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    The blessing for sons & daughters – Ask the Rabbi

    November 4th, 2018

    Q. When we bless our daughters on Friday night we say, “May God make you like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah”. Why isn’t the boys’ blessing, “May God make you like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”?

    Blessing the children on the Sabbath eve, by Moritz Oppenheim, 1867

    A. The boys’ blessing, “God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh” is a direct Biblical quotation from Genesis 48:20.

    It is the grandfather Jacob’s blessing of his grandsons (the sons of his son Joseph), praying that they will be a source of continuity and destiny even in an unfriendly environment.

    There is no equivalent verse for girls so tradition constructed one, though it is suggested by Ruth 4:11 (“The Lord make the woman who has come into your house like Rachel and Leah”).

    Both boys and girls get an additional b’rachah, the priestly blessing (“The Lord bless you and keep you”, quoted from Numbers 6:24-26).

    The English poets’ “Ritzpah”

    November 3rd, 2018

    The following article by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple appeared in The Jewish Bible Quarterly, Vol. 46, no. 4, October-December 2018.

    The Second Book of Samuel (chapters 3 and 21) tells the story of Ritzpah, an 11th century BCE Israelite woman whose despair at the death of her sons is a paradigm of motherly love and devotion. Several English-language poets utilise the story as a framework for their own treatment of a mother’s fierce defense of her children, at the same time adding to our understanding of the story itself and enhancing the woman’s role in biblical events. It is this second aspect which the present paper addresses. It does not imply that the Tanach lacks dynamic women, especially in the period before Ritzpah, but it may be that the image of women had declined and the poets’ treatment of Ritzpah indicates its rehabilitation.


    There are two – interconnected – stages in the story, connecting Ritzpah’s private emotions with political developments.

    STAGE 1

    II Samuel 3:7 introduces to us Ritzpah the daughter of Ayah. She is a pilegesh, a royal concubine: pilegesh can also mean a legal though secondary wife (it possibly derives from the Biblical Hebrew p-l-g, “part” or “half”). After the death of King Saul on Mount Gilboa, Ritzpah seems to have resided with Ishboshet, a son of Saul. Scandal and drama ensue when Ishboshet accuses Avner the son of Ner, Saul’s cousin and army commander, of having lain with Ritzpah for not only romantic but political purposes (verse 7). The protest against Avner implies that marriage with a dead king’s concubine is tantamount to a claim to the throne (cf. 12:8, 16:21). Avner hits back at Ishboshet (verse 8) with loaded words and heavy sarcasm – “Am I a dog’s head from Judah? Here I have been loyally serving the House of your father Saul and his kinsfolk and friends, and I have not betrayed you into the hands of David; yet this day you reproach me over a woman!”

    The conflict leads to Avner switching sides and transferring his support to Ishboshet’s rival, David, though he himself is finally killed by David’s military commander. After two years on the throne, Ishboshet is murdered at Hebron by Rechav and Ba’anah, the sons of Rimmon the Be’erite. Ishboshet’s head was carried to David, who buries it and kills the assassins. With the death of Ishboshet, the dynasty of Saul comes to almost its end. Whilst Ritzpah’s part in this story seems rather passive and the conflict rages about her and her status without her apparently being personally affecting the events, the wider repercussions are political and affect the destiny of the royal dynasty.

    STAGE 2

    The second Ritzpah episode, inserted in II Samuel 21 as an addendum to the story of David’s incumbency, moves her right into the limelight as an enraged mother defending her children even in death, forcing David to take decisive action in the interests of national stability and morality. The context is a three-year famine which is blamed on Saul’s attack on the Gibeonites in contravention of a treaty obligation (Joshua 9:15). Seeking to make peace, David delivers seven of Saul’s male descendants to the Gibeonites, including Ritzpah’s sons Armoni and Mephiboshet, who appear to be innocent victims of political intrigue, though as we shall see this was disputed by the Talmudic rabbis. The Gibeonites execute the seven men: “they impaled them on the mountain before the Lord” (verses 6-9), and the bodies of the dead are now left unburied as a mark of shame.

    The bereaved mother Ritzpah, torn by the execution and the denial of normal burial, now vigilantly watches over the bodies of her sons, protecting them from birds by day and wild animals by night. In this way several months elapse until the coming of the rains in the autumn. Moved and impelled by Ritzpah’s vigil, a private act which must have become a public scandal, David finally allows all seven men to be buried, together with the bones of Saul and Jonathan who had died in battle (verses 13-14; I Sam. 31:1-6).

    The outcome of these events, articulated as Chapter 21 proceeds, brings Ritzpah to public notice by her protest against what she sees as the immorality of her sons’ fate in contravention of the law in Deuteronomy 24:16 which says children must not be put to death for the deeds of their father (though the Talmud in Yevamot 79a hints at punishable sins of their own, and Kimchi thinks the sons might have been involved in the treacherous attack on the Gibeonites). Ritzpah believes they were put to death not for their own sins but for political reasons, in revenge for the way their father Saul had treated the Gibeonites (Joshua 9) and is sure an example has been made of the two of them as well as five sons born to Adriel by Saul’s daughter Merav (II Sam. 21:8). All seven bodies are left hanging for many weeks by the Gibeonites.

    Ritzpah sits on a rock on mourner’s sackcloth (or perhaps the sackcloth is a tent covering to protect herself from the elements) and lovingly guards the seven bodies from the birds and animals. It is not certain how long the vigil lasts. It could be seven months starting with the cutting of the Omer (Lev. 23:10-14) and concluding in about November. During this time the corpses are probably reduced to bones. Eventually David takes note and has all seven bodies buried in the sepulcher of their ancestor Kish together with the remains of Saul and Jonathan. This act not only brings David some credit but terminates the famine: “God responded to the plea of the land” (II Sam. 21:14: Midrash Num. R. 8:4). Maybe she finally achieves closure by accepting the sons’ fate as God’s will. In any case she secures burial both for her own sons and the other royal princes. Though a woman would not usually become involved in public events, she saves the land and the nation from continued famine and changes the political landscape. The text tells the story in matter-of-fact fashion but it leaves the door open for the modern poets to more or less use it to celebrate feminist initiative and rehabilitate the image of women. To assess the image and personality of Ritzpah properly, however, we would need to know more about her family dynamics – her relationship with Saul, her role (if any) in his monarchical incumbency, her relationship with her sons, and the position of women in general in that period. But we are probably not ready for that assessment yet.

    Despite the drama of the story, few Jews have ever heard of Ritzpah and her protective instinct, her protest and vigil, though rabbinic commentary is aware of her deeds. Gentiles seem to know more about her than Jews, possibly because she might prefigure Jesus’ mother Mary who (together with other women) mourned for her crucified son at the time of Pontius Pilate, as recorded in the New Testament narratives (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40,47, 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-13; etc.). It may be significant that it is gentile, not Jewish, English-language writers who produce poems about Ritzpah.

    Biblical literature is full of grieving mothers. The mother of Sisera sits by the window and wonders why her son’s chariot does not come home (Judg. 5:28). Rachel weeps over her lost children (Jer. 31:15). Even God Himself is like a mother who mourns (Isa. 66:13). Ritzpah’s lament and vigil is part of this tradition as a mother who grieves for her sons, torn apart by their death as by their birth (cf. II Sam. 14:4-20).


    Ritzpah figures in the English-language poetic corpus of several countries, especially England, the United States and Australia. Three poets in particular address the subject, all giving their poems the simple name “Rizpah”.

    They use the story for their own purposes, but that is another subject. Our concern is the question, what do these poets contribute to our understanding of the Biblical text itself? The answer in regard to William Cullen Bryant seems to be “Nothing”. He appears to limit himself to the story itself and merely gives it a rhetorical rephrasing. Seeing the dramatic possibilities of the incident, he rewrites the events. We first think that he does not really add a new dimension of understanding to what happened but makes it more memorable, building a stark brief Biblical narrative into an exciting drama. Then we realise that he does something which the Bible story does not: he gives Ritzpah a voice. She is no longer more or less reactive, carried hither and thither by events but not controlling them. Now she speaks out, in deeds if not in words.

    Two other poets, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Henry Kendall, take the Ritzpah story as a metaphor for social injustices that occur and recur in history. Many things take place which are not fair. In spite of protest, they do happen: innocent sons get caught up in conflagrations; powerful people victimise the innocent; there is little mercy for mothers left to mourn and even lose their reason out of anguish; in anti-feminist prejudice, women are blamed for whatever goes wrong. These are important themes, but the poets don’t seem to add to our understanding of the story: they see it repeated over and over again, they use it as a symbol, they depict the maternal anguish that often bursts into uncontrollable emotion. But at the same time they do add a dimension
    to the Ritzpah story, allowing a woman to emerge from the shadows and shape political events. Without these poets, the Ritzpah period might be one of those stages of Biblical history when women remained in the background whilst most of the action was in male hands. The Ritzpah they fashion comes out of obscurity and becomes a person. However, the rabbinic sages did not always like dynamic women; in regard to Deborah, for instance, some Talmudic sages endeavored to detract from her power and initiative (TB Meg. 14a-b).


    The leading poetic contributor to this process is the English poet laureate, Alfred, Lord Tennyson,[1] whose poem “Rizpah” is probably one of his best works, acclaimed even by his critics,[2] though its literary and psychological dimensions are a subject of debate amongst the scholars. It seems to be part of Tennyson’s corpus of memorial poems for his friend Arthur Henry Hallam.[3] In a way reminiscent of Sisera’s mother waiting for her warrior son to come home (Judg. 5:28), it depicts a mother wailing for her son Willy who has been arrested, imprisoned and taken out to die.

    Tennyson’s poem is a moving melodramatic monologue though somewhat overblown. The poet is writing against the background of the Victorian way of death in which child mortality left countless mothers bereaved and desperate for an epithet for the little tombstones, though death, like sex, was not generally talked about explicitly in those days. Tennyson’s “Rizpah”, however, does not mourn dead children but an adult son who was executed “for a show”, suggesting that he was the victim of bad company and official vindictiveness, and was executed for a minor crime. This sees the poem as a protest against injustice, a phenomenon that – exemplified in the Ritzpah story – is as old as the Bible. Tennyson’s Ritzpah says:

    He lived with a lot of wild mates, and they never would let him be good;
    They swore that he dare not rob the mail, and he swore that he would…
    I came into the court to the judge and the lawyers, I told them my tale;
    God’s own truth – but they kill’d, they kill’d him for robbing the mail.
    They hang’d him in chains for a show – we had always borne a good name –
    To be hang’d for a thief – and then put away – isn’t that enough shame?
    Then since I couldn’t but hear that cry of my boy that was dead,
    They seiz’d me and shut me up: they fasten’d me down on my bed.
    “Mother, O mother!” he call’d in the dark to me year after year –
    They beat me for that, they beat me – you know that I couldn’t but hear…
    Flesh of my flesh was gone, but bone of my bone was left –
    I stole them all from the lawyers – and you, will you call it a theft? –
    My baby, my bones, that had suck’d me, the bones that had laughed and had cried –
    Theirs? O no! they are mine – not theirs – they had moved in my side.

    Whilst it is tempting to see Tennyson’s poem as just sentimentality (“smothering maternity”) and sympathy for a woman’s woes, or even a (mere) protest against injustice, Roger Platizky (A Blueprint of His Dissent: Madness and Method in Tennyson’s Poetry)[4] looks at it in the context of madness in poetry. Mental disturbance in poetry is not limited to males but can reflect “a despair so deep that it leads to madness in a mother”. From this point of view, “Rizpah” has a major psychological dimension. The Biblical Ritzpah is then an early embodiment of the phenomenon of the “mad” mother. But this is not the only insight that Tennyson’s poem contributes to our understanding of the Ritzpah story. More significant is the fact that he gives a Biblical woman the opportunity of moving out of the wings and onto the stage.


    Amongst the American writer William Cullen Bryant’s range of poems about death such as “Thanatopsis”, is his “Rizpah”. It is not widely known or universally liked: Poe says, “We like it less than any poem yet mentioned…”[5] Bryant more or less limits himself to the Biblical narrative but hones in upon the mother’s fierce devotion and shattered mind. It does not identify those who decided the sons must die but it implies that they could have shown more clemency. Yet Bryant gives the story more substance by recasting it. His re-telling of the story has its greatest value in that a concubine becomes a major player and speaks out. In the Biblical story she has hitherto been a minor character, but now everything has changed. Emotion has stirred her up. Now she has a voice. Now she is articulate:

    The low, heart-broken, and wailing strain
    Of a mother that mourns her children slain.
    I have eaten the bitter herb of the rocks,
    And drunk the midnight dew in my locks.
    I have wept till I could not weep, and the pain
    Of my burning eyeballs went to my brain.
    Ye were foully murdered, my hapless sons,
    By the hands of wicked and cruel ones;
    Ye fell, in your fresh and blooming prime,
    All innocent, for your father’s crime.
    Oh, what an hour for a mother’s heart,
    When the pitiless ruffians tore us apart!
    I clung to my sons with desperate strength,
    Till the murderers loosed my hold at length,
    They died – and the mother that gave them birth
    Is forbid to cover their bones with earth.

    HENRY KENDALL (1839-82)

    Henry Kendall, a civil servant and bush poet, is regarded by some literary scholars as Australia’s finest poet. His poetry, well received in England, was praised for its poetic feeling and “melodious writing”. Like Bryant, he retells the story based on the Biblical narrative, but he goes further by applying it to the contemporary condition. He first tells the story, taking some literary license:

    Three nightfalls past, saw dark-eyed Rizpah, clad
    In dripping sackcloth, pace with naked feet
    The flinty rock where lie unburied yet
    The sons of her and Saul, and he whose post
    Of watch is in those places desolate,
    Got up, and spake unto thy servant here
    Concerning her – yea, even unto me –
    “Behold”, he said, “the woman seeks not rest…”

    Applying the poem to contemporary conditions, Kendall writes of “women waiting day by day” for sons who will never return. He speaks of war even though he has no way of predicting the 20th century horrors of the First and Second World Wars and subsequent conflicts. He adds a dimension which reflects the vast distances between Australia and Europe, whereby losses in far-away wars such as the Crimean conflict eventually boomerang upon antipodean life and end up with Australian Ritzpahs “losing their households through no sin of theirs”:

    We have our Rizpahs in these modern days
    Who’ve lost their households through no sin of theirs,
    On bloody fields and in the pits of war;
    And though their dead were sheltered in the sod
    By friendly hands, these have not suffered less
    Than she of Judah did, nor is their love
    Surpassed by theirs…
    …Every letter brought a faintness on
    That made her gasp before she opened it,
    To read the story written for her eyes,
    And cry, or brighten, over its contents.

    Once again we see a poet who gives a rehabilitated Biblical woman a voice, a presence, and (in modern terms) a punch.


    The name Ritzpah is often transliterated as Rizpah, though the “z” is not a zayin but a tzadde. A similar problem of transliteration is Mizpah (“watch tower”: Gen 31:44-49) where we would expect Mitzpah. Ritzpah is from the root r-tz-f and has two lines of possible derivation:
    1. A root that means “to glow”, hence ritzpah = a baking-stone or glowing coal. Describing the heavenly world, Isaiah 6:6 cites a seraph with a ritzpah in his hand. A plural form of the word is found in I Kings 19:6.

    2. A root that means “to pave”, to fit together a mosaic of small stones. Song of Songs 3:10 speaks of Solomon’s covered palanquin (litter) being tessellated or inlaid. Tessellated paving is found in Solomon’s Temple: II Chronicles 7:3, in Ezekiel’s Temple and Ezekiel 40:17-18, 42:3, and additionally in Ahasuerus’ palace (Esther 1:6). Ritzpah – from rabbinic times if not earlier – is the Hebrew word for a floor or pavement. In Freemasonry, meeting rooms have a tessellated floor, with a checkerwork design of alternating black and white tiles arranged like a crossword. The word “tessellate” derives from a Latin root meaning a small cube. There are several theories of Masonic origins. There is little doubt that the formulative period of the movement was the 18th century, when the English language began to use the word “tessellated”.

    The name Ritzpah could indicate either (or both) of these two options, suggesting either passion or sexual heat (Option 1) and/or symmetrical appearance (Option 2). All the family names are significant. Her father was Ayah, whose name means a falcon. Her husband was Saul (Sha’ul, “asked for”: perhaps “chosen for kingship”. She bore two sons, Armoni – “of the palace”, indicating royal birth and upbringing; and Mephiboshet, “scatterer of shame”, which could hint at an unsavory reputation (either his own or one connected with his parentage).

    1. JH Buckley, Tennyson: The Growth of a Poet (Harvard UP, 1961), J.D. Jump (ed.), Tennyson: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge, 1967), A Quiller-Couch (ed.), The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1918 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1939).
    2. Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) was critical but respectful of Tennyson, who in turn questioned Swinburne’s literary sensuality and atheism: see CB Stevenson, “Swinburne and
    Tennyson’s Tristam”, Victorian Poetry 19:2, 1981, pp. 1865-9.
    3. Arthur Henry Hallam (1811-23): the subject of Tennyson’s “In Memoriam”, 1850.
    4. Roger Platizky, A Blueprint of His Dissent: Madness and Method in Tennyson’s Poetry (Bucknell Univ. Press, 1989), ch. 5.
    5. The Works of… Edgar Allen Poe (vol. 3, 1850), pp. 178-88.

    Other articles by Rabbi Apple in the Jewish Bible Quarterly:
    Psalm 34 – does the heading fit?
    Is Pesach Passover?
    The meaning of Dammesek Eliezer
    Shirat HaYam: Miriam’s Song?
    The problem of theodicy in Psalms
    Addenda to Psalm 145
    Rewarding a Mitzvah: The Etymology of Issachar
    Arami Oved Avi (Deut. 26:5): P’shat and D’rash
    Pillars of the Temple
    Psalms of the Day
    Onkelos on the Torah: Understanding the Bible Text (Book Review)
    Sinai upside-down: The theological message of a Midrash
    Matrilineality – letter to the editor of the JBQ
    Magdil & Migdol – liturgical responses to textual variants
    The happy man of Psalm 1
    The two wise women of proverbs chapter 31

    Psalm 34 – does the heading fit?

    November 3rd, 2018

    The following article by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple appeared in The Jewish Bible Quarterly, Vol. 46, no. 2, April-June 2018.

    Psalm 34 is one of several psalms in which a heading links the poem with a historical event. The JPSA 1962 translation calls this poem “(A Psalm) of David when he feigned madness in the presence of Abimelech, who turned him out, and he left”. The heading is followed by a 22-line alphabetical acrostic poem which lacks a vav-verse but ends with an extra peh-verse which praises God for redeeming those who believe in Him.[1] Oesterley[2] thought the heading was inappropriate and inserted by mistake. Buttenweiser[3] asserted that “poetically the hymn is worthless”. Driver[4] regarded the alphabetical acrostic as a mere artificial device without logical purpose. Though the poem makes no explicit reference to the event named in the heading, Jewish tradition maintained that the psalm was linked to that episode and esteemed the psalm sufficiently to use it in the liturgy. The present writer believes that the traditional view could well be right.


    The Hebrew heading is rather vague. If it indeed refers to David feigning madness, the redactor/s must have chosen not to spell out the details and used a euphemism which is rendered into English in a range of ways. The JPSA 1962 translation is “feigned madness”. The JPSA 1917 version says “changed his demeanour”. The early editions of the Singer prayerbook[5] say “changed his behaviour”. Robert Alter says “altered his good sense”, using “sense” to mean rational, accepted behaviour.[6] The Hebrew is b’shannoto et ta’amo, which, according to Rashi, is a euphemism for acting like a shoteh or idiot. Ibn Ezra says that ta’am has two meanings (physical and mental) and here it indicates soundness, sanity, stability (as in Psalm 119:66, Proverbs 11:22 and Job 12:20). There is a play on words in verse 9 which says ta’amu ur’u, “taste and see (that the Lord is good)”, using ta’am in a non-physical sense. Metzudat David and Metzudat Tziyyon think that what David did in the palace of Achish was to behave strangely and talk unintelligibly.

    The context appears to be an incident in I Samuel 21:11-16. Fleeing from Saul and fearing danger, David came to King Achish of Gath. There he was recognised by the brothers of Goliath who were courtiers of Achish. They saw him as a threat (see their words about him in I Samuel 18:7). David saved himself by pretending to be insane (vayit’holel – probably meaning “he talked wildly”) and was mocked and thrown out, ensuring that he could live to face another day. However, there is an apparent discrepancy between the two texts. Where the psalm speaks of his appearing before Avimelech, I Samuel says it was Achish. If (with Rashi) we understand Avimelech as the formal name for a Philistine king – following the pattern of Pharaoh as the Egyptian royal title, separate from the personal name of a given Pharaoh – and Achish as the king’s personal name, the two men are identical and the discrepancy is explained. The Midrash to Psalms[7] embroiders the Biblical account by suggesting that the royal palace was not unaccustomed to eccentric behaviour because the king’s wife and daughter were both insane. No wonder the king says (verse 16), “Do I lack madmen [meshuga’im] that you have brought this fellow to rave for me?”

    According to the Midrash, David had previously told God that he was puzzled by madness and saw no purpose in its existence, but by means of the Achish episode God proved that it could be a life-saver, for had David not put on this pretence he would probably not have escaped alive. On another occasion, according to the animal stories in Jewish legend, God showed David that spiders too had a purpose.[8] These episodes seem part of the way God instructed David to show wisdom in the way he conducted himself as king. Samson Raphael Hirsch says in his commentary that David sought this guidance from God, as hinted at in verse 3 with its darashti, “I turned to the Lord”.

    When I Samuel speaks of David feigning lunacy, verse 14 of the text says that he “scratched marks on the doors of the gate and let his saliva run down his beard”. Both apparently were forms of crazy, irresponsible conduct. Rabbinic literature has a somewhat similar notion (BT Chag. 3b) when it says that a person who destroys whatever people give him is a shoteh, an idiot.[9] The factors behind madness are not analysed. The fact that David could play-act in this way suggests that a person can assume the guise of madness.

    The Midrash we have quoted implies that it is possible for madness to benefit people in some fashion. This seems to justify the statement in the final verse of the psalm, which begins with a peh which does not fit in to the alphabetical scheme but declares that God redeems (podeh) the life of His servants, i.e. uses the instrumentalities and agencies He chooses to bring them benefit. This binds together the beginning and end of the psalm, justifies the psalm title and indicates why the content of the psalm focuses on David’s gratitude for his escape from death. It refutes Oesterley’s claim that the psalm heading is inappropriate and entered the Book of Psalms “by mistake”.

    It is true that the psalm itself does not mention lunacy at all. All it does is to acknowledge David’s deliverance from evil. There is a Jewish tradition that the psalm is linked with the madness episode, but that in itself is not necessarily conclusive evidence. The question remains, why is the madness not spelled out? The question applies to all the psalms which have “historical” headings: if the historical links are valid why are they not clearly mentioned in the text? In the case of Psalm 34, one answer is that David is focussing on his escape and not on the stratagem he employed for it – though there are hints in verses 14 and 19 that he has a bad conscience about his actions which involved misusing the gift of speech. Alter thinks the link is not so much in the words but the focus on God’s redemptive or rescuing power.[10] It is a mark of the “historical” psalms that they are not chronologies but poetic musings about suffering and release, e.g. Psalm 7 concerns Cush; Psalm 18 mentions David’s enemies and Saul.


    Psalm 34 is an alphabetical psalm with a missing letter vav, though there is a hint of a vav in verse 6b. Arthur Marmorstein[11], pointing out that the psalm text is disjointed if it goes straight from heh to zayin, thinks the missing vav verse might be ufodeh Ado-nai nefesh avadav vesole’ach lechatat yedidav (“And the Lord redeems the life of His servants and pardons the sin of those who love Him”), found in a version of the Amidah. If he is right, this verse must have been dislodged and moved (without an initial vav) to become verse 33 of the psalm. Another defective alphabetical psalm is 145, where there is no nun verse.[12] Such defects in an alphabetical scheme might indicate scribal error or early orthological fluidity. Acrostics were probably an aid to memory. It is also likely that poets used them as a framework for the chanting of their poems – presumably by an assembly, usually in responsive form. Adele Berlin believes that the poet wanted to enlist the whole alphabet to show the greatness of God.[13] Though this style of writing constrains the author to fit his work into a pre-existent mould, the acrostic does not necessarily prevent the author from organising his thoughts, but if Psalm 34 is an example it is rather unsatisfactory in that it does not seem to allow in-depth analysis of the themes he touches on, such as redemption and theodicy. Still, it is too easy a judgment when Buttenweiser sweepingly dismisses this psalm as “poetically… worthless”. To assess the poetical worth of the psalm, it has to be looked at, not against Biblical poetry as a whole but in relation to alphabetical acrostic psalms.

    An example of the alphabetical acrostic poem is Psalm 145 (Ashrei). In this psalm (like Psalm 34) the poet commences with a declaration that praise of God is always in his mouth. Then he sets out the Divine traits and deeds that call forth his praise. Is there a logic in the order in which he lists God’s attributes? In one sense, possibly not, but he is not writing as an analytical philosopher but as an impressionable emotional poet who looks from side to side of the Creation and at the way the Creator cares for His creatures, and is lost in admiration at everything he sees. Put at its lowest, Psalm 34 is no worse – and in one major respect, if we follow the interpretation found in Samson Raphael Hirsch’s commentary,[14] it is actually better.


    Hirsch explains that the poem is autobiographical, presenting a series of personal reflections on David’s own experience: “This chapter refers to an event in David’s difficult life which surely represents the nadir of all the affliction… Cast down from the heights to such depths of despair, David here proclaims those cardinal truths that contain so much practical wisdom”. The poet was in danger, had the brainwave that led to a successful tactic, and now thanks God for his escape, which he celebrates in verse. Seeing, though, that the poem is alphabetical, is the thinking organised and systematic? Is the poet writing randomly, swinging from theme to theme, from thought to thought, from memory to memory, wherever the sequence of the aleph-bet leads him? The present author submits that Driver is wrong that the poem contains no logical development. Despite the fact that this is not a philosophical treatise, it is possible to discern in the poem an overall theme – Divine protection and rescue of the righteous – illustrated in the interplay between personal memory and Wisdom-Literature type reflection.

    Evidence that the psalm is indeed autobiographical is the zayin verse (verse 6). The Hebrew says, zeh ani kara, which is usually translated, “This poor (or afflicted) man cried…” The Soncino version[15] is adamant when it says in its commentary, “The Psalmist is not referring to himself”. But why not? If we take the verse as a personal reflection it identifies the poor (or afflicted) man as David, though his name is not spelled out. True, once he has decided to use an alphabetical acrostic the author has to find an opening word for the verse beginning with zayin, and whatever word he chose would have been open to criticism. Still, zeh does seem a somewhat strange choice when one considers the range of nouns, verbs and adjectives that begin with zayin. The Psalmist had other options from which to choose: Psalm 145, for example, begins its zayin verse with the word zecher. Psalm 25:6 has zechor, from the same root. Other zayin possibilities are the range of words deriving from the roots zayin-mem-nun or zayin-kuf-nun. The context of the verse itself offers us no conclusive proof that the Psalmist is speaking of himself as zeh ani, but he certainly could be, and this is the way that Radak (David Kimchi) understands the verse.

    Apart from the conventional this poor man cried, there is a quite different way of understanding the word zeh, seeing it as a demonstrative like hinneh, “Behold!” This would give the phrase zeh ani kara the sense of “Look, (or here is) a poor man crying!” This is the approach taken by the 1962 JPSA version, which says, “Here was a lowly man who called…” The lowly man could and probably does refer to David, though we grant that it does not have to. An analogy is zeh E-li v’an’vehu, “Look, (this is) my God and I will enshrine Him)” (Ex. 15:2).

    The autobiographical verses make up only part of the psalm. Four sections are discernible – 1. Personal (verses 1-5), 2. Impersonal (verses 6-11), 3. Personal again (verses 12-15) and 4. Impersonal again (verses 16-23). In the personal sections, the poet is recalling his experiences: in the impersonal sections, he is a Wisdom teacher. The poem moves from style to style. Sometimes it is subjective: sometimes it is objective. The alternation of sections provides an element of drama, of emotional feeling contrasting with intellectual reflection.


    After the alphabetical acrostic is complete, verse 22 gives us a peh verse referring to God redeeming (saving, protecting) the life of His servants: “The Lord redeems the life of His servants; all who take refuge in Him shall not be ruined” (JPSA 1962 version; the 1917 version has “desolate” instead of “ruined”). This could of course be an editorial addendum, but it is likely that it is the deliberate work of the poet himself. Possibly he has a rhetorical purpose. After he has presented us with the poem he has designed, he deliberately departs from the acrostic to proclaim that whatever happens on earth amongst human beings, the righteous are assured of Divine protection. David has a habit of affirming God’s redemptive power. Apart from a similar conclusion to Psalm 25, he acclaims redemption in (for example) II Samuel 4:9 and I Kings 1:29. Thus the peh-verse is almost like a Davidic stylistic signature.[16]


    Apart from individual verses borrowed by the liturgy here and there, the whole psalm figures in the Sabbath and festival morning services. Possibly its theme was thought to encourage a sabbatical mood, though there is a tradition that it was a Sabbath when David feigned madness.[17] Marmorstein, however, found the psalm in a version of the weekday liturgy, though this did not become the accepted usage.[18]


    If Oesterley is right that the heading of Psalm 34 is there by mistake, the same should apply to all the “historical” psalms. It is more likely that naming a historical setting is not intended to open up a historical analysis but to provide a spur and occasion for a poetical meditation. Without the historical event the poet might never have been stimulated towards these thoughts. Presumably this is what tradition sees as the link between the heading and the content of the poem.

    1. Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 2, s.v. “Acrostics”, L Glinert, The Story of Hebrew (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2017).
    2. WOE Oesterley, The Psalms (London: SPCK, 1962 ed.), p. 414.
    3. M Buttenweiser, The Psalms Chronologically Treated (NY: Ktav, 1969 ed.), p. 849.
    4. SR Driver, Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament (NY: Meridian, 1956 ed.), p. 368.
    5. S Singer (ed.), The Authorised Daily Prayer Book (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1962 ed.), p. 22.
    6. R Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (NY: WW Norton, 2007) on Psalm 34.
    7. WG Braude (ed.), The Midrash on Psalms (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1959), vol. 1, pp. 408-10; Second Alphabet of Ben Sira (many eds.); cf. Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 4, cols. 548-
    8. Isa. 59:5, Job 8:14; Second Alphabet of Ben Sira.
    9. BT Chag. 3b lists several indications of madness including a person who goes out alone at night or dwells in a cemetery. Codifiers distinguish between an eccentric and an idiot (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 1:5).
    10. R Alter, op. cit.
    11. A Marmorstein, “The Attitude of the Jews Towards Early Christianity”, in Expositor, vol. 49 (1923), pp. 383-389. The Amidah version he cites is MS Bodl. 2731, p. 20a.
    12. R Apple, “Addenda to Psalm 145“, Jewish Bible Quarterly 44:4 (2016) and the bibliography there.
    13 A Berlin, “The Rhetoric of Psalm 145”, in Biblical and Related Studies Presented to Samuel Iwry (eds. A Kurt & S Morschauer) (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eerdmans, 1985), pp. 17-22.
    14. Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Psalms (trans. Gertrude Hirschler), (Jerus./NY: Feldheim, 1960 ed.), pp. 240-49.
    15. A Cohen (ed.), The Psalms (Hindhead, Surrey: Soncino, 1945), p. 100.
    16. We have already noted Marmorstein’s view about the reference to redemption being dislodged from earlier in the psalm and moved to this position, possibly so that the psalm will not end on an unpleasant note.
    17. Cited by S Baer, Seder Avodat Yisra’el (Berlin: Schocken, 1937), p. 62.
    18. A Marmorstein, loc. cit.

    Other articles by Rabbi Apple in the Jewish Bible Quarterly:
    The English poets’ “Ritzpah”
    Is Pesach Passover?
    The meaning of Dammesek Eliezer
    Shirat HaYam: Miriam’s Song?
    The problem of theodicy in Psalms
    Addenda to Psalm 145
    Rewarding a Mitzvah: The Etymology of Issachar
    Arami Oved Avi (Deut. 26:5): P’shat and D’rash
    Pillars of the Temple
    Psalms of the Day
    Onkelos on the Torah: Understanding the Bible Text (Book Review)
    Sinai upside-down: The theological message of a Midrash
    Matrilineality – letter to the editor of the JBQ
    Magdil & Migdol – liturgical responses to textual variants
    The happy man of Psalm 1
    The two wise women of proverbs chapter 31

    Martin Luther & the Jews

    November 1st, 2018

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 2 November, 2018.

    Martin Luther, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1529

    I was with a bus load of Queensland Jews one Sunday in the 1980s on the way to the reconsecration of the Jewish cemetery in Toowoomba.

    The bus passed the building that once was the Toowoomba synagogue. The edifice originally served a significant Jewish congregation but eventually the Jewish community declined and the synagogue became a Lutheran church.

    Our group asked for permission to explore the grounds but were refused, and we ended up saying Tehillim (Psalms) in the street outside.

    I don’t think the Lutherans were being deliberately antisemitic. Maybe we were just a nuisance. Maybe they weren’t certain how to handle Jews in the light of Martin Luther’s antagonism to Jews and Judaism. In Luther’s day we would have made sure no-one knew we were in the vicinity.

    When I was senior rabbi to the Australian Defence Force I never had a problem with Lutheran chaplains, who were the soul of tolerance and amity. In South Australia with its many Lutheran groups I was received with the greatest of courtesy. Lutheranism had learnt a degree of respect towards Judaism. Whether this could have been said in Nazi Germany is a different matter.

    In 1966 the National Council of Presidents of the Lutheran Church in Australia admitted that especially in World War II, Lutheran papers “naively and uncritically published German propaganda against the Jews”.

    Luther, though he began as an admirer of Jews and wrote a book on the Jewish origin of Jesus, was no friend of Judaism or Jewry. He said that synagogues should be burnt down, Jewish houses should be destroyed and Jewish books confiscated. Jews should not be allowed safe conduct on the roads and rabbis should not be allowed to preach.

    Strangely, he was a serious student of the Old Testament and knew some Hebrew. What he had against us was our rejection of Jesus, whom he saw prefigured throughout Hebrew scripture. His language was vituperative, his feelings fierce, his attitudes uncompromising. It is no comfort that he also used hateful language against the Pope.

    He rejected calls to soften his words and be tolerant towards Jews. He advocated hard labour for Jews as penance for their alleged blasphemy of Christ and their effrontery in converting Christians to Judaism.

    His writings reached their antisemitic height in his On the Jews and Their Lies. He even blamed God, who must have abetted the supposed theological crimes of the Jews: who else would have hardened Jewish hearts?

    That Luther was an antisemite is obvious. Some Jews called him Lo Tahor, “the impure one”. Yet this was not modern racist antisemitism, which claimed that Jews were genetically evil and tainted. In the eyes of this kind of antisemite the Jews could change their exegesis but that would not be enough to cleanse them. To Luther, for all the nastiness and ferocity of his anti-Jewish feeling, the problem was inherently theological.

    Whichever way it was, Jews suffered. The centuries from Luther’s time have seen new theological attitudes (the 1966 document was respectful towards Judaism and rejected “religious bigotry of whatever form”), but it’s still not easy to be a Jew, apparently even in Toowoomba.


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    Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book discusses some 98 themes in the New Testament and Christianity and shows how Jesus and the early Christians can only be understood against a Jewish background. Rabbi Apple never resiles from his own faith and commitment, but sees the book as a contribution to dialogue.

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    Battle of Beer-Sheva commemoration 2018

    November 1st, 2018

    Address by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD at the World War I Battle of Beer Sheva commemoration, Park of the Australian Soldier, Beer Sheva, Wednesday, 31 October, 2018.

    Rabbi Raymond & Mrs Apple with Wendy Hinton, the New Zealand Ambassador to Turkey, Israel, Jordan, and Azerbaijan, at the Battle of Beer Sheva commemoration.

    The Park of the Australian Soldier is a place of play and peace.

    What a dream that is – “play and peace” – in a world where no-one is safe!

    When I grew up in post-war Melbourne, the Jewish community had a cluster of Landsmannschaften, groups of Jews who came from the same town.

    Those chapters of history are now a long time ago, but there are new names that reflect Jewish suffering and sorrow. Wherever you look there are places with Jewish bloodstains. Their blood cries out but the world plays games and lets the Jews weep.

    The famous Four Freedoms boil down to one – the freedom to be yourself. Including the Jewish freedom to be Jews and to have an Israel.

    Look at the Internet in 2018. You read of “basic rights and freedoms to which humans are considered to be entitled, often held to include the rights to life, liberty, equality, and a fair trial, freedom from slavery and torture, and freedom of thought and expression”: upheld in theory but flouted in the very nations and world bodies that claim to defend it.

    Human life is violated every day. It seems that only one freedom is real – the freedom to bear a gun and slay decent people.

    We’re told, “It’s a free country. People have a right to have guns. They have a right to evil opinions.” It makes fools of governments and nations.

    Rabbi Jakobovits says that there are no intrinsic rights in the Bible, only obligations: “Everyone thinks of what society owes to him, not of what he owes to society.”

    So what if my neighbour has values and views different from mine? In a good society I would seek his wellbeing and he would seek mine. We would rejoice in one another. He would feel my pain and I would feel his. Our children would laugh with each other.

    There would be play and peace.


    O God:

    Grant us vision to aspire to the things that could be,

    Patience to bear with the things that take longer,

    Serenity to live with the things we cannot change,

    Courage to rise above doubt,

    And wisdom to know what is good for us and our world.

    May we not break faith with those who have gone before us

    Nor dim the torch which has come from their hands to ours.

    May we never falter in the pursuit of justice.

    May the God of all humanity give us His blessing –

    And let us say Amen.