- The World of Talmudic Aggada
In loving memory of Channa Schreiber (Channa Rivka bat Yosef v' Yocheved) z"l,
with wishes for consolation and comfort to her dear children
Yossi and Mona, Yitzchak and Carmit, and their families,
along with all who mourn for Tzion and Yerushalayim.
13: Daf 4b
Nun and the Fallen Virgin
previous lecture, we saw the Gemara discuss the special spiritual attributes of
Tehillim 145, which we call Ashrei.
Now the Gemara focuses on perhaps the most striking individual feature of
the psalm. Ashrei is, of
course, an alphabetical acrostic.
Each line begins with a successive letter of the alphabet. Curiously, however, there is no line
which begins with the letter nun. This
absence is quite glaring, like a smile which is missing a tooth. Not surprisingly, many of the ancient
versions of the Bible, read by groups other than mainstream Jews, include a line
in the psalm which begins with nun in its appropriate place. Among these versions of the Bible are
the Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Bible read by Greek-speaking Jews
and Christians; the Peshitta – the translation used by the Syrian church; and
one of the Dead Sea Scrolls’ Tehillim texts, presumably used by members
of the Jewish sect of Essenes. All of these texts include a line that reads,
"Trustworthy (neeman) is the Lord in all his words, and righteous is he
in all his ways." Presumably, at one
point, some scribe was bothered by the "imperfection" of this psalm and composed
this line in order to fill in the hole.
has a different approach to the problem presented by the missing nun:
Why is there
no nun in Ashrei?
fall of Israel's enemies (a circumlocution for Israel) begins with it.
For it is
is the virgin of Israel, she shall no more rise." (Amos 5:2)
of the nun is so glaring to R.
Yochanan that it is a presence in and of itself.
This gap suggests to R. Yochanan that a
nun line existed which David
suppressed or censored. What was this
line? R. Yochanan does not seek to reconstruct this line on his own as did the
anonymous scribe above. Rather, he
looks to the rest of the Bible. His
reasoning is that if the nun was
excluded from Ashrei, there must be a negative association with the
letter somewhere else in the Bible.
sets his sights on Amos 5:2, "Fallen (nafla) is the
virgin of Israel, she shall no more rise." R. Yochanan does not select this
verse merely because it begins with nun
and is a prophecy of doom for Israel.
Rather, this verse is particularly problematic from a theological
perspective. Not only does it
prophesize the downfall of Israel, but it precludes any redemption from that
downfall. This verse is certainly
not the only place that a biblical prophecy raises the possibility of the
permanent downfall of Israel. Most
notably the “rebuke” found in Devarim 28 concludes with a prediction that
a sinful Israel will ultimately find itself back where it started, as slaves in
Egypt. No second Exodus is foreseen. Nevertheless, the mainstream view
among the prophets, which is adopted by the Rabbis as normative, is that the
covenant between God and Israel is eternal and inviolable. Regardless of Israel’s sins, God will
never forsake them entirely. In the
end, Israel shall be redeemed. No
exile shall last forever.
as this one in Amos are theologically problematic particularly in the
context of the Jewish debate with early Christianity. The claim that God has abandoned the
Jewish people because of their sins, and that the Jewish people shall not rise
anymore following the destruction of the Second Temple, is central to the
Christian argument. It was,
therefore, particularly important for the Rabbis to neutralize those biblical
sources which suggest that the Jews may be forsaken.
does this in an equivocal manner. By
stating that David omitted this verse from Ashrei, he affirms its
problematic nature. Yet, in doing
so, he also calls attention to the Amos verse. Once he proposes his interpretation,
the person who recites Ashrei is reminded of this verse every time he
goes from the mem verse in Ashrei straight to the samech
verse. It is as if the outline of
the putative nun verse remains between the mem and samech
verses, even as the letters themselves have been excised. This reading thus both affirms and
denies the notion of a permanent exile.
lines are a sort of parenthetical remark which suggests an alternative
explanation of the verse in Amos.
I would like to temporarily hold off on dealing with these lines, and
first discuss the conclusion of the discussion of R. Yochanan’s explanation of
the missing nun in Ashrei. The Gemara notes:
R. Nachman b.
Yitzchak says: Even so, David refers
to it by inspiration and promises them an uplifting. For it is written: The Lord upholdeth
all that fall.
R. Nachman b.
Yitzchak further develops R. Yochanan’s notion that the verse from Amos
and its threat of permanent exile are both present and absent in the space
between the mem and the samech
lines in Asherei. R. Nachman
notes that in the samech verse, the line that would follow the
nun verse, the word noflim,
“that fall,” is at the end of the first stitch.
Noflim shares the same root, nafal, as the
nun word that begins the Amos
verse. R. Nachman suggests that this
use of noflim alludes to the missing
nun verse and responds to it. This verse declares that God, in
fact, holds up all who fall.
Israel can never be in a position in which it has fallen and cannot get up. God is always supporting Israel. The samech verse thus both
recalls and negates the putative nun verse and its message of ultimate
doom. Like R. Yochanan, R. Nachman
would like to completely deny the possibility of the complete demise of Israel. However, he knows that such an idea
is rooted in the prophets and cannot be completely wished away.
We can now
return to the lines we skipped, which present an alternative explanation of the
verse in Amos:
In the West
(the Land of Israel) this verse is thus interpreted: She is fallen, but she shall no more
fall. Rise, O virgin of Israel.
interpretation entirely neutralizes the problematic nature of the verse,
completely inverting the meaning of the text.
It does so by adding a few words, “no more fall,” to the middle of the
verse. As a result, the verse now
predicts, not the end of Israel’s ascent, but the final instance of her
How can this
be? Can the Rabbis insert words into the Bible in order to reverse the curse
found therein? The scholar James
Kugel suggests that the way in which the Gemara presents this interpretation
reflects its conclusion, but not its logic.
The Rabbis did not simply add words to the Bible. They took advantage of
the fact that there is no punctuation in the biblical text. They offer an alternative way of
parsing the verse which, though less idiomatic than the conventional reading,
does at least do away with the theological problem. The conventional reading of the verse
shall no more rise, the virgin of Israel.
read it as:
Fallen, she shall no more- Rise O’ virgin of Israel!
“she shall no more” now modify “fall” rather than “rise.” This interpretation does not add any
words to the verse; it is based entirely on the words of the verse itself. The words added in the Gemara’s
explanation of the interpretation only clarify the elliptical nature of the
The Rabbis of
the Land of Israel have a more aggressive approach towards the Amos verse
and the notion that Israel may be permanently exiled. These rabbis reject outright the
possibility that God could ever forsake Israel, and they deny that such an idea
even appears in the Bible. They
attempt to erase the Amos verse as it is commonly understood, without
leaving a trace. They insist that
Amos 5:2 does not in any way suggest an exile without end. Quite to the contrary, it predicts
the end of all exiles and the final redemption.
Yet even this
reading does not succeed in effacing the simple meaning of the text or the
notion of covenant that can be permanently broken. The Rabbis’ parsing of the verse
remains forced. It calls attention
to the more straightforward reading.
A certain anxiety that perhaps Israel will not be redeemed from its current
exile underlies even this aggressive reading.
The next section presents another statement of R. Elazar b. Avina, the amora
who was responsible for the previous discussions about Ashrei:
R. Elazar b.
Avina said furthermore:
[the achievement] ascribed to Mikhael than that ascribed to Gavriel.
Mikhael it is written:
Then one of
the serafim flew over to me (Yishayahu 6:6)
Gavriel it is written:
Gavriel whom I had seen in the vision at the beginning,
to fly in a flight etc (Daniel 9:21)
passage, R. Elazar considers the relative flying abilities of the angels Mikhael
and Gavriel. The impetus for this
comparison seems to be the striking parallels between two prophetic visions
recorded at different points in the Bible.
Yishayahu Chapter Six describes the prophet Yishayahu’s famous
vision, in which he witnesses God seated in the Temple. The angles, called Serafim,
stand before Him, crying “Holy, holy, holy! The Lord of Hosts! His presence
fills all the earth!” (Verse 3). Yishayahu declares his unworthiness to receive
Divine revelation. In response to
this declaration, Yishayahu tells us:
Then one of
the serafim flew over to me with a live coal
Which he had
taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.
He touched it
to my lips and declared:
Now that this
has touched your lips,
And your sin
purged away (Verse 7).
Nine of Daniel, its hero similarly narrates one of his prophetic
experiences. Daniel prays for Divine
inspiration, and at long last he tells us:
While I was
uttering my prayer,
Gavriel, whom I had previously seen in the vision,
Was caused to
fly in a flight and reached (lit. touched) me
time of the evening offering.
He made me
understand and spoke to me… (Verses 21-22)
In both of
these instances, the prophet is touched by an angel, and is thereby made ready
to receive the forthcoming prophecy.
There are, however, important differences between these two depictions. R. Elazar focuses on the difference
in verbs used to describe the angels’ flights.
Yishayahu uses the single verb va-ya’af, whereas Daniel uses the
curious double verb muaf biaf, which is rendered here as “fly in a
flight." What is the reason for this
strange double language? R. Elazer says that it means that Gavriel took two
flaps of his wings to reach Daniel, while Mikhael only took one flap of his
wings to cover the same distance in reaching Yishayahu.
How do you know that this [word] 'one' [of the Serafim] means
R. Yochanan says:
By an analogy
from [the words] 'one', 'one.'
Here it is
unto me one of the Serafim;
another place it is written:
Mikhael, one of the chief princes, came to help me (Daniel 10:13).
The verse in
Yishayahu never identifies the angel in question. How does R. Elazar know that we are
talking about Mikhael? R. Yochanan
answers on the basis of a gezeira shava, a hermeneutical tool in which
two verses are linked based on the common occurrence of a word or phrase. In Yishayahu, the angel is
described using the word “one,” and so too, a little later in Daniel’s vision,
the angel Mikhael is described using the word “one."
shavot such as this
often seem arbitrary and technical.
In this case, the interpretation may have a deeper meaning. A few verses later, Daniel describes
a Divine being who “touched my lips."
We can reasonably assume that this being is the one previously mentioned,
i.e. Mikhael. If the rabbis
understood the text this way, then it makes sense to identify the angel who
touches Yishayahu’s lips with the angel who touches Daniel’s lips. Furthermore, in the context of
Daniel, Mikhael appears to be the greater angel, so it also makes sense to
attribute greater flying prowess to Mikhael than Gavriel.
interpretation may be more than just an exercise in biblical inter-textuality. The Bible’s failure to identify the
name of the angel who touched the coal to Yishayahu’s lips is no mere oversight. In most of the Bible, angels have
neither proper names nor independent identities.
There is no hierarchy of angels.
Only in Daniel, we find angels with names, such as Mikhael and Gavriel,
and with ranks, like “one of the chief princes."
Rabbinic angelology knows the names and ranks of many more angels. In naming the angel who touched
Yishayahu, they do not merely fill a gap in the biblical narrative; they bring
the texts of one of the classical prophets into line with the worldview found in
Daniel’s apocalypse, and further developed by the Rabbis.
now concludes with a more complete ranking of the angels based on their flight
[reaches his goal] in one [flight],
and the Angel
of Death in eight.
In the time
of plague, however, [the Angel of Death, too, reaches his goal] in one.
know Mikhael’s superiority over Gavriel.
Next on the totem pole is Eliyahu.
It makes sense that Eliyahu, who, after all, is not a true angel, but
merely a man who ascended to heaven, would not have the same flying prowess as
the two archangels. More surprising,
perhaps, is that the least gifted of the angels is the angel of death. We generally think of him as a pretty
potent fellow. Perhaps this is meant
to teach us that despite what it may seem like to us, in the celestial realm,
the forces of life easily out-maneuver the forces of death. As such, the world is not such a
bleak place. However, the Gemara
gives one caveat. In times of
plague, the angel of death moves as fast as Mikhael himself. At times, the forces of death are
ascendant in the world, and our heavenly protectors are helpless to save us.
last phrase, the Gemara raises what will increasingly be one of the central
themes of this chapter of Masekhet Berakhot: the place of death and
suffering in the world, and the question of why bad things happen to good
people. Even though this passage was
initially introduced to the Gemara on a tangential pretext, because it features
the saying of a rabbi who was just quoted previously, it actually has an
integral thematic place within the chapter as a whole.