26 September 2019

By Editor | Blogs

Sep 27

Dear Friends,

Every year, Professor Danny Matt, a scholar at Berkeley and the translator of the Zohar into English, does all self-respecting nerdy Jews a big favour: he combs through the Tanakh to find verses which add up to the number of the new Hebrew year. Since any word can also be read as a number, there’s endless maths games to be played with Hebrew, and it is an old tradition to use a word, phrase, or verse which has the same value as the year as a shorthand for it.

One of the phrases which adds up to 780 (usually its calculated without the thousands figure as such) is from Kohelet (Ecclesiastes): יש עת – literally, ‘There is a moment.’ Fans of the 60s band The Byrds and their song Turn! Turn! Turn! will certainly be familiar with it, and I hope you are too. (If not, come to shul on Sukkot when we read Kohelet). Chapter 3 begins as “Everything has its time, and a there is a moment for every purpose under Heaven.” It continues to list all the things there is a moment for: life, death, dancing, mourning, etc. The Byrds used the King James translation of ‘season’ for עת, although I think the point is more that it is a discrete moment in time (rather than a span of time, or time abstractly).

Yet the exact phrase that Prof. Matt found which adds up to 780 isn’t in that poetic section of Chapter 3, it comes from much later in the book, Chapter 8:6:

“For to every matter there is a moment, and a judgement– for the evil of a mortal is great upon them.” 

It is challenging to know exactly how to translate the laconic prose of Kohelet, but you can certainly see the timely nature of the message. Everything has its moment in time, everything will eventually be measured and accounted for– all the good, all the bad. Translation, of course, is always interpretation– and I’m always curious to see it in action.

As it is, I’ve spent most of this week in Bologna, Italy. To my pleasure I managed to find an Italian translation of Kohelet (which, after all, is my favourite book of the Tanakh). The translator, Erri De Luca, renders that same verse (8:6) as:

Perché per ogni intento c’è un punto e un giudizio. Perché il male di Adam è molto su a lui.

You don’t need to know Italian to see that there’s something that’s been added. If you pop the above into Google Translate you get:

Because for every intent there is a point and a judgment. Because the evil of Adam is very much up to him.

Although this is a far from literal translation, I really think it captures the spirit of Kohelet well. Everything will have its due– secrets will come out, memories repressed will be returned, offenses will be accounted for. There will be a point in time at which each and everything is eventually addressed.

That certainly is a message which we can relate to well as we approach Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur. This year, in the year of “There is a moment/season/point in time,” we should consider what the purpose of this point in time is. Each of us may have a different experience of what this moment’s purpose is, but I hope we each find that the encounter with the Yamim Nora’im (Awesome Days) serves to be one of those purposeful moments along the wheel of time, which turns, turns, turns.

Shabbat Shalom, and Shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Adam

 

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