by R. Moshe Schapiro
It’s that season again. Snow blankets the hills and the valleys. Or where I live, the streets and the sidewalks. Of course, snow is cold, but the most noticeable thing about snow is that it is white. In fact, if you want to emphasize how white something is, you would almost always say, “It’s as white as snow.” There are other things in the world that are white, such as wool, and they can be used for comparison as well. Hence the verse: “Come now, and let us reason together, says the Lord; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Yeshayahu 1:18). One thing is for sure, though, if there’s a whiteness contest between snow and wool, snow will win every time. In fact, the Radak on the above verse cites his father, R. Yosef Kimchi, who explains the verse: “If your sins are like scarlet, which is not very red, they will be made white like snow, namely, I shall grant complete atonement for your sins. But if they are very red like crimson, then they shall only be made as white as wool, which is not quite as white as snow.”
There’s no question that snow is much, much whiter than wool. So then what are we to make of the verse (recited daily in Pesukei DeZimrah): “He gives snow like wool; He scatters frost like ashes” (Tehillim 147:16)? It sounds like David HaMelekh is saying that Hashem makes the snow as white as wool, and indeed, the Aramaic translation of Psalms reflects this understanding. Why would anyone compare snow to wool in terms of its whiteness? If anything, the comparison ought to go in the opposite direction. A simile usually compares the thing that has less of a certain characteristic to the thing that has more of that characteristic, not the other way around.
Instead of digging my car out of the snow in my driveway, I dug through the holy books and found seven approaches to understanding this phrase. Before beginning, though, it is helpful to quickly review the themes of Mizmor 147 so that we can appreciate the snow-wool simile in context.
The commentators (Radak and Meiri) explain that Mizmor 147 continues from the end of the previous psalm that concluded, “Hashem shall reign forever; your God O Zion; from generation to generation, praise Hashem!” Mizmor 147 is a song of praise to Hashem at the time of the redemption. It opens by describing Hashem as the “builder of Jerusalem” and mentions the ingathering of the exiles. This leads to generally praising Hashem’s providence and benevolence in guiding the natural forces of this world: “He prepares rain for the earth,” “gives to the animals their food,” etc. This leads back to the theme of redemption: “He has strengthened the bars of your gates,” “He makes your borders peaceful,” etc. And then once again we return to praise nature, and it is in this context in which “snow like wool” is mentioned. The mizmor concludes with praise for Hashem’s greatest act of benevolence for the Jewish people, the giving of His holy Torah: “He declares His word to Jacob, His statutes and His ordinances to Israel. He did not do so to any other nation and His ordinances they do not know, praise Hashem!”
Now, it’s off to work we go, to examine seven approaches to understanding the snow-wool comparison.
1) The Radak (Tehillim 147:16) suggests that since there is nothing more white to compare snow to, we are forced to compare it to something that is less white. That just begs the question why it was necessary to compare it to anything at all. But the Radak may have believed, as did many other medieval pashtanim of that period, that the literary beauty of a text is of great value by itself, even if it does not add meaning (see Dr. Mordechai Cohen’s Three Approaches to Biblical Metaphor, pp. 62-64 and 157-159). It’s much more poetic and elegant to say that “Hashem gives snow like wool,” than to just say “Hashem gives white snow.” Spiritual seekers will not be satisfied with this answer and, truth to tell, neither will many modern-day poets (see “Very Like a Whale” by Ogden Nash).
2) It’s possible that the Radak had something else in mind. Tosafot (Shavuot 6b) explains that in constructing a simile, we don’t only look at which thing has more or less of the given characteristic, but also how common the two things are. Wool was a common household object back in the time of David HaMelekh. Everyone knew that wool was white. However, David was not the king of Norway, he was the king of Israel, and snow is not so common in that region. There may be some people, living down in Be’er Sheva, for example, who have never seen snow in their lives. It makes perfect sense to compare the whiteness of snow, which is less common, to the whiteness of wool, which although, not as white, is more familiar. The Ritva (Shavuot 5b) adds a compelling example as proof for this explanation. We find many verses that compare Hashem to natural phenomena in this world. For instance, to illustrate Hashem’s majesty, He is compared to a lion (Hoshea 11:10). Obviously, Hashem is infinitely more majestic than a lion (which He created!), but whereas most of us have a visceral appreciation of the power and majesty of the king of the jungle, few of us have the same visceral and vivid experience of the King of the universe. Therefore, such a comparison makes perfect sense.
3) The Meiri (Tehillim 147:16) argues with the above explanation. With regard to Hashem we are forced by the fact that Hashem is so utterly beyond our comprehension to compare Him to His own creations, as silly as that might be, in order to be able to make some limited sense of Hashem’s interaction with our world. But when it comes to describing natural phenomena, the Meiri argues, it makes no sense whatsoever to compare the greater to the lesser (and, apparently, he does not believe that it is necessary to explain that snow is white, even to the perspiring denizens of Be’er Sheva). Therefore, the Meiri concludes, the comparison here between snow and wool has nothing to do with their whiteness. Rather, David HaMelekh is saying that just as we all know that wool is soft and benefits us by providing warmth, so too, snow is soft and benefits us by gently saturating the ground, improving crop growth in the spring.
4) The Radvaz (Teshuvot 8:207) also insists that the comparison has nothing to do with color. The point is that just as all the strands of wool are woven together to form a garment, so too the individual snowflakes all compress together to blanket the earth as one. This is in contrast to the end of the verse where David HaMelekh states, “He scatters frost like ashes.” Frost does not adhere to itself like snow but is scattered across the ground. Hashem does not have only one style. He created many different natural phenomena that come in different forms and act in different ways and they are all wonderful and amazing.
5) The fact that Hashem does not have only one style may have moral and theological repercussions that lead to yet another interpretation of our verse. R. Yechezkel Abramsky (cited by R. Moshe Mordechai Schulzinger in Peninei Rabbenu Yechezkel vol. 2, p. 35) explains that David HaMelekh is not comparing snow to wool at all, rather, he is saying that just as Hashem gives snow, so too He also gives wool. Hashem is the source of both, as the verse states: “Be pleased when things go well, but in a time of misfortune reflect: God has made the one as well as the other so that man should find nothing after Him” (Kohelet 7:14).
Snow is cold and wool is warm, but they both come from Hashem. That is the meaning of the end of our verse too: “He scatters frosts like ashes.” He scatters cold frost just like He is also the originator of burning ashes. The point of this imagery is to buttress the punchline of the mizmor which ends by stating: “He declares His word to Jacob, His statutes and His ordinances to Israel. He did not do so to any other nation and His ordinances they do not know, praise Hashem!” Hashem gave us many laws. Some of them are very appealing to us, such as “You shall love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18). Others can create inner moral turmoil. The commandment to destroy Amalek (Devarim 25:19), for instance, is, in the eyes of many, the unfairest one of all. It is critical to remember that both commandments emanate from Hashem. He created the snow and the wool. It’s all one world and it all fits together as one natural system. The world needs both the cold and the warmth. If there’s too much cold, nothing will grow and life will not be able to exist. Too much warmth and we could find ourselves in the middle of a global environmental crisis, depending on which news source you read. The same is true for the Torah and its commandments. It’s all one Torah. The world needs love or humanity cannot endure. It also sometimes needs hate, to protect against evil. All of Hashem’s mitzvot are necessary and all fit together as part of one system of law and ethics.
6) R. Avraham Mordechai Alter (Likutei Imrei Emet p.26) also understands that “snow like wool” is not a simile. Snow is cold and wool protects us and keeps us warm. Hashem gives snow “like wool,” namely, in accordance with the amount of wool. He “scatters frost like ashes,” namely, He spreads the cold frost only to the degree that we can maintain a fire (which makes ashes) to stave off the cold. R. Alter states, “The Holy One, blessed is He, never places a burden upon people that is more than their ability to bear.”
The Imrei Emet’s intent is unclear to me. I can postulate three separate interpretations. One, that Hashem created the natural world with an intrinsic balance so that there are ways to meet every need and protect against every vulnerability. Two, that Hashem blessed human beings with tremendous powers of forbearance and resilience. Three, the Imrei Emet seems to be making a theological point that Hashem only gives us challenges that we have it within us to overcome. Indeed, R. Yechezkel Abramsky (op. cit., p. 79) argues that from the fact that the Torah permitted a Jewish soldier to take a yefat to’ar (Devarim 21:11), because, as Rashi explains, he would not be capable of withstanding the temptation, it is evident that the Torah expects us to be able to uphold all its other laws. On the other hand, the Gemara (Chagigah 16a), according to some commentators (see Rashi and Tosafot ad loc), seems to understand that it is certainly possible for a person to face a temptation that is beyond their ability to resist. Certainly, the notion that Hashem never gives a person a challenge he cannot meet is not empirically or experientially obvious to us.
A full discussion of this fascinating theological notion is beyond the scope of this article, but perhaps we can suggest that the Imrei Emet’s point is a combination of all three of our interpretations. Hashem presents us with challenges, sometimes physical or material, at other times or simultaneously, emotional and spiritual. However, according to our first suggestion, He also created a world with the raw materials to solve our problems. Even when we fail to do so, He granted us the resilience and emotional strength to deal with it, as suggested in our second interpretation. Hashem made us of much stronger stuff than we give ourselves credit for. In that sense, following our third interpretation, the challenges we face are not insuperable. We can prevail more often than we might think, and even failure can be transformed into success.
7) The Arizal (Sha’ar HaPesukim, Tehillim) offers a mystical twist on this verse. Back when the Jews were slaves in Egypt Moshe Rabbenu expressed reluctance to be the one to lead them to freedom. One of his concerns was how to introduce his mission to the people: And Moshe said to God, “Behold, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?” (Shemot 3:13). Hashem responded: “E-H-Y-H asher E-H-Y-H, and He said, Thus shall you say to the children of Israel: ‘E-H-Y-H sent me to you’” (Shemot 3:14). The Divine name E-H-Y-H appears three times, each beginning with the Hebrew letter alef. Take the alef (sort of like a Divine initial) and spell out the name of the letter alef itself (alef, lamed, peh). Now take the numerical value of each letter (alef=1, lamed=30, peh=80) and you get 111. Next multiply that by the three alefs and that gives you 333, which is the numerical value of the Hebrew word sheleg (shin=300, lamed=30, gimel=3) which means snow. But if you remove the alef from the word alef itself, the remaining letters (lamed, peh) add up to 330, which, believe it or not, is the numerical value of the word tzemer (tzadi=90, mem=40, reish=200) which means wool.
That’s what our verse means. Hashem makes the snow like wool. He turns the snow into wool by isolating the alefs from the alefs which in turn came from the name E-H-Y-H. Now at this point you may find yourself asking, “What in the world does that mean?” I’m not sure. I’m not a kabbalist.
But I’ll just say this. The Divine name E-H-Y-H alludes to Divine mercy during times of exile and persecution, which makes sense in the original context (see Ramban, Shemot 3:13). This fits perfectly with the overarching theme of Mizmor 147, described above, which is about exile and redemption. It is also worthwhile to note, in this context, the interpretation of R. Aryeh Leib Gordon (Siddur Otzar HaTefillot, Iyun Tefillah, Pesukei DeZimrah) that David HaMelekh is not jumping back and forth between the theme of redemption and the theme of Hashem’s providence as seen through nature, as cited above from the classical commentators. R. Gordon understands the nature imagery in this mizmor allegorically and explains the entire mizmor according to the theme of exile and redemption. The mizmor’s conclusion extolling Hashem for giving the Torah to the Jewish people is not just praise for a great act of benevolence. It is an expression of our recognition that it is the Torah that gives the Jewish people the strength and endurance to survive the exile and ultimately prevail at the time of the geulah.
With this context in mind, the esoteric comment of the Arizal becomes something almost akin to peshat! As we said above, God gives us challenges, both personal and national, that are cold like snow. But He also bestows His mercy upon us. Hashem can transform our cold, snowy exile into the warm woolen blanket of redemption. There is always hope.
But we must do our part. R. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt (Ohev Yisrael, Likutei Tanach) explains that, as noted above, alef equals one and there are three alefs in the thrice-repeated Divine name E-H-Y-H. In exile, when we perceive God through the name E-H-Y-H, we have to focus on the three alefs; meaning, we have to connect to the three things that are each “one”: Hashem (Devarim 6:4), the Torah (Ani Ma’amin #9, Sifrei Devarim #306) and the Jewish people (Shmuel II 7:23). However, it is not enough to connect to each of these individually, because remember, there are also three alefs in the three alefs. We have to isolate the alef from the alef; to perceive the “one” that unifies the three “ones.” This is because Hashem, the Torah and the Jewish people are not only each “one” unto themselves, they also come together as “one” to comprise a new unique entity. There is a widespread folk saying, based on the Zohar (Vayikra 73a), “Kudsha brich Hu ve-Oraita ve-Yisrael chad hu” – “Hashem, the Torah and the Jewish people are one.” We cannot disconnect any one of these three from each other. If we cling to Hashem, to the Torah and to Klal Yisrael, we will merit to see Divine mercy and the ultimate redemption. Our snow will be like wool.
May it come speedily in our days!