What a commentary means

We read Ecclesiastes (Koheles) this past Shabbos. Some read it (or heard it read) in a synagogue, others read it out loud to a two-year-old while she ran around the house babbling to herself. To each their own.

I read it from the Biblica Hebraica Stuttgartensia. When I'm studying part of the Tanakh which I find obscure, or full of impenetrable vocabulary, I often go to the BHS to find which variations in the Masoretic texts might explain a difficult word. This is one difference between, say, BHS and the traditional commentators. The latter explain why the text is the way it is. Historical-critical study of the Bible, on the other hand, often tries to suggest enmendations which help make better sense of the text. (The two sorts of commentary overlap, of course -- traditional commentators often suggest enmendations, though in a different language than modern critics; and Biblical critics for their part often use a literary approach which owes a lot to their traditional forerunners.) To put it very broadly: the BHS is critical while traditional commentary is aesthetic.

But is this really the case? Any resolution suggested by the BHS to a difficulty it points out must be judged on an individual basis. Some of these suggestions (based on alternative manuscripts and words in Akkadian) I can nod my head at and understand passively, but can't criticize with a firm base of knowledge, since Biblical criticism isn't my day (or night) job. On the other hand, when BHS makes a suggestion about the plausibility of one reading over another, I can say yea or nay more confidently. Then we're in the realm of aesthetics, where I feel more equipped with appropriate criteria.

In Ecclesiastes 1:15 it's said (King James translation) "That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered." In the original: מעות לא־יוכל לתקן וחסרון לא־יוכל להמנות. On the last word (le-himonoys), which means "to be numbered," BHS says: "prp להמלות (cf bBer 16b)". In BHSese, this means "It has been proposed that the alternative reading "cannot be replenished" is more plausible; compare the reference in the Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 16b."

Now, once there, you won't find any reference to Ecclesiastes. This is what you'll find (from an on-line version of the Soncino translation):

WHEN TABI HIS SLAVE DIED etc. Our Rabbis taught: For male and female slaves no row [of comforters] is formed, nor is the blessing of mourners said, nor is condolence offered. When the bondwoman of R. Eliezer died, his disciples went in to condole with him. When he saw them he went up to an upper chamber, but they went up after him. He then went into an ante-room and they followed him there. He then went into the dining hall and they followed him there. He said to them: I thought that you would be scalded with warm water; I see you are not scalded even with boiling hot water. Have I not taught you that a row of comforters is not made for male and female slaves, and that a blessing of mourners is not said for them, nor is condolence offered for them? What then do they say for them? The same as they say to a man for his ox and his ass: 'May the Almighty replenish your loss'. So for his male and female slave they say to him: 'May the Almighty replenish your loss'. It has been taught elsewhere: For male and female slaves no funeral oration is said. R. Jose said: If he was a good slave, they can say over him, Alas for a good and faithful man, who worked for his living! They said to him: If you do that, what do you leave for

The Hebrew of the relevant phrase above ("May the Almighty replenish your loss") is המקום ימלא חסרונך, where the noun for "loss" is the same as that in the Ecclesiastes verse, and the verb is the same as the one suggested by the BHS enmendation.

The question is: what criteria would one use to accept or reject this suggestion? The Talmud was not composed at the same time as Koheles, so what is the reference to the Talmudic tractate meant to show? We know that lashon mikra (the language of the Tanakh) and lashon Chazal (the language of the Talmud and associated texts) are not at all the same.

Perhaps the reference is merely meant to show that the phrase "חסרונות . . . להמלות" is plausible -- i.e. that it makes aesthetic sense. And in that sense, I'm convinced.


Giggle-inducing machzor translations
Grand Prize.

A gut kvitl!

(Meaning: I hope your happiness, prosperity, and general bounty of Divine providence, signed and sealed upstairs this past Yom Kippur, are efficiently processed by the Upper Yeshiva's bureaucracy and legislated into law come Hoshannah Rabbah.)

I just wanted to comment on how unfortunate it is that the worst poem ever and the worst ever rhyming couplet (below) are both in machzorim of the Conservative movement.

Please turn to page 351 in your gray machzor:
Bandits have pursued me, fast and fleet
But none pursue me faster than my own feet.

A close second place (not a couplet, but would you really want a second line to this baby?):
My soul, my heart, and every inward part . . .


A happy, doubtful New Year from Katle Kanye
Saith the Yiddish blogmaster [my translation; read the whole post!]:

I don't have any answers [to these doubts], and I won't find any answer during the many holidays whose threshhold we're on now. On the first day of Selichot I hopped up on the wagon, and I'm riding until the end of Simchat Torah. Not because I want something, and not because I'm afraid that if I don't I stand to lose something. I can't say that I'm a willing passenger, but my fate is to go along for the ride. I won't justify it to myself by saying that it's the right path, but I'm still not jumping off. This is my portion from all my labors -- to look on as my traveling companions drag big bags of the four species and whole sukkahs, seeing only what's going on in the wagon, and I'm traveling lightweight and keep wanting to look out the window. I want to see who's pulling the wagon and who's driving the horses, and they just want to open their baggage, because they're so sure that the wagon will keep on going whatever happens. Will I stay till the end of the trip? For now I'm just happy that I'm not being thrown off.


Get up!
Stand up for your rites.

MEDICINE MENSCH: Resetting the Spiritual Clock
By Zackary Sholem Berger
October 7, 2005

I've been getting up at five in the morning for the past two months. It would be nice if this new schedule granted me some insight into the human condition or the plight of the sick, but my observations are on a smaller scale.

A lot more people than you might think are up that early. On the way from my apartment building on the Lower East Side to my bus stop there's an unsavory-looking building that is shuttered during the day. When I stumble by at 5:45 in the morning, there's an improbably well-organized fruit stand out front, tables of oranges, apples and bananas under the streetlamps. The fruit seller is always wearing a T-shirt and shorts, no matter the weather. I say good morning to him, and to the MTA bus driver, but maybe it's the wrong thing to say — these people have been up for hours already and probably are ready to go to bed after their shift switch. "Sleep well" might be more appropriate. ("Sleep well" is something you never say to a medical resident, unless you're trying to taunt him.)

All the people getting to work at this hour can be divided into different subgroups, the most obvious being the 6 a.m. cell-phone talkers. (Who are they talking to? Other 6 a.m. cell-phone talkers, I guess.) There are those plugged into their iPods, the nurses chatting and joking away in friendly groups, and solidly built men in leather jackets carefully avoiding eye contact. Then there's the group of eccentrics you always find in the city: people mumbling to themselves.

I'm among the mumblers. According to Jewish law, there are times in the very early morning when it's just too early to daven. I can say certain prayers when I'm at home, certain prayers on the bus (when it's already slightly later, and the sun is scrambling into place) and certain other prayers in the chapel tucked away in one of the corners of the cavernous Long Island hospital where I'm now stationed. My davening is fragmented, and my morning feels that way too — something I start assembling at 5 a.m. and piece together, hour by hour, until I arrive at my destination and start my work day more or less a whole person.

The best way to describe davening, or, more universally, prayer, to those who don't generally engage in it is to say that it's a systematic stock-taking. Residents do this every day, when they visit their patients before they're expected to present them to the entire team. They pre-round, or round before rounding, making sure they're informed about what happened to their patients overnight and what these patients need during the new day.

More often than not, my mind drifts during davening, like someone walking down the street on the way to a familiar destination. I think about my day's responsibilities, what I'm going to eat for lunch, what I need to study. I manage to reduce thousands of years of stirring liturgical yearnings to a shopping list.

Then once in a while — or, more precisely, once a year — I start trying to pay attention to davening again, in the religious equivalent of getting up at five in the morning to go to work. A week or so before the High Holy Days, Jews begin to gather at ungodly hours to recite Selichot, impassioned vows of contrition and pleas for mercy on the part of the Almighty. The irony is that this liturgy is based on the piyyut, a medieval poetic form distinguished by its labyrinthine syntax and obscure biblical references. What happens, then, is this: A dozen or so half-asleep Jews mumble incomprehensible prayers with less than notable fervor, though in every minyan there's always the exception who makes a point of clenching his fists, staring at the ceiling and making other signs of overt piety. So what's the point of the poems? There might be one Jew in 50 who understands their content (English translations like Artscroll try their best, but end up sounding like a Brooklyn-accented imitation of "Masterpiece Theater").

But in this area (as in a number of others), it's not the content but the form that's important. Getting up early shocks the internal clock into a new and unfamiliar time zone. For the medical student, it takes this shock to move from everyday pursuits into the uncomfortable, cold and early-rising world of the hospital. You have to learn to pay attention to both your patients and the clock. For the Jew entering into a new year, getting up early can help realize the famous challenge of the shofar (as Maimonides understands it): "Wake up from your sleep!" Get up early to shock yourself into the new year. Get up early, or you might miss the shofar. And if you mumble your first prayers while you're still half asleep, you'll be perfectly understood not only by God, but by any medical student.

Zackary Sholem Berger hopes that in 5766 you never have to see the inside of a hospital — unless you work in one.


שמע קולנו

Hear our voice
but ensure us choice.

Burn evil from the earth
not error or accidents of birth.

With Your gall
tincture our will with shall.

כתיבה וחתימה טובה!
Leshone toyve -- Happy New Year to everyone.