in, it does not seem possible to break the cycle. The bigger problem behind all this is of course lack of equipment. The city does not have enough snow plows to clear small side streets like ours. Individuals do not own snow shovels with which to dig out their cars. Most people don't even own a decent pair of winter boots. It's a big dilemma which many politicians are discussing now. Does it make financial sense for Israel to spend big bucks preparing itself for 60 cm of snow even if this only happens once every 50 years?
Jerusalem is currently getting hit with a major snowstorm. Over the past two days 30 cm have fallen, the largest amount for late December on record. All the main roads to the city are currently closed and many people are stranded. Lots of power outages. But here in our neighborhood of Katamon everything is rather tranquil. Shabbat Shalom.
I am Jonathan Lipnick, tour guide and educator specializing in Christianity and Judaism. In this blog I explore questions (historical, linguistic) that come up in the course of my teaching and reading.