Passing Before the Divine Eye

On Language

By Philologos

Published September 12, 2007, issue of September 14, 2007.
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In last week’s column on the Yiddish expression bobbe mayseh, we saw how folk etymologies, which explain rare or puzzling words by changing or relating them to words understood by everyone, may come into being when the original meanings of words are forgotten. An interesting example of this phenomenon in Jewish tradition involves the Rosh Hashanah liturgy recited by us this week, one of whose emotional high points is the prayer known as u’netaneh tokef, after its opening words, unetaneh tokef k’dushat hayom, “Let us speak of the rigor of the day’s holiness.” In this prayer, traditionally ascribed to the 11th-century martyr Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, there is a description of the possible harsh fates awaiting us in the coming year, mitigated by the concluding assurance, “But repentance, prayer, and charity can forestall the evil decree.”

The u’netaneh tokef has in it two words that, at first glance, do not seem particularly problematic. They occur in the following passage:

“And [on Rosh Hashanah] there is a great blast of the shofar and then a great silence. And the angels hurry, and fear and trembling seizes [them]. And they say, ‘Behold, it is the Day of Judgment on

Examining an unusual locution in the prayer unetaneh tokef.

which the host of the heavenly heights [ts’va marom] is reviewed in judgment…. And all the creatures of the world will pass before Thee kivnei maron. As the shepherd counts his flock, letting it pass it beneath his staff, so Thou wilt let pass and count and enumerate and record every living being.”

The Hebrew expression I have left untranslated, kivnei maron, is unusual. Kivnei is a perfectly normal contraction of k’, “as,” and b’nei, “sons of.” Maron, on the other hand, is a word that can be found in this single combination alone. Because of its similarity to marom, “heavenly heights,” it seems natural to think of it as either a variant form of marom (final “m” is often replaced by “n” in rabbinic Hebrew) or as scribal miscopying of it. In that case, “all the creatures of the world will pass before Thee as the sons of the heavenly heights” would mean that all human beings will be judged by God just as are the angels in heaven.

Unfortunately for this interpretation, the expression kivnei maron is older than the unetaneh tokef prayer, which borrowed it from previous sources. The earliest of these is the third-century C.E. Mishnaic tractate of Rosh Hashanah, in which we read: “The world’s fate is decreed on four days [of the year]: On Passover, the yield of the grain fields [is decided]; on Shavu’ot, the yield of the fruit trees; on Rosh Hashanah, the world’s dwellers pass before Him kivnei maron… and on Sukkot, rainfall.” Since this passage has no allusion to angels or to heaven, there are no grounds for thinking that maron in it could be a variant or miscopied form of marom.

Indeed, such a thought did not even occur to the Aramaic-speaking rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud, who were unfamiliar with the unetaneh tokef prayer. In their discussion of this passage from the Mishnah, they proposed a number of possible readings of kivnei maron. One was that maron comes from the common Aramaic word imar, “lamb,” and that kivnei maron means “like the sons of sheep,” who pass before God on Rosh Hashanah as though before a shepherd. An interpretation that has all the characteristics of a folk etymology, it fits the words of unetaneh tokef nicely and has become accepted by Jewish tradition, so that in most English versions of the High Holy Day prayers you will find kivnei maron translated as “lambs” or “sheep.”

A second explanation offered by the Talmud is anything but a folk etymology, because it is as puzzling as the term it comes to explain. The great Babylonian sage Samuel, we are told, interpreted kivnei maron to mean “like the troops of the House of David” — that is, God reviews all human beings on Rosh Hashanah like one of King David’s generals inspecting his troops.

Where did Samuel come up with such a seemingly farfetched notion, there being no Hebrew or Aramaic word meaning “troops” or “soldiers” that sounds remotely like maron? In an attempt to solve this mystery, the 19th-century German Jewish scholar Nehemia Brull suggested, in an article written in 1874, that b’nei maron was a textual corruption of the Hebrew b’, “in,” and the ancient Greek numeron, a cohort of soldiers (from Latin numerus), so that the passage in the Mishnah — which was composed in Palestine, where Greek was widely spoken — meant that mankind passes on review before God like troops in a military unit. Samuel, Brull argued, although he lived in Babylonia and knew no Greek or Latin, was in possession of a tradition in which the original meaning of the text was still remembered, and so he imaginatively associated its soldiers with the court of King David.

At the time that Brull wrote this article, this, too, seemed farfetched. Yet lo and behold, in the course of the 20th century a number of ancient manuscripts of the Mishnah, the Babylonian Talmud and medieval prayer books have been found in which kivnei maron is written kivnumeron, exactly as Brull — whom we now know to have been correct — thought! It’s a fine example of how a brilliant scholarly intuition can be confirmed by subsequent research.

A good and healthy New Year to you all!

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

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