Another set of resources that might or might not make sense outside of SVARA’s “Dazzling Wisdom of Rabbi Meir” Class. (The large PDF repeats two pages from earlier; plain text version, with image descriptions, follows.)
Sefaria Source Sheet on barzel [iron] and the verb chadad [or maybe yachad]
“Eyes and Teachers” in graphic layout and just text plus image descriptions.
Is “living in luxury” the root of all “sin [chet]”?
The high holiday liturgy is filled with the word, “chet,” usually translated as “sin,” as in the prominent confession:
“For the sin we have sinned… […עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ, al chet sh’chatanu…].”
One root-meaning of chet is “[to miss], to fail, err, sin.” Archery metaphors abound this time of year. And considering how, where, and why we “missed the mark” is an important endeavor for the season. But rarely** are we asked to focus on another definition for the same root letters: “living in luxury” or “well-dressed, polished, cleansed.” Exploring the intersection of “luxury” and “sin” can be an important addition to our self-reflections.
There are plenty of resources out there for exploring the intersection of wealth, privilege, and “sin.” See this year’s Hill Havurah resources, for just one example. But here, as an offering for this season of return and repentance, is a basic exploration of the dictionary path less traveled.
**In fact, I don’t know of any such discussions and would appreciate any citations.
Please note: Geekier details appear further below, following an attempt at a more narrative approach.
Although this is my own exploration, this post was inspired by Elul studies at SVARA: The traditionally radical yeshiva, and by learning with Hill Havurah and sister organization, Mount Moriah Baptist Church.
Chet I, Chet II
The biblical lexicon, Brown-Driver-Briggs, has only one long entry for “chet,” based on the root “miss the mark,” with comparison to an Arabic word with a similar root-meaning. The Jastrow Dictionary, however, offers word has two separate entries for the same root-letters: The second (II) is the commonly cited “miss the mark,” and the first (I) is “to live in luxury, to be like a nobleman, to be well-dressed, clean &c.” based on a root-meaning “to stroll idly, saunter.”
The chet I entry is filled with references to midrashic texts that develop meaning through word-play and sound associations. (The full Jastrow entry can be found at Sefaria.)
The first example finds that “chet” means “purify” through a word-play around Leviticus 1:5 (sacrificial slaughter [veshacḥat] of a bull) with “cleansing” [chat] centered on a body part that bends [shach]. (See bend below.)
Examples of “chet” used to mean “to be gratified” and “to ask petulantly” are also explored. (See gratification below.)
An example linking “chet” with luxury centers on a midrash involving Abraham refusing gifts from the King of Sodom and Daniel refusing gifts from Balshezar. (See luxury below.)
The chet I entry does not offer straightforward grammar to explain the nature of sin in biblical or rabbinic thought. It does present a fascinating glimpse at rabbinic word-play over the centuries. And the mere existence of this entry offers food for thought on links between wealth and sin:
What can we learn from the examples of Abraham and Daniel rejecting wealth from rulers associated with excess and oppression?
Why did Jastrow include this speculative exploration here? And how can it help us this season of return, repentance, and repair?
With this entry as preamble to the one on “missing the mark,” what might we learn about how “living in luxury” and “being accustomed to comfort” affect our ability to hit the mark in all manner of thought and action?
Further exploration of the chet I examples follow, with some additional details also linked.
Luxury and Its Rejection
The chet I entry includes several citations to commentary on the Song of Songs, Shir HaShirim Rabbah. (Jastrow uses the Latin-based abbreviation “Cant.” to refer to the bible book [“Canticles”] and “Cant. R.” to refer to the midrash collection.)
Shir HaShirim Rabbah, dated roughly to 800-1000 CE, offers homelitical explanations for each phrase in the Song of Songs. To illustrate a reflexive form of “chet” as “to show one’s self a nobleman, to be generous, proud,” Jastrow references a midrash on Song of Songs 7:7, “How fair you are and how pleasant you are, love, in delights.”
The phrase, “love, in delights,” is explained with reference to biblical incidents involving riches:
Abraham refuses gifts (“excuses himself”) from the King of Sodom (Gen 14:22-23) after helping the king recover captured people and goods;
Daniel refuses gifts (“excuses himself”) from Belshazar (Dan 5:16-17), while providing him the service of reading “the writing on the wall.”
In each case, the biblical hero would have been expected to accept goods and recognition for services rendered. Refusing could seem insulting. In these instances, however, Abraham and Daniel are praised for doing so. The King of Sodom and Belshazar are associated, in their respective biblical stories, with a variety of excesses in their conduct and oppression in their rule. Abraham and Daniel stand in contrast. Their refusals to take “earthly delights” are understood as expressing love of God.
It seems clear that both the bible stories and the midrash hold Abraham and Daniel as righteous; it is less obvious (to me, anyway) how the midrash and grammar function: Who, in the midrash, exemplifies this sauntering show of luxury?
Are Abraham and Daniel showing themselves as noble, generous and proud, that is, (avoiding sin by) rejecting luxury? OR
Are the King of Sodom and Belshazzar showing themselves as noble, generous and proud, that is, (committing the sin of) flaunting luxury?
Abraham is clear and succinct that his rejection of the gifts is about NOT giving credit to the apparently generous King of Sodom:
I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.’ — Gen 14:23
Daniel’s response to Belshazzar is more complex:
You may keep your gifts for yourself, and give your presents to others. But I will read the writing for the king, and make its meaning known to him….
[to Belshazzar] You exalted yourself against the Lord of Heaven, and had the vessels of [God’s] temple brought to you. You and your nobles, your consorts, and your concubines drank wine from them and praised the gods of silver and gold, bronze and iron, wood and stone, which do not see, hear, or understand; but the God who controls your lifebreath and every move you make—[God] you did not glorify!
[Eventually, Daniel is given the gifts at Belshazzar’s command, and then Belshazzar is killed.]
— Dan 5:17, 23, [29-30]
While both Abraham and Daniel end up with riches at various points in their stories, cautionary elements remain in their tales and in Jewish commentary over the centuries. (See also “Belshazzar and the Wall.”)
The chet I entry offers opportunities to consider these tales in the approach to the high holidays or in other consideration of “sin” and what it means to “miss the mark.”
The chet I examples for “being raised in luxury, being delicate” include more commentary from Shir HaShirim Rabbah as well as some from Kohelet Rabbah, commentary on Ecclesiastes dated to about 750 – 900 CE. In addition, this meaning is supported by citations to the Targum, Aramaic translation of the Torah, from the early centuries of the Common Era:
The man who is gentle [דְמֶחְטֵי, d’mechtei] and refined among you will look with evil eyes upon his brother, and the wife who reposes on his bosom, and upon the rest of his children who remain.
She who is delicate [דִמְחַטַיְיתָא, dimchatai’eta] and luxurious among you, who has not ventured to put the sole of her foot upon the ground from tenderness and delicacy, will look with evil eyes upon the husband of her bosom, upon her son and her daughter.
— Targum for Deut 28:54, 56
Worth noting, if only as evidence for complex interactions between the related words and their meanings, is the entry for the word, “chitui [חִיטּוּי, חִטּוּי].” It includes both the “cleansing, purification” and the “delicacy, luxury, enjoyment” meanings of chet, citing both chet I and chet II.
The chet I entry includes citation to a word-play around Leviticus 1:5 (sacrificial slaughter of a bull). Jastrow’s citation appears in a passage about kosher slaughter techniques for ordinary, non-sacrificial food (Babylonian Talmud, Chullin ([חולין], “ordinary”). The meaning “to make look well, polish, dress, cleanse, prepare” is derived from a play on the Hebrew for slaughter [veshacḥat]:
Slaughter is conducted “from the place where the animal bends [shach],” i.e., the neck; it is purified[chattehu] through letting the blood run out, “cleansing.” Additional citations are to Lev 14:52 (“v’chitei ha-bayit [you shall purity the house]…”) and Psalms 51:9 (“Purge me [techatte’eni] with hyssop and I will be pure.”)
Further discussion in Chullin asks if slaughter could be conducted from the tail, which is also bent. But this is countered with the idea that the tail is perpetually bent, and the requirement is for a body part which is usually erect but bent for slaughter.
It is not explicit in the cited discussion at Chullin 27a, but it is noteworthy that “bending” is key here. The bending aspect of slaughter is also discussed at Rereading4Liberation.
A Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature, edited by Professor Marcus Jastrow, was first published in 1903. It is available in many editions (although I do not believe newer versions differ from older ones). It can now be accessed through Wikipedia and Sefaria. More on Jastrow in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia.
Jastrow thanks earlier scholars:
In conclusion, the author begs to state his indebtedness to Jacob Levy’s Targumic and Neo-Hebrew Dictionaries, where an amount of material far exceeding the vocabularies of the Arukh and Buxtorf’s Lexicon Hebraicum et Chaldaicum is accumulated, which alone could have encouraged and enabled the author to undertake a task the mere preparation for which may well fill a lifetime.
— preface 1903, p.XIII
Jacob Levy (1819-1892) published the two-volume Wörterbuch über die Talmudim und Midrashim in Leipzig in 1867-68. The same publishers issued new editions in 1876 and 1881. These include an appendix by Heinrich Leberecht Fleischer (1801-1888), described by Wikipedia as “a German orientalist.” (I think these references are only available in German.)
In Jastrow, Fleischer’s appendix to Levy’s dictionary is referenced directly as “Fl. to Levy Targ. Dict.” These references, including the one in chet I, are infrequent.
Chet-tet-aleph/chet-tet-yud [חטי, חָטָא] has two separate entries in the Jastrow Dictionary. The second is the commonly cited “miss the mark” (II). The first entry (I) in Jastrow for chet-tet-aleph/chet-tet-yud [חטי, חָטָא] is quite different:
[to stroll idly, saunter (v. Fl. to Levy Targ. Dict. I 424,2)] to live in luxury, to be like a nobleman, to be well-dressed, clean &c. (cmp. פנק, פרנק).
The full Jastrow entry can be found at Sefaria. And here, for convenience, are the two verbs listed for comparison:
פָּנַק (b. h.; cmp. פּוּק) [to go out,] to be a freeman; to live in luxury (cmp. חָטָא I).
פִּרְנֵק (Parel of פָּנַק) to delight; to treat with dainties.
Hithpa. – הִתְפַּרְנֵק to enjoy dainties. Cant. R. to VII, 2 מִתְפַּרְנְקִין, v. חָטָא I.
The midrash contains a repeated expression, with a reflexive form of chet: “…שֶׁהָיָה מִתְחַטֵּא, she-hayah mit-chatei…” — translated as “excuses himself.”
for Abraham: שֶׁהָיָה מִתְחַטֵּא עַל מֶלֶךְ סְדוֹם
There is at least one spot where the Jastrow dictionary references BOTH meanings, chet I and chet II. Jastrow entry for the word, “chitui” includes both the “cleansing, purification” and the “delicacy, luxury, enjoyment” meanings.
On this Shabbat of Vision, we stand at the river’s edge, imagining the world on the other side, the one our ancestors were, decades before, led to believe was just around the corner. And yet, as Deuteronomy opens, we are listening to Moses describe all the ways we’ve already disappointed and erred since taking those first tentative steps toward what we hoped would be better days. “How?! How can I bear the trouble/burden [torach] of you?” Moses moans (Deut 1:12; see PDF in previous post).
On this same Shabbat, we are treated to the prophet Isaiah’s speech from across the river, inside that imagined world. He, too, is explaining just how thoroughly we’ve failed, turning vision into a burden even God cannot bear: “[Your rituals] are become a burden [torach] to me…Your hands are full of blood.” (Isaiah 1:14-15). “How?! How did a dream of justice and righteousness become a city of murderers?” (1:21, paraphrased)
With Eikha, that imagined world has collapsed, and we are on the road out of the ruins. “How?! How did what once appeared so vibrant turn into this painful mess?!”
It seems that we’ve been crying, “How?! How did things get this bad?!” for so long that we might as well simply declare that nothing ever changes, that people are just as rotten to one another today as they were in Isaiah’s time or King Josiah’s or at the time of Exile, and our problems have been basically the same for 2700 years.
But we can also understand these three readings — offered to us at the lowest point in the Jewish calendar — as an age-old acknowledgement that there will always be failures, that the better days envisioned will always be ahead, that we are always facing an ending…with, we must hope, a new beginning beyond it.
“Where is the ‘so’?”
In the kinot for Tisha B’av, Chapter 13 offers a series of verses beginning “אֵי כֹּה” [ei ko], translated as “Where is the [ko-based] promise…?” (Sefaria offers the Hebrew for Chapter 13 but no translation.) Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s commentary, found in Koren Mesorat HaRav Kinot (Koren, 2010), explains:
In this kina, Rabbi Elazar HaKalir treats the word eikha as though it were a composite word consisting of two separate words, ei and ko, and therefore, the meaning of the word is not “how?!” but rather “where is the ko, the ‘so'”? Where are the promises that God made to the Jewish people using the word ko?
The author of the kina is asking, R’ Soloveitchik says, why the promises were not fulfilled, and ultimately God responds: “Do not worry, the ko will be realized; sooner or later there will be no need to ask Eikha” (p. 327).
Maybe, however, we should read “where is the ‘so’?” from another angle: For nearly 3000 years, we’ve been warned that there is blood on our hands and work to be done. And so?
And so: 1) “Cease to do evil.” 2) “Learn to do good.” 3) “Devote yourself [to repair]” and, only then, 4) Atone/seek restoration of relationship.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught: “If you believe that you can destroy, believe that you can repair.” (Meshivat Nefesh #38). We will always mess up, and always be called to keep going.
Three challenging Bible passages come together in the Jewish calendar in the next two days:
Devarim (Deut 1:1-3:12), the first portion in the Book of Deuteronomy (Deut 1:1-3:12);
Isaiah 1:1-27, the prophetic reading which gives this Shabbat it’s special name, “Shabbat of Vision,” or Shabbat Chazon; and
Eikha, the Book of Lamentations, read on Tisha B’av.
In some years, there are several days between Shabbat Chazon and Tisha B’av — offering a chance for us to take the admonitions to heart before entering into the deepest day of mourning the Jewish calendar and then beginning the slow climb toward the new year. Some years, like this one, leave no space between that last Shabbat of Affliction (or Admonition) and Tisha B’av. So we’re about to enter a complicated couple of days.
Historical and Literary Context
A bit of history is useful for viewing the confluence of readings for Shabbat Chazon and Tisha B’av:
Eikha/Lamentations is probably, current scholarship says, from the middle of the 6th Century BCE, although some parts may be older; the book as a whole is traditionally ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah (c. 650-570 BCE).
Jeremiah was active at the time of King Josiah (c.640-609 BCE), from the 13th year of the young king’s reign through Exile and the destruction of the First Temple. Substantial portions of the Book of Deuteronomy are also linked with King Josiah’s era.
The prophet Isaiah lived a century earlier, with the year 733 BCE a prominent date for his vision… which led him to criticize focus on ritual when what is required is tending to those in need:
Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hates…
Your hands are full of blood (stained with crime).
…Seek justice, relieve the oppressed….
How [Eikha] is the faithful city…once full of justice,
righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers!
–Isa 1:14-17, 1:21
That mournful cry, beginning with the word “Eikha” in Isaiah 1:21, is echoed in both Deuteronomy and the book of that name.
For the record, “eikha” appears only the once in Isaiah, four times in Eikha, and five times in Deuteronomy, plus twice in Jeremiah and once each in four other books of Tanakh. (See handout, “Eikha and Chazon,” below).
Isaiah’s vision prompts us to consider any number of collective crimes. The compressed time period of Shabbat followed immediately by the day of mourning makes it difficult to process or respond. But Isaiah doesn’t just leave us with blood on our hands; he suggests a way forward:
Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow.
Isaiah 1:17 (see “Isaiah page one” handout, also below)
We can read this message as a simple “do better.” And, of course, that is what we are being told to do. But we must also heed that first commandment: Learn.
For nearly 3000 years, Isaiah has railing at us that we have blood on our hands. And for just as long, the prophet has been telling us that the first step — before trying to undertake the work of justice, provide aid, uphold anyone’s rights, or defend the most vulnerable — is to learn.
We can inform ourselves about the problems and issues. We can listen to the voices of those most affected by crimes in which we have participated, however inadvertently. We can get to know what solutions others are already working to implement. We can learn more about Jewish history, practice, and philosophy to shore up our ability to respond Jewishly — and/or steep ourselves in other traditions that inspire us.
For nearly 3000 years, Jewish tradition has been calling us to do better by learning better.
TRANSLITERATION NOTE: The Hebrew word ” איכה ” is pretty commonly transliterated “eicha” (and this blog often used that spelling in the past); eikha is used here, though, in an effort to make clear the distinction between the chet of “[חזון] chazon” and the khaf of “eikha.”
This week’s Torah reading includes a series of stages reported like this:
va-yisu bnei-Yisrael [The people set out from] _Place X_ va’yachanu [and encamped in] _Place Y_. E.g., (Num 33:5): וַיִּסְעוּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵרַעְמְסֵס וַֽיַּחֲנוּ בְּסֻכֹּֽת [Bnei-Yisrael set out from Ramses and encamped at Succoth.]
This series of journeying stages, or “marches,” begins at the start of the second portion in this week’s double-Torah-reading: Matot (Numbers 30:2-32:42) and Masei (Numbers 33:1- 36:13). The idea of leaving one stage to reach another was reverberating for me while Joni Mitchell sang at the recent Newport Folk Festival:
Late last night, I heard the screen door slam
and a big yellow taxi took away my old man
don’t it always seem to go
you don’t know what you’ve lost til it’s gone
Watching video from Mitchell’s surprise appearance on 7/24/22, I was reminded of something I learned many years ago, from Amy Brookman at Fabrangen Havurah, in reference to the portion Masei: We have to “set out” to get to anywhere new.
From One Stage…
It is now possible to see Mitchell’s “Last Waltz” performances — The Band’s farewell, 11/25/1976, at Winterland — via the Music Vault on YouTube. Robbie Robertson and the crowd enthusiastically welcome Mitchell, and she performs two songs from her Hejira album/tour: “Coyote” and “Furry Sings the Blues.”
The Last Waltz also included Laura Nyro and the sisters of the Staple Singers, but Mitchell is the only woman on the stage for the closing numbers. And I’ve come to think of that image, one woman among a stage full of men, as a kind of encapsulation of how the industry functioned then. (A cropped section of that final stage grouping is the feature image for this blog; description below.) See also footnote from a musician present at the time
Moreover, when Mitchell appears in the 1978 Scorcese documentary, only “Coyote” is included — the film includes only one number from most of the guest performers; and I believe the director made the choices — and she is introduced on the heels of an interview segment called “Women on the Road” (see below). That is, Scorcese chose to place Mitchell’s welcome onto the stage immediately after leering remarks from The Band about “women” as objects. To be extra clear about the causality: the director of a concert documentary chose to introduce an influential musician and composer with ugly, sexist and unrelated blither, rather than, say, thoughts about musical composition or influences — which the documentary does also include — or just with Robbie Robertson announcing, as in the above raw footage, “Joni Mitchell. Right!” (The audience is yelling her name, as if guessing who was next up.)
The film’s presentation of Joni Mitchell has been stuck in my consciousness since I first saw it at a theater in 1977. On the one hand, this was a boorish artistic move by one man; on the other, it was emblematic of a time. In both ways, experience of the film shaped my brain and body, in ways that I can sometimes recognize today and in ways that I probably do not even know.
….And, for the record: I do love and recommend the movie, for all the anger I harbor toward its director over many of its specifics. It’s available through Kanopy streaming and local libraries. (And I believe there is some kind of remastering with additional numbers originally omitted, including Mitchell’s “Furry Sings the Blues.”)
On July 24 at Newport, Mitchell was surrounded by musicians of different musical backgrounds, gender identities, skin colors, and ages — many of them born long after Mitchell’s last appearance at Newport, in 1969, or her participation in The Band’s “Last Waltz” at Winterland in 1976.
Comparing the two images — Mitchell surrounded by collaborative, supportive (really, adoring) fellow performers in 2022 and Mitchell a powerful, lone woman actively denigrated by the filmmaker (if not her fellow performers) — brought me to that idea, from this week’s Torah portion, of needing to leave one stage in order to get to another. Of course, Mitchell’s reception and introduction in 2022 owes much to the strength of her long career and her personal hard road to physical recovery.
But this is not just a personal progression: We, as a society, had to leave the 1970s to get to later stages in the musical world and beyond. Watching the varied musicians collaborate with Mitchell through “Big Yellow Taxi” and the other numbers shared by Newport Folk Festival, I couldn’t help but think:
yes, often we don’t know what is lost til it’s gone; but sometimes, it’s a blessing to watch that taxi pull away.
Some background footage, FYI:
Here is some material from the film (inexpertly shared, complete with clutter from my den and an annoying lamp reflection):
Beginning: from early in the film — one of the few times we see the director — Martin Scorcese and Robertson talk about “The Last Waltz” concept
1:19 Robertson explains, backstage, that Ronnie Hawkins first hired him saying, “well, son, it doesn’t pay much, but you’ll get more pussy than Frank Sinatra.” This is spliced into the launch of Ronnie Hawkins’ performance on stage.
1:43 “Women on the Road,” as the scene is called on the DVD: backstage interview with band members. at 2:55 Levon Helm (1940-2012) offers “I thought you weren’t supposed to talk about it too much” — earning him my personal, undying gratitude from my teenage years onward. Rick Danko (1943-1999) says something about how “as we’ve grown, so have the women,” and Richard Manuel (1943-1986) just leers.
WARNING: Both Canadian and U.S. Confederate flags appear on the walls in this interview scene. (I don’t know enough about The Band to add any context beyond that they were Canadian born and did write songs about the U.S. South.)
This haphazard presentation of clips from “The Last Waltz” is fair use for purposes of review and discussion; it does not include the actual performance of “Coyote” from the 1978 documentary. The latter is widely available on YouTube, etc. in form that will be easier to enjoy — without violating copyright
L-R in still from 1978 Doc — so all in clothes popular at the time: Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson on stage at The Last Waltz concert. Dr. John is wearing a baret and sunglasses, looking at distance. Joni is wearing a long-sleeve leotard-type top and lots of necklaces, looking a little annoyed and (accidentally?) facing the camera. Neil is wearing a t-shirt with an open workshirt over it, smiling in a buzzed kind of way, looking outside the frame. Rick and Robbie are looking down at their guitars, but only Rick’s guitar is visible; both are wearing long-sleeve button-down shirts.
After six weeks of Svara study around the concept of “overturning a betrothal,” here are a few thoughts on force and how it works in commerce and in the subset of acquisition in the ancient world known as marriage or betrothal. The bulk of this post is a PDF, and most of this in its present form will make little sense to anyone who hasn’t studied the passage in question (Baba Batra 47b-48a).
…More to come soon, I hope — the final session of our summer bet midrash is about to begin….
Meanwhile, for anyone interested, here is Adrienne Rich (1977 “Natural Resources) in conversation with the rabbinic worldview. Without attempting to translate the phrases from Baba Metzia highlighted between Rich’s verses, they emphasize “his will,” forcing him to say he agrees, his betrothals, and his use of sexual intercourse to effect a betrothal.
In Talmud studies at Svara: a traditionally radical yeshiva, as at houses of Jewish text study for 1500 years or more, students are asked to recite what is written from memory. At Svara, students are celebrated for giving voice to and “owning” a recitation of a few words, the whole long passage the class has been learning, or anything in between. Many of us struggle with this practice for all kinds of reasons. This session, I’ve been struggling with whether I can voice these particular words.
Over the weekend, I learned something new about a relatively common word that appears in our passage and in one that is being taught in a different class. I think it is helping me figure out some next steps in reciting, or not reciting, my particular passage this term.
Trigger warning: this Talmud passage is about legal discussion of capital punishment and executing youth; responses travel through difficult, racist territory.
R’ Bronwen Mullin said her class, which is also discussing capital punishment-related texts (in a different passage, not the class I am taking this term), talked about the tiny word “Atu.” It is commonly used to introduce a rhetorical question, like “Is it because….?” in English. But, R’ Bronwen said their class did a deep dive into the meaning “Atu” — which Jastrow’s Talmud dictionary says is an abbreviation of a word meaning “for the protection of.”
אָטוּ (abbrev. of אמטול, v. אַמְטוּ). Atu — an abbreviation of amtul, which means “for the protection of” and so: “for the sake of, on account of.” (A definition appears below, and here’s a link to the entry in Jastrow Talmud dictionary at Sefaria.)
So, R’ Bronwen said, the question could be asked of the passage in which it appears: “What are you/we protecting?”
I went back to the passage where this word appears in text I’ve been struggling to recite, from Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 68b.
Disclaimer: the ancient rabbis are here using the legal tools they had to make sure no one is ever declared “ben sorer umoreh [rebellious and wayward child]” (Deut 21:18-21)…their intentions don’t necessarily make the text easy to read:
אנן הכי קאמרינן אטו בן סורר ומורה על חטאו נהרג על שם סופו נהרג וכיון דעל שם סופו נהרג אפילו קטן נמי
Our class, taught by R’ Benay Lappe, came to a translation something like this: “So, we are saying it is because of his [past] sin that the wayward/rebellious son is executed? Rather: on account of his end [for an ultimate, later act] he is killed. And because he is to be killed for a later act, even a minor can be considered.”
אפילו קטן נמי — afilu katan nami [even small one also]
The particular wording that opens this section, “So we are saying,” was found in Frank’s Practical Talmud Dictionary (for “אנן הכי קאמרינן”). My study partner and I were reminded of the Plastic Ono Band chanting, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” I even offered a little singsong: “So, we are saying: give kids a chance!” Then I started writing, a few days ago, thinking of Yoko and John in bed in 1969.
But I quickly landed with with Gil Scott-Heron and 2Pac instead:
So, we’re protecting this notion of executing a boy for his sin?
Instead of war on poverty They got a war on drugs so the police can bother me And I ain’t never did a crime I ain’t have to do But now I’m back with the facts, givin’ it back to you –2Pac, “Changes” 1998
talking blame and guilt, though he’s a minor? afilu katan nami
Or, no: We fear for his “end,” trouble he might one day cause?
“You see them? Look at the color of their skin
That one is probably dangerous.”– 2018 Poetry Slam entry
calling him a danger, small as he is! afilu katan nami
based on a future adults (who may be strangers) imagined for him?!
“The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everybody” –2Pac
condemning even the small one?! afilu katan nami
Well, I’m new here, and I forget Does that mean big, or small?
No matter how far wrong you’ve gone You can always turn around –Gil Scott-Heron, “I’m New Here,” 2010
talking execution when he’s a minor, though!
The Loudest Question
What are you protecting?!
It has been such a struggle, for my study partner and me, to approach this text through the roar of “Super-predator!” “Chronic behavior problem!” “Thug!!” We’ve been hearing this chorus for much of our lives used to protect property and some people, often those who are already far safer than most, from youth perceived as threats. Across the U.S., this means primarily endangering youth of color in the name of “public safety.” Where each of us lives, this is disproportionately directed toward Black children.
How does this passage reflect — maybe help create — the idea that some people have a right to protect themselves from perceived threats: our country’s “tough on crime” policies that protect some at the expense of others, all based on that chorus of “thug!”?
And it’s that “thug” that kept leading my mind back to Tupac Shakur and then to Gil Scott-Heron. Eventually, though, 2Pac’s “THUG-LIFE” led me to another question…
That THUG-LIFE concept, and my conversations with rabbis Bronwen and Benay, led me, eventually, to ask: Who am I protecting in not reciting that piece of Talmud?
Black children are expected to leave the house every day in places that continue to view them as a dangers — “some type of demon, killers, or something like that” (see below) — meaning their every step is a risk.
Black children are expected to learn history that, especially in the current trend toward removing all context, either erases or demonizes them — meaning every page is a minefield for them.
If Black kids of all ages — and queer kids and kids with disabilities, visible and not — can show up and try to learn from flawed texts that constantly endanger them, maybe I can recite this…even if I’m simultaneously screaming?
And Questioning Questions
In her recent piece “How We Question,” R’ Bronwen wrote about naming our intentions when we question Torah and existing rabbinic discussion. Talmudic tradition, she wrote, “always invites us into the audacity” —
the audacity of naming what our intentions are in the act of questioning; of elevating the questioning itself to a radically reparative and transformative plane. When we fail to do this, our shortcomings, our implicit (and sometimes explicit) biases, take over a situation, and the bright light of possibility is overshadowed. Hopefully, we can continue to make our fairy-Rabbi-ancestors proud by refusing to take our questions for granted. When we examine our questions we find our deepest motivations and intentions, and through that process we bring more light into the world- the light that we need to guide us in this time of crash. How we question, as our fairy-Rabbi-ancestors intuited, might be the very torch we need.
— “How We Question,” by R’ Bronwen Mullin, from Svara: a traditionally radical yeshiva (29 Adar Bet 5782, 4/1/22)
It has been hard, during this class on the rebellious child, to figure out which of my reactions to the Talmud text are really reactions to public policy discussions in my town right now and which are about one particular theological question.
There’s a sort of hidden “What/who are you protecting?” embedded in this passage. The ancient rabbis sought to reconcile their understanding of divinity with a text, apparently in God’s name, demanding the death of this wayward and rebellious child. One resolution they suggested was reading the passage in a way that protected God’s intentions — that’s how the Talmud got to the idea that the text is somehow about killing a minor for something they might someday do as an adult.
…still screaming from my place of still limited understanding: Why would anyone think it a good idea to demonize young people to “rescue God”?! And, given that the text chose that road, (how) do I voice, attempt to own, these words?
Some Additional Voices
I’mma be very honest, some adults won’t just believe in us just like that. It’s going to take them some time to believe in what we want to do and what we want to achieve in life. They think we’ll grow up and be some type of demon, killers, or something like that, but that’s not what we really are. We’re trying to build something.
Kevin Mason, 16 — “Voices of Wards 7 and 8 Youths,” DCist 3/31/22
“And, 12-year-old Isiah Jones adds, it shouldn’t be too difficult for adults to learn more about what kids need.
“’They could come find out,’ he says.”
downloadable version with graphic and full text below
Svara teaches: The revolution will not be translated. It’s our breath and our voices that keep the ancient text alive and redeem it with our collective learning. I am not yet sure if I’m ready to “own” this particular text. It’s already been one illuminating, if incredibly difficult, journey.
…Still not resolved — and there are still four hours of class left to learn…Meanwhile: so much gratitude to Svara, R’ Benay, R’ Bronwen, all the faculty and other students, and especially my amazing chevruta. Although, of course, all the above except direct quotes from R’ Bronwen and poets, are my words and responsibility….
The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom, the tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl The revolution will not go better with Coke The revolution will not fight germs that may cause bad breath The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat
Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” 1970
From Jastrow’s Talmud Dictionary
אָטוּ (abbrev. of אמטול, v. אַמְטוּ) 1)on account of, because of, for the sake of(h. . קנסו שוגג א׳ מזיד they fined the inadvertent transgressor for the sake of the wilful one (in order to prevent wilful sin). Git. 53ᵇ; a. fr. —2) (in questions expressing surprise, indignation) is it because? do you mean to say? Ib. 7ᵃ א׳ אנא לא ידענא do I not know it myself? Ib. 30ᵇ א׳ ברשיעי עסקינן is it with wicked men we have to deal? (i.e. shall we presume deliberate sin?); a. v. fr.
The Book of Exodus — in fact a passage from last week’s Torah portion — makes an odd appearance in the movie, Marshall (2017 — Netflix subscribers, NOTE: The movie leaves that platform on Jan 1, 2022.) At first, oddities in the way the verses show up broke my willing suspension of disbelief. Eventually, however, I came to appreciate the scene and light it sheds back on the Exodus story.
Marshall and Friedman
The movie is based on a 1941 court case with Civil Rights implications. Here’s a summary of the real-life court case, published years before the movie was released. Here’s information about the movie, from IMDB, starring Chadwick Boseman (1976-2020) and Josh Gad (b. 1981).
Early on in the story — in real life as in the movie — Thurgood Marshall, then NAACP’s itinerant attorney, must convince Sam Friedman, a Connecticut attorney specializing in insurance, to take up Joseph Spell’s defense. Friedman, 38, had no experience in criminal cases; Marshall, 32, had the experience but was refused standing as co-counsel by the judge.
Once the lawyers learn that Marshall is forbidden to speak at all at the trial, they have a short, tense conversation — while another lawyer who might take the case waits on the telephone. Without preamble, Marshal intones: “And the Lord commanded Moses to enlist his brother’s help.” Friedman recognizes the reference and joins in, saying along with Marshall: “He shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him.”
Friedman agrees to take the case. Throughout the trial, Marshall directs his colleague’s every move, until eventually — as in the historical case — they win a not-guilty verdict.
Moses and Aaron together pleading with Pharaoh to let the People go is among the most well-known Bible stories. Prior to that, at the close of the Burning Bush scene (Exodus 3:1ff), is a less famous passage: God becomes angry with Moses, promises to be “with the mouth” of both brothers, and tells Moses to be “as God” to Aaron (Ex 4:14-16).
These are not the most mellifluous verses, the most often quoted, or the most likely to land on inspirational household decorations. Still, both lawyers know this passage well enough to quote. And, although translations are quite varied, due in part to awkward phrasing in Hebrew, men from different backgrounds have somehow learned the same English words by heart.
Moreover, Marshall begins with Moses being commanded to enlist Aaron’s help, something not found in the Hebrew or in any translation I could find. Possibly this paraphrase is from a popular culture source of the 1920-30s, although there is no suggestion of that in the scene, or a commonly accepted Sunday-school rendition. Perhaps Marshall KNOWS the quote is not quite right and altered it for a point.
…Or, my best guest: movie-makers were content using not-quite-Bible, even in a scene where the words seem so pivotal; in other words, they were far less obsessed than I with issues of translation and transmission**….
I only found one discussion of the movie mentioning this scene, and its author is entirely unconcerned by what I found anomalous. In fact, Rabbi Elliot Gertel’s piece adds more layers of mismatch: he says that Marshall “quotes” and Friedman “is able to complete the verse,” but then offers a quotation himself that differs substantially from what is actually said in the movie:
…God’s words to Moses in the Book of Exodus (4:16), regarding Aaron: “And he shall be God’s spokesman to the people, that he shall be to you a mouth, and shall be to him in God’s stead.” Impressively, Sam is able to complete the verse.
“Marshall” — Civil Rights and Old-Fashioned Shul Jews (November 2017)
TEXT NOTES: R’ Gertel appears to be using a modified version of Old JPS: “And he shall be thy spokesman unto the people; and it shall come to pass, that he shall be to thee a mouth, and thou shalt be to him in God’s stead.” More translations (some would have been similar in 1941; some are newer) at Bible Hub. Bilingual Hebrew/English for Exodus Chapter 4; interactive text with commentary.
Thurgood and Sam
I didn’t see this movie when it was new and don’t know if there was discussion at the time around use of the Bible story. As noted above, the quotation itself snapped me out of believing in the story as it was presented; a side effect of this shift of perspective, for better or worse, was a new look at the Exodus story.
When Thurgood says “God commanded Moses to enlist his brother’s help,” I hear three things:
asking for Sam’s help in a way that the Bible text itself does not support: God tells Moses to meet Aaron and vice versa (4:27) but never tells Moses to ask for help;
suggesting divine imperative behind the request: if God told Moses/Thurgood to ask, Aaron/Sam has no choice of response; and
calling Sam his brother.
When Sam joins in reciting a version of Exodus 4:16, I also hear three sentiments:
acknowledging brotherhood with Thurgood;
recognizing that the request is bigger than the individuals involved; and
agreeing to a role that, like Aaron, only he can play at that point.
If Aaron and Moses ever had a conversation weighing their responsibilities or wondering if/how they could operate as a brother-team, that’s hidden deep inside the white space between the Bible’s letters. But the text suggests that Moses and Aaron were relative strangers, if not entirely unknown to one another, prior to God’s call to each of them. So maybe the two tales — of Sam and Thurgood, Aaron and Moses — can shed mutual light on how individuals with no history or reason for trust can recognize sibling-partners in one another.
Another resonance between the tales is a pattern of objection, frustration, and acquiescence. Moses objects repeatedly to God’s call at the Burning Bush; God gets angry, and then announces the Aaron-mouth Moses-“God” team. Sam raises objection after objection to Joseph Spell as a client: he was dishonorably discharged from the Service, he left behind a wife and two children, he was charged with theft at another job… Thurgood snaps that criminal defendants are not ideal citizens and tells Sam he has no time for “selling” the task, he just needs him to do it, at which point the not-quite-Bible text seals the Sam-mouth Thurgood-“God” team.
R’ Gertel wonders, parenthetically, if Thurgood is being immodest by equating himself with Moses, and through Exodus 4:16, “as God.” The Thurgood of this Marshall film is nothing if not chutzpadik. But that is beside the point for the link between the lawyers’ story and Exodus. The real chutzpah, I think, is on the part of writers Michael and Jacob Koskoff.
Marshall as Midrash
Given that the Koskoffs paraphrased Exodus 4:14 and left out the part about God promising to be with both brothers in 4:15, sticking with the obscure and awkward pronouncement of 4:16, “…you shall be as God to him [וְאַתָּה תִּהְיֶה-לּוֹ לֵאלֹהִים, ve’atah tihyeh-lo le’Elohim],” must have been deliberate. In addition, the clunky language choice is part of a pivotal moment, creating the brother-team. And one effect of bringing this “as God” in at this point is to equate Civil Rights legal maneuvers to the Exodus Story.
Michael Koskoff (1942-2019) was a lawyer who saw parallels between Friedman’s work and his own, in defense of Black Panthers, e.g. But is this lionizing of legal efforts “immodesty” on anyone’s part? Or is it hinting at a kind of Legal Liberation Theology?
R’ Gertel’s piece about “Old Fashioned Shul Jews” closes with a question about whether/how: “…ties to synagogue and Jewish life have brought a precious and irreplaceable quality to social action by Jews.” This is a crucial question to ponder without romanticizing Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement.
And a fictionalized view of real life lawyers battling an inequitable system, in- and outside the courtroom, can illuminate the relationship of Aaron and Moses, two siblings who barely knew one another, taking up a dangerous and uncertain path toward undoing oppression.
**R’ Gertel’s “Old Fashioned Shul Jews” spends a fair amount of ink on the meaning of carrying and exchanging of money on the sabbath in one Marshall scene. As with my obsession with the use of a pseudo-quotation from the bible, I think the best explanation is that no one associated with the movie thought to worry about this being considered a violation of Shabbat by many Jews.
This document — “Bava Metzia 58b with DS9 and related background” — was prepared in my own wrestling with text on ona’at devarim, “harmful speech,” explored at SVARA this season. Thanks to all in, and supporting, Mixed-Level Bet Midrash fall 2021/5782: teacher R’ Bronwen Mullin, Fairies Sarit Cantor and Annie Kaufman, fellow bet midrash students. Special thanks to my chevruta who was a wonderful partner in exploration.
Responsibility for this document and anything not directly attributed to someone else, is, for better or worse, mine alone. (Bava Metzia 58b can be found at Sefaria.)
Here is a different form of exploration around some of the same ideas, particularly the concept of blood being shed by humiliating someone… or draining away at their identity, drop by drop….and yes, I know, there are mixed metaphors in the whole “becoming white” thing.
In the Book of Genesis, Rachel steals the teraphim that were her father’s (31:19). Meanwhile, Laban accuses Jacob of stealing “my gods [elohai]”; Jacob responds, speaking of “elohekha” [your gods], using Laban’s term; and a tent-by-tent search is conducted (Gen 31:30-33). Rachel and the teraphim then re-appear in Gen 31:34-35. Why “elohim” when it’s Jacob and Laban, and teraphim only when Rachel is around?
…The word “teraphim” is used three times in Rachel’s presence, and then never again in the Torah. In the prophetic books, there are a dozen more mentions of teraphim (Judges, Samuel, Kings, Ezekiel, Hosea, and Zechariah). “Elohim” is grammatically plural and means both (plural) gods or judges and (singular) name of God of Israel….
Many would attribute the shift in language to different source texts. Perhaps, though, vocabulary change indicates fundamental differences in experience. Genesis itself doesn’t tell us what the elohim/teraphim meant to any of the individuals or the households involved. But, we do find a few clues in the text.
After the search fails, Jacob and Laban do not again mention the elohai, which remain abstract, another element in a larger argument over possessions and twenty years of grievances. There is intensity between Jacob and Laban, but other family members recede into the men’s power struggle: Women and children become inanimate or invisible, while households gods seem to disappear. One moment, Jacob is declaring theft of elohim worthy of death-penalty; the next, they’re well and truly forgotten.
Meanwhile, whatever the teraphim were to anyone else, they do seem important to Rachel. She had no idea, when they were leaving home, that Jacob would later make a death-pronouncement about the theft. But she does seem willing to take substantial risk in stealing them. And her method of keeping them hidden is tied to her own body and “the ways of women.” Rachel’s life seems intimately attached to these teraphim.
Maybe, the switch of vocabulary indicates that Rachel relates to the teraphim differently than her (male) kin folk.
For Jacob and Laban the household gods seem abstract, maybe a little like this set of featureless, static images —
When Rachel’s around, though, the household gods seem more animated and personal, maybe a little like this set of images with real, lifelike features and sense of movement —
The vocabulary switch strikes me as something like the shifts from panel to panel in Bill Watterston’s “Calvin & Hobbes.” When Calvin was with Hobbes, Hobbes was an animated companion; but when another human entered the picture, Hobbes was an ordinary, inanimate stuffed toy. I am not suggesting teraphim are anything like stuffed animals to Rachel or anyone else in the story. Just fascinated by a sort of parallel shift in scene from one of animated connection to one of subject-object.