Thursday, June 15, 2006

No nun--in ashrei

I see that textual issues in Tanakh are an interest of a small, but persistent group of people. It is certainly an interest of mine.

The ashrei prayer, taken mainly from Psalm 145 is an acrostic. It begins

aromimcha elohai...
bekhol yom avarkhekha...
gadol adonay...
etc.

It continues all the way to the last letter, tavh, but skips the verse which ought to begin with nun.

Why?

There are different possibilities. One is that somehow this verse got lost. A line went missing. In fact, in the Septuagint there is a verse in this spot. It reads pistos Kurios en tois logois autou, kai hosios en pasi tois ergois autu (transliteration in English courtesy of Prof. Louis Feldman). In English this line means something like "The Lord is faithful in his words, and holy in all his works," (translation from the 1851 English version by L.C.L. Brenton.)

Rendered back into Hebrew, it is obvious that the verse would begin with ne'eman adonay..., that is, the missing nun.

Where did this come from? Did someone add it? Or is it the original line?

As it turns out, at Qumran a Hebrew version of tehillim, Psalms, was found (11QPs-a) w
hich contains a nun verse--in Hebrew--a version pretty close, but not identical, with the Septuagint verse. In fact, it read ne'eman adonay be-khol derakhav ve-hasid be-khol ma'asav, which is to say, the exact same as the tsade verse, tsadik adonay be-khol derakhav ve-hasid be-khol ma'asav, except for the first word. This version is close to the LXX, excepting that the LXX reads "holy" for hasid, "gracious," in the Qumran text--which, by the way, isn't a Psalm scroll per se, but appears to be a text for liturgical use.

Thus, it is clear that there was a Hebrew version of this psalm with a nun verse in antiquity.

The question is, is it original?

Before I analyze that, it needs to be mentioned that this hole was naturally commented on in rabbinic literature. Noting that after the missing nun verse it reads somech adonay le-khol ha-nophelim..., "The Lord upholdeth all that fall..." (JPS), Rabbi Yohannan (Massekhet Berachot 4b) said that the missing verse relates to falling (n-ph-l):
Why is there no nun in Ashre? Because the fall of Israel's enemies begins with it. For it is written: Fallen is the virgin of Israel, she shall no more rise. (In the West this verse is thus interpreted: She is fallen, but she shall no more fall. Rise, O virgin of Israel). R. Nahman b. Isaac says: Even so, David refers to it by inspiration and promises them an uplifting. For it is written: The Lord upholdeth all that fall.
In other words, a reference to a fall is missing, but the responsive verse
"The Lord upholdeth all that fall..." is not.

Why would it be missing, apart from an error?

Could it be for poetic effect? In fact, R. Shalom Carmy offered an insight reprinted here:
...I read W.H. Auden's "Atlantis." The poem, comprising seven twelve-line stanzas, which exhibit a complicated pattern of rhyme and meter, describes the effort and resourcefulness required to reach the mythical islan of Atlantis. The voyage culminates in a scene where the traveler, having overcome many ordeals, collapses: "With all Atlantis shining/ Below you yet you cannot/ Descend." At this precise point in the poem, the rigid pattern is violated: line 7 of stanza 6 does not exist. The explanation seems obvious: the poet's "failure" to fully satisfy the complicated technical feat he has undertaken parallels the failure of the poem's protagonist to consummate his journey. The intertwining of form and content in the work of a twentieth-century master craftsman renders more persuasive the notion of a similar phenomenon in the psalm.
In plain English, R. Carmy discovered quite by accident a poem which omits something deliberately for poetic effect. Given that, he feels that this might shed some light on whether a verse could indeed be deliberately excluded from a psalm.

But what of the Septuagint version? What of the Qumran version?

Maybe they are authentic. Or maybe they were interpolated. Why might they have been added in place of a missing verse?

For one thing, it essentially duplicates the tsade verse, as mentioned above. That certainly needs to be explained! On the other hand, verses 1 and 2 come close to duplicating each other as well, since both end with shimkha le-'olam va-'ed. Secondly, it might violate the pattern in ashrei in which the verses use parallelism. Thus, the first verse begins with bless and ends with praise. The second begins with great and replies with greatness. The tsade verse begins with righteous and replies with gracious. If the nun verse really read as it did in these versions then we are talking about it beginning with faithful and replying with gracious or holy. Is that a possible parallelism? I suppose, but it would seem to be less "even" then the others, certainly the LXX reading of faithful > holy. At least that's my tentative opinion.

But there is more, because the verses also form couplets. The first one begins with extolling and continues with praising. The third deals with God's greatness and the fourth mentions lauding God. From the 13th verse to the missing 14th we'd be dealing with God's enduring kingdom and then God being faithful, which doesn't follow the pattern. Of course, neither does the present 14th verse about upholding the fallen match the 13th, God's enduring kingdom--but neither would the suggestion by R. Yohannan, that it pertains to falling, which is an missing intro to our present verse 14.

All in all, I don't think we are closer to a sure resolution. I am not at all convinced that the LXX or Qumran version didn't insert that which was already missing. The question of whether there is a sort of poetic effect with this verse missing needs further exploration. In any case, I don't believe we've yet got a clear picture of whether this verse had a nun originally or was written with it missing originally. Nevertheless, it is clear that R. Yohannan had good ground for his suggestion, not that he needed my endorsement! The only question is whether this is really peshat.


This made me think of this at this particular point. That, and that I'm currently working on a study of what's going on with Yehoshua bin Nun.
(Get it? Nun. Yuk, yuk.) So stay tuned.

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