Life From the Ashes

Devarim | Tishah Be'av By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Aug 1, 1998 / 5758 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

How did Judaism manage to survive the destruction of its central sanctuary? According to the book of Deuteronomy, which we always begin to read on the Shabbat before Tish’ah Be’av, it was to be the only link between heaven and earth. All sacrifices were to be offered there and no place else. The exclusive cult restricted to a single Temple seemed to reinforce the fragile belief in a single, omnipotent God. And even if Solomon’s Temple never fully eradicated the plethora of local altars and sanctuaries, it did claim to be the repository of God’s holy name and the place where God was most readily accessible to human supplication. Yet, unwittingly, the monotheism of Solomon’s court increased the vulnerability of Israelite religion. The destruction of his Temple in 586 BCE could have ruptured the ties between God and Israel. By then the exiled tribes of the Northern Kingdom, crushed by Assyria in 721 BCE, were well on their way to oblivion.

I should like to suggest that the answer to this historical conundrum lies in the etymology of a single Hebrew word. On occasion one word can illumine the value system of an entire culture – reason enough to learn Hebrew, for Judaism is inseparable from the language of its sacred texts.

In Solomon’s Temple, the Holy of Holies bore the Hebrew name Devir. Its sacred precincts were to be the final resting place of the two tablets of the Covenant preserved since the revelation at Sinai in the portable Ark. The noun appears for the first time in the Hebrew Bible in reference to Solomon’s Temple: “The priests brought the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant to its place underneath the wings of the cherubim, in the Shrine [Devir] of the house, in the Holy of Holies” (I Kings 8:6; see also 6:5, 16, 20, 21, 22, 23, 31).

At first blush, the name Devir seems self-evidently to be related to the noun davar, meaning “word” and contained in the opening phrase of our parashah, Devarim (the plural of davar): “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel” (Deuteronomy 1:1). And devarim, as the first important word, becomes the name not only of our parashah but of the entire fifth book of the Torah. Both Devir and davar in turn would come from the verb daber (to speak). Hence, Devir was often translated as “oracle,” the shrine from which God spoke.

But, in truth, the etymology of Devir is otherwise. The word seems to be related to an Arabic cognate meaning “back” or “part behind,” signifying not the function of the space but more prosaically its location, at the rear of the Temple. In short, the illuminating power of the word Devir comes not from its derivation, but from its later development. In rabbinic Hebrew, the language of Midrash, Mishnah, and Talmud, Devir acquires the meaning of “book.” In the Talmud (Avodah Zara, 24b), we are informed that Rav, who came to Babylonia early in the third century and founded the rabbinic academy of Sura, was amused to discover that the Persians used the proper noun Devir for book (safra). Eventually, he landed on an isolated biblical verse that seemed to justify the transfer: “The name of Devir (not far from Hebron) was formerly called Kiriat-sepher [book]” (Judges 1:11). The verse posits an identity between Devir and sepher. Whatever the role of the Persians might have been, the talmudic passage clearly recycles the antiquarian Temple term Devir by investing it with explosive new meaning.

Indeed, I am convinced that there is nothing accidental about its application. What the Talmud meant to convey is that the embodiment of holiness and the presence of God did not disappear for the Jewish people with the twice-told tale of Temple destruction. Judaism survived because it replaced its cult with a canon. A portable and imperishable book that could transcend the traumas of history provided the bridge to eternity once ensured by a sacred space. Wherever the Jewish people might go, God went with them. The Torah became the inexhaustible wellspring for law and life, for piety and polity, the most treasured object of a religious culture that privileged literacy and learning. In the synagogue, the ark that houses it came to replicate the Temple’s inner shrine.

Nor is the continuity forced. Both derive their sanctity from the written word inside. Book and shrine serve to perpetuate the experience of revelation, the verbal distillation of “that still, small voice” that joins soul to Soul and mind to Mind. Thus the inspired expansion of the word Devir encapsulates the grand transformation of Judaism from a particular to a universal faith.

Many centuries later, after World War I, the poet laureate of the Zionist Movement and Hebrew renaissance, Haim Nahman Bialik, founded a Hebrew publishing house in Berlin that he called Devir. When he made aliyah in 1924 he relocated it to Tel Aviv. Its mission was rigorously restricted to publishing only works in the Hebrew language. Thus, much to the chagrin of Nahum Goldman and Jakob Klatzkin, Devir refused to participate in their ambitious plan to produce the German language Encyclopaedia Judaica, ten volumes of which in fact appeared before they were forced to abort the project by the Nazis. What Devir did publish were path-breaking Hebrew works like Simon Dubnov’s History of Hasidism in 1931 and a Hebrew translation of his ten-volume World History of the Jewish People in 1933.

In retrieving from the dustbin of history the rare Hebrew word Devir for his company, Bialik signaled not only the centrality of the book in Jewish life, but also the supreme importance of Hebrew as a vehicle for cultural creativity. Bialik was an inveterate foe of Judaism in translation. No self-respecting national movement could dispense with its own language. The steady dilution of Judaism in the West was a direct consequence of its repudiation of Hebrew. Nothing appeared more self-contradictory to Bialik than doing Jewish scholarship in a language other than Hebrew. Would Germans ever dream of writing about their history in French? So Bialik applauded wholeheartedly the founding of a scholarly journal in Hebrew in 1923 in Berlin by Elbogen, Epstein, and Torczyner of the liberal Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums. It too bore the name Devir and served ever so briefly as a meeting ground for Jewish scholars from East and West, from Palestine and Germany.

As we reflect deeply about Jewish national destiny on Tishah Be’av, we should be mindful of the remarkable religious mutation triggered by the obliteration of the Temples. On the ashes of the cult arose a life-sustaining canon that fructified the whole world. No less true, as Ben-Gurion never tired of saying: “For 2000 years the Jewish people preserved the Book, even as the Book preserved the people.”

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Devarim are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.