Monday, February 3, 2014

El Shaddai



Some background info you'll need for this post:  I'm slowly improving my Hebrew (which is terrible). I work at a progressive, pluralistic Jewish high school (that's going to come up). You should know who Sarai/Sarah and Avram/Abraham are.  This previous post might be relevant. You should know who Artemis of Ephesus is.  You should know who Ishtar is.  I don't know how to type Hebrew in blogger.  Sorry.  

Last night I discovered that my Hebrew flashcards (and translate.google.com) render shin-daled-yod as"demonic".  This surprised me because I am used to that word (shaddai) in the context of the name alpeh-lamed shin-daled-yod, or El Shaddai, which is usually translated as God Almighty.  It's a very ancient Jewish god name, the one used by the matriarchs and patriarchs.  (Exodus 6:3 says "And I appeared unto Avraham, unto Yitzchak, and unto Ya’akov, as El Shaddai, but by My name YHVH I did not make Myself known to them.")

a Mesopotamian goddess figurine, 2000 BCE.
This is called the "Ishtar pose"
It is El Shaddai who prophesies children for Sarah in Genesis 17; "And when Avram was ninety and nine shanah, Hashem appeared to Avram, and said unto him, I am El Shaddai; walk before Me, and be thou tamim (blameless)..."  This is particularly interesting, because the (presumably priestly) "narrator" uses THE name (YHVH), but relates that G-d calls herself (himself?  itself? whatever) El Shaddai.   Similarly, in Genesis 35:11 El Shaddai prophesies children for Jacob:  "And Elohim said unto him, I am El Shaddai; be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be from thee, and melechim [kings] shall come out of thy loins".  Again, notice the disparity between the narrator's use of the name Elohim and the "in character" use of El Shaddai.  In Genesis 49:25, Jacob is blessing his sons.  He says "By the El Aveinu [God of your father] who helps you, and El Shaddai who blesses you, Blessings of the heavens from above, Blessings of the deep lying under, Blessings of breasts and womb, Blessing of ancient mountains, Blessing of everlasting hills..."  Rashi, weirdly to me, has "fathers and mothers" where I've given "breasts and womb".  He says "Heb. שָׁדַיִם. [How does שָׁדַיִם come to mean father?]“He shall be cast down (יָרֹה יִיָּרֶה)” (Exod. 19:13) is translated by the Targum as אִשְׁתְּדָאָה יִשְׁתְּדֵי Here too, [שָׁדַיִם means the father] because semen shoots (יוֹרֶה) like an arrow."  I have no idea what he's talking about.  Maybe that makes sense in Hebrew?

RK, a former student who's currently studying Judaics at Bar Ilan in Israel, said this in response to my facebook post this morning: "When "Shaddai" is used, it is usually in the context of child bearing or something having to do with the mitzvah of "Peruh Orevuh." Hashem is represented through justice when called "Elokim" and merciful when called "Adonai." When "Shaddai" is used, it relates Hashem with child bearing. " (peruh orevuh is "be fruitful and multiply")

This was very interesting to me, so I dashed of a quick email asking about it to some colleagues.  That's where things got interesting.  (We have off school for snow today, so all of us have some unexpected free time)  SR is our Judaics teacher.  He's also a Reconstructionist (extremely progressive) congregational rabbi. YY is our head of school.  Like me, he's more or less anti-denominational, but I think he would self-identify as something like "egalitarian/humanist/traditional-leaning pluralist" if pressed and "atheist/who-gives-a-shit" if he wasn't employed as a head of a Jewish school.  His training is from Pardes, a progressive pluralistic (although they hotly deny it!) school in Israel.  Were I to get a rabbinic ordination (a thing I occasionally consider when I'm less than sober), Pardes probably is where I would go.  Here's what they say:

10 Cups, Rohrig deck
SR: "It's complicated, of course.  So much in Hebrew language and thought is bipolar.  The breast (shad) is also the demon (shed); nurturance and destruction operate on the same spectrum.  God the destroyer is also God the preserver.  The shoresh (Hebrew root) shin dalet dalet means "deal violently with, despoil, devastate, ruin" (BDB dictionary).  I believe this verb includes the positive as well as the negative denotation.  A mother's love can be a terrible as well as blissful thing, sometimes simultaneously.  However, I could be wrong.  The roots could be different.  It's mainly linguistic speculation as to whether shin dalet dalet and a lost verb (perhaps shin dalet weak [or hey]) refer to the same phenomenon.  At any rate, coincidentally or not, one form, shod, can mean both "violence, havoc, devastation, ruin" and "breast" (again, BDB).  No one knows for 100% sure how vowels work since the original Hebrew writing, itself probably a record of oral speech traditions, has no vowels.  According to BDB, the word shed, meaning "demon," might be an Assyrian loan word denoting "a protecting spirit, esp. of bull-colossus."  That would certainly fit the theory that it also refers to the female breast, which is a life-giving protuberance.  I believe that it also points toward androgynous tendencies in the Hebrew conception of the divine."

I don't really get the connection he's making between a "bull-colossus" tutelary and "life-giving protuberances".  Not even a little, actually. (UPDATE: SR clarified.  It's below)

YY: " In hebrew, without vowels, both Shedi and Shaddai would look identical.  Shed refers to a demon.  Shed=demons.  Shedi= perhaps that might be where it is coming up with demonic. 
As far as I know, that word has nothing to do with the word Shaddai, which is in reference to God, usually in conjunction with El, as in El Shaddai, derived from either Shad=breast (meaning the fertile- and sustaining-one) or Shadad=destroyer (meaning the all-powerful one).  There are a number of rabbinic midrashim on Shadai, such as "sh'dai"= he who is enough/sufficient. ... The rabbis weren't shy about saying that they borrowed from other cultures. EG Rambam saying that our sacrificial system in the temple was borrowed from other cultures, for the purpose of weaning the early Jews off of physical sacrifices and towards an invisible God.  So I am hesitant to make the leap of saying there's a connection between 'shed' and 'shad', when there's nothing I could find in any Jewish source on it.  I'm unconvinced it's anything more than a confusion over vowels, like saying there's a meaningful connection between 'there' and 'their'.  Just my two cents."

YY tends to be quite literal and denotative in his answers to questions like this.  Honestly, I'm not terribly worried about whether the linguistic connection is "real" or not.  There's a long and rich Jewish tradition of word play as a kind of exegesis (Talmud is FULL of it), which is good enough for me; I'm really only interested in it mythologically/inspirationally rather than historically / etymologically.

I was particularly intrigued by YY's mention of "sh'dai" as a reading.  It's a thing you often see on mezuzoht (Jewish apotropaic amulets you hang on door posts).  It's an acronym for "shomer daltol Israel" which means something like "guardian of the doors of Israel".  Also, "dai" means "enough" or "sufficient" (like in "Dayeinu", the Passover song), so Sh'Dai as a god name can mean something like "The Guardian of the Gates of Israel" or "Who is Sufficient in Itself".  (Hebrew is fucking awesome; everything means everything else all the time.)

Artemis of Ephesus
I've always been particularly attracted to the name El Shaddai.  For me, it's always felt intimately attached to the marriage of Sarai and Avram (see this post) and, in a broader sense, to pre-rabbincal Judaism in general, a topic which is, you well know, close to my heart. When I pray extemporaneously, El Shaddai is almost always the name I use (although it depends on my mood and what I'm praying about, and Who shows up).  I knew about the "breast" connection and I knew that "sheddim" meant "demons" (although, in my experience, sheddim are really more like djinn or fairies than demons), but much of the information my rabbis provided was new to me.  

Thinking about all of this, I began to wonder, as I have before, about the connection between El Shaddai and the marriage of El and Astarte.  While "El" is the generic Hebrew word for "god" (little g), it's also a name for G-d, and the name of a specific Canaanite god.  El is strongly associated with bulls and thunder, is the creator of the world, and the husband of Ashera in Canaanite mythology.  Shaddai, if it does indeed mean both "breast" and "destroyer" could not be more closely aligned with Ishtar/Astarte, a goddess of sex, bounty, and conflict. Less well known is her patronage of pregnant and nursing mothers.  In the eastern parts of the Greek world, this goddess was known as  "Artemis of the East" or "Artemis of the Ephesians".  The statue in her temple at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, emphasized her role as the patron of nursing mothers, both human and animal, connecting in with the child bearing motif RK mentioned.  Fun fact: there is an interesting episode in the "New Testament" where her followers almost manage to stone Paul to death.  Too bad they missed!

Now, DDD translated "Shadday" as "God of the Wilderness", which it gets from the Akkadian "shaddu", or "dweller in the mountains". From there, it traces to the Hebrew sadeh, or "uncultivated field" or "plains".  It says "Any El Shadday, is, therefore, a "god of the wilderness" and can be connected with the iconographical motive of the 'lord of the animals'...with the emergence of the plough and incipient statehood, the 'Great Goddess' of the Neolithic period gave way to a male head of pantheon...The neolithic 'lord of beasts' survived only in marginal communities...El Shadday may thus serve as a prime example of the long way that a deity from ancient Canaan and early Israel had to go to become part of Old Testament theology."  While I'm pretty skeptical about this etymology, it is fascinating for the Babylon/Pan imagery it conjures...this time with El and Babylon and Shaddai as Pan, instead of the reverse!


For me, El Shaddai is the most ancient form of the Jewish god.  Most of you have head me say that the central teaching of my Judaism is the Shema.  "Shema Israel, HaShem Eloheinu, HaShem Achad.", literally "Listen up, Israel.  G-d is our god, G-d is one."  For me, that's the crux of the matter.  The god of our people (the way Athena is the god of Athenians, or Artemis the goddess of the Ephesians) is the Ineffable ONE who moment by moment brings the universe into being.  How fucking amazing is that?  It's COSMICALLY arrogant in a way no other people could dream to be.

El Shaddai, for me, is the name I use when I want to speak to my ancestral god, our tribal god, the nurturing breast, the violent destroyer, the Self Originator.  Expect a sound file this evening (like this one)

The following sources were very helpful in writing this:
Random fun-facts I discovered on google:

  • There's a PS3 game called "El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron", wherein you play Enoch, and try to keep seven fallen archangels from destroying the world in a great flood.  Obviously, I am looking for a copy.
  • There's a Christian song called "El Shaddai" by Amy Grant; it's not very good.  When I was about 12, I was at a sleepover, and was asked if I minded if we listened to some Amy Grant music. After we listened to it, I got asked if I wanted to be saved. I awkwardly declined.  I never told my mother, because I thought she'd think I was "falling in with a bad crowd" and not let me be friends with those girls anymore.
  • Many people seem to associate "El Shaddai" with Psalm 23 (the lord is my shepherd...).  I'm not sure why.

1 comment:

  1. SR says: " I think I meant to imply that a penis and a breast physically stand out, and both are life-giving. Regarding she-dai ("that would suffice"): pure midrash, word play to advance a Rabbinic agenda. Fun for contemporary purposes, but not core or basic to an understanding of the root concepts involved. I see this topic as part of a larger exploration of the roots of monotheism in polytheism, henotheism and monolatry."

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