Shiur #30: A Rose among the Thorns Vayikra Rabba 19:6 Part IV
The scene of the action now moves from Jerusalem to Babylon:
What did Nebuchadnezzar do?
He seized him [i.e. Yechonya]
and confined him to prison, and whoever, in his days, was imprisoned, never came out,
in accordance with the text,
“He opened not the house of his prisoners” (Isa. 14:17).
Yehoyachin was exiled and the Great Sanhedrin went into exile with him.
These lines set the scene for the rest of the story. Yechonya is imprisoned in the notorious Babylonian prison system from which no one ever leaves alive. This sets up the tension for the rest of the story. Will the righteous Yehoyachin rot in prison for the rest of his life? Or will there be a miraculous salvation?
In the last lines of this passage the narrator notes that the Sanhedrin is exiled along with Yehoyachin. Previously, we noted that the narrator of the story ascribes significant authority and prestige to the Sanhedrin. They are not only responsible for halakhic and spiritual matters facing the people, but take an active role in political and diplomatic affairs as well. Here too, the Sanhedrin is reintroduced because it will play a crucial role in the salvation of the King of Judah. However, before this happens the narrator once again shifts his focus, this time to give us a peek at events that are transpiring in heaven at that very time:
as it is written,
“Is this man Conyahu a despised broken image (etzev)?
Is he a vessel wherein is no pleasure?
Wherefore are they cast out, he and his seed, and are cast into the land which they know not....
Thus says the Lord: Write you this man childless” (Jer. 22:28 ff.),
which R. Abba b. Kahana interpreted:
like unto a marrow bone (etzem) which when broken open (and emptied of its marrow)is fit for nothing,
[“Is he a vessel wherein is no pleasure?”
R. Chamma b. R. Channina said,
Like a urine pot.
R. Shmuel b. Nachman said,
Like a bloodletter’s vessel.
R. Zeira said,
I heard something with regard to this which R. Shmuel b. R. Yitzchak expounded, but I forgot what it was.
R. Acha Aricha said to him,
Perhaps this is (the verse he expounded)
“Thus says the Lord: Write you this man childless,
A man who shall not succeed in his days.”
(R. Zeira) said, yes (that is the verse he said) “in his days” he shall not succeed,
in the days of his son he shall succeed.
R. Acha and R. Avin b. Binyamin in the name of R. Abba:
Great is the power of repentance, for it cancels out both the (evil) decree and the oath.
The oath, as it says,
“As I live - declares the Lord - if you O Conyahu, son of Yehoyakim of Judah were a signet ring on my right hand, I would tear you off even there” (Jer. 22:24).
And cancels the decree:
“Thus says the Lord: Write you this man childless.”
Yet latter it is written: “And the sons of Yechonya, Asir his son, She’altiel his son” (I Chron. 3:17)
‘Asir his son’
because he was in prison (beit ha-asurim);
‘She’altiel his son’
Because from him the Davidic line was replanted.
R. Tanchum b. R. Yirmiyah said,
This is the Holy One Blessed Be He,
Who bound (asar) himself with an oath.]
That He asked (sh’aal) the court in Heaven
(to release Him from) His oath.
The midrash now turns to the passage in Jeremiah, which narrates God’s declaration regarding Yechonya. The first thing we must note is that in Vayikra Rabba Parasha 19 where our story appears, most of this passage, the section contained in the square brackets, is missing. In its place we find the words “Et cetera, until She’altiel.” This reflects a common scribal practice in which the scribe replaces a passage with an ellipsis, because the passage has appeared earlier in the same work. The reader is expected to recognize the passage’s earlier occurrence and refer back to it. In this case, the passage first appeared in parasha 10 section 5. For the sake of convenience I have restored this text to our story.
The passage starts out by presenting a series of interpretations of Jeremiah’s phrase “Is this man Conyahu (Yechonya) a despised broken image (etzev).” The different derashot turn on the interpretation of the word etzev. R. Abba understands this word to mean a bone (etzem). He sees in this verse an image which compares Yechonya to a bone which has been cracked open and had its marrow sucked out. This reading focuses on the word “broken” in the verse, rather than the word “despised.” Such a spent bone is unceremoniously thrown away, but is not necessarily despised.
R. Chamma and R. Shmuel, on the other hand, understand the word etzev to mean “a pot.” This is the literal meaning of the word according to the JPS translation. These two rabbis also both focus on the word “despised” in the verse, rather than broken. They each explain the image in the verse by suggesting an illustration. R. Chamma gives the example of a urine pot, while R. Shmuel gives the example of bloodletter’s vessel. In both instances we are dealing with an object that is truly disgusting. Most normal people would want such things removed from their presence when they are not necessary. These things are thus “despised” but they are not “broken.” Indeed, it is precisely the fact that they are fulfilling their function that makes them intolerable to people.
Next the midrash presents an interpretation of the verse: “Thus says the Lord: Write you this man childless, a man who shall not succeed in his days.” R. Zeira focuses on the words “in his days.” Using typical rabbinic logic, he deduces from this that while he shall not succeed in his days, after his days are over, he shall succeed through his son. This marks a turning point. Until now it seems that God has sworn off Yechonya entirely. Now we learn that there is a possibility that Yechonya may posthumously return to glory through his descendants. There is one critical problem with this reading of the verse. The very next verse states, “For no man of his offspring shall be accepted, to sit on the throne of David and to rule again in Judah.” It explicitly states that God’s oath extends to his descendants!
It is perhaps for this reason that the midrash goes on to suggest other ways in which Yechonya and his line were saved from eternal rejection by God. R. Acha and R. Avin use this incident to prove that repentance can overcome both a vow and a decree. The verse uses the phrase “as I live” which is clearly the language of an oath. Jeremiah also quotes God as saying, “Write you this man childless.” The midrash understands this to refer to a written decree. Thus God bound himself by both an oath and a decree, never to let Yechonya or his descendants return to power.
The midrash now turns to the genealogy in I Chronicles 3. The midrash focuses on verse 17 which list two sons of Yechonya, Asir and She’altiel. The midrash presents two sets of interpretations of these names. The first interprets these names as referring to the life of Yechonya and his descendants. Asir refers to Yechonya’s being put in prison and She’altiel refers to the reestablishment of the Davidic line. According to the book of Ezra, Zerubbavel, the governor of Judah in the Persian period was the son of She’altiel.
The second set of interpretations understands Asir as meaning to “bind” as with an oath. It refers to the oath which God took regarding Yechonya and his line. “She’altiel” refers to God’s asking from His court to be freed from this oath. This proves that repentance has the power to overturn divine oaths and decrees.
But what repentance? If we read this section independent of the larger story, as it appears in parasha 10, the answer is clear. According to the Bible, Yechonya is a wicked king. The midrash assumes that he repents in jail and hence merits to be released, as is described in Kings and Jeremiah. However, according to our story, Yechonya is a righteous king; what repentance is needed? For the meantime this remains mysterious. It will be explained later in the story.
Before proceeding to the next section of the story, it is worth noting that the notion that the royal line of David flows exclusively through Yechonya is already suggested by the verses in I Chronicles 3. Verses 10 through 14 list the kings of Judah from Solomon to Yoshiyahu. Verse 15 lists the four sons of Yoshiyahu, including Yehoyakim. Verse 16 lists the two sons of Yehoyakim, Tzidkiya and Yechonya. Following this, the verses to the end of the chapter go on to record several generations of Yechonya’s descendants, presumably down to the time of the writing of Chronicles. This genealogy suggests that the royal line of David is continued only by Yechonya. The implication is that had he not had children, David’s line would have come to an end.
The story now leaves behind the scene in heaven and picks up where it left off with Jewish exiles in Babylon:
At that very hour the Great Sanhedrin sat and said:
‘Shall, in our days, the royal house of David cease, of whom it is written,
His seed shall endure forever, and his throne as the sun before Me (Ps. 89, 37)?
What shall we do?
Let us win the favor of the [queen's] governess,
so that the governess will persuade the queen,
and the queen the king.’
They went and obtained the goodwill of the [queen's] governess,
who sought the favor of the queen,
and the queen that of the king.
What was the name of the wife of Nebuchadnezzar?
R. Huna said her name was Shemira;
R. Avin said Shemiramot was her name;
the Rabbis said her name was Shemira'am,
because she was born during thunder (ra'am).
When Nebuchadnezzar came to have marital intercourse with her,
she said to him:
‘You are king. Is not Yechonya, too, a king?
You desire your sexual satisfaction.
Does not Yechonya, too, desire his sexual satisfaction?’
Nebuchadnezzar thereupon ordered that Yechonya be given his wife.
The Sanhedrin now fears not only for Yechonya, but for the future of the Davidic monarchy and the Jewish people themselves. Yet they know, based on a verse in Psalms, that the line of David is meant to endure forever. They see themselves as being charged with bringing about the fulfillment of that verse. They decide that they need an inside contact in the palace, who will be able to recruit others, even closer to the king, to plead Yechonya’s case. They decide to approach the royal governess, who could then influence the queen to make an entreaty before the king. The plan works and Nebuchadnezzar agrees to allow Yechonya a conjugal visit with his wife:
And how did they lower her [into the dungeon] to him?
R. Shabbetai said:
They lowered her down to him over the bars,
while the Rabbis said:
They opened the ceiling and let her down to him.
As we noted earlier, this scene plays an important role in the literary structure of the story. At the beginning of the story, the midrash presents two opinions of how Yehoyakim was bound (shilshelu) and handed over to Nebuchadnezzar, signaling his ultimate downfall. Now the midrash uses the same word (shilshelu), this time meaning “to lower”, to depict Yechonya’s wife being lowered down into the prison. As we shall see, this event precipitates Yechonya’s ultimate redemption. According to the alternate reading that we presented, both uses of the word shilshelu mean “lowered” and the unity between the beginning and ending of the story is even stronger.
We now come to the climactic scene of the story which finally explains, as promised at the outset, the circumstances under which Yechonya observed the laws of ziva:
When he was about to have marital intercourse with her,
she said to him:
‘I have seen a discharge the color of a red lily,’
and he then separated from her,
and she went away and counted [the seven days of separation]
and observed the ritual of purification and of immersion.
The Holy One, blessed be He, then said:
'In Jerusalem you did not observe the precept relating to issues, but now you are fulfilling it,’
as it is said,
“As for you also, because of the blood of your covenant
I send forth your prisoners out of the pit” (Zech. 9:11)
[which means], You have remembered the blood at Sinai,
and for this do ’I send forth your prisoners‘.
R. Shabbetai said:
He [Yechonya] did not move thence before the Holy One, blessed be He, pardoned him all his sins.
Referring to this occasion Scripture has said:
“You are all fair, my love, and there is no blemish in you” (S.S. 4:7).
A Heavenly Voice went forth and said to them:
“Return, you backsliding children, I will heal your backslidings” (Jer. 3:22).
After not having had relations with his wife for an extended period of time, Yechonya is about to finally embrace her when she declares that she has seen a discharge and is now forbidden to him. He immediately separates from his wife, overcoming his needs and urges. It is the fact that Yechonya fulfills this commandment in these most difficult of circumstances, despite the fact that he had neglected it in much easier situations in Jerusalem, that motivates God to forgive Yechonya, allowing him to be released from jail and to father children to continue his line.
The midrash learns of this connection between the menstrual laws and Yechonya’s release from prison from a verse in Zecharya: “As for you also, because of the blood of your covenant I send forth your prisoners out of the pit.” This verse comes from the famous messianic passage which opens describing the Messiah as being “a poor man on a donkey.” It would seem that the midrash understands the term as referring to observing the laws regarding menstrual blood which lead to the release of Yechonya from “out of the pit.” However, the midrash states that the “blood of the covenant” refers to the blood of the sacrifices offered at Mount Sinai. The midrash thus implicitly intermingles the blood of the covenant at Mt. Sinai, (as well as perhaps the blood of the covenant of Avraham) with the menstrual blood through which the laws of nidda and zava are observed. It is as if observing this particular mitzva is equivalent to establishing a covenant with God.
The story ends by citing two verses to express the power of repentance. The Song of Songs verse is used to demonstrate how through repentance a person can return to a state of perfection. The verse from Jeremiah similarly emphasizes the healing capacity of repentance.
Thus concludes our story. It is a complex work that joins together the various agendas of midrash. This story is an interpretive work which seeks to weave together the various conflicting biblical accounts of the lives of Yehoyakim and Yechonya into a single coherent account. In this new version, Yehoyakim is an evil king who the Sanhedrin handed over to Nebuchadnezzar, and who dies a horrible death. Yechonya, on the other hand, is a righteous king who submits himself to God’s will and is eventually rescued from prison in reward for his scrupulous observance of mitzvot. This is a carefully crafted story which fulfills the rabbinic idea that their works be beautiful as well as educational. Finally, this is a didactic story that promotes many of the rabbis’ central values including the eternity of the Davidic line, the power of repentance and the importance of observing the laws connected to menstruation.
This brings our course to an end. I would like to thank all of you who have stuck with it the whole way through. Very few of you took the opportunity to e-mail me during the year. I would most appreciate your feedback on the course as a whole. You can email me at [email protected].
I would also like to thank the editor of this series, Noa Jeselsohn, an accomplished scholar and teacher in her own right. In addition to technical editing, she contributed numerous insights and observations of her own throughout the course of the year. You are all in her debt.