Three 30s, One Pun

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leviticus/Vayikra chapter 4 opens with a “soul” involved in an “unintentional” “failure.” Vayikra: Language and Translation offers five translations, with their associated notes and commentaries. For anyone seeking a drash [investigation] point, this could be a good spot to begin: What might it mean for a soul to fail unintentionally? And what, if anything, can be done about it now that we have no sacrificial system?

In his “Seven Approaches,” Richard Israel warns beginners:

Unless you are basing yourself on a traditional commentator, stay away from forms like Microscope or Puzzle [language- and detail-oriented dvar Torah models] until you know enough Hebrew to be able to distinguish between a real nuance in the text and a mere idiosyncrasy of translation.

This is useful advise. But I’ll pass along one short-cut that I’ve found in discovering spots where commentators have for centuries discussed alternative meanings.
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Tetzaveh: A Path to Follow

A bell and a pomegranate: erotic poetry and bellman’s verses…

And you shall make on its hem pomegranates of indigo and purple and crimson, on its hem all around, and golden bells within them all around. A golden bell and a pomegranate [paamon zahav v’rimon], a golden bell and a pomegranate, on the hem of the robe all around [al shulei hamil saviv].

A golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate. The sheer splendor of the ornamentation is evoked in poetic incantation through the repetition of the phrase. Judah Halevi, the great medieval Hebrew poet, echoes these words in a delicate, richly sensual love poem, registering an imaginative responsiveness to the sumptuous sensuality of the language here.
— Exodus/Shemot 28:33-34, Alter**

Alter doesn’t give a citation for the “delicate, richly sensual love poem,” its name or first line. (Alas, poor footnote, I knew him well!)*

It seems likely that Alter is referencing the poem T. Carmi, The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse,** entitles “Song of Farewell” or “Why, O Fair One?”:

Mah lach, tz’viya, tim’n’i tzirayich
midor, tz’laav malui tzirayich

[Why, O fair one, do you withhold your envoys
from the lover whose heart is filled with pain of you?

lu acharei moti b’aznei yaaleh
kol pa’amon zahav alei shulayich

[Oh, after my death, let me still hear
the sound of the golden bells on the hem of your skirt]
–Judah Halevi, T. Carmi’s translation

This type of poem — using biblical imagery for human, sometimes erotic, themes — is quite different from Halevi’s religious poetry. One interesting path to follow is to read a few of Halevi’s poems — and those of his fellow medieval writers — with different subjects or aims. Consider the contrast between religious and secular uses of biblical language and images, described in Alter’s Canon and Creativity: Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture.**


Double Canonicity

Where Shall I Find You?” — one of Halevi’s religious works — references the Cherubim, for example, from the portion Terumah. This is meant to evoke God’s dwelling place and a longing for a relationship with the divine.

The poem above, on the other hand, uses imagery from the portion Tetzeveh, referencing priestly garb, but unabashedly describes human passion — “radical freedom of allusive play with the Bible” (Alter, p. 47).

Such free use of biblical language might seem blasphemous “from a doctrinal point of view,” Alter writes. “[B]ut the poet does it without compunction, for in his sense of the literary canonicity of the Bible, considerations of doctrine are suspended” (p.50). The Bible, in this view, is a “literary repository of the language of the culture” (p.48).

To read more about Hebrew poets’ varying use of biblical texts, see Canon and Creativity.

*The Bell’s Path

To follow another, somewhat diversionary, path, consider the trail of the bell itself, rather than that of the lush biblical description. Plaut** notes — in reference to Exodus/Shemot 28:34 — that bells were widely used to ward off evil. He cites James Frazer (Folklore in the Old Testament, 1919, and The Golden Bough, 1922), noting that the older work was “updated and republished in Gaster’s book.” This book, in turn —Myth, Legend and Custom in the Old Testament, by Theodor H. Gaster (NY: Harper and Row, 1969) — is listed fully in Plaut’s bibliography and cited by footnote and endnote (yeah!!).

(According to Frazer, as in the poem from Milton here quoted, bells had a prophylactic function, and hence the High Priest was to have a bell attached to his garments so that when he entered the sanctuary he would not die, 28:35)

…the bellman’s drowsy charm
To bless the doors from nightly harm. — John Milton***

What Plaut doesn’t say, but I find interesting, is that night watchmen in the 17th and 18th Centuries CE regaled their customers with rhymes designed to elicit gratuities at the Christmas holidays.

“The benediction which thus broke the stillness of the night was usually cast in a poetical form of such unparalleled atrocity that bellman’s verses have been proverbial ever since” (Frazer , p.456…through Google Books, you can read the entire chapter on “The Golden Bell,” and Frazer cites Lord Macaulay’s History of England, 1871, also available through Google, should you desire further details about bellman and their verses.)

Thus, this one pair of bible verses is associated with some of the best-loved and most reviled poetry ever.** Please see Source Materials for full citations and additional information on Torah translations and commentaries. Note: Tetzaveh is also transliterated Tetsaveh or T’tzavveh.

***Plaut doesn’t name Milton’s poem: Il Penseroso, 1633.

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The “Opening the Book” series is presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.
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Vayishlach: A Path to Follow

Twice in this portion, Jacob is told he will henceforth be called “Israel”:

“Not Jacob shall your name hence be said, but Israel, for you have striven with God and men, and won out,” Jacob is told after his wrestling match on the bank of the Jabbok river (Genesis/Breishit 32:23-31). In Genesis/Breishit 35:9-10, we read: “God appeared again to Jacob on his arrival from Paddan-aram, and He blessed him. God said to him, ‘You whose name is Jacob, You shall be called Jacob no more, But Israel shall be your name.’ Thus He named him Israel.”

In his Five Books of Moses* (2004), Robert Alter comments on this name change:

It is nevertheless noteworthy–and to my knowledge has not been noted –that the pronouncement about the new name is not completely fulfilled. Whereas Abraham is invariably called “Abraham” once the name is changed from “Abram,” the narrative continues to refer to this patriarch in most instances as “Jacob.”

This is an odd statement, given the plethora of comments — from very different views of Torah, stretching back centuries — referencing the fact that “the pronouncement about the new name is not completely fulfilled.” Here are just a few:

Jacob no more. But in fact the appellation Jacob continues at once. Critics have attempted to distinguish between an “Israel tradition” and a “Jacob tradition.” If these every existed, they have been thoroughly interwoven, and the names have now become interchangeable. — Plaut,* (1981)

Your name is Jacob. Although He was about to give Jacob the additional name of Isreal, God told him that he would continue to be called Jacob (Ramban [16th Century CE Italy]; Sforno [12th Century CE Spain]). From that time onward, the name Jacob would be used for matters pertaining to physical and mundane matters, while the name Israel would be used for matters reflecting the spiritual role of the Patriarch and his descendants (R’ Bachya [Ibn Paquda, 14th Century CE Spain]).

Although both Abraham and Jacob were given new names there is a basic difference between them, for the Talmud states that anyone who refers to Abraham as Abram is in violation of a negative commandment (Berachos 13a), whereas both names continue to be used for Jacob….

Or HaChaim [18th Century CE Italy] explains the reason for the difference. Every name in the Torah reprsents the sould that God emplaced in that person. Consequently, the name “Jacob” represents his soul, while the name “Israel” represents an enhancement of the soul, which Jacob earned by growing and transcending the mission signified by the original name…. — Stone,* (1993)

Alter does elaborate a bit differently (although I’m not sure that it’s a unique perspective):

Thus, “Israel” does not really replace his name but becomes a synonym for it — a practice reflected in the parallelism of biblical poetry, where “Jacob” is always used in the first half of the line and “Israel,” the poetic variation, in the second half.

For more on this rich path, here are just two of the many further avenues to explore: Shefa Gold’s Torah Journey, including a personal spiritual practice, for this portion and/or a discussion of universalism versus nationalism based on the work of
Rav Kook (1865-1935).

*See Source Materials for Torah commentary citations and further details.

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Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.
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