Three 30s, One Pun

Three 30s appear surround one pun in this verse from the Book of Judges:

וַיָּקָם אַחֲרָיו, יָאִיר הַגִּלְעָדִי; וַיִּשְׁפֹּט, אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל, עֶשְׂרִים וּשְׁתַּיִם, שָׁנָה.

וַיְהִי-לוֹ שְׁלֹשִׁים בָּנִים, רֹכְבִים עַל-שְׁלֹשִׁים עֲיָרִים, וּשְׁלֹשִׁים עֲיָרִים, לָהֶם; לָהֶם יִקְרְאוּ חַוֹּת יָאִיר, עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, אֲשֶׁר, בְּאֶרֶץ הַגִּלְעָד.

And after him arose Jair***, the Gileadite; and he judged Israel twenty and two years.

And he had thirty sons that rode on thirty [עֲיָרִים*], and they had thirty [עֲיָרִים**], which are called Havvoth-jair*** unto this day, which are in the land of Gilead.
— Judges 10:3-4, Old JPS translation at Mechon-Mamre

* עֲיָרִים
Old JPS says “ass colts”; New JPS uses “burros,” with a note about the pun
** עֲיָרִים
Old JPS has “cities”; New JPS uses the pun-supporting “boroughs”
*** יָאִיר
The name “Jair” is a near homonym to the Hebrew words for burro and borough, due to the similarity of the letters ayin and aleph in Hebrew. New JPS does not extend the pun this far.

Hebrew Bible Punning and Jair

Punning is a common device in the Hebrew Bible, and many of its puns add an extra layer of meaning. Here are just a few examples:

  • Adam comes from the earth/soil [adamah] (leading some scholars to suggest “Earthling” as a better translation);
  • Rachel asks Jacob to father a child with her maid, so that she will “be built up” (a play on “build” and “son”);
  • Jephthah [Yiftach, in Hebrew, as in “to open”], opens his mouth to vow with disastrous results;
  • Boaz tells Ruth: “May the Lord reward your actions and may your payment be full (shleimah)” (Ruth 2:12), and shleimah has the same letters as Shlomo (Solomon), Ruth’s most famous descendant.

Perhaps the pun above is meant to tell us something about Jair. Maybe it’s a memory device. Maybe it just tells it like it was. Robert Alter, who often notes puns when important to the text, ignores this one, offering the following comment instead:

The number of sons, donkeys, and towns looks formulaic, but the detail about riding is odd enough that it might reflect a remembered historical fact.
–on Judges 10:4 in his 2013 translation of the early prophets (full citation)


A Few Related Resources

Also see Robert Alter’s works on biblical narrative and biblical poetry, for more on punning and other literary tools in ancient Hebrew text.

A succinct and useful article on Biblical humor is offered by Hershey H. Friedman, Professor of Business and Marketing at City University of New York. (May seem an odd place to look for Torah commentary, but Prof. Friedman offers many worthwhile resources).



As part of NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month), a cousin of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), “A Song Every Day” plans thirty daily posts with some connection to the number 30.NaBloPoMo_November_blogroll_large

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s