Jacob’s Night Vision and the Foundation Stone of the World

Author: Rachel Adelman, Shevat 5765 תשס"ה/Jan 2005

Upon his journey from Beer Sheva to Haran, Jacob happens upon a certain place and falls asleep there, only to experience a remarkable vision of angels ascending and descending a ramp:

And Jacob left Beer-Sheva and set out for Haran. And he encountered a certain place (Va’yifga ba’makom), And he took of the stones of the place and put [them] at his head, And he lay down in that place, and he dreamed, and look, a ramp was set against the ground with its top reaching the heavens, and, look, messengers of God were ascending and descending it. (Gen. 28:10-12, my translation).

The Hebrew expression for "encountered a certain place", va’yifga ba’makom, is highly unusual, suggesting that Jacob was arrested, mid-step, literally "struck" by the place. Breshit Rabbah draws upon the connotations of harsh impact and suggests that Jacob wished to pass on but the Earth was made into a kind of wall before him. God had made the sun set, precipitously, so that Jacob could go no further; he had to sleep there. Darkness, for the traveler in the Ancient-near-East, was the rate-limiting step. Why is Jacob forced to sleep in this place, ba-makom hazeh? Rabbinical sources do not assume that this is the Bet El, which was once called the city of Luz (cf. v. 19), some ten miles north-east of Jerusalem, but identify the place, instead, as Har Moriah. Rashi links the site to the place of Isaac’s traumatic "binding" (the akeda), through the verse "…and he saw the place from afar" (Gen. 22:4). His claim is based simply on one word—"makom" (place), which appears no less than six times in our passage, and four times in chapter 22 (v. 3, 4, 9, 14). But does this linguistic ‘hook’ not seem rather arbitrary? The term makom is ubiquitous in the Tanakh; it could refer to almost any place—Shekhem, for instance (cf. Gen. 12:6) or the view overlooking Sedom and ‘Amora (cf. 19:26).

I’d like to suggest a deeper connection between Jacob’s night-vision and the akeda, which hinges upon his response upon waking. He is seized with fear, and bursts out into poetry:

"How awesome is this place!
This can be but the house of God,
And this the gate of Heaven." (Gen. 18:17)

What leads Jacob to identify this as ‘the gate of the Heaven"? The vision of the ramp, the sulam of course! It is set in the earth with its top reaching the heavens, with angels gliding up and down upon it. The term sulam has been commonly mistranslated as a ladder, made of two straight beams with steps, though in the Tanakhsulam appears only once. I would like to follow Robert Alter’s suggestion that it most likely resembled a ramp, akin to those found in ancient Mesopotamian temples (ziqqurat), a structure composed of vast, multiple ramps with terraced landing. The phrases "its top reaching the heavens" (v.12) and "the gate of Heaven" (v. 17) recall the thwarted intentions behind the Tower of Babel: "Come let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heavens" (Gen. 11:4). The generation of the dispersion had wanted to make a tower between Heaven and Earth, to breach the barrier between the Divine and the human realm. According to Sarna, the ancient ziqqurat symbolized that gate between worlds, "Rooted in earth with its head lost in the clouds, it was the meeting point of heaven and earth…Being the obvious channel of communication between heaven and earth, the holy mount was looked upon as the center of the universe, ‘the navel of the earth’, the very axis mundi." The most famous ziqqurat of all, most likely the subject of the story of the Tower of Babel, was known as E-temen-an-ki (lit. "the house of the foundation of heaven and earth"), in Babylon, dating back to the early 2nd millennium. God, according to the biblical account, destroys this monument, "for, if this is what they have begun to do, nothing they scheme to do will be withheld from them" (Gen. 11:6).

Now Jacob dreams of this vertical bridge between Heaven and Earth in the very place of his father’s near-sacrifice. Does he achieve, in a dream, what other generations could never achieve in the way of a physical monument? What is it about the event atHar Moriah that allows this channel between Heaven and Earth to open? Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer (chapter 35) suggests that Jacob took the very stones, which he lay at his head, from the altar of the Akedah, (cf. Gen. 28:11), and when he awoke he found the stones fused into one (v. 17). One thing we surely know about stones is that they do not spontaneously fuse! So the midrash understands it to be symbolic of the unity of the Jewish people (and perhaps how difficult that unity is to achieve!). These are the stones upon which the patriarch Avraham demonstrated his faith and fear of the Almighty when he did not withhold his son. As the angel proclaims: "Now I know that you are God-fearing, ya’reih-Elokim, for you did not spare your son, your only one, from me." (22:12). The place is called, Har Moriah, the mountain of awe, based on the verb ‘to fear’, - the letters are yud.resh.aleph, but the patriarch names it according to the verb, ‘to see’, resh.aleph.heh. "And Abraham called the name of the place ‘the Lord will see’ (Adonay-yireih) as it is said to this day, ‘the Lord will appear" (Adonay-ye’ra’eih)" (v. 14), inadvertently recalling his answer to Isaac’s anxious query, "God will see to the sheep, Elohim yireih ha’seh, for His burnt offering, my son" (v. 8). Does Har Moriahrepresent the fear of God (yud.resh.aleph), the willingness to sacrifice the son, or God’s hesed, the willingness to see to a substitute sacrifice (resh.aleph.heh)? From the moment when the angel stays the patriarch’s hand with the call, "Do not raise your hand against the boy…" (v. 12), and presents the ram instead, the place of sacrifice, Har Moriah, stands for the act of notsacrificing the son. God will see to some kind of animal substitute. This place later becomes the site of the temple mount, the place where God and man "meet", through the awe of the Almighty, yirat-Elokim, and the faith in His hesed, His mercy.

Now Jacob, on his journey from the house of his father, re-experiences that awe, a déjà vu of his father’s binding. Forced to lie down, arrested upon his journey by the sudden sunset, he experiences a primal fear, "How awesome is this place!" (v. 17). The vision of the ‘ladder’ is intended to be a palliative for that fear, a vision of the foundation of the temple, Beit Elokim, in that place. There Jacob sets up a monument of the twelve-stones-fused-into-one to mark the spot. According to Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer(chapter 35), what did God do?

He stretched out His right foot [symbolic of eternity] and sank the stone deep into the earth, as one sets a keystone into an arch. Accordingly, the stone is called, even hashtya, the Foundation Stone, and there is the navel of the world and from there the whole Earth was stretched out [in the Act of Creation], and, upon that stone the temple of God stands.

This stone, which formed the basis of the altar upon which Isaac was bound, is the axis mundi, the base of the channel between Heaven and Earth. Jacob has a vision of that "House of God, the gate to Heaven" (v. 17), a vision, which the makers of the Tower of Babel never fulfilled. Ideally, the Israelite temple would be a channel between Heaven and Earth, founded not on the sacrifice of the son but on the faith that God will, ultimately, stay the hand that holds the dagger. It is the meeting place between the divine and the earthly realms, founded on fear, but grounded on a substitute offering. Moreover, Jacob’s experience at Bet El also presages the sons that he will bear, the twelve stones representative of the twelve tribes, fused into one nation—a vision to which neither Abraham nor Isaac were ever privy. May it be the will of God, to unite the Jewish people in this place soon. "Ba’shana ha’ba’ah be’Yerushalyim ha’benuyah."

בשנה הבא בירושלים הבנויה

A Voice from the End of the World

Author: Rachel Adelman, Adar 1 5765/March 2005

Six moments release "a voice that travels from one end of the earth to the other and the voice is never heard". In the midrashPirkei deRabbi Eliezer (PRE), these moments are described in the context of a discussion on the resurrection of the dead: How do the dead rise from the grave if but a spoonful of dust is left of their bodies? Which generation is not worthy of resurrection? Who does a man call upon, in the hour of his departure from this world, to deliver himself from death’s finitude? What happens to the soul after the body passes away? And how, in the End of Days, does the quickening of the dead take place? The chapter ends with the beautiful image of dew, which drops from the locks of the Holy One, blessed be He, to revive the dead from their eternal sleep, as it says, "I was asleep, but my heart wakeful…For my head is drenched with dew, My locks with the damp of the night" (Song of Songs 5:2-3). The whole chapter is saturated with poetry, images that evoke the thin film between the visible and invisible world, to which we only have access through "the sixth sense". I would like to explore this "sixth sense"—the interface between this world and the next—through an attempt to understand those moments, which release "a voice that travels from one end of the earth to the other and is never heard."

(פרקי דרבי אליעזר פרק לד דפוס)
.ששה קולן הולך מסוף העולם ועד סופו ואין קולן נשמ
,בשעה שכורתין את עץ האילן שהוא עושה פרי
.הקול יוצא מסוף העולם ועד סופו ואין הקול נשמע
,ובשעה שהנחש מפשיט את עורו
.הקול יוצא מסוף העולם ועד סופו ואין הקול נשמע
,ובשעה שהאשה מתגרשת מבעלה
.הקול יוצא מסוף העולם ועד סופו ואין הקול נשמע
,ובשעה שהאשה נבעל עם בעלה בעילה ראשונה
.הקול יוצא מסוף העולם ועד סופו ואין הקול נשמע
,ובשעה שהולד יוצא ממעי אמו
.הקול יוצא מסוף העולם ועד סופו ואין הקול נשמע
,ובשעה שהנשמה יוצאת מן הגוף
.הקול יוצא מסוף העולם ועד סופו ואין הקול נשמע
,ואין הנשמה יצאת מן הגוף עד שתראה השכינה
.(שנאמר "כי לא יראנה האדם וחי" (שמות לג:כ

There are six whose voice travels from one end of the earth to the other and their voice is not heard.
When they fell a fruit-bearing tree,
a voice travels from one end of the earth to the other and is never heard.
And when the snake sloughs off his skin,
a voice travels from one end of the earth to the other and is never heard.
And when a woman is divorced form her husband,
a voice travels from one end of the earth to the other and is never heard.
And when a woman is penetrated by her husband in their first relations,
a voice travels from one end of the earth to the other and is never heard.
And when an infant leaves its mother’s womb,
a voice travels from one end of the earth to the other and is never heard.
And when the soul leaves the body,
a voice travels from one end of the earth to the other and is never heard.
And the soul does not leave the body until it has seen the divine Presence [HaShekhina], as it is said, "For no man shall see Me and live" (Ex. 33:20).

The expression in Hebrew, ואין הקול נשמע (the voice… not heard) is really an oxymoron, a rhetorical figure of speech in which an uncanny effect is created by the conjunction of incongruous terms, as in "a sound of thin silence קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה" (1 Kg. 19:12). How could a sound or voice, carried as waves upon the air, measured in decibels, not be heard? T. S. Eliot, in his famous essay on Hamlet, defines great art in terms of its ability to find an ‘objective correlative’ for emotions, through a set of objects, a situation, or a chain of events which must terminate in sensory experience, and, thereby, inevitably evoke that particular emotion. King Lear’s raging against the betrayal of his daughters, and his descent into madness, corresponds ‘objectively’ to the storm on the heath, which roars as he does: "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!" (King Lear III:ii). While Lear’s voice resonates with nature, the voice, described in our midrash, does not resonate at all, for it is never heard; it has no ‘objective correlative’. Beyond sensory experience, intangible, the voice is released at such moments of intense emotional anguish that it eludes articulation. Only poetry, which probes the boundaries of language, could convey the complexity of such a moment, and so we must read this midrash as poetry.

What do all of these moments have in common? Prof. Hasan-Rokem, folklorist and poet, describes them in terms of the inchoate dream experience, "Part of the intricate mechanism by which dreams condense and distort reality." According to her, these six phenomena "are all irreversible, transformative changes, involving loss and some violence." The verbs—to cut down, כורתין, strip or slough off, מפשיט, divorce (or be exiled), מתגרשת penetrated, נבעל, and leave יוצא (twice)—all entail tearing or severance. Yet they are not all "united by their deep and truly tragic pathos", as Hasan-Rokem claims. At one end, there are the regenerative, positive changes of sexuality, birth, and (perhaps) the snake’s molting, and at the other end, the felling of a fruit-tree, divorce and death. Each moment marks an irreversible transition—one will never recover the ‘old self’ after such an experience. Yet, at the precise moment of transformation, the subject contains both the old and new identity. As Dina Stein has pointed out, the moment, in which "the transformation from one state to another, from one category to the next, occurs is paradoxically the moment in which both states are simultaneously held. The oxymoron thus reflects the impossibility of capturing and conveying the moment in its entirety."

With respect to the four phenomena within the human realm, both poles—Life and Death—are tapped, releasing that inaudible voice. The consummation of marriage is the inverse of divorce, and is comparable to childbirth, the inverse of the release of the soul from the body at death. All entail some sort of separation, tearing. The woman, in her first relations with her husband, is torn from her autonomy, as a virgin, represented by the rupture of the hymen membrane. In the event of divorce, she is torn from that later merging, which marriage entails, "Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh" (Gen. 2:24). Interestingly, the midrash characterizes the pain engendered by the moment of consummation and divorce as uniquely felt by the woman. And her pain is never heard. Birth and Death, however, are not gender-bound. It seems that the inaudible voice at birth is released at "the moment when the infant leaves its mother’s womb" ( (בשעה שהולד יוצא ממעי אמו; it is not the woman’s pain, here, that is disembodied from a voice. The severance from that primal union is felt, most keenly, by the newborn. The inaudible cry would then resemble something like the "primal scream". The separation of the soul from the body, also invokes a cosmic severance; and yet it is the one transcendent moment in which a human experiences the Divine Presence, the Shekhina: "No man shall see Me and live" (Ex. 33:20). The paradox of severance and, at the same time, union with God at that moment of death, is represented by the oxymoron—the voice that travels from one end of the earth to the other and is never heard.

We may very well understand the intensity of the experiences within the human domain, but what of the image of the fruit-bearing tree when felled, or the snake as it molts? Perhaps the first image alludes to the biblical verse, forbidding the felling of fruit trees when one besieges an enemy city: "…you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?" (Deut. 20:19). This verse becomes the basis for the halachic principle, Bal Tashkhit (not to waste), for chopping down a fruit-bearing tree destroys a source of potential sustenance. Furthermore, the tree, in its immobility, is prey to the ax, fixed and defenseless to withdraw into the besieged city. As Hasan-Rokem points out, "it arouses an empathy that is perfectly disinterested, as it describes an experience which we never have and will never be part of." Unlike the others, however, the felling of a tree is always accompanied by a sound: the clap of the ax or the grinding of a saw, and the crash upon impact with the earth. Yet, according to PRE, these sounds also create resonance; when the trunk is severed from its roots, an inaudible tuning fork is tapped.

The felling of the fruit tree provides the parallel, the ‘objective correlative’ in nature, for our other voices from the human realm. In fact that is how the sound appears in a parallel passage in Breshit Rabbah, though here it is metaphorical and the trees generic, not necessarily fruit-bearing:

בראשית רבה פרשה ו פסקה ז (תאידור-אלבק)

(ז) אמר רבי לוי ג' דברים קולן הולך מסוף העולם ועד סופו והבריות אינן שומעין, ואילו הן היום והגשמים והנפש בשעה שהיא יוצאת מן הגוף היום מנין? א"ר יהודה בר לעיי את סביר שהוא שף ברקיע, ואינו אלא כמסר הזה שהוא נוסר בעץ. הגשמים מנין? אמר רבי לוי "תהום אל תהום קורא לקול צינורך וגו'" (תהילים מב:ח). והנפש בשעה שהיא יוצאת מן הגוף מנין? דלמא ר' שמואל אחוי דרבי פנחס בר חמא הוי עני דמך בצפורי והוון חבריא יתיבין גביה אתת מלתא ושרין גחכין. אמר להון: כמה נפשיה דאחוה דההוא גברא עני מקצצה ארזין ומקצצה אילנות ואתון יתבין גחכון ולא ידעין:

R. Levi said, there are three whose sound travels from one end of the world to the other, and other creatures do not hear: the [sound of the] day [breaking], the [sound] of the rains, and the [sound of] the Soul when it leaves the body. The day, how so? R. Yehuda son of Li’ay said: You think that it [the sun] glides across the sky; on the contrary, it is like a saw that saws through wood. And the rains, how so? R. Levi said, "The Deep calls to Deep in the roar [of your cataracts]" (Ps. 42:8, NJPS trans.). And the Soul when it leaves the body, how so? There is a story about R. Shmuel, the brother of R. Pinhas the son of Hama, who had slept [i.e. passed away] in Tzippori, and his friends came to sit by him [presumably during the shiva]. A word went round and they began to laugh. He [R. Pinhas, the brother of the deceased] said to them, "Cedars are being chopped down, whole trees felled, and you sit and laugh and know nothing of it."

This earlier midrash posits three, not six, voices which are not heard, two of which hark back to a mythic origin. These three voices are also released during an act of tearing across boundaries, across two domains, which had been separated in the Act of Creation. In the first instance, the sun, in its trajectory across the sky, breaches the division between the heavens and the earth, at the moment when it peaks over the horizon, at sunrise, or sinks below, at sunset. The sun’s orbit not only cuts across the division between sky and land, but also between the upper and the lower waters: "And God said, ‘Let there be an expanse (rakiah) in the midst of the water, that it may separate water from water.’ God made the expanse (rakiah)and it separated the water which was below the expanse from the water which was above the expanse, and it was so." (Gen. 1:6-7, NJPS trans.). The sky (expanse or firmament, rakiah) is a boundary, which was spread out like a tent to separate the higher and lower realms (cf. Isa. 40:22, 42:5, Zech. 12:1 and Job 9:8), and, according to Breshit Rabbah, the sun traverses this boundary, creating a searing sound, "like a saw that saws through wood", which is never heard. Likewise, the rains cut across the division between the upper and lower waters, for they yearn for each other, call to one another as "Deep calls to Deep" (Ps. 42:8). When the rains fall, the upper waters are united with the lower (the Tehom, the deep, or the seas), consummating that primordial desire to fuse—water’s nature—to flow, merge, and take the shape of its vessel.

What we have here is vertical movement across boundaries, which had been established in the Act of Creation. For the waters, it is expressed by the voice, calling through channels, ?ינורך, from Deep to Deep, which is never heard. For the sun, it is represented metaphorically as a sawing sound, a lateral movement, severing a tree’s trunk from its roots. Like the saw itself, the voice moves laterally across the Earth, inaudibly from one end to the other, while the trees falls vertically. This metaphorical sound, later, also becomes the means of representing the voice of the soul, when it is released from the body at death, as in the story of R. Shmuel’s brother, R. Pinhas. The brother keenly senses the presence of the deceased in Tzippori, when his friends come to visit as he is sitting shiva. Upon the inappropriate levity of his friends’ laughter, he rebukes them for he hears (or imagines he hears) the chopping down of cedars, the felling of trees. In a later version of this midrash, it is the voice of the deceased that crosses from the other world to rebuke the friends. In Breshit Rabbah, the sound of chopping down trees or the saw, operate as metaphors, connoting severance—the soul from its body, or the sun as it cuts across the boundary of the firmament.

The author of PRE then concretizes the metaphor of the felling-of-trees, and makes the trees specifically into fruit trees, granting them an independent voice, albeit never heard. Why does the author concretize the metaphor? What is gained by this enigmatic first image? The answer lies in our understanding of the second image—the molting of the snake. Neither tree nor snake, are neutral entities in nature; rather they hark back to the original, pre-lapsarian state, the idyll in the Garden of Eden.

In an earlier passage, in PRE, the snake must slough off its skin every seven years, through intense pain, as a consequence of its role in the Garden of Eden story:

פרקי דרבי אליעזר פרק יד (דפוס)

והביא שלשתן וגזר עליהם גזר דין מתשע קללות ומות. והפיל את סמאל ואת הכת שלו ממקום קדושתן מן השמים. וקצץ רגליו של נחש ואררו מכל החיה ומכל הבמה. ופקד עליו שיהא מפשיט את עורו פעם אחת לשבע שנים בעצבון גדול ויהא סוחף במעיו על הארץ ומאכלו מתהפך במעיו לעפר ומרורת פתנים ומות בפיהו ונתן שנאה בינו לבין האשה שיהיו רוצצין את ראשו ואחר כל אלה מות

[Following the sin in the Garden of Eden, God] brought the three of them together, and cast judgment upon them, consisting of nine curses and death. He cast Samael down, along with his entourage, from their holy position in Heaven. He cut off the legs of the serpent and made it the most cursed of all animals and cattle. And he decreed that it should slough off its skin, once every seven years, in great pain, and cursed it that it should crawl on its belly upon the earth, and its food should turn within its innards to dust and the gall of asps, with death in its mouth. And He placed enmity between him and the woman, that they should crush its head. And after all these [curses]—death.

This is an expansion and a paraphrase of the original curse:

(יד) וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶל הַנָּחָשׁ כִּי עָשִׂיתָ זֹּאת אָרוּר אַתָּה מִכָּל הַבְּהֵמָה וּמִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה עַל גְּחֹנְךָ תֵלֵךְ וְעָפָר תֹּאכַל כָּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ: :(טו) וְאֵיבָה אָשִׁית בֵּינְךָ וּבֵין הָאִשָּׁה וּבֵין זַרְעֲךָ וּבֵין זַרְעָהּ הוּא יְשׁוּפְךָ רֹאשׁ וְאַתָּה תְּשׁוּפֶנּוּ עָקֵב:

14. And the Lord God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, you shall be more cursed than all the cattle and all the beasts of the field; you shall crawl on your belly, and you shall eat dust all the days of your life. 
15. And I shall place enmity between you and between the woman, and between your seed and between her seed. He will bruise your head, and you will bite his heel" 
(Gen. 3:14-15, NJPS trans.)

The serpent, once the most cunning of all the beasts of the field (3:1) has now become the most cursed. Condemned to crawl on his belly, the bringer of death to the world is now forced to swallow his own medicine (so to speak), eating the dust to which humans will be reduced upon their death, "for dust you are and to dust shall you return" (3:19). The lopping off of the snake’s limbs is a graphic presentation of this humiliation. According to Breshit Rabbah, this operation released a voice, which traveled from one end of the earth to the other, but it was not an inaudible one and it is never released again:

בראישית רבה פרק כ (תאידור-אלבק)

(ה) על גחונך תלך בשעה שאמר לו הקב"ה על גחונך תלך ירדו מלאכי השרת וקצצו ידיו ורגליו והיה קולו הולך מסוף העולם ועד סופו …

"On your belly you shall crawl" (Gen. 3:14). When the Holy One Blessed be He said, "On your belly you shall crawl", the ministering angels descended and cut off his hands and legs, and his voice traveled from one of the earth to the other.

In PRE, on the other hand, the voice is released every time a snake molts, and it is never heard; the sloughing off of the skin, every seven years, forces the snake to relive the original searing pain of the severance of the serpent’s limbs. In Mircea Eliade’s terms, molting is a re-enactment of the original punishment in the Garden of Eden, an eternal recurrence of an event consecrated in primordial time in illo tempore, ab origine. Yet why is it never heard? Because it expresses the desire to return to that pre-lapsarian state, the snake’s yearning for its former mobility (before its motility)—to ‘get back to the garden.’

The tree of Knowing-good-and-evil that bore the fatal fruit, also had a voice, which was not heard. In order to seduce Eve into eating the fruit, the serpent found a loophole in her report of God’s original words. To the command, "Do not to eat of the tree…[or] you shall surely die." (Gen. 2:17), she added the prohibition, not to touch it (3:2), and by this ‘loop’ hangs the tail of our story:

פרקי דרבי אליעזר פרק יג (דפוס)

דן נחש דין בינו לבין עצמו ואמר, אם אני אומר לאדם, יודע אני שאינו שומע לי, שהאיש קשה לעולם להוציא מדעתו. אלא הריני אומר לאשה, שדעת קלה עליה, שאני יודע שהיא שומעת לי, שהנשים נשמעות לכל הבריות, שנאמר, "פתיות ובל ידעה מה" (מש' ט:יג), והלך הנחש ואמר לאשה, אמת שאף אתם מצווים על פירות האילן הזה?, אמרה לו 'הן', שנאמר "ומפרי העץ אשר בתוך הגן" (בר' ג:ג) מתוך דבריה מצא לו פתח להכנס בו, אמ לה, אין צווי זה אלא עין הרעה, כי בשעה שאתם אוכלים ממנו תהיו כאלהים, מה הוא עושה -- בורא עולמות ומחריב עולמות, כך אתם יכולים לברוא עולמות ולהחריב עולמות. מה הוא ממית ומחיה אף אתם יכולין להמית ולהחיות, שנאמר "כי יודע אלהים כי ביום אכלכם ממנו ונפקחו עיניכם" (שם שם ה) והולך הנחש ונגע באילן, [והאילן] צווח ואמר: רשע אל תגע בי, שנ' "אל תביאני רגל גאוה ויד רשעים אל תנידני שם נפלו פעלי און" (תה' לו:יב-יג), הלך הנחש ואמר לאשה: הריני נגעתי באילן ולא מתי, אף את געי בו ולא תמותי. הלך הנחש ונגע באילן. צוח ואמר, 'רשע, אל תגע בי', שנאמר 'אל תבואני רגל גאוה וגו' שם נפלו פעלי און" (תהלים לו יב). הלך הנחש ואמר לאשה , הריני נגעתי באילן ולא מתי, אף את געי בו ולא תמותי.

The snake deliberated to himself and said, "If I go and speak to the man, I know he will not listen to me, for man is stubborn about his opinions. But if I go and speak to the woman, who’s easy to influence [lit. "light-minded", da’at kalah aleiha], I know she will listen to me, for women listen to everybody, as it says, "Women are naïve [peti’ot, lit. ‘can be seduced’], and know not…"(Prov. 9:13). So the snake went and said to the woman, "Is it true that you have also been commanded with regard to this tree?" "Yes," she answered, as it says, "But of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden [God said, "You shall not eat of it, and you shall not touch it, lest you die.]" (Gen. 3:3). Within her words, the snake found a loop-hole [lit. an opening to enter through], "This command is nothing but superstition [lit. "the evil eye"], for when you eat of it you will be like God. Just as He creates worlds and destroys worlds, so you will be able to create worlds and destroy worlds. Just as he causes death and creates life, so you shall be able to cause death and create life, as it is said, "For God knows on the day that you eat of it, your eyes will be opened [and you will be like God knowing good and evil]" (v. 5). He then went and touched the tree. And it cried out, "Evil one, do not touch me," as it is said, ""Let not the foot of pride come against me, [and let not the hand of the wicked drive me away]. For there fell the iniquitous…." (Ps. 36:12). The snake went and said to the woman, "See, I touched the tree and did not die, so you too can touch it and not die."

The tree calls out, ostensibly to warn the woman of immanent danger. But its cry falls upon deaf ears, or perhaps its cry was never heard at all. This is the cry Eve cannot utter, mute witness to the shaking of the trunk, leaves, branches, falling fruit. Once the tree is shaken, Eve has already tasted the forbidden with her eyes, has already ingested the sense of "You shall not," transformed into: "but I will." "And the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes…" (Gen. 3:6). Her eyes then lead to her hand, then lead to her mouth. And she enjoins Adam in the dance towards "knowing good and evil," mortal beings destined for dust, conscious of the immanence of their own death.

Eve never heard the voice of the tree, just as she never heard the original voice of God’s warning for she had not yet been created when the command was given (Gen. 2:17). The voice then traversed the face of the earth, from one end to the other, and was never heard. According to chapter 34 of PRE, every fruit-tree when felled releases that same voice; it, too, expresses the desire for eternal return, a desire to ‘get back to the garden’, where Adam and Eve were set simply to "till it and to watch over it." (Gen. 2:15), a place where a tree could grow, yield fruit, free of wily snakes and the ax wielded by man.

The overtones between the four phenomena within the human realm and the other two should now resonate clearly. They are all related to the original sin, the fall from the Garden of Eden. The most obvious consequence is death itself—for God had warned them not to eat of the fruit of that tree lest they die (2:17)—and so man is condemned to death, to return to the earth: "For from it you were taken. For dust you are, and to dust you shall return." (3:19). Now humans, condemned to mortality, meander in a state of exile from the presence of God. Originally Adam and Eve experienced the divine presence continually—the Clouds of Glory had been their clothing, hovering over their skin (PRE 14). The Talmud describes Adam’s stature as extending from end of the earth to the other, and, following the sin, God limited him to a boundaried being, as it says, "In front and behind, You have hedged me, placed Your palm upon me." (Ps. 139:5) (BT Sanhedrin 38b, cf. BT Haggigah 12a). The voice released, upon death, recalls that original, unboundaried being, oblivious of distance, insensible to separation of God from man. Only when the soul is severed from the body at death, does man experience, again, that primal union, through a vision of the Shekhina. As the midrash quotes: "And no man shall see me and live" (Ex. 33:22); but at the moment of death, man may see. This is a keenly ironic reading of the verse. In the mundane world, we live in exile from the Shekina, condemned to live within our skin, moving towards mere oblivion, in the last scene "sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything." Only at the last moment, there is a flash, a strange merging in that act of severance of soul from body, of what that original state of grace had been. A voice is then released, which expresses a yearning, a desire to return to that primal union.

At birth, the same voice is released as the infant emerges from symbiosis with its mother, within the womb. There too, according to the Talmud, the fetus could see from one end of the world to the other, in the bliss of amniotic suspension (BT Niddah 30b). The voice released at birth, which travels from one end of the earth to the other, recalls that primal state of non-differentiation and a yearning to return. Yet the voice is not heard, perhaps due to Eve’s curse: "I will make most severe your pangs in childbearing" (3:16). In the Garden, women would have given birth like cats, in silence, free of that searing pain. In another version of the midrash, Eve’s curse is related to the blood and pain upon the loss of virginity, recalling the moment "when a woman is penetrated by her husband in their first relations." Yet how do we understand the voice released when a woman is divorced from her husband? That moment also resonates with another—the first divorce, gerushin, when Adam and Eve were sent into exile, megerushim,severed from the divine presence.

Six moments release a voice that travels from one end of the earth to the other and the voice is never heard. Yet the poet, author of our midrash, mentions them. Perhaps he heard the voice? Perhaps we, despite being confined to the world of five senses, are aware of the voice through a "sixth sense"? In longing to return to the Garden—"to till it and watch over it" (Gen. 2:15)—we echo back the voice not heard.


Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer is a relatively late composition, dating around the late 8th century. There is not yet a critical edition of this midrash, so I have based the discussion on the first printed edition (Constantinople 1514), with references to other manuscripts, when significant. The passage appears in chapter 34 (of the printed edition) and chapter 33 (Higger).

Not all of the manuscripts mention six voices: Higger, for example, mentions five, as does Friedlander’s version, and Enelow 866, the manuscript used as the basis for Akedemia la’lashon ha’ivrit. The Radal and the first printed edition, however, mention six. Each of these former manuscripts consistently omit the voice which is released when a woman is with her husband, in conjugal relations for the first time.

I have taken this idea from Galit Hasan-Rokem, "Communication with the Dead in Jewish Dream Cultures", in Dream Cultures, ed. by David Shulman and Guy G. Stroumsa, p.227.

T. S. Eliot, "Hamlet", in Selected Prose, edited by John Hayward, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1953, p.102.

Ibid., Hasan-Rokem, p.227.

Ibid., p.226.

Dina Stein, Maxims, Magic, Myth—A Folkloristic Perspective of Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer (Hebrew), Jerusalem: Magnes Press, p. 193.

This translation follows Rashi’s reading of כִּי הָאָדָם עֵץ הַשָּׂדֶה as a rhetorical question, implying that trees are not like human beings who can retreat. The principle underlying the law, however, is that fruit trees provide a source of sustenance for man; other non-fruit bearing trees, may be felled. Thus, Ibn Ezra reads it simply as "for the tree of the field is the life of man."

Ibid., p. 227.

Of course, the midrash was composed before the Copernican revolution—the earth is at the center of the universe and the sun orbits around the earth (which is most likely flat, in the midrashic imagination).

Umberto Cassuto suggests that there was once an ancient Israelite epic about a mythic battle between God and the Sea, which was lost or deliberately excised from the tradition because of theological antagonism. Remnants of the epic are to be found in the poetic passages, alluding to the "repression" of the waters, necessary when God began the process of Creation: "The Earth was founded upon the oceans, set out on the nether streams" (Ps. 24:2, cf. Ps. 136:6, Ps. 104:5-9). Cassuto, Umberto "The Israelite Epic" in Biblical and Oriental Studies, The Magnes Press, Jerusalem 1975, p. 102.

In the BT Yoma (20a), three voices are conjectured as well—the sound of the sun’s orbit, the tumult of Rome, and the sound of the soul as it leaves the body. Some say, even birth, and some say even the angel [Ridya] responsible for rain. (see also TB Taanit 25b, and Rashi’s comment on both this and the Yoma passage).

תלמוד בבלי יומא כ:?נו רבנן שלש קולות הולכין מסוף העולם ועד סופו ואלו הן קול גלגל חמה וקול המונה של רומי וקול נשמה בשעה שיוצאה וי"א אף לידה]דף כא, א גמרא[  ויש אומרים אף רידייא ובעו רבנן רחמי אנשמה בשעה שיוצאה מן הגוף ובטלוה.


?יש אומרים אף רידייא - מלאך הממונה על השקות הארץ ממטר השמים ממעל ומן התהום מתחת, וקורא להן, שנאמר תהום אל תהום קורא, כדאמרינן במסכת תענית [כד, א וכה, ב]:

מדרש שמואל פרשה ט, ס"ג [מהדורת בובר עמ' 32]

... אתת מילה וגחכון, שמעין קלא, אמר להון קליה דנפשיה דאחוי דההוא: נברא מתברא ארזין ומעקרא אילנין ואתון יתבין גחכי? ולא ידעין:

"A word went out and they laughed. They heard a voice, and the voice of soul of that brother said: surely cedars were created and trees uprooted and yet you sit and laugh and know nothing of it." (Midrash Shmuel [Buber] 9:3)

See also a parallel version of the midrash in Avot deRabbi Natan, version Bet, chapter 42.

Mercea Eliade, The Myth of Eternal Return, New York: Princeton University Press, 1954.

A phrase from Joni Mitchell’s song, "Woodstock".

Note the parallel version in Avot deRabbi Natan (version aleph):

אבות דרבי נתן, מהדורת ש"ז שכטר, וינא תרמ"ז, נוסח א, פרק א.

?ה עשה הנחש הרשע באותה שעה? עמד ונגע באילן בידיו וברגליו והרתיעו עד שנשרו פירותיו לארץ. ויש אומרים לא נגע בו כל עיקר, אלא כיון שראהו אותו אילן היה צווח עליו ואמר לו: רשע, רשע, אל תיגע בי, שנאמר 'אל תבואני רגל גאוה ויד רשעים אל תנדני' (תהלים לו יב).

For a more extensive discussion on the episode, see my article "Re-creating Eve", in Bat-Mitzvah, Jerusalem: MaTaN and Urim Publications, 2003. There I argue that the snake was able to seduce Eve because she had never heard the original command from God—and Adam had distorted it, placed a "fence around the Torah", by adding the prohibition not to touch it. The fence was mistaken for the principle, and so easily came toppling down.

פרק יד (היגער) מה היה לבושו של אדם הראשון עור צפורן וענן כבוד המכסה עליו, וכיון שאכל מפירות האילן נפשט עורו וצפורן מעליו, ונסתלקה ענן כבוד מעליו וראה עצמו ערום,…

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין דף לח עמוד ב

אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: אדם הראשון מסוף העולם ועד סופו היה, שנאמר +דברים ד'+ למן היום אשר ברא אלהים אדם על הארץ ולמקצה השמים (ועד קצה השמים), כיון שסרח - הניח הקדוש ברוך הוא ידו עליו ומיעטו, שנאמר +תהלים קל"ט+ אחור וקדם צרתני ותשת עלי כפכה.

See also the parallel passage in BT Haggigah 12a, where man (according to R. Yehuda) not only extends from one end of the world to the other, but (according to R. Elazar) may see from one end of the world to the earth, through the original pristine light of creation (from the first day):

תלמוד בבלי מסכת חגיגה דף יב עמוד א

אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: אדם הראשון - מסוף העולם ועד סופו היה, שנאמר "למן היום אשר ברא אלהים אדם על הארץ" (דברים ד) ולמקצה השמים ועד קצה השמים. כיון שסרח - הניח הקדוש ברוך הוא ידו עליו ומיעטו, שנאמר "ותשת עלי כפכה" (תה' קלט). ...דאמר רבי אלעזר: אור שברא הקדוש ברוך הוא ביום ראשון - אדם צופה בו מסוף העולם ועד סופו... כתנאי: אור שברא הקדוש ברוך הוא ביום ראשון אדם צופה ומביט בו מסוף העולם ועד סופו, דברי רבי יעקב.

Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 2, sc. 7.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת נדה דף ל עמוד ב

דרש רבי שמלאי: למה הולד דומה במעי אמו - לפנקס שמקופל ומונח. ידיו על שתי צדעיו, שתי אציליו על ב' ארכובותיו, וב' עקביו על ב' עגבותיו, וראשו מונח לו בין ברכיו, ופיו סתום וטבורו פתוח, ואוכל ממה שאמו אוכלת, ושותה ממה שאמו שותה, ואינו מוציא רעי שמא יהרוג את אמו. וכיון שיצא לאויר העולם - נפתח הסתום ונסתם הפתוח, שאלמלא כן אינו יכול לחיות אפילו שעה אחת. ונר דלוק לו על ראשו וצופה ומביט מסוף העולם ועד סופו, שנאמר +איוב כ"ט+ בהלו נרו עלי ראשי לאורו אלך חשך.

See PRE 14 and Avot deRabbi Natan, 1 (version Aleph).

פרקי דרבי אליעזר (היגר) פרק יד ונתן לאשה מתשע קללות ומות, ענוי לידה, וענוי דם בתולים, וענוי הריון, וענוי גדול בנים, ומכסה את ראשה כאבל, ואינה מגלחת אותה כי אם בזנות, ורצע את אזנה כעבד עולם וכשפחה משרתת בעלה, ואינה נאמנת בעדות, ואחר כל אלו מות

אבות דרבי נתן פרק א (נוסחא א): "שלוש גזרות על חוה..."ארבה" בזמן שהאשה נבעלת תחלת בעילתה קשה לה.