The Bencher of Babel

The e-mail altercations reached crisis proportions today among the members of the Bencher committee, the five of us who are working to create a new book of Shabbat zemirot. J wrote that he thought the Bencher should include every song in any bencher anywhere; the other J wrote back that this would be impossible; the third J insisted that if we did not try to do the impossible, our Bencher, too, would inevitably be surpassed like every other. The e-mails came fast and furious, with several ad hominem attacks and no shortage of hurt feelings. Since I am in a different time zone, I received all these messages a day later — a day that is, most fortuitously, Rosh Chodesh Adar. Hence my response to the four of them, which I paste here:

Dear J, J, J, and D,

The universe (which others call the Bencher) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of pages. There are twenty-six orthographic symbols in the Hebrew alphabet. That discovery enabled mankind, five thousand years ago, to formulate a general theory of the Bencher and therefore satisfactorily solve the riddle that no conjecture had been able to divine — the formless and chaotic nature of virually all zemir ot. One zemer is a mere labyrinth of letters whose every stanza closes with the phrase “As a meal-offering on a fire pan”; another with “Geese, quail, and fish.” This much is known: for every rational line or forthright statement there are leagues of senseless cacophony, verbal nonsense, and incoherency. Geese, quail, and fish indeed.

When it was announced that the Bencher contained all zemirot, the first reaction was unbounded joy. All men [sic] felt themselves the poss essors of an intact and secret treasure. There was no zemer, no short song or long song or holiday song (even Pesach songs, for centuries the province of Haggadot alone) whose eloquent arrangement was not included — somewhere on some page. Thousands of greedy individuals rushed out to purchase the Bencher, spurred by the vain desire to sing every zemer. These pilgrims squabbled in the narrow corridors of West Side Judaica, muttered dark imprecations, strangled one another on the divine staircases, threw deceivingly incomplete benchers (B’kol Echad, NCSY, Ramah) down ventilation shafts, were themselves hurled to their deaths by men [sic] of distant regions. Others went insane….

That original unbridled joy was succeeded, naturally enough, by a similarly disproportionate depression. The certainty that some page in the Bencher contained precious zemirot, yet that those zemirot were forever out of reach, was almost unbearable. One blasphemous sect proposed that the first thing to do was to eliminate all worthless zemirot: Atkinu Seudata, Baruch Hashem Yom Yom, etc. They would invade the pages, show credentials that were not always false, leaf disgustedly through a volume, and condemn entire sections of zemirot. It is to their hygienic, ascetic rage that we lay the senseless loss of millions of zemirot. But fortunately, the Bencher is so huge that any reduction by human hands is of course infinitesimal.

I have just written the word “infinitesimal.” I have not included that adjective out of mere rhetorical habit; I hereby state that it is not illogical to think that the world of zemirot is infinite. If an eternal paytan should leaf through the Bencher, he would find after untold centuries that the same zemirot are repeated in the same disorder — which, repeated, becomes order: the Order. My solitude is cheered by that elegant hope.

With all due apologies to Borges,

DISCLAIMER: I am no more the author of this post than Pierre Menard is the author of the Quixote!

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