Asherah haElah, "Asherah, the Goddess", is a short movie which presents a conjectural reconstruction of the original text of Proverbs 31:28.
One of the most common methods which was used by the priestly editors of the Tanakh (the basis of "the Old Testament") in order to obfuscate all traces of earlier polytheistic tradition was to replace words which they intended to suppress with others that had similar-sounding syllables.
In order to enforce an orthodox interpretation of the texts, subtle changes were made to the original words by the addition of vowel points (niqqud) from the early Middle Ages onward.
Both strategies were considered legitimate especially where the name of a deity was concerned and there was ample ancient precedents to be found in the earlier scribal tradition.
Even though Asherah had revered as the wife of El (the name which predated that of YHWH, which according to the scriptures was first revealed to Moses) the later monarchs and religious reformers did their best to remove Her from veneration with a zeal that was repeated many centuries later during the anti-Marian extremism of the Protestant Reformation.
Asherah (Ugaritic: 𐎀𐎘𐎗𐎚 : 'ṯrt ) (Hebrew: אשרה) was the original mother of the Elohim ("the Gods") in ancient Semitic religion as Her title, Qaniyatu Elima, meaning "the Creatrix of the Elohim" (Ugaritic : 𐎖𐎐𐎊𐎚 𐎛𐎍𐎎 : qnyt ʾlm) fully attests.
In the Ugaritic texts (before 1200 BCE) Athirat is called 'Lady Athirat of the Sea' (Ugaritic : 𐎗𐎁𐎚 𐎀𐎘𐎗𐎚 𐎊𐎎 rbt ʼaṯrt ym : rabat ʼAṯirat yammi) or as more fully translated 'She who walks upon the sea' (Yam Kinnereth - Lake Galilee), the name understood by various translators and commentators to be from the Ugaritic root ʼaṯr 'stride' cognate with the Hebrew root ʼšr of the same meaning.
In Biblical Hebrew the same root word may be translated as both "happy" and "blessed", exactly the same as the Greek word μακαρία "Makaria" which also has both of these meanings and appears in the Septuagint as a translation of the name that women gave to Leah at the birth of her son.
I have been blessed!
Women will call me "Blessed."
So she named him Asher [Blessing].
And her children shall call her "Blessed"
In the Ugaritic epic of Keret the coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon are named as especially sacred to Her and are document as divine epithets :
Athirat of Tyre
Elath of Sidon
Asher, the son of Leah, was the eponymous ancestor of the Tribe of Asher whose limited territory significantly included both Tyre and Sidon, famous in the ancient world as the sacred temple sites of Asherah.
The memory of Asherah was never fulled erased from Jewish mystical tradition.
It resurfaces in Qabalistic works such as the Pardes Rimmonim ("The Orchard of Pomegranates") and the Book of Zohar as one of the earliest names of the Shekinah, the Holy Spirit who is the Bride of G-d.
The Shekinah is still invoked in Sabbath hymns which contain the chorus of "Bo-i Kallah, Shekinah" (come to us, O Bride, Shekinah).
from "An Altar of Earth:Reflections on Jews, Goddesses and the Zohar" by Rabbi Jill Hammer
Yet the Zohar, steeped in multiple personalized, sexualized, gendered images of the deity, chooses to read this passage (Deuteronomy 16:21) in a radically different way.
The Zohar writers do not equate Asherah with Lilith or another demonic figure, which would be an easy theological move.
Instead, they reread the verse.
It is not, they say, that the Torah wants to tell us not to plant an asherah by the altar because it is an idolatrous object.
If the Torah had wanted to tell us that, it simply would have said: "Do not plant an asherah anywhere."
Rather, the Torah wants to tell us that Asherah is a name for the Shekhinah, the feminine Divine presence, already at the altar.
The Zohar redefines the word Asherah as the feminine form of Asher: the Spouse of Asher, the Spouse of God.
The verse now means, in the Zohar's reading, that we must not plant an asherah by the altar because Asherah already resides in the altar in the form of the Shekhinah. We do not need a pillar to remind us of Her.
The Zohar does not choose to say that the goddess Asherah is evil or false and that worshipping her is a theological mistake.
Rather, it says that the theological mistake would be to assume that Asherah (the tree) is separate from Shekhinah (the altar), when in fact they are one.
The Zohar seems to be saying is that the object used to worship (i.e. the altar) God must be single rather than multiple, just as all the faces of the feminine and masculine Divine are ultimately unified.
Yet the Zohar does not take this easy approach. Instead, it comes up with a statement even more shocking than the first:
The only reason we may not worship the Shekhinah as Asherah is that the name Asherah, as translated by the Zohar, means "happy."
(The Zohar proves this by connecting the matriarch Leah, who herself is an image of feminine divinity in the mystical tradition, to the root alef-shin-reish, which translates as "happy" or "fortunate.")
The Shekhinah is in exile among the enemies of the Jewish people, and therefore we cannot call Her happy.
That separation and not idolatry is the error.
The Zohar implies that we abstain from using the name Asherah, not out of theological exactness, but out of courtesy: we abstain in order to empathize with the pain of the Shekhinah.
The unspoken implication of this is that in the world to come, when the Messiah has arrived, we will be able to call the Shekhinah Asherah.
אהיה אשרה יהוה
Ehyeh Asherah YHWH
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is a senior associate at Ma'yan: the Jewish Women's Project of the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan.
She is an author, poet, midrashist, and ritual-maker.
Her book is entitled "Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women" (JPS, 2001).
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Compare the phrase from the Lekhah Dodi which is hidden behind the phrase which is usually translated as "crown of Her husband"
בואי בשלום עטרת בעלה
בואי כלה בואי כלה
בואי כלה שבת מלכתא
Both layers of meaning (the outer and the inner - the exoteric and the esoteric) complement and enhance each other which is as it should be.
Lecha Dodi was composed by Rabbi Shlomo Halevy Alkabetz (1505-1584), one of the Kabbalists of Safed.
He arranged the poetical composition so that the first letters of each stanza spells out the name of the author, a practice quite common among liturgical poets.
Although several versions of a hymn by this name had been circulating at that time, this is the one that was adopted by Rabbi Issac Luria, the foremost authority among the Kabbalistic masters.
It seems that it was not only the Rabbi's name which had been encoded into the words of this invocation.
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