Friday, March 24, 2017

As we all know, Tehillim 145, which comprises the bulk of the Ashrei prayer, is missing a verse for the nun letter.

Many scholars think that there must have been a nun verse here once and that our text is defective. Evidence they rely on is that a text of Tehillim 145 has been found among the Dead Sea texts and it includes a verse for nun. The verse reads: Ne’eman Elokim be-devarav ve-chasid be-chol ma’asav. See J.A. Sanders, “The Dead Sea Psalms Scroll,” p. 66. We also have an ancient Greek translation of Tehillim 145. It, too, includes the above nun verse, translated into Greek.

But content wise, there is no indication that anything is missing between the nun verse and the samech verse. And the nun verse in the above Dead Sea text is suspicious for two reasons. First of all, it uses the Divine name Elokim, while the rest of Tehillim 145 use the four-letter Divine name. (The four-letter Divine name is used nine times in this chapter.) Additionally, ve-chasid be-chol ma’asav is the ending to the tzade verse. It would be unusual for it to be used twice; this is a chapter that otherwise lacks such duplication. Most likely, the nun verse in the Dead Sea text was just added by a scribe bothered by the omission of the nun verse.

Also, the other acrostics in the fifth book of Tehillim (Chapters 107-150) are not missing any letters. These acrostics are Chapters 111, 112 and 119. (In 119, every letter repeats eight times, without any omissions!)

It is true that there are letters missing in some of the acrostics in the first book of Tehillim (Chapters 1-41). Seven letters are missing in the acrostic that runs through Chapters 9-10; Chapter 25 is missing a kof (and has resh twice); and Chapter 37 is missing an ayin. But most likely the first book of Tehillim is from Davidic times, and the fifth book of Tehillim is from early Second Temple-period times, several hundred years later. We can understand how the text in the older first book may not have been passed down perfectly over the many centuries. (Also, Chapters 25 and 34 lack a verse for vav; this was probably intentional; see my “Esther Unmasked,” p. 220. Interesting is how the ArtScroll siddur, p. 376, artificially creates a vav verse for Chapter 34, le-david be-shanoto, by breaking the hei verse into two parts!)

The idea that the fifth book of Tehillim comes from early Second Temple-period times, and not Davidic times, is based on an analysis of its style of Hebrew. See the book by Avi Hurvitz, “Bein Lashon Le-Lashon.” For example, the word mamlacha is the word for “kingdom” in early Hebrew; while malchut is the word for “kingdom” in later Hebrew. Tehillim 145 uses the latter. Note also that the fifth book of Tehillim is where we find phrases such as “shivat Tziyon” and “al naharot Bavel.” See 126:1 and 137:1. The Talmud, at Bava Batra 14b, attributes the book of Tehillim to David and others earlier than him. But Shir Ha-Shirim Rabbah 4:4 records the views of Rav and Rav Yohanan that Ezra was one of the authors of Tehillim. So the view that parts of Tehillim are from the early Second Temple period is an acceptable one in Rabbinic thought. (In modern times, such an approach is adopted by the Malbim and by the Daat Mikra commentary to Tehillim.)

If there was no nun verse in Chapter 145 initially, why was it omitted? The Talmud suggests an explanation at Berachot 4b, namely, that a nun verse would allude to a certain negative verse at Amos 5:2 (naflah—fell). But this seems to be only a homiletical explanation, as it does not explain why the other acrostics in Tehillim include a nun verse.

A widespread answer offered by scholars today is that the verses of kaf, lamed and mem in Tehillim 145 all have a theme of malchut, while the verses thereafter have a different theme. The omission of the nun verse may have been a way of emphasizing the break between the malchut section of Tehillim 145 and the following section. See, e.g., Rabbi Richard Hidary, “Conversations,” vol. 15, p. 77. Also, the first letters of the kaf, lamed and mem section spell melech backwards. The omission of a verse for nun helps make this backwards acrostic more noticeable.

It has also been observed that omitting the nun verse reduces the total number of verses to 21, enabling the 11th verse, caf, to be the middle verse. The caf verse (kevod malchutcha yomeiru) is perhaps the main theme of the entire chapter. By reducing the number of verses to 21, the verse with the main theme of the chapter was structured as the middle/hinge verse. (For some other suggestions, see Uriel Simon, “Four Approaches to the Book of Psalms,” p. 104, n. 45.)

Unlike the Dead Sea text nun verse, a case where the additional material in a Dead Sea text turns out to be a restoration of lost material is 1 Samuel, Chapter 11. Here, in a story involving Nachash, king of Ammon, the Dead Sea text has a few extra sentences at the beginning of the chapter. On close analysis, it is clear that these verses must have originally been in the text. For all the details, see Chapter 12 in Hershel Shanks, “Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls.” But 99 percent of the time, the Dead Sea texts merely reflect a different spelling of a word that is in our text already. The case of 1 Samuel, Chapter 11 is very atypical.

Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. His recently published book, “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy” (Kodesh Press, 2015), is available at the Judaica House in Teaneck and at amazon.com. He can be reached at [email protected]