May 1st, 2014


Psalms 118:5

We've been doing quite a bit of reciting Hallel recently, what with Pesaḥ and Rosh Ḥodesh. Have you ever noticed how Psalms 118:5 ("I called upon the Lord in dire straits; He answered me with broadness") seems to vary between different siddurim and machzorim? Some (such as the ArtScroll and Birnbaum, and the JPS Bible) have מִן־הַמֵּצַר קָרָאתִי יָּהּ עָנָנִי בַמֶּרְחָב יָהּ; others (such as the Singer's Prayerbook) finish עָנָנִי בַמֶּרְחַבְיָה. The difference is whether the last two letters are joined to the previous word, or are separate and with a מַפִּיק in the ה (i.e. whether it ends vamerḥavyā or vamerḥāv Yāh).

I've been wondering for a while which is the correct version, as it makes a difference (actually, two!) in how I should be pronouncing the word.

This construction appears to be a hapax legomenon. Langenscheidt's Dictionary of the Old Testament does not list the one-word form. Klein's Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language does, but says it derives from the two-word forms; he gives two other examples (also both hapax legomena) of the same ending. God's name being used as a suffix to indicate mightiness brings to mind the theory that the Amraphel king of Shinar mentioned in Gen. 14 is the same as Hammurabi, the two names being written the same in cuneiform once the "-el" ending, also a Divine name used to indicate mightiness, is stripped off. (Unfortunately this theory appears no longer to be in vogue; I don't know why.) It also reminds me of the description of Nimrod in Gen. 10 as "a mighty hunter before the Lord."

Now, we don't have any such things as an authoritative text of the Bible; the closest we've got is the Leningrad Codex, the oldest complete Hebrew text of the Bible. A scan of this is available online; looking at it, it seems to have a different reading from either of the ones above: בַמֶּרְחָביָהּ; i.e. the two-word form, but written as one word. But it's hard to tell from the monochrome scan whether the slightly off-centre dot in the ה is a מַפִּיק, or an artefact of the book's aging, as can be seen in the previous two letters. The words are also written close together on that line; it's not completely impossible that there is intended to be a space before the last two letters. This transcription of the Leningrad Codex thinks there is, and that there's a מַפִּיק. Moreover, there are cantillation notes on each of the words. This would not be the case in the prose books of the Bible if they were one word; however the rules in the poetic books are different, and I am not knowledgeable enough to deduce anything for certain here. (Compare the situation of the first word of Psalms 35:10, on which see this blog post, my comment on it, and R. Weiner's response to that.) However, the fact that the abovelinked transcription, made by people who presumably know more than a rank amateur like me, has the space argues that the rules do not differ here, and it should in fact be two words.

I then went to the Aleppo Codex, which used to be the oldest complete Hebrew text of the Bible, until it was thought destroyed in a pogrom prior to Israeli independence, then mysteriously reappeared with a third of it missing ten years later. The online scan of this clearly reads בַמֶּרְחָב יָהּ. (Amusingly, I noticed on this page on the same site the note, "The foregoing will be incomprehensible to 98% of the readers, including me." :o))

The Dead Sea Scrolls are a thousand years and more older still, but represent a variety of recensions of the Bible, including both the ancestor of the Masoretic Text we use today, and others which are non-canonical today. Unfortunately, though, I was not able to find this passage in scans of the DSS linked to from the Wikipedia page.

So, from the evidence available, it looks like (shock! horror!) ArtScroll has got it right, and Klein and the Singer's Prayerbook wrong. I wonder what caused them to go for the choice they did.

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