Groundhog Day, Jewish-style

Ground hog peeking out of his hole
iStock

Groundhog Day is kind of a big Pennsylvania thing.  And while I live in Toronto now, I, my friends, am originally from Pennsylvania.

To start with an aside, some people have pointed to the Canadian Wiarton Willie as effectively making Groundhog Day an Ontario thing.  These people are wrong.  If anything, Shubenacadie Sam of Nova Scotia is the preeminent Canadian groundhog, and Pennsylvania’s Punxsatawney Phil has been around since 1886, over a century before Sam’s 1987 debut.  Even Wikipedia, that Source of Sources, says the holiday is a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition.  In fact, there’s an entire Groundhog’s Day Wikipedia page in Pennsylvania Dutch, complete with a song about this festive day.  (You can listen to that and other Grundsaudaag tunes here.)

But I digress. 

“But Seth,” you’re thinking, “Groundhog Day has NOTHING to do with Judaism!  It’s about the mayor of a small Pennsylvania town assessing, with questionable ability (perhaps the understatement of the year, given that Phil’s success rate is pathetically lower than the 50/50 odds of giving a correct “winter/no winter” answer), whether a moderately small mammal sees its shadow and goes back to sleep, indicating more coldity and snowitude, or if it doesn’t and stays awake, heralding warmer weather.  Why would a Jewish organization do ANYTHING to mark it?”

And yeah, that’s kind of fair.

Superficially.

But try this on for size:

Riffing off Adam’s experience with divine anesthesia for his partial rib-ectomy in Eden, Jewish texts refer to three types of “deep sleep” (tardeimah):

  1. Adam’s deep sleep in Genesis 2:21;
  2. The deep sleep of prophecy that Avram experienced before hearing directly from G-d in Genesis 15:12; and
  3. The deep sleep of marmitah (sometimes marmutah, depending on the textual version,.  It’s kind of like the classic tune: you say tomato, I say marmutah).

This last category references yet another episode of biblical slumber – in this case, the sleep that fell upon Saul and his soldiers when David snuck in to steal a jug of water from him in 1 Samuel 12(That David was such a prankster.  Remember the joke he played on Uriah the Hittite?  Kills me.  And Uriah.)  One commentary even insists that what Saul experienced (tardeimat marmitah) is the deepest sleep of them all (although I’d suggest that the Sunday morning sleep when no children are at home is deeper).

So what, exactly, is marmitah?  Marcus Jastrow, that delightful 19th century Philadelphian philologist and Talmudic scholar, thinks this mystery word is actually a typo for madmeimah (“trance” or “catalepsy”).  But that’d be a whole lot of errors in transcription, and pshaw, who cares what Jastrow thinks?  Especially when multiple commentators say it’s an animal that hibernates!  An example: opining in the 11th century, Hebrew lexicographer Rabbi Nathan of Rome etymologizes the word back to marmora (“marble” in Latin and Ancient Greek) because the animal slept as soundly as a rock.  Plus, in modern Hebrew, marmitah is “marmot,” and marmitah amerikayit (literally, “American marmot”) is – you guessed it! – “groundhog”!  Tada!  QED!

On a related note, there’s a Jewish Groundhog’s Day-esque custom about being able to predict a person’s fate depending on their moonshadow’s appearance on the ghost-ridden night of Hoshanah Rabbah toward the end of Sukkot (TL;DR version: if a person’s head is missing from their moonshadow, they’ll die in the coming year. Unless they engage in a whole lot of tzedakah. Or some such thing.), but that practice is discouraged.  Plus, you’re not a groundhog.  So don’t do that.  

Let’s summarize: centuries before it became the centre of folk divination over spring’s arrival, Jewish sources recognized the groundhog as especially susceptible to winter’s soporific effects.  If even the groundhog was waking up from hibernation, warmer weather was surely on the way, and soon. 

Put otherwise, everything is mysteriously and beautifully interwoven and interconnected underneath, and Groundhog Day was Jewish even before it existed. 

Anywho, it’s the start of February, and if you’re in the northern hemisphere, you’re halfway through winter!  Happy Marmitah Day, all!

About the Author
Originally from Philadelphia, Seth Goren lives in Toronto and is Hillel Ontario's Chief Education & Campus Officer.
Related Topics
Related Posts
Comments