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April 17, 2014 | 17th Nisan 5774

Hamsin

Galilee Diary #304, September 24, 2006
Marc J. Rosenstein

Hamsin
The Lord God provided a gourd, which grew up over Jonah, to provide shade for his head and save him from discomfort. Jonah was very happy about the plant. But the next day at dawn God provided a worm, which attacked the plan so that it withered. And when the sun rose, God provided an… east wind; the sun beat down on Jonah’s head and he became faint. He begged for death, saying, “I would rather die than live.”
-Jonah 4:6-8

The book of Jonah is traditionally read as the haftarah on Yom Kippur afternoon, and it seems pretty clear that the reason has to do with the book’s message that God wants our repentance, not our suffering; indeed, if even the cows of Nineveh can repent and be forgiven (see 3:8), then so can we. However, perhaps there is another, seasonal, connection between the day and the book which we shouldn’t overlook. To teach Jonah the lesson of God’s desire to preserve the lives of His creatures, He causes him to experience the death of the plant that has been shading him on a hot day: if you, He suggests, are so upset about the death of a lowly vine, then how should I not be upset by the prospect of the destruction of a great city?! Notice the interesting detail: when the gourd withers, Jonah is blasted by a hot east wind – and is so uncomfortable that he wishes he were dead.

Apparently the author was familiar with the dreaded hamsin (in Egyptian Arabic, and common Hebrew slang), or sharav (in Hebrew – the proper term, used by the radio and television news readers), or sirocco (in southern Europe - see Death in Venice), the hot, dry, desert wind that dries the throat, coats everything with fine dust, shortens the temper, and causes headaches in epidemic proportions. This weather phenomenon, which generally lasts from a few days to a week, is characteristic of spring and fall in these parts; indeed, a common topic of small talk during the ten days of penitence is what are the chances that a hamsin will strike on Yom Kippur, making the day one of significantly greater misery for thousands of people. The heat and dryness permeate everywhere – shade doesn’t help much, and it is all too easy too suffer from dehydration before you know what hit you – not a good situation for a fast day… And if a hamsin strikes during Sukkot, you can sit in your Sukkah and listen to the green leaves you spread on the roof drying and shriveling in real time.

The heat and dust sap your energy; it is hard to develop much ambition. If you close all the windows, the house becomes like an oven. If you open them, it becomes like a turbo oven. Unfortunately, the turbo effect works outdoors as well, and hamsin season is forest fire and brush fire season; often there is smoke mixed with the dust, as the wind whips the flames – and carries the smoke with it. While not scientifically supported, it is easy to believe, on a severe hamsin day, that the tinder-dry thistles along the roadside could burst into flames spontaneously.

Often, a hamsin ends suddenly, with a temperature drop of twenty degrees in an hour or so, and with a brief shower – large, warm drops, which, cleaning the dust out of the air as they fall, land as splashes of mud, which soon dries, leaving windows and cars with a blotchy light brown coating.

This year, there were some days of hamsin before Yom Kippur, but the holiday itself was quite moderate: hot but not really unpleasant. We knew from experience what Jonah felt, but fortunately we didn’t have to go through it ourselves this time. So we were free to laugh, with God, at the prophet who had no sense of humor, and to look forward to the cooler, more forgiving days that we know will soon be upon us.

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