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Friday, March 17, 2017

Today’s NY Times Crossword Puzzle: A Clever Layer Cake of Subtle Biblical Allusion

I don’t know the constructor of today’s puzzle, Jacob Stulberg, or anything about him, but I’d be willing to bet a few shekels that he is pretty knowledgeable about the Torah. I am so confident in this assertion, because there is an erudite yet playful Biblical theme hidden in plain sight in today’s puzzle, which is overtly merely on the theme of what is “inane” or “foolish”. That hidden Biblical theme is the icing on a layer cake of clever connections I will now unpack for you, step by step.

First, there are three clues which each has a Biblical resonance:

4D: Biblical mount = ass
10D: Region bordering Lebanon  =  Galilee
53A: Jacob’s father in law = Laban

Second, if you knew the Torah story of how Jacob first marries Leah and then Rachel, you knew right off that the answer to 53A was “Laban” (who is actually doubly the father in law of Jacob). Bu if, after you’d completed the entire puzzle, you took a final look at the filled-in grid, you might have recalled not only that Jacob flees from Laban’s house into an area just south of the Sea of “Galilee” (10D), but also that Jacob’s flight from Laban was “on the sly” (20A: Sub rosa) because Jacob “misappropriates” (12D Embezzles, e.g.) Laban’s household gods. Just a random coincidence?

Well, that brings us to the third layer. If you were a serious “Yeshiva Bucher” (or like myself, a secular Jew who has seriously studied the complex multi-authorial origins of the Bible, including Richard Elliot Friedman’s claim that the David stories in the Book of Samuel are actually the second half of what Harold Bloom dubbed “the Book of J”), you’d have also known that LABAN in that first half has his counterpart (both in the literal reversal of letters in his name, but also in his conflict with the hero) in that second half  in the character of NABAL, the rich Calebite whose wife Abigail (just like Rachel) flees his home “on the sly” with David (whom she eventually marries), and “misappropriates” her husband’s property!

But here’s the punch line --- “nabal”, in Hebrew, means “foolish”----which of course is the overt theme of this puzzle! So I quickly realized that this must be Stulberg’s way of winking to the Torah-savvy solver that this subtext is not a mirage, it’s real!

And that brings us to the fourth and perhaps most exquisite, layer of this covertly Torah-themed puzzle. Take a closer look (or should I better say, a closer listen) to the master theme clue of this puzzle, 49D:

“Foolish….or, when read as three words, how this puzzle’s other four ‘foolish’ answers are arranged”

The answer to 49D is “inane”, which when read as three words, becomes “in an e” –which superficially does describe the way those other four “foolish” answers are arranged in the grid –i.e., in the shape of a capital letter “E”, with (21A) “silly”, (35A) “empty” and (51A) “sappy” being the three horizontal parts, and (21D) “senselessly” being the vertical part whence the other three spring to the right.

But……when you listen to the sound of the three words “in an e” as spoken aloud, does it ring any bells for you? It sure did for me --- I quickly realized that these three words in English sounded almost identically to three rather famous words in (where else?) the Torah—specifically in Genesis 22:1, when Abraham first responds to God calling his name:

“And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.”

You see, “here I am” in Hebrew is pronounced “hi-nei-ni” – and that’s anything but inane or foolish! And I hear in that hidden “hineini” the voice of Jacob Stulberg, the “god” of this puzzle, making his final announcement to the solver who has gotten this far, confirming that “Yes, here I am, and how do you like my clever puzzle?”

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode onTwitter

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