אז באין כל ’Az be-’En Kol is a picture window that opens up onto an ocean of ancient exegesis. The process of identification of the background of its affirmations is an intellectual adventure. Phrase after phrase of piyyut in general and this piyyut in particular go back to the biblical corpus. Continuities and transformations are all worth noting.
The description of angels in the piyyut is fascinating. Its onset deserves to be read against the background of two passages, one in Hebrew and one in Greek:
לֵב־נִשְׁבָּר וְנִדְכֶּה אֱלֹהִים
a broken spirit;
a broken, crushed heart, O God,
you do not despise.
μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι
ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Here is the opening strophe of the piyyut’s description of angels. The fright-seized ones is a poetic substitute for “angels”:
הם לבד ישמשוך
כי בלב דכא
ובשפל רוח תמצא
(5) The fright-seized ones,
they alone can serve as your acolytes,
for with the crushed heart
and the abject spirit you are found.
הֵם לְבַד יְשַׁמְּשׁוּךָ
כִּי בְּלֵב דַּכָּא
וּבִשְׁפַל רוּחַ תִּמָּצֵא
המלאכים= אחוזי אימה
The description of angels continues from there. Selected strophes:
אב אין למו
אם לא ילדתם
(6) They have no father,
a mother did not bear them.
Fire was their conceptrix,
snow their progenitor.
אָב אֵין לָמוֹ
אֵם לֹא יְלָדָתָם
S&Y translate: they were conceived from fire, and they were born of the snow.
(7) You hewed Erelim
from flames of fire,
you gave birth to the Creatures
from the River of the Chariot.
S&Y vocalize מִרְכֶּבֶת
(8) They are ephoded in fear,
girded in awe,
strapped with a writing case;
their loins sigh.
(11) Amen! is their service,
Blessed! their liturgy,
Just! their declamation,
Holy! their proclamation.
The angels are orphans by nature (though they are elsewhere called ‘sons of God’), their substance, fire and snow. The metaphysic is ice-cold and red-hot. No cuddly cherubs here. The phraseology goes back to such passages as Ps 148:8; 29:7; Isa 33:7; Deut 32:18; Ezek 1; Dan 7:10; Ezek 9:2; Isa 6; Ezek 3:12; and numerous psalms for strophe (11). Swartz and Yahalom cite a number of these sources already. For the rest, it is clear that the piyyut depends on a developed angelology with roots in the Bible but a deep extension in extra-biblical tradition. No River of the Chariot in scripture, for example, but 3 Enoch 50 and 916, a Hekhalot composition, is cited by S&Y.
The image of a scribing angel clothed in awe and reverence, a writing case around the waist, and loins that sigh, may have roots in a model image of a royal scribe, or perhaps nearer at hand, the ideal scribe of (for example) Matthew 15:32, who possesses treasures new and old.
This series is dedicated to Mandy Park (and she knows
why). Along with Calvin, she put up with me for a few days while we attended
SBL in Boston. I enjoyed meeting the Penners and Douglas Stuart at
Gordon-Conwell through them. Gordon-Conwell has a strong program in Hebrew and
Semitic Studies. There are very few places in the world where one can read
Ugaritic, Syriac, and Targumic Aramaic at the masters degree level with
qualified scholars. Gordon-Conwell is one of them. Calvin and Mandy’s great blog
is named The Floppy Hat. Their
friends include two other peerless bloggers, Adam Couturier and Art Boulet. The circle widens to include Daniel
Rodriguez and Tonya Hall (their cool blog is here).
We were all impressed by Karyn Traphagen’s NAPH paper presented in Boston
(her fine blog is here).
Mark my words. A new generation of scholars, fearless but also שפל רוח, is coming up the ranks.
Michael D. Swartz and Joseph Yahalom, Avodah: An Anthology of Ancient Poetry for Yom Kippur, Penn State Library of Jewish Studies; University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005