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. Read the rest of this entry »