The Goodly Tents of Jacob

While the gentile prophet Bil’ám (Balaam) is, on the balance, condemned by Jewish tradition, he enjoys the rare distinction that some of his words were incorporated in the Jewish prayerbook. Just about every prayerbook includes somewhere in the beginning of the book a paragraph beginning with Bil’ám‘s words: מַה־טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל – How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, and your tabernacles, O Israel!

Once, in a discussion about the layout of siddurim, I remarked that that paragraph does not really belong in the body of the siddur – or, more precisely, in the morning prayers section – and that it would be far better to print it, for example, on the inside of the front cover. My reasoning was that the custom of reciting this verse relates particularly to the synagogues, symbolized by the tents and tabernacles of Bil’ám‘s verse. Indeed, R’ Ovadya Sforno comments on that verse:

מה טובו אהליך יעקב. בתי מדרשות… משכנותיך. בתי כנסיות ומקדשי אל המיוחדים לשכן שמו שם ולקבל תפלת המתפללים.

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob – [those are the] study halls … Your tabernacles – [these are the] synagogues and other sanctuaries of G”d, dedicated to the presence of His Name and for the [heavenly] reception of the the worshipers’ prayers.

This was not met with anything near consensus, but as the image below, taken from an old Rödelheim festival prayerbook, argues, the phrase may have little to do with the morning prayer service and everything to do with visiting a synagogue.

A female participant of this brainstorming session strongly objected. To her, it would feel very wrong, if, sometime after reciting the Modeh Ani (typically the first words printed in the body of a full prayerbook), she would not encounter that paragraph. Her prayer would feel incomplete without it. Finding that paragraph in the inside cover preceded by the instruction that it is to be read upon entering the synagogue would feel altogether wrong, because she would never say it during the weekday morning service, which she always recites at home.

I admire that woman. Rare is someone who will feel her or his prayer incomplete because that paragraph (or a slew of others in its vicinity) is missing. It is often printed right before the Adon Olam and Yigdal hymns, which many people totally ignore unless sung communally at the end of the Shabbat service. A number of other paragraphs share the same fate, except they are never sung communally. Yet, this lady would be bothered by the absence of the Ma Tovu!

A simple reading of the sources reveals that they are somewhat ambiguous as to the nature of this custom. Rabbi Ye’hiel Mikhel Epstein, Arukh haShul’han Or ha’Hayim 46:16, states:

הנוסח מהתפלה שקודם ברוך שאמר נדפס בסידורים כשיכנס לבהכ”נ יאמר מה טובו אוהליך יעקב וגו’ …

The text of the [morning] prayer prior to Barukh sheAmar, as printed in the prayer books, when he enters the synagogue let him recite How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, etc.

So is this text contingent upon entering the synagogue, or is it part of the morning service? I suspect that the fact it is mentioned as part of the morning service is merely incidental, but his text is ambiguous.

A much older source for this custom is the Siddur Rashi, which again reports about this custom in the context of texts recited before the morning service, and again stresses the causal link with entering the synagogue, but it remains unfortunately ambiguous, too:

כשנכנס אדם לבית הכנסת, קודם שיאמר פסוקי דזמרה מתחיל פסוקים הללו, ואומר ואני ברוב חסדך אבוא ביתך וגו’ (תהלים ה’ ח’), ואני תפילתי לך ה’ עת רצון וגו’ (שם ס”ט י”ד), מה טובו אהליך יעקב וגו’ (במדבר כ”ד ה’), ה’ אהבתי מעון ביתך וגו’ (תהלים כ”ו ח’), ושמחתי באומרים לי בית ה’ נלך (שם קכ”ב א’), …וכשיוצא מבית הכנסת אומר …

When someone enters the synagogue, before reciting the Verses of Praise, he should begin with the following verses, and recite But as for me, I will come into your house in the multitude of your mercy (Psalms 5:8), …, How goodly are your tents, O Jacob etc. (Numbers 24:5), HaShem, I have loved the habitation of Your house etc., and I glad when they said to me, Let us go into the house of HaShem (Psalms 122:1) … And upon leaving the synagogue he should recite …

Common sense tells us that indeed, entering the synagogue is key, as that would better explain the choice of verses, which all relate to entering the house of worship. Siddur Rashi’s juxtaposition of “and upon leaving the synagogue he should recite etc.” before continuing his description of the morning service leaves us with the distinct impression that this whole cited section is really independent from the morning service and should be seen as an interjection, inserted at the point where the worshiper typically should enter the synagogue.

If so, does it not follow that at least some of those verses should be recited upon entering the synagogue at other times, too, such as for the evening service? That is exactly what I found in the evening service of the Rödelheim festival prayer book for the second day of Rosh haShana, as can be seen from the pictures on the right.

Can we find a defence for my opponent above, who felt those verses should be recited even when praying at home? Well, while I have not found the following suggestion in any of the halakhic sources, a plain reading of the verse argues against identifying the tents and tabernacles of Jacob with synagogues in particular. The synagogue had not been invented yet (we’ll ignore for a moment the beit midrash – the house of study, which over time also began to double up as a synagogue); people worshiped at the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The tents Bil’ám mentioned were probably the dwellings of the people, their homes, not their houses of worship.

Indeed, Rashi cites another very widespread Midrashic interpretation that Bil’ám was praising the urban design of Israel’s encampment, for tents were arranged in such a fashion so as to respect every family’s privacy: tent openings would not face each other.

In that spirit – all the while without suggesting any new binding minhaggim – we may defend the practice of reciting those verses while praying at home on the premise that Jewish homes are holy, praiseworthy places, too. But historically, I am rather convinced that those who brought us the tradition of reciting those verses early in the prayer service actually meant them to relate to the synagogue as we enter it, nothing more, nothing less.

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