Tetzaveh: A Path to Follow

A bell and a pomegranate: erotic poetry and bellman’s verses…

And you shall make on its hem pomegranates of indigo and purple and crimson, on its hem all around, and golden bells within them all around. A golden bell and a pomegranate [paamon zahav v’rimon], a golden bell and a pomegranate, on the hem of the robe all around [al shulei hamil saviv].

A golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate. The sheer splendor of the ornamentation is evoked in poetic incantation through the repetition of the phrase. Judah Halevi, the great medieval Hebrew poet, echoes these words in a delicate, richly sensual love poem, registering an imaginative responsiveness to the sumptuous sensuality of the language here.
— Exodus/Shemot 28:33-34, Alter**

Alter doesn’t give a citation for the “delicate, richly sensual love poem,” its name or first line. (Alas, poor footnote, I knew him well!)*

It seems likely that Alter is referencing the poem T. Carmi, The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse,** entitles “Song of Farewell” or “Why, O Fair One?”:

Mah lach, tz’viya, tim’n’i tzirayich
midor, tz’laav malui tzirayich

[Why, O fair one, do you withhold your envoys
from the lover whose heart is filled with pain of you?

lu acharei moti b’aznei yaaleh
kol pa’amon zahav alei shulayich

[Oh, after my death, let me still hear
the sound of the golden bells on the hem of your skirt]
–Judah Halevi, T. Carmi’s translation

This type of poem — using biblical imagery for human, sometimes erotic, themes — is quite different from Halevi’s religious poetry. One interesting path to follow is to read a few of Halevi’s poems — and those of his fellow medieval writers — with different subjects or aims. Consider the contrast between religious and secular uses of biblical language and images, described in Alter’s Canon and Creativity: Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture.**

Double Canonicity

Where Shall I Find You?” — one of Halevi’s religious works — references the Cherubim, for example, from the portion Terumah. This is meant to evoke God’s dwelling place and a longing for a relationship with the divine.

The poem above, on the other hand, uses imagery from the portion Tetzeveh, referencing priestly garb, but unabashedly describes human passion — “radical freedom of allusive play with the Bible” (Alter, p. 47).

Such free use of biblical language might seem blasphemous “from a doctrinal point of view,” Alter writes. “[B]ut the poet does it without compunction, for in his sense of the literary canonicity of the Bible, considerations of doctrine are suspended” (p.50). The Bible, in this view, is a “literary repository of the language of the culture” (p.48).

To read more about Hebrew poets’ varying use of biblical texts, see Canon and Creativity.

*The Bell’s Path

To follow another, somewhat diversionary, path, consider the trail of the bell itself, rather than that of the lush biblical description. Plaut** notes — in reference to Exodus/Shemot 28:34 — that bells were widely used to ward off evil. He cites James Frazer (Folklore in the Old Testament, 1919, and The Golden Bough, 1922), noting that the older work was “updated and republished in Gaster’s book.” This book, in turn —Myth, Legend and Custom in the Old Testament, by Theodor H. Gaster (NY: Harper and Row, 1969) — is listed fully in Plaut’s bibliography and cited by footnote and endnote (yeah!!).

(According to Frazer, as in the poem from Milton here quoted, bells had a prophylactic function, and hence the High Priest was to have a bell attached to his garments so that when he entered the sanctuary he would not die, 28:35)

…the bellman’s drowsy charm
To bless the doors from nightly harm. — John Milton***

What Plaut doesn’t say, but I find interesting, is that night watchmen in the 17th and 18th Centuries CE regaled their customers with rhymes designed to elicit gratuities at the Christmas holidays.

“The benediction which thus broke the stillness of the night was usually cast in a poetical form of such unparalleled atrocity that bellman’s verses have been proverbial ever since” (Frazer , p.456…through Google Books, you can read the entire chapter on “The Golden Bell,” and Frazer cites Lord Macaulay’s History of England, 1871, also available through Google, should you desire further details about bellman and their verses.)

Thus, this one pair of bible verses is associated with some of the best-loved and most reviled poetry ever.** Please see Source Materials for full citations and additional information on Torah translations and commentaries. Note: Tetzaveh is also transliterated Tetsaveh or T’tzavveh.

***Plaut doesn’t name Milton’s poem: Il Penseroso, 1633.

The “Opening the Book” series is presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages WeLuvBooks.org, blogs on general stuff a vspatz.net and more Jewish topics at songeveryday.org and Rereading4Liberation.com

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