Jewish mysticism (kabbalah) and philosophy blog.

The Utterance of the Name of 42:
The Ana be-Koach Genre as Liturgical Improvisation on a Theme.
Ben Newman
Shabbat Liturgy Independent Study
Spring ‘06
The answer to Life, the Universe and Everything is "42.”
—Douglas Adams
For the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, both speaking and listening are active processes. He writes: “Any understanding of live speech, a live utterance, is inherently responsive… Any understanding is imbued with response and necessarily elicits it in one form or another: the listener becomes the speaker.”[1] Also, in a manner of speaking, speaker (anyone who initiates a conversation) is also a responder. “He is not, after all, the first speaker, the one who disturbs the eternal silence of the universe.”[2] According to Bakhtin, “Any utterance is a link in a very complexly organized chain of other utterances.”[3] The utterance is a unit of speech communication.[4] An utterance can be as short as a grunt, or as long as a novel. An utterance is, as stated earlier, always contextual.[5] One utterance is separated from another by a “change of speaking subjects...”[6] 
        Utterances are unrepeatable, like snowflakes or “a finger print[s].”[7] “Each utterance is filled with echoes and reverberations of other utterances to which it is related by the communality of the sphere of speech communication.”[8] In addition, an utterance does not necessarily need to be spoken language. Bakhtin asserts that works of art and texts can also qualify as utterances.[9] Bakhtin calls “utterances and their types” speech genres.[10] According to Bakhtin, “The general linguistic problem of the utterance and its types have hardly been considered at all…”[11] It seems to me that we may think of the Jewish prayer Ana be-Koach, and in particular the 42 letter name from which it is derived, as a type of utterance in the Bakhtinian sense. Depending on the context of the prayer (i.e.- the person reciting it, or the time when it is recited) its content changes, though the basic structure of the 42 letters that begin each word are the same. Perhaps the reason this peculiar sort of improvisation on a theme developed was because it was commonly taboo to actually pronounce the name itself.[12] In this essay, I will give a history of the 42 letter name, and will analyze and compare some of the various texts (or utterances in Bakhtin’s words) which were derived from this name, including the piyyut Ana be-Koach.
        The first time the 42 letter name appears in Jewish literature is in the following quote from the Talmud:          
Rab Judah said in Rab's name: The forty-two lettered Name is entrusted only to him who is pious, meek, middle-aged, free from bad temper, sober, and not insistent on his rights. And he who knows it, is heedful thereof, and observes it in purity, is beloved above and popular below, feared by man, and inherits two worlds, this world and the future world.[13]
In this quote, neither the letters of the name (which starts avgitatz), nor the prayer Ana be-Koach is mentioned.  This lends evidence to the fact that neither the name itself (avgitatz) nor any of the piyyutim derived there from were actually known at that time. However, it is interesting to note here that there is a reference to the world to come. Prayers derived from the 42 letter name are often said when one is dying. This will be discussed below. Perhaps this quote from the Talmud was the origin of this practice.
Ana be-Koach is said to have been written by the tanna Nehunia b. HaKanah.[14] However, in writing of the gaonim, and in particularly in the writing of Hai Gaon, the 42 letter name is mentioned, but he is unsure of the exact formulation. Also, he does not mention any prayer associated with the name. R’ Hai writes: “Although the consonants of this name are well known, its proper vocalization is not rendered by tradition. Some pronounce its first part Abgitatz, and others Abigtatz, and the last part is sometimes read Shakvatzit, and sometimes Shekutzit, but there is no definite proof.”[15] Here we see that Hai Gaon was himself unsure of the exact formulation of the name. According to Trachtenberg:
His doubt concerning its proper reading is, to my mind, an indication of its antiquity; in a language such as Hebrew, written without vowel signs, the consonants are the constant element, while the vowels would tend to shift and change in the course of centuries of transmission, especially when, as in this case, the secrecy that surrounded the process and its oral nature tended to perpetuate individual variations. If it had been a comparatively recent creation such confusion would not yet have the reason, for the prime consideration in handing on such terms was to safeguard their form and pronunciation, and thus to conserve their potency.[16]

Hai Gaon’s confusion over the pronunciation of the name may indeed point to its antiquity as Trachtenberg claims. However, it seems that he did not associate any piyyut with the name, or he probably would have mentioned it here.
        Another early Medieval rabbi who expressed confusion about the name of 42 was Rashi. In his commentary on the Talmud passage from Kiddushin 71a, Rashi writes “the 12 letter name and the 42 letter name were not explained to us.”[17] It seems to me that since Hai Gaon was familiar with the name but was confused, and Rashi was completely uninformed about the name, then if there was anyone during that time who knew the name entirely, they kept it a well guarded secret. This is entirely possible given that the name was seen as having such extraordinary power.
Ana be-Koach is the most famous of the piyyutim derived from the 42 letter name. It is recited primarily on Shabbat and during the Omer, in addition to during some lifecycle events, such as death. Some traditions mention focusing on saying a particular group of 6 letters/word each day of the week.[18] It seems that one of the main reasons it is recited on Shabbat, in this way during the week, and during the days of the Omer after Pesach is numerical. On Shabbat, it is recited because it is 6 times 7, during the Omer it is recited because the days after Pesach number 42. It is sometimes referred to as the prayer of R. Nehunia b. Hakanah. However, it is extremely likely that this is a false attribution. According to Shlomo Tal,
In some siddurim and books this prayer is referred to as ‘The prayer of Nehunah b. Hakanah,’ a tanna of the second generation of the Tannaim. However, this prayer is not mentioned in the writings of the rabbis, not in the Mishnah, not in the two Talmuds, and not in the Midrash Halakha or Aggadah. If the editor of the prayer “Ana be-Koach” was the tanna R’ Nehunia b. Hakanah, it is a wondrous thing, how the prayer became known to the community only in the late Middle Ages. For it does not appear in the Siddur of R’ Amram Gaon, or in the Siddur of R’ Sa’adia Gaon, or in Machzor Vitri, or in the Machzor of Varmisa….or in the Abudraham, or in the Siddur of R’ Hertz Shatz…Also, in many other ancient siddurim and machzorim it is absent…Also though the Sefer HaKanah refers to the 42 letter name it does not refer to “Ana be-Koach.”…It seems that when they attribute this prayer to R’ Nehunia b. Hakanah, they are referring to the order of the letters avgitatz…these are what are attributed to R’ Nehunia b. Hakanah…[19]
        Rambam also mentions the 42 letter name without noting any piyyut associated with it. His interpretation, as always, is inherently rational. Rambam writes:[20] 
There was also a name of forty-two letters known among them. Every intelligent person knows that one word of forty-two letters is impossible. But it was a phrase of several words which had together forty-two let ters. There is no doubt that the words had such a meaning as to convey a correct notion of the essence of God, in the way we have stated. This phrase of so many letters is called a name because, like other proper nouns, they represent one single object, and several words have been employed in order to explain more clearly the idea which the name represents; for an idea can more easily be comprehended if expressed in many words ... The Shem ha-meforash applied neither to the name of forty-two letters nor to that of twelve, but only to the Tetragrammaton, the proper name of God, as we have explained ... How grievously has this passage (b. Kiddushin, 71a) been misunderstood... [21]
From this quote we see that Rambam does not indicate that there is any piyyut associated with the name. He is also troubled by the mere existence of the name, as he does not understand how there could be one word composed of 42 letters. It seems that Rambam has little interest in interpreting names of God, and especially magical ones. He does not seek its derivation, nor does he record the name itself. He ends by asserting that the name of 42 has nothing to do with the Shem Ha-Meforash.  
Another Medieval rabbi to mention the 42 letter name is Rashba. A.Z. Idelson, in his work Jewish Liturgy and Its Development, claims that Ana be-Koach was attributed to Nehunia b. Hakanah by Rashba in one of his teshuvot.[22] However, upon a close examination of the teshuvah in question, one can easily see that this is not the case. In that teshuvah, Rashba writes about the name of 42, but does not mention the prayer Ana be-Koach even once. In the teshuvah, when Rashba mentions Nehunia b. Hakanah in reference to the name, he writes: “The bakasha that we received whose letters were made by R’ Nehunia b. Hakanah is like the one that was received by the scholars of our land…”[23] Shlomo Tal comes to the following conclusion in regard to this quote and the teshuvah in general: ““Here it says that ‘R’ Nehunia b. Hakanah made the letters [of the 42 letter name]’ which is to say that the letters of the name of 42 whose order is avgitatz—this is what the Tanna made, and not the words of the poem [Ana be-Koach].” Therefore there is no evidence that I see in this teshuvah that Rashba attributed Ana be-Koach to Nehunia b. Hakanah.  
The general genre of piyyutim or texts containing the 42 letter name as an acrostic—is first seen, albeit in a magical and philosophical manner, in Sefer HaKanah (attributed to Nehunia b. Hakanah).[24] As Shlomo Tal mentions above,[25] there is no mention of the piyyut Ana be-Koach in this text. However, in Sefer Peliah, the author claims that the letters of the name of 42 actually correspond to the names of angels: “Now listen to these things for these letters of the name of 42, out of each letter comes an active angel from the power of the name…”[26]  Though the list of these names cited in Sefer HaKanah is not a piyyut, it could be thought of as a sort of text. What follows is this list of names:
ועתה שמע ענינם כי אלו אותיות של שם מ"ב כל אות יוצא ממנו מלאך הפועל מכח השם ואלו הן:
אדירירון בהירירון גבירירון יגבהיה תלמיה צפניה קרמיה רגריה עדיריה שגניה טלטיה נהריה נשמריה געריה דוהריה יעליה כסיה שגיוניה בועליה ורריה רמיה צ' וזהנהיה גלגליה חנניה קהה ב' טבטניה נ' עממיה והנהיה והו הויה ידלריה גורריה למימריה פקורקדיה זוהר זרעיה ווליה תהורריה רויה והאל אליה צעיריה יההריה תמוזליה. והיה יהו"ד חונניא תיה והאל אליה ויוזוה יה. בשכמל"ו:[27]
        In this, the first reference to the name of 42 from Sefer HaKanah, the name becomes a series of rashi teivot for the names of angels. The order of the names is also not exactly the same as in the conventional name of 42. It is the same in the beginning bit ends up being quite different, with many yods, vavs and hehs thrown in. Also, it seems to go way beyond 42 words.
The first text which does refer to saying a particular piyyut instead of the name itself is Sefer Peliah which is usually included with the volume called Sefer HaKanah, supposedly written by Nehunia b. Hakanah, but more likely composed by 13th century kabbalists.[28] This is probably the reason that people attribute Ana be-Koach to Nehunia b. Hakanah.[29] Sefer Peliah also begins by citing a similar list of angels that correspond to the letters of the name:
אדירירוץ בהירירוץ גבירירון יגבהיה תלמיה צתניא:
קדמיה רגריה עריריה שגעיה טלטיה נהריה:
נשמריה געריה דהריה יעליה כסיה שניוניה:
בועליה טודריה רמיה צצציה תהבהיה גלגליה:
חנניה קתקיה בהבהביה טוהויה נתניה עממיה:
יהלשריה גודריה לממריה פקורקריה זהרזהר )זהריה( קמליה:
שתהודריה קדושיה והאלאליה צעדיה יתהדריה תמתליה:
ויהוה יה. ב ש כ מ ל ו.:[30]
 After this list of names Sefer Peliah puts forth a commonly cited derivation of the name of 42 from the first 42 letters of the book of Genesis. This derivation is cited by many, including Moshe Cordovero, but does not seem very convincing to me, as ciphers such as atbash are applied randomly to each letter without any consistency. Trachtenberg writes: “ the medieval mystics… possessed a tradition according to which this name is derived from the first forty-two letters in the Bible. This statement occurs several times and was accepted even by the famous Talmudist of the twelfth century, Rabbenu Jacob Tam. There is no reason to doubt the truth of this report.”[31] However, I would counter that the convoluted nature of this derivation of the name itself gives us a definitive reason to doubt “the truth of this report.”
Following this (very likely spurious) derivation of the name, Sefer Peliah recounts a piyyut which it recommends saying instead of the name itself. The piyyut, though very slightly similar to Ana be-Koach, is a decidedly different work:[32]
אלהים בישראל גדול יחודך תשגבינו צדקתיך קדוש ראה עלילות שונאינו טהר נחלתיך נשגב גאל דורשיך יגדל כח שמותיך בשמך טכס רוחינו צמח תבא גאולתינו חסיד קדוש ברוב טובך נוי ענותנותיך יהמו גודל לבבינו פדנו זכר קדושתיך שעה קול וידויינו צדק יודע תהלתך:
In the appendix to the essay, I have set out in a chart several different versions of works modeled after the 42 letter name, including the one above in order that my reader may more easily compare the content of these works. This version of the prayer is similar to Ana be-Koach even in some of the words it uses. It also has a similar general theme-- stating the power of God and then beseeching God for help.  As stated before, the fact that this piyyut is found in Sefer Peliah gives a possible explanation for attributing Ana be-Koach to R’ Nehunia b. Hakanah.
        It is quite likely, as stated above, that this piyyut in Sefer Peliah is the first instance of a prayer being written based on the name of 42. My research is by no means exhaustive, however, I have not come across a piyyut written based on the name of 42 in any text which predate Sefer Peliah. Now that we have found a probable source for this practice, let us turn briefly to a discussion of the significance of this divine name. In another section of Sefer Peliah it equates every six letter unit with one of the planets. It puts forth the idea that each six letter unit is able to draw extraordinary power to the individual from the planet to which it corresponds:
המ"ב אותיות היוצאים מהם אב"ג ית"ץ ושאר הו' שמות תמצאו כל כחות של ז' כוכבי לכת איך מתפשטים עליהם הכוחות מכח שם יהו"ה וי"ס ומכח שם בן מ"ב והם ראשי פרקים. וכאשר תחפוש במקרא תמצא לכ"א וא' פסוקים מן התורה והם הם ראשי פרקים של הכוחות ויהיו תמיד לעיניך ובהם יודע כל עתיד בשם יהו"ה אדנ"י יתברך ויתעלה:
אב"ג ית"ץ רקיע שבתי שבתי וארצו. ושמטתו ויובל יום אחד. עין ימין. וחיים. ימים. שבת. חודש:
קר"ע שט"ן רקיע צדק. צדק וארצו, ושמטתו ויובל יום שני. עין שמאל, ושלום. ימים. שבת. חודש:
נג"ד יכ"ש רקיע מאדים. מאדים וארצו. ושמטתו ויובל יום ג'. אוזן ימין. וחכמה. ימים. שבת. חדש:
בט"ר צת"ג רקיע חמה. חמה וארצו. ושמטתו ויובל יום ד'. אוזן שמאל. וחן. ימים. שבת. חדש:
חק"ב טנ"ע רקיע נוגה. נוגה וארצו. ושמטתו ויובל יום ה'. נחיר ימין. ועושר. ימים. שבת. חדש:
יג"ל פז"ק רקיע כוכב. כוכב וארצו. ושמטתו ויובל יום ו'. נחיר שמאל. וזרע. ימים. שבת. חדש:
שק"ו צי"ת רקיע לבנה. לבנה וארצו. ושמטתו. ויובל יום שביעי. פה. וממשלה. ימים. שבת. חדש:[33]
It would seem from this passage from Sefer Peliah that the reason recital of the name was considered a dangerous enterprise was because it drew down such extraordinary power. We see here also the division of the name of 42 into 7 six letter words. This theme is continues throughout later literature discussing the meaning of the name. As stated before, this 6 times 7 numerical division is probably the reason that Ana be-Koach came to be recited on Shabbat as well as on the Omer.
        Another 13th century source which explicates the meaning of the name of 42 is the Tikkunei Zohar.  Its explanation of the name is also very enlightening. It gives us a possible etymology for the name being recited on one’s death bed and every day (as Eliezer Azikri prescribes in his work Sefer Hareidim).[34]:
These seven words: AVGYTTz, KR’STN, NGDYChSh, BTRTzTG, ChKBTN’, YGLPZK, ShKVTzYT—regarding them it is said: “each one has six wings. With two one’s face is covered, with two one’s feet are covered, and with two one flies.” The magical secret of his name is to cover the neshamah when it goes up above each and every night to bear witness to the good deeds of the person from angels of destruction, from all evil and destructive spirits, the lilliths and the demons. Through them [the seven words] it [the neshamah] blossoms above. With two letters in each name its [the neshamah’s] face is covered from them, with two letters its feet are covered, and with two letters it blossoms above. The same is true for the ru’ach and the nefesh [the two lower levels of the soul]. There is a name of 42 with the form of a wax seal, there is a name of 42 that is a portrait of the King on the seal, and there is a name of 42 which is the exact portrait. The name of 42 which is the portrait is this: YHVH, YVD H’ V’V H’…The name of 42 which is the seal is Ehyeh (asher) Ehyeh, and the picture of the 42 written in wax—this is AVGYTTz…[35]
There are several salient points that arise out of this passage. First, this passage provides an explanation of what exactly the name does—that is, to help all three levels of the soul to ascend on high without coming to harm. This is probably the reason that Reishit Chochmah brings forth this quote after an explanation of how to use the piyyut Ana be-Koach on one’s deathbed.[36] He prescribes the use of the piyyut when doing one’s final Vidui. This is probably also the general source of the use of piyyutim derived from the name of 42 in death rituals in other texts. There is at least one other piyyut based on the name of 42 which is supposed to be recited on one’s deathbed. This occurs in the text Ma’avar Yabbok, and will be discussed later. Another interesting point in this passage from Tikkunei Zohar is that there is not one, but three names of 42. Each one corresponds to an “image” that is closer to the actual image of God. It is enlightening to notice that one of the names, Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, is biblical and has the gematria (minus “asher”) of 72. Perhaps the Talmud in its reference to a name of 42 was actually referring to a version of this biblical name.
        In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, discussion of the name and of the piyyutim corresponding to it increases. Perhaps this is due to the rise in popularity of kabbalah after the incredibly prolific era of the kabbalists of 16th c. Tzfat. One rabbi who extensively discusses the name in the late 16th and early 17th centuries is Isaiah Horowitz (1565?–1630) in his Shnei Luchot HaBerit. In addition to Ana be-Koach, Horowitz records another piyyut which was derived from the name of 42:
אל ברוך גדול יראה תום צדקותיו אב"ג ית"ץ קדוש רחום עליון שור טהר נפשו קר"ע שט"ן נא גדול דגול יגדל כח שמירתו נג"ד יכ"ש ברחמי טהור רחמהו צדקהו תמיד גומלהו בט"ר צת"ג חי קדוש ברוך טהר נפשו עליון חק"ב טנ"ע יה גלה לבן פדותיך זך קדוש יג"ל פז"ק שוכן קדם ומאז צדק יושר תומיך שק"ו צי"ת[37] 
This piyyut which begins by describing God’s qualities is very interesting, and if my illustrious reader wants to see how it compares to other versions, please refer to the chart in the appendix. One fascinating point regarding this particular piyyut is that it is similar to the well-known El Barukh Gadol De’ah prayer.
        Another rabbi who cites the name of 42 in his work is Aaron Berechiah ben Moses of Modena (d. 1639), a known mystic, and author of the work dealing with end of life issues, Ma’avar Yabbok. In his discussion of end of life rituals, R’ Aaron mentions the recital of the name of 42 in the form of a piyyut at the time of death. In addition to citing Ana be-Koach as a piyyut that one could possibly recite, he recounts another piyyut based on the name of 42 whose meaning seems to better parallel the occasion of death than Ana be-Koach:
אהיה בעדן           גן יחודך          תקבל צדקתו:
קשוב רצה           עתירה שמור    טהרת נשמתו:
נאור גיבור           דגליך יאירו      כבוד שבתו:
ברוב טובך           רועה צדקה      תרומם גדולתו:
חסין קרב            ברצון טוב        נופש עלייתו:
יוודע גאולתך       לחזות פאר      זיו קדושתו:
שוכן קרוב           ומטיב צווה      ישועת תהילתו[38]:
There are a multitude of interesting elements of this piyyut. First, it seems to be directly tailored to the life situation in which it is to be said. Here, the context has changed the form of the utterance to fit the occasion. It feels to me like a hybrid between the name of 42 and El Malei Rachamim. Second, it is written in twos in Ma’avar Yabbok, as displayed above. This is particularly interesting to note in light of the comments of Eliyahu de Vidas and the Tikkunei Zohar. De Vidas uses the quote from the Tikkunim to illustrate why the name of 42 is efficacious when death occurs. In the quote from the Tikkunei Zohar, as seen above, each six letter word in the 42 letter name is divided into three--two words to cover the face of the soul, two for the legs of the soul, and two to make it blossom above. This is done in order to protect the soul from evil spirits which may attach during its ascent. It is probably not unintentional that R’ Aaron here divides this special piyyut used at death into three columns of two words each. He likely read both the piece from De Vidas and the Tikkunei Zohar.  Third, though he does not give a reference for where he found it, Schechter writes the following in regard to this piyyut: “The possibility of forming these words, strengthened the Cabbalistic opinion that the prayer is based on Rab’s statement in Kiddushin.”[39] I am not entirely clear why these particular words are so important except for the beginning reference to the Garden of Eden. This relates to the initial Talmud quote because there it claims that one who uses the name of 42 properly will inherit both this world and the world to come.[40] Finally, though the piyyit differs from Ana be-Koach in many ways, there are still some characteristic words, such as “chasin” which remain in this version.
        Over time, the name of 42 transformed from a Talmudic legend, into an actual name purported to have mystical powers, and then into a multitude of piyyutim. This development took place slowly over many generations, and in many different contexts. In many ways, the history of the development of this genre is a perfect illustration of what Bakhtin called the development of the utterance. Each time the name of 42 was used or referred to was unique, and each time the name was uttered, it became slightly altered from its original (virtually meaningless) beginning.  All the people who came into contact with this name changed it slightly, as it changed them. The name of 42 itself had no inherent semantic value apart from its number of words, so it became a sort of canvas upon which each of the Jewish thinkers mentioned in this essay painted their own poetic or philosophical work, their own utterance of the name of 42.
Appendix- Comparison of different versions of texts derived from the name of 42:

Ben Newman

Shabbat Liturgy-


אנא בכח-1

אל ברוך- מהשל"ה-2

אלוהים בישראל-מספר פליאה-3

 שם מ"ב בשמות מלאכים- מספר פליאה - ד"ה ועתה צרף שם אלהים וגם היא-4 

ספר הקנה -ד"ה סוד של מ"ב אותיות-5

Ma’avar Yabbok, Yetziat Neshamah, -6










גדו ל










צ' וז
בועליה חנניה קהה ב' טבטניה נ'













זהרזהר) זהריה (

זוהר זרעיה






צעיריה יתהדריה



ב ש כ מ ל ו
יה .


[1] Bakhtin, M. “The Problem of Speech Genres,” in Speech Genres and Other Late Essays [henceforth PS] p. 73.) p. 68.
[2] Ibid. p. 69
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.  p. 75
[5] In PS p. 85, Bakhtin notes: “Depending on the context of the utterance, the sentence ‘he died’ can also reflect a positive, joyful, even rejoicing expression…”
[6] Ibid. p. 72.
[7] PS p. 106
[8] PS p. 91
[9] PS p. 75: “…works of various scientific and artistic genres…are by nature the same kind of speech communication… they are demarcated by a change of speaking subjects.” In PT p. 104, he writes about “The text as utterance.” Also, “the work, like the rejoinder in dialogue, is oriented toward the response of the other.” (Ibid.)
[10] PS p. 63
[11] Ibid. p. 61
[12] See BT Kiddushin 71a: “the Name of 42 letters can only be given to one who is modest and humble, is middle aged, not easily angered, temperate, and free from vengeful feelings…” [trans. mine]
[13] Kiddushin 71a [translation Soncino].
[14] See: Tal, Shlomo. Ana be-Koach. In “Sinai.” Mosad HaRav Kook, (1983), pp. 297-8.  סיני צב, ה/ו (תשמג) ‬
Also see: Trachtenberg, Joshua. Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion. Atheneum/Macmillan Publishers, New York (1939), p. 95: “It has been generally assumed that this name was derived from the acrostic other player beginning Ana Bekoach, ascribed to a rabbi of the second century, Nehunya ben HaKana. While it is highly improbable that this prayer was the source of the name, or that it dates back to the second century, this theory constitutes a recognition of the antiquity of the name.”
[15] Ta’am Zekenim, 57; B.M. Lewin, Otzar HaGaonim,  IV (Jerusalem 1931), Hagigah, 20f. As quoted and translated by Trachtenberg, Joshua. Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion. Atheneum/Macmillan Publishers, New York (1939), p. 94.
[16] Trachtenberg, p. 94.
[17]  In Rashi’s own words:  שם - בן שתים עשרה ובן ארבעים ושתים לא פירשו לנו.  [trans. mine].
[18] See Sefer Hareidim (R’ Eliezer Azikri) 66:105: יש לאדם ליכנס במחשבתו ברוח בהיכלין קדישין מיום הראשון עד יום השביעי, וגם יכוין בלילו ויומו בשם של מ"ב אבגית"ץ ביום אחד, וקר"ע שט"ן ביום שני, ועל דרך זה שבעת הימים, ויהיה מהרהר בשם תדיר ביראה:
[19] Tal, Shlomo. Ana be-Koach. In “Sinai.” Mosad HaRav Kook, (1983), pp. 297-8.  סיני צב, ה/ו (תשמג) ‬  [trans. mine].          
[20] Moreh Nevuchim, 1:62. The translation here is M. Friedlander's translation, p. 92, as quoted in Schechter, Abraham. Lectures on Jewish Liturgy. The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia (1933), p. 47.
[21] Moreh Nevuchim, 1:62. The translation here is M. Friedlander's translation, p. 92, as quoted in Schechter, Abraham. Lectures on Jewish Liturgy. The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia (1933), p. 47.
[22] Idelson writes: “The poetical prayer ana bechoah consists of…Its forty-two words are supposed to represent the Forty-two-letter Name of God which is derived from the combination of the initial letters of the words. The poem was ascribed to the Tanaite Nehunya b. Hakkana (Responses RshBA, 220).” Idelson, A. Z.. Jewish Liturgy and its Development. New York: Schocken, (1932), p. 51.
[23] She’elot u-Teshuvot Ha Rashba, siman 220.
[24] Schechter, p. 48: “Some Cabbalist even ascribed this prayer [Ana be-Koach] to Nehunya ben ha-Kanah (about 70 C.E.), as they attributed to him also the mystical books Bahir, P’liah and Kanah.”
[25] Tal, Shlomo. Ana be-Koach. In “Sinai.” Mosad HaRav Kook, (1983), pp. 297-8.  סיני צב, ה/ו (תשמג) ‬  [trans. mine]: “…though the Sefer HaKanah refers to the 42 letter name it does not refer to ‘Ana be-Koach.’…”
[26]ספר הקנה- ד"ה סוד של מ"ב אותיות:
[27]  ספר הקנה- ד"ה סוד של מ"ב אותיות
[28] See Schechter p. 48.
[29] Schechter (p. 49) gets this wrong for some reason. He writes: “In all probability the fact that ana be-koach is found in the ‘Sepher Ha-Kanah,’ gave rise to the assumption that it was composed by R. Nehunya.” Ana be-Koach is not found either in Sefer Hakanah or in Sefer Peliah. However, as I have stated above, the first piyyut derived from the name of 42 (Elohim be-Yisrael) is in Sefer Peliah which is usually included in a volume with Sefer HaKanah. This, in my view, is the reason that people often attribute Ana be-Koach to Nehunia b. Hakanah, and not the spurious reason given by Schechter.
[30]ספר הפליאה - ד"ה ועתה צרף שם אלהים וגם היא
[31] Trachtenberg, p. 95.
[32] See appendix for a comparison of  various versions of works modeled after the name of 42.
[33] ספר הפליאה - ד"ה המליך אות ת' מבג"ד כפר"ת
[34] Op. Cit.: Sefer Hareidim (R’ Eliezer Azikri) 66:105: יש לאדם ליכנס במחשבתו ברוח בהיכלין קדישין מיום הראשון עד יום השביעי, וגם יכוין בלילו ויומו בשם של מ"ב אבגית"ץ ביום אחד, וקר"ע שט"ן ביום שני, ועל דרך זה שבעת הימים, ויהיה מהרהר בשם תדיר ביראה:
[35] Tikkunei Zohar 74:1 [translation mine.]
[36] Reishit Chochmah (Eliyahu de Vidas) Sha’ar HaKedusha 7:96.
[37]  ). של"ה- מ" פסחים פרק נר מצוה (נ"ח  (p. 145)
[38] Ma’avar Yabbok, Yetziat Neshamah, 119
[39] Schechter, p. 49.
[40] Kiddushin 71a: “[he] inherits two worlds, this world and the future world.” [translation Soncino].

Face to Face: An Analysis of Likutey Moharan I:19

The attraction that books and intellectual pursuits still have for many Jews today comes from generations upon generations of people for whom study was important, and who made sure to pass on their love of learning to their children. Jews have always had the idea that sheet music isn't music until it is played and heard, Torah isn’t Torah until it is interacted with. In offering this tradition to the world, we can open up this definition of Torah to mean any text that lies at the heart of a culture, that serves as its blueprint and moral compass. For Jews this means Torah and Mishnah and Talmud and all of our sacred commentaries. For Americans this could apply equally well to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the revelation that our founders received.

—R’ Zalman Schachter-Shalomi[1]

Though it is widely believed that Judaism, is a “religion of law,”[2] and that it therefore maintains the primacy of book learning[3] over face to face interaction, upon a deeper analysis of Jewish sources, it would seem that this belief is an erroneous one. Judaism is a religion of ‘law,’ or ‘Torah,’ in a certain respect. However, any learned Jew will likely know from their studies that Judaism is not solely a religion based on written law (Torah she-bichtav) but also on a living, evolving spoken law (Torah she-be-al-peh.) Despite the prominence of both written and spoken Torah, it is still unclear which, if either of these forms of Torah is given prominence in Jewish theology. This leads us to the broader issue of whether Judaism prefers knowledge procured through reading, or knowledge gained by listening to the lessons of a teacher in person (face to face). It would seem that some Jewish thinkers have stressed the importance book knowledge, while others have stressed the importance of learning directly from a teacher.

In the opinion of certain scholars, this characterizes one of the major differences between the Hasidim and their opponents the Mitnagdim. These scholars maintain that Hasidism valued orality over literacy, and the Mitnagdim valued literacy over orality. According to Moshe Idel, “Unlike their opponents, the mitnaggedim, whose illustrious leader, a famous scholar named R. Elijah of Vilnius, was a recluse and hardly interacted with his students but assiduously studied and wrote, Hasidic leaders preferred orality over literacy. If the Gaon of Vilnius is the most accomplished paragon of Jewish literacy and writing, the Besht is the great oral teacher.”[4] Though this distinction is generally supported by the literature, the canonical status afforded to R’ Nahman of Bratslav’s Likkutey Moharan (LM) by the Bratslav community after R’ Nahman’s death would seem to provide us with an interesting, and possibly contradictory case.[5] It is unclear, however, whether R’ Nahman himself valued orality or literacy. In this exposition, through a reading of LM I:19, I will claim that despite the substantial importance attributed to LM after R’ Nahman’s death, R’ Nahman (in LM I:19) expresses a preference for learning in person rather than from a book. I will begin with a summary of the content of LM I:19. I will then analyze I:19 in an attempt to show that this tora expresses the clear preference for orality over literacy common among Hasidic thinkers.

The overarching theme of LM I:19 is the value of learning from a person over learning from a book. In addition, according to Magid, “…it [LM I:19] undermines the very legitimacy of the book as a vehicle for lashon ha-kodesh.”[6] Though this tora also stresses the power of learning directly from the tsaddik over learning from another person or a book, even if one cannot learn directly from the tsaddik, learning from another person is nonetheless preferable to learning from a book.

A sermon delivered by R’ Nahman on Shavuot in the year 1804, LM I:19 is preceded by the following quote from Sifra de-Tzniuta,[7] which becomes a sort of recurring thesis statement throughout the tora, stressing the power of face to face transmission of Torah: “As long as there was no scale, there was no providence face to face.”[8] Though this teaching was delivered on Shavuot, which traditionally celebrates the revelation of the Torah, this quote from Sifra de-Tzniuta in its original context was discussing the process of creation. According to Magid, “Creation is center here because Nahman wanted to posit a notion of hidush that transcended revelation and reached back to creation. In some sense, the very homily was an act of subversion of the festival upon which it was delivered.”[9]

Nahman’s exposition begins with the following affirmation of the power of the spoken over the written word, which he re-visits at the end of the homily:

Everyone wonders: Why is it necessary to travel to the tzaddik to hear from his mouth? Is it not possible to simply study ethical teachings from books? But the truth is that there is a great advantage [to visiting the tzaddik]. For there is a big difference between the someone who hears directly from the true tzaddik himself and someone who hears from someone else who repeats it in his name, and certainly when he hears from someone who heard from someone else. Each time it descends from level to level, [becoming increasingly] distant from the tzaddik. So, too, there is an even greater difference between [learning from] someone who hears directly from the tzaddik and [from] someone who studies from a book.[10]

We see in this passage an affirmation of the power of oral over written transmission of Torah. Nahman presents a hierarchy, whereby hearing Torah from the tsaddik is most efficacious, hearing Torah from another person is less efficacious, and reading Torah in a book is the least efficacious of all. Magid claims that this primacy of orality is “not in concert with rabbinic teaching.” According to him, this is because “…the rabbis do not view, as far as I know, the experience of hearing the words directly from the master as a pre-requisite for achieving, or experiencing knowledge.”[11] However, in my humble opinion, Nahman’s privileging hearing Torah directly rather than from a book, is not necessarily out of sync with rabbinic thought. The Spoken Torah in general, and particularly the Talmud, was valued precisely because it was spoken, and not written. Though the Talmud was eventually written down, this was clearly not the rabbis’ preferred means of learning Talmud. The Talmud itself (Gittin 60a) relates that “Aggada is not meant to be written down.”[12] In addition, Rabbis were “occasionally criticized”[13] in the Gaonic period for using written copies of the Talmud. Therefore, I do not think that Nahman’s approach here is an anathema. Rather, perhaps in this passage Nahman is relating the view that the Spoken Torah must be learned in person, and not from a book.

Nahman continues his discussion by relaying the reason why it is that it is better to hear teachings (and especially from the tsaddik) than to read them—the face of the tsaddik shines like a mirror. When the hasid comes to visit the tsaddik, he sees his own reflection in the tsaddik’s face, noticing his own faults and assets. The tsaddik obtains this brilliant countenance by means of Lashon ha-Kodesh, the Holy Tongue.

Lashon Kodesh in this homily is not simply the Hebrew language. It is much more significant than this. The Holy Tongue is seen as being the primordial language of creation of which all mundane objects are composed. This concept is also not uncommon in rabbinic and kabbalistic literature.[14]

The great power of this language of creation, according to Nahman, is that it has the attribute of “lashon nofel al-lashon.” Nahman describes two distinct meanings for this expression. Though this phrase literally means ‘language that falls on language,’ Nahman originally describes this quality by citing the rabbinic etymology of the words ish and isha (man and woman) which is a “play on words.”[15] Man and woman are similar, as are the words in Hebrew that describe them.[16] According to Magid, there is a more intricate explanation for this expression. By using the words “leshon nofel al-leshon,” Nahman, “…employs a rabbinic phrase that refers to the similar etymological construction of Ish and Isha denoting that Adam, in naming all of creation, and woman in particular, uses language that is also the language of creation. In Nahman's use of this construction, woman (Isha) becomes language for Adam (Ish), albeit an inferior form of language.”[17] Leshon nofel al-leshon therefore also signifies a process wherein Ish assimilates the “inferior” Isha. Thus, the power of the Holy Tongue lies in the fact that it under-girds creation, and reflects the actual relationship among entities in the physical world. Also, one concept can be subsumed in the other (as in Ish and Isha.)

Next, Nahman relates the word “zot,” the deictic “this,”[18] to Lashon Kodesh. The word “zot” has been interpreted by several kabbalists (e.g.-the author of the Zohar and Isaac of Acco)[19] to refer to the Shekhinah. It is likely that R’ Nahman knew of this view, and that here he is specifically equating “spoken Lashon Kodesh” [20]with the Shekhinah. It is clear that he is relating the word zot to the word Havah which he interprets as “speech.”[21] Perhaps Holy Tongue could be compared to the Logos, the aspect of God which is also primordial information and language, while “zot” would represent this language as it is spoken, or applied, so to speak.

Later, Nahman equates ‘woman’ (and Havah) with the aspect of Targum (translation), a language which contains elements of Lashon Kodesh that still need to be purified. With this, he creates the second of three conceptual categories, which is somewhat distinct from (though still intertwined with) Lashon Kodesh. This second category encompasses speech, Targum and Havah, and several other characteristics, which I will mention later.

Nahman then compares the Holy Tongue to all the other languages, drawing on the phrase from the festival liturgy: “He exalted us above all the nations/languages [l’shonot].” (Here, perhaps, we find the relationship of this homily to the festival of Shavuot.) In this context, Nahman describes another quality of Lashon Kodesh--that it subjugates all of the other languages of the world. With this and several other associations, Nahman creates the third general category, the languages of the seventy nations. The negative characteristics of the languages of the seventy nations stem from the fact they contain “the lust for adulterous sex.”[22] This lust is overcome through Lashon Kodesh:. "By means of the Holy Tongue, the lust for sex is checked and controlled.”[23]

Through a complex series of associations, R’ Nahman fleshes out the relationship between these three intertwined categories (i.e.- Lashon Kodesh, Targum, and the language of the seventy nations.) In the process, each category becomes associated with several characteristics. The category of Lashon Kodesh becomes associated with: Ruah Ha-Kodesh, the rectification of the Covenant, the Woman of Wisdom, and wheat. He also associates the biblical Yosef with Lashon Kodesh through the statement that Yosef “had achieved perfection of the Holy Tongue…”[24] Targum becomes associated with: Havah, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Woman of Intellect, nogah, tardemah, and Aramaic. Finally, Lashon Ha-Ammim is equated with: Ruah Shtut, Ruah Se’arah, the biblical Serpent, seduction, lust, the seventy stars, pollution, the Woman of Folly, sin, evil, and the kelipot.

Once he has introduced us to these three general concepts, Nahman explains their relationship to each other:

And the Serpent, which is the comprehensive evil, <> that the Holy Tongue lacks perfection, it goes and rules over the Holy Tongue. This corresponds to, "The Serpent's rule is over the flesh"-namely, the concept of Chavah, mentioned above. She is `flesh of his flesh,' corresponding to (Haggai 2:12), "consecrated flesh." And this is the concept of the Serpent who seduced Chavah and polluted her (Shabbat 146a). He is the storm-wind, the spirit of folly," the "woman of folly" (Proverbs 9:13). He continually seduces the Holy Spirit, which is the Holy Tongue, the woman of wisdom corresponding to (ibid. 14:1), "the wisdom of women"-and then pollutes her…It is impossible for this "woman of folly"/the comprehensive evil of the seventy tongues to draw sustenance from the "woman of wisdom"/the Holy Tongue, except by means of the "Tree of Knowledge of good and evil" (Genesis 2:9). Through this, it lures the Holy Tongue and pollutes it. And the Tree of Knowledge, with its two aspects, good and evil, is a medium between the Holy Tongue/the "woman of wisdom" which is entirely good, and the tongues of the seventy nations which are entirely evil." Now, the "Tree of Knowledge of good and evil" is synonymous with the tongue of Targum (Aramaic) which is a medium between the Holy Tongue and the tongues of the seventy nations. When the tongues of the nations want to draw sustenance from the Holy Tongue, they can only do so by means of the tongue of Targum. The TaRGuM is synonymous with “a woman of intellect” (Proverbs 19:4)…[25]

Targum stands between Lashon Kodesh and Lashon Ha-Amim. Lashon Ha-Amim can pollute Lashon Kodesh only through its interaction with Targum. In this process, just as the Serpent in the garden seduces Havah, the language of the nations seduces Targum, infecting it with its impurity and evil. Targum “possesses both good and evil,”[26] and therefore has the capacity to be effected by either good or evil. It can become either intellect (maskil) or destruction (meshakel).[27]

Though Targum can potentially be seduced by the dark side (i.e.-the language of the seventy nations) becoming impure, it can also be “refined,” purified and made holy. “The concept of nogah/Targum needs to be refined, so that the evil in it will fall away and the good in it will be extracted and ascend.”[28] Earlier, we saw that Targum is associated with speaking the Holy Tongue. It would seem therefore, that in this process, spoken language has the capacity to be either indecent or lustful--lustful when Targum is hijacked by Lashon Ha-Ammim, holy and creative when it is redeemed through Lashon Kodesh.

Once the positive attributes of Targum are elevated, the “power of HaShem will be increased.”[29] This occurs because when the Targum’s good attributes are elevated, they in turn “complete” and “perfect” the Holy Tongue. As a result of this process of completing the Holy Tongue the letters of the Holy Tongue of which creation is comprised are quickened. “When a person elevates the good in Targum and perfects the Holy Tongue with which the world was created, this arouses and enhances the power of the letters of the Holy Tongue which are in each thing in the world.”[30]

Once a person is able to uplift Targum and enhance and arouse the letters of each object in creation, “…then his eating, drinking and all his [physical] pleasures come only from the illumination of the letters which are in eating and drinking.”[31] Though even one who is not a tsaddik may be able to sense these letters of creation, the ability to have all one’s pleasures derive from the letters in one’s food is limited to the tsaddik. Nahman notes that “…every simple sage {that is, he is only wise but not a tzaddik} is capable of knowing the letters with which the thing he is eating was created.”[32] However, he also says that “Even so, for him [the simple sage] to experience and have pleasure just from the letter permutations…is impossible.”[33] This is because the tsaddik has performed the task of “perfecting” the Holy Tongue, “breaking his sexual lust entirely,”[34] and is therefore able to create “a new illumination in the Holy Tongue of each thing…”[35] In the words of Magid, “Lashon ha-kodesh perfected is revelation revealed, which is creation.”[36]

As a result of the tsaddik’s ability to obtain all his pleasure when eating and drinking from the permutations of the letters in each thing, “his heart will shine.”[37] In turn, this causes the tsaddik’s face to shine as a mirror. “And when one’s face shines with this purity, then another person can see his face in this face as he would in a mirror, and then feel remorse and return in repentance.”[38]

After this extended exegesis, Nahman returns to the issue of the power of learning in person versus book learning; “And this is the difference between hearing something from the teacher, or from the student, or from the book. For the tsaddikim are (Psalms 103:20), ‘strong warriors doing his word.’ They make and construct the word of the Holy One—namely the Holy Tongue with which the world was created.”[39] Because the tsaddik is able to “construct” the Holy Tongue, his face shines as a mirror, teaching the student through reflecting both his attributes and failings.

However, there is still a remaining question. In the absence of the tsaddik, what would be more efficacious, to read his teachings in a book, or to hear them in person from another? It would seem that Nahman generally places oral learning on a higher level than book learning. This is supported by the following passage which occurs near the end of LM I:19:

The difference between someone who learns form a book and someone who hears [the teaching] directly from the sage is even greater. This is because a book is only for remembering, as is written (Exodus 17:4), “Write this as a reminder in the Book.” And memory is [fixed] in the power of imagination, for even an animal has memory. This we know empirically, that even an animal can recall that in this place it was bitten by a dog and so it runs away from there. This is why our Sages said (Gittin 60b): “Words of the Oral Torah may not be written down.”

There is more to this than meets the eye. For in truth, this verse “Write this as a reminder in the Book,” was said about the Written Torah which specifically needs to be written down. {All this I [Reb Nosson] heard from his [Rebbe Nahman’s] holy lips when I transcribed the lesson in his presence, but he did not fully clarify this point.}[40]

Here, we see that even hearing a teaching from a sage (hacham) (rather than a tsaddik) is considered more authentic, more powerful than reading. The Spoken (Oral) Torah is only meant to be relayed “face to face.” Nahman bases this idea on the rabbinic dictum (from Gittin) that the Spoken Torah may only be written down as an aid for memory. This passage is essential in that it affirms the power of the spoken over the written word. Even if the words of the tsaddik are written in a book, it is better to hear the words directly from someone who had heard them (either from the tsaddik, or even from someone who heard from the tsaddik.) Mykoff summarizes the Mai HaNachal commentary to this passage:

Thus, whatever is written in a book, which is only for the purpose of remembering, corresponds to Targum, which needs rectification by having the good in it elevated. Therefore, the written word does not have the same power to arouse and elevate a person as does the spoken word of Lashon HaKodesh, that one hears, even if he hears it from someone several steps removed from its source of Complete Lashon HaKodesh.[41]

Written works are always inferior, because they have not yet been elevated. Second or third hand speech, despite its ‘distance’ from the tsaddik, still retains more of the original power of Lashon Kodesh than a book. A text is less holy if life is not being breathed into it through interpretation.

It would seem from R’ Nosson’s parenthetical comment (“All this I [Reb Nosson] heard from his [Rebbe Nahman’s] holy lips when I transcribed the lesson in his presence, but he did not fully clarify this point.”) that he himself was confused. Though Nahman’s teaching that Shavuot lauded the value of speech, Nosson was nonetheless recording it in writing. Perhaps only so that he could remember it later? If it was just a reminder, then how did LM itself later end up becoming the ‘embodiment of the tsaddik?’

This preference for orality is likely confusing for those Bratslav Hasidim who treat LM as their rebbe. Mykoff writes: “The person who studies from a book is even more distant from the teaching’s source than if he had heard it even second or third hand….Why?” Perhaps Mykoff himself is somewhat confused by this teaching, as it appears to contradict the belief in the divine nature of LM common among Bratslav Hasidim. According to Magid, “In the institutionalized Breslov community, Likkutei MoHaRan is arguably more than a book. The book is the (embodiment of the) author, it is the word that embodies flesh, almost a totem of the author's spirit.”[42] Though LM has this value in the Bratslav community, perhaps Nahman himself, as we see in LM I:19 would agree with the statement that, “…as a book it [Likutey Moharan] can only re-tell, it is only mimetic, it can never re-capture the originary moment of its disclosure.”[43]

It seems that Magid is also somewhat puzzled by this blanket preference for orality over literacy. The bulk of his address (which I reference throughout this paper) deals with the idea of the special charisma afforded to the tsaddik, who embodies God “to the extent that he transcends the mere ‘image of God’ common to all human beings.”[44] Though in this system, learning directly from the tsaddik is preferable because of his special relationship to Lashon Kodesh, I claim that (as seen in I:19) learning from a book is always less preferable. Magid affirms my thesis that “LM I:19 is about the power of orality as opposed to the power of the book…”[45] However, he nonetheless seems to feel that the book LM is an exception. He asserts, “The book, his book, the words of the Zaddik as written, now becomes the body of the Zaddik. Reading it is not the same as experiencing the transformation but it may be the next best, and only, option.”[46] Is reading LM, a book of the words of the tsaddik more beneficial than hearing these words second, or third, or fourth hand? Would it not, according to the theory espoused in LM I:19, be better for a Bratslav Hasid to hear a teaching from his grandfather, who heard it from his grandfather, who heard it from his grandfather, who heard it directly from R’ Nahman?

It seems to me that Nahman would not have preferred any written teaching, including his own, to first-hand learning. This idea is evident in LM I:19, but it is also illustrated more generally in Hasidic thought. Idel writes:

Orality can explode in and overcome even the most literate cultures. Centered as the varieties of Judaism up to the eighteenth century were on study and perfor­mance, a powerful phenomenon emphasizing orality took place beginning in the mid-eighteenth century in Eastern Europe and changed the spiritual physiognomy of many Jewish communities there. Hasidism is basically a move from literacy to orality, as we saw in an example in Chapter 6 dealing with the encounter between the Besht and the Great Maggid of Mezeritch.[47]

It would seem from Idel’s analysis of Hasidism, that the shift from a culture based on literature to one based on orality is one of the central characteristic traits of early Hasidism. Despite the fact that LM took on canonical status after Nahman’s death it seems unlikely to me that Nahman would have veered so markedly from Hasidism’s emphasis on orality. In fact, one of the traits Nahman is most famous for is his story telling ability.

In the following interpretation of a Baal Shem Tov story which stresses the preference for orality, Idel also addresses the concept of the tsaddik as the Spoken Torah discussed by R’ Nahman:

There was a man who wrote down the torah of the Besht that he heard from him. Once the Besht saw a demon walking and holding a book in his hand. He said to him: "What is the book that you hold in your hand?" He an­swered him: "This is the book that you have written." The Besht then understood that there was a person who was writing down his torah. He gathered all his followers and asked them: "Who among you is writing down my torah?" The man admitted it and he brought the manuscript to the Besht. The Besht examined it and said: "There is not even a single word here that is mine.”

Let me start with the alleged interlocutor of the Besht, the studious and curious demon. He is indeed a very curious guy, who attempts to keep himself up to date with any interesting spiritual development. It seems that Jewish culture was so imprinted with the concept of the importance of books that even its demons were imagined as avid readers., In this particular instance, however, involving a story that in my opinion is emblematic of the nature of Hasidism, the very emergence of the book was regarded as questionable: the author, the Besht, was trying to preserve the oral form of his teachings as quintessential. Demons, so it seems, are especially fond of illicitly written books. In fact, in this case the demon focuses his attention on a composition that the author himself would take to be an extreme falsification of his thought. What went wrong is not a matter of bad intentions or sheer misunderstandings: it seems that, as in Plato's famous critique of writing, it is the very nature of the medium that is imagined as problematic, and not the faulty manner of its performance. This legend, which portrays the Besht's adherence to the oral form of teaching may be related significantly to R. Nahman of Braslav's description of the Tzaddiq as the oral Torah, in the explicit context of a discussion about his great­ grandfather, the Besht. Concerning the Sabbateans, R. Nahman wrote that they “left the community and spoke deleteriously about the entire oral Torah, and this happened because hard gevurot reached them and they did not sweeten them ... and those utterances fell upon the paragon of the genera­tion and the Besht was then the paragon of the generation and he departed because of it ... because when there are deleterious utterances about the oral Torah or about the Tzaddiq of the generation, this is indeed the same thing because the quintessence of the oral Torah depends on the Tzaddiq of the generation, as it is said that the Shekhinah stands between the two Tzaddikim which is the oral Torah…because the Tzaddik makes from their [utterances] a Torah.”[48]

Though it is still unclear as to the status of LM as a written work, there is no doubt as to Nahman’s preference for orality. I wonder what R’ Nosson (who wrote down R’ Nahman’s homilies) would have said in response to the Besht story in the above passage. Would he have rationalized recording Nahman’s teachings as a personal reminder of what he had heard? Perhaps, if he knew that there were “demons” (such as myself?) running around with copies of LM, he would have thought twice about committing them to the page. Did R’ Nosson, when writing down R’ Nahman’s teachings ever stop himself and consider the idea that, “…as in Plato's famous critique of writing, it is the very nature of the medium that is imagined as problematic, and not the faulty manner of its performance”? Conceivably, when he was writing down LM I:19, this thought may have crossed his mind.


[1] Schachter-Shalomi, Zalman with Segel, Joel. Jewish with Feeling: a Guide to Meaningful Jewish Practice, Riverhead Books, 2005, p. 190.

[2] Ibid. p. 192

[3] Note the following entry from the Jewish Encyclopedia: “Israel has been called ‘the People of the Book’; it may as fitly be called ‘the people of Scripture exegesis,’ for exegesis in the largest sense of the word is in a way the one indigenous science which Israel has created and developed, after having produced, during the first long period of its history, the actual subject of this science, the Bible itself.” (

[4] Idel, Moshe. Absorbing Perfections: Kabbalah and Interpretation, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2002, p. 475.

[5] Idel notes (Ibid. p. 474): “There can be no doubt , however, that in some schools the teachings of the Hasidic leader became canonical, and this happened almost immediately. This is obviously the case with the teachings of the great-grandson of the Besht, R. Nahman of Braslav, each of which was designated as a Torah.” According to Idel the canonical status of LM, peculiar in the Hasidic tradition, occurred because his Hasidim “did not choose another leader [after Nahman’s death] but relied on the guidance found in his books (Ibid.)”

[6] Magid, Shaul. Charisma Talking: Incarnation and Lashon Ha-Kodesh in Nahman of Bratzlav’s Likkutei MoHaRan I:19, [unpublished talk delivered by Dr. Magid at UCLA in January, 2005], p. 9

[7] Included as part of the Zohar. Zohar II, 176b

[8] Likutey Moharan, trans. by Moshe Mykoff, Breslov Research Institute, Jerusalem/New York, 1990.

[9] Magid, p. 7

[10] Translation adapted from Mykoff, pp. 119, 121.

[11] Magid, p. 13.

[12] Gittin 60a trans. Soncino. This exact quote is, in fact, presented later in I:19 (excerpts)- Mykoff, pp. 176-179. Note Mykoff, footnote #142: “Oral Torah may not be written down. "From here we learn that it would have been forbidden to commit the Talmud into writing were it not that the Torah was being forgotten" (Rashi, Gittin 60b, s.v., u'devarim). This also shows that the purpose of a book is only to ensure that the material is remembered. However, ideally, the main body of the Oral Torah, the Talmud, should be studied orally-"face to face"-and heard by the student…It is worth noting that in this same passage (Gittin, loc. cit.) our Sages teach that God made a Covenant with the Jews only because of the Oral Law. This ties in with our lesson in that the vast body of the Oral Law is in the language of Targum/Aramaic and, as explained, the sanctification of the Covenant cannot be attained unless one first elevates the good in Targum.” (p. 179.)

[13] According to the Jewish Encyclopedia: “There are, however, allusions, although they are only sporadic, which show that the Halakah and the Aggadah were committed to writing; for copies were described as being in the possession of individual scholars, who were occasionally criticized for owning them. This censure was based on an interdiction issued in the third century, which forbade any one to commit the teachings of tradition to writing or to use a manuscript of such a character in lecturing (see Giṭ. 60a; Tem. 14b). Replying to the scholars of Kairwan, Sherira Gaon in his letter (ed. Neubauer, "M. J. C." i. 26) alludes to this prohibition as follows: "In answer to your question asking when the Mishnah and the Talmud were respectively committed to writing, it should be said that neither of them was thus transmitted, but both were arranged [redacted] orally; and the scholars believe it to be their duty to recite them from memory, and not from written copies." From the second part of this statement it is evident that even in Sherira's time the "scholars," a term here restricted to the members of the Babylonian academies, refrained from using written copies of the Talmud in their lectures, although they were sufficiently familiar with it to be able to recite it from memory. The statement that the exilarch Naṭronai (8th cent.), who emigrated to Spain, wrote a copy of the Talmud from memory (see Brüll, "Jahrb." ii. 51), would show that the scholars of the geonic period actually knew the work by heart. Although this statement is not altogether free from suspicion, it at least proves that it was believed to be within the powers of this exilarch to make a copy of the Talmud without having an original at hand.” (

[14] See Sefer Yetzirah, and Mykoff’s translation of LM, p. 120 footnote #8: “The Midrash teaches that in making the world, God permuted creations ‘building blocks’—the Hebrew alphabet—with which He then gave form to all existence (Bereshit Rabbah 1:1, 18:4; see Likutey Moharan I, 18:6, n.58). The different permutations of these letters are the words of the Holy Tongue used in the world’s creation.”

[15] Trans. Mykoff, p. 123.

[16] See Ibid. footnote #9: “The Midrash which Rebbe Nachman quotes in the text…points to a play on words as proof that this language, Lashon HaKodesh…was sued in the creation of the world. The commentaries explain that among the ancient languages of the world, none employed similar words for man and woman, showing that, in fact, they were created as one and remain inextricably linked in essence. Only in Hebrew is this connection evident from the language itself…”

[17] Magid, pp. 14-15.

[18] Is it possible that he is making a reference to the here-and-now-ness of speech?

[19] For this reference in Isaac of Acco, see his supercommentary to Ramban’s Torah commentary, Meirat Einayim pp. 152-155 (ed. Goldreich). Also see Tikkuney Zohar 19, p. 40a

[20] LM I:19, 3.Nahman associates the words havah and isha with “…the concept of speaking with the Holy Tongue, with which the world was created

[21] He relates the name Havah (the first woman) to speech. According to Mykoff (Mykoff, p. 123): “We have just seen that everything, including the first woman, was created by means of the language of Creation, Lashon haKodesh. Adam, likewise, used the Holy Tongue to call her ishah. The name of this ishah, Chavah ... also implies speech and speaking the Holy Tongue. We see this in the verse in Psalms which relates how other elements in Creation which were also created with Lashon haKodesh (such as day and night) talk about and declare His glory: "Night ye’haveh (YHVH) to night." [emphasis mine.]

[22] ta’avat niuf (I:19, 3)

[23] Mykoff, p. 127.

[24] Mykoff, p. 131

[25] Mykoff, pp. 137-141.

[26] Ibid.

[27] LM I:19, 4.

[28] Translation adapted from Mykoff, p. 153.

[29] LM I:19, 6 [trans. mine].

[30] Translation adapted from Mykoff, p. 155.

[31] Ibid., p. 157.

[32] Ibid., p. 161.

[33] Ibid., p. 163.

[34] Ibid., p. 165.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Magid, p. 18.

[37] Mykoff, p. 167.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Translation adapted from Mykoff, p. 171.

[40] Trans. Mykoff, p. 177 (emphasis mine).

[41] Mykoff, p. 176

[42] Magid, p. 8.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Magid, p. 3.

[45] Ibid., p. 9.

[46] Ibid., p. 12.

[47] Idel, p. 470.

[48] Idel, pp. 472-473.

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