'Let Us Not Die as Sheep Led to the Slaughter'

Yael Feldman, Steven Bowman
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Yael Feldman, Steven Bowman

On the night of December 31, 1941, several weeks before the Wannsee Conference sealed the Final Solution for European Jewry, the young Abba Kovner declared that "Hitler is plotting the annihilation of European Jewry." He unhesitantly urged the Jews of the Vilna Ghetto "to cast off every delusion" regarding Hitler's intent, and to organize for self-defense "until our last breath," for this was the "only response to the enemy."

Although Kovner's proclamation was originally written in Yiddish, his own Hebrew translation of just one phrase has left an indelible impression on the Israeli collective memory: "Let us not go as sheep to the slaughter." However, it was the obverse of this expression - "as sheep to slaughter" - that made history here: Despite Kovner's vehement protest, it was applied to the Nazis' Jewish victims, and as such aroused much emotional public debate.

While Kovner's authorship of the proclamation has been contested (as documented in Dina Porat's biography "Beyond the Reaches of Our Souls: The Life and Times of Abba Kovner"), no one seems to have doubted his authorship of the memorable rhetorical figure of speech he used. Nor has anyone questioned the relation between its possible scriptural sources and his rather free rendition of them. It is worth stating, therefore, that the categorical rejection of victimhood is not to be found anywhere in the Hebrew Bible. Even the contested phrase "as sheep to slaughter" is in fact a "hybrid" of two rather different biblical contexts: the "suffering servant" of Isaiah 53:7, the singular victim/sacrifice (there is no lexical distinction in Hebrew) described "as a lamb led to slaughter," and the more generic "sheep" of Psalms 44:22, representing the oppressed people of Israel: "Yea, for thy sake are we killed all day long; we are counted for sheep to the slaughter."

But was it Kovner who authored this hybrid fusion, this replacement of Isaiah's individual lamb (with all its later Christian connotations) by the collective sheep of the Psalms? Not really. This "shatnez" [mixture; referring to the prohibition in Jewish law on wearing garments made of both linen and wool] grafting is an innovation of long standing, hidden in plain sight in the prayer book, in the final sentence of the "Tahanun" supplication for Mondays and Thursdays, the "personal" part of the morning service: "Look down from heaven and see that we have become a mockery and a scorn among the nations, we are considered as sheep led to the slaughter, to kill, to destroy, to smite, and to disgrace."

It stands to reason then that at the moment of fateful decision, not the biblical verses themselves flashed in Kovner's mind but rather the later version, the supplication uttered twice a week by every observant Jew. However, in a typical Zionist spirit, he inverted his sources, and called for the undermining of the position of victimhood they describe. But can he claim credit for this inversion?

Apparently not. There are two textual precursors to Kovner's challenging inversion. The first appeared only 30 years prior, in "Sefer Yizkor" of 1911. This Hebrew Memorbuch for the first victims of the second wave of immigration to Palestine is an important source for the shaping of the heroism and sacrifice myth of nascent Zionism. And despite the in-depth research it has attracted recently, it harbors a surprise: In the eulogy of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, later to become Israel's second president, for Ya'akov Plotkin, the eldest of the fallen pioneers mourned in the book, the writer describes their first encounter at a public meeting in the Ukraine, shortly before their respective departures for Palestine: "A man of some 40-plus" mounted the stage and vowed that "we will all die as one on the killing field, we will not be led as sheep to the slaughter, nor will we stand afar when the destroyer attacks our brethren."

Here Kovner's rhetorical call finds its antecedent, and so loses its originality. Even if we suppose that Plotkin, a Jewish merchant "who loved Hebrew literature," according to Ben-Zvi, did not actually use that particular Hebrew expression, there is no doubt that it testifies at least to the writer himself, and to his place and time. The subversive use of the prayer was not created out of the crucible of the Holocaust then. Rather it had already existed at the beginning of the century, in the rhetoric of the self-defense organizations in Russia and the Ukraine, led by Ben-Zvi among others. The wind of revolt he documents definitely suits the spirit of the manifestos that were distributed in Russia in Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian, especially after the pogrom in Kishinev, not to mention its most outstanding manifestations in Hebrew literature: Haim Nahman Bialik's "In the City of Slaughter," Shaul Tchernichowsky's "Baruch of Mainz," and many others.

Did Abba Kovner then absorb in his challenge a new rhetorical figure of speech already coined and disseminated by his predecessors? This option is not unlikely, considering the great popularity of the 1911 Memorbuch, which was read avidly in the original and in translation, by the youth of the Hashomer and Hehalutz movements in Eastern and Central Europe, as evident, for example, in Gershom Scholem's and Dov Sadan's memoirs.

Subversive primacy

Nevertheless, we cannot bestow on the Zionist movement the honor of primacy in the subversive usage of the sources. This honor belongs (at least until an earlier source is revealed) to whoever coined the formulation cited in the title of this article - the anonymous author of the medieval "Sefer Yosippon" ("The Book of Yosippon"), written in an amazingly lively Hebrew in 10th-century Italy. This anonymous author freely and creatively used sources drawn from the Latin Bible, as well as from historian Josephus Flavius and his Latin "translators" and adapters. The intentions of the changes he introduced were twofold: poetic - that is, to make Josephus' dry historical style more dramatic; and ideological - that is, to re-Judaize the Latin sources (especially Josephus) that had been "Christianized" in the fourth century. In a sense, "Yosippon" "secularized" his sources, turning them into a "history" marked by "national" pride rather than "religious" devotion. Among other re-writings we may count the author's ambivalent treatment of King Herod and the image of the messiah, or his more heroic-military version of Masada, which openly differs from Josephus' treatment in his "The Jewish War."

In light of this orientation, one should not be amazed at the unexpected contribution of the author of "Yosippon" to the story of Hanukkah. Contrary to his sources, he puts in the mouth of Matityahu the Hasmonean the call that a millennium later would be brought back to center stage in Vilna: "Be strong and let us be strengthened and let us die fighting and not die as sheep led to the slaughter" ("Sefer Yosippon," Vol. 1, in Hebrew; translation by S. Bowman).

The modern editor of the Hebrew "Yosippon," David Flusser, notes modestly that "Matityahu's speech to his followers ... is the author's own invention." Indeed, the contemporary reader may raise his eyebrows at Flusser's restraint concerning the later odyssey of this "invention." Was he not aware of the later echoes of the daring innovation of Yosippon's Matityahu, and especially of the public storm that raged over its contemporary applications at the very time when he was diligently editing this seminal book? Or, did he rather feel that as a disciplined scholar and historian, his responsibility was to the text's philological past and not to its contemporary ideological usage? Be this as it may, in view of the facts at our disposal, the honor of primacy is doubly reserved for "The Book of Yosippon": First, for the hybrid grafting of the verses of Isaiah and Psalms (perhaps part of his anti-Christian polemics), and second, for the rejection of the sacrificial/victimized position they imply, and the integration of this rejection into a most fitting dramatic event: the Hasmonean revolt.

"Yosippon"'s first novelty was inherited by the Hebrew prayer book of Ashkenaz Jewry, which in the wake of its traumatic experience in the Crusades was in an acute need of images for victims/sacrifices (both "korbanot" in Hebrew). Thus, our earliest source for the personal addition to the "Tahanun" prayer, including "as sheep led to the slaughter," and the like, is "Mahzor Vitry," of 1208. However, the second contribution of "Yosippon" had to wait for over nine centuries until a youthful Zionism uncovered it. Indeed, "The Book of Yosippon" was popularized by Hebrew authors and Zionist activists from Berdyczewski ("A Distant Journey," 1898) to Berl Katzenelson, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, David Ben-Gurion and many others, who had read it as children, in Hebrew or Yiddish translation, and were inflamed by the spirit of heroism it manifested (see S. Bowman, "'Yosippon' and Jewish Nationalism," 1995).

It is possible then that Kovner, who in his youth "used to flee the gymnasium for the study house, where he frequently joined the elders who sat over their Talmud," and who later became the "rebbe of the kibbutz," according to Porat, had read the call of Matityahu the Hasmonean directly from this Hebrew (or Yiddish) source. Possibly, it was the Hanukkah story Yosippon-style that surfaced in his memory under the pressures of the events of December 1941. Perhaps there is a direct line then leading from the Hasmonean revolt as told anew in 10th-century Italy to the ghetto revolt in the "Jerusalem of Lithuania" (Vilna) in the 20th century.