(When I wrote the original musing upon which this was based, for Vayeitze 5765, that Shabbat was in proximity to Thanksgiving, and I mused more about that connection, which is why it was called Cows and Cranberries. Somehow, Cows and Roses seemed more suited for this adaptation.)
One of the two special haftarah readings for Shabbat Shuvah is a subset of the haftarah normally read for parashat Vayeitze, which we’ll be reading again this November on the last Shabbat of the month.
It’s from that ever troubling prophet, Hosea. Luckily, for Vayeitzei and Shabbat Shuvah we get to skip over all that lovely "marring a whore" metaphor stuff in the beginning of the book of Hosea.
As I have mentioned before, in previous musings for Vayeitze, there is a curious little problem appearing in 2:2-3 of Hosea, in the form of a syntactical puzzle. It hinges on a word and a word grouping.
At the start of this haftarah, in Chapter 14 verse 2&3, we read-
2. Return, O Israel, to the Eternal your Gd, for you have stumbled in your iniquity.
3. Take words with you, and return to the Eternal and say:
That’s the first half of the verse. Verse 3b, has some syntactical problems with the Hebrew, which reads:
Kol tisa avon v’kach tov, unshalmah parim s’fateinu
One translation of this is :
Forgive all guilt and accept what is good; instead of bulls we will pay [the offering of] our lips.
Forgive all iniquity and accept the good; and we shall offer the fruit of our lips.
And yet another:
May you forgive all iniquity and accept good [intentions] and let our lips substitute for bulls.
In their struggling to translate and understand the text, scholars have disagreed on one word-the word parim. It does mean, in Hebrew, bulls. But scholars could not understand exactly the construction of those last three words. Because it would seem to mean "and completed bulls lips" which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. So many translators have chosen to render
it as if meaning that what passes from our lips (prayers) shall be offered in place of sacrifices (bulls.)
It’s a nice read, and I personally like it, because it is one of the earliest indicators in Tanakh that the Jews were evolving past the need for animal sacrifices.
Yet the Septuagint and Syriac version of the Torah both translate the words as "fruit." In Hebrew, "p’ri." (The Septuagint is a translation from Hebrew to Greek purportedly assembled by 70 scholars who all agreed on the translation.)
Remember that the Torah has no vowels. So the first three letters of the word now being rendered (and rendered by the masoretes) as "parim" could have been p’ri at one point, when someone accidentally added a final mem to the word as a scribal error, and this was the version that was passed down to us. Considering the translations from both the Septuagint and Syriac, this seems quite possible–that the word was originally just pey-resh-yod, without the final mem.
So why does all this matter? Well, for one thing, offering the fruit of our lips is quite a different sentiment from giving the offering of our lips in place of bulls (for sacrifice.) The former is about intention, the latter is about methodology.
And it’s all so appropriate, on Shabbat Shuvah, for us to consider what it is that G"d wants from us when we engage in the self-evaluative exploration that is "doing t’shuva." We are taught that repentance at this time of year atones for sins between humans and G"d, but does not atone for sins bein adam l’khavero" between one human being and another.
Consider how often, in our society, people are tempted to atone for sins against another by making up with gifts (like flowers for the spouse when you’ve something to confess.) To me, these gifts are no better than the bulls. It is what we offer with our lips – our apologies, our repentance. And, in a way, it is also what we offer with our "fruits," that is, the fruits of our labors to try and do better this new year. I find either of these ultimately superior to a sacrificial bull. In fact, a sacrificial bull is just that–sacrificial bull! A meaningless gesture. Yes, in an agrarian society, giving up an unblemished food animal is, indeed, a significant sacrifice. But what does G"d need with meat? Let’s be honest-it probably was all a system to keep the kohanim and levi’im fed (or at least it evolved into that once we settled in the land.)
Sure, it’s nice to buy flowers for Shabbat. It’s nice to offer gifts to others. Yet, when it is an apology or amend that is due, I’d recommend the "sacrifice from your lips" or from the fruits of your efforts to be a better person.
BTW, speaking of cows, as an extra little aside-an exercise I often give to my students for extra credit. In modern Hebrew, the word "ladybug" is "parat-Moshe Rabbeinu" – the "cow of Moses our teacher." There’s some very interesting etymology to this modern Hebrew word, and you might enjoy doing a little research of your own to find out the story behind it.
Shabbat Shalom , Tzom Qal, and G’mar Lhatima Tovah
©2008 by Adrian A. Durlester. (Portions ©2004)