Kedoshim: Language and Translation

Three versions of Leviticus/Vayikra verse 19:4:

Do not turn [al-tafnu] to the idols [el-ha-elilim] nor make molten gods [elohei masechahfor yourself. I am the LORD your God. (Alter*)

Do not turn-your-faces [al-tafnu] to no-gods [el-ha-elilim],
and molten gods [elohei masechah] you are not to make yourselves,
I am YHVH your God! (Fox*)

Do not turn aside [al-tafnu] to false gods [el-ha-elilim], and do not make yourselves gods out of cast metal [elohei masechah. I am God your Lord. (www.Bible.ort*)

Alter adds: The Hebrew ‘elilim refers not to the carved likenesses of divinities but to the nonentity of the pagan gods. Its most plausible derivation is from ‘al, “not,” and hence would suggest falsity or lack of being, but the term probably also puns on ‘el, “god” using a diminutive and pejorative form that could mean something like “godlet.”

Fox says: Heb. elilim, a popular play on el/elohim (“God”/”gods”) and al, “nothing.” Greenstein personal communication) suggests “little-gods” as another possibility.

(ORT has no comment on this verse)

Plaut* — commenting on the JPS* translation, which differs from Alter’s only in omitting “the” before “idols” — notes: Hebrew elilim. A variety of words are used in the Hebrew Bible to designate idols. This is one of the most contemptuous of them. Perhaps it was chosen just because it sounds like the legitimate words for “God,” El and Elohim. In other connections, the same word is used for “worthlessness” (Zech. 11:17; Job 13:4).

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

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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