Luxury and Sin: A dictionary path

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.

Image is a pile of gold bricks. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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?

  1. Are Abraham and Daniel showing themselves as noble, generous and proud, that is, (avoiding sin by) rejecting luxury? OR
  2. 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.”

BACK to Chet I, Chet II


Gratification

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.

BACK to Chet I, Chet II


Bend

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.


BACK to Chet I, Chet II


Chet I, Chet II: More Details

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.

BACK to Chet I, Chet II

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

for Daniel שֶׁהָיָה מִתְחַטֵּא עַל בֵּלְשַׁצַּר.

BACK to luxury —– BACK to Chet I, Chet II

BOTH Chet I and Chet II

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.

חִיטּוּי, חִטּוּי m. (v. חטי I, II) [reference here to the verb chet-tet-yud entries I and II] 1) cleansing, purification. Sifré Num. 126 לכלל ח׳ under the law of purification (ref. to Num. XIX, 12, Naz. 61ᵇ טהרה). —2) delicacy, luxury, enjoyment.—Pl. חִיטּוּיִין. Cant. R. to VII, 2 חיטטין (corr. acc.), v. חָטָא I.

חִיטּוּיָא m. ch. (v. preced.2) , being raised in luxury, being delicate. Targ. Y. I Deut. XXVIII, 56. [Some ed. חִיטוֹיָא.]

BACK to Gratification