This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Flowery Language*

According to a recent news report, it will now be standard practice in Texas maternity wards to expose the newborns and yet-to-be-borns to strains of classical music.

This interesting development is consistent with a growing conviction in our culture that sound and music can have far-reaching effects upon the development of plants and animals.

It is possible that a smilar belief was shared by some of the ancient Jewish sages.

To cite one example, the Talmud (in a passage that is also included in the daily prayers) provides the following intriguing detail pertaining to the preparation of incense for the Jerusalem Temple: "While it is being pounded, he calls out 'well crush, crush well.'" [hetev hadek hadek hetev].

The commentators appear to disagree about who exactly is doing the calling: Is it (as understood by Maimonides) the person who is pounding the ingredients, or his supervisor (as implied by Rashi)? In either case, the need for such a litany is far from some obvious. It hardly seems likely that, in the absence of continuous nagging, the person stands in danger of forgetting to grind the spices to their requisite fineness.

At first glance, we might suppose that the advantage of reciting a rhythmically repetitive formula lies in the fact that it helps the pounder chop the chunks into evenly sized grains.

The Talmud, however, suggests that it is really the sound of the voice itself that is beneficial to the spices.

Rabbi Yohanan contrasted the case of pounding spices with the procedures for preparing wine for libations in the Temple. According to the Mishnah, as wine was being tested from a new cask, the Temple treasurer would sit beside the wine-tester, clutching a reed or straw in his hand. If froth started to issue from the cask, indicating that the wine was not of satisfactory quality, the treasurer would tap the cask with his straw as a signal that the tester should immediately seal the cask.

The Talmud inquired why there was need for this roundabout signal, when it would have been much simpler for the treasurer simply to tell the tester to close the cask.

The reason, it concludes, is that the human voice was considered harmful to the wine.

Indeed, concludes Rabbi Yohanah, "just as speech is beneficial for spices, so is it injurious to wine."

The comparison between the incense and wine suggests strongly that in both cases the results are achieved by the sound of the voice itself.

In fact, the spices were improved not only by human voices, but by other sounds as well. The Talmud tells us that "there was a mortar in the Temple made of bronze, which dated back to the days of Moses. In it they would mix the spices. It happened once that the mortar became damaged, so they brought in craftsmen from Alexandria, Egypt. The craftsmen repaired it, but it would not mix as well as it had previously. They undid the repair, and then it mixed as well as before."

In explaining the nature of the damage that had befallen the mortar, Rashi wrote that in its original state, the mortar had produced a clear sound, which was capable of nicely fattening up the spices, and enhancing their aroma. When the Alexandrian craftsmen patched the metal, it became thicker and altered the tone of its vibration, a change that had detrimental effects on the spices.

In support of his interpretation, Rashi alluded to the importance of chanting "well crush, crush well" while pounding the spices.

As in our own scientific community, there may have been some individuals who remained skeptical about the benefits that should be ascribed to voices and sounds.

Thus, in Maimonides' code of Jewish religious law we find an otherwise complete paraphrase of the Talmudic procedures for preparing the incense spices, except that it leaves out the Talmud's rationale that "the voice is beneficial to the spices." I cannot escape the suspicion that Maimonides, who was also a prominent physician and scientist, was not entirely won over by the Talmud's claims.

I too find myself somewhat perplexed by the whole question. I think I'll have a serious discussion about the matter with my avocado plant.

This article and many others are now included in the book

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University of Calgary Press

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressOctober 7 1999, p. 8 (as "The power of the human voice")

  • Bibliography:
    • Brand, Yehoshua. Ceramics in Talmudic LIterature. Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1953.
    • Feliks, Yehuda. Trees: Aromatic, Ornamental, and of the Forest, in the Bible and Rabbinic Literature. Jerusalem: Rubin Mass Press, 1997.