Five megillot are examined in ‘Textual Tapestries’

Textual Tapestries: Explorations of the Five Megillot by Gabriel H Cohn (Translated from the Hebrew by David Strauss), Maggid Books, New Milford, CT, © 2016, ISBN 978-1-59264-398-1, p. 433, $29.95

By Fred Reiss, Ed.D.

Fred Reiss, Ed.D

WINCHESTER, California – The Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, is divided into three broad sections: Torah, the Five Books of Moses; Nevi’im, the prophets; and K’tuvim, the writings. All five megillot considered in this book, Song of Songs, Book of Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and the Book of Esther, are contained in K’tuvim. Over time, a Jewish tradition developed in which a megillah is read on a specific holiday. Song of Songs during Pesach, the Book of Ruth on Shavuot, Lamentations on Tisha B’Av, Ecclesiastes throughout Sukkot, and the Book of Esther on Purim.

Gabriel Cohn, educator and biblical scholar at Bar Ilan University, and author of Textual Tapestries: Explorations of the Five Megillot, analyzes the conceptual, literary, and pedagogic themes presented in these five megillot by pulling together commentaries and observations from a wide range of past and present scholars, as well as drawing on his own studies, which are often based on the modern concept of literary criticism.

Using many examples from Songs of Songs, Cohn carefully examines the Hebrew word plays and the order and interconnections among its poems, expending considerable effort scrutinizing the two basic approaches for understanding the work: The traditional allegorical interpretation of Song of Songs as a love story between God and the Jewish people, calling the Exodus a “betrothal,” culminating in “marriage” at Mt. Sinai, and the imagery in Song of Songs as symbols of a loving relationship between God, the Jewish people, and the Land of Israel.

The Book of Ruth, a rare female-centric biblical book, whose events transpired during the time of the Judges, from about 1250 to 1025 BCE, is structured, according to Cohn, into twelve divisions based on internal evidence, such as the characters portrayed and scenes of action, rather than medieval Christianity’s arbitrarily assigned four chapters. In addition, Cohn describes the Book of Ruth as a work of poetry built on three linguistic factors: key words, Hebrew wordplay, and textual parallelism.

The voice of God is not heard in Ruth, but Cohn shows us that His Hand is visible throughout, describing how the characters demonstrating good Jewish morals and values, including social responsibility and accepting true converts leads to rewards, and poor Jewish choices such as Elimelech’s decision to leave the Land of Israel and remain in self-imposed exile and his children’s decision to assimilate into Moabite culture, results in punishment.

Cohn points out that reasons for the Book of Ruth’s inclusion into the Hebrew biblical cannon include presenting King David’s genealogy and modelling behaviors transcending the letter of the law, but perhaps most important he describes how the Book of Ruth’s central theme is “the transition from exile to redemption;” redemption of land and family; redemption through conversion and as a nation.

Lamentations, whose sorrowful poems are mostly written in alphabetical acrostics, is traditionally assigned to Jeremiah, the prophet witnessing Jerusalem’s devastation and the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE. Although he holds back from declaring Jeremiah’s authorship, Cohn builds a scholarly case on his behalf, basing his conclusions on numerous contextual and linguistic similarities between Lamentations and the Book of Jeremiah.

Cohn perceives Lamentations through his belief that the Hebrew Bible is not just a collection of abstract principles of faith, but “a theological interpretation of the history of the people of Israel.” First, he sees the lamenter continuing his condemnation of the Judeans for their grave sins, but then turning to God as the ultimate arbitrator, the lamenter emotionally pleads that he is praying properly and that his prayers will be heard; he shows contrition, hoping for consolation.

Ecclesiastes, whose authorship is traditionally assigned to King Solomon, is a timeless book in the sense that its passages are not bound to an historical period, but to “the fundamental problems of mankind (such as the nature of wisdom, universal justice, and God’s standing)”. The Hebrew Bible argues for “constant renewal,” whereas Ecclesiastes, asserting that life is fully determined, says there is a time for everything and noting how unproductive all human activity is, asks, “What profit has the worker from his toil?” After all, everyone’s life is meaningless and transient. “For of the wise man as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance.” Cohn arrives at the conclusion that Ecclesiastes and the Hebrew Bible come from polar opposites, the former being anthropocentric and the latter theocentric, so both are correct.

The Hebrew word hevel is an important key word in Ecclesiastes, and Cohn carefully examines its various contextual meanings. He also considers the book’s inner structure, comparing and contrasting past and modern commentaries, and concluding that Ecclesiastes considers six philosophical areas, including life experiences, social issues, and what is good for humanity, in addition to an introduction and conclusion.

The Book of Esther, according to Cohn, is unique among biblical books for its content, style, and character. Why does a book, he asks, which documents the struggle between Persian Jewry and its enemies begin with a description of a lavish party, and then in the remainder of the book describe nine more feasts? The answer, he concludes, is the book’s condemnation of Persian materialism and hedonism, which he affirms by citing numerous verses characterizing outer appearances, not inner qualities, as a mark of success. The author of the Book of Esther continually points to Persia as a country ruled by laws, yet describes actions determined by avarice and arbitrary decisions in drunken stupors.

Cohn demonstrates the linkages between the Book of Esther and the stories in the Book of Genesis about Joseph rebuffing the advances of Potiphar and Judah offering himself as a hostage for release of his youngest brother. He also establishes how the hidden Hand of God directs the actions of the book’s characters and what message this is sending to future generations of Jews.

In addition to his explorations, Cohn ends each chapter with one or more appendices in which he offers additional commentaries and study questions. In Textual Tapestries, Cohn brings together bold and passionate interpretations, revealing new understanding and insights into well-known, but often overlooked megillot.

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Dr. Fred Reiss is a retired public and Hebrew school teacher and administrator. He is the author of The Standard Guide to the Jewish and Civil Calendars; Public Education in Camden, NJ: From Inception to Integration; Ancient Secrets of Creation: Sepher Yetzira, the Book that Started Kabbalah, Revealed; and a fiction book, Reclaiming the Messiah. The author may be contacted via [email protected].

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