Devarim: Language and Translation

“The Amorite who dwell on that mountain went out against you and pursued you as the bees [devorim] would do; they struck you in Seir until Hormah.” — Deuteronomy/Devarim 1:44.

There are many commentaries on what the bees are doing here. Some of the more interesting, I think, center around the similarity between devarim [דְּבָרִים], words, and devorim [דְּבֹרִים], bees. [The Torah’s “דברים” can, thus, be read as either “words” or “bees,” fueling many commentaries over the centuries.]

UPDATE JULY 2019: This post previously recommended material then available at Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto. The site, in real life and on the internet, is no more. I was going to replace the old links with newer ones that contain similar information, but I didn’t find anything I liked as well. So I’m sharing here some of the original post, via Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

First, here’s the Deuteronomy Rabbah comment (Soncino translation):

R. Samuel b. Nahman said: God said: ‘My children have been guided through the world by the righteous and the prophets like a swarm of bees.’ Another explanation: “These are the words” [devarim]. Just as the honey of the bee is sweet and its sting sharp, so too are the words of the Torah; any one who transgresses them receives his punishment … But any one who fulfils the Torah merits life… R. Judah b. R. Simon said in the name of R. Levi: Just as everything the bee gathers, it gathers for its owner, so too whatever merits and good deeds Israel accumulate, they accumulate for [the glory of] their Father in Heaven.



Here is a portion of the dvar Torah originally linked here:

Devorim and devarim, bees and words, share a number of elements. Honey bees use their stingers when the hive is threatened. We often lash out with words when we feel under attack. Bees also produce that magnificent fluid: honey. Its uses range from a sweet delicacy to a topical ointment with antiseptic and antibacterial properties. Words, too, can be used to delight, soothe and heal.

This is Shabbat Hazon, the “Shabbat of Vision,” that immediately precedes Tisha B’Av that commemorates the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. Tradition teaches that the Second Temple was destroyed due to sinat hinam, causeless hatred, and that lashon ha’ra (malicious speech) was rampant at the time. The first form that hatred takes are the words that escape our lips, swarming and taking on a life of their own.

Though it is a day of mourning, Tisha B’Av is also a period of transition, the beginning of the period of consolation that leads to the High Holy Days. In the special haftarah (prophetic reading) for this Shabbat, Isaiah urges us to cease to do evil; learn to do good. (Isaiah 1:16-17) While we cannot take back words that have stung others, we can control our stingers, and we can provide a healing balm. As always, the substance we need is readily available if only we are open it:

The teaching of the Lord is perfect, renewing life;
the decrees of the Lord are enduring, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are just, rejoicing the heart;
the instruction of the Lord is lucid, making the eyes light up;
…more desirable than gold, than much fine gold;
sweeter than honey, than drippings of the comb. (Psalms 19:8-9, 11)
— Rabbi Michal Shekel, August 5, 2008
Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning
available now through Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine

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