Torah as Song

“Now therefore write down for yourselves this song [shirah], and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be my witness … for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed”  Deutoronomy 31:19-21

“Sing every day, sing every day,” – Rabbi Akiva quoted in Sanhedrin (99a)

The first letters of the Torah when rearranged say שיר תאו  [‘shir ta’ev’] “A song of desire.” – Attributed to R. Isaac Luria


When great poems get canonized in anthologies for college courses, they usually come thick with stuff that is supposed to help the student: short introductions, footnotes, annotations, guides, accent marks. They disambiguate inscrutable lines, point out cross-references and themes within the poem, and note the allusions to other texts and events that make the poem otherwise impenetrable. But the very density of these aids may have the opposite effect on the poor student. It also says, There’s even more of this out there. You gotta be a pro to really get it. Maybe that’s why most people can go very merrily through their whole lives without reading another poem after graduating high school.

The Torah is also like this. The newbie coming on the scene of the Jewish interpretive tradition stares down 73 volumes of the Schottenstein Talmud and millions of pages of other commentaries. Where do you begin? How can any human scale the mountain of interpretation?

But what if we approach the Torah, that densest of texts, like music? What if we treat it not first and foremost as a history of the birth of a nation or as a collection of dos and don’ts, or not even an elaborate assemblage of narratives, myths, and laws in prose, but rather as one very long song? And what if it even tells us so itself, I’m a song. Write me down and sing me through all your generations? Our assignment, to achieve enlightenment, becomes easier, less discouraging, and even joyful. Continue reading “Torah as Song”

Hearing vs Reading the Bible

The play between orality and literacy in Jethro

When did the Israelites become literate?

If you piece the clues together, the Torah tells us pretty clearly that Moses received the alphabet from God on Sinai.  It happens during the same sequence of revelations that begin with the burning bush and the revelation of God’s Name during their first encounter. God tells Moses to return to Egypt and instruct the elders of Israel in “the signs” or “ the letters” that God shows him.  Moses quails at his assignment.

But don’t worry, God reassures him, “If they don’t heed the voice of the first sign, they will listen to the voice of the last sign.”

The Aleph Tav
The first and last signs in Hebrew.

The first and last signs might refer to the silent conjuror’s tricks that God has just shown Moses:  a rod turns into a snake and Moses’ hand turns leprous and back again.

But more sensibly, the “voice of the signs” refers to  the core breakthrough that made the phonetic alphabet a monumentally disruptive invention: signs, instead of being pictures for words as in hieroglyphics, are instructions for the voice to make sounds, like musical notes. The first and last symbols refer to the aleph and the tav, the beginning, the whole of this new invention.  God is telling Moses: show the Israelites back in Egypt this new explosive technology, these letters, and with them you shall set them free. Continue reading “Hearing vs Reading the Bible”

Literature, Letterature, Liturgy

When the Hebrew Bible was first transcribed, the Jews used the newly-invented alphabet to write it. No matter whether you believe it was simply the Ten Commandments or the entire Five Books written in fire on stone by the Finger of God that Moses brought down from Sinai, or even if its core was fabricated by a bunch of authors in the 13th-8th centuries BCE, the medium must have been the alphabet.

Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 6.20.09 PMEarliest archeological evidence, like the stone idol from Serabit el-Khadem, places the origin of the alphabet in the South Sinai (!) about sixty miles north of Mount Sinai, around the 15th-14th C BCE (!), just when tradition places the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt.

Hebrew for about four centuries after remained a primitive alphabet, lacking vowels, or spaces between words, or punctuation of any kind. It was scrawled boustrophedon – as the ox plows the field – that is, left to right until the end of the line, then right to left, and so on.

In short, the Torah that Moses brought to the Children of Israel was one long, breathless, written word. It awaited an oral enunciation to  place the cuts between words and determine their meaning.

To quickly illustrate this, how would you read the following letters?


It would take some puzzling and context and familiarity to recognize this as

“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”

But lacking complete authority and assurance – nothing short of playing telepathy with the author – any reading would admit of several competing interpretations, including some that may seem at first nonsensical but may hide lurking messages if you stare at them too long:

In the big, no-nagged court doth have nine, death, or thee.

Hebrew readers to this day read texts without vowels and have to disambiguate individual words either by familiarity, or context, or memorizing them with the aid of another text with vowels. Consider the word in Hebrew דבר – DBR.  The consonants could mean dvar (word), dever (plague), davar (thing), daber (speak), dibbur (speech), and others besides.

In short, individual words in Hebrew invite – even demand – that the reader play this puzzling game. This is the sort of game literature students encounter when they have to interpret opaque or dense poetry (John Donne’s works are my favorite) or literature filled with word play and deliberate punning, like Joyce’s Ulysses.


But because Hebrew words lack vowels, they are something denser. Let’s call them not -yet-words. Words are instructions for speech like musical notes, cues for sound. Consonants are the hard sounds stuck in the mouth that await the explosive of a vowel to be pronounced. Try to pronounce ‘T’. All you have is the instruction for placing the tongue at the top of the mouth, behind the upper teeth, waiting for a vowel for it to burst forth.

All words in Hebrew without vowels are to some extent not-yet-words, lambent with meanings that are always becoming, emergent, not-yet-utterable. If so, then all Hebrew texts written without vowels – even a grocery list (see A Canticle for Liebowitz, for instance) – are a form of literarature, one might even say poetry: difficult, opaque, demanding interpretations.

Compared to the ideal of clarity we inherited from the Greeks, who perfected the alphabet by adding vowels, Hebrew without vowels is a hopeless muddle. The eminent Yale scholar of the transition from orality to literacy in ancient Greece, Eric Havelock, declared that the ancient Hebrews could not hope to create a true (read “Greek”) literature. His libel was meant to be huffy Brit prejudice, but he was right, though for the wrong reasons. He assumed that the primitiveness of the Hebrew mind, its theocratic social organization, and the impoverishment of its alphabetic script, could not conceive the elevated thinking, clarity, and expressiveness of classical Greek.

On the contrary. The essence of the early Hebrew script generates complexity, the play of multiple meanings, divine punning. Hebrew is already a form of high literature, inviting interpretation of almost every word. Indeed, the question What is literary? makes no sense as we try to apply a Greek understanding to a Hebrew communications technology and textuality. We need a whole new word for the kind of discourse engendered by these letters which form words that are never-quite-words.

Letterature… and prayer

In reading Hebrew, I propose that we are perpetually reading a kind of letterature. Sense is suspended between our decoding of the letter and our reading of the word. We shuttle back and forth in interpretive tension attempting, often vainly, to be sure of the intended meaning. This is really literary reading tending not towards clarity but dyslexia. As Amos Oz quipped, “There is no word in Hebrew for fiction.” I think he meant because anything written in Hebrew comes with this fictive suspense always already lambent in the very medium – a defective script missing vowels.

Perhaps we can extend this lesson of reading in Hebrew to an aspect of all reading. The truth value of any text is suspended between the ever-threatening catastrophe of  ever-promulgating interpretations that at the first reading defeats the illusion of telepathy – clearly understanding what’s in the Mind of the Author, but at another opens hailing frequencies to a very animated and dynamic metaphysical and cognitive plane.

I don’t know about how you take your literature (or should I say, how your literature takes you), but this sure feels how I take and am seized by mine, in all its debilitating pleasure and transporting joy. A good poem or a dense novel exiles us for a time to an inward realm. We read and get lost somewhere in the wilderness between multiple competing possibles and mutually-enriching meanings. If we linger there long enough and if we climb the mountain, then perhaps revelation will come.

Reading Hebrew thus becomes the Ur-type of literary reading: a devotional, a form of prayer, and the engagement with its letterature a form of liturgy.