Hebrew and the Decapitation of Israel (Sotah)

The last chapters of Sotah are less well known in pop culture. It is seemingly less dramatic part, after the trial of the alleged adultress drinking the bitter water. But there’s plenty of high drama anyway: the Kohen’s rallying cry to the assembled troops about to go to war, the three kinds of war, who is ineligible to be drafted or should be sent home, the filthy nature of Goliath’s mother and her filthy offspring.

Coming in at the tail end had other advantages. For one, I was forced to read Sotah backwards. In doing so, it became clear that it has a beautiful, if dark, literary coherence from start to finish, and it is not until the end that you can see the long arc of its theme.

In these last chapters, Sotah takes up the eight pronouncements which must be made in Lashon Kodesh (the Holy Tongue – Hebrew). It begins by listing several important prayers which do NOT have to be said in Hebrew. This include the Shema and Birchat HaMazon (blessings after the meal) and surprisingly, the incantation at the drinking of Sotah.

THE FOLLOWING ARE RECITED IN THE HOLY TONGUE

  1. THE DECLARATION MADE AT THE OFFERING OF THE FIRST FRUITS  at Shavuos.
  2. THE FORMULA OF CHALIZAH [renunciation of a Levirite marriage] to release a woman to be able to wed again if her husband dies and she is childless
  3. THE BLESSINGS AND CURSES when Israel crossed the Jordan and were united with the land of Israel
  4. THE PRIESTLY BENEDICTION The Kohanim are commanded to bless Israel on Yom Kippur
  5. THE BENEDICTION OF THE HIGH PRIEST  On Yom Kippur, upon finishing reading of the Torah,
  6. THE SECTION OF THE KING,17  The “HaKahal” [הקהל] (assembly)  “Every seven years King assembles everyone in Courtyard and recites from Deut … and One who hears it and doesn’t understand Hebrew must still stand in awe as if receiving Torah at Sinai.” – (Deut:31:10-13):
  7. THE SECTION OF THE CALF WHOSE NECK IS BROKEN
  8. THE ADDRESS TO THE PEOPLE BY THE PRIEST ANOINTED [TO ACCOMPANY THE ARMY] IN BATTLE

The “section of the calf whose neck is broken” is the eglah arufah. The Torah commands us that when an unclaimed corpse is found between cities, the closest city is responsible for it. The Mishnah says the whole Sanhedrin has to come out to measure which city is closer. Then the elders of that city have to sacrifice a calf to rid the world of the unattributed evil. (Devarim 21:7….)

Talmud elaborates in Sotah 45 on the right way to observe this ritual. In its usual fashion, it explores the many difficulties he elders might face, however improbable, in determining which city is closer. The Gemara imagines several scenarios that have increasing unreality:

What happens if two bodies are found exactly on top of each other? Is one body exempt because it is “floating” atop the other? Is the body underneath exempt because it is covered by the body on top? Are both exempt?

What if they are both exactly between the two cities?

What if a body is decapitated and the head and the body are in different places? Do we bring the head to the body, or vice versa? Dexter or CSI Miami has nothing on the gruesomeness of the debate.

The Talmud often considers improbable, even absurd scenarios. In Bava Kamma we read about a guy with a pole rush around a corner and break the jug carried by another guy who was rushing from the opposite direction. A dog brings a hot coal in his mouth to ignite a neighbor’s haystack. A goat jumps down from the roof and breaks someone’s utensils. But the empirical unreality of this whole sugya about two corpses found exactly equidistant from two cities, combined with the seriousness of the crime which presumably is behind it, suggests that there might be something deeper at work here.

If the corpse is decapitated, do we measure to the nearest town from the head or from the body? R. Akiva maintains you measure from the head, specifically the nose, because that is the source of neshama itself. R. Eliezer says measure from the body because the fetus forms from the navel outward – מטיבורו – mi’tiburoh. The Gemarah does not resolve the dispute, nor does Schottenstein, even after conferring with Rashi. Instead, the Mishnah itself concludes: “Rabbi Eliezer ben Yakov says, ‘They measure from the place that he becomes chalal, that is, from his neck.”

Think about that for a moment, and you realize, of course, that this is no resolution at all!

If you’re decapitated, where does the neck go? What is the neck? The neck is an indeterminate thing. Anatomically, it is the series of seven vertebrae C1-C7 connecting the head to the thorax or body. It is the boundary between head and body. When a body is severed at the neck, the neck as such disappears.

So specifying that measurement is to be taken from the neck of a decapitated body pushes down but doesn’t resolve the problem of which city is responsible for the ritual of eglah arufah.

The neck disappears into the same limbo or indeterminate space between as does the guilt of the murderer, which now threatens to taint both of the nearest cities. Both are symbols of brokenness.

There are several passages when the Talmud cannot reach a conclusion. And there are other passages when the conclusion of the Talmud is to invoke a chok or a mitzvah that defies rational explanation, a transcendent mystery as in the attempt to decipher the parah adumah, The sages here seem to let the physics of the matter dissipate into metaphysics. And yet, if we view this part of the masechet as having literary coherence, it indeed reveals what the Rabbis may have had in mind.

The improbability of the hypotheticals posed in the Talmud suggest we look deeper to find out what’s worrying the Sages, for if we look closely, the ritual of the eglah arufah is as mysterious and ambiguous as the ritual of its more famous cousin, that other slaughtered calf, the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer.

First, when the Mishnah calls out the ritual, it doesn’t say “the ritual to expiate the guilt of an unclaimed corpse,” which would be both more dramatic and make more sense, but eglah arufah, the calf that has its neck broken.In performing the eglah rufah, the judges and elders of the city take an unblemished calf down to a stony ravine, and they break its neck with a hatchet, from behind. Then they declare over this eglah arufah, in Hebrew, they are not responsible for the death of the corpse, or more literally, “This blood is not on our hands,” obviously meaning the blood of the corpse, not the poor calf, which is now certainly on their hands.

Second, the Gemara goes into careful detail about a corpse that is decapitated. A corpse has special status and its own name (“korbah”) if it is strangled by the neck and is different from a corpse slain by an instrument like a hatchet, in which case it is a “chalal.” (There’s a great one-liner in here. The Gemarah sees fit to tell us that, “If a corpse is still writhing (because it was insufficiently strangled) it is not yet a corpse.”)

Third, the Mishnah then details exactly how the neck of the calf is to be broken: it is to be decapitated with a cleaver to the back of its neck. In other words, the calf is like the imaginary corpse they were just so concerned with that has been killed at the neck.

Fourth, where is to this be performed? One would think that it would be precisely where the body was found, but rather the Mishnah prescribes it to be done in an eisan, which can be either a desolated valley or a river, definitively a wasteland, a no-man’s land of the unknown murderer, the real no-man. Further, Rashi explicitly says this must be land that has never been planted and is unsuitable for planting or working, and after the rite of eglah arufah is performed, the land is never again to be worked.

Eisan - desolate valley

There are may other mysteries worthy to be called out here. For instance, with the inevitable logic of rituals, the calf, too, must be one that has never been worked in yoke, invoking at once the prohibition of working the nachal eisan and, again, the neck … but I’ll skip over these to drive to what I believe is the hidden symbolism: Why does the neck bear so much weight?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s commentary on “the neck” – he calls it “the precarious joint” – may help us decipher what deeper theme may be worrying the Gemara:

In the Torah, the neck is a common metaphor for the Holy Temple… The Sanctuaries are links between heaven and earth, points of contact between the Creator and His creation. … G-d, who transcends the finite, transcends the infinite as well, and He chose to designate a physical site and structure as the seat of His manifest presence in the world and the focal point of man’s service of his Creator….

The Sanctuary, then, is the “neck” of the world … the juncture that connects its body to its head. the neck that joins the head to the body and channels the flow of consciousness and vitality from the one to the other: the head leads the body via the neck. …

“… The Sanctuary’s destruction, whether on the cosmic or the individual level, is the breakdown of the juncture between head and body — between Creator and creation, between soul and physical self. Indeed, the two are intertwined. When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem and openly served as the spiritual nerve center of the universe, this obviously enhanced the bond between body and soul in every individual….

 “The Neck” chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/3222/jewish/The-Neck.htm

How are we to assign responsibility for unclaimed corpses, and presumably unsolved murders, when there is no Sanhedrin and no Temple in Jerusalem.  This impossible hypothetical, and the seriousness with which the Rabbis debate its fine points, seems to be as much about a lamentation of the Destruction of the Temple and Jews’ exile to a dispiriting, liminal, desolate, precarious realm of galus. We inhabit a “no-man’s land” where law and order has broken down and corpses are piling up, and bodies are stuck equidistant between cities so that there is no clear authority. We’re stranded between two Houses of Judgment, not just two cities, but two order of preserving the Jewish religion and two orders of being, the Temple with its ritual, and the Talmud, with its exegesis and elaboration. Assigning responsibility becomes impossible.

The end of Sotah depicts an apocalyptic scenario of the breakdown of all law and order, a recounting of the terrible things that occur.

R. PHINEAS B. JAIR SAYS: WHEN [THE SECOND] TEMPLE WAS DESTROYED, SCHOLAR  AND NOBLEMEN WERE ASHAMED AND COVERED THEIR HEAD,MEN OF DEED WERE DISREGARDED, AND MEN OF ARM AND MEN OF TONGUE GREW POWERFUL. NOBODY ENQUIRES, NOBODY PRAYS AND NOBODY ASKS.UPON WHOM IS IT FOR US TO RELY? UPON OUR FATHER WHO IS IN HEAVEN. R. ELIEZER THE GREAT SAYS: FROM THE DAY THE TEMPLE WAS DESTROYED, … THE COMMON PEOPLE BECAME MORE AND MORE DEBASED; … IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF THE MESSIAH INSOLENCE WILL INCREASE AND HONOUR DWINDLE;THE VINE WILL YIELD ITS FRUIT [ABUNDANTLY] BUT WINE WILL BE DEAR; THE GOVERNMENT WILL TURN TO HERESY AND THERE WILL BE NONE [TO OFFER THEM] REPROOF; THE MEETING-PLACE [OF SCHOLARS] WILL BE USED FOR IMMORALITY; … AND THE DWELLERS ON THE FRONTIER WILL GO ABOUT [BEGGING] FROM PLACE TO PLACE WITHOUT ANYONE TO TAKE PITY ON THEM; THE WISDOM OF THE LEARNEDWILL DEGENERATE, FEARERS OF SIN WILL BE DESPISED, AND THE TRUTH WILL BE LACKING; YOUTHS WILL PUT OLD MEN TO SHAME, THE OLD WILL STAND UP IN THE PRESENCE OF THE YOUNG, A SON WILL REVILE HIS FATHER, A DAUGHTER WILL RISE AGAINST HER MOTHER, A DAUGHTER-IN-LAW AGAINST HER MOTHER-IN-LAW, AND A MAN’S ENEMIES WILL BE THE MEMBERS OF HIS HOUSEHOLD; THE FACE OF THE GENERATION WILL BE LIKE THE FACE OF A DOG, A SON WILL NOT FEEL ASHAMED BEFORE HIS FATHER. SO UPON WHOM IS IT FOR US TO RELY? UPON OUR FATHER WHO IS IN HEAVEN.

Sotah 49a-b

This is just a small section of the Yeridas HaDoros, the Decline of the Generations, a work of vast Rabbinic imagination and mourning. Among the many calamaties are that there are so many unclaimed corpses between cities that the entire ritual of eglah arufah has to be abandoned.  Another reveals that dark coherence of Sotah that I alluded to earlier:  there are also so many women accused of being adulterers that the ritual of Sotah has to be abandoned, too.

I believe if you understand its historical context of Talmud it deepens its metaphysical intensity and the thematic coherence. Knowing that this is a lamentation for the Temple helps us understand the entwinement of Hebrew with Temple with the spiritual health of Israel. Speaking and reading Lashon Kodesh is meant to recall that broken entwinement, to bridge over the fissures, to heal or prevent the ruptures at the core of functioning society itself by connecting the bloody and mundane, the hard valley of the wasteland to the olam habah.

Israel is the calf whose neck has been broken. If we read this correctly, we are being admonished that the only thing that will put our head on our shoulders, that will connect the soul to the body of Israel, is to preserve Hebrew, especially to be recited in these moments of rupture and decapitation.

 – Mountain View, 2014

 

NOTES:

“Towards the end of parsha Noah we read the story of the Tower of Babel. We are told: וַיְהִיכָלהָאָרֶץשָׂפָהאֶחָתוּדְבָרִיםאֲחָדִים, “The whole earth was of one language…”. (Gen 11,1) Rashi comments that the language was Hebrew.

Midrash Rabbah (Lev. 32,5) says that a virtue our ancestors had in Egypt and one of the causes for their redemption, was “they didn‘t change their tongue.”

In 1913, the “Language War” erupted in Palestine after word leaked out that the German Hilfsverein (Ezra) Organization was planning to make German the language of instruction in its Technion Institute in Haifa. A rebellion of students and teachers successfully imposed Hebrew as the language of instruction.

I think it was David Bar-Ilan, former editor of the Jerusalem Post who said, “King David would be more comfortable speaking Hebrew on the streets of Jerusalem than Shakespeare speaking English on the streets of London.”

 

 

 

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