4.32. Amir Gilboa, poem ‘Raḥav’ (1950)

The Israeli poet Amir Gilboa (1917-1984) published his poem Raḥav first in Al Ha-Mishmar (“On Guard”), a secular, Zionist Israeli newspaper, and three years later in his collection of poems Shirim ba-boker ba-boker (“Songs in Early Morning,” 1953). It is a poem about sexual initiation and the only work of art in A Tool of Remembrance with the shofar as a phallic symbol. The following translation, with a differently transliterated title, is by David C. Jacobson. *Jacobson, Does David Still Play before You? 197-9. Reproduced by permission of Wayne State University Press.


Look, look! Yosi is sneaking up to the ram’s horn in the ark.
What’s with the old man, how can he hesitate by his ark and not see Yosi?
Yosi, Yosi, blow, blow the ram’s horn!
Yaakov’s cards are dropping from his hands
[5] and the walls of Jericho are crashing to the earth.
Who’s that in the whirlpool embracing the thin feminine figure
and she is not Rahab!
In her ear who whispers?
[10] And where are my hands?
But I know my hands!
Here they are!
Here they are upon Rahab.
[15] A mine I went to seek
and land.
And here you’re truly mine, Rahab, my Rahab, Rahab!
How did the Yarkon’s flow now turn completely into

The action takes place in two very different chronotopes. In vv. 1-5 it is a synagogue, where at least two boys are busy provoking an old man by playing cards and where they steal the shofar from the Ark, whereas vv. 6-19 are set in an either real or symbolic whirlpool with a boy and a woman. Though the translator, David Jacobson, does not mention this possibility in his comment, it is perfectly possible that the whole poem has one single lyrical subject. In that case, Yosi steals the shofar from the Ark in vv. 1-5 and blows it, whereafter he is in the whirlpool in vv. 6-19 with Raḥav, possibly a prostitute. He could be a boy in his midteens, young enough for mischief, while old enough for sexual initiation.

The two chronotopes are in itself each other’s opposites. The synagogue is a place for spiritual activities, where everything has its regular place and is either arranged according to strict rules or forbidden by a taboo. The Ark (v. 1) is opened at fixed moments in the service and the shofar (vv. 1 and 3) is blown by the baʿal tekiʿah on special occasions; playing cards (v. 4) is not allowed. In contrast, the whirlpool is meant for physical activities; everything flows and moves, without any taboos whatsoever. The lyrical subject of the poem embraces a woman (v. 6, vv. 10-13), whispers something in her ear (v. 9), and seems to search for “land,” a possible allusion to the female body in the water (vv. 15-16); to judge by the metaphor of the mine (v. 15), he penetrates the woman; here, the English translation with “mine” as a substantive (v. 15) as well as a pronoun (v. 17) generates a pun which does not exist in the Hebrew text with mikhreh (“mine” as a substantive) and sheli (“of mine” as a pronoun). *Jacobson (ibid. 198) suggests a connection in this poem between sexual initiation and Gilboa’s adolescent rebellion, which took the form of his leaving home in Ukraine to pursue the Zionist dream in Palestine, and of discovering “gold” in his new land. However, the evidence for this autobiographical interpretation seems insufficient.

The shofar, the liturgical instrument made of animal material, *Every shofar blower is confronted with the animal character of the horn, when it becomes moist from blowing and gives out a penetrating animal smell connects the sacral and the secular chronotopes in the poem. In the synagogue it is a real shofar, stored in the Ark and referring to the biblical story of Jericho. In the whirlpool, there is still an allusion to the conquest of Jericho through the name of Raḥav, the zonah (“prostitute”) of Josh. 2 and 6, while the shofar is a sexual symbol, released by Yosi from the religious restrictions in the Ark; there is again a hint at the shofar as a phallic symbol at the climax of the poem, with instead of a series of blasts, the sevenfold repeated name of Raḥav. This sexual allusion to the shofar in the synagogal service may seem far-fetched, but as a matter of fact, many shofar prayers in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service are warm-blooded love poetry, such as the following prayer from Shofarot: “O God Supreme, accept the offering of our lips, the sound of the Shofar. In love and favor hear us, as we call to You with THE SOUND OF THE SHOFAR.” *Gates of Repentance 151.

Gilboa does not refer explicitly to prayer books, but he does refer to the Bible. Raḥav, whose name means “broad” or “wide,” collaborates with the Israelites and hides the Israelite spies in her house in Jericho; Josh. 2:6: “Now she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under some stalks of flax which she had lying on the roof;” whereupon she puts the pursuers off the scent. Gilboa connects “Yaakov’s cards . . . dropping from his hands” (v. 4) to “the walls of Jericho . . . crashing to the earth” (v. 5); both events are the result of shofar blasts, real blasts in the synagogue and biblical blasts in Josh. 6:20, respectively. The words “you’re truly mine, Rahab” (v. 17) and the “gold” (v. 19) might be connected to the sacking of the city in Josh. 6:24-25: “They burned down the city and everything in it. But the silver and gold and the objects of copper and iron were deposited in the treasury of the House of the LORD. 25 Only Rahab the harlot and her father’s family were spared by Joshua, along with all that belonged to her.” Both in the Bible book of Joshua and in Gilboa’s poem, the normal code of behavior is violated and the transgression in the Present of the poem is projected on the transgression in the biblical story from the Past, with the shofar as the connecting element.

The Yarkon river (v. 18) is a chronotope mentioned only once in the Bible, in a non-appropriate context. *In Josh. 19:46, in the chapters Josh. 13-21 about delineating tribal lands. In the poem, the Yarkon might allude to Tel Aviv as a city with a strong secular character; furthermore, there is a possible pun with Yarkon and the substantive yerakon (“paleness”) or the related adjective yarok (“green, inexperienced”), that would be relevant here with regard to the boy.

There might be another pun with the name Raḥav, which is phonetically and typographically nearly similar to Rahav, while the two names are sometimes transliterated identically. Rahav is the name of the Angel of the sea or of a sea monster, which in Ps. 104:7 is chased by a “blast” of God, and crushed in Ps. 89:10-11: “You rule the swelling of the sea; / when its waves surge, You still them. / 11 You crushed Rahab[.]” This scriptural passage could allude not only to the water in Gilboa’s “whirlpool” (v. 6), but also to Egypt as a symbol of the foreign and forbidden. The “blast” in Ps. 104:7 is in Hebrew a kol, a word that is connected to the word shofar in 19 Bible verses. In Psalm 89, where the sea monster Rahav appears in the above-quoted vv. 10-11, the shofar follows in v. 16: “Happy is the people who know the joyful shout [teruʿah] [.]” In the poem, the climax of the sexual initiation is expressed in the seven joyful shouts: “Raḥav!”

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