Foreign Languages and Imagination

The brand new Koren Rav Kook Siddur presents commentary, not previously published in English, from Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook (1865-1935), first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel and a visionary Jewish thinker — including this note which sheds some light for #ExploringBabylon. (See below for book and launch info.)

Exploring Babylon Chapter 12

This commentary on Psalm 81:6-7 weaves three talmudic tales and two odd spellings toward a surprising conclusion.

When Pharaoh appointed Joseph as Viceroy of Egypt (Gen 39), Talmudic legend says, Pharoah’s advisors challenged the appointment, demanding that someone worthy of the post know “the seventy languages.” So, the angel Gabriel came to teach Joseph and, when he didn’t master all the languages at first, “added to his name a letter from the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He, and he learnt [the languages] as it is said: He appointed it in Joseph for a testimony, when he went out over the land of Egypt, where I heard a language that I knew not” (B. Sotah 36b; Ps. 81:6).

Joseph’s name is spelled with an extra “hey” in Ps. 81:6: בִּיהוֹסֵף. Joshua’s name, on the other hand, is missing its “hey” in Nehemiah 8:17: יֵשׁוּעַ. The Talmud’s explanation for Joshua’s diminished named is that the Bible is chastising him for failing to remove the “passion for idolatry [yitsra de-‘avodah zarah” from the country (B. Arachin 32b). But Rav Kook defends Joshua and asserts the power of imagination. He goes on to insist, alluding to a third talmudic story, that trying to shut off imagination can be disastrous for individual and collective spiritual life:

The reason that Joshua did not abolish the hankering for idolatry, which is a function of the imaginative faculty, is because Joshua as a descendant of Joseph, was of the firm conviction that the power of imagination — crucial for prophetic ability — need not be abolished….

Eventually, in the days of Ezra, the Men of the Great Assembly would stop up the yitsra de-‘avodah zarah in a “lead pot” (duda de-avara), and quite predictably, that would in turn bring about the cessation of prophecy in Israel. But in Rav Kook’s reverie, “kapav mi-dud ta’avornah,” “his palms will be set free from the pot.”
Koren Rav Kook Siddur, p.258-260


Pots and Palms

B. Sanhedrin 64a tells of leaders trapping the “passion for idolatry” in a lead pot. The result is that no eggs are produced anywhere in the Land, for the three days it is captive. The Talmud and Rav Kook take this story in different directions.

The Talmudic discussion is concerned with people “engaged in idolatry only that they might openly satisfy their incestuous lusts.” After considering their options, the leaders blind their captive and then let it go. (“This was so far effective that one does not lust for his forbidden relations”). Rav Kook looks beyond the incestuous lust of the Sanhedrin discussion, instead focusing on the underlying issue of converting the “passion for idolatry” to “holy light.”

When Ps. 81:7 says “his palms will be set free from the pot” —

כַּפָּיו, מִדּוּד תַּעֲבֹרְנָה.
kapav mi-dud ta’avornah

Rav Kook reads “kapav” [his palms] as related to prophetic inspiration. (This is possibly related to Exodus 33:32-33, in which God holds puts Moses in the rock cleft and promises, “I will cover you with my palm until I have passed by.” Other links between “palm” and “prophecy” are suggested as well.) He concludes that, once palms are freed from the pot, “Imagination will be liberated and prophecy restored” (Kook Siddur, p. 260).

The “hey” which Gabriel adds to Joseph’s name to help him master the languages “is absorbed into Joshua’s being and empowers him to clarify the imagination, which takes in the entire esthetic dimension” (Kook Siddur, p. 258).

Exploring “the entire esthetic dimension” seems like a large project. But the idea that foreign languages and imagination and prophetic inspiration are somehow linked together seems worth pursuing at some point….

…Meanwhile, I suppose it’s time to move into a situation which “doesn’t know Joseph.”




The siddur text is the Koren Sacks (2009) bilingual edition, and Rav Kook’s teachings are prepared by Rabbi Bezalel Naor, who translated Kook’s 1920 Orot.

For information on the siddur itself visit Koren.

For those in/around NYC, here is a book launch on 1/7/18 at Lincoln Square Synagogue.
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Psalms 81:6-7
עֵדוּת, בִּיהוֹסֵף שָׂמוֹ
בְּצֵאתוֹ, עַל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם;
שְׂפַת לֹא-יָדַעְתִּי אֶשְׁמָע
He appointed it in Joseph for a testimony,
when He went forth against the land of Egypt.
The speech of one that I knew not did I hear:
הֲסִירוֹתִי מִסֵּבֶל שִׁכְמוֹ;
כַּפָּיו, מִדּוּד תַּעֲבֹרְנָה.
kapav mi-dud ta’avornah
‘I removed his shoulder from the burden;
his hands were freed from the basket.
— JPS 1917 translation, from Mechon-Mamre
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Beyond Bleary-Eyed Page Shuffling

Some Early Morning Blessing Resources


offered with thoughts of Temple Micah’s upcoming siddur study group
Why open a prayer book?
The Art of Blessing the Day
God’s Faith
Morning Poetry
More Links

Why open a prayer book:

“Sometimes you’re just too strung out to come up with your own personal prayers. Having the text in front of you kind of takes you by the hand and walks you over to something that matters more than whatever is getting you down.
— Jay Michaelson in Making Prayer Real by R. Mike Comins, Jewish Lights 2010 (see also Making Prayer Real website
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“The Art of Blessing the Day”

An excerpt from the eponymous 1999 book by Marge Piercy:


The blessing for the return of a favorite cat,
the blessing for love returned, for friends’
return, for money received unexpected,
the blessing for the rising of the bread,
the sun, the oppressed. I am not sentimental
about old men mumbling the Hebrew by rote
with no more feeling than one says gesundheit.

But the discipline of blessings is to taste
each moment, the bitter, the sour, the sweet
and the salty, and be glad for what does not
hurt. The art is in compressing attention
to each little and big blossom of the tree

of life, to let the tongue sing each fruit,
its savor, its aroma and its use.
— Marge Piercy. Entire poem on publisher’s page
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God’s Faith?

Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer teaches, regarding the early morning prayer, “Modah/eh ani…rabah emunatekha [Thank You, God for returning my soul to me…great is Your faith]”: What is this about God having “great faith”? Upon awakening, we note that God has just entrusted us with a new day…a whole day to help heal the world, wreak havoc in it, whatever we might choose to do with these precious hours. God is trusting us.
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