In the days of Rabbi Judah the Pious (1140 - 1217) it once happened that the first day of Passover fell on March 21, the day following the Spring equinox. Since talmudic law insisted that the water with which matzah dough is kneaded must be left to settle overnight, and the time-honoured Ashkenazic custom forbade the baking of matzahs earlier than the afternoon preceding the seder, the community had no apparent alternative but to make use of water that had been drawn on the previous day.
In this particular instance, however, they were faced with a grave predicament: Jewish tradition categorically forbids the use of any water that was drawn from its source prior to the equinox.
If you are not familiar with this obscure prohibition of pre-equinox water, I refer you to the Shulḥan Arukh, the authoritative compendium of Jewish religious law. It includes an enumeration of various practices that must be avoided because they were believed to be dangerous or unhealthy. In his glosses to that passage, Rabbi Moses Isserles of Cracow added a few more items to the original list, basing himself on traditions that had evolved in Ashkenazic communities. In this context Rabbi Isserles noted that “the prevalent custom is not to drink any water at the time of the seasonal transition (Hebrew: teḳufah). This is in accordance with the earlier authorities, and should not be changed.”
Indeed, the avoidance of water at the four teḳufahs of the solar year—that is: the vernal and autumnal equinoxes and the summer and winter solstices—has a long and enigmatic history in Jewish lore. The Jews of Kairowan, Tunisia, addressed an inquiry about this practice to the distinguished head of the Babylonian academy Rav Hai Ga’on (d. 1038) asking whether it had any genuine basis in Jewish tradition. The Ga’on responded that he personally was unable to explain the reason for the custom, but that it was nevertheless a venerable one that should be treated very seriously. He speculated that its main purpose might to be to add solemnity to these important seasonal transitions by partaking of something more substantial than mere water. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra amplified that explanation, noting that these four milestones have the status of New Year days and should therefore be ushered in with a flavorful beverage.
To be sure, there were respectable authors who rejected the practice—which could lay claim to no clear source in the Bible or Talmud—as a piece of popular superstition that should be dismissed out of hand. Such, for example, was the attitude of Rabbi Abraham bar Ḥiyya of Barcelona.
It would appear nonetheless that Jews in many different communities were scrupulous about refraining from water on the four key teḳufah dates, whether in obedience to an entrenched custom or—and this was probably the most common case—because they were truly convinced that not to do so would imperil their lives.
To return to our case of the matzah kneaders, the problem was averted there thanks to a judicious decision by Rabbi Judah the Pious who stated that whatever danger might otherwise lurk in the pre-equinoctial waters did not apply when they were being used for the fulfilment of a religious precept; as declared by the wise Ecclesiastes: “whosoever keeps the commandment shall experience no evil thing.”
Other authorities found different grounds for permitting the problematic matzah. Rabbi Isaac of Dampierre, for example, argued that whatever hazard might have infested the waters did not apply in urban settings. Some other authors were confident that the danger could be counteracted by placing a piece of iron in the water. Nevertheless, when a similar situation presented itself in 1206, there were communities who ignored their rabbis’ permissive rulings and preferred to bake their matzahs before the equinox rather than face the terrifying threat of the menacing waters.
Modern research has been no more successful than was Rav Hai Ga’on at identifying the custom’s origin. Although several scholars tried to situate it in the realm of world folklore, there have been some recent attempts to trace it to forgotten themes from ancient Hebrew religion.
One intriguing theory links it to the biblical tale of Jephthah’s daughter who was sacrificed as a result of the rash oath taken by her father. The story goes on to tell how “the daughters of Israel went four days each year to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.”
As tends to happen with customs related to women and their experiences, the official male-authored scriptures preserve no records about the nature of this commemoration, nor do we have any evidence that it continued to be observed.
However, a tradition that was current during medieval times traced the four forbidden days to four scriptural episodes when water was transformed into blood. As recounted by Rabbi Judah the Pious, the waters of the Nile turned into blood at the spring equinox; Moses caused water—and also, according to this tradition, blood—to be discharged from the rock at Kadesh on the summer solstice; Isaac was offered as a sacrifice on the autumnal equinox—whereupon Abraham’s sword supposedly dripped blood; and Jephthah made his ill-conceived vow at the winter solstice, causing all the waters to turn to blood.
We see that this tradition grouped together four separate incidents, and had to take some liberties with the original stories in order to fit them into the blood-and-water motif. The crucial reference to “four days” had its origin in the tale of Jephthah’s daughter, suggesting a special association with her commemoration. This tradition juxtaposes her sacrifice to the better-known one of Isaac, as an archetype of selfless devotion.
A different medieval tradition about the four teḳufahs has inspired yet another theory about its origins. It is based on a widespread legend that depicted those days as the occasions of a quarterly celestial “changing of the guard,” when new companies of angels arise to relieve those of the previous season. During each interregnum, the world, as it were, is left unprotected and vulnerable. This theory is attested principally in kabbalistic works and may derive from older Hebrew mystical writings.
Some scholars point to a similar pattern that emerges from the Dead Sea scrolls. As we have learned from those documents, many ancient Jews followed a religious calendar that differed considerably from the one currently in use. Its years consisted of twelve thirty-day months, with an extra day inserted after every third month, bringing the total to 364 days. According to the apocalyptic Book of Enoch these four days are guided by special angels. Therefore it has been conjectured that remnants of this ancient calendar may have survived in the oral traditions of the medieval Jewish mystics. They worried that on those four critical dates, the water supply is deprived of adequate supernatural defenses, between the withdrawal of the angelic guards from their posts and the arrival of their replacements.
I have not personally witnessed any dire effects resulting from drinking the waters of the solstices or equinoxes, but just to be safe, it would probably not hurt to toast those days with a cupful of a stronger or more delectable beverage.
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