Bialik: On the Butchery of Beasts (From Hebrew)

In the spring of 1903, Kishinev was the site of a massive Pogrom which made all previous Russian Jew-hunts look like petty exercises. Bialik himself was sent on behalf of the Jewish Historical Commission in Odessa, to interview survivors and prepare a report.

This poem was written shortly thereafter. It is one of a handful of poems that Bialik wrote in reaction to the Kishinev pogrom. (The more famous was the long בעיר ההרגה In the City of the Slaughter which I have not found time to translate in full.) Using language drawn from, and rhythms suggestive of, Biblical poetry (albeit somewhat more complex, adjusted for Ashkenazi Hebrew stresses, and with rhymes appended), this poem is in the tradition of Biblical lamentation, even as it subverts and debases that tradition to ask the question: "How could a just God let this happen?" and the answer "There must not be a God" - whence follows the question "so how, in a world without God, can murderers be found guilty?"

The Book of Judges serves as a not-so-subtle (to the Hebrew reader anyway) textual anchor throughout the poem. In Judges: 6, Israel lies in the hands of the Midianites, suffering under the cruelty of foreign oppressors. The same notion lies at the heart of Bialik's view of the Czarist regime- the foreigners who are slaughtering Jews. In Judges: 6, the Israelite judge Gideon contemplates the plight of his people and sinks into doubt and faithlessness. Eventually, Gideon, after asking over and over for a sign from God, finally receives such an answer in the form of two miracles. Bialik, by contrast, cries out but but receives no answer. 

On the Butchery of Beasts1
By Haim Nahman Bialik
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original in Hebrew

Oh Heavens pray mercy for me!
If there be a God2 within your round,
Whose path I have not found
Then I beg you: pray for me!
My own heart: dead. Prayer-drained, my tongue.
My strength is broken.
All hope is gone. 
How long? How much more? How long?4

Executioner! Here's a neck. Come, shecht it! 
You've the axe, the arm. Put me down like a dog.5 
All the world is my butchering block.
We are few and unprotected.
Our blood's fair game.6 Crack a skull. Let spray

The blood of babes and old men on your clothing.
Let it never be washed away.

If Justice there be, let it now come round.
But if I am blotted from under the sky

Ere it come, let Justice die  
And its throne for all time be thrown down,
And heaven rot with eternal wrong.
Then, ye wicked, go forth in this your brute force.7 

Bathe in your blood8 and live long.

And a curse on any that says: avenge this
Fit revenge for blood from the throat of a child
Satan has not yet compiled.9
Let blood just pierce the abyss,10
Let it pierce the deep of all creation
And eat away in the darkness and breach
This earth's whole rotting foundation!


1- This poem is normally referred to in English with the more literally translated title "On The Slaughter." The word used for "Slaugher" shkhíto is the word for the ritual slaughter of mammals and birds according to Judaic law. The title itself is a phrase taken from the blessing by recited by the shoykhet or ritual slaughterer upon the slaughter of an animal:

borukh ato adoynoy eloyheynu melekh hooylom asher kidshonu bemitzvoysov vetzivonu al hashkhito
"Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the World, who has sanctified us with His Commandments and commanded us as to the slaughter"

2- c.f. Judges 6:13 If God is with us, why has all this happened to us

3-  In modern Hebrew, the expression אזלת יד (pronounced, contrary to pattern, ozlat yad) means someone is impotent to do as they ought to be able to. In earlier Hebrew, the expression does not necessarily imply dysfunction. Given the thematics of the poem, I suspect Bialik had an earlier Biblical context in mind. c.f. Deut 32:36 ki yodin adoynoy amoy val-avodov yisnekhom ki yire ki-ozlas yod veefes otsur vozuv "the Lord shall do His people justice and turn kindly to His servants when he sees that their strength is gone, and no one, slave or free, is left."

4-  c.f. Psalm 94:3 How long shall the wicked, O God, how long shall the wicked triumph?, and Psalm 13:1 Until when shall you forsake me, O God, forever? Until when will you hide your face from me?

5- One of the verbs here used in the imperative is a form of the same root contained in the title. While שחט can be used in semantically extended senses to refer to all sorts of savage killing, it seems that the sense of ritual animal butchery is important here. I have thus translated it by "borrowing" the English verb "to shecht" from Jewish sociolects of American English (from Yiddish shekhtn.) This is no Jewish shkhiteh though. It is an inverted one. The axe, not a shechting knife, is used. The shechter is not a well-regarded Jew but a talyon, an executioner (literally "hangman.") Beheading requires a slicing, chopping motion, which is a cutting technique a shoykhet may not use. The butchering of a person "like a dog" adds an extra element of inversion, since dogs are not kosher anymore than humans.

6- The original reads domi mutor "my blood is permitted", a legal formula used to specify when capitol punishment may be applied.

7- A rhetorical subversion of Judges 6:14 And God looked upon him and said "Go thou forth in this thy strength and save Israel"

8- A rhetorical subversion of Ezekiel 16:6 I said unto thee "live in thy blood;" I said unto thee "live in thy blood" where God affirms the life and deliverance of Israel

9- Originally my translation of this line read "Such vengeance for blood of babe and maiden/ hath yet to be wrought by Satan" and was quoted in this form in sundry places. I have since revised it, upon realization that my original version made a complete botch of it.

10- A rhetorical subversion and echo of the talmudic phrase ויקוב הדין את ההר "let Justice pierce the mountainsides" (i.e. Justice is all-powerful.)

The Original:

עַל הַשְּׁחִיטָה
חיים נחמן ביאליק

שָׁמַיִם, בַּקְּשׁוּ רַחֲמִים עָלָי!
אִם-יֵשׁ בָּכֶם אֵל וְלָאֵל בָּכֶם נָתִיב –
וַ אֲ נִ י לֹא מְצָאתִיו –
הִתְפַּלְּלוּ אַתֶּם עָלָי!
אֲ נִ י – לִבִּי מֵת וְאֵין עוֹד תְּפִלָּה בִּשְׂפָתָי,
וּכְבָר אָזְלַת יָד אַף-אֵין תִּקְוָה עוֹד –
עַד-מָתַי, עַד-אָנָה, עַד-מָתָי?

הַתַּלְיָן! הֵא צַוָּאר – קוּם שְׁחָט!
עָרְפֵנִי כַּכֶּלֶב, לְךָ זְרֹעַ עִם-קַרְדֹּם,
וְכָל-הָאָרֶץ לִי גַרְדֹּם –
וַאֲנַחְנוּ – אֲנַחְנוּ הַמְעָט!
דָּמִי מֻתָּר – הַךְ קָדְקֹד, וִיזַנֵּק דַּם רֶצַח,
דַּם יוֹנֵק וָשָׂב עַל-כֻּתָּנְתְּךָ –
וְלֹא יִמַּח לָנֶצַח, לָנֶצַח.

וְאִם יֶשׁ-צֶדֶק – יוֹפַע מִיָּד!
אַךְ אִם-אַחֲרֵי הִשָּׁמְדִי מִתַּחַת רָקִיעַ
הַצֶּדֶק יוֹפִיעַ –
יְמֻגַּר-נָא כִסְאוֹ לָעַד!
וּבְרֶשַׁע עוֹלָמִים שָׁמַיִם יִמָּקּוּ;
אַף-אַתֶּם לְכוּ, זֵדִים, בַּחֲמַסְכֶם זֶה
וּבְדִמְכֶם חֲיוּ וְהִנָּקוּ.

וְאָרוּר הָאוֹמֵר: נְקֹם!
נְקָמָה כָזֹאת, נִקְמַת דַּם יֶלֶד קָטָן
עוֹד לֹא-בָרָא הַשָּׂטָן –
וְיִקֹּב הַדָּם אֶת-הַתְּהוֹם!
יִקֹּב הַדָּם עַד תְּהֹמוֹת מַחֲשַׁכִּים,
וְאָכַל בַּחֹשֶׁךְ וְחָתַר שָׁם
כָּל-מוֹסְדוֹת הָאָרֶץ הַנְּמַקִּים.

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