Daughter of a Voice

On Language

By Philologos

Published July 16, 2008, issue of July 25, 2008.
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Forward reader Barry Seidel of Newark, Del., asks about the origin of the Hebrew expression bat-kol and wonders “how interesting and valuable the concept has been to Jewish thought.”

Bat-kol is indeed a unique Hebrew expression that has no real equivalent in any other language that I know of. Literally the “daughter of a voice,” it goes back to early rabbinic literature, in which it has two meanings. One is that of an echo. We find this, for example, in an ancient midrash on a verse in Deuteronomy that describes the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai: “These words the Lord spoke unto all your assembly at the mount… with a great voice and He added no more.”

The midrash reads: “What is the meaning of ‘He added no more’? When a man speaks to his friend, his voice has a bat-kol. But the voice that went forth from the Holy One Blessed Be He had no bat-kol.”

God’s voice at Sinai, in other words, had no echo, presumably because, since it filled the whole world, it had nothing to bounce back from.

The second meaning of bat-kol is the unusual one. It is of a voice that may resemble an echo in its mysteriousness, elusiveness or eeriness, but that is not an echo at all. Rather, as the great Hebrew lexicographer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda defined it in his 16-volume dictionary, it is “A voice that is heard as though out of nowhere, so that it is impossible to know whence or from whom it comes… especially a supernatural voice that may reveal God’s will.”

A bat-kol, however, is not the voice of God Himself. Only prophets can hear that voice, whereas a bat-kol can be heard by anyone (even, in one rabbinic story, by the wicked Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian destroyer of the Temple). Generally, though, it speaks to people of merit. As the talmudic tractate of Yoma puts it: “After the death of the last of the prophets, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, the holy spirit departed from Israel. Still, the bat-kol continued to be resorted to.” Resorted to by whom? This is never very clear. A bat-kol is a message without a sender or a messenger, a heavenly rumor or bit of news that has made the voyage to earth by itself.

There are numerous stories in the Talmud and the midrash about b’not-kol, to use the plural form. One of the best known is about the argument that broke out between Rabbi Eliezer and a group of other rabbis, led by Rabbi Yehoshua, over a minor point of law. Rabbi Eliezer refused to accept the majority opinion and asked a nearby carob tree to prove him right — and the tree immediately flew 100 yards through the air. When his opponents still refused to give in, he made a water channel run backward, caused the walls of the study house to buckle and appealed to heaven for additional assistance, in response to which a bat-kol was heard to say: “Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer? The law is according to him.” Rabbi Yehoshua, however, jumped to his feet and declared, “A bat-kol is not to be paid attention to, since we are commanded by the Bible to follow the majority” — after which, we are told, the Prophet Elijah appeared to Rabbi Natan, who had also been present, and related: “Do you know what God did [when He heard Rabbi Yehoshua’s remark]? He smiled and said, ‘My sons have vanquished me! My sons have vanquished me!’”

It’s a charmingly profound tale. Although God agrees with Rabbi Eliezer, He is delighted that the majority of rabbis have refused to be fazed by the bat-kol and all the miracles. The Law given at Sinai is now in the hands of men, and God wants them to deal with it by proper rabbinical procedure, even if this means overruling Him along with Rabbi Eliezer.

In answer to Mr. Seidel’s question, therefore, the bat-kol is an ambiguous concept in Judaism. Hearing one is the nearest thing to prophecy in an age in which prophecy has ceased, but it is nevertheless not prophecy and is not always to be trusted. The bat-kol is an anonymous source bearing “inside information” from above but lacking ultimate authority. Indeed, it can even be a bit impish, as when a bat-kol is reported to have said to Haman, as he was inspecting the gallows built for Mordecai: “Don’t worry, these fit you just fine. They have been ready for you ever since the six days of creation!”

And what about the bat-kol, so we are told by the talmudic tractate of Sotah, that proclaims, 40 days before every female child is conceived, “The daughter of Such-and-such is meant for So-and-So”? Since the Talmud knew as well as we do that not all marriages are happy, it is either telling us that many women do not marry the men they are meant for or that a bat-kol can be mistaken. Although it’s no doubt a haunting experience to hear one, you would do well if, like Rabbi Yehoshua, you thought twice before taking its word.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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