Saturday, September 23, 2023

Torah and Haftarah in the Roman Liturgy (Part 2): The Ember Saturday of September

In the first part of this series, I described the Jewish liturgical custom of pairing readings from the Law of Moses (the Torah, as it is called in Hebrew) with readings from the Prophets called “haftaroth”, which are selected to match them thematically. I also described how this very ancient custom seems to have had an influence on some very ancient parts of the Roman lectionary, as evidenced by the choice of readings for the Ember Wednesdays of Lent and September. The Ember Days of September coincide with the period during which several important Jewish feasts may occur, and in the Masses of the Friday and Saturday, this influence is even more notable.

The first two of the five Scriptural readings on Saturday are taken from the twenty-third chapter of Leviticus. The first, verses 26-32, is about Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. “Upon the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the day of atonement, … a day of propitiation, that the Lord your God may be merciful unto you.” The second, verses 39-43, describes the feast of Tabernacles (“booths” in the King James translation, Sukkoth in Hebrew, which Yiddish-speakers pronounce “sukkus.”)

The celebration of the feast of Tabernacles: illustration from a Bible printed in the Dutch city of Dordrecht in 1682. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
“…when you shall have gathered in all the fruits of your land, you shall celebrate the feast of the Lord for seven days… and you shall dwell … in tabernacles, that your posterity may know, that I made the children of Israel to dwell in tabernacles, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” In fulfillment of this passage, observant Jews still keep this feast by “dwelling” in a temporary structure covered in palm branches outside their houses, i.e. at least taking their meals in it, but sometimes sleeping in it as well.
On the Sabbath before Yom Kippur, the haftarah reading is Hosea 14, 2-10, with a passage added to it at the end, either Joel 2 (11-27 or 15-27), or Micah 7, 18-20. (It is now a common custom to add them both, with Micah first.) At the afternoon service on Yom Kippur itself, the haftarah is the entire book of Jonah, with the same three verses of Micah appended, an especially appropriate choice for the Day of Atonement: “He will turn again, and have mercy on us: he will put away our iniquities, and he will cast all our sins into the bottom of the sea.”
In the Roman lectionary, the exact same passage from Hosea serves as the Mass epistle of the Ember Friday of September. The third reading of Ember Saturday is verses 14, 16 and 18-20 of Micah 7, a slightly longer version of the end of the Yom Kippur haftarah. It seems obvious that this cannot be a coincidence, and is intended as a way of Christianizing the ancient Jewish feast.
The Prophets Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Micah, Joel and Zachariah; mosaic in the dome of the parekklesion of the Pammakaristos Church in Constantinople, early 14th century. (The complex of which this side chapel is part served as the seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople from 1456 to 1587. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Dosseman, CC BY-SA 4.0.)
Following the pattern that the third reading serves as a kind of haftarah for the first, the fourth does the same for the second, but here, the Roman lectionary departs from the Jewish tradition. The haftarah for the first day of Sukkoth is the whole last chapter of Zachariah (14, 1-21), because of verse 16: “And all they that shall be left of all nations that came against Jerusalem, shall go up from year to year, to adore the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the feast of tabernacles.” The fourth reading of Ember Saturday, however, is chapter 8, 14-19 of the same book, a choice which seems to be motivated by the fact that the Ember Days are a period of fasting, rather than a feast like Sukkoth, which is here redesigned, so to speak. In fact, the first part of this passage is rather more consonant with the penitential spirit of Yom Kippur.
“As I purposed to afflict you, when your fathers had provoked me to wrath, saith the Lord, and I had no mercy: so turning again I have thought in these days to do good to the house of Juda, and Jerusalem: fear not.”
The last verse from Zachariah is especially interesting for its connection with the Ember Days.
“Thus saith the Lord of hosts: The fast [of the first month, and] of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth shall be to the house of Juda, joy, and gladness, and great solemnities: only love ye truth and peace.”
In the oldest Roman liturgical books, the Ember Days are not called “Quatuor Temporum – of the four times”, as they are in the Tridentine books. Those of Pentecost are called “the fast of the fourth month”, and those of September and December, “of the seventh” and “of the tenth month” respectively, according to the ancient Roman system in which March was originally the first month of the year. For this reason, several early epistle lectionaries add the words “the fast of the first month” (bracketed above) to the Biblical text, in order to include the Ember days of Lent.
The fourth prophecy of Ember Saturday of September, Zachariah 8, 14-19, in the so-called Lectionary of Alcuin, an epistolary of the 9th century whose contents represent the state of the Roman lectionary in the early 7th century. The words “jejunium primi” are in the 5th and 4th line from the bottom. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 9452; folio 99r, image cropped.)
The very end of the reading serves as the ferial chapter of Prime in the Roman Breviary, a reminder to continually cultivate the virtues which the Church seeks to instill in us by periods of fasting throughout the year.
In the oldest lectionaries of the Roman Rite, the fifth reading of Ember Saturday is not from Daniel 3 as it is now, but Exodus 32, 11-14.
“In those days, Moses prayed to the Lord his God, saying, ‘Why, O Lord, is thy indignation kindled against thy people, whom thou hast brought out of the land of Egypt, with great power, and with a mighty hand? Let not the Egyptians say, I beseech thee, “He craftily brought them out, that he might kill them in the mountains, and destroy them from the earth”; let thy anger cease, and be appeased upon the wickedness of thy people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou didst swear by thy own self, saying, “I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and this whole land that I have spoken of, I will give to your seed, and you shall possess it forever.” ’ And the Lord our God was appeased from doing the evil which he had spoken against his people.”
This reading is obviously intended to speak to the penitential character of the Ember days, but also refers to the feast of Tabernacles, which God instituted so that the “posterity” of the Jewish people, i.e., the seed of Abraham, Isaac and Israel which He swore to multiply, “may know, that (He) made the children of Israel to dwell in tabernacles, when (He) brought them out of the land of Egypt.”
The Tabernacle of the Covenant, represented in a cartouche on a map of the Holy Land made in Germany in 1720. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
The lesson from the Epistle to the Hebrews which follows it, chapter 9, 2-12, serves as a haftarah for this reading. It explains that the Tabernacle of the Covenant was divided into two parts. The first was the one into which “the priests indeed always entered, accomplishing the offices of sacrifices… but into the second, the high priest (entered) alone, once a year, not without blood, which he offereth for his own, and the people’s ignorance.” The latter part of this is the rite of Yom Kippur, described in detail in Leviticus 16.
In Exodus 25-30, Moses receives a detailed description of the Tabernacle, with its many furnishings and rites, during his forty days and nights on Mt Sinai. But while he is there, the Israelites rebel and begin to worship the golden calf; God therefore says to him, “Let me alone, that my wrath may be kindled against them, and that I may destroy them, and I will make of thee a great nation.” The reading given above from Exodus 32 is Moses’ reply to this, which stays God’s anger.
(The Offertory of the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, which comes from this same reading: “Precátus est Moyses in conspectu Dómini, Dei sui, et dixit: Quare, Dómine, irásceris in pópulo tuo? Parce irae ánimae tuae: memento Abraham, Isaac et Jacob, quibus jurasti dare terram fluentem lac et mel. Et placátus factus est Dóminus de malignitáte, quam dixit fácere pópulo suo. – Moses prayed in the sight of the Lord his God and said, ‘Why, o Lord, art Thou angered with Thy people? Spare Thine anger; remember Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to whom Thou sworest to give a land flowing with milk and honey.’ And the Lord was appeased from doing the evil which He had spoken of doing against His people.”)
The letter to the Hebrews goes on to say that the Tabernacle of the Covenant was but “a parable of the time present… but Christ, being come an high priest of the good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hand, that is, not of this creation: neither by the blood of goats, or of calves, but by his own blood, entered once into the holies, having obtained eternal redemption.”
Perhaps these readings were paired for the sake of those among the early Christians who still felt themselves to be close to their Jewish roots, and remembered mid-September as the time of the High Holy Days. Might they not have been tempted to see the refusal of their former coreligionists to accept Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah as a rebellion against God similar to that of the golden calf episode? The reading from Exodus would thus serve to remind them that God had been merciful at the appeal of Moses, and suggest that He would be similarly merciful through the appeal of Christ, the high priest of the good things to come, who by His own blood obtained eternal redemption by a greater and more perfect tabernacle.

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