So Much Waste Paper

20 07 2014

This poem of 433 lines, with a page of notes to every three pages of text, is not for the ordinary reader. He will make nothing of it. Its five sections, called successively “The Burial of the Dead”, “A Game of Chess”, and so on, for all they will signify to him, might as well be called “Tom Thumb at the Giant’s Causeway” or “The Devil among the Bailiffs”, and so on. The thing is a mad medley. It has a plan, because its author says so: and presumably it has some meaning, because he speaks of its symbolism; but meaning, plan, and intention alike are massed behind a smoke-screen of anthropological and literary erudition, and only the pundit, the pedant, or the clairvoyant will be in the least aware of them. Dr Frazer and Miss J.L. Weston are freely and admittedly his creditors, and the bulk of the poem is under an enormously and cosmopolitan mortgage: to Spencer, Shakespeare, Webster, Kyd, Middleton, Milton, Marvell, Goldsmith, Ezekiel, Buddha, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, St Augustine, Baudelaire, Verlaine, and others. Lines of German, French and Italian are thrown it at will or whim; so, too, are solos from nightingales, cocks, hermit-thrushes, and Ophelia…

For the rest one can only say that if Mr Eliot had been pleased to write in demotic English The Waste Land might not have been, as it is to just all but anthropologists and literati, so much waste paper.

- Charles Powell, Manchester Guardian (Oct 31, 1923), 7. [Cited in Michael North (ed.), The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot (A Norton Critical Edition, 2001), 156.]

The Divine Prankster

24 06 2014

Fairly recently, Marc Shapiro wrote an interesting post about censorship in Miqraot Gedolot haMaor. There, it appears as though the editors saw fit to expurgate an observation of R’ Shabbetai Bass (1641-1718), recorded in his commentary on Rashi (“Siftei Chakhamim”). For the benefit of anybody who’s not sure what the hell I’m talking about, Miqraot Gedolot is known as a rabbinic bible: it features the biblical text on the upper right page, surrounded by targumim, commentaries and (in some case) meta-commentaries. A number of different versions exist, but the one to which I’m referring was published by an institute called Hamaor and spans seventeen beautifully typeset volumes. It is also, at least in this one small instance, censored.

Since I have Miqraot Gedolot haMaor on one shelf and HaMeorot haGedolim on another (the latter being a seven-volume rabbinic bible published by Torah Mefureshet, featuring Rashi and a dozen-or-so meta-commentaries on him), I was able to check and to confirm that, yes, the version published by Hamaor has indeed suffered a tiny excision. The passage to have come under the knife, as you can read in Marc Shapiro’s post, was Siftei Chakhamim on Exodus 33:13. If you look at the biblical text you will see that in the verse immediately before this one, Moses quotes God as having declared that Moses has found favour in his eyes, and in this verse stipulates that if he has found favour in God’s eyes, God should reveal his ways to Moses.

The tautology is striking – did God not already say that he was pleased with Moses? Does not the phraseology suggest that Moses wondered whether or not this assertion was true? Such indeed was suggested by Rashi, who emphasises that Moses is really asking whether or not it is true what God had said to him, and the Siftei Chakhamim draws this point out even further:

דק״ל דבפסוק משמע שהיה ספק למשה אי אמר הקב״ה שמצא חן בעיניו והא אמר משה מתחלה להקב״ה איך שאמר אליו מצאת חן בעיני. לכ״פ אם אמת הוא שמצאתי חן דלמה מה שאמרת מצאת חן בעיני מצחק היית בי כדרך בני אדם

This verse seems to suggest that it was doubtful to Moses whether or not God had said that he had found favour in his eyes, yet Moses said at the outset that God had said, “You found favour in my eyes”! The interpretation, therefore, is “if it is true that I have found favour in your eyes… perhaps, when you said, ‘You have found favour in my eyes’, you were joking with me, as people are wont to do”.

The part that the editors at Hamaor evidently found offensive, and their reason for reducing everything from “perhaps” onwards into a simple וכו׳ (“etc”), was the twofold implication that God might joke with people, and that God’s joking might be in a human fashion (כדרך בני אדם). Really, it’s rather absurd to retroject one’s own exegetical discomfort onto the 17th century literature that one is supposed to be publishing, but cutting something off is a lot better than rewriting it, and you can see some of Prof. Shapiro’s other posts if you want examples of the latter.

For the moment, I find the notion of God as a divine prankster rather interesting and it’s got me thinking about other rabbinic depictions of God as a practical joker. Here’s one from the midrash, which I stumbled across a couple of years ago while looking, as usual, for something else.

The midrash is in Tanchuma (Parshat Vayyeishev, §4), and concerns a verse in Psalms. That verse (found in Psalm 66:5) ascribes עלילה to God, which I shall translate below as “machinations” and as “trickery”. The term might, in a harsher context, denote treachery or deception, while in a gentler context might simply mean “deeds”. It is as “deeds” that the NRSV translates it on this verse, although I think the midrash lends to it a somewhat stronger resonance:

זה שאמר הכתוב לכו חזו מפעלות אלהים נורא עלילה על בני אדם (תהלים ס”ו). אמר רבי יהושע בן קרחה אף הנוראות שאתה מביא עלינו בעלילה את מביאן. בא וראה כשראה הקדוש ברוך הוא את העולם מיום הראשון ברא מלאך המות. מנין. אמר רבי ברכיה משום שנאמר וחשך על פני תהום זה מלאך המות המחשיך פניהם של בריות. ואדם נברא בששי ועלילה נתלה בו שהוא הביא את המיתה לעולם שנאמר כי ביום אכלך ממנו מות תמות. משל למה הדבר דומה למי שמבקש לגרש את אשתו כשבקש לילך לביתו כתב גט נכנס לביתו והגט בידו מבקש עלילה לתנו לה. אמר לה מזגי לי את הכוס שאשתה. מזגה לו. כיון שנטל הכוס מידה אמר לה הרי זה גטך. אמרה לו מה פשעי. אמר לה צאי מביתי שמזגת לי כוס פשור. אמרה לו כבר היית יודע שאני עתידה למזג לך כוס פשור שכתבת הגט והבאתו בידך. אף כך אמר אדם לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא רבונו של עולם עד שלא בראת עולמך קדם שני אלפים שנה היתה תורה אצלך אמון שכך כתיב ואהיה אצלו אמון ואהיה שעשועים יום יום (משלי ח) שני אלפים שנה וכתיב בה זאת התורה אדם כי ימות באהל (במדבר י”ט). אלולי שהתקנת מות לברות היית כותב בה כך אלא באת לתלות בי את העלילה. הוי נורא עלילה על בני אדם

My translation:

This is as the verse says: “Come and see the acts of God! His machinations (עלילה) against humanity are awe-inspiring!” Rabbi Yehoshua ben Qorcha explained, even the awe-inspiring things that you bring against us, you do so by way of trickery (עלילה).

Come, see: when the Holy One, blessed is he, saw the world on the first day [of its creation], he created the angel of death. How do we know this? Rabbi Berekhiah explained, because it says: “And darkness was upon the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). That is a reference to the angel of death, who darkens the face of all creatures. Yet Adam was created on the sixth day, and was tricked into thinking that he had been the one to bring death into the world, as it says: “On the day that you eat of it, you shall definitely die” (Genesis 2:17).

To what can this be compared? To one who seeks to divorce¹ his wife. As soon as he readies for home, he writes a document of divorce, enters the house with it in his hand and then tries to trick her. “Pour me a cup,” he says, “so that I can drink”. She pours him a cup. As soon as he takes it from her, he says, “Here is your document of divorce”.

“What have I done wrong?”, she asks him.

“Get out of my house,” he replies, “for the cup that you poured me is cold!”

“You must have already known that I would pour you a cold cup,” she tells him, “since you wrote a divorce document and carried it here by hand!”

Likewise, Adam spoke to the Holy One, blessed is he: “Master of the world! Two thousand years before you created your world, the Torah was like an architect before you – as it is written, “I was by him an architect, and I was a delight daily” (Proverbs 8:30). For two thousand years! And it is written in it, “This is the law concerning a person who dies in a tent” (Numbers 19:14). You could not have written that had you not already established death for all creatures – you only came to trick me!”

“His machinations against humanity are awe-inspiring…” (Psalm 66:5)

¹The example given here is interesting, since the verb used for “divorce” (גרש) literally means to drive away, or send forth. The first instance in which this word appears within the Torah is in Genesis 3:24, in which it is Adam and Eve who are being “divorced” from the garden by God.

The Internal Chronology of Genesis

10 03 2014

In the Zohar (I:147b), R’ Elazar declares a relationship between the toponym Beer Sheva and the jubilee year, implying a mystical connection between the two and suggesting that when Jacob left Beer Sheva to go to Haran via Bet El, it was a sabbatical year at the time. In the 18th century, R’ Yonasan Eybeschütz relied upon its having been a sabbatical year when Jacob arrived in Bet El, in order to respond to a question on the midrash (Divrei Yehonatan, Parshat Vayyetze; Bereishit Rabbah 68:11). What basis do these assertions have?

While I’ve no problem with the Zohar’s relying on the homophonous relationship between Beer Sheva and the Hebrew word for “seven”, nor with Rav Eybeschütz’s sole source on this matter being the Zohar, I cannot help but wonder whether or not information such as this can also be inferred directly from the biblical text.

In order for us to know whether or not it was a sabbatical year at the time of Jacob’s departure from Beer Sheva, or at the time of his arrival in Bet El, we first need to work out the years at which those events must have occurred. I refer, of course, to what can be determined from the Torah’s own internal chronology and make no claims as regards the veracity of the events that it describes. From a strictly literary perspective, the book of Genesis requests of us that we read it in a diegetic fashion. With very few exceptions, the text is narrative, and those few parts that are non-narrative (such as the blessings that appear in chapter 49) are to be understood, within context, as being uttered by one of the characters in the story. As such, whatever pre-history the text may or may not have had, it is reasonable to treat it as a single, sustained narrative and to look for chronological clues in the reconstruction of relative timing.

The story commences in the first year of creation. I’ll refer to this as 1 AM, where AM stands for Anno Mundi. This is when Adam was born, and we are told that he fathered Seth when he was 130 years old (Genesis 5:3). Seth was 105 years old when he fathered Enosh (5:6); Enosh was 90 years old when he fathered Kenan (5:9); Kenan was 70 years old when he fathered Mahalalel (5:12); Mahalalel was 65 years old when he fathered Jared (5:15); Jared was 62 years old when he fathered Enoch (5:18); Enoch was 65 years old when he fathered Methuselah (5:21); Methuselah was 87 years old when he fathered Lamech (5:25); and Lamech was 82 years old when he fathered Noah (5:28-29). Adding up the figures conveys to us that Noah was born in the year 1056 AM.

Interestingly, most of his ancestors were still alive at this time, as the following chart shows:

930 – Adam died
987 – Enoch died
1042 – Seth died
1056 – Noah was born
1140 – Enosh died
1235 – Kenan died
1290 – Mahalalel died
1424 – Jared died
1651 – Lamech died
1656 – Methuselah died

After Noah, things get a little more tricky. We are told that at the age of five hundred (= 1556 AM), Noah sired three sons. Unfortunately, we are neither told whether he started siring sons at this age, whether he stopped siring sons at this age, nor even the order of their births. As such, this information alone is insufficient to tell us the year in which Shem (Jacob’s distant ancestor) was born.

In Genesis 10:21b, Shem is described as אחי יפת הגדול. Translating this passage literally gives us something like, “the brother of Japheth (the older one)”. To whom is “the older one” referring?

According to the Artscroll translation (which is conducted in line with various rabbinic commentaries), the verse asserts that Shem was “the brother of the elder Japheth”. According to the NJPS translation, he is “the older brother” of the same. Is one of these translations wrong? Regrettably, no. The Hebrew word for brother (אח) is a singular masculine noun. As is the name Japheth, since it too refers to a singular masculine entity. The adjective, הגדול (“the older one”) is a singular masculine adjective, since it refers to one of those two things only, though it could be either one: the word “brother” (which is a reference to Shem), or the name Japheth.

As such, stating that Shem is “the brother of Japheth (the older one)” leaves us in the dark as regards whether the adjective refers to Shem or to Japheth, and therefore as to which of them is the older of the two. Interestingly, Ham is entirely absent from these considerations. It would appear that he is widely assumed to have been the youngest of the three, leaving only the relative relationship of Shem and Japheth in question. It may be that the reason for this is the assumption that הגדול means “the eldest one”. Such was the opinion of Rav Saadiah Gaon (c.885-942 CE), for example, and it is a function of the adjective with some precedent.

Fortunately for us, we can resolve this problem from a literary perspective, and do so without bringing Ham into the equation at all.

In Genesis 11:10, we are informed that Shem sired Arpachshad at the age of 100, and that this was two years after the flood. Since we are told in Genesis 7:6 that the flood occurred when Noah was 600 years old (= 1656 AM: the year of Methusaleh’s death), we can work out that Shem was not the oldest of his brothers. If Noah had starting fathering children at the age of 500 (as per Genesis 5:32), his firstborn would have been 100 years old when the flood occurred. Since Shem was 100 years old two years after the flood, Arpachshad must have been born when his grandfather was either 602 or 603 (= 1658/9 AM), depending on precisely when the flood ended.

Determining the length of the flood is a tricky business, and for some time discussion has been dominated by those who would see in this evidence of the Torah’s multi-sourced composition. I have no problem with those opinions, but am generally disinterested in the attempted delineation of hypothetical texts. Rather, I have an interest in the actual text of the Torah (however it came to be this way), which served as the Torah to those who composed the rabbinic literature, Zohar included. From this finished literary composition, it is evident that the flood lasted, more or less, exactly one year.

The description runs from Genesis 7:11-8:14 and indicates a staged process, which commences and ends with a precise date: in the 600th year of Noah’s life, on the 17th day of the second month, the flood began; in the 601st year of Noah’s life, on the 27th day of the second month, the earth was completely dry. If we were to suppose that “two years after the flood” means “two years after the flood ended“, Noah would have been 603 when Arphachshad was born; if it means “two years after the year in which the flood began“, which was 1656 AM, then Noah would have been 602. Which of these is more logical?

It is my understanding of the text that the latter makes more sense, and for two reasons:

Firstly, Genesis 9:28-29 informs us that “Noah lived for 350 years after the flood, and that all the days of Noah were 950 years”. If “after the flood” means “after the flood ended” (ie: the 601st year of Noah’s life), then living an additional 305 years would mean that his overall lifespan was 951 years, not 950. The only way to get 950 is by assuming that “after the flood” means “after the year in which the flood began”.

Secondly, there is the fact that the word for flood (מבול) occurs several times within this narrative, but always and only in reference to the first 40 days of the deluge. So, for example, Genesis 7:6 tells us that “Noah was 600 years old when the flood occurred: water all over the earth”. The following verse tells us that it was “because of the water of the flood”, which continued for seven days (7:10), that Noah and his family entered the box that he had built. Finally, verse 17 informs us that the flood was on the earth for 40 days altogether, and constitutes the final use of that noun throughout the so-called “flood narrative”. For the remainder of the text, the water is simply referred to as water; it has ceased raining.

One way or another, this gives us the year of 1658 AM for the birth of Arphachshad: two years after the flood, when Noah was 602 years old.

Fortunately for us, for the next eight generations, things get a little simpler again. Genesis 11:10-26 gives us another detailed account of the births and deaths of Jacob’s ancestors, starting with Shem and continuing until Abraham’s father, Terah – a total of nine generations, Shem included. Now that we know that Shem’s son, Arpachshad, was born in the year 1658 AM, we can determine the years in which each of his descendants were born as well:

Arpachshad – 1658
Shelah – 1693
Eber – 1723
Peleg – 1757
Reu – 1787
Serug – 1819
Nahor – 1849
Terah – 1878

Thus, the year in which Abraham’s father Terah was born was the year 1878 AM. But how old was he when he sired Abraham?

The Torah tells us (Genesis 11:26) that he was seventy years old when he fathered Abraham and two other sons, that year being 1948 AM. Regrettably, however, it does not give us the order of their births, so we are once more at a loss to date the birth of any one of them in particular. Was Abraham the eldest? This time, there are no inner-biblical clues that might tell us whether or not he was.

For the authors of the rabbinic literature, all information can either be gleaned directly from the Torah or derived explicitly from the same. Were the text to furnish us with clues concerning the relative ages of Abraham and his two brothers, we could rely upon that in order to determine the year of his birth – as the Torah did for Shem. Since it does not, we must assume that the date given to us (1948 AM) applies to the primary character within the narrative, and not to somebody else.

Since we know that Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born (Genesis 21:5), and since we know that Isaac was 60 years old when Jacob was born (Genesis 25:26), then so long as we suppose that Abraham was born in 1948, we can now confidently date the birth of Jacob to the year 2108 AM. All that remains is to determine how old he was when he left Beer Sheva, and how old he might have been when he arrived in Bet El. Is that possible?

Surprisingly, this is actually something that can be worked out fairly easily.

When Jacob meets Pharaoh in Genesis 47:9, he tells him that he is 130 years old. This is nine years after his son, Joseph, had become ruler over Egypt: the first seven of those years being years of plentiful grain, and the subsequent two being years of famine (Genesis 45:6). When Joseph became ruler we are told that he was 30 years of age (Genesis 41:46), which would mean that his father, Jacob, was 91 at the time of Joseph’s birth. Prior to Joseph’s being born, Jacob served his uncle Laban for a period of fourteen years. The Torah tells us that Jacob’s period of indentured servitude transpired at the time of Joseph’s birth (Genesis 30:25), which means that Jacob was 77 years old when he met Laban.

Seeing as Jacob travelled to his uncle directly from Bet El, we can assume that he was also 77 years old when he spent a night there. If he was born in the year 2108, that would give us the year 2185 AM for his arrival in Bet El. Is this also the year in which he left Beer Sheva?

Ishmael was fourteen years older than Isaac, Jacob’s father, as can be seen from the fact that Abraham was 86 years old when Ishmael was born (Genesis 16:16) and 100 years old when Isaac was born (Genesis 21:5). Ishmael died at the age of 137 (Genesis 25:17), which would have been when Isaac was 123. Since Isaac was 60 when Jacob was born (Genesis 25:26), Jacob must have been 63 when Ishmael died, which would have been in the year 2171 AM, fourteen years before he reached Bet El. And yet, Esau (Jacob’s brother) is said to have approached Ishmael with the intention of marrying his daughter, when Jacob left Beer Sheva (Genesis 28:9). Is it possible that it took fourteen years or longer for Jacob to travel from Beer Sheva to Bet El?

The midrashic tradition has Jacob leaving Beer Sheva in 2171 AM, around the time of Esau’s marrying Ishmael’s daughter and Ishmael’s death, studying for fourteen years in the yeshiva established by his ancestors Shem and Eber (the second of whom wasn’t to die for another sixteen years), and then continuing on to Bet El in 2185 AM and, thence, to his uncle’s house (Megillah 17a; Rashi, Genesis 28:9, s.v. אחות נביות). We can safely assume that this midrashic tradition underscores the assertions made in the Zohar, and in the commentary of Rav Eybeschütz.

There are fifty years in the jubilee cycle. Dividing both of those dates by 50 gives us 43.42 for the first one, and 43.7 for the second. That means that the first date (2171 AM) was 21 years into the new jubilee cycle (21 = 0.42 x 50), and that the second date (2185 AM) was 35 years into the new jubilee cycle (35 = 0.7 x 50). Since the sabbatical cycle denotes a period of seven years, both of these dates would give us a sabbatical year – the first being the third of the jubilee cycle, and the second one being the fifth.

In actuality, of course, we need adopt neither of those dates if we do not wish to, assume that they have any significance beyond being incidental features of a narrative, nor even look for too much in the way of internal consistency. Asking questions like these may be a little like wondering what Prince Hamlet was doing when he received news of his father’s death; that which is not explicitly inferrable from the story is simply not part of the story.

But since the early rabbinic literature and the later midrashic tradition (including the Zohar) operates on the principle that anything not stated directly by the Torah can be inferred somehow from the same, the supposition that those dates have significance in the life of Jacob, that they’re not “merely” historical details, and that they can be used in order to determine a broader chronology that stretches beyond Genesis and into the realm of real history has genuine import.

As such, the Zohar’s assertion that Jacob left Beer Sheva in a sabbatical year, and Rav Eybeschütz’s assertion that it was a sabbatical year when he arrived in Bet El, is neither simple wordplay, based around the homonyn sheva, nor a fanciful addition to the text. Whether we share in their presuppositions or not, it is evident that these traditions reflect a solid basis in biblical exegesis.

The King is a Tree

10 03 2014

Recent additions to my bookshelf (you may notice a trend) include the following texts, arranged in alphabetical order:

David H. Aaron, Biblical Ambiguities: Metaphor, Semantics, and Divine Imagery (2002)

Antonio Barcelona (ed.), Metaphor and Metonymy at the Crossroads (2003)

Monroe C. Beardsley, Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism (2nd ed, 1981)

Max Black, Models and Metaphors (1962)

Marc Zvi Brettler, God is King: Understanding an Israelite Metaphor (1989)

Claudia Camp and Carole Fontaine (eds.), Women, War and Metaphor: Language and Society in the Study of the Hebrew Bible (Semeia 61; 1993)

Mordechai Z. Cohen, Three Approaches to Biblical Metaphor: From Abraham Ibn Ezra and Maimonides to David Kimhi (2008)

William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1966)

William Empson, The Structure of Complex Words (1967)

Kurt Feyaerts (ed.), The Bible Through Metaphor and Translation: A Cognitive Semantic Perspective (2003)

Robert J. Fogelin, Figuratively Speaking (2nd ed, 2011)

Terence Hawkes, Metaphor (1972)

Terence Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics (1977)

Mark Johnson (ed.), Philosophical Perspectives on Metaphor (1981)

Eva Feder Kittay, Metaphor: Its Cognitive Force and Linguistic Structure (1987)

Gail Labovitz, Marriage and Metaphor: Constructions of Gender in Rabbinic Literature (2009)

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (1980)

George Lakoff and Mark Turner, More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (1989)

John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689; ed. P.H. Nidditch, 1975)

John Lyons, Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics (1968)

Earl R. Mac Cormac, A Cognitive Theory of Metaphor (1989)

J.J.A. Mooij, A Study of Metaphor (1976)

Kirsten Nielsen, There is Hope for a Tree: The Tree as Metaphor in Isaiah (1989)

Andrew Ortony (ed.), Metaphor and Thought (2nd ed, 1993)

I.A. Richards, The Art of Rhetoric (1936)

Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor: Multidisciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language (trans. Robert Czerny, 1977)

Sheldon Sacks (ed.), On Metaphor (1979)

Israel Scheffler, Beyond the Letter: A Philosophical Inquiry into Ambiguity, Vagueness and Metaphor in Language (1979)

Janet Martin Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language (1985)

Danny D. Steinberg and Leon A. Jakobovits (eds.), Semantics: An Interdisciplinary Reader in Philosophy, Linguistics and Psychology (1971)

Gustaf Stern, Meaning and Change of Meaning: With Special Reference to the English Language (1931)

Together with Sternberg’s The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, Berlin’s Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative, Schmitz’s Modern Literary Theory and Ancient Texts and Eco’s Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, I have had no choice but to create a new subsection of my Literary Theory shelf and place it on my desk, its content being so relevant to my continuing absence from this blog.

Books that do not quite fit this trend, but have been nonetheless added to my shelves in recent times, include:

David Barnouw and Gerrold van der Stroom (eds.), The Diary of Anne Frank: The Revised Critical Edition (trans. Arnold J. Pomerans, B.M. Mooyaart-Doubleday and Susan Massotty; 2003)

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land (Norton Critical Editions; ed. Michael North, 2000)

William Empson, The Complete Poems of William Empson (ed. John Haffenden; 2001)

The acquisition of an annotated critical edition of Eliot’s The Waste Land and The Complete Poems of William Empson have forced me to move my poetry section from the living room into the bedroom, where there is currently more space. Sixty-two books now dominate my vision in the brief time before I lose consciousness; their authors (mostly deranged, occasionally just high), narrate the contents of my dreams.

“Much Ink Has Been Spilled”: Musings on the Origin of a Trope

14 12 2013

I see it time and again: an expression that I found charming when I first observed it so many years ago, but one that is beginning to strike me as a pompous and unnecessary way of signifying that others have already tackled the topic in question. “Much ink has been spilled”, muse a thousand academics in a thousand different fields and on a hundred thousand different subjects. One would think there was an inexhaustible supply of the stuff, it being poured out with such reckless abandon.

Where does the expression come from? Does it have an English origin, or is it a translation for something else? In its original context, what was it meant to signify? Was it an allusion to the spilling of blood, perhaps? An extension of a metaphor that equates argument with warfare?

As I’ve no training in computational linguistics (nor in linguistics at all, for that matter), I hesitate to draw any conclusions from what I am about to say next. But I did run a couple of searches on the Google Ngram Viewer, and if you click on the image below you can enlarge the results of one such enquiry. You will note that this phrase was employed sporadically during the 19th century, but that its employment shot upwards rather dramatically in the 20th. The peak for the American spelling (“spilled”) was in the late 30s, while the British spelling (“spilt”) peaked about a decade earlier. After a haphazard series of further peaks and troughs, the phrase with its American spelling became popular once more. Indeed, as of 2013, the phrase is being used almost as frequently as it was in 1937.

Spilling of Ink

I cannot imagine what might have initiated such a groundswell of popularity, be it anything other than the whimsical vicissitudes of personal taste. But as to the phrase’s origin, I have thus far been unable to find any English language material prior to a short article and a poem – both of which were published in 1805. The article is a review of Rev. Charles Daubeny’s “Vindiciae Ecclesiae Anglicanae”, which was published early that same year in the Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, and which was, itself, a somewhat scathing indictment of The True Churchman Ascertained, by John Overton (1804). At the close of 1805, The Christian Observer responded to Rev. Daubeny’s critique with a review of their own, and one that sought to find common ground between Rev. Daubeny and Mr Overton. The relevant passage, on p485, reads as follows:

On this chapter, in general, we shall only add, that, as is often the case after much ink has been spilt on both sides of the question, a Christian Observer will see room for mutual concession.

Here, the spilling of ink is a martial metaphor, designed to invoke the spilling of blood. That it need not be, however, is borne out by a poem printed in the same year. Found in the third volume of The Lounger’s Commonplace Book, or Miscellaneous Collections in History, Criticism, Biography, Poetry, and Romance, it is the creation of Jeremiah Whitaker Newman: a poet, raconteur and author of medical literature. The poem itself is on p244, and constitutes an ode to the (supposed) merits of matrimony. The relevant passage reads as follows:

That wedlock’s a pill one and all they cry out,
Of digestion so hard they make a great rout;
On the subject abundance of ink has been spilt.
I’ll swallow the pill if ’tis properly gilt.

Here we see that on a subject on which everybody is said to agree with one another, the spilling of ink denotes wastage and not warfare. That these two texts were both published in 1805 would demonstrate that the expression, applied differently in both of them, originates in neither.

[Be warned, fellow explorer, if you seek a passage prior to either of these, that Google has misfiled a 20th century text (the introduction to George Thornley's translation of "Daphnis and Chloe") as a 17th century text. While the translation itself was published in 1657, the introduction is by George Saintsbury, who was born in 1845.]

And so here, for me at least, the search ends. But oh – I would love so much to take it further! If only to unite these curious English applications of an insufficiently clear metaphor to the beautiful poetry of Midrash Tanchuma/Yelamdenu. First printed in Constantinople between 1520 and 1522, it is a collection of exegetical midrashim on the Torah, believed to have originated in the first half of the 9th century. Consider the following passage, in which sentiments are imputed to the 2nd century nasi, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, who here opines on the greatness of peace (Tanchuma, Tzav 7):

אמר רבן שמעון בן גמליאל, גדול הוא השלום, שהכתיב הקדוש ברוך הוא דברים בתורה שלא היו, אלא בשביל השלום. אלו הן. כשמת יעקב, ויראו אחי יוסף כי מת אביהם ויאמרו לו ישטמנו יוסף. מה עשו. הלכו אצל בלהה ואמרו לה, הכנסי אצל יוסף ואמרי לו, אביך צוה לפני מותו לאמר, כה תאמרו ליוסף אנא שא נא פשע אחיך. ומעולם לא צוה יעקב מכל אלו הדברים כלום, אלא מעצמם אמרו דבר זה. אמר רבן שמעון בן גמליאל, כמה דיו משתפך, וכמה קולמוסין משתברין, וכמה עורות אבודים, וכמה תינוקין מתרצעין ללמד דבר שלא היה, בתורה. ראה כמה גדול כח השלום

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: Great is peace, for the Holy One (blessed is He) allowed things that never occurred to be written into his Torah, only for the sake of peace. What are they? When Jacob died, “Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us?'” (Genesis 50:15, NRSV). What did they do? They went to Bilhah and they told her to go to Joseph and say to him, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, “Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers”” (Genesis 50:16-17, NRSV). Not once had Joseph instructed so much as a single matter in these words – they made these things up themselves! Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: How much ink has been spilled, how many quills have been broken, how many hides have been tanned, how many children have been caned, just to teach in the Torah something that never even happened! See how great is the power of peace!

This same drash is recorded in the name of the 4th century Palestinian sage, Rabbi Yehoshua of Sikhnin, a disciple of Rabbi Levi (Tanchuma, Shoftim 18). There, it reads as follows, with the relevant part attributed anonymously:

אמר רבי יהושע דסכנין בשם רבי לוי, ראה כמה גדול כח השלום, שאמר הכתוב שתים ושלש תבות בשביל השלום, ואלו הן, כשנסתלק יעקב אבינו, נתיראו השבטים, שנאמר, ויראו אחי יוסף כי מת אביהם ויאמרו לו ישטמנו יוסף וגו’, ויצוו אל יוסף לאמר אביך צוה לפני מותו לאמר, כה תאמרו ליוסף אנא שא נא פשע אחיך וגו’. ולא מצינו שיעקב אבינו צוה הדברים האלה, אלא הם אמרו מעצמן. אמרו חכמינו זכרונם לברכה, כמה קלמוסים משתברין, וכמה דיו משתפכין לכתב הדברים האלה שלא היו. ומפני מה, מפני השלום

Rabbi Yehoshua of Sikhnin said in the name of Rabbi Levi: See how great is the power of peace, for scripture recorded two or three words for the sake of peace, and they are these: when our father, Jacob, was taken up, the tribes were afraid – as it says, “Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us? … So they approached Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this instruction before he died, “Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers”” (Genesis 50:15-17, NRSV). But we don’t find that our father Jacob ever said these things – they made these things up themselves! Our sages of blessed memory said: How many quills have been broken and how much ink has been spilled, to write these things that never happened! And why? For the sake of peace!

This same drash, concerning Joseph’s brothers and their legitimate lie, is also recorded in the name of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel in Leviticus Rabbah 9:9, Derekh Eretz Zutta 11:18, and – with a different emphasis – Yerushalmi Peah 1:1. It is also recorded in the name of Rabbi Elazar ben Shimon in Yevamot 65b, in which the Talmud declares that lying is permissible for the sake of maintaining peace (a stipulation recorded, mutatis mutandis in other places as well). In none of these other instances, however, do we find the expression that concerns the spilling of ink.

Notwithstanding the possibility that the expression’s employment in Tanchuma is not metaphorical, but is rather a figurative depiction of the amount of ink and the number of quills required to copy the Torah as many times as it has been copied, I wonder: is it possible that this expression made its way from Hebrew and, by however circuitous a route, into English? Do the two expressions share a common origin in another language of mutual impact? (The mind turns to Greek in this regard…)

Alternatively, is it possible that the connection between them is entirely coincidental, and that the nature of writing with a quill and an inkstand merely lends itself to such a poetic flourish? Modern Israeli academics who use the phrase are indebted to its English manifestation, although I hope that at least some of them are aware of its Hebrew pedigree. For now, however, it remains only to be noted that this particular literary trope, by virtue of its long-attested ubiquitousness, is probably more responsible than any other for the wastage of ink that it so decries.

Pale Blue Dot

23 10 2013

Courtesy of a student of mine comes this beautiful and thought-inspiring video, narrated by Carl Sagan: a man with a truly golden voice.


20 10 2013

It is the evening of the third of Shevat, the yahrtseit of the Rav’s father, Rav Moshe, zt”l, and we are in Lamport Auditorium at Yeshiva University awaiting the arrival of the Rav to deliver his annual Yahrtseit Shiur. Some of us have been sitting for a few hours, having come early to obtain seats as close as possible to the Rav. The auditorium is now packed and overflowing. Suddenly, as if an electric current has run through the room, the entire audience, as one, rises: the Rav has arrived!

Sitting in front, we do not immediately see the Rav, for he enters from the rear, and must traverse the entire length of the auditorium to reach us. Everyone is standing, blocking our view; yet the feeling of his presence pervades the room. Finally, the Rav emerges from the crowd, walking briskly, manuscript in hand, steps onto the stage and sits down behind an empty table to begin the shiur.

Then the journey starts. The Rav, usually focusing on one or more halakhot of the Rambam, ticks off one question after another that reflect obvious difficulties in the halakha – at least they are obvious after the Rav sets them out in his clear, lucid and inimitable manner of exposition. Then, after developing each of his questions – superlative pedagogue that he is – he reviews in summary form all of them, to assure that we understand what the problems are that will now be clarified.

That phase of the shiur concluded, the Rav goes on to develop a concept – the hiddush of the shiur – traversing a plethora of passages in the Talmud, commentaries (mostly Rishonim), Midrashim, and others. We watch, listen, and many of us avidly write notes, trying to keep up with the Rav’s rapid-fire delivery as he lays out the hiddush, brick by brick by brick, reconciling all the varied and seemingly contradictory texts.

Now that the foundation has been set and the text reconciliation completed, the Rav returns to the original series of questions. Each is repeated, and then almost summarily disposed of through application of the hiddush, one after the other, after the other. It is more than two hours later and the circuit has been completed; the first portion of the shiur is concluded.

- excerpted from “Dedication”, by Julius Berman. Pages vii-ix of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik: Man of Halakha, Man of Faith (ed. Menachem D. Genack; Ktav Publishing House, 1998).


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