Daughter of a Voice

On Language

By Philologos

Published July 16, 2008, issue of July 25, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.