Acharei Mot: A Path to Follow

How is writing “with four pens between five fingers” related to the Day of Atonement?

There are many paths to follow from Chapter 16, which describes the ancient Yom Kippur service and has become the Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning and the basis for the Avodah Service. To start, it can be very interesting to explore a High Holiday Machzor outside the Days of Awe (and on a non-fast day, to boot). And this exploration can add meaning to this week’s Torah reading. For anyone who chooses to follow, though, the tangential “four pen” path might be interesting.

One of only three entries for Leviticus in the collection Chapters into Verse** is a poem by Charles Reznikoff (1894-1976) called “The Day of Atonement.” That poem is one segment of a four-part work, “Meditations on the Fall and Winter Holidays.” Selections are included below; here’s the whole four-part poem.

I. New Year’s
…This is the autumn and our harvest–
such as it is, such as it is–
the beginnings of the end, bare trees and barren ground;
but for us only the beginning:
let the wild goat’s horn and the silver trumpet sound!

…The work of our hearts is dust
to be blown about in the winds
by the God of our dead in the dust
but our Lord delighting in life…

II. Day of Atonement
…If only I could write with four pens between five fingers*
and with each pen a different sentence at the same time —
but the rabbis say it is a lost art, a lost art.
I well believe it. And at that of the first twenty sins that we confess,
five are by speech alone;
little wonder that I must ask the Lord to bless
the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart….

III. Feast of Booths
…I remember how frail my present dwelling is
even if of stones and steel

I know this is the season of our joy:
we have completed the readings of the Law
and we begin again;
but I remember how slowly I have learnt, how little,
how fast the year went by, the years–how few.

IV. Hanukkah
…That was a comforting word the prophet spoke:
Not by might nor by power but by My spirit, said the Lord;
comforting, indeed, for those who have neither might nor power–
for a blade of grass, for a reed.

…The miracle, of course, was not that the oil for the sacred light–
in a little cruse–lasted as long as they say;
but that the courage of the Maccabees lasted to this day:
let that nourish my flickering spirit.

Go swiftly in your chariot, my fellow Jew,
you who are blessed with horses;
and I will follow as best I can afoot,
bringing with me perhaps a word or two.
Speak your learned and witty discourses
and I will utter my word or two–
not by might not by power
but by Your Spirit, Lord.
— from The Poems of Charles Reznikoff: 1918-1975 (Black Sparrow Books)



*Four Pens/Five Fingers

In Yoma 38b, Ben Kamzar is among several rabbis criticized for not teaching a special art to others:

It was said about him that he would take four pens between his fingers and if there was a word of four letters [Rashi says this is YHVH] he would write it at once. They said to him: ‘What reason have you for refusing to teach it?’ All found an answer for their matter. Ben Kamzar could not find one. Concerning [all] former ones it is said: ‘The memory of the righteous shall be for a blessing’, with regard to Ben Kamzar and his like it is said: ‘But the name of the wicked shall rot.’

Later commentators add that simultaneously writing all four letters of the Tetragrammaton is not forbidden, although writing them in the wrong order is. However, writing the letters in the proper order, one by one, involves writing yud-heh (Yah), and then adding a vav. This means taking a version of God’s name and turning it, however briefly, into an ordinary word. Ben Kamzar’s technique would have obviated this concern. (Some say he had invented a kind of printing press.)

So, what is this reference doing in Reznikoff’s poem?

Admittedly the story of Ben Kamzar comes within a longer section of the Talmud dealing with the Day of Atonement. But, is that sort of obscure reference — without another point — Reznikoff’s style? Seems unlikely for a man credited with helping to establish the “Objectivist” school of poetry.

Is he talking about the Book of Life, into which we hope to be inscribed on Rosh Hashanah? If so, why the reference to “sentences” rather than names?

I had hoped the longer fall/winter meditation would elucidate what “Day of Atonement” alone did not. But it does not do so in anyway I could see.

Is he concerned about time running out, which does seem to be a theme of the larger poem?

Given the reference to the speech-related confessions, does Reznikoff believe that he needs four pens to keep from short-changing the truth?

If anyone has an idea, please share.

** Please see Source Materials for full citations and additional information.

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Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.

The “Opening the Book” series is presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group pursuing 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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