Naboth’s Vineyard: Land, Power, and Violence

The story of Naboth the Jezreelite and his vineyard was brand new to me when I encountered it through a recent Hebrew class assignment. The class is designed to focus on land and labor, but a variety of circumstances drew my attention instead — or in addition — to the violence and uses of power in the story. (NOTE: Post slightly edited 11/22/19, 3 p.m. Eastern, shortly after initial publication.)

Ownership and Angst

The story opens with:

And it happened after these things
וַיְהִי, אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה
va’y’hi achar ha-d’varim ha-eleh

Robert Alter notes: “As elsewhere, this vague temporal formula introduces a new narrative.” In Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s commentary on Genesis, however, this phrase carries important psychological tension, linking one story — in the text itself or in midrash — with what follows. Her view suggests an interesting comparison between Abraham’s story and this one.

“After these things,” Zornberg argues, twice signals resolution of an incident with worrying implications for Abraham regarding his covenant with God: the battle with the four Canaanite kings (Gen 15:1) and the Akedah (Gen 22:20); a third use, at the start of the Akedah (Gen 22:1), closes a midrash — a story between the lines — full of more existential/covenantal angst on the part of Abraham. In short, broad strokes: Abraham frets over God’s control of fates, family lines, and futures, but comes to greater faith in God’s promises and providence.

Prior to the vineyard story’s “after these things,” Ahab battles neighboring king Ben-Hadad, allowing the leader to escape, and then hearing from the Prophet Elijah: “Thus says YHVH: …therefore your life shall go for his life, and your people for his people” (1 Kings 20:42). Ahab returns home “סַר וְזָעֵף [sar v’zaaf] — translated as “sullen and morose” or “resentful and angry” — a phrase used only here (1 Kings 20:43) and then four verses later. In the second usage (1 Kings 21:4), Ahab, King of (Northern) Israel, is “sar v’zaaf” over a failed real estate proposition.

Naboth the Jezreelite refuses to sell the vineyard, a family inheritance abutting Ahab’s heichal [הֵיכַל, “palace” or maybe “fortress,” more literally “big house”] (21:3). Is he obsessing on what he lacks? Behaving “like a petulant adolescent” as Alter and others have it? Or is Ahab suffering an existential/covenantal crisis of his own — realizing that nearby land belongs ultimately to God and in perpetuity [לִצְמִתֻת litzmitut] to the assigned tribal owner (Lev. 25:23), limiting his kingship?

Perhaps Ahab is troubled by something akin to recognizing that Naboth will always be “milk in last,” as is the custom of those with fine china, while he, for all his might, cannot buy his way out of being “milk in first.” “Naboth,” for additional background, means “fruits,” and “Jezreel” means “sown of God,” emphasizing his connection to the property which he tells Ahab is family inheritance that he is forbidden to sell (Leviticus again). When Ahab announces his desire to use the vineyard as a vegetable garden, is he furthering a new land-use policy? or is he simply out of step with the Land? In short, broad strokes: Ahab’s relationship to the Land, the People he rules, the neighbors, and God seems so precarious that a random land-grab is of a piece with his whole story.

Varieties of Power

When her husband seems unable to act, Jezebel makes use of several forms of power, based in structural/state violence, to obtain the land:

  • political clout: Jezebel has no qualms about setting in writing a command to misuse the legal system, and scoundrels, elders and nobles alike immediately comply;
  • religious authority: Jezebel calls for a fast, a misuse of public religious ritual to create the impression of blasphemy on Naboth’s part;
  • local corruption and individual perfidy: Jezebel counts on individual scoundrels [“worthless fellows” — בְּנֵי-בְלִיַּעַל, bnei-bilyaal] to perjure themselves on demand and expects the larger process to ask no questions;
  • judicial authority: Jezebel arranges the judicial killing of Naboth (and, some commentators suggest, extrajudicial killing of his offspring);
  • religious and civil intimidation: Naboth is denied burial, his body desecrated, and his blood licked by dogs;
  • legal loophole: With Naboth and descendants gone, Jezebel convinces Ahab that it is his right to confiscate the land.

Ahab himself employs a range of more personal powers:

  • Ignorance: The king employs ignorance — real or feigned — of Jezebel’s schemes to his advantage;
  • Physicality: The king moves to physically occupy the land;
  • Personal ritual: The king performs acts of atonement, garnering a stay of retribution from God for himself but not for his descendants.

God, speaking through Elijah:

  • curses Ahab and descendants, after Ahab does not kill Ben-Hadad, calling for “your life instead of his” (1 Kings 20:42);
  • promises to “cut off every pisser against the wall of Ahab’s” (more politely: “every man-child” or “every last male,” 1 Kings 21:21);
  • consigns Ahab’s descendants and Jezebel to a fate similar to Naboth’s in terms of body desecration (1 Kings 21:22-24).

 

Violence in Jezreel

In the narrative of ancient Israel:

  • Jezreel was the site of Gideon’s victory over the Midianites, the Amalekites and the Kedemites, or “the children of the east” (Judges 6:3);
  • Jezreel was the site of Saul’s defeat by the Philistines and death in battle (1 Sam 29:1-6);
  • Jezreel becomes the site of Jehu’s coup against Joram, Joram’s ally Ahaziah, and against Jezebel (2 Kings 9), and the land sees desecration of the losers’ bodies.

It is worth noting that the bodies of Joram and Jezebel are “cast to the portion of the field of Naboth the Jezreelite.” That is, the property originally identified at Naboth’s vineyard, keeps that identity and does not bear Ahab’s name or that of the state.
 

Conclusion?

Not clear at all on what to make of this except to note that each player in this story has a sort of power to wield and does so. And to ask: Is the Land, or a specific piece of it —

  • an object of various power-plays?
  • a conduit for others’ power?
  • or does it wield its own?

shallow-focus-photography-of-purple-grapes-162672

NOTES

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. “Lekh Lekha: The Travails of Faith” and “Va-yera: Language and Silence.” Genesis: the Beginning of Desire. Philadelphia: JPS, 1995.
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OBSESSION

Abalienatus et indignabundus; off the hooks,* as we say, and in a great discontent; his heart did more afflict and vex itself with greedy longing for that bit of earth, than the vast and spacious compass of a kingdom could counter comfort. So Haman could say, All this availeth me nothing, &c. And Alexander, the monarch of the world, was grievously troubled, because ivy would not grow in his gardens at Babylon. The devil of discontent, whomsoever it possesseth, it maketh his heart a little hell, saith one.
— John Trapp (1601-1669)**

* i.e., unhinged or disturbed, rather than contemporary “off the hooks” meanings

** English Anglican Bible commentator recommended to me for certain books of the Bible by Norman Shore
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CLASS
Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.

See also Dr. Norma Franklin, Zinman Institute of Archaeology, Haifa University:

The Bible names the owner of the vineyard as Naboth the Jezreelite. The use of this gentilic implies that he resided somewhere else as well, otherwise he would not have required a qualifier. A person with a residence in one place and a vineyard in another is a wealthy person, and one might imagine that such a person lived in the capital city, Samaria. Whether or not the “Naboth the Jezreelite” is a historical character, whoever owned that plot of land and its vineyard was certainly well off and not a simple, poor farmer.
The Story of Naboth’s Vineyard and the Ancient Winery in Jezreel

More on the excavation at Biblical Archaeology and Jezreel Expedition.

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Al Naharot Bavel

In the spirit of Av, spent some time exploring music for Psalm 137 and share here some of the links, with related notes scheduled for next week. We plan to discuss some of these pieces and their backgrounds, as well much more about the psalm, at Psalms Study Group at Temple Micah (DC). All are welcome. Come if you’re in the neighborhood, Tuesday, August 20, 1:30 – 3 p.m.

Meanwhile, some music for the season:

From “Bible Songs”

Paul Robeson singing Dvorak‘s setting for Psalm 137:1-5.

To help in following this, here is a Czech translation of Psalm 137 from BibleHub.com:

1) Při řekách Babylonských tam jsme sedávali, a plakávali, rozpomínajíce se na Sion.
2) Na vrbí v té zemi zavěšovali jsme citary své.
3) A když se tam dotazovali nás ti, kteříž nás zajali, na slova písničky, (ješto jsme zavěsili byli veselí), říkajíce: Zpívejte nám některou píseň Sionskou:
4) Kterakž bychom měli zpívati píseň Hospodinovu v zemi cizozemců?
5) Jestliže se zapomenu na tebe, ó Jeruzaléme, zapomeniž i pravice má….

Rivers of Babylon

The Melodians “Rivers of Babylon”
1970, Composer credit: Brent Dowe (1949-2006) and Trevor McNaughton (1940-2018); more next page.

Jimmy Cliff (Melodians’) “Rivers of Babylon” (“Rivers” starts at 2:56)

Sweet Honey in the Rock (Melodians’ version, minus the Rasta-infused lyrics)

Waters of Babylon

Don McLean tune for 137:1, “Waters of Babylon, from 1971 “American Pie”

Closing scene of Mad Men (S1, E6), using McLean’s tune anachronistically and to good effect

Hebrew version of the McLean tune (Anyone have information about “Shooky & Dorit”?)

Choral Babylon

Three choral pieces, versions of which were performed as part of “The Fall and Rise of Jerusalem” concert from Kolot Halev in 2009:

Al Naharot Bavel (By the Rivers of Babylon) — Salamone Rossi (Hebrew)

Super Flumina Babilonis – Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestina (Latin)

Va, pensiero (Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, from Nabucco) – Giuseppi Verdi (Italian)

Three Prophets, Three Crises, Three Cries

Sometimes I look at a Torah commentary, whether ancient or contemporary or somewhere in between and my main thought is: “Whoa! That’s a lot of weight to put on one word.”

…I think of Humpty Dumpty telling Alice — while she is Through the Looking-Glass — that he always pays words extra when he makes them do a lot of work, like when he uses the word “impenetrability” to mean a full paragraph beginning, “we’ve had enough of that subject…”

As it is, though, words in the Torah regularly work pretty hard, anyway. Numbers Rabbah tells us, after all, that there are 70 modes of expounding every word. And it’s not uncommon for extended commentaries to hinge largely on one word.

Still I find myself hoping that the word “devarim” and colleagues have negotiated extra pay for all the overtime expected in the weeks ahead and that eichah has lots of seasonal bonus pay coming.

I was originally planning to discuss the word davar, which plays such an important role in the Book of Deuteronomy beginning with this week’s portion. (Some early notes on Davar and Devarim here in PDF.)

But I decided to give davar and put the word eichah/how to work instead. Here’s more on the word itself, and here’s a midrash linking three eichah verses: an ancient version, from Eichah Rabbah; one from the 15th Century, Akeidat Yitzchak; and my attempt at less gendered imagery.

Three Eichah Verses

The first verse is from today’s Torah reading. It appears in a passage (Deut. 1:9ff) in which Moses describes feeling beleaguered, stuck in an untenable situation. In the midst of this story, he recalls telling the People: “Eichah/How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife?” Using the clunky 1917 JPS here purposely, to highlight the weirdness of the word טֹרַח [torach, cumbrance] which appears only in this verse and in the first chapter of Isaiah. (More on torach here.)

His recollection appears to conflate two previous incidents:

The first is in Exodus 18, when Yitro asks his son-in-law: “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” Yitro then suggests, and Moses implements, a system of 70 judges to share judicial burden.

The second is in Numbers 11, when the People complain about lacking meat and Moses tells God: “I am not able to bear all this people myself alone, because it is too heavy for me.” God commands a system of 70 elders to receive some of the spirit previously upon Moses, saying: “they shall bear the burden of the people with you, that you bear it not yourself alone.”

Here, in Deuteronomy, Moses doesn’t mention either Yitro’s suggestion or God’s command, instead describing a system of captains and officers that appears to be his own invention.

This shift in the cast of characters has many implications, but today I want to hone in on the trouble in the community represented by that one word Moses uses in describing his frustration.

To the ancient Rabbis, the desperate-sounding “eichah” that Moses employs in the desert resonated with later experiences in Isaiah’s time and in Jeremiah’s. The Rabbis arranged three readings, over less than a week in the Jewish calendar, using that same cry.

As the midrash suggests the three eichahs indicate escalating disaster:

  • from the People — and Moses, in his own way — behaving badly enough in the desert that a breaking point threatens,
  • to the People in Jerusalem behaving so badly that God is ready to snap; and finally,
  • to complete loss of the central community institution, with destruction of the Temple and exile of the People, and the related loss of social order.

Although the midrash does not add this, we know that what looks like total destruction is not the end. Destruction of the First Temple resulted in a Judaism built on the experience of Exile, and then, after destruction of the Second Temple, the Rabbinic Judaism that we practice today. The eichah in our three texts suggests a “how” of transformation to be learned from each stage — as well as messages for each stage to be found in reading them together.

Escalating Disaster

In Deut 1:12, Moses moves pretty quickly from perception of a problem to solution. But the eichah points to an element of the situation we might otherwise miss: mutual despair, with Moses and the People together in turmoil. Things sound pretty dire, at one point, but there is a turn-around. How? The People and Moses must refocus on basic principles: justice and organizing for sharing of burdens.

Similarly, in the Haftarah, the eichah hints at despair as the community and its systems are in peril. This time God seems to have reached a breaking point, declaring through Isaiah that the People are a rotten mess, harboring thieves and murderers, while rituals have become so empty that God is hurt to the very quick. The remedy, the People are told again, is a refocusing on basic principles: How to avoid disaster? Learn to do good; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, atone for wrongs, clean up the mess.

The eichah of Lamentations however, is a breaking point without apparent remedy. The closest thing to repair we hear is that final plea: “Bring us back to You, HASHEM, and we shall return as in days of old.” How will this occur? On Tisha B’av, we don’t know yet. The author of Lamentations, and its original listeners, had not yet moved on from disaster and mourning to the period of betweenness and then transformation.

By asking us to read all three eichahs in short order — all on one weekend, as it happens, this year [5779] — we prepare for Tisha B’av’s “don’t know yet” with Shabbat Hazon’s “hows” of previous transformations. But it also, I think, warns us to be willing to sit with that “don’t know yet” in the other stages of disaster, outlined in the three-part midrash.

We have the instructional “how” of Deuteronomy and Isaiah in today’s readings, reminders of what we’re supposed to be doing in terms of individual and communal repair. But we can also make use of the desperate element in the “how” — taking time to process the grief and the worry, communities at the breaking point, rituals that don’t seem to serve their purpose any longer. Eichah?!

Transformations and the Grateful Dead

A few years ago, an essay in the Times of Israel suggested that we can also learn about the transformations of Judaism marked with Tisha B’av from the transformation of the Grateful Dead, following Jerry Garcia’s death. (What the Grateful Dead Can Teach Us About Tisha B’av at Times of Israel, 2017)

Then newly minted rabbi, Simeon Cohen, mentions “the Days Between,” from Jerry Garcia’s birthday, August 1, to his yahrzeit, August 9, in his essay and links this period to the Jewish calendar’s Nine Days of mourning at the start of Av.

“The Days Between” by the way, is celebrated around the world and has no intrinsic relationship to Tisha B’av or Judaism generally. “The Nine Days of Jerry” was launched in an orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem and specifically organized around the season of Av. Cohen’s essay doesn’t mention these details, so here is some background for those interested; meanwhile moving ahead to his punchline…

After the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans, Yohanan ben Zakkai founded a new learning institution at Yavneh, and, eventually, Cohen writes, “an entirely new, revolutionary form of Judaism was born. It has now far outlasted its predecessor.” He likens this to the survival of Dead-related music after Jerry Garcia died in 1995. (As much as I appreciate the existence and publication of this essay, I find that it focuses more on the commercial success of Dead-related enterprises in the post-1995 years — along with the popularity of that worst of all Dead songs, “Touch of Gray” — rather than on survival of any kind of Deadly essence.)

Then, noting current issues, including tension between Israel and the Diaspora, Cohen concludes:

World Jewry is in the midst of an incredibly fraught moment…Yet I take comfort in the adaptive, evolutionary spirit of Yohanan ben Zakkai and the Grateful Dead. No matter how dark things become, we have always found a way to survive.

This is a comforting message. But I fear that it too quickly jumps toward that big change, skipping over crucial mourning and betweenness. The desire to do this is not unique to Cohen: it’s very common, and quite comforting in some ways, to jump toward solutions in order to avoid having to sit with mourning and betweenness. In doing so, however, we miss crucial lessons.

Another article on the Grateful Dead focuses more on the betweenness. And I don’t think it requires ever having heard two bars of Dead music to consider, as the author says: Grateful Dead music “has always been about listening to the transforming collective experience of the moment.” (See “Tuning In Together” by Granville Ganter)

Isn’t this also an aspect of what we do in group prayer? Through music, speech, and/or silence prayer helps us shape individual gratitude into collective praise, grief into commitment, and disasters into a future we cannot yet imagine. But, like listening to the Grateful Dead, prayer requires experiencing the moment — which sometimes means sitting with pain, anxiety, or uncertainty — and noticing the transformations happening inside it.

Combining Messages

Together the three eichah texts — along with Rabbi Cohen’s Grateful Dead analogy — remind us that nothing stays the same for long, that growth comes with new burdens, that living in community and pursuing a vision is hard work. We have to adapt, learn to do good in changing circumstances, seek justice over and over again.

The calendar is built to remind us:
the three weeks of chastising prophetic readings come every year; followed by the lowest day of the year, Tisha B’av; and then the slow climb up through the seven weeks of comfort, including Elul’s wake-up calls, toward the new year.

Today’s reading from Isaiah, built into that cycle, warns us now that it won’t be enough in the coming holiday season to check off the days — skip a few meals, listen to the shofar, give tzedakah donations, recite the proper words — none of that, by itself, will create change, for us or for the wider world.

Today’s Torah reading, also a part of this cycle, cautions us to take a look at our communities now — before we head into the season of repair and return — to notice if the burdens and spirit and power are balanced in healthful ways, or if we are facing more disaster ahead.

Shabbat Hazon asks us to envision something different for the coming year.

Tisha B’av asks us to sit with mourning and betweenness.

And the combination of the two suggests the possibility of true transformation.


NOTES

More on “eichah

The Hebrew word אֵיךְ [eich, how] — an adverb/interrogative with an incredulous, negative connotation (the Evan Shoshan concordance calls it “question of rebuke”), appears six times in Genesis and Exodus. For example: when Abimelech says to Isaac: “…she’s your wife! so how then did you say ‘she is my sister’!” (Gen 26:9), and when Moses says to God: “…the children of Israel haven’t listened to me, so how will Pharaoh hear me, of uncircumcised lips?” (Exod 6:12).

The word does not appear at all in Leviticus or Numbers. This form (including v’eich, וְאֵיךְ) appears 55 times in the Prophets and Writings.

The form eichah אֵיכָה first appears in Deuteronomy, where it is used five times, beginning with 1:12. This is more than in any other book, even the Book of Lamentations (Eichah), where it appears four times. The use in Isaiah, included in the midrash above, is the only appearance in that book. This form of the word shows up an additional seven times in the Tanakh: in Judges, 2 Kings, Song of Songs (twice in one verse), and Psalms, along with twice in Jeremiah.

In total, the Evan Shoshan Concordance only lists 78 occurrences of eich/eichah, plus four instances of “אֵיכָ֖כָה eichachah,” which appears twice in the Book of Esther and twice in Song of Songs. (Strong’s lists 82 occurrences, including all three forms — it’s nice when they match!)

“How?!” is not among the rarest words in the Tanakh, but it’s unusual (and IMO interesting.)

Regarding the less usual “אֵיכָ֖כָה eichachah” form, see also “The World is Like a Poem” by Annabelle Farmelant.”

Three-Part Eichah Midrash in Three Versions

from Eichah Rabbah:
Three prophesied with the language of eichah: Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah.* Moses said, (Deut 1:12), “How (eichah) will I carry alone…” Isaiah said, (Isa 1:21) “How (eichah) she has become a prostitute…” Jeremiah said, (Lam 1:1) “How (eichah) does she dwell…” Said

Rabbi Levi: It is compared to a noble woman who had three friends. One saw her at peace, one saw her in her recklessness, and one saw her in her degradation

  1. So did Moses see Yisrael in their honor, and in their tranquility, [yet] he said, “How will I carry their burden alone?”
  2. Isaiah saw them in their recklessness, and he said “How she has become a prostitute…”
  3. Jeremiah saw them in their degradation, and he said, “How does she dwell…”

Eichah Rabbah 1(Roman Palestine) via sefaria

*NOTE: The assumption here is that Jeremiah wrote Lamentations. There are additional uses of “eichah” in the Tanakh, but they are not “prophecies.”
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Akeidat Yitzchak (15th Century CE Spain) offers the same parable with the noble woman first “at the height of her beauty and wealth,” then “committing excesses,” and finally “in disgrace.” — this is based on the older midrash: Eichah Rabbah 1 (Roman Palestine).
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One more version:
It’s hard to de-gender the biblical images, but perhaps we can rethink the midrash as three stages at which the prophets meet Yisrael:

  1. Moses knew them during a carefree period (God and the People are “honeymooning” in the desert) but was still prompted to cry “How…”;
  2. Isaiah knew them when they were treating greater riches carelessly and warned them about power imbalances;
  3. Jeremiah knew them at a time of complete disaster and cried out at their misery, not recognizing their carefree, even careless, past.


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Torach

In addition to sharing the word “eichah” with the only verse in Isaiah to use “eichah,” as discussed above, Deuteronomy 1:12 shares the word “torach” with the only verse in Isaiah (or anywhere else in the Tanakh) to use that word. (“Torach” only appears in these two verses in Tanakh.)

חָדְשֵׁיכֶם וּמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם שָׂנְאָה נַפְשִׁי
הָיוּ עָלַי לָטֹרַח; נִלְאֵיתִי, נְשֹׂא
Your new moons and your appointed seasons fill Me with loathing;* They are become a burden to Me, I cannot endure them.
— Isaiah 1:14

אֵיכָה אֶשָּׂא, לְבַדִּי,
טָרְחֲכֶם וּמַשַּׂאֲכֶם, וְרִיבְכֶם
How can I bear unaided
the trouble of you, and the burden,
and the bickering!
— Deuteronomy 1:12

*This is the “New JPS” (Jewish Publication Society), 1985. The 1917 “Old JPS” has “My soul hateth,” following KJV (King James Version), for “loathing” here; Alter has “utterly despises,” noting that he incorporated into the verb phrase the intensity of the subject’s added נַפְשִׁי nafshi [my soul].

טָרְחֲכֶם, tarchakhem — the trouble of you. טֹרַח, torach is usually translated in Isaiah 1:14 as “burden,” while the same Hebrew word, as it appears in Deuteronomy here, is translated as “trouble” or “(heavy) load,” or, in the old JPS and the KJV: “cumbrance.”

In the earlier version of Moses’ complaint about the people being too heavy to bear (Numbers 11:11), the Hebrew is מַשָּׂא, massa, regularly translated in that verse — as well as here (following “trouble of you” above) — as “burden.” Massa is a far more common word than torach.


The Nine Days (of Av), The Nine Days of Jerry, and the Days Between

Since 2008 at least, music promoters have been marking what was originally called “Jerry week” (although nine days), between the August 1 birthday and August 9 death date of Jerry Garcia (1942-1995). More recently, fans have been marking what are now called “the Days Between.” Locally, for example, the Hamilton Live venue has been celebrating for three years now. While plenty of Jews celebrate, “the Days Between” don’t have the same Jewish resonance of the “Nine Days of Jerry.”

In 2010, Lorelai Kude, a huge Dead fan with a sense of personal connection to the band and to Jerry, in particular, launched the “Nine Days of Jerry” on her audio streaming program called “Radio Free Nachlaot” (RFN). She had started RFN, named for her Jerusalem neighborhood and using the tagline “Where Shlomo meets Jerry,” the year before.

I met Lorelai at a Jewish Deadhead camp of sorts, “Blues for Challah,” at Camp Isabella Freedman in 2011. It seemed clear that the Nine Days of Jerry were, for her, more than simply a chance to reflect and remember — as Rabbi Cohen describes “the Days Between” in his essay, and as many fans experience the period — but much more of a marking of Jerry’s yahrzeit and an attempt to deal with major loss, both relating to the Jewish calendar and to Jerry’s death and the subsequent changes in the Dead universe.

Many fans, Jewish and not, mark “the Days Between,” wherever they fall in the Jewish calendar. Lorelai and many of her listeners, however, avoid music in observance of the Nine Days (of Av). Depending on how August and Av line up, RFN is frequently shut down entirely, in mourning, while others are celebrating. This year, the Nine Days of Jerry begin August 12.
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World Like a Poem

Annabelle Farmelant, a U.S.-based writer, who published books of Hebrew verse in 1960 and 1961, focused a number of her poems on what words — especially in Hebrew’s gendered language — can and cannot do:

The world is like a poem
in all its glory,
even in the thick of its aches
terrors and cries
its grandeur is reflected.
Man enters the world like a wanderer
Like a wanderer man enters the world
and declares that he will roam
always, always.*
But how — he asks — just how**
— Eichacha — yisheil — eichacha —
does beauty rule a poem
when a line is erased?
How does splendor** shine
when its form is wiped out?
Man is not in these things
for a poem’s beauty is not in a line
an unnamed wanderer
in the world’s splendor***
Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores

*lanetzach. Forever or eternally, rather than perpetually.
**Eichacha — yisheil — eichacha. How — he asks — just how.
***tiferet ba-olam. splendor in the world. Tifereth is a feminine word for an attribute of the divine, one right at the center of the Kabbalist tree of life. tiferet ha-olam. splendor of the world

The translation is by Adriana X. Jacobs, from Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores: Poems by Anne Kleiman and Annabelle Farmelant. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016). The notes are mine, and I’m including a few of the original Hebrew words. Additional information on Farmelant, including an article on her work by Jacobs. [UPDATE 8/30/19: Farmelant died in New York City on June 14, 2019 and was buried in Boston.]

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Resources on Psalms

I’ve been collecting resources on individual psalms for study on a monthly basis. (Local to DC? Check out Temple Micah, third Tuesdays of the month, 1:30 – 3 p.m.) Here are the materials so far (last updated 7/17/19 — here is the stable page where more will be added.)

Psalm 1 Resources (PDF)

Psalm 92 Resources (PDF)

Psalm 8 Resources(PDF)

Psalm 22 Resources (PDF)

Coming soon, a few notes, by request, on Ugaritic and the Psalms, and more resources related to individual psalms as they are gathered.

The wingCatz of Terumah

Instructions for crafting a place for God to dwell include a pair of hammered-work creatures, with upward spreading wings, facing one another above the cover of the Ark. Between the two sculptured figures is where God promises to meet Moses to deliver further Revelation (Exodus 25:10-22, in parashat Terumah: Ex 25:1-27:19). The imagery is intriguing, if disconcerting: too close to forbidden graven images, too similar to idols of neighboring ancient cultures, and, ultimately, too erotic for prime time. But I’ve I recently learned some new perspectives on the hammered-work creatures and, more generally, the way religious imagery can work for us or not.

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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)

“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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