Shelach: Language and Translation

v’asu lahem
make for themselves
al-kanfei bigdeihem
on the corners of their garments (Bamidbar/Numbers 15:38)

Most Torah translations I’ve seen, including those used in most prayerbooks, use the English words “corners of their garments” for the Hebrew kanfei [kaf-nun-fei] bigdeihem. But Robert Alter translates it as “make them a fringe on the skirts of their garments,” with the following note

The “skirts” of the garment are literally “wings” (kenafayim). The garment would typically be a kind of tunic (and so would not have “corners”), and the reference is thus to the hem or bottom edge.

In modern Hebrew, “corner” is pinahpei-yod-nun-heh — while kaf-nun-fei (kanaf)** is “wing.” The later is often translated elsewhere as “wing,” as in, to take just one example, “Your children seek refuge beneath the shelter of Your wings [kanafecha],” from Psalm 36.

Alter does not add this, but seems likely to me — in the way these things seem to go — that kanfei came to be translated as “corners,” because that’s where one ties the tzitzit (on the corners, right?).

Re-considering this verse, with “wings” in mind, fits with imagery for God in the early morning prayers that accompanies putting on the tallit [prayer shawl]: God is “wrapping light like a garment,” “spreading out the heavens like a shawl” (Psalm 104) and offering sheltering wings (Psalm 36); we are “wrapping in tzitzit” (the commandment is about the fringes, not the shawl).

Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso notes in the siddur Kol Haneshamah:

This meditation (Psalm 104:1-2) invites the worshiper to consider the act of donning the tallit to be ther first step in the daily renewal of the world. God’s wrapping in light becomes Israel’s enlightened wrapping at the outset of a new day. It encourages Israel to celebrate world renewing creativity as an unfailing sign of the divine presence within humankind.

**Grammar note: The plural, “wings,” is kenafayim; changing “im” to “ei,” in the masculine plural, is part of the “construct form,” a word pair making “kanfei bigdeihem” into “corners of their garments” — similar construction to “bnei Israel,” “children [banim] of Israel,” or “batei midrash,” “houses [batim] of study.”

The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages, blogs on general stuff a and more Jewish topics at and

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