- "Shh!!":Alliteration, Allusion, and Allocution in Leviticus 25:8
When former Vice President Spiro Agnew, determined to derogate his detractors, described them as "nattering nabobs of negativity,"1 he famously deployed one of the most popular and effective linguistic tactics: alliteration. Alliteration is the popular poetic form that relies on the repeated use of the same letter or sound at the start of words or in stressed syllables. Thus, Peter Quince's playful parody in the prologue to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream: "Whereat with blade, with bloody blameful blade, He bravely broach'd his boiling bloody breast."
Long before Spiro Agnew's most memorable phrase, and long before Shakespeare redefined the English language, a celebrated scriptural selection stated with six-fold alliterative structure: —translated into only slightly impoverished pedestrian prose as: "Count off seven sabbatical cycles—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbatical cycles amount to a period of forty-nine years, but far more memorably worded in Hebrew that reads v'safarta l'kha sheva shabtot shanim sheva shanim sheva p'amim."2
The verse, from the very same chapter that provided the inscription on the Liberty Bell, deals with the observance of the Jubilee once every fifty years, when Israel is to "Proclaim liberty throughout the Land, to all the inhabitants thereof."3 The semi-centennial Israelite Jubilee—an ancient model for the revolutionary American vision of equality—was a dramatic democratizing force. Property that had been sold off to the wealthy to sustain the desperate [End Page 54] poor was returned to the original owners. All Israelites had an opportunity to define themselves in spiritual terms and were granted rest and relief, release, reprieve, and respite from the often crushing material demands of their agrarian existence. The Jubilee was a still more intense expression of the septennial sabbatical system; the Jubilee was the ultimate Sabbath.
—Why was this spiritual and social revolution communicated in alliterative form?4 Moreover, why this particular alliteration?5 A number of reasons, together demonstrating the rich artistry of the biblical text, suggest themselves.
First, the medium is the message. Only when the human soul is freed from absolute subjugation to daily toil and the pressures of the market is it free to revel in the poetry of living and in the beauty of human connectedness, the sustained purpose and detailed attention which our most cherished relationships command. It is only fitting that the Torah's prescription of the Jubilee, dedicated to the art of more fully cultivating our humanity, should find such carefully crafted poetic expression.
Second, it is no coincidence that the alliteration in our verse is based on the Hebrew letter shin: . . . . The sound SHHH—reminiscent of a gentle, rushing breeze or a calmly flowing brook—reflects the content of the verse onomatopoetically. That is to say, the sound of these six "SHHH" words effectively conveys their meaning even to those unfamiliar with their Hebrew definitions. "Hush,"6 we say in English, urging quiet and calm . . . or more urgently, "Shush"7 or the abbreviated "SHHH." Cognates are to be found in numerous languages, ranging from Turkish (sus) to Finnish (hys), and from Indonesian (hus) to Lithuanian (s.a) and Icelandic (suss)—as, too, the of Yiddish. Even more on point, Yiddish8 provides the idiomatic ! The Saturday afternoon liturgy describes Sabbath rest as —peace, delight, and tranquility: onomatopoeia in prayer. In countless languages—and perhaps at a level transcending human language9—SHHH communicates calmness of spirit. It is only fitting that the Torah's prescription of the Jubilee—dedicated to achieving this very state of spiritual satiety on an individual and national scale—should sound the way it does.
Finally, if the emotional impact of repeated SHHH sounds soothed the subconscious of "right-brain" Israelites among our ancient forbears, the mathematical [End Page 55] structure of the verse under consideration appears carefully calibrated to reach their left-brain co-religionists. —This phrase is not merely alliterative, not merely a random series of shins. The verse is a series of SIX shins. A carefully structured series of six units, followed immediately by a closing, seventh...