The Sunrise and the Redemption of the Jews in Yerushalmi Berakhot and in the Book of Esther

Talmudic life extends the space-time continuum with an acute awareness of the physical here-and-now and deepens the spectrum of thought and meaning with trajectories back into the distant past of the scripture and forward to the hopeful expectation for salvation.

This passage below from the Talmud Yerushalmi Tractate Berakhot demonstrates key aspects of the logic of a Talmudic life - what we explore every day in this blog. The rabbis in the passage practice a mindfulness of the natural world on a seamless continuum with thoughtfulness about their textual world, their imagined pasts and futures.

Below, in this passage that we cite, they want to understand the dynamics of sunrise, part of their everyday natural lives. They need to know when day begins so they can start to say their daily prayers at the correct hour.

On their way to determine this they talk about visual observation and use poetic terms from scripture. They measure the elapsed time of a pre-dawn period by specifying durations for physical activities of walking. But their walking has no physical or temporal boundaries. The dusty roads of the Land of Israel in late antiquity lead them directly into the book of Genesis.

The four miles that the rabbis might walk to determine a period of elapsed time are the same four miles that Lot and his wife and daughters would walk at the behest of heavenly angels. And if those biblical four miles were really not four miles, miracles made them so.

And yet the passage tells us, when rabbis Hiyya and Simeon once were walking in a real valley at daybreak, they were not satisfied to speak about the technical definitions of the durations of the pre-dawn periods, though they surely could have done just that and stopped.

They instead looked at the rays of the dawn and launched their time machine into the future, into a peroration on the redemption of the Jewish people. As they mindfully noted the real rays of that dawn, they pondered the equally real rays of the prophetic words of Micah and of the melodramatic story of biblical Esther.

(We cite the passage from our 1989 translation of Talmud Yerushalmi, The Talmud of the Land of Israel: Tractate Berakhot, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, page 13 and following.)

[X.A] [This unit expands upon the discussion of the terms used to refer to the period of time preceding sunrise.] Said R. Hinnena [vars: Hasna, Haninah], "From the [time in the morning sometimes called the] `hind of the dawn' [a poetic expression comparing the pattern of the first rays of light to the antlers of a deer,] until the [sky in the] east is lit [entirely] one [has enough time to] walk four miles. [`Mile' refers to 2000 paces, about 1470 meters, that is somewhat less than the modern English mile of about 1609 meters.] From [the time] the east is lit until sunrise [one has enough time to walk another] four miles."

[B] And whence [do we know] that from [the time] the east is lit until sunrise [one has enough time to walk] four miles? As it is written, "When morning dawned [the angels urged Lot saying, "Arise, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you be consumed in the punishment of the city]" [Gen.19:15]. And it is written, "The sun had risen on the earth when Lot came to Zoar" [Gen. 19:23]. [Between the first light and the rise of the sun Lot walked from Sodom to Zoar.]

[C] But is the distance from Sodom to Zoar four miles? It is more!

[D] Said R. Zeira, "The angel shortened the way for them." [Though it was more, he made it as if it were four miles.]

[E] And whence [do we know] that from the first rays of dawn [`hind of dawn'] to [the time] the eastern sky is lit [completely, one can walk] four miles? [Scripture says,] "wkmw [lit: and like] When morning dawned" [Gen. 19:15]. And kmw is a comparative term. [It implies that the two intervals, from when the eastern sky is lit until dawn, and from when the first rays of light appear until the eastern sky is lit, are of equal duration.]

[F] Said R. Yose b. R. Bun, "[Concerning] this term `the [time of the appearance of the] hind of dawn,' he who says it refers to [time of the appearance of] a [morning] star, [presumably Venus,] is in error. For at times [this star] appears earlier, and at times, later."

[G] What is then [the definition of this term]? It refers to [the appearance of] two rays of light which originate in the eastern sky and illuminate [the heaven]. [The word qrn means both `ray' and `antler'.]

[H] And once R. Hiyya the great and R. Simeon ben Halafta were walking in the valley of Arbel at daybreak. And they saw the first rays of dawn [`hind of dawn'] as the daylight broke forth [into the sky].

[I] Said R. Hiyya the great to R. Simeon ben Halafta b. Rabbi, "[Like the break of day] so is the redemption of Israel. It begins little by little and, as it proceeds, it grows greater and greater."

[J] What is his basis [for this comparison of daybreak and redemption]? [Scripture says,] "When I sit in darkness the Lord will be a light to me" [Micah 7:8, i.e. he will redeem me].

[K] [By way of illustration of this last teaching:] So it was at the outset [the redemption of Israel in the time of Esther, for example, proceeded slowly as it says,] "And Mordecai was sitting at the king's gate" [Esther 2:21].

[L] And thereafter [it grew greater as the passage indicates], "So Haman took the robes and the horse [and he arrayed Mordecai]" [Esther 6:11].

[M] And thereafter, "Then Mordecai went out from the presence of the king in royal robes" [Esther 8:15].

[N] And thereafter, "The Jews had [the] light [of redemption] and gladness and joy and honor" [Esther 8:16]. [The redemption proceeds slowly at first and then quickly shines forth like light, a term used in the last verse.]

1 comment:

Yonah Lavery said...

This is one of my favourite passages from Yerushalmi Berachot (another one: how the lives of avoteinu put together equal the length of time it would take to reach the heavens), and yours is a beautiful translation. If I buy the tractate sometime, I think I will get this edition (if it also has the Hebrew?).

Have you ever seen the horns of dawn? Man, I've looked, but nothing.