Ein Yaakov - The World of Talmudic Aggada
By Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan
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.
Lecture 13: Daf 4b
The Flying Nun and the Fallen Virgin
In the 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.
R. Yochanan has a different approach to the problem presented by the missing nun:
R. Yochanan says:
Why is there no nun in Ashrei?
Because the fall of Israel's enemies (a circumlocution for Israel) begins with it.
For it is written:
"Fallen (nafla) is the virgin of Israel, she shall no more rise." (Amos 5:2)
The absence 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.
R. Yochanan 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.
Verses such 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.
R. Yochanan 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.
The next 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.
This 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 downfall.
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 is:
Fallen, she shall no more rise, the virgin of Israel.
The Rabbis read it as:
Fallen, she shall no more- Rise O’ virgin of Israel!
The words “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 verse.
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:
Greater is [the achievement] ascribed to Mikhael than that ascribed to Gavriel.
For of Mikhael it is written:
Then one of the serafim flew over to me (Yishayahu 6:6)
whereas of Gavriel it is written:
The man Gavriel whom I had seen in the vision at the beginning,
being caused to fly in a flight etc (Daniel 9:21)
In this 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,
Your guilt shall depart
And your sin purged away (Verse 7).
In Chapter 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,
The man Gavriel, whom I had previously seen in the vision,
Was caused to fly in a flight and reached (lit. touched) me
About the 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.
The Gemara immediately asks:
How do you know that this [word] 'one' [of the Serafim] means Mikhael?
R. Yochanan says:
By an analogy from [the words] 'one', 'one.'
Here it is written:
Then flew unto me one of the Serafim;
and in another place it is written:
But, lo, 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."
Gezeirot 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.
However, this 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.
The Gemara now concludes with a more complete ranking of the angels based on their flight speeds:
A Tana taught:
Mikhael [reaches his goal] in one [flight],
Gavriel in two,
Eliyahu in four,
and the Angel of Death in eight.
In the time of plague, however, [the Angel of Death, too, reaches his goal] in one.
We already 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.
With this 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.