Tuesday, August 21, 2007

No hint of textual criticism of the Bible in Artscroll's siddur; Psalm 34, shabbat davening's missing (?) vav.

Alphabetical acrostics are not an uncommon form of Biblical poetry. In this form each stanza begins with a letter of the aleph beis (alphabet), either in descending or ascending order. There are many such examples, including what is perhaps the most famous one*, Psalm 145, beginning אֲרומִמְךָ אֱלוהַי הַמֶּלֶךְ. The next verse begins with a בְּכָל יום אֲבָרְכֶךָּ; ב, and then a ג and so forth. Other examples include each chapter in Lamentations.

Another example from Psalms is Psalm 34.

As it happens, sometimes these poems are imperfect. That is, the precise order of the alphabet is not completely followed (see Lamentations 4:15-17, where נ ס פ ע is the order rather than נ ס ע פ (the equivalent** of M N P O rather than M N O P in the Latin alphabet). Or an expected verse is entirely missing (see: No nun--in ashrei).

Psalm 34 is interesting because the ו vav verse seems to be missing, but as the ו is the conjuctive in Hebrew, the ה verse naturally contains a word beginning with ו.

The entire verse (Psalm 34:6 reads הִבִּיטוּ אֵלָיו וְנָהָרו וּפְנֵיהֶם אַל יֶחְפָּרוּ They looked unto Him, and were radiant; and their faces shall never be abashed (JPS 1917). I only highlighted the ו in red to show that there is a ו in this verse; if you read on it will become clear why I point this our. However, the next verse (34:7) begins with a ז zayin. Thus, either we are missing the ו or somehow, for some reason, this verse is meant to be split in half and that way nothing is missing.

That is kind of weak, because not only does it involve splitting a verse into two it also ignores the mode of poetry used in this Psalm, parallelism. As the name implies, parallelism simply means that one stanza contains an essential idea stated two different ways or that the second part completes the thought begun in the first. Thus, Psalm 34:1 begins I will bless the LORD at all times and then His praise shall continually be in my mouth. The essential idea given in two forms. The second verse begins My soul shall glory in the LORD and then it is restated as the humble shall hear thereof, and be glad and so it continues.

Although the identification of this chief form of Biblical poetry is attributed to British bishop Robert Lowth's 1753 workLectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, the phenomenon was of course noticed and remarked upon (albeit not systematically) by earlier exegetes. By the 19th century this feature was accepted as a given and it still is seen as such, although it has been subject to modification and even attack in modern scholarship. The reality of parallelism was accepted by modern Jewish exegetes, with the notable exception of Malbim. Central to his system of close reading of the Bible was the idea that there is no such thing as style choices in the language of the Bible; thus, there aren't really any synonyms--all similar words mean subtly different things. Similarly, parallelism isn't correct because the same essential idea could never be restated. That would be superfluous. Rather, a new idea is contained in what we see as restatement. Be that as it may, I think it's fair to say that even among Orthodox Jews Malbim's position about this is not regarded as authoritative and many will agree that there is parallelism in biblical poetry.

If you're still reading, then we now come to the point of this post. In the Artscroll commentary on the siddur*** we find the following comment on Psalm 34 (which is part of the liturgy for shabbos morning): "...David composed this beautiful and profound hymn. Its verses begin according to the letters of the Alef-Beis, to show that we are to praise God with our every faculty, and to acknowledge that whatever He created--from aleph to tav--is for the good."

In their commentary to the aforementioned אַשְׁרֵי prayer we find the following: "Beginning with the word אֲרומִמְךָ, the initials of the respective verses follow the order of the Aleph-Beis. According to Abudraham the Aleph-Beis structure symbolizes that we praise God with every sound available to the organs of speech. Midrash Tadshei records that the Psalmists and Sages used the Aleph-Beis formula in chapters they wanted people to follow more easily or memorize."

As noted in my Ashrei post **** the missing nun is explained as absent due to a specific reason in the Talmud; conversely, a nun verse is found in a Dead Sea Scroll psalter (perhaps an artificial one, perhaps the original one). Artscroll notes this in the commentary: "No verse in Ashrei begins with a נ, because in the context of this verse that speaks of God supporting the fallen, the letter נ can be taken as an allusion to נְפִילָה, Israel's future downfall, ח"ו, and the Psalmist refused to use a letter that could suggest such tragedy. Nevertheless, knowing that downfalls would take place, the Psalmist comforted Israel by saying God supports the fallen ones (i.e., the next verse--MFM). This is an implied guarantee that even when a dreaded downfall happens, the people can look forward to His support." Artscroll then attributes this explanation to the Talmud, Berachos 4b.

However, there is no Talmudic explanation for a missing vav verse in Psalm 34. Artscroll therefore does not mention it. In fact, Artscroll doesn't believe there is a missing vav verse. It prints this psalm the following way (I used red where bolded in their text):

אברכה את-יהוה בכל-עת; תמיד, תהלתו בפי
ביהוה, תתהלל נפשי; ישמעו ענוים וישמחו
גדלו ליהוה אתי; ונרוממה שמו יחדו
דרשתי את-יהוה וענני; ומכל-מגורותי הצילני
הביטו אליו ונהרו;
ופניהם, אל-יחפרו

זה עני קרא, ויהוה שמע; ומכל-צרותיו, הושיעו

As you can see, the editors chose to separate verse 6, הביטו אליו ונהרו; ופניהם, אל-יחפרו, into two lines--the only verse so separated--bolding the first letter of the second half of the verse, creating a vav verse, as it were. Obviously Artscroll could not go so far as to truly create a new verse, so the comma is found after the first part and a period only after the second. Technically the entirety of the verse is preserved. But now parallelism is lacking only in these two lines. And even if you choose not to accept that there is any such thing as parallelism in Biblical poetry, following Malbim, it certainly is curious that the acrostic was meant to include one complete verse as two distinct stanzas.

In my opinion the more likely explanation is that there is a vav verse missing, just as there is a nun verse missing in Ashrei. However, lacking an explanation from the Talmud Artscroll will not even draw attention to the missing vav verse! Instead, through creative formatting it appears that nothing is amiss. In the Birnbaum edition its absence is noted without ceremony, introducing neither Biblical textual criticism nor a new formatting that runs contrary to the idea of parallelism of the masoretic separation of the verses.

Paranthetically, I might add that the final verse of Psalm 34, after the ת verse, begins with a פ and may be an appendix of sorts or--and this is completely ad-hoc and discard it if you like--maybe there was some doubt as to whether this was the missing vav verse (itself missing its vav!) and was therefore appended to the end of the Psalm.

* Due to its prominence as the core of the אַשְׁרֵי prayer of the Jewish liturgy, recited three times each day.
** I don't mean a letter by letter correspondence; I simply thought that M through P provides a good English example, with some equivalence (e.g., נ and N).
*** As it happens, I've used the Artscroll Rosh Hashanah machzor, since I had it on hand. But the commentary for the parts of tefillah that are the same as the shabbos liturgy is the same here as in their siddur.
**** Interestingly enough, and I'm sure there is some reason for this, my post on the missing nun in Ashrei is probably the single most searched post I have ever done. For whatever reason a lot of people out there are looking for info about that missing nun!

EDIT: this post got lengthier than I intended, and in its wordiness I forgot to mention a point that I had planned to make; Mivami reminded me; the occasional lack of order in the alphabetical acrostics, like my example of Lamentations 4, may not be a corruption of the text. There is ample evidence (in the form of Semitic abecedaries) which indicate that at first the precise order of the Aleph Beis was not entirely stable. If so, a chapter like Lamentations 4 might have had verses in the order of נ ס פ ע rather than נ ס ע פ simply because the former was an acceptable alternative order at that time. This wouldn't be very unlike what one does with the final forms of the kaph, mem, nun, tsadei and peh letters in Hebrew. Is it appropriate to give them after the initial form or list them after the entire alphabet? The choice is entirely up to you, although conceivably in the future there will be some rigid convention which no one would dream of breaching.

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