Tuesday, July 23, 2013

שירת הים

I recently got to the point of Shirath Hayam. The formatting according to Ramba"m is quite different from how Ashkenazim normally write it. There are some differences in line break, and the three columns are right-, centre-, and left-justified rather than being all full-justified. You can read Ramba"m's description here.

This is how mine looks:


A very large yet very poor-quality photograph is here. And here, for comparison, is the Ashkenazi format, much more regimented, and of course with many more stretched letters.

Shirath Hayam also has a relatively high density of אותיות שונות, letters which have different forms than normal. The most common אות שונה is a pei containing a swirl rather than a block:


ׁvs. a pei of normal appearance, such as this one:


I've heard many people ask about the "meaning" of these different letters. When people ask this, often they want information which will help them formulate a rule, or generalise about their use in the Torah. If there is a great story to go along with it, for example a narrative about the letter in the style of the Zohar, so much the better. My answer that they differ because a very long tradition has them differ seems not to be satisfactory. Some juicier, hopefully more mystical reason must be there.

But I don't think such a meaning exists to be found -- rather, it's something much more unmediated, more like performance art than like a code which can be cracked. The reader sees the different letter and reacts. That reaction is the whole of the meaning, and history is the whole of the reason.

I understand the desire to unlock some sort of message embedded in these surprises, but it might be better, and more traditional (from a meqori/Darda'i point of view) to approch the surprising with what Keats called negative capability: the ability to sit with a lack of specific knowing. A family member wrote to me about this and I like his phrasing:

Perhaps I might venture on the idea of getting lost. A writer I admire, Rebecca Solnit, mentions somewhere that "lost" comes from the Old Norse "los" -- the disbanding of an army, the falling out of formation, a going home, a truce with the world. She says, I think, that never to get lost is not to live, and that not knowing how to get lost brings you to destruction, and that in the place called lost strange things are found. This may be another version of negative capability and the sublimation of a sense of identity that is an intransigent self. Or maybe not.

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