Jeremy Freedman
Jeremy Freedman

YENEMS VELT: When your Rooster crows at the break of dawn…..

Photo: J.Freedman
Photo: J.Freedman

For thousands of years Jews have begun their day by blessing the Almighty for giving “……the cock (sechvi) the intelligence to distinguish between day and night”. At least that is how many (me included) understood it, following the translation in the old Singers Prayer Book.

That blessing would have been easy to relate to when you, or your neighbour, kept poultry in the back yard. Dawn broke and the cock crowed. Clearly it was much harder to identify with if you were a city dweller. Tales from grandparents long ago suggest that cockerels were still crowing in the East End in the 1930s. Growing up when and where I did, we were more likely to hear lions roaring (in Regents Park Zoo) than the cockle-doodle-doo of a local Chanticleer.

While it has recently become fashionable to keep a couple of (female) hens for eggs in a suburban garden, albeit in fortified runs that make Alcatraz look like a nature reserve, a noisy (male) cock risks the wrath of the neighbours and a visit from the Council.

A generation ago, ArtScroll and Chief Rabbi Sacks (in a pincer movement that swept the old Singers off Synagogue shelves) each produced a translation that changed Judaism forever. The ‘sechvi’ (which we previously understood to be a male chicken) was actually a body part? Who knew?

Now before you start getting adolescent and inappropriate, I am not talking about that body part. ‘Sechvi’ (apparently) is a heart. Where people no longer have roosters, they still have hearts. Where roosters had ‘intelligence’, hearts have ‘understanding’.

Anyway, it transpires that someone did know. Mitchell First (an American lawyer) writing in Jewish Link 3 years ago:

 “Sechvi” almost certainly refers to a body part Most of the traditional commentaries interpret it as “heart.” Another reasonable interpretation is “mind.” [Its appearance at Job 38:36] is the only time that the word “sechvi” appears in Tanach, which makes its proper interpretation difficult. But even though its precise meaning is hard to discern, there is no reason from the context to suggest that it is an animal.

Several centuries later, in the Talmud [Brachot 60b] there is a statement that when one hears the sound of the “tarnegola”(=rooster), one should recite [our] blessing

The Talmud [Rosh Hashanah 26a] gives us two clues: 1) We are told that in a city in Syria, “sechvi” meant “tarnegol,” and 2) a statement is reported in the name of either Rav or R. Yehoshua b. Levi that the “sechvi” of Job. 38:36 is a “tarnegol.”

So a possible scenario is that Sages picked up the sechvi=tarnegol interpretation from another region and language, such as Aramaic.

In Yenem’s Velt we are blessed with intelligent roosters but they have 21st century issues. First there is light pollution from the city 6 miles away (which prompts me to mention the glow from the Israel’s Coastal Plain as seen on satellite photos, more intense than anywhere else on earth. Verily ‘A Light Unto the Nations’). Then there are our movement-sensitive LED security lights, constantly triggered by nocturnal mammals (mostly our cats). Old Jarvis Cocker, bedazzled in the chicken run, has lost the ability to distinguish between day and night. He’s crowing away 24/7.

This can cause hardship to our overnight guests. We divide them into those who love to hear the cock crowing and those who complain about being kept up all night. We remain democratic and egalitarian: all of them are charged the same, no discounts and no supplements.

About the Author
Family Lawyer in Hampstead and Smallholder in Bedfordshire. Keeps sheep, goats, poultry, Shabbat and kosher.
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