The First and Last Drops

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published May 02, 2003, issue of May 02, 2003.
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A soft rain is falling outside my window. Possibly, it is the last, since this is the time of year when the rains in Israel stop and do not resume until the following autumn. This is why, in the Shemoneh Esreh or “Eighteen Benedictions” prayer recited three times daily, there is a difference of wording starting with the first day of Passover. Until then, beginning with the last day of the autumn holiday of Sukkot or the Feast of Tabernacles, we say, “You are mighty forever, O Lord, You quicken the dead and bring much salvation and make the wind blow and the rain fall.” From Passover onward, the last phrase changes to “…and make the dew fall.”

Languages tend to have specialized words for what is an important part of the world of their speakers and to lack them for what is not. English, for instance, has several different words for kinds of snow, whereas Hebrew — a language of the eastern Mediterranean, in which snow does not fall often — has only one. On the other hand, England being a country in which it rains all year round, there are no specific English words for “first rain” and “last rain.” Hebrew has both: yoreh and malkosh. They occur in many places in the Bible, often in conjunction, as in the verse in Deuteronomy, “He will give the rain for your land in its season, the first rain and the last rain.” Although both are singular nouns, they are collectives that might be better translated in the plural as “first rains” and “last rains.” The yoreh falls in October and November, before the heavy winter storms set in, and the malkosh in March and April, which is the Israeli springtime.

What is falling now, then, is a malkosh. The word comes from the noun lekesh, late grass or growth in the fields. This is a word that is found in only one place in the Bible, in the book of Amos, where we read, “Thus the Lord God showed me: Behold, he was forming locusts in the beginning of the shooting up of the latter growth [lekesh]; and lo, it was the latter growth after the king’s mowings.” Although this verse may strike one as obscure, it is actually quite precise. Locusts, a recurrent plague in the Middle East that have now been conquered by pesticides, generally attacked in spring, and Amos is telling us exactly when it was that he saw God preparing an onslaught of them: after the “king’s mowings” — that is, after farmers had cut the taxable share of the high grass in their pasture land, which went to the king for his horses and the army’s chariot corps — and as the lekesh was beginning to sprout in the cleared space that this had left.

Lekesh is one of the few ancient Hebrew words that we also know of from extra-biblical sources, since it occurs in the so-called “Gezer calendar,” a small piece of soft limestone, some four-and-a-half by three inches, found in 1908 at an archeological dig at Tel Gezer, in the Judean foothills southeast of Tel Aviv. Dated to the 10th century B.C.E., this appears to have been a schoolboy’s homework or examination answer to a question, which was apparently to list the months of the year. Our student even signed his work with his name, Aviyah or Aviyahu. He may not have gotten a very good mark, however, because he named only eight of the 12 months — a predicament that he tried getting out of by claiming that four of these names referred to pairs of months. Or perhaps, on the other hand, it was not months that he had been asked to name but the agricultural activities of the year, in which case he did better.

Aviyah’s list begins with “two months of asif (“harvesting”), followed by two of zera (“sowing”), two of lekesh and one of atsid pishta (“flax pulling”) and k’tsir se’orim (“barley cutting”). And here our young student appears to have erred again, because lekesh, which should refer to the period of the malkosh, or spring rains, comes too early in his list — after winter sowing and before “flax pulling,” an activity that took place in April, at Passover time. Lekesh, then, according to Aviyah, would have been the two months of February and March.

Grading a 3,000-year-old piece of schoolwork is difficult, though. It has been suggested by some scholars that Aviyah knew his seasons well enough and that lekesh in the 10th century B.C.E. referred not to the late crops that were nourished by the malkosh but to the earlier planting of these same crops, the word having changed its meaning by the time of Amos, who lived in the eighth century. Poor Aviyah, the argument goes, should not be flunked because of our own possible ignorance.

What has not changed, at any rate, is the malkosh. It is still called by that name and it still falls softly, in a gentle drizzle unlike the torrential rains of winter, as if it had only so many drops left before it ran out of them and wished to make them last as long as it could.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.






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