‘The voice of the turtle is heard in our land:’ Solving a lifelong Passover mystery

My childhood memories of Passover are largely connected to Philadelphia, where my maternal grandparents lived and to where my parents, my sister and I would travel every year to celebrate the holiday.

After the Sedarim and the first two days of Passover, my father would return to his job in Washington, D.C., while the rest of us would remain in my grandparents’ house for the duration of the holiday. For me, those days were often mind-numbingly boring for me, since I had no friends in the neighborhood with whom to play, and my only potential playmate, my cousin Jerry, would depart after the sedarim to his own home in a distant neighborhood of Philadelphia.

Community | ‘The voice of the turtle is heard in our land:’ Solving a lifelong Passover mystery

One year, when I was about nine years old, my mother took pity on me — or was simply weary of my whining — and gave me 10 or 15 cents along with directions to the local cinema for the matinee showing of a movie. Neither my mother nor I had any idea of what movie was being featured, but that hardly mattered to either of us; any movie would serve both her purpose and my purpose, which was getting me out of the house.

As it happened, the featured attraction at the cinema that day was a movie with the title of “The Voice of the Turtle,” a romantic drama in which a veteran B-list actor by the name of Ronald Reagan played the male lead. (Many years later I learned that this movie was adapted from a very successful Broadway play, and that Reagan’s role in the movie was considered to be the best performance of his lackluster Hollywood career.)

The plot of the movie concerned a soldier who finds a girl, loses the girl, etc., and I was only a little less bored while viewing the movie than I would have been had I remained in my grandparents’ apartment. But one scene did make a lasting impression on me: Ronald Reagan is walking through a park on a bright spring day when a voice-over intones, “For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.”

As I listened to these words I was puzzled, and I was still puzzled as I walked out of the theater, and I remained puzzled for years to come: does a turtle really have a voice?

During my boyhood I did have occasional encounters with turtles, but I had never heard the voice of a turtle. My sister kept a pet turtle at our home, but he never said anything, he never even made a sound. What, exactly, was the meaning of that voice-over in the movie, those words about a vocal turtle?

It was perhaps a decade later before I learned that the source of “the voice of the turtle” was in the King James translation of the “Song of Songs.” I had become acquainted with the Song of Songs thanks to my father, who adhered to the custom of reciting that collection of verses every Passover at the conclusion of the Seder, and I came to realize that “turtle” was a translation of the Hebrew word “tor.” It is widely accepted that “tor” means “dove,” and it is also widely accepted that the “dove” in question is, in fact, a “turtle-dove.”

But that merely begged the question: why did the King James translators choose “turtle” rather than “turtledove” or simply “dove”?

I let that question percolate for the next 50 years, until Passover this year, when I decided at last that I needed to seek the answer, which I believe I have found, and will now share with the whole world.

The answer — or at least a partial answer — hinges on the recognition that the Hebrew “tor,” as well as the Old English “turtle,” which is derived from the Latin “turtur,” are both onomatopoeic words representing verbal attempts to imitate the cooing call of a dove.

The Random House Unabridged dictionary informs that the use of “turtle” for “turtledove” became obsolete by the 11th century, yet the King James translators, working in the 17th century, elected to use the archaic “turtle” rather than the Modern English “turtledove,” presumably in order to emphasize the antiquity of the original text.

It should be noted that for the last century or so, most English translations of the Song of Songs have translated “tor” as “turtledove,” not “turtle”, although in 1914 the Jewish Publication Society, for whatever reason, followed the King James version. (The Revised JPS translation does use “turtledove.”) The ArtScroll prayer book, on the other hand, has bizarrely chosen to translate “tor” as “guide,” apparently confusing “tor” with another Hebrew word, “tur,” which has the same meaning and likely the same derivation from the Greek as the English “tour.”

We read the Song of Songs during the holiday of Passover — either at the conclusion of the Seder or during the synagogue service on the following day — precisely because of its associations with springtime, which, in turn, has universal associations with love and romance.

The verses that echoed in Ronald Reagan’s brain as he walked through the park are among the most beautiful in the entire collection, and they contain the most direct references to springtime, including the phrase “the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.” Why does the “voice of the turtle” signify springtime “in our land” — that is, in the Land of Israel?

Because the turtledove, indigenous to Europe, is a bird of passage in the Land of Israel, usually appearing there in the early spring as it migrates from its winter home in North Africa back to Europe.

There is more to be said about the numerous other references to doves, and to pigeons, their cousins, which appear in the Hebrew Bible, but that will wait for another day. It has taken me at least 50 years to appreciate the significance of this particular reference to a dove in the Song of Songs, and the “voice of the turtle” has, at long last, ceased to be a vexation.

Community | ‘The voice of the turtle is heard in our land:’ Solving a lifelong Passover mystery

Elliot Wilner is a retired neurologist, living and reminiscing in Bethesda, MD.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

‘The voice of the turtle is heard in our land:’ Solving a lifelong Passover mystery

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