To the Editors:
Dan Jacobson’s otherwise admirable review of the new translation of S.Y. Agnon’s Only Yesterday [NYR, December 21, 2000] errs in suggesting that the name Balak is dog spelled backwards in Hebrew. In fact, the “k” sound in Balak is achieved by the letter “kuf” while the “k” sound in the Hebrew word for dog (kelev) is “kof.” Although Jewish exegesis occasionally employs such rearrangements of the letters of words to derive interior meanings or relationships between words, the method requires precise identity of the letters in each word.
A more plausible explanation for Agnon’s use of the name Balak for the rabid dog can be found in the biblical story of Balak. As related in the Book of Numbers 22:2–24:25, Balak was the King of Moab who engaged Balaam, the prophet of the nations, to curse the Jewish people. Despite God’s command that he deliver not a curse but a blessing, Balaam sets forth on his mission. However, Balaam is thwarted by his donkey, who refuses to proceed past an angel with a drawn sword. Ultimately, the donkey speaks to Balaam, to whom the angel is then revealed, the mission is aborted, and Balaam then blesses the Jewish people as God wanted.
For Agnon, the name Balak serves as the metaphorical enemy represented in his tale as a rabid dog who fatally bites the protagonist Isaac. Indeed, Agnon was doubtless aware that one of the classical biblical commentators of the fourteenth century (Bal Ha-Turim) parses the name Balak as “Ba-lak,” the one who “comes to lick” the blood of Israel.
Stuart A. Smith
New York City