Shavuot and Akdamut: Lessons of NonLiteral Onkelos

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Welcome to a special Shavu’ot edition of “Lessons of NonLIteral Onkelos.” Since those of us stuck in the exile (parenthetically, I feel compelled to say, this is the first Shavu’ot in my lifetime it was technically almost impossible for me to get to Israel for the holiday; I haven’t in fact spent that many holidays of Shavu’ot in Israel, but I find myself more upset than usual, because this year I largely couldn’t. Unless Hashem releases us even more quickly than it currently seems, because we should continue to remind ourselves, Yeshu’at Hashem ke-heref ayin, the salvation of the Lord can come in the blink of an eye)

As I was saying, those of us exiled for Shavu’ot will have a 2 day Yom Tov, the second day the Shabbat our brethren in Israel will read Parashat Naso (with a minyan, many of them; how fortunate are they, and we hope for them they follow the rules well enough for authorities and the Authority to continue allowing minyanim permanently!). Because we will not read a regular Torah portion, I thought to look at Akdamut, the Aramaic poem written by R. Meir b. R. Yitzhak, Shaliah Tzibbur, a rough contemporary of Rashi’s, which we say before the Torah reading on the first day of Shavu’ot.

There was a time when it was read after the person called up for the first reading portion made the berakhah, but the halakhic problems with that arrangement eventually led to calling up the kohen, and then reading Akdamut. As I have been doing with the Torah, I purchased an ArtScroll version of Akdamut, to have a quick foil off which to work, someone who did a lot more research than I was going to, who can give me information to which I can react (and I need the ArtScroll Bamidbar soon, because I write the next week’s portion a week ahead, to be able to send it out on Sunday!).

Early on, the author writes be-bavei trei u-telat, with two or three sections (to the poem); R. Salamon quotes T’yul B’gan (while there is a bibliography in the back of the volume, it does not identify the authors of this or the other commentaries I saw), who suggested “two and three” meant the two main sections and three subsections he had identified in the work.

Yad Aharon, which R. Salamon calls the “most complete and comprehensive” commentary on Akdamut gives a different explanation for “two and three,” but T’yul B’Gan’s version allows me an easy way to find five passages to present, one from each of the sections he identified.

The Greatness of the Creator

Verses 5-14 (that’s what he calls them; to me, verses are only in Scripture, but he did the hard work, so it’s his party) are about Hashem’s greatness. Verse five closes ve-la sipek perishuta, Hashem is beyond description. The next three give a metaphor that appears several other times in rabbinic literature.

(As the notes say, in Shabbat 11a, Shir Ha-Shirim Rabbah 1;20, Avot de-Rabbi Natan 1;20, Soferim 16;6, and more. I think it’s worth remembering R. Salomon wrote this in 1978, before the Bar-Ilan existed, when he had to find other ways to track down these citations. As we re-meet the Torah this Shavu’ot, I am again relieved and re-gladdened I live now, because my Torah learning has been eased in ways that particularly address weaknesses of mine. No way would I have been one to track down all those, and I would have been the poorer for it.)

The metaphor as presented in Akdamut is of the skies being parchment, the forests being quills (for the young, those were early pens, dipped into ink repeatedly, in a time before pens could hold ink), the seas the ink, all people the scribes, writing only chapter headings, would still not be able to complete the praises of Gd.

Here, it works as a poetic expression of Gd’s greatness. Three of the other times it is used, rabbis (R. Yohanan b. Zakkai. R. Eliezer, and R. Yehoshu’a) use the same metaphor to say how impossible it would be to write down all the Torah they had learned, yet they had only dipped into what their teachers knew (or, for R. Yehoshu’a, had only dipped into the vastness of Torah). In Shabbat, Rabbah bar Mehasya in the name of R. Hama bar Gurya in the name of Rav uses the same idea to speak of the complexities of running a government.

I am stimulated by the idea of the entire universe being used as ways to record wisdom (I have a personal theory about junk DNA being the book in which Avot says all our actions are written, because R. Yosef Ya’avetz thought the “book” was our soul, but that’s for another time). Beyond that, the use of the metaphor sort of links three disparate phenomena, praise of Gd, Torah, and how to run societies well.

I wonder whether each of the latter two qualifies as among the highest praises of Gd, Torah for obvious reasons, running a society well because to do so involves understanding the world Gd created, and the workings of people, neither easy, taking much study, judicious thought, and wise action. I also think the poem’s using a well-known metaphor for the vastness of Torah study about Gd fits Shavu’ot well, when we focus on Torah study in particular as a vehicle of service of Gd.

The Jewish People’s Virtue in the Face of Oppression

R. Salamon says verses 31-52 address the second major theme of the poem, the Jewish people’s virtue. Verse 36 saysTzelotehon be-khen mekkabel, their (the Jewish people’s) prayers He therefore hears, a continuation of the previous verse,de-yil’un be-la’uta, they labor in study of Torah. R. Salamon quotes Yad Aharon, who connects study of Torah and upholding it to Hashem’s heeding a person’s prayers. Several Rabbinic passages have similar ideas (I don’t know if this is R. Salamon’s addition or still what Yad Aharon had): Tanhuma Emor 16 envisions Gd saying the merit of the Torah in which we involve ourselves led Him, as it were, to listen and accede to our prayers. (Interestingly, that Midrash thinks Gd in the future answer our prayers before we offer them.)

Avodah Zarah 19a has R. Abdimi b. Hama espousing a similar idea, whoever involves himself in Torah study, Gd fulfills all his desires. Devarim Rabbah 7;4 says Hashem promises to listen to our prayers if we fulfill the mitzvot.

These are claims complicated by our experience, where people who seem to study a lot of Torah and/or fulfill mitzvot do not have their prayers answered—great Torah scholars and very devout Jews suffer tragedies they clearly prayed to avert. Rather than disproving the idea, I think it shows it was not meant as an absolute guarantee, other factors will often complicate the calculation of when Gd fulfills our prayers.

The idea still matters. Granting we will not be able to draw a direct link between apparent goodness or Torah study to success of prayers, tradition (including Akdamut) was confident the prayers of those who tire themselves in Torah study and/or in mitzvot are more likely to be granted— all other things being equal, as they never are—than those who do not.

The Angels

The first subset, verses 15-30 is about the angels. Verse 16 speaks of Hadetin nevot le-tzafrim, sagi’an terashuta, new ones sprouting every morning, how great is your trustworthiness. R. Salamon points out this is a paraphrase of Eikhah 3;23, Hadashim la-bekarim, rabbah emunatekha, with the Targum of He brings about new miracles every morning, how great is Your faithfulness.

He also notes the poem seems to be referring to Hagiga 14a, new angels are created every day from the river Dinur, they praise Gd, and are abolished that same day (other Midrashim record similar ideas). Why create new angels each day, to praise and then be reabsorbed into a river or a fire? Before I make a suggestion, I note verse 19 says yekabbelun den min den, shavei de-lo be-shashta, they accept permission from one another, then all together without delay (they say Kedusha).

R. Salamon notes the poet has taken these words fromTargum Yonatanto Yeshayahu 6;3, where the prophet records his vision of the angels praising Gd. He also points us to Avot De-Rabi Natan 12;6, where we are told their conduct stems from their humility and respect for each other, qualities where they surpass most human beings, leading to a completely joint praise of Gd.

What’s so much better about joint praise? I think—this would be why we notice it—the power of angels here lies in their ability to unify disparate characters (remember, each angel has one mission). If so, incorporating newly created angels adds the degree of difficulty. They are made, as it were, both with their own mission and the ability to recognize, respect, and resonate with other angels, who have vastly different missions and goals. Yet they can all come together, wait for each other, and produce a joint praise of Gd. A model I think we hope to emulate, learning to work with others who also seek to bring glory to Gd’s Name, each in our own way.

The Greatness of the Torah

This subcategory hurts the claim of two major and three minor themes, because it “pervades the entire poem.” Still, I’ve gone with this way of seeing it so far, in for a penny and all that. Oddly enough, I don’t see direct discussions of the greatness of Torah (other than ones we saw above). To find a bit of support for the idea, we can focus on verses 50-51, yeda’atun hakemin lei be-ishtemoda’uta, if your (non-Jewish) wise men could know Him with total recognition, revutekhon mah hashiva, Your greatness—of what value it it, kaval ha-hi shevahta, in comparison to that praise?

The payyetan is telling us how to inure ourselves to the blandishments of other cultures. Their wise people will approach us, will assure us that following their version of the world will lead us to the kinds of goods we want and hope to get. We respond to them based on our knowledge of Gd, knowledge we attain only through study of Gd’s Torah. Were they only to know what we do, they would realize they had nothing to offer. (By implication, of course, if we knew that, we would know that as well and never fall prey to the allure of those other cultures).

The Reward Awaiting the Righteous in Paradise

The last theme T’yul B’gan identified, for verses 62-88 was the reward awaiting the righteous. To capture one interesting element, let’s look at verses 67-70, where the payyetan speaks of a glory impossible to specify, ve-la ishtema ve-hamei nevi’an hezvata, was neither heard nor seen by prophets in their visions.

As R. Salamon points out, he is referring to Berakhot 34b (and other places), where R. Hiyya b. Abba says in the name of R. Yohanan, the prophecies in Tanakh all refer to the Messianic era, because even the prophets did not envision the World to Come. As the Gemara notes, Shemuel (the amora) disagreed, thought the Messianic era would not be miraculous (a view Rambam adopted in his view of the Messianic era, as did I, in my novels Murderer in the Mikdash and the recently published The Making of the Messiah, 2048).

I notice it here because the poem continues to say (verses 70-71) in the Garden of Eden, those who make it there will dance in a circle, and point at Hashem and says Dein hu, this is Him, although be-emtanuta, with trepidation.

He holds we have no sense of what the future world looks like, and in the next words is sure the fortunate who get there will dance in a circle, point to Hashem, and identify Him, as it were, with trepidation. I think that’s because the payyetan couldn’t imagine such would not be part of any World to Come. He may not believe he knows much about it, but circle dancing with pointing to Hashem has to be part of it. A circle (I’m guessing) because it was always thought of as a perfect form, all participants equidistant from the center (so they all contribute in the same way, like the angels), able to confidently, if tremblingly, be sure of who Hashem is.

A sample is only a sample. My sample of Akdamut sees it as an introduction to our reliving of the acceptance of the Torah by reminding us of how much Torah there is to be learned, Gd’s willingness to accept the prayers of those who serve Him, the angels’ version of prayer as a joint exercise, knowledge of Torah revealing a world that gives the lie to all external claims to fullest truth, our certainty the ultimate goal and prize is our ability to be sure we know Who Gd truly is.

May our re-acceptance of the Torah this year inculcate in all of us, as fully as possible, all its lessons, including those highlighted by Akdamut.

About Gidon Rothstein

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