Unraveling a linguistic mystery

Posted on 06 February 2019 by admin

Today, I’m asking you to help me unravel what I consider a linguistic mystery, but which I bet most folks have never even noticed or paid attention to. I’m referring to a rather standard passage in “Siddur Sim Shalom,” the (if you’ll allow me to use this word in this particular context — no disrespect intended) “Bible” of Shabbat worship at many, if not most, Conservative synagogues across America.
My field is English, so I’m professionally and otherwise hyper-sensitive to words in that language and what they mean — not just by definition, but in context. And there is one particular word in the Amidah for the Shabbat evening service that “niggles” me every week. Here is the passage, which you can find at the top of page 299. I’m setting that bothersome (at least to me) word in CAPS:
“The heavens and the earth, and all they contain, were completed. On the seventh day God FINISHED the work which He had been doing. Then God blessed the seventh day and called it holy, because on it He ceased from all His work of creation.”
The problem I see here is this: We’ve all been taught to believe that God labored for six days to create the entire world as we know it, and then declared Day Seven as a time of rest. I thought we are enjoined to do the same as God had done. But here we have the strange word that declares God actually FINISHED THE WORK WHICH HE HAD BEEN DOING on the seventh day itself! He wasn’t done on the day before, according to this English wording; to say that He was done on the sixth day, this part of the passage should read that God “HAD FINISHED the work which He had been doing.” And there’s additional confirmation further along, in the very next passage: “He CEASED on the seventh day from all the work which He had done.”
In a classroom of students learning grammar, I would point out that both these verbs — as used here in this text — indicate ongoing activity, and the activity here, which is Creation itself, was completed at some time on the seventh day, when God FINISHED His work, and CEASED from working altogether. The “marker” of verbal tense is the opening phrase, “On the seventh day.” Somehow, this wording not merely suggests, but actually states, that the work we have all believed was completed on the sixth day held over for at least a bit into Day Seven.
So today, all of you who are reading this make up my “classroom” of English grammar students. The implication — if not the Biblical fact — is that God was not quite through; the text tells us quite clearly in the passage’s final sentence: “Then God blessed the seventh day and called it holy because ON IT (there’s the proof! not BEFORE IT!) He ceased from all His work of creation.” This bit of wording is even clearer than the others — it states, not just implies, that God’s work went on until He finished it — on the seventh day itself.
I really should have taken this matter up with the editor and translator of “Siddur Sim Shalom,” Rabbi Jules Harlow, many years ago. But not now: He will be 88 years old this coming June, and in his lifetime has written, compiled, edited, translated, etc., several libraries’ worth of Judaica, all of it highly praised. And rightly so. He also founded “My Jewish Learning,” which took our Judaism to the internet early on, making it easily accessible for so many. And this book, this truly beloved siddur, was made available to my synagogue and so many others back in 1985 — and we all took advantage of it, and are still using it. So no, I won’t bother him now. But if you understand my distracting dilemma, please let me know what you think about it.
Harriet Gross can be reached at harrietgross@sbcglobal.net.

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