Haftarah Parshat Tzav (Jeremiah 7:21-8:3; 9:22-23)
March 26, 2016 / 16 Adar B 5776
Jeremiah’s message in this haftarah is a bleak one. The lot has been cast. The people’s behavior warrants punishment and it is inevitable. Reliance upon normative ritual is insufficient to atone for the nation’s wrongdoing. Jeremiah breaks into poetry to express his lament: “Shear your locks (gazi nizraikh) and cast them away. Take up a lament on the heights for the Lord has spurned and cast off the brood that provoked His wrath.” (7:29)
The intent of this poem is to spurn the conventional ways of expiation because they will be ineffective. Jeremiah uses the image of a nazir who has grown his hair as a vow. Normally, after cutting off his hair at the end of the vow, a nazir would cast his hair on the altar underneath an offering of well-being. Instead, Jeremiah tell him to caste off his hair because his hair lacks holiness and its sacrificial use would be ineffective. In addition, the cutting off of hair in this way was an ancient way of mourning. All of this is meant to symbolize the imminent destruction of the kingdom of Judah. (See M. Bula, Jeremiah, Daat Mikra, p. 104; Y. Hoffman, Jeremiah, Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 257)
The sages often derived the most unexpected things from verses taken out of their original scriptural context by utilizing rules of interpretation. The above verse became a reference point in a discussion of how one is to determine whether a person is alive or dead when a body was discovered under rubble on Shabbat: “Our Rabbis taught: How far does one search? Until [one reaches] his nose. Some say: Up to his heart… Are we to say that the dispute of the Tannaim (Mishnaic sages) is the same as the following Tannaim? For it was taught: From where does the formation of the embryo commence? From its head, as it is said: ‘You (God) are He who took me [gozi] out of my mother’s womb’ (Psalms 71:6), and it is also said: ‘Cut off [gozi] your hair and cast it away.’ Abba Saul said: From the navel which sends its roots into every direction! You may even say that [the first view is in agreement with] Abba Saul, inasmuch as Abba Saul holds his view only touching the first formation, because ‘everything develops from its core [middle]’, but regarding the saving of life he would agree that life manifests itself through the nose especially, as it is written: ‘In whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life.’ (Genesis 7:21)” (Yoma 85a)
In this passage from the Talmud, “gozi” is understood from the first two verses quoted to refer to “head first”. As a consequence, the sages determined that “respiration” was the physiological determiner of whether a person was alive or not. To this day, this is the Jewish reference point for determining life and death. [I just want to note here that the discussion is more sophisticated than this but this is the jumping off point for the discussion.]
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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