Monday, July 24, 2006

Meditation on a Postage Stamp

I just received a package from Israel. Postage was affixed in the form of many of these stamps. I noticed that they had no denomination, only the legend “מכתב רגיל בארץ” (Ordinary Domestic Letter [Postage]). Interesting, they must have just changed the rate (Israel Philately site says it was denominated ₪1.30, issued about a year ago). The US Postal Service does the same thing – they may not set the rate until a certain date, but they have to print up stamps in advance of the date, so they have a letter on them, or the legend “First Class Postage”, so that whatever rate is set, the stamps will be appropriate.

That got me thinking. Ragil, ordinary, sounds a lot like regular, which means much the same thing. Thinking about it more, though, it’s probably just a coincidence. The Hebrew root RGL carries rather different meanings than the Latin word regula, or “rule”. The Latin word comes from a ruler, or a plank – clearly a straight, flat idea.

The Hebrew word, however, connotes the cyclical, the recurring. The basic word Regel, is a foot. It also means one of the three major pilgrimage festivals, Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles (Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot), the three festivals on which one is obligated to walk up to the Temple, on foot, to join in the communal celebrations. Both are cyclical phenomena: the foot goes up, down, up, down, propelling one forward. The festivals return each year, propelling the years forward. Reminds me of the song “Circles:”

All my life’s a circle, sunrise and sundown
Moon rolls through the nighttime, till daybreak comes around
All my life’s a circle, still I wonder why?
Days keep spinning ‘round again, years keep rolling by.

In fact, the cycle of festivals legally denote a year for some purposes. One is required to pay one’s vows (promised charity) within a year, defined as the passage of three festivals. If one is late, one violates the prohibition of “do not be late in paying your vows”.

The word itself, Regel, contains the word Gal, or circular rock rolled in front of a Tannaitic-period burial cave. Double Gal, and you have Galgal, a wheel, often the wheel of the Zodiac. Change the vowels, and it becomes Gilgul, the transmigration of the soul, returning to this earth however many times necessary for its perfection.

Whether a pair of feet cycling up and down, or festivals cycling around the year, Regel brings about the transformation of circular motion to linear motion (Dean Drive, anyone?), rotation that propels one forward. Regular, on the other hand, is that which is already straight, even, flat. So the words Ragil (ordinary) and Regular are coincidental. Or are they?

This is the strength, and also the weakness, of symbolism: when one thing corresponds to another, which links to another, the correspondences can be endless. On the other hand, it's end-less: one never finds a goal.

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Tbe book, by the way: a Lemberg, 1860 edition of the Maharal's Netzach Yisrael.

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