IMG_5296You haven’t had time to forget the story of the spies yet. Moses sends twelve good men and true out of the wilderness to check out the Promised Land; they come back reporting that the land is full of scary giants; the people decide that they actually don’t want to invade right now thanks all the same; and God is wroth.

The end of the first aliyah:

וּמָ֣ה הָ֠אָרֶץ הַשְּׁמֵנָ֨ה הִ֝וא אִם־רָזָ֗ה הֲיֵֽשׁ־בָּ֥הּ עֵץ֙ אִם־אַ֔יִן וְהִ֨תְחַזַּקְתֶּ֔ם וּלְקַחְתֶּ֖ם מִפְּרִ֣י הָאָ֑רֶץ וְהַ֨יָּמִ֔ים יְמֵ֖י בִּכּוּרֵ֥י עֲנָבִֽים׃ And what the land is, whether it be fat or lean, whether there be trees therein, or not. And be ye of good courage, and bring ye of the fruit of the land.” And the days were the days of the ripening of the grapes.

Here’s something interesting. Various nineteenth-century chasidic commentators, such as Hekhal Ha-berakha (Rabbi Isaac Judah Jehiel Safrun, 1865) say that this is a Bad Place to end the aliyah, because it refers to harsh judgement, and you aren’t supposed to end aliyot on negative notes.

What is negative about grapes?! The season is that of blooming and flourishing, when the harvest is full of fine promise and the land full of beauty. Why is this bad?

Enter Seder ‘Olam Rabba, an early rabbinic text attributed to the Tanna Eli‘ezer ben Yosé Ha-gelili, which calculates biblical chronologies. The Israelites spent a year less ten days at Sinai (Numbers 10:11), thirty days at Qivroth-Ha‑ta’ava (11:19-20), and seven days at Ḥatzerot (12:15). And then, the spies left the camp on the last day of Sivan — late June or early July, the days of the first ripening of the grapes. They returned forty days later, on the Ninth of Av. And on that day God declared that none of that generation would enter the land.

In later sources, the months of Tammuz and Av, especially between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, become understood as forboding, dangerous, or even demonic. A time of gathering wrath and impending curse. The Zohar even ties the verse to the Tree from which the Sin of Adam was committed, which some rabbinic sources identify as a grape-vine (the source of wine, which leads to sin). The author of the Zohar sees these weeks as the time when the universe re-lives the Sin of Adam.

In the 17th century, R’ Samson of Ostropolia even reads the word ‘anavim, grapes, as a reference to Samma’el, the Devil himself: through a caesar cipher, the word ענבם converts to סמאל, when each letter of the word is replaced by the preceding letter in the alphabet. Surely the chasidic sources who refuse to end the aliyah on this word are worried about something extremely frightening.

But we who end the first aliyah on these words are surely seeing the grapes as a positive thing. We’re more like the view of the Keli Yaqar (Ephraim of Luntshitz, 1550-1619) which views the ripe grapes in our verse as symbolizing the state of the Israelites at this point in their narrative; their time had come to enter the land, for they had already ripened, like grapes; their perfection had become complete from the Torah which they had learned at Sinai. And so it is that the sefer Torah is wearing a leafy crown with grapes; we put it on for Shavuot, and we will take it off only before the Ninth of Av.


This view is based on Psalm 80:9-16, which has an extended metaphor of Israel as a grape-vine:

גֶּ֭פֶן מִמִּצְרַ֣יִם תַּסִּ֑יעַ תְּגָרֵ֥שׁ גּ֝וֹיִ֗ם וַתִּטָּעֶֽהָ׃
פִּנִּ֥יתָ לְפָנֶ֑יהָ וַתַּשְׁרֵ֥שׁ שָֽׁ֝רָשֶׁ֗יהָ וַתְּמַלֵּא־אָֽרֶץ׃
כָּסּ֣וּ הָרִ֣ים צִלָּ֑הּ וַֽ֝עֲנָפֶ֗יהָ אַֽרְזֵי־אֵֽל׃
תְּשַׁלַּ֣ח קְצִירֶ֣הָ עַד־יָ֑ם וְאֶל־נָ֝הָ֗ר יֽוֹנְקוֹתֶֽיהָ׃
לָ֭מָּה פָּרַ֣צְתָּ גְדֵרֶ֑יהָ וְ֝אָר֗וּהָ כָּל־עֹ֥בְרֵי דָֽרֶךְ׃
יְכַרְסְמֶ֣נָּֽה חֲזִ֣יר מִיָּ֑עַר וְזִ֖יז שָׂדַ֣י יִרְעֶֽנָּה׃
אֱלֹהִ֣ים צְבָאוֹת֮ שֽׁ֫וּב נָ֥א הַבֵּ֣ט מִשָּׁמַ֣יִם וּרְאֵ֑ה וּ֝פְקֹ֗ד גֶּ֣פֶן זֹֽאת׃
וְ֭כַנָּה אֲשֶׁר־נָֽטְעָ֣ה יְמִינֶ֑ךָ וְעַל־בֵּ֗֝ן אִמַּ֥צְתָּה לָּֽךְ׃
8 Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt: thou hast cast out the heathen, and planted it.
9 Thou preparedst room before it, and didst cause it to take deep root, and it filled the land.
10 The hills were covered with the shadow of it, and the boughs thereof were like the goodly cedars.
11 She sent out her boughs unto the sea, and her branches unto the river.
12 Why hast thou then broken down her hedges, so that all they which pass by the way do pluck her?
13 The boar out of the wood doth waste it, and the wild beast of the field doth devour it.
14 Return, we beseech thee, O God of hosts: look down from heaven, and behold, and visit this vine;
15 And the vineyard which thy right hand hath planted, and the branch that thou madest strong for thyself.

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