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Parashat Ha’azinu: Ha’azinu’s Non-Sequitor by Yaakov Bieler

September 28, 2012 by  
Filed under New Posts

The poem’s structure.

According to MaLBIM, the poem in Ha’azinu (Devarim 32:1-43)[1] can be divided into six sections:

1) (32:1-6) Charging heavens and earth to serve as witnesses for the account of Jewish history and prophetic predictions regarding the future of the Jews;

2) (Ibid. 7-12) The Divine Kindnesses that had been Extended to the Jews until this point in time;

3) (Ibid. 13-14) How God Intends to Continue to Treat the Jews favorably in the future;

4) (Ibid. 15-26) How all of this treatment paradoxically can be understood to cause the people to forsake God’s Commandments and the punishments that they are destined to suffer as a consequence;

5) (Ibid. 27-35) A description of the nations who will carry out God’s Punishments;

6) (Ibid. 36-43) What the future holds in store for the Jews as well as those who maltreated them.

A particularly challenging verse.

Because most of Parashat Ha’azinu is presented in poetic form, some of its verses are difficult to clearly understand because of their literary conceits and references.[2] But at least one of the Parasha’s verses is challenging in a different way—since it appears to constitute a Halachic principle whose very subject matter and antecedents are unclear. The particular verse in question appears at the outset of the Parasha, within the poems introductory verses:

Devarim 32:1-3

Give ear, ye heavens, and I will speak; and let the earth hear the words of my mouth.

My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew; as the small rain upon the tender grass, and as the showers upon the herb.[3]

For when I will proclaim the Name of the Lord; ascribe ye Greatness unto our God.

With respect to 32:3, one can duly wonder:

To what is Moshe even referring when he says that he is going to “proclaim the Name of HaShem”? In Parashat Ha’azinu, he describes God and His Actions and Reactions vis-à-vis the Jewish people in virtually every verse. Is 32:3 demanding that in every instance when there is some reference to HaShem,[4] the listeners must respond in verbal form or otherwise?

Does this verse constitute a rule that is to be followed only during a recitation of the Ha’azinu poem, or in other contexts as well?

To whom is Moshe addressing his demand that a response be made to the invocation of the Holy Name and what particular form is that response supposed to take?

Two fundamentally different approaches to understanding the verse.

Commentators can be categorized into two specific groups—those who try to interpret the verse within its context in Ha’azinu, and those who separate it from the rest of the Parasha’s poem. With respect to the Rabbinic tradition, the Talmud employs this verse, either as an actual source or only an Asmachta,[5] to derive important practical everyday principles that are part of the traditional Jewish lifestyle:[6]

a) Berachot 21a

Where do we find that a blessing before studying the Tora is ordained in the Tora ? Because it says: “For when I proclaim the Name of the Lord, ascribe ye Greatness to our God.

b) Yerushalmi Berachot 7:1

Where do we find that a blessing after studying the Tora is ordained in the Tora? Said R. Shmuel bar Nachmani in the name of R. Yonatan: It comes about via (the Gezeira Shava)[7] of “HaShem”, “HaShem”[8] from grace after meals. It is written here (Devarim 32:3) “For when I will proclaim the Name of the Lord…” and it is written there (Ibid. 8:10) “And you shall bless the Lord”. Just as there it is referring to the blessing afterwards (when one has finished eating) so too here it is referring to the blessing afterwards (when one has finished studying).

c)  Berachot 45a

If three people have eaten together, it is their duty to invite one another to say grace.[9] From where is this rule derived? Said R. Abahu: Because the verse states: (Devarim 32:3) “For when I will proclaim the Name of the Lord; ascribe ye Greatness unto our God.[10]

d)  Yoma 35b; 37a

Mishna: …And thus he (the Kohein Gadol as part of the Yom HaKippurim service)[11] would say: Oh Lord! I have done wrong, I have transgressed, I have sinned before You, I and my house. Oh Lord! Forgive the wrongdoings, the transgressions, the sins which I have committed and transgressed and sinned before You, I and my house, as it is written in the Tora of Moshe Your Servant, (VaYikra 16:30) “For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you form all your sins shall you be clean before the Lord”. AND THEY (the people hearing the Kohei Gadol) ANSWERED AFTER HIM: “Blessed be the Name of His Glorious Kingdom forever and ever.”

…AND THEY ANSWERED AFTER HIM: It was taught: Rebbi said, [commenting on]: “For when I will proclaim the Name of the Lord; Ascribe ye Greatness unto our God”. Moses said to Israel: When I mention the Name of the Holy One, Blessed be He, ascribe Greatness [unto Him].

e)  Siphre (Midrash Halacha on Devarim)

We learn (in a Baraita):[12] From where do we derive that those standing in a synagogue, that when (the prayer leader) pronounces “Barchu (plural) HaShem HaMevarach” (Bless God Who is to be blessed), the congregation responds after him, “Baruch HaShem HaMevarach Le’Olam VaEd” (Blessed is HaShem Who is to be blessed forever and ever)? As it is said, “For when I will proclaim the Name of the Lord; Ascribe ye Greatness unto our God”.

f)  Ibid.

From where do we derive (the practice) when one says, “Yehei Shemai Raba Mevorach” (Let His Great Name be blessed), that (the congregation) responds after him, “U’LeOmai Olmaya[13] (forever and ever)? The Tora teaches, “…Ascribe ye Greatness unto our God”.

g)  Responsa of ROSh (Rabbeinu Asher), Principle #4

From here (“For when I will proclaim the Name of the Lord; Ascribe ye Greatness unto our God”) (is derived) that with respect to every blessing that one hears, it is necessary to respond “Baruch Huh U’Varuch Shemo” (let Him be Blessed and Blessed is His Name).

Examples c) –g) appear to represent a literal rendering of Devarim 32:3. In all of these cases, God’s Name has been invoked by:

c)  the individual inviting the two who have eaten with him to bless God together;

d)  the Kohein Gadol who has pronounced the Tetragrammaton in the Temple;

e)  the Shliach Tzibbur who has invited the rest of the congregation to bless God;

f)  the Shliach Tzibbur or mourner (who when reciting the mourner’s Kaddish, becomes the Shliach Tzibbur) who calls to the congregation to bless God’s Name;

and  g)  the person pronouncing a blessing of God’s Name for any purpose.

And those who are present are supposed to not only acknowledge the call, but add to the blessing something additional, in keeping with the verse’s statement, “…Ascribe ye Greatness unto our God”, i.e., say something “greater” than was originally said by the leader.[14]

c)  To the invitation, the two responders say, “Yehi Shem HaShem Mevorach MeiAta VeAd Olam” (HaShem’s Name should be blessed from now and forever).

d)  Those who hear the Kohein Gadol add their own blessing to God when they say, “Baruch Sheim Kevod Malchuto LeOlam VaEd” (Blessed be the Name of His Glorious Kingdom forever and ever).

e)  The congregation responds to the Shliach Tzibbur “Baruch HaShem HaMevorach LeOlam VaEd” (Blessed is the Blessed God forever).

f)  The congregation answers the Shliach Tzibbur/Mourner “U’LeOmai Olmaya” (forever and ever).

g)  One who hears a blessing[15] should respond to the invocation of the Name of God with “Baruch Huh U’Varuch Shemo” (Blessed be He and Blessed is His Name).

Cases a) and b) are more curious in the sense that the act of studying Tora, while possibly entailing encountering the Name of God, does not necessarily do so. There are sections of the Written Law, and whole swaths of the Oral Law where God’s Name is simply not mentioned. Making blessings before and after is certainly appropriate in terms of viewing Tora study as the fulfillment of a religious Commandment; however to attribute these blessings to a fulfillment of Devarim 32:3 would appear to be more difficult to justify. A number of commentators suggest a Kabbalistic idea to explain the underlying assumption of these two interpretations of the verse in question. RaMBaN, in his introduction to the Tora, invokes the concept that the entire Written Tora, which originally was given without spaces between the words, constitutes one astonishingly extended Name of God.[16] While the pronunciation of such a Name per force would prove a physical impossibility for human beings, the conception is an evocative one. Whatever portion of the Tora I might happen to be reading, I am reflecting upon and attempting to internalize something intrinsically Godly, in effect invoking God’s Name. Such an idea goes far in enhancing every Tora study experience, independent of the specific subject matter!

A fundamental problem with the above approach.

Of course the inherent flaw in all of these interpretations, however moving and spiritually significant they may be, is that they do not appear to fit into the context of Parashat Ha’azinu. Why would Moshe at this point be interested in conveying any of the ideas that Rabbinic sources a)-g) listed above, discuss? In this regard it is interesting to note that RaShI relies on d) Yoma 37a for his commentary on Devarim 32:3 :

RaShI on Devarim 32:3

Behold “Ki” serves in the capacity of “when” (in this context)[17] like (VaYikra 23:10) “ ‘Ki’ you come to the land”. (In this case) when I call and mention the Name of God, you shall give Greatness to our God and bless His Name. From here it is said that the people respond “Blessed be the Name of the His Glorious Kingdom forever” after a blessing that is uttered in the Temple.

While the commentator declares on Beraishit 3:8 d.h. “VaYishme’u”, “…I have come only for the simple meaning of the text…”, it would appear that the critique of his grandson, RaShBaM (Beraishit 37:2 d.h. “Eileh Toldot Yaakov” is in order, i.e., that his grandfather was not as devoted to the Peshat as he should have been. At the point that Devarim 32:3 was stated, it does not seem to make sense that the rituals in the Mishkan/Temple in general, let alone the service on Yom HaKippurim, was at issue. The verse has something to do with introducing the contents of the poem to the people and conveying to them how significant what was to follow should be understood.

The approach of the Pashtanim to Devarim 32:3.

So how would those more committed to understanding the verse in question within its immediate context, interpret its words? The aforementioned RaShBaM says as follows:

RaShBaM on Devarim 32:3

When I will recount for you the mighty things that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, has Performed on your behalves, and the good deeds that He has Done for you, and also that He is Righteous in all that He has Done for you, you too should attribute Greatness to our God. You should admit to the truth.

The commentator sees the verse as anticipating v. 7-14 in which Moshe describes God’s Interactions with the Jewish people to date. He obviously takes the phrase “the Name of God” loosely, understanding that it is not the nomenclature associated with HaShem that is being intended, but rather God’s overt Actions. Ibn Ezra, another interpreter dedicated to Peshat, paradoxically explains the verse even more figuratively than RaShBaM, and understands that Moshe is not even addressing the Jewish people at this point, but rather the entities that he mentioned in v. 1:

Ibn Ezra on Devarim 32:3

This refers to the heavens and the earth, as it is said, (Tehillim 19:1) “The heavens recount the Glory of God”…and similarly (Ibid. 69:35) “The heavens and earth will praise Him”.

While RaShBaM’s interpretation retains a loose Halachic application, i.e., that when one hears descriptions of God’s Kindnesses, he should affirm and admit to their veracity, Ibn Ezra’s approach retains the purely poetic, metaphorical style of Ha’azinu’s opening verses. While it could be maintained that human beings should attempt to emulate those aspects of nature that act in “exemplary fashion”—it does require imagination and personification to assume that heaven and earth are consciously on some level engaged in such activity, essentially the premise of the evocative Perek Shira[18]—it would not appear that this is Moshe’s main agenda when he presents Ha’azinu to the people shortly before his death.


It would appear that Devarim 32:3, more than many other verses, begs the question of context—does one strive to retain the immediate role that a verse plays, despite reducing the verse to some sort of poetical expression of religious feeling, or does one assume that the verse suggests connotations, even very practical ones, independent of the verses that come before and after? While the principle of “Ein Mikra Yotze MiDai Peshuto” (no text can be understood independent of its simple meaning) is RaShBaM’s mantra, the idea that there are “Shivim Panim LaTora” (seventy dimensions to the Tora) is reflective of the text’s manifestation of God’s Inifinite Wisdom. Must we necessarily choose between these extremes? What do you think?

[1] Simply from the physical appearance of this section of the Tora, one can tell that it is unique unto itself. Rather than the verses stretching across a single column, which is the case of most of the rest of the words of the Tora, the poem in Ha’azinu  is arranged in two narrow parallel columns. Some suggest that breaking up the verses in this manner implies that as much as is said, even more is unsaid and must be read between the lines, as is the case of most poetry when compared to prose. See HaEmek Davar’s introduction to the entire Tora (before he begins his comments for Beraishit) where he discusses the Rabbinical assumption that the term “Shira” (as in Devarim 31:19; 32:44) is a reference not only to Ha’azinu, but the entire Tora, and why even the prose portion of the Tora, let alone that which is blatantly poetic, should be treated in accordance with how a reader approaches poetry in terms of searching for layers of meaning and multiple associations and allusions.

[2] E.g., (32:9) “…For the Lord’s Portion is His People…”

(Ibid. 13) “He made him (the Jewish people) ride on the high places of the earth…”

(Ibid. 21) “…And I will Move them to jealousy with a no people…”, etc.

[3] The first two verses themselves are replete with veiled references:

(32:1) What does Moshe mean when he enlists the heavens and earth to “listen” to his presentation? Aren’t these entities inanimate and insensate?

(Ibid. 2) Why is the metaphor of the effects of natural moisture and precipitation used in association with Moshe’s verbal message to the Jewish people?

[4] Primary and secondary Names of God appear in the poem as follows: (32:3) הצור, קל אמונה; (Ibid. 6) ה לה’ ; (Ibid. 9) ה’; (Ibid. 12) ה’; (Ibid. 15) אלוק, צור; (Ibid. 18) קל; (Ibid. 19) ה’; (Ibid. 27) ה’; (Ibid. 30) וה’; (Ibid. 36) ה’.  Were one to extend the definition to include pronouns that refer to God, e.g., (Ibid. 4) כי כל דרכיו משפט; (Ibid. 16) יקנאהו בזרים; (Ibid. 21) הם קנאוני בלא אל; etc., then some sort of response would be required for the majority of the verses in the poem.

[5] … a Rabbinic prohibition or requirement that is hinted to in the Torah, but is not, in fact, one of the 613 commandments”

[6] The sources that follow are taken from R. Baruch HaLevi Epstein’s Tora Temima commentary.

[7] The hermeneutic principle that posits that when a similar word is used in two different places in the bible, the two subjects are connected in some manner.

[8] Tora Temima #30 notes that using the Names of God is very uncharacteristic of the application of Gezeira Shava and wonders about the veracity or possibly the meaning of this source.

[9] A reference to the addition at the beginning of Birchat HaMazon of the Birchat HaZimun of Grace after meals.

[10] The underlying assumption is that one person issues a call to at least two others, based upon the “person” of the verbs, i.e., “Ekra”—I will call (singular); “Havu”—you give (plural). Since the minimal plurality is two, it is deduced that one person calls out to two, resulting in a minimum of three individuals being needed to engage in this ritual.

[11] This section of Mishna has been incorporated into the repetition of the Mussaf prayers on Yom HaKippurim. Not only does the congregation proclaim, “Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto LeOlam VaEd” but they also customarily fall on their knees when doing so, reenacting a portion of the Temple ritual.

[12] Material dating from the period of the Mishna, but which was excluded by R. Yehuda HaNasi from his work known as the “Mishna”.

[13] Our current practice is for everyone, both the Shliach Tzibbur/Mourner and the congregation, to say this entire phrase, as opposed to having a summons and a response.

[14] Many commentators note that “Amen” does not fulfill the purpose of going further than the original pronouncer of the blessing. “Amen” simply means that what was said is true, in effect, a confirmation of the blessing that was heard. Devarim 32:3 is taken by all of these sources to mean that something more is required from the responders in order to indicate that they not only passively agree with what was said, but that they too wish to actively bless God on their own.

[15] A person making a blessing is supposed to say it loudly enough to give those within earshot  the opportunity to respond and thus bless God an additional time even though they are not at that moment performing a Mitzva, eating or drinking something, etc.

[16] See Ohr HaChayim on Devarim 32:3 as well.

[17] RaShI notes in several places in his commentary that “Ki” could have four different possible meanings: 1) when; 2) because; 3) that; and 4) if.

[18] Perek Shirah (Hebrew פרק שירה, lit. “Chapter of Song”) is an ancient Jewish text. It contains 85 sections, in each of which elements of creation, beginning with the celestial and ending with dogs, use biblical and rabbinic verses in order to sing God’s praises. Use of Perek Shirah used to be prevalent in the daily liturgy and medieval philosopher Joseph Albo wrote that whoever recites Perek Shirah is guaranteed a place in the World to Come. Though Perek Shirah means “Chapter of Song”, the book is actually organized into six chapters. Many of the utilized verses make mention of the speaker. For example, the song begins with the heavens who say, “the heavens speak of the Glory of God, and of His Handiwork the skies tell.” (Psalms 19:2) This, however is not a rule, as the book ends with the dogs who say “come, let us prostrate and bend our knees, and kneel before God our Maker” (Psalms 95:2). Though this mentions an action that dogs physically perform, it doesn’t specifically mention them by name. It also includes verses based upon actions, such as giving the reaction of a cat before and after it catches a mouse as well as the response of the mouse.

The vast majority of the verses of Perek Shirah are biblical, and most of these are from the book of Psalms, but there are also a few verses from the Babylonian Talmud.

In modern times, Perek Shirah does not often appear liturgically. However there are many publishers who publish Perek Shirah as a separate entity, anywhere from a wallet-sized booklet to full-sized coffee table books complete with pictures illustrating each of the characters speaking to God.

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