The usual translation of the Hebrew "efer" which occurs often in expressions of mourning and in other connectionsIt is a symbol of insignificance or nothingness in persons or words (Gen. xviii. 27; Isa. xliv. 20; Mal. iii. 21 [iv. 3]; Job xiii. 12, xxx. 19). In the Red Heifer ritual, for purification from defilement by contact with a corpse (Num. xix.), the Ashes of the offering are to be put into water, some of which is then to be sprinkled on the unclean person; their virtue is, of course, derived from the sacred material of the offering.
A mourner cast Ashes (or dust) on his head (II Sam. xiii. 9), or sat (Job ii. 8; Jonah iii. 6) or lay (Esth. iv. 3) or rolled himself (Jer. vi. 26; Ezek. xxvii. 30) in Ashes (or dust). The rendering "ashes" for the Hebrew word in question is, however, in some cases doubtful. In a number of passages in which it occurs (in all, indeed, except those relating to the Red Heifer), it might as well or better be translated "dust"; so where a person is said to eat, feed on, sit in, lie, or wallow in the "efer"; or put it on his head; or where it is used to represent finely attenuated matter (Ps. cxlvii. 16). Its use appears to be substantially identical with that of the word "'afar," commonly rendered "dust." The sense of humiliation is expressed by sitting or rolling in the "'afar" or dust (Isa. xlvii. 1; Micah i. 7, vii. 17; Ps. lxxii. 9); grief and suffering by putting dust on the head (Josh. vii. 6; Job ii. 12). The word symbolizes attenuation and annihilation or extinction (Job xxx. 19; Ps. xviii. 43 ); it is even employed to designate the burnt remains of the Red Heifer (Num. xix. 17). The two words are synonyms, and in the expression "dust and ashes" are combined for the sake of emphasis (with paronomasia: "'afar we-efer."). There is, however, a difference in the usage: in expressions of mourning it is only the latter ("efer") that occurs in combination with "sackcloth" (Jer. vi. 26; Isa. lviii. 5; Dan. ix. 3; Esth. iv. 1, 3), while the former is used for the physical material of the soil (Gen. ii. 7; Job xx. 11, and elsewhere). The word ("deshen") in the sacrificial ritual rendered in A. V. "ashes," means "fat"; so in I Kings xiii. 3, 5; Lev. i. 6, iv. 12, vi. 3, 4 [10, 11]; and also in Jer. xxxi. 40, whence it appears that sacrificial Ashes were carried to the valley south of Jerusalem. Still another word translated by "ashes" in A. V. (Ex. ix. 8, 10) is "piaḦ," which appears to mean "soot" (of a furnace).Symbolical Significance in Mourning.
It is not clear what was the precise idea or feeling which it was intended to express by the use of dust (or Ashes) in acts of mourning. The custom in the Old Testament may be ancient, and the result of the convergence of several sorts of procedure. It is a well-known usage in some savage tribes, in mourning for the dead, to smear the body with clay, the purpose being, perhaps, merely to have a visible sign of grief as a mark of respect for the deceased. Possibly, at a later time, the dust of mourning was taken from the grave in token that the living felt himself to be one with the dead (compare W. R. Smith, "Religion of the Semites," 2d ed., pp. 322-336, and Schwally, "Leben nach dem Tode," p. 15). When religious ideas became more clearly defined, the old customs were naturally interpreted in the light of the newer conceptions. The dust, occupying the lowest place and trodden under foot, might well symbolize the downcast state of the afflicted; and, as misfortune was regarded as the result of the displeasure of the Deity (Ruth i. 20; Job vi. 4, ix. 17), the sufferer would humiliate himself by prostration; thus also repentance would be expressed (Job xlii. 6). To this, no doubt, there was added the idea that man was made of dust (Gen. ii. 7), and was to return to the dust of the grave and of Sheol (Gen. iii. 19; Job vii. 21; Ps. xxii. 16 ). Compare the Babylonian representation of dust as the food of the inhabitants of the underworld ("Descent of Ishtar").
The ordinary Semitic term for "dust" is "'afar," a form which is found in Assyrian, Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic (it does not occur in this sense in the current Ethiopic texts); its primary meaning is, perhaps, "a minute thing, a bit." Probably the primary signification of "efer" is the same; outside of Hebrew it is found only in African Semitic dialects (Ethiopic or Amharic), where (in the form "afrat") it signifies "dust" (Dillmann, "Lexicon Æthiopicum"). Each of the terms might thus be used for any finely divided thing, as "dust," or "ash," or "refuse." The Septuagint employs a number of words in rendering "efer" and "'afar," varying the word according to the connection. In "'afar" there is a trace of the sense "fat": Ethiopic "'efrat," "unguent" (Dillmann); Arabic "ta'affara," "become fat" (Lane); compare also Assyrian "ipru," "food" (Friedrich Delitzsch, "Assyrisches Wörterbuch"). Whether there is any connection between this sense and the Hebrew use of "deshen" for "ashes" is not clear.
- Schwally, Leben nach dem Tode, 1892;
- W. R. Smith, Religion of the Semites, 1894;
- Benzinger, Hebräische Archäologie, 1894;
- Nowack, Lehrbuch der Hebräischen Archäologie, 1894;
- Frey, Tod, Seelenglaube und Seelenkult im Alten Israel, 1898;
- Grüneisen, Ahnenkult und die Urreligion Israels, 1900;
- Talmud, Ta'anit.
- For Greek usage: [Pseudo-] Lucian, De Luctu, 12.
- Jastrow, Earth, Dust, and Ashes as Symbols of Mourning Among the Ancient Hebrews, in Journal of American Oriental Society, xx. 133-150.
The Midrash remarks (Gen. R. xlix. 11; Ḥul. 88b), in reference to the only use of Ashes in the Biblical ritual—namely, the Ashes of the Red Heifer (Num. xix. 9 et seq.)—God said to Abraham: "Thou spakest in thy lifetime, 'I am but dust and ashes' [Gen. xviii. 27]; but just these things shall serve as means of atonement for thy children; for it is written, 'And a man that is clean shall gather up the ashes [Num. l.c.].'" Ashes were also used to cover the blood of slaughtered fowl, for the Rabbis maintained that in the Biblical passage referring to the ordinance (Lev. xvii. 13) the word signified earth and Ashes (Ḥul. l.c., an interpretation ascribed to Hillel's school; compare also Beẓah i. 2).
Authentic records testify to the use of Ashes as a sign of grief in Talmudic times. In the Mishnah (Ta'an. ii. 1) it is recorded that during the fast-days proclaimed in consequence of drought the Ark of the Covenant, as well as the people participating in the procession, were sprinkled with Ashes—a custom still prevalent in the fourth century in Palestine, where earth could be used as a substitute for Ashes (Ta'an. 16a; Yer. Ta'an. ii., beginning; Gen. R. l.c.). On such occasions as public fasts, Ashes were strewn upon the holy Ark set up in the public place and upon the heads of the nasi and the ab bet din, while the rest strewed them upon their heads themselves. That part of the forehead where the phylacteries were placed was selected (Ta'an. 16a). The reason given for covering oneself with Ashes is either that it should serve as an expression of self-humiliation, as if to say, "We are before thee as ashes" (Gen. xviii. 27; Job xlii. 6), or it is to bring before God the memory of Abraham, who said, "I am but dust and ashes" (Gen. xviii. 27), or the memory of the offering of Isaac, whose Ashes, according to the rabbinical opinion, lay piled up before God upon the altar as if he had actually been sacrificed as a holocaust (Ta'an. 16a; Yer. Ta'an. ii., beginning; Gen. R. l.c.). It is difficult to say whether the remark of Tos. Ta'an. 15b, 16a, that the Ashes to be used in such cases should be of incinerated human beings, rests on tradition or on imagination.
Ashes, as a symbol of mourning, were also sprinkled upon the bridegroom during the wedding ceremony, in order to remind him, at the height of his felicity, of the destruction of Jerusalem (B. B. 60b). This custom is even to-day observed among some of the orthodox. In memory of the same national disaster the Jews also ate bread sprinkled with Ashes at the last meal before the fast-day of the Ninth of Ab (Yer. Ta'an. iv. 69c; Lam. R. to iii. 16; ShulḦan 'Aruk, OraḦ Ḥayyim, 552, 6 gloss).
Raba says that if sifted Ashes are strewn round the bed, the footprints of night-demons can be observed in them in the morning (Ber. 6a). Unworthy disciples are called "white pitchers full of ashes" (ib. 28a).