Some Say 400 Cubits: Slow Dancing with Talmud

I first learned the story of “The Oven of Akhnai” (B. Baba Metzia 59a-59b) in the context of Imma Shalom, wife of Rabbi Eliezer, and her teaching about “the gate of wounded feelings.” I learned more about Rabbi Eliezer’s life, post-Akhnai, from a class on one of the Nine Talmudic Readings of Emmanuel Levinas. In addition, I’ve seen and heard the text referenced in many a commentary emphasizing that “Torah is not in heaven.” (See notes below on Akhnai, Imma Shalom, and Levinas.) For the first time, however, I am now reading the story in a small community of learners grappling directly with the text as it appears in the Babylonian Talmud…

…word by word,
sometimes syllable by syllable,
through Aramaic and Hebrew,
without relying on previous translation,
until we’ve discerned, at least tentatively,
each word’s root and tense,
gender, number, and possible meanings.
We learn how the words work with one another,
how “technical” expressions like “it is taught,” add clues,
how we, together with our study partners,
and then as a group with our teacher,
can work together to explore
what the text might be saying
and what that says about Jewish thought….

For this “Contemplative Bet Midrash,” taught by SVARA Fellow Rabbi Lauren Tuchman, we are asked to set aside any previous meetings and encounter the text as though for the first time. (For more on SVARA: The Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, visit their website.)

We are encouraged to look up every word, even ones we (think we) know, in order to consider a variety of possible definitions.

SVARA-Inspired Slow Dance

The opening line of our text, for example, tells us “they cut it into pieces,” without explaining who cut what or why. So, we test out “circle” and “dance” and “everyday” before settling on “sand” as the best definition for “חול (chol),” the substance between these unexplained pieces.

We learn that these pieces and sand are “the oven of Akhnai,” and then ask, right along with the voice of the Gemara: “What is this, Akhnai?”

We experience as passing strange the introduction of a carob tree as a point of proof in this argument. Our studies paused this past week right after “they” tell Rabbi Eliezer, “we don’t take evidence from carob trees.” And from this cliff-hanging perspective, I notice things I previously missed.

I’ve never noticed before how this story begins with an image of brokenness — “they cut it into pieces” — and then introduces Rabbi Eliezer already in opposition to the Hakhamim (“Wise Ones,” that is, scholars holding the majority opinion in this case). Previous passes through this material made clear there was a dispute of some magnitude, but I never noticed the extremes of response here, even before we reach the carob tree and what follows:

  • Rabbi Eliezer does not just argue but brings “all the responses (or refutations or arguments) in the world [כל תשובות שבעולם (khol teshuvot sh’ba-olam)],” while
  • the Hakhamim refuse to accept (any) arguments from him, [ולא קיבלו הימנו (v’lo kivalu heimenu)],” rather than simply disagreeing.

“They refused to accept (anything) from him.”

When our learning for one week paused at this point, that phrase just seemed so stark. (Despite attempts to meet the text anew, I’m sure my reaction is influenced to some extent by previous encounters. Still.)

BabaMetzia1

You are There

Along with feeling the starkness of Rabbi Eliezer’s rejection, I understood the frustration of a community that had made a decision and still heard “all the refutations in the world” from one individual. After all, I’ve been there often enough: watching participants in a community meeting come to a difficult decision while one person — for better or worse in the long run — just cannot get on board….

…Some readers might remember when Walter Cronkite (1916-2009) did those “You Are There” reports, like this one when he speaks from the midst of the Chicago Fire on October 18, 1871. There is a big difference between such a “report,” however contrived, and more distant approaches to history….

One of the effects of the SVARA-inspired slow pace through the material, I’m realizing, is a little like those Cronkite reports: I am there in a way I had not been before.

Learning unfamiliar jargon — or “technical terms” — of the Talmud, as SVARA-inspired spaces encourage, also promotes the “you are there” experience. Some other Talmud studies have included such terms, but I’ve never before been in a group where the practice is to stick with one bit of text until we all have the basics of how it arrived. I now know, for example, that “we learned there” [t’nan hatam] doesn’t reference something taught elsewhere in Babylon or in Jerusalem: instead, it means “elsewhere in the text” (and I am now able to locate the citations on the page). Rabbi Tuchman teaches us to recognize shifts from Mishnah to Gemara and back and make sure we know who is speaking to whom and when. Being asked to constantly orient ourselves within the text makes for a different experience of it.

When the carob tree gets up and moves 100 cubits for Rabbi Eliezer’s proof, the rabbinical report includes the expression, “but some tell it” [v’amri lah], and the alternative recollection: “400 cubits.” In the past, I’ve read this, without giving it much weight, as two variants of a fantastic tale. But, in this word-by-word, step-by-step shuffle with the text I hear two sets of witnesses telling me that they were there. Now, so am I.

Another Cliff-Hanger

Rabbi Lauren Tuchman’s Contemplative Bet Midrash left us all, at the end of our last session, in the midst of a dispute about cooking that has spiraled into strange realms. A group of Hakhamim have made their decision, while Rabbi Eliezer, so convinced of his own point of view, moves from verbal arguments to calling on supernatural “proof.” Witnesses saw the carob tree move 100 cubits, though some say it was 400 cubits. But the Hakhamim don’t accept that as “evidence” in this oven dispute.

Where will the frustration, anger, pride, arguments and magic lead? How will community kashrut standards be effected? What will be the result of those decisions in terms of holiness? What will be the effect on the community?

I confess to an inclination to read ahead or binge watch to the conclusion. But one of the things this slow dance teaches is that any such conclusion would be meaningless. The real goal is not to “finish” the story, maybe choosing to be #TeamEliezer or #TeamHakhamim along the way. The goal — at least as I understand things this week — is to consider the story together with others, sharing insights and concerns, and to experience together real fears for how this will all turn out for the individuals and the community involved. And that includes us.

It’s uncomfortable, even a little scary, up here on this cliff. But we won’t get down on our own.




NOTES on the Oven of Akhnai, Imma Shalom, and Women in the Talmud NOTES:

  • Akhnai
  • Imma Shalom
  • Levinas and The Akhnai Story
    • Levinas, Emmanuel. Nine Talmudic Readings. Annette Aronowicz, trans. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990. Lectures 1963-1975 in French
    • Rabbi Goldie Milgram, Reclaiming Judaism, offered a series of classes on the Levinas chapters at National Havurah Committee Summer Institute
    • The chapter, “Desacralization and Disenchantment,” looks at Sanhedrin 67a-68a, which describes the end of Rabbi Eliezer’s life. (It was this chapter I had the opportunity to explore in a long-ago week-long class at the Institute.)

BACK to top

Found through Alter’s Translation

1

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

1

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.
BACK

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.

And the Mouse Says…

In addition to the swallow, the mouse [עַכְבָּר] also speaks a verse from Psalm 30 in Perek Shira:

עַכְבָּר אוֹמֵר. אֲרוֹמִמְךָ יְיָ כִּי דִלִּיתָנִי וְלֹא־שִׂמַּחְתָּ אֹיְבַי לִי׃ (תהלים ל ב)
And the Mouse says, “I extol You, O LORD, for You have impoverished me/lifted me up, and not let my enemies rejoice over me.” (Ps. 30:2)
— Perek Shira, Chapter 5; more on the Mouse below

As with “kavod” in verse 13 — which, as previously discussed, is translated in many ways in addition to “glory” — דִלִּיתָנִי [dilitani] has a number of translations. But the one used in Nosson [Natan] Slifkin’s 2003 translation of Perek Shira stands far apart:

    • The 1917 JPS has “Thou hast raised me up” for “dilitani” in Psalm 30;
    • The 1985 JPS has “You have lifted me up”;
    • Other translations use “delivered,” as well as “lifted” and “raised”;
    • Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has the less usual, “you set me free so that my enemies could not gloat at my troubles”;
    • Slifkin alone has “impoverished me.”

…The Hebrew word for “impoverish” (decrease, deplete, etc…), דִּלֵּל (dileil), shares a dalet-lamed pair with dillitani. Possibly Slifkin is following a line of commentary that uses the similarity to translate the verb as “impoverish.” In the context of Perek Shira, some version of lifting would seem to parallel the warning, “from there I will bring you down” (Obadiah 1:4) which is uttered by the Cat. (See note below for links to the whole conversation between Cat and Mouse.) For the purposes of “Thirty on Psalm 30,” however, we can return to the ways dillitani is understood in the context of the psalm itself….

A Few Notes on dillitani

The Hebrew word here comes from a root meaning “to draw water” and probably originally referred to drawing water up from a well. It may have retained this connotation when this psalm was written: water and well imagery abounds in the Bible…
— Joel Hoffman (“What the Prayers Really Say” commentator), My People’s Prayer Book, vol.5

The following quotation is from The Jerusalem Commentary (broken up here into easier to read lines but otherwise unchanged:

You have lifted me up,” is derived from the root דלה, DLH (see Exodus 2:19: “And he also drew water [דָּלֹה דָלָה daloh dalah] for us”), whose primary meaning is “drawing water from a deep place.” [NOTE: OUr verse is the only example in the Bible of the root דלה, DLH, in the pi’el conjugation.] The expression, “You have lifted me up,” bears various interpretations:

  • …from my humble position (as in Psalm 113:7: “He raises the poor from the dust”);
  • You have lifted me up from my sickbed;
  • You have raised me from the underworld, as is stated in verse 4, below…
  • You kept me alive, that I should not go down into the pit” (the word דִלִּיתָנִי, dillitani, hints at the pail [דְּלִי, d’li] which is used to draw water from a well);
  • You have granted me victory over my enemies.

At all events, the word דִלִּיתָנִי, dillitani, corresponds to the word אֲרוֹמִמְךָ, aromimkha: You have lifted me up, and I will extol You (lift You up).”

More later.


19 of 30 on Psalm 30
As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)…. Look for this not-necessarily-novel writing project to extend into Chanukah, which begins just as NaNoWriMo ends, and apologies to anyone who is bothered by the strange posting schedule.

NOTE
In fact, the Mouse is one of the few animals who speaks more than one line in Perek Shira. The others are the Rooster, which speaks eight times, and the Cat, which speaks once before and once after catching the Mouse.

After being captured by the Cat —

וְעַכְבָּר אוֹמֵר. וְאַתָּה צַדִּיק עַל כׇּל־הַבָּא עָלַי כִּי־אֱמֶת עָשִׂיתָ וַאֲנִי הִרְשָֽׁעְתִּי
And the Mouse concedes, “You are just for all that comes upon me, for you have acted truthfully, and I have been wicked.”

This second Mouse speech is a singular version of the plural expression of Nehemiah 9:33:

וְאַתָּ֣ה צַדִּ֔יק עַ֖ל כָּל־הַבָּ֣א עָלֵ֑ינוּ כִּֽי־אֱמֶ֥ת עָשִׂ֖יתָ וַאֲנַ֥חְנוּ הִרְשָֽׁעְנוּ׃
Surely You are in the right with respect to all that has come upon us, for You have acted faithfully, and we have been wicked.

There is undoubtedly a lot to pursue here. But it’s tangential to Psalm 30 — and Perek Shira is not something I’ve studied before.

See the whole exchange between Cat and Mouse at Sefaria. The dialogue appears in a slightly different order in this (PDF) booklet version, Perek Shira (Slifkin).
TOP

BACK to translation discussion

Glory versus Silence

As noted previously, one of the key aspects of “kavod,” however it and the rest of Ps. 30:13 is translated, is its opposition to silence. We looked at Rabbi Shefa Gold’s practice about “finding the glory inside,” by examining whatever might be silencing us/our glory, and “pouring it out to God” (Gold’s teaching).

Returning to an idea from a few posts back, “I Called, We Called: –chanting separately and together, as we call out in Psalm 30, we offer and receive some of the human connection that Rabbi Polen sees as part of the way prayer is answered — raises the question of if/how we can find our own glory, if others are silenced. Our liberation — and our joy — is bound up together.


17 of 30 on Psalm 30
As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)…. apologies to anyone who finds multiple-post days too much.

There’s Glory for You! — Part 2

In “The Spirit of Prayer,” Abraham Joshua Heschel warned:

It is not enough to know how to translate Hebrew into English; it is not enough to have met a word in the dictionary and to have experienced unpleasant adventures with it in the study of grammar. A word has soul and we must learn how to attain insight into its life.
— see previous post for citation

Translation alone may not be enough, but it can give us some insight into the life of a word or a phrase.

In the previous look at “kavod” in Psalm 30, we saw the word translated in Jewish versions as “glory,” “depths,” “soul,” “whole being,” and just plain “I.” Here, for additional perspectives, are some Christian translations and notes for verse 13 (or 12 — NOTE: Christian scholars generally do not count superscriptions as verses in psalms, so the numbering differs by one from Jewish sources) of the psalm.

More Translations

The book of psalms from the original Hebrew with various readings and notes by the late Alexander Geddes, LL. D (1807):

Therefore I will praise thee, my glory!
Never will I be silent in thy praise
[“f” — as in “filent in thy praife” — changed to “s” for readability]

The Greek interpreters read another word, the English of which is honour; as if the psalmist had said, thou hadst so firmly established mine honour; and this reading by some late translators. The other I think more poetical and expressive – Ver. 12. I will praise thee, my glory!

The present Hebrew runs thus: Glory will praise thee, and will not be silent. But the Syriac translator read both verbs in the first person; and I have no doubt of his being the original lection.

— Geddes, p.46 (London: printed for J. Johnson in St. Paul’s Courtyard by Richard Taylor & Co, Shoe-Lane)

Bay Psalm Book being the earliest New England Version (1862):

That sing to thee my glory may
and may not silent be
Lord my God I will give thanks
evermore to thee

The Psalms: A historical and spiritual commentary offers two readings:

  • many, with the Septuagint (LXXX), “my glory” for “that my glory should make music to you and not be silent,” taken as a reference to “his soul restored in royal glory.”
  • others “change the vowels to give ‘my liver’ and then render ‘my heart,’”
    — J.H. Eaton, The Psalms: A historical and spiritual commentary
    (T&T Clark, A Continuum Imprint 2003), p.143

NIV Study Bible (1985) gives us, “that my heart may sing to you and not be silent,” with the following footnotes:

[30:12] heart. Lit. “glory (see note on 7:5)

[7:5] me. Lit. “my glory,” a way of referring to the core of one’s being (see 16:9; 30:12; 57:8; 108:1 and notes).

Most of the 50+ translations available through “Bible Gateway” similarly use “heart” or “soul,” a few “glory” or “whole being.” But there are also more interpretive offerings:

  • To the end that my tongue and my heart and everything glorious within me may sing praise to You and not be silent.
    Amplified Bible (1965-1987)
  • You have restored my honor. My heart is ready to explode, erupt in new songs! It’s impossible to keep quiet!
    The VOICE (2012)
  • How could I be silent when it’s time to praise you?
    Now my heart sings out loud, bursting with joy—
    a bliss inside that keeps me singing,
    “I can never thank you enough!”
    Passion Translation (2017)


Beyond Translation

“…There’s glory for you!”

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,'” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you….”
more on “glory” Through the Looking Glass

Whatever English is chosen to translate “kavod,” or however we relate to the Hebrew directly, one aspect of its life seems to be that it is antithetical to silence. All the tribulations in the psalm — enemy triumph, the underworld or the pit, God’s anger and hiding of God’s face, mourning and sackcloth — cannot keep it from singing.

Rabbi Shefa Gold teaches a practice to help in “finding the glory inside and pouring it out to God.” She asks us to “examine what it is that silences that glory,” and then “look beneath the obstacle” for the “glory that wants to be acknowledged and celebrated.” Here’s her chanting practice for this verse.

In that sense, we’re all part Alice, waiting for Humpty Dumpty to tell us what “kavod” means in the context of the psalm, and part Humpty Dumpty, knowing that it’s up to us to identify whatever obstacles are blocking our own glory in this particular instance.


16 of 30 on Psalm 30
As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)…. apologies to anyone who finds multiple-post days too much.