Out of a Lump of Clay: The Week's End - January 5, 2024
Jan 5th 2024

While we just rang in 2024, and although Rosh Hashanah is nine months away and not typically on our radar at this present moment, there is a High Holyday liturgical connection in this week’s Torah portion Shemot that I would like to share. In Exodus 1:16, Pharaoh issues a barbarous order to the Hebrew midwives to kill all newborn Hebrew boys while letting the newborn Hebrew girls live. In his instructions, Pharaoh tells the midwives to look upon הָֽאָבְנָיִם the “ovnayim.” Many scholars interpret this word as “birthstool,” most likely the two bricks on which women in labour squatted opposite the midwife during childbirth. Literary and archaeological data of ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian birthing practices shows evidence of the use of birth bricks seemingly like the passage from Exodus 1:16. Outside of Mesopotamia, Hittite and Ugaritic sources demonstrate evidence of squatting birth practices and likely suggest some equipment to support a birthing mother in an upright position. Egyptian practices provide the best evidence for connecting “ovnayim” with a birth brick. From pictorial images, as well as written material from the Westcar Papyrus, the stele from Deir El-Medina, and the tomb of Watetkhethor at Saqqara, scholars find insights into the birthing process. After birth, the child is washed, the umbilical cord is cut, and the child is placed upon a cushion of bricks. If one interprets “ovnayim” as these bricks, it helps the reading of Exodus 1:16 where the midwives are told to “look upon the ‘ovnayim’”. Archaeological data in the form of a birth brick found in the excavations of the Middle Kingdom site at Abydos corroborates the literary evidence. From all the above sources, many scholars have concluded that the term “ovnayim” refers to some type of birthing equipment, namely birth brick. Such a brick might either be what the mother would have knelt on (i.e., birthstool) or the bricks upon which they would place the baby after birth. 

However, for another rendering of “ovnayim,” we must look to Jeremiah 18:3, the only other instance in the Old Testament where the term appears. Here, it is translated as “potter’s wheel,” the name deriving from a likeness to mill-stones, two discs revolving one above the other. The Hebrew word for “stone” comes from the same root אבנ. In this light, if one accepts the translation of “ovnayim” as birthstool, it would be in the context of its likeness to a potter’s wheel. In Chapter 18, we read that the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah to go down to “the potter’s house” (Beit Hayotzer): “Then I went down to the potter’s house and, behold, he was at work on the wheels (al ha-ovnayim). And the vessel that he was making of clay was spoiled in the hand of the potter; so, he made it again into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to make it. Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? says the Lord. הִנֵּה כַחֹמֶר בְּיַד הַיּוֹצֵר כֵּן־אַתֶּם בְּיָדִי בֵּית יִשBehold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel’” (Jeremiah 18:3-6). This verse is the basis for the liturgical poem Ki Hinei Kaḥomer that we read as part of the Yom Kippur evening service. The poem, whose author is unknown, reflects upon the fragility of human existence and pleads that God, as our Maker, uses us creatively and not destructively. The poem compares God with several types of artisans, while likening humans to the materials that artisans use. The Hebrew verb יצר from Genesis 2:7, where God creates man out of the “dust of the earth,” appears in other parts of the Bible, most noteworthy our excerpt from Jeremiah cited above and the Yom Kippur piyyut which it inspired. 

By reading “ovnayim” in this fashion as a type of potter’s equipment for ceramic production, one finds a conceptual link between the manufacture of ceramics from unbaked clay and human reproduction. In the ancient Mesopotamian story of Atrahasis, the goddess Mami’s creation of humans is described in terms of ceramic production. Mesopotamian omens, such as the Shumma izbu omen, use similar terminology, especially in the descriptions of deformed fetuses, further suggesting a semiotic connection between clay and human reproduction in the ancient Near East. In ancient Egyptian religious literature and art, the potter’s wheel is regularly linked to pregnancy. The act of human conception and creation was akin to the fashioning of the mold on a potter’s wheel. In fact, the Egyptian creator god, Khnum, is depicted in mythopoetic texts molding and shaping each human being “upon his wheel” while endowing it with physical and psychological traits. Interestingly enough, the metaphor of a developing infant “upon the potter’s wheel” actually refers to a gestating fetus prior to parturition. This leads some scholars to conclude that the Hebrew term “ovnayim” is an adaptation of the ancient Egyptian idiom “hr nhp” (upon the potter’s wheel). Rather than a birthstool, the metaphor implies the image of a child still forming in the womb. According to this solution, Pharaoh’s instruction to the midwives in Exodus 1:16 could well have been to undertake a prenatal examination to determine the sex of the child rather than waiting for the delivery upon a birthstool. 

No matter which interpretation of “ovnayim” one prefers, the ceramic and human reproductive link between Exodus 1:16 and Jeremiah 18 gives us an intriguing insight into one of the poems that make up part of our Yom Kippur liturgy. Ki Hinei Kaḥomer illustrates in numerous ways our human vulnerability, solely dependent upon the hands of our Creator. Can you not just picture the potter being dissatisfied and squishing the clay back into a lump to start over!? When things get messy in our lives, a “do-over” can sound very appealing. New Year’s is a time when people make resolutions to make a new start in life. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur provide a similar opportunity to make a new start, asking forgiveness from God and from those whom we have wronged. If we are all like lumps of clay being specially crafted by God, what is God molding you to be? I know it is just early January but keep this question in mind for the next time we approach this prayer on Yom Kippur night. I hope it will make it a more meaningful experience. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Cantor Sidney Ezer