THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Beha’alotekha – פרשת בהעלתך
June 22, 2019 – יט סיון תשעט
Your Joyous Occasions
Scripture issues instructions for the use of two silver trumpets for administrative, military, and cultic functions. The precise dates on which trumpets were to be sounded in connection with the sacrificial cult are not specified. Instead, broad guidelines are set down. “And on the day of your gladness and at your fixed seasons and on your new moons, you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings and over your communion sacrifices (Numbers 10:10)” (Robert Alter translation). While the terms “fixed seasons” מועדים and “new moons” ראשי חדשים have definite meanings, “day of gladness” יום שמחתכם is an ambiguous expression open to a range of interpretations.
The JPS translation is: “And on your joyous occasions – your fixed festivals and new moon days – you shall sound the trumpets.” Unlike Prof. Alter’s translation, here there is no separate category of “joyous occasions”; יום שמחתכם is a phrase that includes and describes the festivals and new moon days. The JPS version has great homiletic appeal. The sermonizer can preach how the Bible wants Israelites to find their moments of joy within, and as defined by, the rhythm of the ritual calendar, and not either the rhythm of the secular calendar or the upswings in material fortune. However, the JPS translation suffers from two glaring grammatical weaknesses: A) יום שמחתכם is in the singular – as noted astutely by Alter – not the plural. Thus, “occasions” is a mistranslation. B) The conjunctive וי”ו (meaning “and”) appears at the beginning of ובמועדיכם, indicating that “fixed festivals” or “fixed seasons” (per Alter) is its own category, and not a component of the broader category “joyous occasions.”
The Halakhic Midrash posits that “joyous occasions” means the weekly Sabbath, while “fixed festivals” refers to the three pilgrimage festivals (Sifre Numbers 77). The structure of Leviticus 23, which mentions first the Sabbath and then the various pilgrimage and high holidays, may have influenced the sages’ understanding of Numbers 10:10. Torah Temimah noted that, by process of elimination, “joyous occasions” must mean the Sabbath, because no other religiously significant category of days remains after festivals and new moons are excluded. Josephus’ description of Temple protocol seems to confirm the sages’ interpretation. “They also made use of these trumpets in their sacred ministrations, when they were bringing their sacrifices to the altar as well as on the Sabbaths and festivals days (Antiquities 3:12:6).”
But is the Sabbath a joyous occasion? While Scripture expressly mandates joy on the pilgrimage festivals (Deuteronomy 16:14), and especially on Sukkot, no such obligation is recorded in the Pentateuch regarding the Sabbath.
Torah Temimah wrote a lengthy excursus in which he adamantly defended the concept of the Sabbath as a day of joy (see his comments on Genesis 2:3). He cited a passage in the Yerushalmi about when one ought to eat the Purim feast in a year when Purim falls out on the Sabbath. In response to Rabbi Zeira’s suggestion that the feast be eaten on the Sabbath, Rabbi Abahu said that the feast had to be postponed until Sunday because joy whose timing is determined by the calendrical reckoning of the court (here, Purim) cannot be mixed with joy whose timing is determined by Heaven (the Sabbath). (Yerushalmi Megillah 70b). Torah Temimah mustered further proof from the fact that the Sabbath was given at Marah, where it was joyfully received by the Israelites, and not at Sinai, where God had to coerce the Israelites into accepting the Law by overturning the mountain and dangling it menacingly over their heads. He also cited the Musaf liturgy: “They shall rejoice in your kingship – those who observe the Sabbath and call it a delight.” After citing even more supportive data, Torah Temimah came to the halakhic conclusion that one must eat meat on the Sabbath, in keeping with the Talmudic dictum that there is no joy without meat (Pesahim 109a).
Rabbi Nathan offered a dissenting view in the Halakhic Midrash, positing that “joyous occasions” means the twice-daily Tamid sacrifice. On its surface, Rabbi Nathan’s view appears quite weak, as there is little reason to regard a daily Temple ritual as being an especially joyous moment. Moreover, the plain sense of the verse is that trumpets are sounded on select occasions, not every day. Yet it is possible to find support for his view in the inclusion of the Tamid among the various holiday Musaf sacrifices recorded in Numbers 28-29. According to the Mishnah’s recollection of Temple practice, trumpets were indeed sounded daily in connection with the morning and afternoon offerings (Mishnah Tamid 7:3).
Meshech Chochmah surveyed the entirety of Scripture and concluded that the joyous occasions on which trumpets were sounded in a cultic setting all involved the dedication or re-dedication of the altar. He cited Maimonides’ controversial opinion that physical rejoicing שמחה is an obligatory element of Hanukah observance (Hilkhot Hanukah 3:3), and justified it in light of the historical fact that the Hasmoneans had to build a new altar to replace the one that had been defiled by the pagan Seleucids.
It seems to me, however, that Meshech Chochmah interpreted the Biblical evidence too narrowly. In fact, several favorable national developments culminated in popular rejoicing and the cultic sounding of trumpets: a) when David brought the Ark of the Covenant from its temporary abode in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite to a tent pitched in Jerusalem (I Chronicles 16:5); b) when Solomon dedicated the Holy Temple (II Chronicles 5:12, I Kings 8:66); c) when Asa re-dedicated the altar and renewed the Divine covenant with Israel (II Chronicles 15:8-14); d) when the illegitimate queen regnant Athaliah was deposed and Joash was crowned king of Judah (II Kings 11:14); e) when Hezekiah purified the Temple of the foreign and idolatrous elements previously introduced by his father, Ahaz (II Chronicles 29:27); f) when the foundation for the Second Holy Temple was laid in the days of Zerubbabel and Jeshua (Ezra 3:10); and g) when Nehemiah consecrated the newly rebuilt municipal wall of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 12:35).
Ibn Ezra understood “joyous occasions” in light of the verse that immediately precedes it: “When you are at war in your land against an aggressor who attacks you, you shall sound short blasts on the trumpets, that you may be remembered before the Lord your God and be delivered from your enemies (Numbers 10:9).” Ibn Ezra understood Scripture to be mandating the institution of a formal day of celebration marking the return home of Israelite armed forces after battling a foreign enemy on their territory or successfully repelling an enemy incursion into Israelite territory.
The simplest approach to Numbers 10:10 is to accept that יום שמחתכם can and will mean different things to different people in different eras. For one generation, the day of gladness could be an improbable military victory over the Philistines, while for another it could be the restoration of the worship of Y-H-W-H after an unfortunate idolatrous interlude. The primary lesson of Numbers 10:10 is that irrespective of what brings national gladness, it should be celebrated in a manner inclusive of Divine worship performed, aesthetically, with pomp and grandeur.