From the sources by Eliezer Segal: Flocks, fighters – and forgiveness

By Eliezer Segal

(AJNews) – The solemn liturgical poem “Untanneh Tokef,” chanted as part of the High Holy Days service, epitomizes the mood of momentous dread as the Sovereign of the universe sits in judgement over his creatures:

“Like a herder leading his flock, who passes his sheep beneath his staff. So shall you cause to pass, count, measure and reckon the lives of all living beings.”

The source for this simile is in the Mishnah which describes the mood on the annual day of judgment when “all the denizens of the world pass before him like b’nei meron.”

I have left this last expression untranslated because its correct translation is indeed a matter of considerable doubt and controversy. Philologists, sages, lexicographers and poets have interpreted the words in very diverse ways.

The physical shapes of Hebrew letters tolerate a certain degree of ambiguity. Specifically, the letters that represent  the vowels “i” and “u” are easily confused; and it is not clear whether the text should be read as one or two words. As regards to the correct reading in the Mishnah, there are two main options: “ki-ve-numeron” and “ki-vnei meron.”

According to the first possibility, humankind parades before their Creator like a “noumeron” – a military cohort being inspected by their commander. The Greek “noumeron” and its Latin cognate “numerus” both denote military divisions; so that the Mishnah’s simile is of a contingent of soldiers undergoing an inspection before their commanding officer. The Babylonian sage Samuel specified that the comparison was not just to some generic army – but to the Hebrew soldiers under King David’s command.

The other variant of the Mishnah’s text was subject to its own diverse readings and interpretations. The Talmud states that in Babylonia it was customary to explain “meron” with reference to a similar-sounding Aramaic word connoting sheep. Rashi explained this image with reference to the procedures for tithing livestock, when the animals are paraded single-file through a narrow gateway and every tenth lamb is designated for sacred use. This analogy was employed by the author of the Untanneh Tokef.

Other talmudic teachers envisaged different situations that would necessitate squeezing through narrow spaces. Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish adduced the “Ascent of Beit Horon,” a strategic site that was the scene of military actions during the Maccabean and Roman eras. Rabbi Aha described it as a small, narrow mountain range that could only be traversed in single-file.

Saadyah Ga’on, author of the first known Hebrew dictionary, included an entry for “maron,” which he equated with an Arabic root that means “march past” or “pass in review,” especially in a military context.

The liturgical poet Yannai, who lived in Galilee during the Byzantine era, incorporated both interpretations in his poem for Rosh Hashanah. In one place he writes, “As we are passed under the staff like sheep by the one counting them, you will appoint for us an advocate.” A few lines further down it says, “The king will cause all the denizens of the world to pass before him like a noumeron.”

Several medieval manuscripts of prayer books and liturgical poetry contain the vowel “u,” indicating “noumeron”   – even though the word is split into two parts (as “kivnu-meron”). Though there is considerable debate and hesitation about the question, this has become the generally preferred reading in scholarly circles.

Moving beyond the lexicographic and academic questions raised by these texts, several authors strove to elicit spiritual insights from the different interpretations.

Rabbi Samuel Edels (Maharsha) equated the three interpretations with the three classes of people who stand in judgment before the divine tribunal: The sheep, destined for slaughter, stand for the confirmed evildoers. The heroic soldiers symbolize the perfectly righteous. And those struggling to keep their balance along the perilous trail represent the average flawed individuals who strive to maintain their moral balance.

Rabbi Hayyim Joseph David Azulai and Rabbi Joseph Hayyim of Baghdad (the “Ben Ish Hai”) found in the three categories allusions to the Supreme Judge’s desire to tip the scales to the advantage of the Rosh Hashanah defendants. Thus, comparing us to sheep, who are utterly lacking in intelligence, allows us to plead that fundamentally we are no better dumb animals, and hence not of sound enough mind to deserve punishment. The Ben Ish Hai explained, “Even when sheep cause damage to the foliage, the owners do not hold them liable. And so it is with respect to Israel – even though they sin, the Holy One treats them like sheep.”

As regards that image of an ascent through a precarious mountain trail flanked by deep gorges on either side – this also works to the benefit of mortals, as a factor that would mitigate a severe verdict. It evokes the picture of an Everyman who is plodding cautiously, clinging to a narrow path enclosed on either side by barriers. Rabbi Azulai explained this imagery in the sense that, from one side, the physical constitution of our bodies impels us to pursue the vanities of the material world, while on the other side we are continually bombarded by temptations from the evil inclination (“The devil made me do it!”).

The Ben Ish Hai noted that Jews are particularly vulnerable to negative influences when living amidst impure foreign cultures. Samuel’s analogy to the warriors of King David’s army also works to our advantage by urging G-d to give us some credit for our ceaseless daily battles to eke out honest livelihoods for our families. Furthermore, the merit of righteous ancestors like David can be invoked even if our personal virtues are not adequate for the purpose.

The preachers and poets who crafted these scenarios had to steer a cautious course. On the one hand, their audiences must be alerted to the grave consequences of their transgressions. And yet the prospect of severe judgment must not cause them to despair of repentance.

Hopefully, we will all emerge from the experience with gleaming fleeces or spotlessly groomed uniforms, as the case may be – worthy of enjoying a blessed new year.

Eliezer Segal is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.

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