Thursday, 28 November 2013

Yoma 21 a, b

After this detailed examination of the High Priest's preparations for Yom Kippur, the rabbis turn to the miracles that took place in the Temple.  Perhaps there were ten miracles; perhaps there were more.  Some of the miracles could be grouped together, but others stood alone. Did miracles count as miracles if they were continuous? Must they be discreet events?  Our notes teach that even the rabbis understood that some miracles were actually natural occurrences.  Why were our Sages so eager to believe that the Temple was a place of miracles?

Some of what they consider a miracle might be considered a flaw in their own understandings of the Temple. For example, one of the 'miracles is that the cherubim fit in the Holy of Holies, though their wingspans should not have allowed for this to happen.  Would it not make more sense that they misunderstood the measurements, or that the baraitot were flawed, which is blasphemous, or - and this is extremely challenging - the the Temple was never built in perfect accordance with Torah instructions?

One of the miracles is important to mention: women never miscarried due to the smell of the meat on the ark.  Apparently the rabbis believed that women's cravings could lead to miscarriage, and that the smell of the meat could spark these cravings.   But no miscarriages because of the odourous meat, or no miscarriages at all?  Of course there were miscarriages.  Did women not report them? were they protecting the 'status' of the Temple as a place of miracles?  Were they protecting themselves and their families from the difficulties and expense that would ensue due to the ritual impurity caused by a miscarriage?  The fact that the experience of miscarriage is mentioned at all is significant, as it is a huge part of our lives as women.

In discussing these miracles further, rabbis consider other possible supernatural happenings in the Temple.  Their discussion of miracles suggests special features of the wind and of fire.  Wind was thought to predict the coming season's weather forecast.  I find this very difficult to integrate into my 21st century mind.  However, our ancestors may have understood the weather differently, as they were wholly dependent on favourable weather to ensure food for themselves and their families - there was no corner store that would sell dates if the date trees did not produce.

Fire provides another interesting story.  A number of different types of fire existed, each with its own characteristics.  Some were 'normal', like fire that consumes solids but not water and fire that consumes liquid but not solid (ie. a fever that burns our organs but does not scorch us externally).  Other types of fire were miraculous, and that fire was able to burn without vulnerability.

Our Sages often speak in metaphors regarding what they cannot control.  They discuss the existential nature of being alive as a human being with all of our frailty and ignorance.  However, they do this through the contemplation of Torah.  The ancient notions of G-d, the elements, the nature of people - all of these provide the context for our rabbis as they analyze and attempt to understand what we still cannot know.  At least not empirically.

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