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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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Warning: Under-edited speeches ahead

Filed under: Divrei Torah by Joel @ 11:00 pm, 25 October 2011.

For some time, over this blog’s long period of silence, I’ve intended to publish the few divrei torah (Synagogue sermons) I have given at Or Chadash. Having resolved to finally do so, I’ve realised that the fear of having to edit them is what stops me copy-pasting them.

Being speeches, they were only really designed to be read by me, with plenty of gesticulation if not performance; they’re short on citation and footnoting that I might put in a written work; they’re likely to have inconsistencies like presenting Hebrew terms alternately in Hebrew and in transliteration; and when I’m unsure whether the message was clear, I often expand my words as I read them. This is exacerbated by the fact that I often write these divrei torah in a rush, and I generally present them on days when I can’t put any last-minute changes in writing.

Despite all these faults, I don’t have time to properly edit the talks, or they’ll never get posted.

So I hope you enjoy my words, but take them with some salt.

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.

18 January, 2009

Milk and Honey

Filed under: Divrei Torah,Judaism,Tanakh by Joel @ 1:14 pm, 18 January 2009.

A dvar torah, given at Or Chadash, Parashat Shemot, 17/01/09.

There is plenty to talk about in this week’s parasha, but with less than a month now to the oft-neglected Tu Bishvat, I thought we could discuss agriculture. Well, not really. This week’s parasha contains the first promise of a “land flowing / gushing / oozing with milk and honey”.
However you choose to translate it, the phrase automatically conjures a delightful image in anyone’s mind (if they’re not dieting or lactose intolerant).

The cream of milk and the sweet of honey are tied in blissful sensation to our childhood. With milk comes the comfort of a mother’s breast (but we’ll leave Freud out of this). And honey is the sweetness of being a child. It has been used in many ceremonies to mark the beginning of a child’s schooling by tuning them to the taste of torah. We know of a German tradition since the 12th century where children were first taught the Hebrew alphabet on Shavuot, and would lick honey off the letters. Some communities maintain similar customs today. In a similar vein, Moroccan-Israeli singer Shlomo Bar sings of five-year olds in the Atlas Mountains acting out a marriage to the torah, licking the aleph-bet off a piece of tree-bark. These traditions may both be influenced by Ezekiel’s prophecy (chapter 3) where God feeds him a megillah which he finds to be sweet like honey. But the traditional association with childhood is pertinent. And apparently, some web site claims that Jews consume 20% of the world’s honey! (But we know that 68 percent of all statistics are made up.)

This is beside the point, as honey (דבש, devash) mentioned in the bible usually (with a few notable exceptions) refers to that squeezed from dates or figs, not bees, just like the cognate Arabic word dibs.

So a land flowing with milk and honey is really one with agricultural abundance, one with healthy pastures and sumptuous fruits. Towards the end of the Gemara in Ketubot, our sages describe the abundance of the Land of Israel anecdotally: Rami bar Yechezkiel relates seeing goats eating from fig trees in Bnei Brak; the figs dripped their honey, which mixed with milk dripping from the goats, and thus he declared: “a land flowing milk and honey!” Yakov ben Dostai walked ankle-deep in date honey for three mil from Lud to Ono. And so on, each tale more extravagant than the last…

Quite apart from this sensationalism, commentators on our parasha emphasise that a land flowing with milk is one good for livestock. Ramban suggests that good milk requires good air, good water, good pasture; and these don’t necessarily coincide with good land for fruit, so we are also promised devash, fruit with its nectar gushing forth. Seforno emphasises the sense of copious livestock and nourishment, pleasant and fulfilling; Ibn Ezra looks at the verse in context, contrasting the promised land of goodness and breadth with the suffering in Egypt.

But we find this rich and sweet description of Israel too good to be true. While in our passage, the promise of bounty is clear, Devarim occasionally depicts a more temperamental land that responds to the worthiness of its inhabitants. Indeed, the first biblical descriptions of Eretz Yisrael tell of famine in three successive generations, and as we know, the tales of our forefathers are a sign of things to come (מעשי אבות סימן לבנים).

In Parashat Korach, Datan and Aviram throw the expression back at Moses, blaming him for bringing the people from a land flowing with milk and honey to instead kill them in the wilderness. Isaiah (7:21-22) also uses the image ironically, suggesting that the land and its people will be in such a poor state of desolation, that they will be sustained on only cream and honey.

Over the centuries, olim from the Jewish diaspora, such as Ovadia of Bartenora and the Ramban have sent back dark reports of desolation upon arriving in Israel, rather than the wondered suggested by the biblical promise. Things have improved a lot in the last century, but the land’s agriculture is increasingly limited by a shortage of water, and the newspaper reminds us constantly that not everything is peachy.

It is often debated within our community, in schools and in youth movements, whether to use utopian images of Israel when teaching children or talking to the wider world. Judaism reminds us often that it is important to have images of perfection and idealism at the back of our mind,
but it more importantly stresses looking at and acting within a harsher physical reality. For example, though the performance of mitzvot may bring us to a world to come as is often attributed in the mishnah, we focus on the mundane acts themselves, and their inherent deed, rather than their reward.

Returning to the pedagogic debate, we should be willing as a community to discuss both the importance and the problems inherent in Israeli society and its actions, not to mention the many challenges of modern halakhic Judaism. In order to help us understand an eventually ideal world, the bible first inverts the image, with slavery in Egypt and with desert wanderings. It emphasises that to get to that destination, there is an arduous journey, an exodus.

I hope that we can all travel together – in open discussion of morality and necessity, debating tradition and modernity, and in positive action – towards that ever-present but elusive honey-flowing promised land.

Shabbat shalom.

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