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25 October, 2011

Translating creation

Filed under: Divrei Torah,Hebrew,Siddur,Tanakh by Joel @ 11:18 pm, 25 October 2011.

A dvar torah, given at Or Chadash, Parashat Bereshit, 22/10/2011.

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

This line is so familiar and iconic, that you probably didn’t even notice when your own chumash said something else entirely. If you’re using the Hertz chumash, you’re excused; that’s precisely how it begins. Whereas:-

Artscroll says:

In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth – when the earth was astonishingly empty, with darkness upon the surface of the deep…

NJPS says:

When God began to create heaven and earth – the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep…

They both understand the opening verse in agreement with Rashi and Ibn Ezra, who both contend that here the word בראשית means “the beginning of”, not just “the beginning”. Still, these medieval commentators were potentially influenced by the science of their day, and certainly by the vowels on the Torah text, which were first written down only a few centuries before them. (Had the Masoretic scribes written בָראשית, the reading “In the beginning, God created…” would be clear. Instead, the Masoretic vowels seem to indicate “in the beginning of” or “in a beginning”, as the LXX translates.) Yet, it makes sense that the translation בראשית ברא אלהים is introducing the Bible’s whole first chapter, which concludes with ויכולו השמים והארץ (“the heaven and the earth were finished”).

We already see from this that a good translation takes account of fiddly grammar, textual context, and cultural context. Seeing as none of us are native speakers of Biblical Hebrew, translations are a very important part of how we understand the bible, among other essential Jewish texts.
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17 November, 2009

Kohelet and the lost art of piyyut

Filed under: Divrei Torah,Hebrew,Siddur,Tanakh by Joel @ 10:34 pm, 17 November 2009.

A dvar torah given at Or Chadash on Shemini Atzeret, 10 October, 2009.

What has been is what will be, and what was done will be done again, for there is nothing new under the sun.

Though often deeply profound, the words of Kohelet can be depressing.

Some have said that’s precisely why Ecclesiastes is read on Sukkot; to temper its joy, and its famed frivolity the likes of which led to the institution of the mechitza in Second Temple times.

Others connect the book to the theme of transience and fragility we feel in our sukkah, not certain if we’ll be eating dinner with a garnish of rain; how we sit there despite the prefabricated hut convulsing around us, like it did during Thursday’s breakfast. We are vulnerable to the elements, and are forced to understand that the world is turning and life will pass quickly.

A poetic approach might say that the book was written in the autumn of Solomon’s life, and so its connection to sukkot is seasonal; a chassid could suggest a theme of letting the divine shine into the mundane.

I, a lover of words, will note that the common translation of Kohelet as “assembly” is a synonym for one translation of Shemini Atzeret, “the eighth, a day of assembly”. Now, the pedantic could point out that we read it on shabbat of Sukkot, not always Shemini Atzeret; I would point right back and say: that it’s always read on the eighth day by Yemenites, Italians, some Sefaradim and others.

The custom to read Ecclesiastes on this festival was a late one, first evidenced in the 12th century Machzor Vitry. As well as being the last book to join our festival rite, it was apparently the last book to join the Bible. The Mishna in Yadayim makes clear that there was debate regarding whether Kohelet was to be canonised, but Beit Hillel essentially forced the Sanhedrin to include it, against the will of Beit Shammai.

What makes Kohelet so controversial?

The Babylonian Talmud in Shabbat relates that the Sages wanted to destroy Kohelet because of numerous internal contradictions, but did not, for its beginning and its end are words of Torah; which presumably justifies the 11 chapters in between.

The Midrash complains about its heretical advice: “Rejoice in your youth, … and walk in the ways of your heart” is the opposite of the shema‘s “do not turn after your heart and your eyes.” Once people are given free rein to follow their desires, the midrash claims, “לית דין ולית דיין”, there is no law and no lawmaker! But Kohelet completes its passage: “for all these things God will bring justice.” And once again, it is redeemed.

The Tosefta brings the argument of Rabbi Shimon ben Menasia, that Kohelet is the unholy word of man, in contrast with the almost-as-controversial Song of Songs which was divinely inspired (written with רוח הקודש).

But Ecclesiastes isn’t the only thing we read today that has been criticised for its unholy authorship.

We recited the prayer of Geshem by Eleazar ben Kalir, instead of simply declaring: God is the One who makes the wind blow and the rain descend. This piyyut begins by introducing an angel named Af-Bri whose role it is to bring the rain, and whose name is derived from a midrashic reading of a verse in Job.
The Artscroll Siddur cites Rashi for the midrash, which makes little sense as the piyyut‘s traditional attribution precedes Rashi by centuries. For all we know, Eleazar Kalir may have come up with this interpretation himself.

Modern readers of such a piyyut may be worried by the latent polytheism in seeking an angelic intercessor whilst otherwise acclaiming the One God in the opening of the Amida. Medieval Rabbis were concerned just the same. Certainly, it is hard to tell in such poetry: what is authentic doctrine, and what is newly introduced by the poet who, Maimonides exclaims, was often not a scholar?

Piyyut, a cousin of the English word poem, can broadly refer to all Hebrew poem-prayers. They are often given purpose-specific names such as selichot, yotzerot, hosha’not, kinot, zemirot; they count among their ranks such distinguished members as Yigdal, Adon Olam, El Adon, An’im Zemirot, Vechol Ma’aminim, etc.

Piyut is certainly a poetic art-form, though quite different from the proverbs of Kohelet. For example, Solomon’s words: “a name is better than scented oil, and the day of death than the day of one’s birth”. This mini-poem condenses deep meaning into a single line with beautiful chiastic structure and alliteration. Listen to it: טוֹב שֵׁם, מִשֶּׁמֶן טוֹב; וְיוֹם הַמָּוֶת, מִיּוֹם הִוָּלְדוֹ.

Though it retained some of these literary methods, the Kaliric piyut focused more on innovative allusions to text and tradition within witty patterns of rhyme, rhythm and acrostic, a little reminiscent of poetry in the Book of Psalms. In today’s Prayer for Rain, we asked to be blessed in the memory of each of our patriarchs, though none of them are named explicitly. Instead, the poet alludes to water in each of their lives, beginning each line with the next letter of the alphabet, and ending it with “מים”, water. The piyut was a new genre in which to transmit tradition, and a new form for Jewish poetic expression.

Yet this early genre of piyut came under fire, not only for its creation of divine intercessors; its out-dated world-view; and its anthropomorphism of God as is replete in An’im Zemirot, but also because its riddling language was often so obscure as to be unintelligible. Avraham Ibn Ezra was outspoken against Eleazar ben Kalir’s predilection toward rare words – even made-up words – and poor Hebrew grammar, which became the foundational prototype for many later paytanim. Admittedly, I do find Ibn Ezra’s poetry (e.g. Ki Eshmera Shabbat), much much easier to understand.

There are other reasons these poems were controversial; the Babylonian Geonim saw it as a custom of the Land of Israel, intruding into the space of the statutory, standardised prayer service.

Maimonides blames piyutim as “the major cause for the lack of devotion and for the lightheartedness of the masses which impels them to talk during prayer” (though I think the evidence disagrees with him). These additions to the prayer, coupled with a chazan basking in the spotlight, made the service unbearably long (much like my divrei torah). Kohelet was quoted at them: “It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song of fools!”

Yet these poems brought creativity into the prayer service. In fact, they only became popular once the regular prayers became more fixed. A curious example: it was once common to use the texts of related berakhot interchangeably. So in the Cairo Geniza we find a siddur where the blessing “ולירושלים עירך” in the Amida is replaced by “רחם נא ה’ אלהינו על ישראל עמך”, which we know from birkat hamazon; after all, both end by blessing God, “rebuilder of Jerusalem”.

But the Amida text was eventually fixed, and the piyutim began to appear. The piyut library soon also settled; very few great piyyutim were composed after the thirteenth century. With printing, congregations could select from a wider choice of poems, but eventually certain songs found permanent homes in the liturgy, and others disappeared.

To expand on the Artscroll Machzor:

A few piyutim that are omitted by the vast majority of congregations have been included in an appendix which can be read with a magnifying glass, a dictionary of obscure Hebrew words, a PhD in medieval Hebrew literature and a two-week speed-reading course we call sliches (סליחות).

We have seen that there was a time when the bible was in flux, with books like Kohelet in question; later it was the regular prayer service, and after that, its poetic supplements. So it may be no surprise that the waning of piyut in 19th century Europe came with the flourishing of the cantorial and choral art in the synagogue, and the creation of a new song, vastly distinct from the previously chanted nusah. This change, too, has been hotly debated.

So history repeats itself. What will our next avenue of controversial creativity in public prayer be, when, somehow, the music stops?

Thus said Kohelet, “What has been is what will be, and what was done will be done again.”

Perhaps it’s not so depressing after all.

10 May, 2009

Finally, a zemirot wiki

Filed under: Chazanut,Music,Siddur,Technology by Joel @ 4:07 pm, 10 May 2009.

Of sorts. One project I no longer need to do because someone else has. I don’t know how long zemirotdatabase.org has been around, but I’ve long intended to create a site where people can share Jewish tunes with each other. And break down a monopoly of tunes from the Virtual Cantor, who is being over-used now that taped chazanut is no longer as popular.

Of course (in my way of doing things), my idea was somewhat more ambitious. Which is why it never got done. I’d like to see:

  • More annotation of the origin of lyrics and tunes
  • Links between tunes which are applied to different prayers

Essentially this means that the tune and the words are separated, and each of them could be annotated with Hebrew, transcription, translation, authorship/variant notes… and somewhere in the intersection people would upload recordings. Maybe I can ask Mendy and Gabe to work on it. Or mabye it was just too much to ever make a site out of and they’ve got it right.

Either way, I’ll need to find some time to record some tunes. (Because most of their voices are terrible…)

24 April, 2008

Memorial prayer — now in English

Filed under: Chazanut,Siddur by Joel @ 9:58 pm, 24 April 2008.

I’ve updated the chart linked from my previous post to include an English translation. Thought that might help some people.

Memorial prayer

Filed under: Chazanut,Siddur by Joel @ 12:12 am, 24 April 2008.

I will be singing next week at one of the communal commemorations for the Holocaust next Wednesday night. At first I was going to only be singing with the Sydney Jewish Choral Society (my usual Wednesday night entertainment), but they invited me also to sing El Male Rachamim (the memorial prayer) alone.

Not only do I have to work out the tune, but there seem to be a variety of texts for the purpose. This chart compares a few samples. Any bits people particularly like or don’t like??

  • Is God a dweller on high, or a father to orphans?
  • Should God procure space upon or under the wings of His presence?
  • Do we mourn “6 million Jews”, or “our brothers, Children of Israel”, or “multitudes of thousands of Israel”, or the “holy and pure”?
  • Do we specify “men, women and children”?
  • Do we state that their death was “in the sanctification of God’s Name”?
  • What different means of death should we list?
  • Do we name the holocaust, or list the camps, or mention Germans, or Nazis, or that their name should be erased?
  • Do we give attribution to our prayer for them, or to our charity on their behalf?
  • Do we mention that among them were the righteous and learned?
  • And why is יום pluralised irregularly as ימין when it follows the word קץ?

20 January, 2008

Praying for Australia

Filed under: Siddur by Joel @ 12:07 pm, 20 January 2008.

Regularly on shabbat in the small synagogue that I usually attend, Or Chadash, we get to the point in the service in which a prayer for the leaders of Australia (and for the State of Israel, and for its soldiers) are recited. If Rabbi Freedman is there, he usually has with him the new United Synagogue Siddur (or “the Sacks Siddur”, whose superior translation I would really like to own), which contains a similar prayer for the British Royal Family and their government, and with a few changes (a reference to the Governor General, states and territories, etc.) we manage the usual prayer. On occasions where we lack the Rabbi or his siddur, the best we have to go off is a prayer for the President and leaders of the USA, as printed in the Artscroll’s Rabbinical Council Edition siddur. Sometimes, not given the resources we even just skip blessing the Queen. (Don’t tell any Royal Family members!)

Since the large Artscroll Siddur that we have at the pulpit doesn’t contain any of these prayers, and especially none specifically for Australia, I’ve put them together on a Letter-sized piece of paper, hopefully perfect to stick in on page 451 over the English translation of Yekum Purkan, which no one at the pulpit reads anyway. With the help of the Rabbinical Council Siddur, I have also attempted to translate the Prayer for Australia into Hebrew, as I have heard requests for that in the past when in other synagogues.

So here it is: Prayers for Australia, Israel and the IDF, ready for printing and pasting! (And hopefully without too many errors!)

Now I just have to remember to do that myself before the coming weekend.

3 October, 2007

Pleasing petitions – a change of vowels

Filed under: Hebrew,Siddur by Joel @ 4:27 pm, 3 October 2007.

On festivals, before Kohanim bless the congregation, Ashkenazim insert an alternative nusach for the “avodah” beracha of the amida prayer:

ותערב לפניך עתירתנו כעולה וכקרבן. אנא, רחום, ברחמיך הרבים השב שכינתך לציון עירך, וסדר העבודה לירושלים. ותחזינה עינינו בשובך לציון ברחמים, ושם נעבדך ביראה כימי עולם וכשנים קדמוניות. ברוך אתה ה’ שאותך לבדך ביראה נעבוד.

May our petition be pleasing before you as a sacrificial offering. Please, the Merciful, in your great mercy, return your presence to Zion your city, and the temple service to Jerusalem. And may our eyes see your return to Zion with mercy, and there we shall serve you in awe as in ancient times and earlier years. Blessed be you, Lord, for you alone will we serve in awe.

As well as being a beautiful prayer and, it seems, having an interesting history, I was alerted a few days ago to a variation in the vowels of the first word. We find:

וְתֵעָרֵב – vetēʿārēv
in Artscroll
וְתֶעֱרַב – veteʿĕrav
in “Adler”, “Birnbaum”, Hebrew Publishing Co. 1928, Koren, Meforash, Routledge, Shilo, “Singer”

The meaning is apparrently unaffected by the change of vowels. I have become used to the Artscroll version, and yet I prefer the alternative, and not just because it is much more popular. Rather, here’s why…
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