Leshon Ima – Mother Tongue with Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer
I don’t have to tell you that winter is here. The birds migrate south and even some people follow their path as they endeavor to escape the cold, harsh northern season.
The Hebrew word for winter is choref. Choref is mentioned seven times in the Bible. It is derived from the verb charif meaning freshly gathered, plucked fruit, implying the harvest season. However, choref is the rainy season in Israel, which according to the rabbis of the Talmud, lasts two months, from the last half of Kislev to the first half of Shevat (Baba Metziah 10:6). Since Kislev is the third month on the Jewish calendar, it means that two and a half months separate the summer, which ends in Elul, from the winter season. In Modern Hebrew this period is called stav, autumn.
But stav had a different meaning in ancient days. In the Bible, stav, like in other Semitic languages, means the rainy season and as such is synonymous with choref.
This is affirmed by the lovely words of the poet describing nature’s seasonal renewal: “the stav passed, the rains are over and gone, the blossoms have appeared in the land (Song of Songs 2:11).”
Interestingly, only two seasons are mentioned in the Bible as part of God’s creation and natural order, choref and summer. (Gen. 8:22; Ps. 74:17). But with the years, and with travelers’ exposure to the colorful, natural embroidery of autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, some believe the meaning of the biblical stav was changed from winter to autumn to give a name to the season not mentioned in the Text.
In biblical times, as today, people tried to escape the cold by building batay choref, winter houses, with fireplaces in them. In the batay choref, the windows faced south to enjoy the natural heating power of the sun, unlike summer houses where the windows faced north to avoid the sun.
In the prophetic literature, the batay choref of the rich became analogous to corruption and decadence. In one recorded incident, for example, King Jehoiakim was sitting comfortably in his bait choref, “with the fire burning in the brazier,” listening with disdain to Jeremiah’s prediction of disaster delivered by a messenger (Jer. 36:22).
More so, the prophet Amos, when he prophesied the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, declared that God will “wreck the bait choref together with the summer palace (Amos 3:15),” alluding to the economic prosperity of the north, which was gained by corruption and would soon be destroyed.
Here’s an idiom that appears only once in the Bible but has entered Modern Hebrew literature. Yemay chorpi, literally, the days of my winter, was the phrase used by Job to describe his days of youth (Job 29:4).
For us, winter usually infers old age, but for the biblical writer, choref symbolized a prime time, where like a tree in harvest, one is young and filled with the sap of life.
Toward the end of January we’ll mark Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for the Trees. In Israel it means that choref is about over and spring is at the door. Chag sameach (happy holiday) to the trees and to all of us.
Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin is a professor of biblical literature at Spertus College in Chicago and an adjunct professor of Bible and Hebrew at New College of Florida.