The Song of the Well, Psalm 136, Was Removed from the Torah
The Song of the Well
In Parashat Chukkat, the Israelites begin their march to the Promised Land. While skirting the Moabite border, they come to a well:
במדבר כא:טז וּמִשָּׁם בְּאֵרָה הִוא הַבְּאֵר אֲשֶׁר אָמַר יְ־הֹוָה לְמֹשֶׁה אֱסֹף אֶת הָעָם וְאֶתְּנָה לָהֶם מָיִם:
Num 21:16 And from there to the well: this is the well where YHWH said to Moses, “Assemble the people that I may give them water.”
Upon encountering this well, the Israelites sing a song:
אָז יָשִׁיר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת
עֲלִי בְאֵר עֱנוּ לָה
בְּאֵר חֲפָרוּהָ שָׂרִים כָּרוּהָ נְדִיבֵי הָעָם
Then Israel sang this song:
Spring up, O well—sing to it—
The well which the chieftains dug,
Which the nobles of the people started
With maces, with their own staffs (vv. 17-18).
Too Brief and Human Focused
The song is unusually brief for a biblical song of thanks; it simply describes the Israelite leaders digging the well, and calls on the listeners to sing about it. Its subject is relatively prosaic in comparison with the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15) or the Song of Deborah (Judges 5). It does not mention God or any miracle, instead placing the achievements of Israel at its center.
The traditional commentators try to deal with some of these problems. Rashi, for example, explains that God is not mentioned out of solidarity with Moses, who is also missing. The late 12th century Midrash Aggada (Buber ed.), on the other hand, reads praise of God into the text, saying that this was the entire point of the song.
Dealing with the length problem, Ibn Ezra suggests that what is quoted is merely the opening of the song, but that the full version was never recorded. A unique variation of this suggestion appears in the commentary of R. Yehudah HaChasid on the Torah.
The Song is Missing: R. Yehudah HeChasid’s Solution
R. Yehudah HeChasid of Regensberg (1150-1217) was the leader of the Chasidei Ashkenaz movement, a mystical group emphasizing prayer, repentance, and piety. He inherited the mantel of leadership from his father, R. Shmuel ben Kalonymus HeChasid of Speyer (12th cent), the movement’s founder. The Sefer HaChasidim, a book collecting moral aphorisms, anecdotes, mystical speculations, and halakhot, was based largely on his teachings.
His commentary on the Torah was written down in the thirteenth century by his son, R. Moshe Zaltman, and is known for its strong adherence to peshat readings. On this passage, the commentary offers a radical new suggestion: Numbers 21:17-18 is not the song, but a description of what happened when Israel encountered the well; the actual song is missing from the Torah because King David removed it from the Torah and included it in the book of Psalms:
אז ישיר ישראל את השירה הזאת – פירוש מורי אבי: זהו הלל הגדול, שלאחר שניצולו מסיחון ועוג ועברו נחל ארנון אז נעשה זה השיר, ובחומש היה כתיב, אלא שדוד המלך הסיר כל מזמורי יתמי של משה שבחומש וחיברן בספר תהלים שלו.
“Then Israel sang this song” – My father (=R. Yehudah HeChasid) explained: This refers to the Great Hallel (Psalm 136). For after they were saved from Sihon and Og, and they crossed the Arnon stream, then they wrote this song. It was once included in the Chumash, but King David removed it, along with all of Moses’ untitled (i.e. lacking superscription) psalms in the Chumash, and included them in his (David’s) book of psalms.
The Great Hallel, best known by its opening verse הודו לה’ כי טוב כי לעולם חסדו (Praise the Lord for he is good; his steadfast love is eternal) praises God consistently, listing the many things God did for the Israelites in Egypt and the wilderness. But what about this Psalm led R. Yehudah HeChasid to believe it originated in the wilderness?
A Wilderness Psalm
The latest event Psalm 136 mentions is the conquest of the territories of Sihon and Og, and it lacks any reference to the conquest or settlement of the Cisjordan; this may have suggested to R. Yehudah HeChasid that it was recited in the wilderness. The structure of the psalm is as follows:
- General praise of God (vv. 1-4)
- Praise of creation (vv. 5-9)
- Smiting of firstborns and escape from Egypt (vv. 10-12)
- Splitting the sea and escape from Egyptian army (vv. 13-15)
- Guiding through Wilderness (v. 16)
- Defeat of Sihon and Og (vv. 17-22)
- Remembering and redeeming us (vv. 23-24)
- Providing food for the world (v. 25)
- Praise God of the heavens (v. 26)
Comparison with the “Later” Psalm 135
R. Yehudah HeChasid compares Psalm 136 with the similar Psalm 135, which he attributes to Joshua. More specifically, R. Yehudah HeChasid believes that Joshua wrote Psalm 135 with the template of Moses’ Psalm 136 in mind, and added a reference to “Canaan” (v. 11):
בא יהושע והוסיף ועשה מזמור שיני שדומה לזה, שעומדים בבית יי, והוסיף רק חדוש אחד, "ולכל ממלכות כנען," פרוש, על ידי נס זה נעשה.
Joshua came and wrote a second psalm which was similar to this one, “Standing in the House of God” (Psalm 135:2), which adds only one new element, “and all the royalty of Canaan,” meaning, this was accomplished miraculously.
R. Yehudah HeChasid adds that David further updated Joshua’s Psalm, adding the reference to Zion and Jerusalem at the end (v. 21).
וכשדוד כיבש את ציון הוסיף גם הוא שיטה אחת, "ברוך יי מציון שוכן ירושלים הללויה."
When David conquered Zion, he added one line [to this psalm], “Blessed is the LORD from Zion, who dwells in Jerusalem, halleluyah.”
Psalm 136 only seems to deal with the wilderness wandering in v. 16, and none of its other verses deal with God’s miraculous intervention in this period. R. Yehudah HeChasid’s reading of the psalm differs, since he interprets vv. 25-26, which seem to be general verses about God feeding all creatures, to be about the manna:
תדע לך, נותן לחם לכל בשר על מן אמרו… הודו לאל השמים כי לעולם חסדו, פירוש, שהמטיר להם לחם מן השמים.
You should know that “Who gives food to all flesh” (v. 25) refers to the manna… “Praise the God of heaven, his steadfast love is eternal” (v. 26), meaning, that he rained bread upon them from heaven.
Thus, the psalm thanks God for at least one wilderness miracle.
Sihon and Og: A Song in the Wrong Place
R. Yehudah HeChasid’s interpretation raised another problem: The psalm’s mention of the wars of Sihon and Og, which only come later in the chapter (vv. 21-35), suggest that this poem could not have been written when Israel reached the well (vv. 16-18). This forces R. Yehudah HeChassid to suggest that the chapter in Numbers reflects events out of order, and the digging of the well and the accompanying song actually came after Israel’s conquest of the Transjordan:
וזאת הפרשה אינה במקומה, אחר מלחמת סיחון ועוג הוא מקומה, אלא בעבור שהזכיר בארה הזכיר השירה.
This passage (Num 21:16-18) is not in its proper (historical) place, rather, its place is really after the wars of Sihon and Og, but since v. 16 mentioned Be’era (as part of the itinerary), it mentioned the song there as well.
Although he does not use the term, R. Yehudah HeChasid seems to be applying the rabbinic principle that אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה “there is no order in the Torah.” This may be why R. Zaltman was not bothered by the chronological rearrangements. He was, however, bothered by his father’s contradiction of an explicit passage in the Talmud.
Contradicts the Talmud
A passage in tractate Rosh Hashanah of the Babylonian Talmud (31a) discusses which psalms should be recited as part of the afternoon service (mincha) of Shabbat.
במנחתא דשבתא מה היו אומרים? אמר רבי יוחנן: אז ישיר ומי כמוך ואז ישיר.
At the afternoon Shabbat sacrifice [in the Temple], what did they say? — R. Yohanan said: Az Yashir (“He then sang,” the Song of the Sea, Exod 15:1-10), and Mi Kamocha (“Who is like you,” the second half of the Song of the Sea, Exod 15:11-19/21), and Az Yashir (“the Song of the Well,” Num 21:17-18).
The passage continues by explaining that the three readings are meant to cover a three week cycle, i.e., one song every Shabbat and then the cycle would start anew on the fourth week. Noting this passage, R. Zaltman writes:
ותימה לי על דברי אבי מפרק בתרא דראש השנה, דקאמר התם, במנחה ובשבת מה היו אומרים? “ויושע עד מי כמוך.” ובשבת שנייה מ”מי כמוך” עד סייום השירה, ובשבת שלישית הוא אומרים “אז ישיר ישראל.”
I have a problem with my father’s words from the final chapter of Rosh Hashanah, for there it states (paraphrasing the Talmudic passage): On Shabbat mincha, what did they say? From “And God saved” (Exod 14:30-15:10) until “who is like you.” On the second Shabbat, from “who is like you” until the end of the song (15:11-19/21). On the third Shabbat, they would say, “Then Israel sang” (the Song of the Well).
ואם איתא כדברי אבי, היה לו לומר “הלל הגדול” כי היא השירה. ואינך יכול לומר בראש השנה רק תחילת הפסוק של הפרשה והתחיל ודעת הספר היא על הלל הגדול. זה אינו, כי בכל מקום שצריך הספר [להביאו] קוריהו הלל הגדול, בערבי פסחים, ובשאר מקומות. גימגום.
If my father’s words were correct, the passage should have stated [that on the third Shabbat they sing] “The Great Hallel.” And you can’t deflect this problem by suggesting that Tractate Rosh Hashanah is merely citing the beginning words of the passage, but that it means The Great Hallel. This cannot be, since in every other place in which the Talmud wishes to reference The Great Hallel, it calls it The Great Hallel, as in the final chapter of Pesachim and other places. It is puzzling.
R. Zaltman is forced to end with a statement of his bewilderment, since he sees no way to square his father’s suggestion with the terminology used in the Talmud.
No Reflection on the Heretical Aspect of the Suggestion
R. Zaltman’s comment is far more interesting for what it does not say. Although he is bothered by the possibility that his father’s interpretation was not in consonance with a halakhic ruling of the Sages, he does not seem bothered by the fact that his father suggests that King David removed a piece of the Torah and placed it in the book of Psalms.
Sefer Tzioni Adopts this Interpretation
R. Menachem ben Meir Tzioni of Speyer (late 14th cent) was not bothered by this “heretical” suggestion either, since he quotes this very gloss in abridged form in his own commentary on the Torah, Sefer HaTzioni (ad loc.). R. Tzioni was hardly a radical philosopher or rationalist, in the mold of ibn Ezra or Ralbag. Rather, like R. Yehudah HeChasid, R. Tzioni was primarily a kabbalist, but also a poet.
In addition to quoting the classic parshanim such as Rashi and Ramban, his commentary is filled with quotes from mystical works such as the Zohar and the Sefer HaBahir, and is embroidered with bits of poetry at transition points. Unlike the commentary of R. Yehudah HeChasid, the Sefer Tzioni was never lost (though admittedly it was never all that popular), and R. Menachem Tzioni is quoted authoritatively in halakhic sources as well. And yet, R. Yehudah HeChasid’s suggestion did not bother him.
R. Moshe Feinstein vs. R. Menashe Klein: Is It a Forgery?
Some traditional thinkers, however, have been greatly bothered by the idea of King David excising a piece from the Torah, and have responded that this claim is heresy. The most famous example of this is the responsa of R. Moshe Feinstein, the most prominent halakhic decisor in late 20th century America (1895-1986). Late in his life, R. Feinstein was asked about the newly discovered commentary of R. Yehudah HeChasid. R. Feinstein declared that the comment about David removing a passage from the Torah was heresy.
He went even further, declaring the commentary to be a fraud and its author—emphatically not R. Yehudah HeChasid—to be a heretic. In fact, when it was pointed out to R. Feinstein that no less an authority than R. Menachem Tzioni quotes this very gloss in R. Yehudah HeChasid’s name in his own commentary on the Torah, R. Feinstein doubled down, stating that he doesn’t really know much about Menachem Tzioni, and that, to be safe, he is now declaring the Sefer Tzioni off limits as well.
Postulating R. Moshe Feinstein’s Responsa on R. Yehudah HaChasid are a Forgery
This sparked the ironic response of the Ungvarar Rav, R. Menashe Klein (1924-2011), published in his collected responsa, Mishneh Halakhot (12:214). R. Klein states that it is impossible that a great scholar like R. Moshe Feinstein never heard of R. Menachem Tzioni, one of the greatest kabbalists. As a Chasidic rabbi and a kabbalist himself, R. Klein held R. Tzioni in exceptionally high regard, and quotes him in his responsa on numerous occasions.
Nevertheless, even though R. Feinstein was not an expert in kabbalah, R. Klein reasoned, R. Tzioni is quoted as an authority in halakhic works, including commentaries on the Shulchan Arukh! It is impossible for one of the greatest halakhists in the modern period, like R. Moshe Feinstein, not to know this, argued R. Klein, and it is further unthinkable that R. Feinstein would have had the temerity to forbid the works of one of the Rishonim (early medieval rabbis). Thus, R. Klein concludes that R. Feinstein didn’t actually write those responsa, but that they are a forgery from the pen of some misguided student.
Although R. Klein is certainly wrong about the authorship of these responsa, which were written by R. Moshe Feinstein, he is right that the Tzioni’s use of R. Yehudah HeChasid’s commentary is solid evidence that the text of the commentary is not a forgery. As far as I know, scholars of medieval parshanut are in agreement that the commentary is authentic.
Kashering the Commentary: Rabbi Klein’s Rereading of the Gloss
Having defended the Sefer Tzioni, and by extension the commentary of R. Yehudah HeChasid, R. Klein, a traditionalist like R. Moshe Feinstein, is bothered with the heresy problem. He takes up this issue in a later volume of the Mishneh Halachot (16:102), where he offers this creative reimagining of the history of the composition of the Torah. Basing himself on early aggadic literature, which claims that the patriarchs already knew the Torah more or less, before God revealed its exact wording to Moses at the end of the wilderness period, R. Klein claims that they wrote the Torah they knew down on scrolls and studied it.
In addition, throughout the exodus and wilderness periods, Moses wrote down notes about what was occurring. After the defeat of Sihon and Og, and the finding of the well, Moses wrote down the Song of the Well, i.e., The Great Hallel, in his expanded Torah “notebook.” R. Klein refers to this notebook as a chumash (as opposed to a Torah). When God eventually dictated the Torah to Moses, this song was not included, but it remained in Moses’ chumash, which was passed down and studied over the generations along with the Torah. It was from this book, R. Klein argues, that King David cut the song, not from an actual Torah scroll.
As creative as this suggestion is, it is not a plausible reading of R. Yehudah HeChasid’s gloss. We are, thus, left with the question of why such an ostensibly radical suggestion did not bother such pious scholars such as R. Yehudah HeChasid and R. Menachem Tzioni.
Heresy and the Eighth Principle of Maimonides
The interpretation of R. Yehudah HeChasid appears to contradict the eighth principle of Maimonides, that the Torah is supposed to be perfect, with not a word out of place. How could anybody remove a passage from the Torah?! To compound this problem: The exceedingly prosaic reason R. Yehudah heChasid gives, namely that David simply wanted to collect unsuperscribed psalms and put them in his new book of Psalms, is noteworthy. This is hardly an emergency situation calling for extraordinary measures!
It seems clear that neither R. Yehudah HeChasid nor his son knew of the eighth principle. Thus, they could imagine the possibility of a later great sage or prophet making a change in the Torah. Jarringly enough, King David’s reason seems to have little to do with improving the Torah, which is now missing a song, and everything to do with improving his own book.
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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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