Schechter Logo for Print

Like Sheep or Like Soldiers? Solving a Mahzor Mystery

This article is based on my article which appeared in Hebrew in the Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly 63 (2001), pp. 199-205.

The most moving piyyut or liturgical poem of the High Holy Day liturgy is entitled Unetane Tokef  (See, for example, Morris Silverman, ed., High Holiday Prayer Book , Hartford, 1951, pp. 147-148, 357-358 and Jules Harlow, ed., Mahzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur , New York, 1972, pp. 240-243, 536-539. For a new translation, see Raymond Scheindlin, Conservative Judaism 50/4 (Summer 1998), pp. 48-50. My translation is based on all of the above and more). It is traditionally ascribed to Rabbi Amnon of Mainz (10 th -11 th century),  (Israel Davidson, Otzar Hashirah V’hapiyyut , Vol. 2, New York, 1929, pp. 199-200; Sh. Y. Agnon, Yamim Noraim , Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1946, pp. 132-134 = Days of Awe , New York, 1948, pp. 83-86; Hayyim Herman Kieval, The High Holy Days , New York, 1959 (second edition, Jerusalem, 2004), pp. 141-143; Encyclopaedia Judaica , s.v. Amnon of Mainz, Vol. 2, col. 861; Shelomo Eidelberg, Binitivei Ashkenaz , Brooklyn, 2001, pp. 23-28; Avraham Frankel, Tziyon 67 (5762), pp. 125-138 and the literature cited there in note 1; Ya’akov Spiegel, Netu’im  (For the Syriac word, see Robert Payne Smith, Thesaurus Syriacus , Vol. 1, Oxford, 1879, col. 247). (5762), pp. 23-42). but we now know that it was written in the Byzantine period in the Land of Israel (Armand Kaminka, Freie Judische Lehrerstimme , Vienna, 1906, p. 63; Aharon Kaminka, Moznayim 18 (1944), pp. 410-410; Eric Werner, The Scared Bridge , London and New York, 1959, pp. 252-255; Spiegel (in previous note), pp. 27-29).The middle of the poem reads:

A great shofar is sounded and
a still small voice is heard
The angels in heaven scurry about
and are seized with fear and trembling
They say:
“Behold, the Day of Judgment!”.
All who enter the world
You will cause to pass before You
kivney maron [=like b’nay maron ] As a shepherd examines his flock
passing his sheep beneath his staff,
so do You make pass, count, enumerate
and remember every living soul,
decreeing the measure of every creature’s life
and writing their verdict…

The question is: what does “kivney maron” mean? The phrase is taken from the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:2), but there, too, the meaning is unclear:

The world is judged at four seasons:
At Pesah – for grain
At Shavuot – for the fruit of the trees
On Rosh Hashanah, all who enter the world pass before Him
kivney maron, as it is written: “He who fashions the hearts of them all, who discerns all their actions” (Psalms 33:15),
and on Sukkot – for water.

The Babylonian Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 18a) gives three different explanations for kivney maron :

What is kivney maron ?

1) Here they translate: “like b’nay imrana “.

2) Resh Lakish said: like the ascent of Bet Maron.

3) Rav Yehudah said in the name of Samuel: like the troops of the House of David.

1) Let us examine each of these explanations. What does “like b’nay imrana ” mean? Rabbenu Hananel (North Africa, 11 th century) says: “like the sons of sheep who pass by a counter”,  (Rabbenu Hananel in the Vilna edition of the Babylonian Talmud fol. 18a = Ha’arukh Hashalem , s.v amar no. 1 , Vol. 1, Vienna, 1878, p. 126). so ” imrana ” means sheep. And so says Rashi (catchword ” imrana “): “Like sheep who are counted in order to give a tithe, and they go out one after the other through a narrow opening where only one can pass through” (Rashi’s explanation is actually based on Mishnah Bekhorot 9:7). Even a person who did not grow up on a farm or a kibbutz, has seen in the Westerns how they count cattle: they pass them through a narrow opening in order to count them one by one.

In the nineteenth century, a number of scholars explained  (Alexander Kohut, Ha’arukh Hashalem , loc. cit.; Jakob Levy, Worterbuch uber die Talmudim und Midraschim , Vol. 1, Berlin and Vienna, 1924, p. 102, s.v. imrana). that in Syriac, which is a Christian dialect of Babylonian Aramaic, there is a word ” emruna “, which means young sheep (

  1. For the Syriac word, see Robert Payne Smith, Thesaurus Syriacus , Vol. 1, Oxford, 1879, col. 247).

 Therefore, in Babylonia they explained that on Rosh Hashanah we pass before God like the sons of sheep and He counts us one by one.

2) Now let us examine the second explanation found in the Talmud: “Resh Lakish said: like the ascent of Bet Maron”. Resh Lakish, who lived in Eretz Yisrael ca. 250 c.e., is no doubt referring to a specific place in Israel which was well-known to his listeners. In order to understand his words, we must locate the exact place. In the marginal note in the Hebrew version of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s Talmud we read:

“The ascent of Bet Maron”: According to our reading [=the Vilna edition of the Talmud – D.G.], this refers to a steep path which leads to Kefar Meron in the upper Galillee.Some read here “the ascent of Bet Horon , which is mentioned elsewhere as a very steep ascent, but this doesn’t fit the reading “kivney maron ” [in the Mishnah] (Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Talmud Bavli , Vol. 10, Jerusalem, 1982, Massekhet Rosh Hashanah , p. 75, in the margin under ” Hahayim “).

In other words, Rabbi Steinsaltz thinks that there are two possible readings of Resh Lakish’s statement – Bet Meron and Bet Horon – and the first sounds more like “kivney maron ” in our Mishnah. But in reality, there aren’t two possible readings of the words of Resh Lakish. According to the manuscripts and medieval commentators, the only correct and original reading was: “like the ascent of Bet Horon “,  (See Messoret Hashass in the margin of Rosh Hashanah 18a; R.N.N. Rabinowitz, Dikduke Soferim , Vol. 4, Munich, 1872, p. 39, note 4; Saul Lieberman, Tosefta Kifshuta, Vol. 5, New York, 1962, p. 1022, note 9). and, indeed, “the ascent of Bet Horon” was a well-known place for over 1,500 years.

According to the Book of Joshua (10:10-11), he “pursued them [= the five Amorite kings] in the direction of the Bet Horon ascent . While they were fleeing before Israel down the descent from Bet Horon , the Lord hurled huge stones on them from the sky.”. Later on, according to II Chronicles 8:5 (and parallels), King Solomon built “Upper Bet Horon and Lower Bet Horon”. In other words, there were two villages in ancient times, Upper Bet Horon and Lower Bet Horon, and they were connected by an ascent or a descent. This is also evident from I Maccabees (3:13-26), where Judah Maccabee ca. 166 b.c.e. met Seron and the Greek army near ” the ascent of Bet Horon “. Judah and his men defeated the Greeks “and pursued them down the descent of Bet Horon to the plain”.

Josephus Flavius (Wars 2, 19, 2, Whiston translation, Philadelphia, 1881, pp. 640-641) describes the Jewish revolt against Cestius Gallus in the year 66 c.e.

Shimon bar Giyora fell upon the backs of the Romans as they were ascending up Bet Horon [and defeated them]. Cestius tarried there three days.

In other words, Bet Horon was a town or a village where one could tarry for three days, and there is a steep ascent there which allows one to attack those who climb it.

All of the above is confirmed by Eusebius’s Onomastikon , which was written in Caserea in 324 c.e., two generations after Resh Lakish. He describes a place named Bet Horon “where Joshua chased after the kings.and there are two villages there, about twelve [Roman] miles from Jerusalem on the road to Lod, .one of them is called Upper Bet Horon.and the second Lower [Bet Horon]” (E. Z. Melamed, Sefer Ha’onomastikon L’eusebius , Jerusalem, 1950, p. 22, no. 212. Today, the two Arab villages there have retained the original names – Bet Ur al Fawqa [=the Upper] and Bet Ur a-Tahta [=the Lower] – and they can be seen as one drives up the ascent of Bet Horon from Modi’in to Jerusalem on route 443).

But the most important source for our purposes is found in a baraita [=teaching of the Tannaim ] in Sanhedrin 32b:

Two camels who are going up the ascent of Bet Horon and met each other. If they both ascend, they both fall off; if they ascend one after the other – they both ascend.

In other words, the ascent of Bet Horon is such a narrow path that two camels cannot pass each other going up or down. If they ascend side by side, they will both fall off, but if they ascend single-file, they will both ascend successfully (For discussions of Bet Horon, see Yishayahu Press, Eretz Yisrael: Entziklopedia , Vol. 1, Jerusalem, 1951, pp. 84-85; Entzklopedia Mikra’it , s.v. Bet Horon, Vol. 2, cols. 73-75; Encyclopaedia Judaica , s.v. Bet Horon, vol. 4, cols. 747-748).

Now, the words of Resh Lakish are entirely clear: God counts us on Rosh Hashanah just as people climb up the ascent of Bet Horon, one at a time. Thus, the imagery of Resh Lakish is similar to the imagery of the sheep who pass under the staff of the shepherd, one at a time.

3) And now let us examine the third explanation: “Rav Yehudah said in the name of Samuel” – both of them Babylonian Amoraim ca. 220-250 – “like the troops of the House of David”. Samuel does not explain himself, but we can surmise that God counts us on Rosh Hashanah as soldiers are counted in the army.

To summarize the Talmudic passage, the Amoraim in Babylon and in Israel explained kivney maron in the Mishnah in three ways:

1) like sheep who pass under the staff of the shepherd,

2) like the ascent of Bet Horon,

3) like the soldiers of the House of David.

All three apparently mean the same thing, but we still have not clarified the exact meaning of the expression kivney maron . Indeed, for hundreds of years, rabbis tried to explain this expression without success, until Nehemiah Brull published a suggestion in his Jahrbucher fur Judische Geschichte und Literatur in 1874 (Brull wrote most of the ten volumes of that academic journal by himself! Regarding Brull and his scholarship, see Boaz Cohen, Studies in Memory of A. S. Friedus , New York, 1929, pp. 219-246). He suggested that perhaps kivney maron is a corruption of ki[vi]numeron , like a numeron , and numeron is a Greek (and Latin) word which means “a cohort, a legion, a troop of soldiers” (Jahrbucher fur Judische Geschichte und Literatur, Vol. 1 (1874), p. 187. Many scholars concurred, including Hanokh Albeck, Shishah Sidrey Mishnah , Seder Moed , Jerusalem-Tel Aviv, 1952, pp. 312, 486 and Saul Lieberman (above, note 10). For many of the other modern scholars who discussed this word, see Naphtali Wieder, Journal of Jewish Studies 18 (1967), pp. 1-7, notes 3-9). In other words, the Mishnah says that God counts us on Rosh Hashanah as soldiers are counted, one at a time.

Nehemiah Brull gave his explanation as a suggestion ( vielleicht in German = perhaps), when Jewish scholars still had no access to Mishnah manuscripts and such a suggestion was simply a guess (See Ya’akov Zussman, Proceedings of the Seventh World Congress of Jewish Studies: Studies in the Talmud, Halacha and Midrash , Jerusalem, 1981, Hebrew section, pp. 218-219). Now we can prove that Nehemiah Brull was absolutely correct on the basis of manuscripts of the Mishnah, Tosefta, Babylonian Talmud and piyyut . In the Kaufmann manuscript of the Mishnah (Italy?, 11 th -13 th centuries?), which was only published in a facsimile edition in 1929, it says very clearly in our Mishnah: kivno meron with vowels (Georg Beer, Faksimile-Ausgabe des Mischnacodex Kaufmann A50 , The Hague, 1929, p. 149). There is still a space between the words, but there is no doubt that it was originally one word, as we shall presently see.

Our Mishnah also reads “kivnu maron” in the Palestinian Talmud (ed. Venice, 1523-1524, fol. 56a), while the Tosefta reads ” numeron ” (Vienna ms. in Lieberman edition 1:11, p. 307).

And now we can add new proof for Brull’s theory from my book Ginzey Rosh Hashanah , which was published in the year 2000. It is a collection of all the Genizah fragments of the tractate of Rosh Hashanah in the Babylonian Talmud. In Manuscript G 1 , which was copied in the east between the 10 th and 12 th centuries, it says very clearly “kivnu maron”  (David Golinkin, Ginzey Rosh Hashanah , New York and Jerusalem, 2000, facsimile section, p. 7). In other words, we have here an ancient manuscript of the Babylonian Talmud which also has the original and correct reading of our Mishnah.

We have progressed from the piyyut to the Mishnah and from the Mishnah to the Tosefta and from the Tosefta to the Talmud. Let us return now to the piyyut and we shall discover that the original reading in Unetaneh Tokef was not ” kivney maron ” but ” kivinumeron “! This was proved by Prof. Naphtali Wieder (1906-2001), one of the foremost scholars of Jewish liturgy in the twentieth century (See the collection of his articles: Hitgabeshut Nussah Hatefillah Bamizrah Ubama’arav , Jerusalem, 1998, which contains 850 pages). In 1967, he published an article entitled “A Controversial Mishnaic and Liturgical Expression” (See above, note 14. The article was reprinted in Hebrew in his book (above, note 18), pp. 440-446 with an addendum on pp. 446-447). He showed in his article that the reading ” kivinumeron ” is the original reading in the piyyut ” Unetaneh Tokef ” as found in a number of manuscripts and one of them even has vowels. Furthermore, Wieder quotes a number of other lesser-known piyyutim which also contain the word ” kivinumeron “, including a genizah fragment of the piyyut ” Hayom harat olam ” which we sing after the shofar is blown in the Malkhuyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot sections of the Musaf service (Wieder, English article, p. 5 = Hebrew article, p. 443). In other words, the correct reading of the word ” kivinumeron ” has been preserved not only in manuscripts of the Mishnah, Tosefta and Talmud, but also in manuscripts of Unetaneh Tokef and other medieval poems.

What can we learn from this detective story? It shows us how the academic or scientific approach to Jewish studies taught at the Schechter Institute can help us to arrive at the peshat (simple meaning) of our sacred texts. Thanks to this approach, we were able to unravel the mystery of this word using a few dozen articles written since 1874, historical geography, Greek and Latin, manuscripts, and interdisciplinary Jewish Studies. It also shows us that our ancestors were familiar with other languages and cultures and were not afraid to integrate foreign words and concepts into the Mishnah and even into the liturgy.

In conclusion, now we know that according to the Mishnah and Unetaneh Tokef , on Rosh Hashanah:

All who enter the world
You will cause to pass before You
Kivinumeron – Like a cohort of soldiers [being counted].

Now, as we enter the Days of Awe, it is up to all of us to engage in Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah –

in repentance, prayer and acts of lovingkindness (I did not translate the end of this famous sentence because that too requires further study – see, for example, Kieval (above, note 3), pp. 143-144 and especially Marc Saperstein, Journal of Reform Judaism 28/3 (Summer 1981), pp. 18-26).

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

Join our mailing list

Sign up to our newsletter for the newest articles, events and updates.

    * We hate spam too! And will never share or sell your email or contact information with anyone