Back in the days when this column appeared in another publication, I once devoted it on the occasion of Sukkot to a discussion of Af-bri, the oddly named angel mentioned by the 7th-century liturgical poet Eleazer Hakalir in his prayer for rain, recited in Ashkenazi synagogues on the holiday’s last (or in the Diaspora, penultimate) day. Sukkot falls at the time of year when Israel’s rainy season begins after the long, dry summer. Had it started to rain, in the days of traditional agriculture, before Sukkot, the end of the crucial grain harvest—in which the reaped grain was threshed and winnowed before being stored away for the coming year—would have suffered. Had it rained during the holiday itself, both the many pilgrims who came to pray on the Temple Mount and the many who stayed home in their sukkot would have had a drenching. Had it not begun to rain soon after Sukkot was over, plowing the fields before sowing the next year’s crop would have been delayed. Hence, the prayer’s timing.
Replete with biblical and midrashic allusions, Hakalir’s rhymed and linguistically complex poem begins with an introductory stanza. As translated by the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in the Koren Siddur, this begins:
Af-bri is the name of the angel of rain,
Who overcasts the sky,
Forms clouds and precipitates them, making them rain
Water to crown the valley with green.
Judaism in the early centuries of the Common Era had a highly developed system of angelology in which numerous heavenly beings, most with names ending in the suffix -el (think of Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Uzziel, etc.), were held to be in charge of all of life’s activities. Hakalir’s name for the angel of rain, however, is not in the –el format. Highly unusual, it is taken from Job 37:11, an enigmatic verse whose Hebrew of af-bri yatri’aḥ av; yafits anan oro can be more or less rendered literally into English, while leaving its first two words untranslated, as “Af-bri burdens the cloud; the cloud scatters its light.” The King James Bible has, “Also by watering, he wearieth the thick cloud; he scattereth his bright cloud.” Robert Alter’s The Hebrew Bible, arguably the finest of modern Bible translations, gives us “With heavy moisture He loads the cloud, the thunderhead scatters His lightning.”
These two versions are similar. Both (although Alter omits it from his English) take af to be the common Hebrew adverb meaning “also” or “even,” and both parse bri as the preposition b-, “with” or “in,” joined to a conjectured noun ri supposedly deriving from the biblical verb rivah, to saturate. (Such a word does not occur anywhere else in the Bible.) And since the subject of Chapter 37’s preceding verses is God as the maker of rain, snow, and ice, both the King James and Alter assume that God is also the subject of 37:11: it is He who “wearies” or “loads” the cloud, He who “scatters” either it or its lightning.
Yet both these versions are forced and even ungrammatical, since the rules of Hebrew call for construing the subject of yafits anan oro as “cloud,” not God. Many other attempts have been made, dating back to the medieval commentators, to make sense of the verse. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (1088–1167) and Moses Naḥmanides or Ramban (1194–1270) connected bri to the verbal root b-r-r and its adjectival form of barur, “clear”: even on a clear day, their proposed reading went, God can create sudden cloudbursts. Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (1288–1344), known as Gersonides to scholars and as the Ralbag in Jewish tradition, argued that the verse referred to God’s occasional withholding of rain: that which is “clear,” he maintained, is the water vapor from which rain condenses, so that when condensation fails to take place, the cloud, having been “burdened” in vain, dissipates and “scatters” light in a now cloudless sky. Rabbi Moses Kimḥi (1127–1190) thought that the light-scattering cloud was an allusion to a “sun shower,” in which there is rainfall and sunshine at the same time.
All of these exegeses are stabs at an explanation of a verse that is not really explicable—which is no doubt why Rashi (1040–1105), the most revered of the medieval commentators, threw up his hands and wrote, concurring with Hakalir, that Af-Bri was “the name of the angel in charge of the clouds.”
This leaves, however, an intriguing question. Hakalir’s poetry, as we have said, is full of allusions to the Bible and the Midrash, and Rashi himself would have been more likely to accept Hakalir’s interpretation of af-bri had it had a midrashic attestation—yet no such source has been found for it. Was there one that was still known in Rashi’s time and that subsequently was lost? Or did Hakalir make up his interpretation out of whole cloth?
When I wrote my column years ago, there seemed to be no way of answering this. Now, though, having recently come across a 2020 article by the Israeli scholar Avraham Frankel titled “The Tombstone of Rabbi Barukh, the father of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg,” I’m ready to hazard a guess.
Born in the Rhineland city of Worms, the home of Rashi, Meir of Rothenburg (1215–1293) was one of the great talmudists and Jewish communal leaders of the Middle Ages; his father Barukh, a well-known rabbi in his own right, died in Worms in the 1280s and was buried there with a large tombstone bearing a lengthy Hebrew poetic epitaph. In Frankel’s transcription and my translation of it (which makes no attempt to reproduce its internal and end-line rhymes), this epitaph begins:
In blessed memory of a righteous man, and his forthright deeds, this stone is erected.
He struck the lion [ari] on a day of the snow of bri.
We’re back to bri again—and once more in the context of a biblical allusion, this one to 2Samuel 23:20. where we read in an account of the feats of King David’s warriors, “And Benayahu son of Yehoyada from Kabtse’el, son of a valiant man, . . . went down and killed the lion in the pit on the day of the snow.” As Frankel points out, the rabbis, in typical fashion, allegorized this passage by turning Benayahu from a courageous soldier into a Torah scholar who braved deprivation to pursue his studies, and Rabbi Barukh’s epitaph claimed the same for him, making the snow of a winter day a symbol of the hardships he had to overcome. Yet why “the snow of bri?” In order, says Frankel, to allude to the angel of Hakalir’s poem while creating a rhyme with ari. “The snow of bri” is the snow of Bri.
But, you say, Hakalir’s angel is Af-Bri! Precisely this is the point. Bri rather than Af-Bri is the form of the name not just in Rabbi Barukh’s epitaph but in a number of other references from the medieval period that Frankel was able to track down, including one by Rashi’s contemporary Rabbi Joseph Kara of Troyes (1065–1135) and one by Rabbi Joseph Ibn Abitur of Spain (10th century). In these, too, the angel is referred to as Bri without the “Af.”
What is the significance of this? Since Frankel does not spell it out, I’ll permit myself to do so. If there had been a subsequently lost midrashic source based on Job, and still known to medieval rabbis like Kara and Ibn Abitur, in which the angel of rain was named Bri, Hakalir would have called him Bri, too. Yet if, on the other hand, no such source existed and Hakalir was the first to interpret Job 37:11 as referring to an angel, medieval rabbis would have felt free to shorten Af-Bri to the less strange-sounding Bri. The af of the verse, after all, could be understood to mean “even” or “also” even if Bri was the name of an angel, and Hakalir, though a respected poet, lacked the authority of a midrashic source and could be altered or corrected as such a source could not be.
The evidence, in short, points to the probability that it was Hakalir himself who decided that the first two words of Job 27:11 were the name of an angel. Could he have been right? That isn’t likely. Although the Bible mentions angels frequently, twice in the book of Job, nowhere except twice in the book of Daniel does it give an angel a name, much less assign to him a specific function in the divine economy. This is a later development in Judaism, of which Hakalir, who lived at least a thousand years after the author of Job, is an example.