'As the Hart that panteth after the water brooks (Psalm 42:1): Jewish New Year reflections on an Oxford college coat of arms'

Sunday, 5 September, 2021 - 3:27 pm

Hart.jpgInterspersed around Oxford, one can find mottos in Latin, which have Hebrew Biblical origin. This includes the motto of the university: ‘Dominus illuminatio mea,’ from Psalm chapter 27: ‘The Lord is my light, and my salvation; whom then shall I fear: the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid.’ This is read in the Hebrew prayers from the beginning of the month of Elul until the end of Sukkot. A lesser-known motto may be found over the front gate of Hertford College, opposite the Bodleian Library. It bears the motto: ‘Sicut cervus anhelat ad fontes aquarum,’ which is taken from Psalm 42:1, and widely translated, taken from the King James Bible, as: ‘As the hart panteth after the water brooks.’ The verse ends: ‘so panteth my soul after thee, O G-d.’ The first half of the verse, containing the word ‘hart’ was selected by Dr. William Thornton (d. 1707), who served as Principal of Hart Hall, later Hertford College, Oxford, from 1688.


Reason for the motto


The reason for the motto is understood through a brief history of the college. The college was established by Elias de Hertford in 1282, initially not as a full college, but as a hall, thus becoming Hart Hall in 1490. In 1740, the hall became Hertford College, when it received its charter. It reverted, however, to Magdalen Hall, before being re-established as a college for a second time in 1874. It has since been known as Hertford College, after its founder. It was during the period when it was called Hart Hall, when the motto, taken from Psalm 41:1: ‘As the hart panteth after the water brooks’ was selected and etched, together with a picture of a hart standing over a brook, on its coat of arms – currently standing over the college entrance gate on Catte Street. An interesting fact is that William Tyndale studied at Hart Hall between 1506-1515, during which time he complained that studying the bible was not permitted before completing the sciences.


Connection with festivals


The connection between Psalm 42 and the Jewish festivals is found in the context of three verses in the chapter: In verse 3, it states: ‘when will I come and appear before G-d?’ This refers to the three pilgrimage holidays: Passover Shavuot and Sukkot, as mentioned in Exodus 23:17: ‘Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Sovereign, the Lord.’ In this context, David longed to appear before G-d in the Temple on the festival. According to the Midrash Yalkut Shimoni, this refers in particular to the water drawing ceremony on nights of Sukkot in the Temple that is considered a time when the Holy Spirit (ruach ha-kodesh) rested on the sages and was the most joyous occasion in the year. This would follow the view that this chapter in Psalm was either a prophetic vision, as is the view of Rashi, by the three sons of Korach, Assir, Elkanah, and Abiasaf, who, after repenting, were saved from death after the rebellion of their father, Korach. They prophesised of the future exiles of the Jewish people and their longing to go up to the Temple – the living centre of Judaism – to appear before the presence of G-d.[1] Alternatively, it refers to the grandsons of Samuel, who descended from Korach and lived during the life of David. Rabbi Moses Hakohen, cited by Ibn Ezra, maintains the Psalm was written during the Babylonian exile, when the Jews longed to return to Israel and to visit the Temple on the festivals.


A further reference to the pilgrimage festivals is found in verse five: ‘When I think of this, I pour out my soul: how I walked with the crowd, moved with them, the festive throng, to the House of G-d with joyous shouts of praise.’ The term ‘e’evor ba’sach – ‘walked with the crowd,’ refers, according to Rashi, to the great number of pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem for the holidays in covered (sach – sukkah) wagons. Samson Raphael Hirsch explains this alludes to the unity of the Jewish people that transcended all barriers when the whole nation unified in pilgrimage to Jerusalem.[2]


Finally, in verse eight: ‘where deep calls to deep in the roar of Your cataracts; all Your breakers and billows have swept over me.’ According to Rashi and other commentaries, ‘where deep calls to deep’ refers to the troubles of the exile, where ‘one trouble calls the next one.’ The Talmud in tractate Ta’anit (25b), however, expounds that ‘deep calls to deep’ refers to the two libations – of wine and water - on the altar during the festival or Sukkot:


Rabbi Elazar said: When the water libation was poured during the festival of Sukkot, these waters of the deep say to the other waters of the deep: Let your water flow, as I hear the voices of two of our friends, the wine libation and the water libation, which are both poured on the altar. As it is stated: “Deep calls to deep at the sound of your channels, all Your waves and Your billows are gone over me” (Psalms 42:8), i.e., the upper waters of the deep call to the lower waters of the deep when they hear the sound of the libations.[3]


In addition, a rewording of the first verse can be found in the High Holidays liturgical piyuttim. The word ‘ta-arog’ found in the first verse: ‘so panteth my soul after thee, O G-d,’ is found in the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) piyyutim in the prayer book of Sa-adiah Gaon (d. 942), where he writes:[4] ‘we stand before You on the tenth day of the seventh month (Yom Kippur) with a longing soul (amdeinu be’asor le-fanech b’nefesh arugah). A rewording of the metaphor in the first verse ‘As the hart panteth after the water brooks, ‘so panteth my soul after thee, O G-d’ can be found in a piyyuti’viticha – found in the second Selichot penitential prayer recited in the week before Rosh Hashana, though it substitutes the word: ta-vatcha in place of ta-arog. It states: ‘I am broken (go-rasti) with longing for You (ta-vatcha), as a hart for brooks of water (k’ayal al afikim).’[5]


Feminine or masculine


We will now turn to analyse the first verse that we find on the coat of arms: ‘As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O G-d.’ The first problem is to establish the correct translation of the Hebrew word: ‘ayal,’ which the King James Bible translates as a ‘hart’ – a male deer – and thus copied on the coat of arms of Hertford college. This is however a matter of dispute. The midrash maintains that ‘ayal’ is masculine. Similarly, Rashi maintains that ‘ayal’ is masculine, as opposed to ‘ayalah’ in Genesis 49:21: ‘Naphtali is a hind - ‘ayalah’ - let loose, which yields lovely fawns,’ and Psalm 221: ‘ayeleth hashachar’, translated by Rashi as referring to Israel, who is compared in exile to a feminine deer – hind – who looks forth like the dawn.’ Reflecting this difference, the Talmud in tractate Megillah (15b), cited by Rashi, says that ‘ayelet’ refers to Esther. In tractate Yoma (29a), it elaborates: ‘Rabbi Zeira said: Why is Esther likened to a hind? It is to tell you: Just as in the case of a hind its womb is narrow and it is desirable to its mate at each and every hour like it is at the first hour, so too, Esther was desirable to Ahasuerus at each and every hour like she was at the first hour.’ Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch interprets the narrowness of the womb of the hind to the oppression of Israel in exile.[6]


Ibn Ezra, however, argues that ‘ayal’ is a hind – a female deer, since it is followed by the feminine ‘ta’arog,’ as opposed to the masculine ‘ya’arog’ - panteth. This feminine form is similar to Numbers 15:27: ‘female goat a year old,’ whereby it is written in the Hebrew in the masculine form: ‘ez bat sha-nata.’ The midrash explains the inconsistency between the masculine ‘ayal’ and feminine ‘ta’arog,’ by interpreting the verse as saying: the female deer cries out with the intensity and strength of the male deer (ayal). Rashi resolves it differently: Israel in exile is likened, both, to a male and female deer. The difference between them is: the male cries out for the suffering of others, reflecting the absence of Divine revelation for all of humanity, while the female dear cries out in pain during child birth, reflecting the suffering of Israel during exile. Rashi states:


‘Our Sages said: The hart is the most pious of the beasts. When the beasts are thirsty for water, they gather to her so that she should raise her eyes to heaven. And what does she do? She digs a pit and thrusts her antlers into it and lows. Thereupon, the Holy One, blessed be He, has compassion on her and the deep brings up water for her.’


The female deer, however, cries out for a different reason:


‘when she kneels to give birth, because her womb is narrow. When she cries out, the Holy One, blessed be He, is compassionate and prepares a serpent, which bites her on her birth canal, whereupon her womb opens.’ This is also referring to the suffering of Israel in exile and longing to see redemption.


This grammatical dispute between Rashi and Ibn Ezra seems to be resolved in the coat of arms, following Rashi, with the translation referring to a hart – a male deer.


Ta-arog - panteth


The translation ofthe word ta’arog, as panteth or crying gout is given by Rashi and earlier by 10th century grammarian Dunash ha-Levi ben Labrat (920-990) (Teshuvoth Dunash p. 18). Menachem ben Saruk (920-970) (Teshuvoth Dunash p. 138) translates it as found in Song of Songs (5:13): “His cheeks are like a bed of (k’arugot) spice.” It can be found also in Songs of Songs (6:2): ‘My beloved has gone down to his garden, To the beds of spices (arugot ha’bosem), To browse in the gardens And to pick lilies.’ Rashi however disagrees with Menachem ben Saruk: ‘The expression of ‘orag’ applies to the voice of the hart as the expression of ‘noham’, roaring, applies to a lion; ‘shakuk,’ growling, to a bear; ‘ga-ah,’ lowing, to oxen, and ‘tziftzuf’ chirping, to birds.


This dispute Between Menachem ben Saruk and Dunash is recorded in the published editions of Rashi but omitted in all the manuscripts. This dispute about the translation between Dunash and Menachem ben Saruk seems to be also resolved in the coat of arms, following Rashi, that the translation is panteth.


Longing – lack of water


We will now turn to the overall idea expressed in the verse: the hart refers to Israel in exile, who longs, like a physical thirst,[7] for the Divine presence in the Temple, like a male deer – hart – that cries out for water in a parched dessert. The concept expressed is that there is a lack of water and thus causing the hart to cry out. Similarly, in exile, because G-d is not revealed, it causes Israel to long and yearn for the Divine presence. This same idea is expressed in at least two other verses is Psalms, using a similar metaphor: 1. In Psalm 63:2–3, it states: ‘My soul thirsts for You; my flesh longs for You, in an arid and thirsty land, without water. As I saw You in the Sanctuary, so do I long to see Your strength and Your glory.’ Furthermore, in Psalm 126:4, it even uses the same phrase afikim – water brook: ‘Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like watercourses (water brook) in the Negeb.’[8] Rashi explains: ‘Like rivulets in arid land, which moisten it, so shall we be moistened [freshened] when You return [us from] our captivity.’ In all these verses, the arid land, without water, denotes exile, while the rivulets denote redemption and revelation.


In Chabad Hasidic thought, the longing also reflects absence of water. In 1912, Rabbi Shalom Dovber Schneerson writes that that there are two types of yearnings: a. a will that is a powerful will for Divine revelation. This is a crying out from the absence of revelation of G-d. b. a true essential will is when the essence of the soul becomes awakened for the essence of the Divine without any purpose or calculation on behalf of the soul. It is only because its source is the essence of G-d, like a flame that ascends naturally.[9] It is the first strong will that comes from the absence of G-d that, he writes, is referred to in Psalm 42 and 63.[10] In more general terms, in 1922, the Rebbe reflected on Psalm 42:1 regarding the High Holidays and festival period when one is immersed in spiritualty, but then the holiday period comes to an end and gives way to the year, when mundane life resumes. At this point of departure and absence of spirituality, one may have a longing for the spiritual.[11]


This interpretation however is contradicted by the depiction of the verse on the coat of arms, whereby the hart is in fact standing over the brook, perhaps taken from the mistaken reading of the verse: al – as over (above) - afikei mayim.


This is however inconsistent with the simple understanding of the verse, that, as above, reflects the idea that the hart cries out due to the lack of water, as the soul cries out for G-d’s apparent absence in exile. This is further problematised, when taking into consideration the broader interpretation of the verse as found in midrash[12] that water is a metaphor for the study of Torah, based on Isaiah 55:1: Ho, everyone who thirsts, go to water.’ This refers to the idea[13] that one who seeks the Divine, shall study Torah, as in II Samuel (23:2): ‘The spirit of the Lord has spoken through me, His message is on my tongue.’ In this case also, it would appear that it is the lack of revelation that cause a thirst for the water – Torah, thus: ‘Ho, everyone who thirsts, go to water.’


Yearning is redemption


There are however different ways to understand the concept of yearning for water, as revelation that may indeed be consistent with the depiction of the ‘hart that panteth over the water brook.’ Water as revelation may refer to two concepts that are interconnected in Jewish thought: national or universal redemption or personal redemption, referring to the person’s spiritual interiority (p’nimiyut).


Rabbi Dovber of Lubavitch explains in his work on the High Holidays Ateret Rosh,[14] that the yearning for the Divine is a reflection of closeness with G-d. When the heart is stubborn it must be broken through repentance – the broken sound of the shofar – making one’s soul fertile soil to receive revelation. With this he explains the verse in Psalm 63: ‘my soul thirsts for You, my body yearns for You, as a parched and thirsty land that has no water.’ While it states ‘has no water’ the thirst of the soul denotes not distance from the water – revelation – but closeness – similar to land that is fertile and ready to absorb rain and grow vegetation.


In Chabad history and philosophy, there is a strong tradition of songs, composed or sung by the Rebbe over seven generations. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, composed ten niggunim (melodies), one of which is taken from Psalm 42:1, ‘As a hart cries longingly for the water brook, so does my soul cry longingly to You, O G-d.’ A second melody on the same Psalm 42, that is more widely known, is from the third Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, utilising the whole of the two verse: ‘As a hart cries longingly for the water brook, so does my soul cry longingly to You, O G-d; My soul thirsts for G-d, for the living G-d; when will I come and appear before G-d?’


A further melody by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi is from Psalm 63: ‘My soul thirsts for You; my flesh longs for You, in an arid and thirsty land, without water. As I saw You in the Sanctuary, so do I long to see Your strength and Your glory.’ This was also the song that Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks chose in his Radio 4 Desert Island Discs interview in 1990, when asked what music he would like to have with him if cast away on a desert island. He responded he would like to have, in addition to Mahler’s Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde, Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 131, 1st movement, and Johannes Brahms’s Violin Concerto in D major, also the Chabad Chassidic tune, Tzo-ma le-cha naf-shi. At that time, he said, if nothing else, he would like the words of this passage from Psalms to be his epitaph. Indeed, Rabbi Lionel Rosenberg gave a heartfelt rendition of this melody at Sacks’ funeral, when he passed away in November 2020.


In 1954, on Shabbat Parshat Kedoshim,[15] the Rebbe taught this melody that was previously unknown to the Hasidim, as part of thirteen melodies he taught to the Hasidim between 1954 and 1971. He elaborated that Rabbi Shneur Zalman, citing the founder of the Chassidic movement, Rabbi Israel Ba-al Shem Tov, offered the following interpretation to this verse: even though one is in a lowly spiritual level, as reflected in the words: ‘an arid and thirsty land, without water,’ the virtue of longing itself, rises a person to the lofty level one is thirsting for. In this context, ‘so do I long to see Your strength and Your glory’ has two meanings: request and longing (haleviy), and the affirmative (hen), that through the longing itself one indeed arrives at the desired spiritual level.


A similar concept was expressed in a melody, called Shamil, that the Rebbe taught in 1958 in the early hours of the day of Simchat Torah. It is based on the story of a man named Shamil, a leader of assorted tribes that lived in Russia’s Caucasian Mountains. The Russian army attacked these tribes, intending to deprive them of their freedom. Unable to vanquish them in battle, the Russian army leaders proposed a false peace treaty, and thus succeeded in getting them to lay down their arms. Immediately afterwards, the Russians lured the Caucasian leader, Shamil, away from his stronghold and imprisoned him. Staring out of the window of his small narrow cell, Shamil longed for his past days of liberty, when he was free to ride in the mountains. The last stanza of the song expresses however, not longing for the past, in contrast to his imprisonment in the present, but consolation, that he would eventually be released from his imprisonment and return to his previous position with even more power and glory. The moral of this story is that the soul descends to this world from lofty spiritual heights, the ein sof, where it was one with G-d, clothed in the earthly body of a human being. The soul longs to free itself from the ‘exile’ of the human body and temptations, for its past connection with G-d. The final stanza reflects however not despair and longing but hope with certainty that he will reach his spiritual destination that will be even loftier than the spiritual level the soul came from.[16]


A further explanation may be that since the word afikim is translated by Radak and others in Psalm 126, as a strong current, as opposed to a still body of water, this may simply refer to the thirst of a hart while standing at an inaccessible fast current of water and therefore cries out.


Finally, it’s possible to explain the concurrence of the thirsty hart while at the water in light of the midrashic interpretation that water in fact refers to the study of Torah. In this context, the hart is thirsting for the inner dimension of the Divine that is in the Torah. To access this, requires self-abnegation. This may result in a person with a thirst for the Divine, even while standing at the water brook of the Torah.[17]




We have presented the verse from Psalms 42:1 found on the coat of arms of Hertford College as classically referring the crying of a hart that is thirsty for water. This however reflect s an absence of water. We posed a question: how this may be consistent with the depiction of the hart literally standing over the water brook? We offered two possible explanations, suggesting a different interpretation to the metaphor. The first is interior redemption, as opposed to universal. The very yearning and hope for personal redemption results in redemption. Secondly, water is a metaphor for Torah study and Divine perception. This suggests the idea that while studying Torah, one may still have a thirst for the Divine. Thirdly, a more literal concept of a fast current allows for a hart to thirst for water while standing over the water brook. The final two concepts are related: while standing at the water brook of the Torah, one has to make an extra effort to access the water - the Divine revelation - to quench the thirst.




[1] C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, p. 47.



[2] See also Torat Menachem 53:34-5.



[3] Torat Menachem 21:63: the calling of the higher water to the lower water precipitates the blessing of rain.



[4] Sidur Rav Sa-adia Gaon, p. 311:



[5] The complete passage reads: ‘I longed for You, I hoped for You, from a distant land; I beseeched You from within me, I called to You from the depths. I am broken with longing for You, as a hart (longs) for brooks of water (k’ayal al afikim); I have sought You and searched for You in the streets and in the market-places.’



[6] Sefer Ha-likutim, p. 1056.



[7] See C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, p. 47.



[8] See also afikim in Psalm 18.



[9] See Tanya, Igeret Hakodesh, ch. 18.



[10] B’sha-a she-hikdimu 5672, vol. 1, p. 121.



[11] Torat Menachem 32:112.



[12] Talmud Bava Kamma 17a. Genesis Rabbah 66:1: "May G-d give you of the dew of heaven" (Gen. 27:28) . . . It is written in Job 29:19, "My roots reaching water and dew lying on my branches." . . . What is the meaning of the phrase "My roots reaching for water"? Jacob said, "Because I occupied myself with Torah, which is compared to water, I merited to be blessed with dew, as it is written, "May G-d give you of the dew of heaven."



[13] Tanna debei Eliyahu Zuta, Seder Eliyahu Zuta 1:1.



[14] Ateret Rosh, derush l’Shabbat Teshuva p. 46.



[15] Torat Menachem 11, p. 244 and p. 251.



[16] Torat Menachem 24:133-4.



[17] Torah Ohr, Beireishit.



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