Found through Alter’s Translation

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Last week, URJ president Rabbi Rick Jacobs offered a podcast focusing on Robert Alter’s newly published bible translation. In response, I argued that Jacobs praised what isn’t new in Robert Alter’s bible translation while missing what is. My previous post focused on verses — highlighted by Jacobs in the podcast — wherein Alter’s translation was nearly identical to much older versions. Here, I share just a few of the verses in the same chapter of Exodus which do strike me as different and noteworthy.

I Myself Toyed

Exodus 10:1
…כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ…
…for I have hardened his heart,… — “Old JPS” (1917) and “New JPS” (1985)
…for I Myself have hardened his heart,… — Alter 2004

Exodus 10:2
…אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם…
…what I have wrought upon Egypt… — Old JPS
…how I made a mockery of the Egyptians… — New JPS
…how I toyed with them… — Alter 2004

Alter’s “I Myself” reflects the Hebrew’s use of “ani” along with the first-person singular verb. And his choice of “toyed with” for “hit’alalti [הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי]” captures much earlier commentary on this expression in God’s speech:

I made a mockery. The Torah is speaking in human idiom, as if Hashem were a human being toying with another for revenge. — Ibn Ezra (via Sefaria.org)

Alter’s translation and commentary work together to form a powerful opening to this crucial chapter in the Exodus story:

And the LORD said to Moses, “Come unto Pharaoh, for I Myself have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, so that I may set these signs of Mine in his midst, and so that you may tell in the hearing of your son and your son’s son how I toyed with Egypt, and My signs that I set upon them, and you shall know that I am the LORD.”

for I Myself have hardened…This is the first time that God informs Moses before his audience with Pharaoh that He has hardened (one again, the literal sense is “made heavy”) the heart of the Egyptian monarch. This is a signal that the elaborate “toying” (verse 2) with Egypt is approaching endgame. Pharaoh is showing himself ever more fiercely recalcitrant, and the plagues are becoming more fearful as we draw near the last plague that will break Pharaoh’s will.
— Exodus 10:1-2 and commentary
Alter, The Five Books of Moses (Norton, 2004), p.365

 

The Men

Exodus 10:11
…לֹא כֵן, לְכוּ-נָא הַגְּבָרִים וְעִבְדוּ אֶת-יְהוָה…
…Not so; go now ye that are men, and serve the LORD… — Old JPS
…No! You menfolk go and worship the LORD… — New JPS
…Not so. Go, pray, the men, and worship the LORD…. — Alter 2004

Alter’s commentary explains his choice and why it matters in the context:

the men. The word used here, gevarim, is a different one from ‘anashim, the one used by the courtiers in verse 7. It has a stronger connotation of maleness (‘anashim can also mean “people”), but “males” will not do as an English equivalent because the Hebrew term means adult males, definitely excluding the “little ones.”

I personally favor “menfolk,” as an expression that had, in my youth, the exact understanding of “gevarim” that Alter is trying to convey, while “ye that are men” has its own sort of “maleness” ring if read with the right intonation (with echoes, for better or worse, of the 1978 “Are we not men? We are Devo.”) And, for the record, Rashi tells us that “gevarim” means “adult males.” But it’s Alter’s translation that prompted me to notice this particular stage of the pseudo-negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh.

Hard, Stiff, and Tough

Exodus 10:20
…וַיְחַזֵּק יְהוָה, אֶת-לֵב פַּרְעֹה…
…But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart… — Old JPS
…But the LORD stiffened Pharaoh’s heart… — New JPS
…And the LORD toughened Pharaoh’s heart…. — Alter 2004

The Old JPS uses the same English word for both “hikhbadeti [הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי]” in 10:1 and “vayechazek [וַיְחַזֵּק]” here, while the New JPS has “hardened” and “stiffened,” respectively.

When the verb “vayechazek [וַיְחַזֵּק]” was used in Exodus 9:12, Alter added this comment:

And the LORD toughened Pharaoh’s heart. For the first time, it is not Pharaoh, or his heart, that is the subject of the verb of obduracy but God. However, in the biblical perspective this may amount to the same thing because God is presumed to be the ultimate cause of human actions, and Pharaoh’s stubborn arrogance can still be understood as the efficient cause. It is striking that Pharaoh persists in his resistance even as his afflicted soothsayers, the experts up whom he has been depending, flee the scene.

This comment is just one example of how Alter’s careful attention to the text’s entwined literary and theological characteristics makes his translation both extremely useful and a delight to read.

Verb of Obduracy

The phrase “verb of obduracy” above is just one of the many reasons that I whole-heartedly agree with Rabbi Rick Jacobs when he says, “You hear in the comment that this is a literary genius at work….” (Here’s the podcast link again.)

I’ll return to my own obduracy, however, and repeat a few of points I wish Jacobs and others would acknowledge for the sake of clarity and sensible comparison:

  • The three-book set of Alter’s bible translation, just issued by W.W. Norton, includes his 2004 The Five Books of Moses without change. Many of us have been using this volume for 15 years. If someone is just seeing his work for the first time, that’s wonderful; but it doesn’t make it fresh in late 2018.
  • That means, through simple arithmetic, BTW, that Robert Alter (b. 1935) was not yet 70 when he published The Five Books of Moses. Yes, he is vigorously translating in his 80s, and the complete bible translation — the first by a single individual — is a truly remarkable accomplishment. That doesn’t alter (no pun) the fact that his Torah translation came out in 2004 — and the Book of Genesis before that.
  • Alter’s work is full of amazing insights and extraordinarily powerful and beautiful language. But his work is not the first new translation since the 1611 King James Version. Compare the two if you think that’s useful, but don’t neglect to mention that there were many other translations in the 400 years between KJV and Alter.
  • Please, please — especially if you’re the head of the Union for Reform Judaism — be sure to compare Alter’s work with more recent Jewish translations, including those published by the URJ! There is so much that is new and insightful in Alter’s work; don’t dilute that by ignoring spots where his translation is identical to other, older ones.

Exodus Chapter 10 concludes with Moses and Pharaoh declaring that they will never see one another again (10:28-29). Alter calls this the “final squaring-off between the adversaries.” Together with his opening comment on “the elaborate ‘toying’…with Egypt,” these are fitting and powerful bookends for the chapter. Alter’s commentary on this chapter is a work of art, on its own, even as it serves to illuminate the work of literature that is Exodus. His commentary and translation of the Exodus hasn’t changed in 15 years, but perhaps the re-release in the new set will recapture the attention of some readers and bring it to a new audience.

Lost in Translation? No, lost without fact-checking

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Robert Alter completed an amazing project. His translations of the Bible continue to offer new, sometimes more literary, possibly more “accurate” renderings of the text. But scholars everywhere seem blinded by the sheer number of pages just published or otherwise befuddled into teaching falsehoods and half truths.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, for example, offered a ten-minute ode to Alter’s translation as a commentary to this week’s Torah portion (parashat Bo: Exod 10:1-13:6). Here’s his podcast, “What is Lost in Translation.” In praising Alter, however, he manages to inadvertently dismiss the work of his own movement.

Darkness and Light

Toward the end of the podcast, Jacobs focuses on one phrase in Alter’s translation and commentary:

“‘…that there be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness one can feel.’
…but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwelling places.”

a darkness one can feel. The force of the hyperbole, which beautifully conveys the claustrophobic palpability of absolute darkness…
— translation/commentary on Ex 10:21, 23 from The Five Books of Moses. (NY: Norton, 2004)

Jacobs cites this material as though it were new, although Alter published this translation and commentary in 2004. More importantly, I think, Jacobs fails to note that Alter’s English differs very little from the older translations widely available for decades — in fact, some published by his own Union for Reform Judaism.

Here, for comparison are Jewish Publication Society versions of the last century:

“‘…that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.’
…but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.”
— “New JPS” translation (Philadelphia: JPS, 1985)
“‘…even darkness which may be felt.’
…but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.
— “Old JPS” translation (Philadelphia: JPS, 1917)

Alter’s “a darkness one can feel” is slightly pithier and so somewhat stronger — and as Jacobs notes, closer to the more succinct** Hebrew, v’yamush, hoshekh [וְיָמֵשׁ, חֹשֶׁךְ] — than the JPS versions. But Alter’s “in their dwelling places” for b’moshevotam [בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָם] is slightly longer than “in their dwellings” of the JPS. So, I’m not sure that, in this particular set of verses, the differences are worthy of great note, all told.

King James and Robert Alter

Jacobs, like a number of others commenting on Alter’s work, compares Alter’s work to the King James Version. (Maybe they’re all reading the same press release?) But Jews and Christians have been translating the bible for many generations since 1611, and all innovation since then is not attributable to Robert Alter, no matter how amazing his recent accomplishment. The weirdest — and, I feel, saddest — thing about Jacobs’ praise for this particular verse of Alter’s translation is that his podcast could just as easily have cited a ten- or twenty-eight-year-old publication from the URJ itself:

  • The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (NY: URJ Press & Women of Reform Judaism, 2008) uses modified “New JPS” language, including the verses as cited above;
  • the 2005 URJ version, which I don’t happen to have handy, also uses JPS;
  • the 1981 The Torah: A Modern Commentary, from UAHC [now URJ], uses a mid-century version of the JPS translation, with the exact language quoted above.

…This is not to say that Alter has not provided new and interesting perspectives or given us some beautiful new language to help us appreciate the Hebrew original. But I fear that what really is new and interesting in Alter’s work is being lost in all the repetition of tired nonsense, false comparisons, and outright omissions in discussing his work.

Moreover, it seems truly dangerous, given the current state of government and journalism, to share information in ways that might mislead and to teach in ways that fail to provide context for “new” ideas….

A final quibble with Jacobs’ podcast: He makes a point of noting that Robert Alter (b. 1935) is in his 80s now, as he completed this huge project. If we’re going to stress the author’s age and/or the number of years he worked on the project, however, let’s be accurate. Alter was not yet 70 when The Five Books of Moses was published, and he was in his early 70s when his Book of Psalms (Norton: 2007) came out. Again, not to say it’s NOT an accomplishment to translate the Torah or the Psalms at 70 or for an individual to complete a bible translation at 83 — or any age! Just that we cannot be re-writing history by inattention to facts.


Note on the 2018 W.W. Norton Publication
A note about these books as books: While I remain in awe of Alter’s scholarship and literary merit, I am deeply disappointed in this three volume set ($125). The set does offer new material, particularly in the Prophets. But there is no new introduction to the Bible as a whole, and there is no additional commentary on the completion of the project; in fact, each of the three volumes repeats verbatim the same introduction to the Bible and its translation that appeared in Alter’s Five Books of Moses in 2004!

If this picture is clear enough, and you’re really curious, note that the section numbering differs in the two volumes, because the section specific to the Five Books was moved.

intro alter

2019 (L) and 2004 (R) introductions to Alter’s translations

Final plea to scholars: I would personally appreciate, as I’m sure would many others, a review or analysis of the recent publication which actually addresses specifics — in organization and layout as well as in content — with a focus on what is actually new in 2018.

Post updated 1/13/19: mostly in formatting, correction of a few typos; also addition of citation to UAHC 1981 Torah (above) and plea here. See also, “Found through Alter’s Translation,” further to this discussion, posted on 1/12/


NOTE:
**In the podcast cited here, Jacobs also compares Alter’s translation of Psalm 23 with that of the King James Version, focusing on the darkness phrase relevant to Parashat Bo. Alter’s “vale of death’s shadow” is more direct than the KJV, “valley of the shadow of death,” while maintaining the connection with death — which some newer translations lose:

valley of deepest darkness — JPS 1985
darkest valley — New International Version (1973-2011)
valleys dark as death — American Bible Society, 2006
dark valley of death — God’s Word, 1995

Do note, for clarity of record, that Alter’s translation and commentary on the Book of Psalms was published in 2007.
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(Re)dedication and Tasks Incomplete

In postscript to “Thirty on Psalm 30,” here are some related words from R. Aviva Richman, faculty of Hadar. Meant as a teaching for Chanukah, this strikes me as just as applicable to beginning a new calendar year or, indeed, to starting any new day:

The work of hanukat habayit [dedication of the house], then, takes place in multiple spheres—in our homes, in our communal structures, and in our own bodies independent of any particular larger structure. Any narrow focus on one of these aspects of hanukat habayit to the exclusion of others will necessarily leave gaps—some people will not be able to fully participate in the critical transformation that is Hanukkah if we neglect any of these modes.
— “Communal and Private (Re)dedication

Richman goes on to urge that we work “within all of these sites of rededication, to create homes, communal structures, and selves where brokenness is allowed to be visible and can be transformed into rejuventation and healing.”

The idea of allowing brokenness to show and become rejuvenated also reminds me of the Marge Piercy poem, “The task never completed”:

No task is ever completed,
only abandoned or pressed into use.
Tinkering can be a form of prayer.

Each night sleep unravels me into wool,
then into sheep and wolf. Walls and fire
pass through me. I birth stones.

Every dawn I stumble from the roaring
vat of dreams and make myself up
remembering and forgetting by halves.

Every dawn I choose to take a knife
to the world’s flank or a sewing kit,
rough improvisation, but a start.

— from The Art of Blessing the Day (NY: Knopf, 1999)

This poem, like Psalm 30 in its position in the morning liturgy, knows that making a truly fresh, joyful start involves acknowledging that weeping spent the night. (Re)dedicating the house — in multiple spheres — requires knowing where a knife or a sewing kit is needed.

(Thirty on Psalm 30)

Hebrew Poetry: Idiosyncratic Resources

I read Dr. Seuss when I was little. I poured over the illustrations in Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, although I don’t recall caring much for its verses. If my household discussed poetry at all it was most likely a piece of doggerel in a Mike Royko column (Chicago Daily News then).

I do remember being struck by “We Real Cool,” by Gwendolyn Brooks (1917 – 2000), when it was introduced to us at school. But we were given to understand that this was not “real poetry,” which only lessened my faint interest in the topic. Any connection between Bible and poetry only added, for both literary genres, further impenetrability.

I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.
— Humpty Dumpty to Alice, Alice Through the Looking Glass

“Real Poetry”

Later schooling didn’t improve my relationship to poetry, and I avoided it pretty successfully in college….except for my forays into writers’ groups, where I continued to find poetry a foreign, and often self-absorbed, form of expression. I did come to enjoy authors like Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercy, and Alicia Ostriker. But I think my early training stuck, so that I somehow classified this as outside the realm of “real poetry.”

When, nearly fifteen years ago, I began studying the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, it was with the intention of improving my Hebrew and for the connections, in Open Closed Open, to the prayerbook. I was convinced I didn’t like poetry and/or that it was somehow beyond me.

Attempting to read poetry in a language that is foreign to me proved fortuitous in that it taught me how hard poetry is to translate — and, therefore, some of the power poetry can convey. Plugging along word-by-word forced me into looking carefully at the language, much more carefully than I generally do when reading my native English. Eventually, I became a sort of convert to poetry as a means of expression and started to investigate the field as it suited me and whatever poem I was exploring.

All of this is to say that I have zero credentials for understanding poetry in general or Hebrew poetry in specific. I do spend a lot of time with the Hebrew Bible, but, again, without any formal training. Whatever I’ve learned is pretty haphazard. I don’t think I’m the only one who was taught some unhelpful things about “real poetry,” however, so I share what I’ve found hoping it’s of use to others….

Africana Perspectives and Fortress Press

As the annual Torah cycle brings us soon to the Song of the Sea, I recommend “Zora Neale and the Lawgiver in Conversation: Exodus 15 and Moses: Man of the Mountain” by Hugh R. Page, Jr. This piece appears in Israel’s Poetry of Resistance: Africana Perspectives on Early Hebrew Verse (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2013), an unusual volume combining the author’s personal essay and poetry with theological discussion:

At that time Moses and the Israelites
Sang this song about YHWH.
Here are the words:

…My power is in Jah‘s song,
Surely, He is my salvation.
He is indeed my god.
That is why I praise him.
He is my ancestral god.
Therefore, I extol him.
— Page, Israel’s Poetry of Resistance, p.21

Page’s use of “Jah” here, he explains, is part of a “conscious effort to bring these biblical poems into more direct conversation with contemporary Africana music that articulates spiritualities of resistance…” (ibid, p.27). Throughout the book, the author focuses on how biblical poems disrupt their “textual surroundings,” and how that helps foster a theology that can work to “resist and dismantle exploitative institutional structures” (ibid., p.26).

Page summarizes his argument for pursuing ancient Hebrew poetry:

Early Hebrew poetry gives us ready access to the spiritual musings of some of our ancient Jewish spiritual forebears….It shows us the role that poets and poetic language played in shaping our conceptions of the divine and our understanding of how God’s self-disclosure to humanity unfolds. It forces us to deal with the symbolic nature of theological and poetic language and asks that we stretch ourselves intellectually as people of faith.
— ibid, p.129-30

I originally found this book while exploring various aspects of exile and life in Babylon. I am enjoying it differently at this juncture. Here’s more about the book, including a link to sample pages.

Fortress, by the way, is a Christian press established in 1962 offering some important, intersectional perspectives on bible reading. Here is a little more about them and their 2010 Peoples’ Companion to the Bible.

Medieval Poetry

When my study partner and I were seeking some new text, with a new perspective, I consulted an old teacher, Diana Lobel. She offered a number of suggestions, including The Gazelle: Medieval Hebrew Poems on God, Israel and the Soul by Raymond P. Scheindlin (NY: Oxford University Press, 1991). We are working our way through this volume, reading poems by Judah Halevi, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Moses ibn Ezra, with Scheindlin’s literary and theological commentary on each one.

The poems are provided in Hebrew, with English translation as well as additional linguistic commentary. Beyond the individual poems and their exegesis, Scheindlin’s book highlights ways in which Arabic and Hebrew traditions are interwoven and build upon each other. We have found The Gazelle helpful in considering questions about literary borrowing and adaptation, assimilation, and preservation of minority culture.

I have found studying these poems instructive in unlocking some of the mystical imagery in the work of contemporary Israeli poet, Rivka Miriam. I am sure we will continue to see resonance of these medieval works in other Hebrew poets, as well as in music.

Seeking more background, I stumbled upon this Medieval Hebrew Poetry website. Henry Rasof, who created the site as part of his master’s thesis from Gratz College, is a poet in his own right as well. The site is currently seeking a new editor to work with, or take over from, Rasof — who says he discovered the topic late in life “and has since been bitten by the bug” — just in case a reader has been bitten by a similar bug or knows someone interested in a new project.

Modern Poetry — and a Sale!

Amidst an effort to reorganize this blog, some of the resource pages were sort of misplaced. While I work to sort that out, I posted some poetry-related resources, focusing on contemporary Hebrew poets.

And, in the process of updating some of that information, I discovered that Wayne State University Press — which publishes The Modern Hebrew Poem Itself, among other related resources — is offering 40% everything until January 11.

“Spend the Night”

My original thought, when I began this series of posts on Psalm 30, revolved around complexities of emotion as our nation responded to hate-driven, racist shootings in Louisville (10/24) and Pittsburgh (10/27), added to the host of other “situations and states of mind — griefs, or joys, that may be brand new, or three or 20 or 400 years old” — already present for individuals and communities. I wrote then, as I launched one of my annual “National Novel Writing Month-Rebel” projects, that I hoped focusing on the psalm’s “powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community.”

Two months out, I still have much to process, but I’ve learned a lot. I plan to continue working toward some sort of coherent collection of thoughts, resources, and questions on Psalm 30. Meanwhile, as I bring this series to a close, I am reminded of the teaching I shared earlier from Rabbi Diane Elliot:

When I take time to work with a word or a phrase — chanting it in my own time, rolling it around in my mouth, and letting it move through my whole body — then when I say the phrase quickly, all of that backstory is there for me. It can move me into a stream of consciousness.
— IN Making Prayer Real, p.74 (original post with citation)

I hope some of what I’ve shared has served a similar function for words and phrases of Psalm 30, and that the “backstory” has been, or will be, helpful to readers. We’ve spent time, for instance, with “glory” and “pit,” with “the House” and “dedication,” as well as with phrases, whole verses, the full psalm, and a “ring” of psalms. And, because it’s still on my mind, here are a few more thoughts on the most recent word-focus: “יָלִין [yalin],” in its various translations.

Overnighting, by any other name

The Evan-Shoshan Concordance (Jerusalem: Kiryat Sefer, 1998) lists “לוּן,לין” (lun, lin) as one word with two meanings, 71 occurrences of the first which relates to overnighting, and 14 occurrences of the second, which is generally translated as something like “grumble” or “murmur”: “And the people murmured [וַיִּלֹּנוּ] against Moses, saying: ‘What shall we drink?'” (Ex 15:24), e.g.

Strong’s Concordance, originally published in 1890, sorts and numbers 8674 root words in the Hebrew Bible. “לוּן” — which they transliterate as “luwn (loon)” — is #3885. Depending on the on-line source, Strong’s finds 83-87 occurrences, combining the two meanings: “to lodge, pass the night, abide” and “to be obstinate, grumble.” (See below on the discrepancy in the two sources and general information on the Strong’s source I prefer.)

Many instances of “לוּן” in Tanakh are pretty prosaic. But some notable, more poetic uses are

  • Ruth 1:16, Ruth to Naomi: “…where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge…”
  • Ruth 3:13, Boaz to Ruth: “Stay for the night,” or “Lodge here for the night,”*
  • Prov 15:31, “He whose ear heeds the discipline of life Lodges among the wise”
  • Song 1:13, “My beloved to me is a bag of myrrh Lodged between my breast” or “My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh, that lies between my breast” **

— JPS 1985, except:
*Brenton Septuagint, 1884
**World English, 1997

And it’s the JPS version of the last verse here which Robert Alter recently cited as the impetus for his decades-long project to translate the Tanakh himself.

“Lodged”?!

Author Avi Steinberg asked Alter what was wrong with existing Bible translations, i.e, “what motivated him to undertake this massive project.” In response, Steinberg writes, Alter “offered an example, reciting for me the Song of Songs, Chapter 1, Verse 13, as it appears in the popular translation of the Jewish Publication Society.” The story continues:

“Lodged?” Alter said to me, his startling blue eyes widening. “Like a chicken bone?”

Alter’s own translation of the verse — “A sachet of myrrh is my lover to me,/All night between my breasts” — is far more seductive, with its meowing alliteration of Ms, his triplicate myrrh-my-me, which echoes the rolling three Rs of the Hebrew, tsrorr hamor.

…By dropping the verb [יָלִין] entirely from the translation, the dramatic urgency and nocturnal mood of the verb is somehow deepened. If the old Hebrew word is now veiled in the English, it is also more present, under the covers.
New York Times Sunday Magazine, 12/20/18

Steinberg goes on to use this particular verse to illustrate what he calls Alter’s “composite art,” harmonizing voices of the past — including the 1995 The Song of Songs: The World’s First Great Love Poem by Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch — and present.

There is much more to say, at some point, about translation in general and of the Bible specifically, about Alter’s work and the functions of biblical translation. But I want to bring this idea of dropping the verb to intensify the mood back to Psalm 30.

Formerly Known as “Lodge”

Alter and Steinberg direct a lot of attention to the imagery and poetry of Song 1:13, and to the need to re-translate “lodged,” in specific. Both speak extensively, given the length of the feature, about the interplay of erotic and poetic there and Alter’s eagerness to restore “original colors and shadings” that may have “faded under the accumulations of theological and historical readings.”

Alter’s commentary in the (2015) Song of Songs calls 1:12 “an appropriately sexy beginning to this richly sensual poem,” and lauds the “combination of delightfulness and sensuality” in 1:13. Alter’s commentary (2007) calls Psalm 30 a “thanksgiving psalm,” de-emphasizing the half of the psalm which expresses non-gratitude, thus flattening feeling and removing nuance. Where inadequate translation of “יָלִין [yalin]” in Song of Songs apparently launched a 3000-page, multi-decade project for Alter, the same verb yields “beds down” in Psalm 30 and a comment about the poet’s “upbeat vision of life.” There is no musing about what it might mean to “bed down weeping,” or how it would be to do so and then find joy in the morning….

Other translations and commentaries for Psalm 30 have been modified to fit liturgical use or even specific musical settings; the psalm has also been adapted for personal devotional recitation. It seems clear Alter has different goals in mind. And the overall poetry and purpose of the Psalms differs from that of Song of Songs. But can we use some of our explorations of the verb formerly known as “lodge” in Song of Songs to restore some “original colors and shadings” to Psalm 30?

Night and Not

In 1967, the Rolling Stones were scheduled to perform “Let’s Spend the Night Together” on the Ed Sullivan Show. But Sullivan thought the title line too racy for a family show, so the band agreed to remove “night” from the performance and substitute “time.” (Story here, along with an odd montage video; full 1/15/67 song below).

Still, we can hear spots where Mick Jagger lowers or muffles his voice and the audience loudly fills in the original “night.”




Just as some feelings around “abide” may be forever changed by a movie (see previous post), the phrase “spend the night” is forever colored for some of us by this weird blip in popular culture. Not sure what, if anything, this means for understanding Psalm 30. But I think it does illustrate that folks hear what they expect or want to hear…or they shout it out themselves if an adjustment doesn’t suit them.

In the case of personal and communal prayer, I think we have some latitude in terms of how we interpret a particular piece of liturgical poetry, maybe even an obligation to help our communities relate meaningfully, perhaps provocatively, to the prayers. What that means for proper translation of sacred text may be a different story.


30 of 30 on Psalm 30
No Longer National Novel Writing Month, but here, finally, is the last installment of this series on Psalm 30.


NOTE:
Concordance Discrepancies
The Evan-Shoshan Hebrew concordance lists “lanu” in Isaiah 10:29 as an instance related to overnighting. But Strong’s treats this “lanu” as the preposition. Both take v’lanu in Judges 19:13 as the overnight-related word (#3885 in the Strong listing). I am not sure how often such differences occur, but it’s something to keep in mind.

In addition, the Bible Hub version of Strong’s lists “grumblings/murmurings” as a separate word from “grumble/murmur.” Therefore, their count of #3885 (“grumble” as well as “lodge, abide,…”) differs from what is listed on other sites. Again, worth noting.

In addition, Bible Hub has some glitches due to coding or proofreading errors, including one relevant to root #3885: The verse pages for 1 Kings 19:9 include an instance of #3885 — וַיָּ֣לֶן [way·yā·len)], “and spent the night” — with appropriate links. One of the summary pages matches this information, while another does not (as of 12/27/18; I reported the mix-up, so it might be fixed in future.)

I don’t know if such glitches are rare or common, but this does suggest double-check before completely relying on any one page in any search of importance. I still highly recommend this Bible Hub, though.

Bible Hub
Bible Hub is a Christian site, and it does not hide that; there is even a “statement of faith” for readers who want that and really search it out (scroll to the bottom menu, visit “About,” and then follow the link). “However,” they write, “we wish to encourage everybody, regardless of their belief system, to use this site to learn more about the Bible.”

I find the site very usable — more so than many others on the web — for Hebrew bible, without intrusive Christian content, as long as one sticks to Bible and translation, not commentary.

It is very powerful, quick and easy to use, and incorporates some handy resources, like Strong’s Concordance. Their parallel translations offer many versions of one verse on the same page — from various Christian denominations, with a few Jewish versions — plus key Hebrew words with links to concordances and dictionaries. It is also possible to read the full Hebrew text and transliteration with links to more on each word. Many other options — so many, in fact, that I sometimes find it hard sometimes to navigate to a specific format. But I don’t know any other site that offers as many options…for free.

TANSTAAFL, of course, but the ads are relatively small, not obtrusive, and not evangelical — unless I’m completely oblivious (which does happen with me and ads, I’m told).

Sefaria is a differently powerful tool, and Mechon-Mamre is useful as well. Bible.ort.org works very well for Torah and Haftarah, especially if leyning is a goal. But Bible Hub is one of my favorite on-line tools for Bible basics. (I don’t use the app, but that is an option for those who prefer.)
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Weeping Abides or Does it Lodge?

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“Joy comes in the morning,” or a similar translation of “v’laboker rinah,” is probably the most often quoted phrase in Psalm 30. The phrase preceding this, however, is one that translators disagree on rendering. Exploring the many ways “יָלִין [yalin]” is translated has made it a favorite word of mine. Here, in the penultimate set of comments on Psalm 30, from a series that began November 1, are some thoughts about this word and about translation of bible and prayers, more generally.

Complexities of Verse 6

Here is the Hebrew, along with transliteration:

כִּי רֶגַע, בְּאַפּוֹ– חַיִּים בִּרְצוֹנוֹ:
בָּעֶרֶב, יָלִין בֶּכִי; וְלַבֹּקֶר רִנָּה.
ki rega’ b’appo — chayyim birtzono
ba-erev yalin bekhi; v’laboker rinah

Here is one translation:

…for momentary is His anger, lifelong His favor.
6: By night weeping abides,
but morning brings joy!
— pp.193-94, My People’s Prayer Book
See below for citation and note on anger/favor

6: “Weeping abides” Literally, “weeping spends the night,” but we don’t have a verb for that in English. Another possible reading of the Hebrew is “one spends the night weeping.”
— p. 195, J. Hoffman (TRANSLATION), one of several commentary threads in My People’s Prayer Book

I chose this translation, instead of those more often quoted in this blog (JPS 1917 and JPS 1985, found at Mechon-Mamre and Sefaria, respectively), because I think it makes clear some of the complexities and because it specifically discusses the verb “יָלִין [yalin].”

I also like the above translation because it employs the less usual verb “abides” for “יָלִין [yalin].” (More on this below.) More common translations of the same verb in Psalm 30:6 are “weeping may…

  • stay for the night,”
  • last…,”
  • endure…,” or
  • tarry…”

The latter is used in the 1917 JPS, the King James Version (1611) has “endureth,” and Christian Standard (Holman, 2017) has “may stay overnight.”

A few variations are

  • “One may lie down weeping at nightfall,” 1985 JPS
  • “Tears may flow in the night,” Good News, 1992
  • “Weeping may lodge for the night,” Int’l Standard Version 1996-2012
  • “One may experience sorrow during the night,” NET, 1996-2006*
  • “At night we may cry,” Contemporary English, Amer. Bible Society, 2006
  • “At even remaineth weeping,” Young’s Literal, 2013

*New ENGLISH Translation, not to be confused with Evangelical and other NETs.

All of the above translations, with the exception of the 1985 Jewish Publication Society and My People’s Prayer Book, can be found on the very useful Christian resource site, Bible Hub.

Lingers, Beds Down, Abides, and Lodges

Lingers and Beds Down
Sim Shalom chooses a less usual verb for “יָלִין [yalin]”:

Tears may linger for a night,
but joy comes with the dawn.
— Rabbinical Assembly, 1989

“Lingers” can have a light, harmless, connotation: We might linger over coffee or a cross-word puzzle, for example, without ill effect, unless we’re delaying someone else or needed activity. So, tears might stick around past their desired or expected departure time without provoking abject desperation. It’s more sinister, however, when symptoms or doubts, fears, and grief linger — and in that sense, lingering tears could make for a deeply troubled night. The verb might work in both senses, for Psalm 30.

Similarly, Robert Alter opts for a less usual expression:

At evening one beds down weeping,
and in the morning, glad song.
The Book of Psalms: a translation with commentary (NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007)

Rather than dwelling on possible consequences for the psalmist of “bedding down weeping,” Alter explains this verse by saying, “This upbeat vision of life has, of course, been manifested in recent experience of the speaker.”

Alter does say that verse 9 “recalls the words of desperate supplication that he [the psalmist] addressed to God from his straits.” This seems a distant, maybe faint, memory, though, as Alter translates and comments on psalm 30, which he describes, simply, as “a thanksgiving psalm.”

Both “lingers” and “beds down” are choices that seem a little distant from the general usage of lamed-vav-nun in the Bible: Jacob is neither lingering nor bedding down in the ladder and wrestling incidents (Gen 28:11, Gen 32:22), for example, and neither verb would work for leaving the Pesach sacrifice over til morning (Exod 34:25). In context of the psalm, though, these phrases provoke some thought about how we understand our own and others’ relationship to weeping:

Does it show up and linger, uninvited, like a bad cold?
Do we have the choice to bed down without it? Should we?
Or is it a property of the night?
Are tears and joy, weeping and glad song an inevitable and regular cycle?
Can we, as individuals or communities, ever view the weeping as long ago and focus on the song?

Abides
I should probably confess here that, while I love several of the Coen brothers’ movies, “The Big Lebowski” was not originally, and never became, a favorite of mine. But I realize that many people today, because of that film, attach specific connotations to “abides.” (See, e.g., “The Dude Abides.”)

Even Merriam-Webster knows this:

Comments by users of this dictionary suggest that many people who are interested in the meaning of the word abide are motivated by one of two rather distinct things: the Bible, in which, for instance, Jesus calls upon his followers to “abide in me”; and the movie The Big Lebowski, in which Jeffrey Lebowski (aka “The Dude”) proclaims that “The Dude abides”….The exact meaning of “The Dude abides” is a topic of some debate, but clearly there is some notion of the constancy of Lebowski himself—metaphysically perhaps—being asserted.
— Merriam-Webser’s abide page, scroll way down

For me, “weeping abides” carries the meaning of “remaining stable or fixed in a state” or “continuing in place,” which I find captures at least one mood of the psalm: there is exultation and praise for rescue, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that the depths were fleeting or trivial. “Abides” captures the psalm’s palpable sense of despair and fear remaining fixed long enough to leave a mark — whether on an individual or a people.

Perhaps fans of The Dude also hear “weeping abides” in a way that fits with verse 6’s cyclical rhythm and the psalm’s overall sense — reinforced in daily recitation — that life is full of ups and downs, and that we, individually and communally, must learn to ride them out and celebrate joy when it manifests. (Fans please share your thoughts.)

I am unsure if the 1998 film had reached cult status when My People’s Prayer Book chose the verb “abide” for its translation. I think it’s fair to say that the movie’s popularity changed the way many people heard the word in later years. But I also venture to say that language is always changing in both predictable and unpredictable ways which affect how Bible translations are heard post-publication.

Lodges
Discussing “יָלִין [yalin]” (above), Joel Hoffman says: “We don’t have a verb for [‘spend the night’] in English.” We do, however, have the travel-industry argot in which “overnight” is a verb — although I think it fails to strike the right mood for Psalm 30. And, while “lodge,” on its own, is more general than “spend the night,” it’s pretty close. Moreover, “lodge” has several meanings that work with verse 6:

  • weeping may be temporarily residing before joy comes in the morning;
  • tears might be quartered with us (like it or not) til morning’s reprieve;
  • weeping might be fixed in place until dawn.

I find that all of these meanings work for me when I read, “Weeping may lodge for the night, but shouts of joy will come in the morning” (International Standard Version). This translation prompts me to ask different questions about how this lodger arrived at my door and where we will go from here.

But landlords no longer advertise “lodgings,” and it is more common now to “lodge a complaint” than “lodge in town.” When is a word too old-fashioned to make its point? And what do we lose when we allow words to fall out of favor or lose varieties of meaning?

Can any mortal mixture of earthly mould
Breathe such divine enchanting ravishment?
Sure something holy lodges in that breast
and with these raptures moves the vocal air;
to testify his hidden residence
— Milton, Comus (1634)

This piece was posted on 12/25/18 and updated 12/26 with some slight edits (grammar, typos, ordering, but no substantive change) and addition of citations for other uses of “יָלִין [yalin]” in Genesis and Exodus.


29 of 30 on Psalm 30
Being the penultimate in this No Longer National Novel Writing Month series on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) begun as a NaNoWriMo-Rebel project. Whole series (so far).


CITATION NOTE:
My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries. Hoffman, Lawrence A., ed. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights. Ten volumes published over several years. Volume 5: Birkhot Hashachar (Morning Blessings), 2001.
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ADDITIONAL NOTE:
My People’s Prayer Book is rare (unique? I haven’t seen it anywhere else) in its decision to include the “momentary…favor” half of verse 6 as the closing phrase of verse 5, emphasizing its connection to the preceding thought. Joel Hoffman includes this note:

5 “Momentary is His anger, lifelong His favor” Our translation follows one common understanding of the enigmatic Hebrew here, the other being “momentary is His anger; life results from His favor.” Yet a third possible reading of the Hebrew is “a moment of His anger, but long life is His will” (that is, “He wants a moment of His anger but long life [for us]”)
— pp.193, 195

For a variety of reasons, I personally do not dwell much on this phrase when reciting Psalm 30. The topic of God’s anger and favor is way too big and difficult for me to tackle at all. I don’t think my thirty posts on this psalm have even approached it, and I’m leaving it entirely, perhaps for another time. But, as always, glad to hear from anyone who does dwell on it and/or has resources to share.
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Locating Psalm 30, Redux

In the divisions of psalms for weekly or monthly recitation of the book, the ring of psalms we’ve been exploring is split over two days. Neither recitation cycle is my practice, so I don’t know how the pause affects reading. (If any reader has a weekly or monthly recitation practice, please let us know your thoughts.) And I don’t know of meditations or other teachings that focus on the daily groupings. (Anyone have resources to share?) But I do spend time with the Raphael Abecassis paintings which divide daily readings in this Sefer Tehillim.

“Firmament Between the Waters” for Day Two divides Psalms 28 and 29 from Psalm 30.

Abecassis

from “Firmament Between the Waters,” by Raphael Abecassis

Apropos of the ring of connection between Psalms 28-30, this painting offers an interesting link between “The God of glory thunders” (Psalm 29:3) and “Therefore, Glory will sing praise to You, and will not be silent” (Psalm 30:13).

insetFirmament

detail: R. Abecassis, “Firmament Between the Waters”

More about Abecassis and his artwork.

28 of 30 on Psalm 30
No Longer National Novel Writing Month, but continuing the focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) begun as a NaNoWriMo-Rebel project. Whole series (so far).

NOTE:
Five Books
1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, and 107-150.
Weekly Recitation
Sunday: 1-29; Monday: 30-50; Tuesday: 51-72; Wednesday: 73-89; Thursday: 90-106; Friday: 107-119; Saturday: 120-150.
Monthly Recitation
…Day 4 of 30: 23-28; Day 5: 29-34….
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NOTE:
Psalms, Paintings: Raphael Abecassis, MOD.
(c) 2002. All rights reserved to the Ministry of Defense, Israel. ISBN 965-05-1179-2.
In addition to illustrated borders around psalms and prayers, the book has paintings to introduce each of the seven weekly divisions of psalms as well as a smattering of smaller illustrations and elaborate end papers.

MOD_Psalter

There is a larger, bilingual volume called “The Psalms of David” that appears to have similar illustrations.

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