This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Poetry in Motion*

Jewish scholarship is justly famous for the rich tradition of biblical exegesis that it has spawned, a natural outgrowth of its intense commitment to the Bible, and especially to the Torah. Many of us are familiar, to varying degrees, with the learned interpretations by the ancient sages of the Midrash, by Rashi, and by other prominent commentators who contributed significantly to our understanding and appreciation of the Hebrew scriptures.

A lesser known resource for Jewish biblical interpretation is the genre of liturgical poetry--piyyut--that played a central role in the congregational worship of many early Jewish communities. Especially in those rites that followed the practices of the land of Israel, the foremost cantors were also talented lyricists who were capable of crafting intricate versions of the Sabbath or festival prayers that blended the standard prayers with the specific themes of the designated biblical texts. The authors of piyyut literature often drew inspiration from associations with similar-sounding phrases that appear elsewhere in the Bible. Their sensitivity to the patterns and cadences of the Hebrew words led them at times to suggest uniquely nuanced possibilities of interpretation.

A case in point is the following example, taken from a poetic version of the Shavu'ot prayers. The identity of this piyyut's author is unknown, but all the indications suggest that he belonged to the earlier generations of synagogal poets.

As is appropriate for a Shavu'ot poem, this one focuses on one of the proudest moments in biblical history as recollected by Jewish posterity: the occasion when Moses read the freshly revealed Torah to the people, and they eagerly responded with the words Na'aseh ve-Nishma'--we shall do and we shall hear (Exodus 24:7).

The Jewish homiletical tradition regarded that simple response as the quintessential expression of devout faith, a demonstration that the Hebrews were willing to commit to doing the demands of their covenant with the Almighty even before hearing the details of its contents.

To judge from some anecdotes preserved in rabbinic literature, this episode provided some skeptics with a convenient opportunity to ridicule Jews who were excessively demonstrative or irrational about their spirituality. Thus, the Talmud tells that Rava used to get so absorbed in his studies that he would grind his fingers under his feet until they bled. This prompted a certain heretic to scornfully taunt the Jewish sage saying You Jews are an impulsive people whose mouths ran ahead of your ears! Even now you persist in your irrational behaviour. It would have made more sense to have listened first; and only after determining whether you were capable of handling it, then accepting the Torah. An identical response was provoked from a heretic (presumably a different one) who witnessed Rav Zera hurriedly using a makeshift rope bridge to cross a river on his way to the land of Israel because he was too impatient to wait for a proper ferry.

Predictably, the anonymous author of our piyyut had nothing but praise for the Israelites' leap of faith at Sinai. As he put it, their words 'we shall do and we shall hear' were most pleasing to the Holy One. He went on to demonstrate that their response had reverberations of cosmic proportions.

This insight was revealed with the help of a word-play, always a fruitful source of inspiration for Hebrew liturgical poets. The words we shall do evoked a similar expression that was used in connection with the origin of humanity back in the first chapter of Genesis, when the Almighty introduced the creation of the first human with the declaration Let us make man in our likeness. The Hebrew text there employed the same word Na'asah that was uttered by the Israelites upon receiving the Torah.

The plural form of that verb has been a persistant source of perplexity for Jewish interpreters and apologists, since it seems to imply that the Creator had a partner when he fashioned the first humans. So disconcerting was the expression that talmudic tradition imagined that, when seventy Jewish sages were commissioned to translate the Torah into Greek for the emperor Ptolemy in Alexandria, they deliberately sidestepped a literal rendering of that verb, presenting it instead as a singular I shall make so as not to provide a pretext for heretics to question the Torah's commitment to monotheism. In reality, the Greek Septuagint version did retain the plural form; to the irritation of Jews, the verse is still cited as a proof text for trinitarian theological doctrines.

The rabbis offered their own interpretations of the plural usage. One of the more popular of these was that God, prior to this climax of the creation process, consulted with the angels, if only to serve as a lesson to us fallible mortals about how wise it is to seek advice before commencing an important undertaking. This approach would later be adapted by the Gnostics to prove that our flawed world was the product of imperfect angels, and not of the supreme deity.

Our poem paraphrased the rabbinic explanation in a question-and-answer format, as if a pupil were asking his teacher whom it was that God was addressing when he declared his intention to create a human being. To this the teacher retorted by urging the student to seek the correct answer in the words of the Jewish sages, that the Holy One was conversing with the angels.

By building this textual bridge between the two instances of Na'aseh--in the creation story and at Sinai--the poet has underscored his penetrating theological insight that God's ultimate motive for creating our species was to bestow the Torah upon us. Accordingly, the revelation at Mount Sinai is to be seen as the true culmination of the creation. When they are allowed to illuminate each other, those two passages that would otherwise have been fraught with theological difficulties are transformed into powerful arguments for the centrality of the Torah to the divine purpose.

Our poet followed a similar method to elicit profound new meaning from the Nishma' (we shall hear) portion of the Israelite response at Sinai, this time by reading in conjunction with what is arguably the Torah's most famous allusion to hearing, the Shema': Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord (Deuteronomy 6). From this comparison we are led to conclude that when Jewish worshippers proclaim twice daily their exclusive devotion to the one Sovereign of the universe by reciting the Shema', they are fulfilling the commitment that they undertook at Sinai to hear and obey the divine covenant.

The sensitive ear of the poet, by allowing the sounds of similar Hebrew expressions to resonate against each other, has succeeded in mapping out a spiritual trajectory that spans from the dawn of human history, through the revelation at Mount Sinai, to the achievement its true fulfilment in Israel's daily rededication to the oneness of God.

This article and many others are now included in the book

For Signs and for Seasons
For Signs and for Seasons

published by

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: