Friday, October 16, 2009

The unfinished North, like the letter Beis

As Yirmeyahu prophesies (first perek of Yirmeyahu):

יד וַיֹּאמֶר ה', אֵלָי: מִצָּפוֹן תִּפָּתַח הָרָעָה, עַל כָּל-יֹשְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץ.14 Then the LORD said unto me: 'Out of the north the evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land.

I saw an interesting idea in Chizkuni, on the first pasuk of Bereishit:
א בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ.1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

Chizkuni writes that the reason Hashem started the Torah with the letter Beis and not aleph, despite aleph being first of the letters, was to teach that just as the Bet has borders on 3 sides, the east, west, and south, but is left open on the northern side, so did Hashem create the world with borders on these three sides and open to the north; and from there come the harmful ruchot raot {either evil winds or else evil spirits} to the world.

And he continues on along this interpretation for a bit.

How is a ב open to the North, though? If you asked me, I would say it is open to the West!


The answer is that our choice of North as up is somewhat arbitrary. We could just as easily choose South for up on our maps. And it seems like at that time, East was understood to be up. If so, rotate your compass so that East is up, and North will be left.

To expand a bit on this idea, I cite Jewish Magic and Superstition, by Joshua Trachtenberg:
A special connection exists also between the storm-winds, tempests, whirlwinds, and the evil spirits. The home of all is in the north, which indeed is the source of all evil.26 One writer even domiciled the demons in Norway, which to him was the farthest edge of the north.27
And he explains in footnote 26:
26. Cf. Lauterbach, HUCA, II (1925), 369, n. 31, where the Talmudic and Midrashic sources are cited; also Ḥochmat HaNefesh, 31c; Orḥot Ẓadikim, 95b. Torat Ha‘Olah, II, 25, contains the view that certain sacrifices were slaughtered in the north of the temple area because they served to protect Israel from the demons who dwell in the north. According to Raziel, 15a, the north, which is the point of origin of cold and hail and sleet and tempests, was, like the demons, left uncompleted in the work of creation.

While I think it makes sense that cold winds come from the North, it would not be because the world was left uncompleted at that side.

I also wonder how this accords with a view of the shape of the world. If the world were a sphere, how would the North be left "open"? It seems more to accord with a belief in a flat earth.

We see a similar interpretation of the shape of the bet as a reason for it being the first letter in Kli Yakar -- how throughout sefer Kohelet the Torah is compared to the Sun, whose path is only in the three directions but not the North.

And Midrash Rabba has a lengthy section on why the Torah starts with beis and has one answer (almost certainly homiletical) based on the shape of the letter:
דבר אחר:
למה בב'?
אלא מה ב' זה יש לו שני עוקצין, אחד מלמעלה ואחד מלמטה מאחוריו.

אומרים לב' מי בראך?
והוא מראה בעוקצו מלמעלה ואמר: זה שלמעלה בראני.

ומה שמו?
והוא מראה להן בעוקצו של אחריו ואומר: ה' שמו.

See also what Ibn Ezra thinks of derashot such as why the Torah begins with the letter bet.

10 comments:

Ariella said...

It's really very simple. I figured this out on my own as a teen. The fact that we draw north on top on a map is merely a convention. Compasses are set to point north because of the magnetic pull of the pole and the north store make north as the defining direction appear perfectly logical.
But clearly that was not the orientation in Tanach. The "up" position would be in the east. Everything then falls beautifully into place for all the associations of the north and south, as well as left and right. Those who wish "lehachkim" are advised "lehardim," to turn toward the south, and thus to tend to the right. The north, on the other hand, is the direction for material wealth but also carries negative connotations -- mitzafon tifthach hara'a . . .

Ariella said...

It does not follow logically to conclude that those who would have mapped the world with east on top thought the earth was flat any more than those who set the top at the north.

joshwaxman said...

right. i agree mostly.

just, in terms of "It does not follow logically to conclude that those who would have mapped the world with east on top thought the earth was flat any more than those who set the top at the north," this is true. i didn't mean that the eastern orientation means the world is flat. rather, the statement that the world is unfinished, without a border to the north, strongly implies that the earth is flat. because otherwise, it just loops around, and there is no east, west, north or south border to be closed.

kt,
josh

Ariella said...

I admit spatial relations are not my forte but why should a north side being open signify a flat earth? Actually, if the earth were flat, all sides should end either in a curve or a line, depending on whether the flat expanse is imagined as a squared or circular shape. You would not have only one side open. If anything, suggesting the lack of a border would suggest the global shape. But then the question would be why say that only for the north. The way I take this is as statement about the quality of north -- what it stands for -- rather than as a literal map.

joshwaxman said...

"I admit spatial relations are not my forte but why should a north side being open signify a flat earth? "
or if the east, or west side were "open".

that you, or I, cannot immediately understand what is being depicted should not be cause to quickly jump to a metaphorical / allegorical explanation. though it is tempting, because it lets us assume that we know exactly what the text means ("allegory") and also makes those we look up to correct.

imagine that there are physical walls at the end of a square or rounded flat earth, and one of those borders is open.

or imagine that the rakia, the physical firmament, touches the earth at the edges. see this post about Mizrachi as flat earther, and the diagrams I drew there, to see what I mean.

http://parsha.blogspot.com/2009/07/was-mizrachi-flat-earther.html

kol tuv,
josh

Ariella said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ariella said...

While I was searching through what is available online from Rabbi Reisman's book because somebody said the answer to my question on women breaking the plate is there (didn't find it from what was online) I found he discusses that the north is tzafon like tzafun - hidden. In the northern hemisphere, he notes, the sun and moon always rise in the east and stay toward the southern sky. That is why, he says, you can never spot the moon for kiddush hachodesh on the northern side. So if you are averse to allegory, then you can take it as a reflection of the northern hemisphere experience in which the source of light is always southerly, giving the north an association with darkness or hiddeness, if you will.

Now about finding reason and meaning in Chazal as a worthwhile pursuit: Say a person lacks a sense of smell, as some do. His lack may make him fail to appreciate the fragrance of a flower; nevertheless, it is not the flower's deficiency that blocks his experience of fragrance but his own. If you enter an orchard but are only willing to see one aspect, you are withholding from yourself the entire experience. There's more to the pardes than the pshat.

joshwaxman said...

the idea of pardes as a specifically fourfold interpretation of each pasuk is a fairly late invention. read this chapter about its development.

while "pardes" may be true about pesukim, this need not necessarily be true about the words of Chazal. and here, we are not even dealing with the words of Chazal. We are dealing with a medieval Biblical commentator from the 13th century, Chizkuni. he was the one who originated this explanation. (it is true that he is basing himself on the sefer Raziel Hamalach, but this also likely originated in the 13th century, rather than in Chazal.)

now it is true that he makes use of kabbalah, but he also makes use of science. he is a Torah uMaddah-nik, reading physical reality into pesukim. see this post as an example, though it is a bit rated.

must we assume that every Rishon is talking about deep ideas rather than scientific reality, where the scientific reality was plausible then? i don't see this as necessary.

rambam is very much in favor of reading deep metaphorical meanings into pesukim and Chazal. and much of the time, I think he is correct. but iiuc rambam himself does not extend it to all instances where Chazal seem to be wrong, and will simply say in cases of scientific differences that Chazal were wrong about something.

so i agree that the deeper metaphorical interpretation is often true. but i simultaneously think that the best way to understand Chazal, or for that matter any source, is to understand the intellectual and scientific climate and assumptions of the time. as such, if the plain meaning is extremely plausible, not for us, but for them in their intellectual environment, then i would not abandon the plain meaning just because in *our* intellectual climate it appears false. that is unfair to Chazal, if they intended their words literally.

so it is good to seek meaning. but the danger is in seeking meaning which was not originally present, and thus fabricating a false meaning and tradition.

based on Mizrachi and other sources, i think it is quite plausible that they understood the open north in a literal way, and see no reason to go to a metaphorical meaning, just as I would say when they say something modern scientists agree to.

kol tuv,
josh

joshwaxman said...

oops, I meant to include a link to this chapter, by Rabbi Yonatan Kolatch.

kt,
josh

joshwaxman said...

also, while tzafun / tzafon may have linguistic associations, an association which may be equally important is that of Har Tzafon, which in the Ancient Near East was the equivalent of Mount Olympus. It was the abode of Baal, and possibly other Canaanite deities. for this to be turned into the place in which sheidim and other negative spiritual forces come from may well be an adaptation of ancient Canaanite paganism, rather than something in which we should find deep spiritual significance.

kt,
josh

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