Cracking the Whip

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published September 24, 2004, issue of September 24, 2004.
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‘Who by water and who by fire,” says a line in the Yom Kippur prayer U’Netaneh Tokef, which speaks of the different kinds of death in store for those not inscribed in this year’s Book of Life — and if some of the extremist enemies of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Gaza disengagement plan have their way, fire will be his fate. That is, the prime minister won’t die in fire but of it, from a pulsa de-nura (“whip of fire”) ceremony in which he will be cursed. “Once Again: Threats of Murder and Pulsa Denura,” announced a banner headline in the Rosh Hashanah issue of the mass-circulation Israeli tabloid Yediot Aharonot.

“Once Again,” for those unaware of it, is a reference to the pulsa de-nura that was performed by a small group of far right-wing Jews shortly before the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, to the efficacy of which his death was then attributed. Although like most of us, I never have witnessed a pulsa de-nura with my own eyes, a good description of one was provided by Yediot Aharonot journalist Amos Nevo, who was present at a “fire whipping” of Saddam Hussein. As recapitulated in English by the Jerusalem Post’s Peter Hirschberg:

“One day during the 1991 Gulf War, as Scuds rained down on Israel, a minyan [prayer quorum] of fasting Kabbalists gathered at the tomb of the prophet Samuel just outside Jerusalem. There they entered a dark cave, where one of the holy men placed a copper tray on a rock and lit the 24 black candles he’d placed on it. As the mystics circled the candles, they chanted the curse seven times, calling on the angels not merely to visit death upon ‘Saddam the son of Sabha,’ but to ensure that his wife was given to another man.

“That done, small lead balls and pieces of earthenware were thrown on the candles and the shofar was sounded. ‘The black candles,’ explained Nevo, ‘symbolize the person being cursed. When they’re put out, it’s as if the person’s soul is being extinguished.’ Lead, he says, is for the ammunition in the war against the cursed one, earthenware symbolizes death [presumably because of the religious custom of placing shards over the eyes of those who have died], and the shofar opens the skies so the curse will be heard.”

But what does all this have to do, you may ask, with whips of fire? Not very much, it would seem. Nor will you find a single reference to a pulsa de-nura ceremony in any traditional Jewish source. All that can be found is the Aramaic term itself, which occurs in several stories in the Talmud.

The most charming and interesting of these stories — one meant to illustrate the dangers of exaggerated spiritual powers — is in the tractate of Bava Metsi’a and tells how the wonder-working Rabbi Hiyya came to synagogue on a public fast day that had been declared to pray for the end of a drought. When, the Talmud tells us, he uttered the words in the Eighteen Benedictions, “He maketh the winds blow,” a strong wind sprang up at once; when he said on its heels, “And He maketh the rain fall,” it began to pour cats and dogs, and as he approached the words, “And He maketh the dead rise,” panic broke out in heaven lest the dead be resurrected prematurely, before the coming of the messiah. “Who has revealed such [spiritual] secrets to mankind?” God demanded to know. “[The prophet] Elijah,” the angels told Him. At once, the Talmud relates, Elijah was struck by “60 whips of fire” (pulsei de-nura), which caused him to descend to earth looking “like a fiery bear” and to drive Rabbi Hiyya from the synagogue in the nick of time.

Apart from the flames of its black candles, then, the only whips of fire that the pulsa de-nura ceremony has are in its talmudic name. Indeed, contrary to the belief that it is a venerably ancient ritual, it is a distinctly modern one, appearing for the first time in Jewish history, according to the Israeli scholar Meir Bar-Ilan, in 1905. In that year, Zionist leader and educator David Yellin was ritually cursed at a ceremony called pulsa de-nura by anti-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, for his role in establishing the city’s first secular, Hebrew-speaking schools. The proceedings were based on the traditional h.erem or excommunication ceremony and included many of its elements, such as the snuffing out of candles, the blowing of the shofar and so on, the main difference being that the herem, though it cursed the excommunicated man, did not explicitly call for his death.

Yet to judge by the evidence, the pulsa de-nura is none too deadly. Rabin, it is true, was killed soon after the ceremony was performed for him — a victim of the same hatred that inspired it — but Saddam is still alive if not particularly well 13 years after being fire-whipped, and David Yellin died at a ripe old age in 1941. Ariel Sharon, it would seem, can relax.

May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year!

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






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