Sunday, October 27, 2019

Zechariah the priest's literacy, and the name of John the Baptist

There has been some interest in recent years over literacy in ancient Judaism. Some advocate the view that the ability to read or write was incredibly rare; others advocate the view that the ability to read at least short passages was fairly common for men. In general, though, both sides agree that certain people in ancient Judaism were certainly literate, such as the priestly class.

In Luke's gospel we are told of a priest named Zechariah, father of John the Baptist. For those not familiar with Luke's account: when his son was named, Zechariah had been unable to speak for some months. His wife Elizabeth had said the son's name would be John (Luke 1:60), but the others present for the circumcision expected the child to be named Zechariah like his father. So Zechariah motioned for a writing tablet and wrote "His name is John," and the people present for the circumcision marveled at that. Luke does not record whether this was a home circumcision or took place in a synagogue; the information I've found so far would indicate those were common places for a circumcision in that era.

So much for the account we have. Based on it, it's reasonably certain that Zechariah could read and write. Based on his membership in the priesthood, we would expect that Zechariah was literate. There are a few implications to consider: When he motioned for a writing tablet and there was one handy, it stands to reason that it was not too uncommon for someone literate to be present. When he wrote on the tablet and someone else read it, it follows that there was at least one other person present who could read. Zechariah was not the only literate person present at the circumcision. We do not have information on specifically how many people gathered for the circumcision of Zechariah's son or how many of them were able to read it for themselves, so the presence of at least one more literate person does not necessarily help us to estimate the percentage of people who were literate.

Next, consider the fact that Elizabeth already knew Zechariah's wishes on naming their son. How would Zechariah have passed this information to Elizabeth since he could not speak? We can consider the possibility that he might have written his wishes and had someone else read it to Elizabeth -- and yet the other people present at the circumcision, including any literate ones, had not previously known Zechariah's wishes in the way that his wife Elizabeth had. We must at least consider the possibility that Elizabeth could read. She had been the wife of a priest for long years, married to a man engaged in studying the Jewish Scriptures. And it is not the first time we'd have known of Jewish women who were literate; there were various mentions of literate women in the Talmud, such as in the discussions of whether women and minors were eligible to read the Torah portion of the Scripture readings at public worship services.

When we look at ancient literacy, there is a tendency to all-or-nothing thinking. It is common for people to assume that if someone was not literate by modern industrial standards, then instead they were so wholly illiterate that they could not decipher even a short phrase such as "His name is John". That kind of all-or-nothing thinking is, most of all, inaccurate in its disregard for what is practical. Literacy is a spectrum starting from knowing the letters of their alphabet, building up to being able to recognize some words and sound out others, all the way to more fluent literacy that involved both reading longer passages and writing.

We know Zechariah, as a priest, was literate. Based on a brief glimpse into the life of this literate man in ancient times, we know that among his everyday companions he was not alone in his literacy.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Prayers on the themes of peace and love

Today I find myself in search of prayers on the topics of peace and love. I've adapted the first two below from St Therese of Lisieux based on existing English translations; the third I've translated/adapted from St Teresa of Avila ("Nada te turbe").
Lord, we launch out from our hearts toward You.
Today, whether we find ourselves in the heights of joy or the ruts of despair,
We are grateful for Your love. 

Lord, I have found my place in the world,
and that place is love.
Beacon Light of love, I know how to reach you.
Grant me the calm and serene peace of the navigator
Who sees the lighthouse that will lead home.

Let nothing disturb me
Let nothing frighten me
Those things will all pass
My Savior remains

Sunday, October 13, 2019

"You shall love the Lord your God"

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength." (Mark 12:30, from Deuteronomy 6:5, see also Luke 10:27). 

In my reading I have come across a teaching attributed to Maimonides, that the command to love God can be acted on by meditating on the infinite love of God towards us:
I have loved you with an everlasting love. (Jeremiah 31:3)

In time, as we become more aware of God's love, our own love for God awakens. And so "You shall love the Lord your God" is not only a command, it is also a promise. Yes, that has been said of other commandments before. This, too, God will add to us.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

A is for Apple, Alef Beth is for Learn Wisdom

In the course of some research the other night, I came across an entry in the Talmud (Shabbath 104a) discussing some of the instructions, lessons, and memory aids that were used in teaching the Hebrew alphabet back in the days of classical Judaism. Seeing that it was both instructive and good-natured, I wanted to reproduce it here as an alphabet chart:

Memory and instruction
Names of letters
Hebrew letters (right to left)
Learn wisdom (alef binah)
Alef, Beth
Show kindness to the poor (Gemol Dallim)

Why is the foot of the Gimmel stretched toward the Daleth? Because it is fitting for the benevolent to run after the poor.
And why is the roof of the Daleth stretched out toward the Gimmel?
Because he (the poor) must make himself available to him.
And why is the face of the Daleth turned away from the Gimmel?
Because he must give to him in secret, lest he be ashamed of him.
Gimmel, Daleth
That is the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He
He, Waw
If you do this, the Holy One, blessed be He, will sustain (Zan) you, be gracious (Hen) to you, show goodness (metib) to you, give you an inheritance (Yerushah), and bind a crown (Kether) on you in the world to come.
Zayyin, Heth, Teth, Yod, Kaf, Lamed
The open Mem and the closed Mem are open teaching (Ma'amar) and closed (esoteric) teaching.
open Mem, closed Mem (final Mem)
The bent Nun and the straight Nun: the faithful (Ne'eman) if bent (humble), will be the faithful, straightened.
bent Nun, straight Nun (final Nun)
Samek, ‘ayyin: support (Semak) the poor (‘aniyyim).
Another interpretation: devise (‘aseh) mnemonics (Simanin) in the Torah and so acquire it.
Samek, ‘ayyin
The bent pe and the straight pe are an open mouth [peh], a closed mouth.
bent Pe and straight Pe (final Pe)
A bent zadde and a straight zadde: the righteous (zaddik) is bent; the righteous is straightened.

But that is identical with the faithful bent, the faithful straightened? The Writ added humility to his humility; so the Torah was given under great submissiveness.
bent Zadde and straight Zadde
Kuf is for Kadosh (holy); Resh for Rasha’ (wicked):

Why is the face of the Kuf averted from, the Resh? The Holy One, blessed be He, said: I cannot look at the wicked. And why is the crown of the Kuf turned toward the Resh? The Holy One, blessed be He, saith: If he repents, I will bind a crown on him like Mine. And why is the foot of the Kuf suspended? If he repents, he can enter and be brought in through this.

This supports Resh Lakish, for Resh Lakish said: What is meant by, "Surely he scorns the scorners, But he gives grace unto the lowly?" If one comes to defile himself, he is given an opening; if one comes to cleanse himself, he is helped.
Kuf, Resh
SHin is for SHeker (falsehood); Taw for emeth (truth):

Why are the letters of Sheker close together, while those of ‘emeth are far apart? Falsehood is frequent, truth is rare.

And why does falsehood stand on one foot, while truth has a brick-like foundation? Truth can stand, falsehood cannot stand.

SHin, Taw
I'm curious how far back we could trace the tradition of teachers making alphabet charts, games, or memory aids. After the custom of teachers everywhere, they do not lose the opportunity to have lessons within lessons, where the examples given are on another subject. Learning letters is generally a preparation for other things that will be learned after reading is mastered. Here the teachers lay the groundwork for what they want the students to learn next. While calling attention to the shapes of the letters, they emphasize learning wisdom, God's benevolence, human benevolence, humility, and truth.

If anyone has any use for this, I'm tagging this individual post as Creative Commons. Please bear in mind that the Talmud and its English edition are not mine (Soncino/Judaica Press, though I've modernized it somewhat). It's possible that there have been enough changes (between modernizing and simplifying the language, and original work added in the formatting) that this may possibly be considered a new work; users are encouraged to check into that as needed.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Biblical Studies Carnival #164

Biblical Studies Carnival #164 is up at Reading Acts. For the first time I have participated in the carnival. The host was welcoming and receptive; I'd encourage all the bibliobloggers who are not submitting entries to the carnival to consider participating in the future. The current month's host, Philip Long, writes a blog that looks interesting.