Ki Tisa: Language and Translation

Exodus/Shemot 32:25, part of Moses’ confrontation with Aaron regarding the Golden Calf, contains two interesting words for which there are a range of translations. One is a hapax legomenon, a word that appears only once in the Tanakh; the other a common verb, with a root that encompasses three and half columns in my concordance:*

“Moses saw the people, that it was exposed [ki parua hu], for Aaron had exposed them [ki p’raoh aharon] to disgrace [l’shimtzah] among those who rise up against them.” — Stone*
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“Moses saw that the people were out of control [ki parua hu] — since Aaron had let them get out of control [ki p’raoh aharon] — so that they were a menace [l’shimtzah] to any who might oppose them.”

A menace. Others, “an object of derision.” — JPS/Plaut*
[same translation sans comment appears in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary*]
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“Now when Moses saw the people: that it had gotten-loose [ki parua hu],
for Aharon had let-it-loose [ki p’raoh aharon] for whispering among their foes [l’shimtzah].”

gotten-loose: The same verb (paro’a) was used in 5:4, where Pharoah complained about the Israelites. for whispering: A derisive kind of whispering. — Fox*
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“And Moses saw the people, that it was let loose [ki parua hu], for Aaron had let them loose [ki p’raoh aharon] as a shameful thing [l’shimtzah] to their adversaries.”

The basic meaning of the Hebew paru’a is “to unbind,” as in the unbinding or letting loose of long hair. The sense here is of loosing of all inhibitions in orgiastic frenzy.

The word translated as a “shameful thing,” shimtsah, appears only here and so its meaning is uncertain, though it seems to indicate something strongly negative. “To their adversaries” might conceivably be a euphanims for “themselves,” as the more common word for enemies is sometimes used as a euphemistic substitution in curses.– Alter*



Cassuto* notes use of the root pei-reish-ayin in Numbers/Bamidbar 6:5, e.g, which refers directly to hair, in this case of an indiviudal who took Nazirite vows: “…he shall let the locks [pera’] of hair of his head grow long,’ that is to say, the Nazirite shall allow the hair of his to grow untended” (p.420).

None of the six translation/commentaries links pei-reish-ayin with the Sotah [suspected wife] (Numbers/Bamidbar 5) — in which the priest is to bare [para’] the wife’s head. All note similarities, however, between Moses’ actions regarding the Golden Calf and the priest’s instructions regarding the Sotah.

Cassuto also notes a comparison of this loose/exposed/out of control state with the stiff-necked characterization of verse 9, adding, “In these poetic expressions there is possibly to be heard an echo of the ancient epic poem to which we have alluded earlier” (p.421). Throughout his Exodus commentary, Cassuto refers to “an ancient heroic poem, an epos dating back to earliest times, that told at length of the story of the Egyptian bondage, of the liberation and of the wandering of the children of Israel in the wilderness” (p.2).


* Please see Source Materials for full citations and additional information.

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Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.

The “Opening the Book” series is presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group pursuing 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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