As the story is told in the Bible, the Philistines in the days of the Prophet Samuel thought they were neutralizing Israel’s most effective secret weapon when they captured the ark of the covenant that housed the original tablets of the ten commandments. However, when (not heeding the lessons of Indiana Jones) they found themselves cursed with a plague of tumors, rats, and maybe hemorrhoids, they decided to send the ark back to the Israelites. They placed it on a cart pulled by two milk-cows; and in order to test whether the process was truly being guided by the Hebrew God, they stood watch to observe whether the cows would steer a direct homeward course—and this was indeed what occurred.
According to traditions preserved in the works of Josephus Flavius and the pseudepigraphic “Biblical Antiquities” ascribed to Philo of Alexandria, the cows were placed at the intersection of three roads so that the Philistines could observe whether the heavenly GPS system would animals would direct them to the correct path toward Judea,
Not content with the impressive miracle that was described explicitly in the biblical tale, several rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash looked for allusions to additional layers of supernatural involvement. They read the Hebrew verb “vayyisharnah” [= they went straight] as if it were from a similar root meaning “they sang,” and this conjured up for them an image of cows singing the praises of the Lord as they pulled the holiest of objects on its way to its real home in the sanctuary of the Lord.
But what does a cow sing while hauling a sacred ark? A diverse roster of sages spanning several generations of the talmudic era, in both the land of Israel and Babylonia, identified appropriate passages from Psalms and other scriptural texts as the bovine librettos. The suggestions included the song that Moses and the Israelites intoned after the splitting of the Red Sea, as well as uplifting thanksgiving hymns like “Sing to the Lord a new song,” “The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad,” “Sing to the Lord, all the earth, “The Lord reigns, let the nations tremble,” or “Give thanks unto the Lord, call upon his name.”
The Talmud’s playlist also included one selection of lyrics that were not quoted from a biblical source. It was ascribed to the Galilean sage Rabbi Isaac Nappaḥa; and a virtually identical tradition appears in the MIdrash Genesis Rabbah in the name of Elijah—presumably, the famous prophet himself. Elijah makes occasional appearances in rabbinic literature in his role as a figure who divided his time between the “heavenly academy” and periodic visits with worthy rabbis on earth. The current passage evidently belongs to a body of traditions known as “Tanna de-Bei Eliyahu,” some of which are cited in midrashic and talmudic literature, and which formed the basis for a remarkable and enigmatic homiletic compendium that was probably compiled around the tenth century.
The song of the cows, as reported by Rabbi Isaac Nappaḥa or Elijah, went as follows:
Exalt, exalt, acacia!
Stretch forth in the fulness of thy majesty,
girdled in golden embroidery,
praised in the recesses of the palace,
resplendent in the finest of ornaments.
And if that sounds to you like an obscure mishmash of cryptic verbiage, then we must bear in mind that this song followed the conventions of classical Hebrew liturgical poetry (piyyuṭ). A standard feature of that genre was that fundamental concepts and persons are never named directly, but only hinted at through the use of indirect expressions taken from biblical usage. Thus, in the current example, the mentions of acacia and gold serve as poetic code-words that are supposed to evoke the instructions in the book of Exodus: “they shall make an ark of acacia wood... and thou shalt overlay it with pure gold, within and without shalt thou overlay it, and shalt make upon it a crown of gold round about.”
The passage about the singing cows played a significant part in tracing the historical development of Jewish mystical schools. One of those schools, known as “Heikhalot” is known from texts that describe mystical ascents through a hierarchy of “palaces” and culminate in a sublime vision of the throne of God as it is borne on an chariot made up of angels. The authors and students of the Heikhalot texts claimed that the mystical disciplines described in them were the same ones that were practiced by the rabbis of the talmudic era. However, because the ancient sages maintained a high degree of reticence regarding this esoteric lore, we possess little explicit testimony about the matter.
Our knowledge of the Heikhalot school and its teachings derives only from documents that stem from the medieval era (though the texts are fictitiously ascribed to ancient rabbis). The normal scholarly policy for determining the dates for such traditions is to exercise maximal skepticism, which would lead, in this case, to the assumption that, until proven otherwise, the phenomenon of Heikhalot mysticism did not exist prior to the medieval documents in which it was recorded.
It turns out, however, that the “acacia” song ascribed to the bovine choir in the Talmud and Midrash bears an extraordinary resemblance to the hymns sung by angelic beings in the Hekhalot literature. The similarity extends to numerous literary qualities of the respective creations, including their vocabulary, their exalted style, and their poetic rhythm.
In light of this extraordinary resemblance, it has been argued that Rabbi Isaac Nappaḥa or Elijah expected their audience to make the thematic association with the mystical Hekhalot hymns. If that is indeed true, then the mystical traditions of the Heikhalot must have been in existence centuries earlier than previously thought—at least as early as the late third century, during the generation of Rabbi Isaac Nappaḥa.
In fact, the placing of a mystical hymn in the mouths of cattle would fit nicely with the central imagery of rabbinic mysticism, which is based largely on Ezekiel’s portrayal of the divine Chariot, drawn by inscrutable “holy living creatures.” Understood from this perspective, the cows who pulled the ark of the covenant—even though they had ostensibly been provided by the heathen Philistines—were mirroring the celestial creatures of the heavenly entourage.
And yet not all the rabbis were comfortable with the notion of singing cows. The great Babylonian sage Rav Ashi insisted that Rabbi Isaac’s hymn had nothing to do with the return of the ark from the Philistines; rather it had been chanted by the (humans) Israelites in connection with a different biblical passage about the ark of the covenant, as described in the book of Numbers: “And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moses said, Rise up, Lord, and let thine enemies be scattered”—the verse that we still sing when removing the Torah scrolls from the synagogue ark.
We may speculate that Rav Ashi was uneasy with an approach that credulously accepted the existence of singing animals, and that it was for this reason that he chose instead to attach the whole discussion to a different (but comparable) context, the travels of the ark through the wilderness during the time of Moses.
Although the wondrous vision of musical cattle seems to have been accepted almost routinely by most of the rabbis who contributed to the discussions, we do find one expression of sheer amazement at the idea—perhaps uttered from the perspective of someone who was personally conversant with the pitfalls of teaching choirs to sing harmoniously.
Thus, Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman addressed the talented cows in wide-eyed admiration and compared them favourably to the Levites who sang in the Temple choirs: “How much toil did the son of Amram [i.e., Moses] need to expend before he could teach the Levites how to sing—and yet you are able to intone the song all by yourselves! Bravo!”