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שַׁאֲלִי שְׂרוּפָה בָּאֵשׁ | Sha’ali Serufah ba-Esh (Question, Burnt in the Fire), a Ḳinah for Tisha b’Av, Translated by Gershom Scholem

“Sha’ali Serufah ba-Esh” is a ḳinah, or lamentation, written by Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg in response to the Disputation of Paris and the destruction of almost every copy of the Talmud in Europe — twenty cartloads of priceless manuscripts. It is directed at the Torah in second person, mournfully asking how the text given in holy fire could be destroyed in the fire of flesh and blood — to quote Menachot 29a, “is this Torah and this its reward?” Traditionally recited in the morning of the Ninth of Av in Ashkenazi communities, some also recite it on the 20th of Sivan, the anniversary of the Disputation of Paris in 1242 as well as the blood libel of Blois in 1171 and the Nemyriv massacre of 1648. (In many Polish communities 20 Sivan was kept as a minor fast day with Selichot for this very reason.) The German translation is from the works of the great scholar of Jewish mystic practices, Gershom Scholem (zats”al). It reflects Scholem’s thoughts on the paradox of radiant darkness, as he wrote in 1918: “Nur in der Klage strahlt das Dunkel” — only in lamentation does darkness shine.

As introduction to his translation, Scholem penned the following in his diary,

The following is a translation of the lament (ḳinah) known by its opening words as “Sha’ali Serufa.”[1]This was the only text on lament that Scholem published during his lifetime. The text, including the introduction, appeared in Der Jude: Eine Monatsschrift 4.6 (1919–1920): 283–86, under the title “Ein mittelalterliches Klagelied.” This translation is based on the version included in Scholem’s diaries, Tb2, 607–611, which contains a postscript that was not published in Der Jude. Scholem translated the lament of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg on April 23, 1919, in Bern, and offered it to Martin Buber for publication in Der Jude in a letter from May 1919 (Briefe 1, no. 76: 204). The first version of the translation, including the postscript, is a six-page manuscript found in Scholem’s literary remains, bearing the title “Die Kinah des R. Meïr von Rothenburg / Über die Verbrennung der Thora (in Paris 1242).” Along with differences in punctuation, there are minor variations and additions in the manuscript version that do not appear in the printed version. These have been noted by the editors of the German edition of Scholem’s diaries, and are reproduced in this translation. Scholem’s own notes to the translation appear in the printed version, but not in the manuscript. Following the convention used in the German edition, asterisks indicate a note by Scholem in the printed version. It stems from the middle of the thirteenth century. Its motive was the burning of the books of written and oral Torah in Paris in Tamuz 1242 (more recently 1254). The author is now generally acknowledged to have been Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, the famous late Tossafist of the German school.[2]The Tossafists (Talmud commentators) were a medieval rabbinical school that originated in Germany and spread to France. During the Crusade of 1096, the Tossafist schools in Germany (in Speyer, Mainz, and Worms) were completely destroyed. The Tossafist writings of the German school were able to survive only because of the establishment of centers of Torah study in France. As Scholem notes, Sha’ali serufa ba-esh [“Ask, you who were burnt in the fire”] was written by Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (1215–1293) to commemorate the burning of the Torah in Paris in 1242. The book burnings were part of a systematic attempt by the Church to gather and destroy all of the books of the Oral Law in Paris and throughout Europe.

The original, which belongs to the group of laments known as the Zionide, and which exhibits the hard joining [harte Fügung] of the Northern-French/ German piyut, has the continuous suffix-rhyme scheme characteristic of all the laments in this group: ayikh.[3]As noted in our introduction to the translations, the expression “harte Fügung” was an allusion to a phrase in von Hellingrath’s 1911 introduction to Hölderlin’s translations of Pindar. For a discussion of Hölderlin’s “hard joining” as it relates to the tradition of elegy, see Daniel Weidner’s chapter in this volume. The translation forgoes this characteristic rhyme-scheme on principle, since its essence in the Zionide is based throughout on the aural relationship between the aforementioned suffix-rhyme and the original canonical lament sound, eikhah (“how”), a relationship for which no parallel can be given in German. The rhyme of these poems is a symbol for the fundamental infinity of lament, and it seems that the only translation that would have a hope of making the force of these laments visible in German would be one that, instead of seeking these unreachable symbols at any price, even that of abandoning the linguistic essence of lament, aims to eliminate these symbols through the purest possible accentuation of the words, and their inner infinite intensification.

Postscript

The medieval lamentation stands in this particular paradox: it originates from the coincidence of lament, prophecy, and confession [Bekenntnis]. To show the death of lament in each of these poems is just as easy as to show its immortal life: but the problem is the actual possibility of this point of coincidence, which turns these songs into great poems. (If one failed to recognize this point, one would rightfully take them to be trivial and secondary.) Seen linguistically: through a somehow undecided battle (and this indecision is precisely its form!), lament draws consolation and joy, in a word, redemption, into its domain. It is perhaps also more: an attempt at ironic lament – an enormous potentiation in which language is not only annihilated, but even ridiculed, insofar as redemption itself is implicated in the irony. But in any case, in this attempt, an even greater historical order, unknown to poetry, has been breached: for as the unity of Jewish history is not only ironic, but also always violent [gewaltsam], so is the unity of the later קינה (ḳinah, Klage) also a symbol of exile [Verbannung].

(English translation of these notes by Ilit Ferber & Paula Schwebel)

Source (Hebrew) Translation (German) Translation (English)

שַׁאֲלִי, שְׂרוּפָה בָּאֵשׁ,
לִשְׁלוֹם אֲבֵלַיִךְ,
הַמִּתְאַוִּים שְׁכֹן
בַּחֲצַר זְבֻלָיִךְ,

Frage, im Feuer Verbrannte,
nach der Trauernden Wohl,
die zu wohnen verlangen
im Hof deiner heiligen Wohnung,
Question, burnt in the fire,
about the wellbeing of the mourners,
who long to live
in the courtyard of your holy abode,

הַשּׁוֹאֲפִים עַל־עָפָר אֶרֶץ
וְהַכּוֹאֲבִים,
הַמִּשְׁתּוֹמְמִים
עֲלֵי־מוֹקֵד גְּלִילַיִךְ,

die schmachten im Staube der Erde
und leiden,
die verstört sind
ob des Brands deiner Rollen,
who languish in the dust of the earth
and suffer,
who are disturbed
by the burning of your scrolls

הוֹלְכִים חֲשֵׁכִים
וְאֵין נֹגַהּ,
וְקַוִּים לְאוֹר יוֹמָם
עֲלֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר יִזְרַח וְעָלַיִךְ –

die verdüstert gehen
und ohne Glanz
und hoffen auf Tageslicht,
das über ihnen erstrahle und dir –
they are darkened,
without a glimmer,
and hope for daylight
to shine upon them and you –

וּשְׁלוֹם אֱנוֹשׁ נֶאֱנָח,
בּוֹכֶה, בְּלֵב נִשְׁבָּר,
תָּמִיד מְקוֹנֵן
עֲלֵי־צִירֵי חֲבָלָיִךְ,

nach dem Wohle des stöhnenden Menschen,
der weinet, zerbrochenen Herzens,
immer klagt,
um den Krampf deiner Wunden,
about the wellbeing of the groaning man,
who cries, broken-hearted,
constantly lamenting
the pangs of your wounds,

וַיִּתְאוֹנֵן כְּתַנִּים וּבְנוֹת יַעֲנָה
וַיִּקְרָא מִסְפֵּד מַר בִּגְלָלָיִךְ:

der Klage anhebt wie Schakale und Strauße
und aufruft zur bitteren Trauer um dich:
the lament rising like jackals and ostriches
and calling in bitter mourning for you:

אֵיכָה נְתוּנָה בְּאֵשׁ אוֹכְלָה
תְּאֻכַּל בְּאֵשׁ בָּשָׂר
וְלֹא נִכְווּ זָרִים בְּגַחֲלָיִךְ

Wie ward die in zehrendem Feuer gegebne
von irdischem Feuer verzehrt
und nicht verbrannten
die Fremden an deinen Flammen.
How can that which was given in consuming fire be
consumed by earthly fire
and the strangers were not burnt by your flames

עַד־אָן, עֲדִינָה,
תְּהִי שׁוֹכְנָה בְּרֺב הַשְׁקֵט
וּפְנֵי פְרָחַ
– הֲלֹא כָסּוּ חֲרֻלָּיִךְ

Wie lange, Prangende
wohnest du noch in vielfachem Glück,
und das Antlitz meiner Blumen –
bedecken es nicht deine Dornen.
And how long, resplendent one,
will you live in manifold happiness
and the countenance of my flowers –
is not covered by your thorns.

תֵּשֵׁב בְּרֺב גַּאֲוָה
לִּשְׁפּוֹט בְּנֵי אֵל
בְּכׇל־הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים
וְתָבִיא בִּפְלִילָיִךְ?

Du sitzest in großem Hochmut,
Die Kinder Gottes zu richten
nach anderer Satzung
und bringst sie vor deine Richter?
You sit in great arrogance,
to judge the children of God
according to other laws
and you bring them before your judges?

עוֹד תִּגְזוֹר לִשְׂרוֹף
דָּת אֵשׁ וְחֻקִּים.
וְלָכֵן: אַשְׁרֵי
שֶׁיְּשַׁלֶּם לָךְ גְּמוּלָיִךְ.

Noch verhängst du Brand
Über das Feuergesetz und die Satzung.
Und darum: Heil dem,
der dir deine Taten bezahlt.
For now you decree to burn
the fiery law and ordinance.
And therefore: hail him
that repays your deed in kind.

צוּרִי – בְּלַפִּיד וְאֵשׁ, הַלְבַעֲבוּר זֶה נְתָנֵךְ
כִּי בְּאַחֲרִית
תְּלַהֵט אֵשׁ
בְּשׁוּלָיִךְ?

Mein Fels – gab er in Feuer und Flammen
Dich, Thora, dafür,
Daß einstmals Feuer
entbrenne an deinen Säumen?
My rock – were you given in fire and flames,
Torah, so that
the fire of yore
would burn your hem?

סִינַי הֲלָכֵן בְּךָ בָּחַר אֱלֹהִים
וּמָאַס בִּגְדוֹלִים
וְזָרַח בִּגְבוּלָיִךְ

Sinai, hat für dies dich Gott erwählt
und Größere verworfen
und ist erstrahlt in deinen Grenzen
Sinai, did God choose you for this
and reject higher [mountains] 
resplendent within your borders

לִהְיוֹת לְמוֹפֵת לְדָת
כִּי תִתְמַעֵט וְתֵרֵד
מִכְּבוֹדָהּ –
וְהֵן אֶמְשׁוֹל מְשָׁלָיִךְ –

als Zeichen und Gesetz,
daß sie gering werde und sinke
von ihrer Herrlichkeit –
so will ich dir dein Gleichnis sagen,
as a sign and law
so that it would be humble and fall
from its grandeur –
thus I want to tell you of your parable –

מָשָׁל לְמֶלֶךְ
אֲשֶׁר בָּכָה לְמִשְׁתֵּה בְנוֹ
צָפָה אֲשֶׁר יִגְוַע – כֵּן אַתְּ בְּמִלָּיִךְ.

das Gleichnis von dem König,
der zum Geburtsmahl seines Sohnes weinte
da er das Sterben sah – so bist du auch.
a parable about the king
who cried on the feast for his son’s birth
having foreseen his death – this is also how you are.

תַּחַת מְעִיל תִּתְכַּס,
סִינַי, לְבוּשֵׁךְ בְּשַׂק,
תַּעְטֶה לְבוּשׁ אַלְמְנוּת
תַּחֲלִיף שְׂמָלָיִךְ.

Statt deines Prunkrocks
bedecke dich, Sinai, mit Sack
hülle dich ins Kleid der Witwenschaft
und tausche deine Gewänder.
Instead of stately robes
dress yourself, Sinai, in sackcloth,
wrap yourself in the dress of widowhood
and change your garments.

אוֹרִיד דְּמָעוֹת
עֲדֵי יִהְיוּ כְנַחַל
וְיַגִּיעוּ לְקִבְרוֹת
שְׁנֵי שָׂרֵי אֲצִילָיִךְ

Tränen will ich vergießen,
Daß wie ein Bach sie seien
und strömen zu den Gräbern
deiner beiden edlen Fürsten
I will pour tears
that should be like a brook
and gush over the graves
of your noble princes

משֶׁה וְאַהֲרֺן בְּהֺר הָהָר
וְאֶשְׁאַל
הֲיֵשׁ תּוֹרָה חֲדָשָׁה
בְּכֵן נִשְׂרְפוּ גְלִילָיִךְ

Mose und Aharon auf dem Berge Hor,
und ich will fragen:
Gibt es eine neue Thora,
also daß deine Rollen man verbrannt hat?
Moses and Aaron on Mount Hor,
and I will ask:
is there a new Torah,
is that why your scrolls were burnt?

חֺדֶשׁ שְׁלִישִׁי וְהֻקְשַׁר הָרְבִיעִי
לְהַשְׁחִית חֶמְדָּתֵךְ
וְכׇל־יֺפִי כְּלִילָיִךְ;

Siwan und Tammus haben sich verbunden,
Deine Anmut zu verderben
Und ganz die Krone deiner Schönheit;
Sivan and Tamuz have joined together
to spoil your grace
and the whole crown of your beauty;

גָּדַע לְלוּחוֹת,
וְעוֹד שָׁנָה בְּאֵוַּלְתּוֹ,
לִשְׂרוֹף בְּאֵשׁ דָּת.
הֲזֶה תַּשְׁלוּם כְּפֵלָיִךְ?

Die Tafeln sind zerbrochen,
und da es[4]Israel. seine Torheit wiederholte,
verbrannte im Feuer das Gesetz.
Ist dies die doppelte[5]Isaiah 40:2. Vergeltung?
the tablets are shattered,
and since it repeated its knavishness,
its law was burnt in the fire.
Is this the doubled recompense?

אֶתְמַהּ לְנַפְשִׁי
וְאֵיךְ יֶעֱרַב לְחִכִּי אֲכוֹל,
אַחֲרֵי רְאוֹתִי
אֲשֶׁר אָסְפוּ שְׁלָלָיִךְ

Meine Seele ist entsetzt
und wie kann meinen Gaumen Speise freuen,
nachdem ich sah,
wie deine Güter eingesammelt wurden
My soul is appalled
and how can my palette take pleasure in food,
after I saw
that your goods were gathered

אֶל־תּוֹךְ רְחוֹבָהּ כְּנִדַּחַת,
וְשָׂרְפוּ שְׁלַל עֶלְיוֹן
אֲשֶׁר תִּמְאַס
לָבוֹא קְהָלָיִךְ.

zum Markte wie eine Verstoßene,
und das Gut des Höchsten verbrannten,
die du verwirfst,
in deine Gemeinde zu kommen.
to market like a castaway,
and the good of the highest burnt
by those you rejected
from entering your community.

לֹא אֵדְעָה לִמְצוֹא דֶּרֶךְ,
סְלוּלָּיִךְ הָיוּ אֲבֵלוֹת,
נְתִיב ישֶׁר מְסִלָּיִךְ.

Ich weiß keinen Weg mehr zu finden,
die du gebahnet, sind traurig worden,
der redliche Pfad deiner Bahn.
I can no longer find a path,
those that you channeled have become sorrowful,
the honest trails of your way.

יֻמְתַּק בְּפִי מִדְּבַשׁ
לִמְסוֹךְ בְּמַשְׁקֶה דְּמָעוֹת
וּלְרַגְלִי הֱיוֹת כָּבוּל
כְּבָלָיִךְ.

Meinem Mund soll süßer sein als Honig
Der Trank der Tränen
und mein Fuß gefesselt sein
in deinen Banden.
Sweeter to my mouth than honey
shall be the drink of tears
and my feet are bound
in your chains.

יֶעֶרַב לְעֵינַי שְׁאוֹב
מֵימֵי דְּמָעַי
עֲדֵי־כִלּוּ
לְכׇל־מַחֲזִיק בִּכְנַף מְעִילָיִךְ.

Meine Augen sollen gerne schöpfen
die Wasser meiner Tränen,
bis sie für alle hinreichen,
die an dem Saum deines Gewandes halten.
My eyes shall gladly draw
enough water from tears
to suffice
for all those who cling to the hem of your robe.

אַךְ יֶחֱרָבוּ
בְּרִדְתָּם עַל־לְחָיַי,
עֲבוּר כִּי נִכְמְרוּ רַחֲמַי
לִנְדוֹד בְּעָלָיִךְ.

Aber sie trocknen,
da sie über meine Wangen fließen,
denn mein Erbarmen ist entbrannt
über die Unrast deines Herren.
But they dry
as they flow down my cheek,
since my pity is blazing
for the agitation of your Lord.

לָקַח צְרוֹר כַּסְפּוֹ,
הָלַךְ בְּדֶרֶךְ לְמֵרָחוֹק
וְעִמּוֹ הֲלֹא נָסוּ צְלָלָיִךְ.

Er nahm den silbernen Beutel,
ging den Weg weit fort[6]In the manuscript version, instead of the words “weit fort” Scholem uses “fernhin.”
und mit ihm, ach, entflohen deine Schatten.
He took his silver pouch,
and went far hence
and with him, ay, have fled your shadows.

וַאֲנִי כְּשָׁכוּל וְגַלְמוּד נִשְׁאַרְתִּי
לְבַד מֵהֶם
כְּתֺרֶן
בְּרֺאשׁ הַר מִגְדָּלָיִךְ.

Und ich bin kinderlos und unfruchtbar
allein ohne sie geblieben
wie ein Zeichenmast
auf dem Gipfel deiner hohen Berge.
And I stayed childless and barren
alone without them
like a signal mast
on the peak of your high mountains.

לֹא אֶשְׁמַע עוֹד לְקוֹל
שָׁרִים וְשָׁרוֹת
עֲלֵי־כִּי נִתְּקוּ מֵיתְרֵי תֻפֵּי חֲלִילָיִךְ.

Ich höre nicht mehr die Stimme
der Sänger und Sängerinnen,
denn zersprungen sind
die Saiten deiner Harfen.
I no longer hear the voice
of your singers and songstresses
for the strings of your harps have split.

אֶלְבַּשׁ וְאתְכַּס בְּשַׂק,
כִּי לִי מְאֺד יָקְרוּ עָצְמוּ
כְּחוֹל יִרְבְּיוּן
נַפְשׁוֹת חֲלָלָיִךְ.

Ich kleide mich und hülle mich in Sack,
denn mir sind sehr kostbar und teuer,
die Zahlreich sind wie Sand,
die Seelen deiner Toten.
I will clothe and shroud myself in sackcloth,
since the souls of your dead
more numerous than grains of sand
are precious and dear to me.

אֶתְמַהּ מְאֺד עַל־מְאוֹר הַיּוֹם,
אֲשֶׁר יִזְרַח אֶל־כֺּל,
אֲבָל יַחֲשִׁיךְ אֵלַי וְאֵלָיִךְ.

Ich staune sehr über das Licht des Tages,
das allein aufgeht,
aber Dunkel bringt es mir und dir.
I am quite astonished by the light of day,
which rises by itself,
but brings darkness to me and you.

זַעֲקִי בְּקוֹל מַר לְצוּר
עַל־שִׁבְרוֹנֵךְ וְעַל־חׇלְיֵךְ,
וְלוּ יִזְכּוֹר אַהֲבַת כְּלוּלָיִךְ.

Schreie mit bitterer Stimme zum Fels
über dein Unglück und dein Leid,
vielleicht gedenkt er der Liebe deiner Brautzeit.
Cry with a bitter voice to the cliff
over your unhappiness and pain,
perhaps he will remember the love of your betrothal.

חִגְרִי לְבוּשׁ שַׂק,
עֲלֵי־הַהַבְעָרָה אֲשֶׁר יָצְתָה לְחַלֵּק
וְסָפְתָה אֶת־תְּלוּלָיִךְ.

Umgürte dich mit härenem Gewand,
denn ein Brand ist aufgeflammt
und verdarb deine Höhen.
Gird yourself in a sack garment,
since a fire has flamed up
and destroyed your heights.

כִּימוֹת עֱנוּתֵךְ
יְנַחְמֵךְ צוּר
וְיָשִׁיב שְׁבוּת
שִׁבְטֵי יְשֻׁרוּן
וְיָרִים אֶת־שְׁפָלָיִךְ.

Nach den Tagen deines Leides
tröste dich Gott
und wende die Gefangenschaft
der Stämme Jeschuruns
und erhöhe deine Armen.
After the days of your suffering
God shall console you
and commute the captivity
of the tribes of Yeshurun
and lift up your poor.

עוֹד תַּעֲדִי
בַּעֲדִי שָׁנִי,
וְתֺף תִּקְחִי,
תֵּלְכִי בְּמָחוֹל,
וְצַהֲלִי בִּמְחוֹלָיִךְ.

Du schmückst dich noch
mit purpurnem Schmuck,
und Pauken nimmst du,
gehest hin im Reigen:
so jubele in deinen Reigen.
You will yet adorn yourself
with purple jewels,
and take up the timbrel,
and march around in a ring,
so rejoice in your dance.

יָרוּם לְבָבִי,
בְּעֵת יָאִיר לְךָ צוּר,
וְיַגִּיהַּ לְחׇשְׁכֵּךְ:
וְיָאִירוּ אֲפֵלָיִךְ.

Erhoben ist mein Herz,
wenn der Fels dir leuchtet
und deiner Dunkelheit erglänzt:
so strahlen deine Finsternisse.
My heart is uplifted,
when the cliff illuminates you
and your darkness shines:
irradiating your gloom.

The English translation by Paula Schwebel was first published in Lament in Jewish Thought: Philosophical, Theological, and Literary Perspectives (Series: Perspectives on Jewish Texts and Contexts, vol.2) edited by Ilit Ferber and Paula Schwebel (De Gruyter 2014), pp. 337-350, and shared under a CC BY-NC-ND license. We have preserved the annotation of Ferber and Schwebel. For details on Scholem’s German translation, see the annotation provided by these editors.

The Hebrew source was transcribed by Isaac Gantwerk Mayer. (Thank you!)

Notes   [ + ]

  1. This was the only text on lament that Scholem published during his lifetime. The text, including the introduction, appeared in Der Jude: Eine Monatsschrift 4.6 (1919–1920): 283–86, under the title “Ein mittelalterliches Klagelied.” This translation is based on the version included in Scholem’s diaries, Tb2, 607–611, which contains a postscript that was not published in Der Jude. Scholem translated the lament of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg on April 23, 1919, in Bern, and offered it to Martin Buber for publication in Der Jude in a letter from May 1919 (Briefe 1, no. 76: 204). The first version of the translation, including the postscript, is a six-page manuscript found in Scholem’s literary remains, bearing the title “Die Kinah des R. Meïr von Rothenburg / Über die Verbrennung der Thora (in Paris 1242).” Along with differences in punctuation, there are minor variations and additions in the manuscript version that do not appear in the printed version. These have been noted by the editors of the German edition of Scholem’s diaries, and are reproduced in this translation. Scholem’s own notes to the translation appear in the printed version, but not in the manuscript. Following the convention used in the German edition, asterisks indicate a note by Scholem in the printed version.
  2. The Tossafists (Talmud commentators) were a medieval rabbinical school that originated in Germany and spread to France. During the Crusade of 1096, the Tossafist schools in Germany (in Speyer, Mainz, and Worms) were completely destroyed. The Tossafist writings of the German school were able to survive only because of the establishment of centers of Torah study in France. As Scholem notes, Sha’ali serufa ba-esh [“Ask, you who were burnt in the fire”] was written by Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (1215–1293) to commemorate the burning of the Torah in Paris in 1242. The book burnings were part of a systematic attempt by the Church to gather and destroy all of the books of the Oral Law in Paris and throughout Europe.
  3. As noted in our introduction to the translations, the expression “harte Fügung” was an allusion to a phrase in von Hellingrath’s 1911 introduction to Hölderlin’s translations of Pindar. For a discussion of Hölderlin’s “hard joining” as it relates to the tradition of elegy, see Daniel Weidner’s chapter in this volume.
  4. Israel.
  5. Isaiah 40:2.
  6. In the manuscript version, instead of the words “weit fort” Scholem uses “fernhin.”

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