Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Man, Why dost Thou Sleep?

The days leading up to Yom Hakippurim (the Day of Atonement) are spent in seeking forgiveness from one's neighbours and from the Lord.
There is a special liturgy for that period, known as slichot- asking for forgiveness.
In the old Sephardic Jewish neighbourhoods of Jerusalem the gabay (one of the synagogue clerks) would before dawn walk down the winding cobblestone leading alleys to every home in the congregation, rapping on windows to call the men for the slichot.
When they entered the synagogue they were greeted by the phrase man, why dost thou sleep? Arise and read the tachanunim (pleadings, a prayer).
That phrase is part of an anonymous piyut (paraliturgical song), but drawn from the Old Testament.
In the book of Jonah, Jonah has run away from the Lord's errand (to call people to repentance) and taken passage on a ship bound for who knows where. A storm arises, which meant almost certain doom to passengers and crew on board ancient ships such as these. Not the sturdiest things ever to sail.

The sailors cry unto theirs gods in prayer and begin lightening the load, throwing things overboard, things such as their stone anchors.

Jonah, oddly enough, goes down below to take a nap. I suppose he could think of nothing better to do, certainly he wasn't going to pray to God if he had just ran away from him.
The captain finds Jonah, wakes him up and asks why is he sleeping instead of praying to his (Jonah's) god. The captain's words in Jonah 1:6 are very colloquial. What for you fell asleep? Wake up cry unto your God, maybe he'll come to his senses over us and we wont be lost (IE perish).

The heathen captain's words form the basis for this piyut.

Man, why dost thou sleep, arise and read the tachanunim
Pour out your conversation, seek forgiveness from the Lord of Lords
Wash and purify and do not tarry, before the days go by
And speedily run for help before
(that is, from) He-Who-Dwells-on-High
From transgression and also from evil flee and fear disasters
Please heed those who know thy name, the faithful Israel
To thee My Lord is righteousness but to us shame

Stand as a man, be mighty and confess your sins
The Lord God seek with a heavy head
(IE not lightly) to atone for transgressions
Because never is there any wonder hid from him
And every thing which is said is read before him
He-Who-Has-Mercy will have mercy on us as a father is merciful to his sons
To thee My Lord is righteousness but to us shame

בֶּן אָדָם מַה לְּךָ נִרְדָּם קוּם קְרָא בְּתַחֲנוּנִים
שְׁפֹךְ שִׂיחָה דְּרֹשׁ סְלִיחָה מֵאֲדוֹן הָאֲדוֹנִים
רְחַץ וּטְהַר וְאַל תְּאַחַר בְּטֶרֶם יָמִים פּוֹנִים
וּמְהֵרָה רוּץ לְעֶזְרָה לִפְנֵי שׁוֹכֵן מְעוֹנִים
וּמִפֶּשַׁע וְגַם רֶשַׁע בְּרַח וּפְחַד מֵאֲסוֹנִים
אָנָּא שְׁעֵה שִׁמְךָ יוֹדְעֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶאֱמָנִים
לְךָ אֲדֹנָי הַצְּדָקָה וְלָנוּ בֹּשֶׁת הַפָּנִים

עֲמֹד כְּגֶבֶר וְהִתְגַּבֵּר לְהִתְוַדּוֹת עַל חֲטָאִים
יָהּ אֵל דְּרֹשׁ בְּכֹבֶד רֹאשׁ לְכַפֵּר עַל פְּשָׁעִים
כִּי לְעוֹלָם לֹא נֶעְלָם מִמֶּנּוּ נִפְלָאִים
וְכָל מַאֲמָר אֲשֶׁר יֵאָמַר לְפָנָיו הֵם נִקְרָאִים
הַמְרַחֵם הוּא יְרַחֵם עָלֵינוּ כְּרַחֵם אָב עַל בָּנִים
לְךָ אֲדֹנָי הַצְּדָקָה וְלָנוּ בֹּשֶׁת הַפָּנִים


The piyut is a call for man to wake up, not from any physical sleep, but from a spiritual sleep, and plead with God for forgiveness of sins. Prayers are not to be half-hearted affairs. In language taken from Lamentations 2:19 one is to pour out one's heart like water before God.
Forgiveness is not something one merely asks for. Forgiveness needs to be sought out.
Wash away sins like you would dirt or any other filth, and make yourself clean, that is, pure, before the Lord. This has to be done now, before the days go by and you find that Yom Kippur is here, when the book of life is sealed, and you left it too late.
When you turn to the Lord for help, run towards him.
The word transgression is a translation of pesha, a sin commited specifically against God. It appears in the words of the psalmist (Ps 19:13) pleading with the Lord to keep him from sin.
Don't just leave sin and transgression alone, run from them, lest disaster should occur. In Jewish thought a disaster can mean any divine retribution.
The first verses closes with a plea to the Lord to heed the prayers of those who know his name, another phrase from Psalms, Psalm 9:11.
The final line of both verses is borrowed from Daniel's prayer on behalf of Israel (Dan 9:7) "O lord, righteousness belongeth unto thee, but unto us confusion of faces."
It is an admission of guilt.
Shame is a shorter and clearer way of translating the idiom bosheth panim.
In the 2nd verse the audience is told to be a man and be mighty in confessing sin.
The word here for man is not ben adam (son of Adam) as it was in the first verse, but gever. Gever implies manliness, which is courage and strength. The word used for be mighty is hitgabar, which draws from the same root as gever, and also means to overcome something.
Seeking for our sins to be covered (atoned for) is not something to be done lightly or flippantly, but with coved rosh, a phrase which does not work in English. The closest approximation is a grave head.
I think that the implication is also not to seek him if you don't mean it or do not intend on being honest, as the piyut continues, every word which is spoken is read before the Lord.
Before adding the obligatory admission of guilt, the poet closes with a statement of faith in and praise for the Lord's vritues.
He will be merciful as a father unto his children.
This echoes verse 13 of Psalm 103, which in itself is a thanksgiving for the Lord's forgiveness.
Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him.

Now back to Jonah.

The early sages (B. Talmud m. Megila 34a) had established that Jonah should be read during the mincha (the afternoon prayer services) on Yom Kippur.
Rabbi Yochana said that it was because every time the Lord' power is shown, so is his meekness. That is to say, that he is not a God of awful thunderings and threatenings, but one of love and mercy.

In the 14th century, Rabbi Yehudah ibn Shuayib delivered a sermon to his congregation.
The prophecy of Jonah son of Amitai teaches that the Lord is exalted, his mercies are over all his creations, even over the nations of the world, all the more so over Israel... From this thing we learn that the Lord is full of mercy, even though they were heathens who did a great wickedness, so all the more reason that he will forive and accept us in repentance, his own people and the flock of his hand.
Yehudah ibn Shuayib: Derashot Al HaTorah.

The book of Jonah has several examples of proper humility and repentance. The sailors call upon God, though they never knew him, yet do not demand to be saved.
The king of Nineveh leads his people in penitential fasting and prayer, yet does not demand that the Lord save them.
Jonah calls upon the lord from the belly of the great fish, thanking and praising the Lord for his mercy, vowing to do what he has been told.
Jonah's psalm alludes to far more than being saved from drowning, it is also an allegory of his deliverance from hell.
The ancient Hebrew concept of hell was sheol, a place in the deeps.
In Jonah 2:2 he states that out of the belly of sheol cried I and thou heardest my voice. In verse 6 he continues the imagery of sheol. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God.

The underlying message of Jonah is that the Lord is merciful to all his creations (even the animals), no least to the self-centered and petulant Jonah.
This idea is further developed by Leah Frankel in an article from the Hebrew journal mayanot.


  1. Very nice blog, you know a great deal about Judaism. Check out my blogs: http://comeuntochrist.blogspot.com and http://judaicaworld.blogspot.com.

  2. Greetings.

    My name is Ben Krueger. I'm an Associate Producer for a company called Committee Films out of Minneapolis, MN. We're currently working on a documentary for The History Channel that touches on the subject of stone anchors. You have a nice picture of one on your blog. I wanted to ask you a bit more about it.

    Please contact me at ben@committeefilms.com if you're willing to help us out!