“Brevity is the soul of wit!” Polonius Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2
One of the chief joys I have is our Saturday morning Torah study. I offer a series of wide-ranging discussions, some of which are wide-raging as they stir the attendees’ thoughts and feelings, while others are wide-soothing providing comfort and occasional inspiration. Rabbi Azzai once commented how he learned more from his students then they had learned from him. Such is often the case for I can’t always anticipate the perspectives of others, their questions, and their reactions. I am a student of language, in particular word plays, puns, and the like. This is in keeping not merely with the Talmud’s witticisms, but the playfulness to be found in the bible itself. One example among hundreds can so illustrate this. In one story about the future King David, he asks for help after fleeing from Saul. A local chieftain named Nabal married to the beautiful Abigail tries to put down David who has made a respectful request for provisions. In the end Nabal’s wife intervenes helping to avoid conflict between David and her husband.
Even so, things don’t work out well for her husband whose name means something like failure while her name means “the joy of my father!” Ever the wordsmith, she appeals to David with these appeasing words: Let not my lord, I pray thee, regard this worthless fellow, even Nabal; for as his name is, so is he; Nabal is his name, and folly is with him: but I thy handmaid saw not the young men of my lord, whom thou didst send.
I Samuel 25
I often recall Elie Weisel’s response to an interviewer who asked what it is that the Jews gave to the world. His simple response was “Words!” To wit as I reviewed a more scholarly paper on the different and contradictory biblical accounts concerning Jerusalem’s destruction, a dizzying Latin phrase appeared. I sort of intuited what it meant, but a clearer meaning emerged through the benefit of the internet. It was this:
“lectio brevior praeferenda est.” (The shorter read- ing, if not wholly lacking the support of old and weighty witnesses, is to be preferred over the more verbose. For scribes were much more prone to add than to omit) In other words, this saying concludes that the wordier one gets, the less credence one’s words are to be given. This in keeping with the Polonius quote cited above from one who was him- self quite loquacious. This was Shakespeare’s humorous talent for exposing irony and hypocrisy. Tom Lehrer, the one-time Harvard Mathematician, and song parodist commented on those who complain endlessly about our inability to communicate. He said the least they can do is to just “shut up!” So, in keeping with his advice I shall soon conclude but with one revelry and invitation in the not too distant future.
My bookshelves are filled to the brim with words, some of which I must soon say farewell to. Downsizing, as I commented last time, is as liberating as it is frustrating. One book I shall not surrender is “Confessions of a Verbivore by Richard Lederer, a master punster whose other books included “Get thee to a punery!” (No doubt Shakespeare is doing a 360 in his grave with that one!) Richard suffers from the same malady of which I am afflicted. My wife has called it pun Tourette syndrome, an illness which I am happy to say isn’t contagious.
I am not much of a party guy, especially one in which I am its subject. So, when I make possible a drop in with coffee, cake and more in my study before my retirement date do come in and browse my books, take what you want and pass on some words to yourself or to your loved one. It’ll be my way of wishing you well! A chance to say a few words, but not that many, succinctly, without fanfare but with hopeful grace and gratitude from me to you.
Rabbi Yossi J. Liebowitz D.D.