We just celebrated Shavuot, commonly known as the festival of cheesecakes, but in the Bible, Shavuot is actually known of the festival of Bikurim, the first crops, and celebrates the beginning of the harvest season.
I would like to argue that Shavuot, as originally conceived, is actually about celebrating Jewish ownership of the land of Israel, as symbolized through agricultural cultivation of the land. I could bring sources and try to convince you, but I won’t, because I want to move on to discuss something else, and I figure I have about five minutes before you scramble over to the kitchen to eat some leftover cheesecake.
We start counting down towards Shavuot on the second day of Pesach. If my land-holiday thesis is correct, this is hardly surprising: Conquering the land of Israel is presented as the culmination of the Exodus process from the time God gives Moses the four types of redemption represented by the four cups of wine on Seder night: “I will take out, I will save, I will redeem, I will take”. This is followed by a fifth type, represented by the cup of Elijah: “I will bring you to the land.”
As a matter of fact, the connection between inheriting the land and slavery in Egypt goes back to the time of Abraham, when God makes a covenant during which he promises both that Abraham’s children will be slaves, and that they will inherit Israel. Thus, slavery in Egypt and inheriting the land of Israel are flip-sides of the same covenant, which was sealed in the blood of animal sacrifice.
Of course, the more famous covenant between God and Abraham is circumcision, probably because it involves penises. Guess what? That covenant is about inheriting Israel, too: God promises Abraham he will be fruitful, and his children will inherit Israel. This is symbolized by a mark that involves drawing blood from the male organ that enables fruition.
Perhaps it is because both treaties are related to the land, that the only two positive commandments where failure to perform results in karet, being “cut off”, just like a piece of foreskin, are: not performing a circumcision, and not bringing a Paschal sacrifice to commemorate the Exodus. Additionally, someone who is uncircumcised cannot eat from the Passover sacrifice.
The rabbis capitalized on this connection, claiming, in the midrash, that the Jewish people mixed the bloods of circumcision and the Paschal sacrifice and smeared them on the doorpost, as a sign to God to pass over them, and not smite them during the final plague.
What is the textual sources for this exegesis? Answer: An odd image in chapter sixteen of Ezekiel. God sees a naked baby waddling in blood. God saves the baby and tells her “In/Through/Despite your blood you shall live”, depending on your interpretation. Then, God marries the now pubescent former baby, only to find out that she’s cheating on him with every man in sight. The word “harlot” gets flung around like whipped cream at a food fight.
The rabbis picked up on two things in the story: 1. Technically, the word used is “bloods”, implying two types of blood. 2. The verse “In/Through/Despite your blood you shall live” repeats itself, also pointing towards two types of blood. The rabbis saw this as textual proof for their embellishment of the Exodus story, and chose to put the verse in the Haggadah, where it appears as a commentary on the following verse, itself an interesting choice for inclusion in the Haggadah text:
“An Aramean enslaved my father, who came down to Egypt and sojourned there in the days of lack, and there became a great, mighty, and numerous nation.” (Deutoronomy 26:5).
This is the same sentence that the Torah instructs people to say during the Bikurim ritual, the bringing of the first crops that was practiced during Shavuot. Coincidence, or evidence that Shavuot, symbolizing entry into the land of Israel, is the culmination of the Passover story?
For an answer, I refer you to Joshua, chapter 5: God commands Joshua to tell the people to circumcise themselves and bring the Passover sacrifice, the former being a prerequisite for the latter. The people do as Joshua says. Immediately after the Passover sacrifice is brought, the manna stops and everyone is expected to live off of the produce of the land, symbolizing the beginning of permanent settlement. In this story, God’s two covenants with Abraham come together: The promise of both slavery and redemption, culminating in inheriting Israel, originally forged through an animal sacrifice, and represented through an animal sacrifice thereafter, and the promise of fruition and land inheritance forged through circumcision and represented by circumcision thereafter.
Not only does this story help clarify the connection between Passover and between Shavuot as an agricultural land holiday, but it also sharpens a question: Given that land inheritance is considered a male domain in rabbinic literature (and perhaps in the Torah itself), as is sacrifice, and certainly circumcision, why do the rabbis choose to read the male rituals of circumcision and the Passover sacrifice, both of which are associated with land inheritance, into an image of female blood?
After all, the baby’s blood in Ezekiel can be interpreted in three ways: afterbirth, menstruation, and virginity – and all of those ways involve a vagina. In that sense, the female blood may seen as a counterpart to the male blood of circumcision. Just as the female blood in the story jump-starts a relationship with God that culminates in a marriage covenant, so too, the circumcision blood enables the baby’s entry into a covenantal relationship with God represented by a marriage contract. The baby about to be circumcised is called a chatan, a bridegroom, because he is about to enter that covenant, or because in ancient near eastern society, circumcision was a ritual performed when you were about to get married – take your pick.
Of course, the Exodus story starts off with a circumcision bridegroom: Moses himself. On the way down to Egypt, God tries to kill Moses. Tziporah, his wife, then circumcises their son, and throws the foreskin at Moses. Immediately, Moses’ attacker backs off, and Tziporah accuses Moses of being “A blood bridegroom of circumcision”, at which point Moses probably realizes that that night, he won’t be getting any cheesecake.
In the story, it is a woman who takes charge of the male ritual of circumcision, reflecting the rabbinic truism that, “It is in the merit of righteous women that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt”. Moreover, we have a story of female empowerment, embodied in the act of taking control of the phallus, the symbol of male dominance.
Perhaps it is the power of enigmatic images of female blood, such as that of Tziporah and of the baby in Ezekiel, that provoke readings of male blood: Throughout the books of the Prophets and the Writings, the relationship between the Jewish people and God is mapped out onto the female body, as over and over again, detailed metaphors portray it as a marriage contract between the husband -God – and the wife – the people of Israel. Reading male blood into these images reads men back into that relationship, by making the male body relevant to the story.
Of course, I don’t actually buy that, because I think that male hegemony was too strong to be threatened by a bunch of extremely powerful metaphors.
So what do I buy, besides really cheap scarves? First of all, in both the Passover story, and in the story that occurs in Joshua, there is male blood on a liminal place – the doorpost, the border of Israel – that enables the nation to progress to the next stage of its life, just as it is the birth blood of a mother, in a liminal place – the vagina, the opening between the mother’s body and the world – that enables the fetus to progress to the next stage of its life, that of constantly crying baby. In both stories, the blood also facilitates the entry into a new geographic space, just as a baby’s exit from the vagina facilitates its entry into a new geographic space. And of course, menstrual blood and the blood of virginity, whether symbolizing the actual act that results in conception, or the beginning of the sexually active phase in a woman’s life, all play a part in enabling the birthing process, meaning that all three types of female blood represented by the metaphor in Ezekiel are covered.
In that sense, I would like to think that by reading male blood into these metaphors – and specifically, male ritual blood associated with the covenants between God and Abraham – the rabbis are implicitly showing their respect for the female body and the potential for life that it contains, while also reading women into land acquisition, the officially male domain that is associated with both circumcision and the Passover sacrifice.
This still leave open the question of why the Abrahamic covenants are ritualized through male blood in the first place, when in fact, both women and men are considered to be a part of the covenant, but that question’s already been answered by Dr. Shaye D. Cohen, who wrote a book about it – which means that it’s time for me to scuttle over to the kitchen and eat some leftover cheesecake.