Foreign and Familiar

In this week’s Torah portion, two of the central characters receive new names: Abram becomes Abraham (Gen 17:4), and Sarai, Sarah (17:15). God announces this to Abraham as part of a statement of the covenant between them. Both Abraham אַבְרָהָם and Sarah שָׂרָה now have a “ה” (hey) in their names. Thus, each now carries a letter from God’s four-letter name yud-hey-vav-hey, which is fodder for much commentary.

Rabbi Michal Shekel notes, in addition, that Hagar’s name was always spelled with a hey: “There was no reason to change her name, because she already had a measure of the Divine presence.” Shekel adds:

One can read the tradition as saying that Hagar is an outsider, the other, alien to God, by interpreting her name as Hey gar, “Adonai is foreign.” Yet all her actions in chapter 16 prove that this is not so….Hagar is no stranger to God; she is comfortable with God’s presence in a way that is less formal than God’s relationship with Abraham or Sarah….Hagar fulfills the destiny of her name, hey gar, “Adonai dwells” with her.
— from “What’s in a Name?” Lech Lecha
The Women’s Torah Commentary. Jewish Lights, 2000

Might both — the foreignness and the familiarity of God — be true, for us if not for Hagar?

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).
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Acharei Mot: Language and Translation

Sound and word patterns evident in the Hebrew text do not always translate well into other languages. Fox* notes that Chapter 17 of Leviticus/Vayikra is “built at least partially on repeating sound patterns”:

A threefold refrain is “That man is to be cut off from his kinspeople,” stressing the seriousness of the prohibition. Four times we hear “any-man, any-man” (Heb. ish ish), reinforcing the unusually broad scope of the command indicated by the beginning of the chapter (“to Aharaon and to his sons and to all the Children of Israel”). Finally, in v. 10 through 15, the word nefesh occurs nine times, with the alternating meanings of “person” and “life” (the pattern is 1-3-1-3-1 in these meanings). — p.588

JPS* and Alter* translations — like Fox* (quoted below) — use “life of the flesh” for “nefesh ha-basar.” Stone, however, uses “soul of the flesh” to emphasis the word repetition Fox mentions above: “For the soul of the flesh is in the blood and I have assigned it for you upon the Altar to provide atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that atones for the soul” (Lev. 17:11).

And any-man, any-man [v’ish ish] of the House of Israel or of the
sojourners that sojourn in their midst
that eats any blood;
I set my face against the person [nefesh] who eats the blood;
I will cut him off from amid his kinspeople!

For the life [nefesh] of the flesh — it is in the blood;
I (myself) have given it to you upon the slaughter-site, to effect-ransom for your lives [nafshoteichem],
for the blood — it effects ransom for life [ba-nefesh]!

Therefore I say to the Children of Israel:
Every person [kol-nefesh] among you is not to eat blood,
and the sojourner that sojourns in your midst is not to eat blood.

And any-man, any-man [v’ish ish] of the Children of Israel or of the
sojourner that sojourns in your midst
who hunts any hunted wild-animal or a bird that may be eaten
is to pour out its blood and cover it with the dust.

For the life [ki-nefesh] of all flesh — its blood is its life [nafsho]!
So I say to the Children of Israel:
The blood of all flesh you are not to eat,
for the life [nefesh] of all flesh — it is its blood,
everyone eating it shall be cut off!

And any person [v’chol nefesh] that eats a carcass, or an …
–Leviticus/Vayikra 11-15, Fox translation

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Vayikra: Language and Translation

What does it mean that “a soul unintentionally fails [Nefesh ki-techeta bi-sh’gagah]…”? — Leviticus/Vayikra 4:1-2

Is this an ethical or ritual error? Was the “soul,” in contemporary understanding, alone involved? Here are five translations with associated notes, suggesting (no surprise) no agreement:

YHWH spoke to Moshe, saying:
Speak to the Children of Israel, saying:
(Any) person [nefesh]– when one sins [ki-techeta] in error [bi-sh’gagah]
regarding any of YHWH’s commandments that should not be done,
by doing any one of them:

sins: Heb. teheta‘; more properly, it means “fails” (B-R*) or “misses” (as with an arrow). The word connotes giving offense to or wrongdoing God (or another person).
— Fox**

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to the Israelites, saying, ‘Should a person offend errantly in regard to any of the LORD’s commands that should not be done and he do one of these,…

offend errantly. The Hebrew adverb bishegagah has the sense of “unintentionally,” “by mistake.” The concern throughout this section is to preserve the purity of the place of the cult. The inadvertent “offense” does not at all imply an ethical transgression but rather the unwitting violation of a prohibition…generating physical pollution that must be cleansed.
— Alter**

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a person unwittingly incurs guilt in regard to any of the LORD’s commandments about things not to be done, and does one of them —

Person. Hebrew nefesh, often rendered “soul.” Some commentators remark that the soul is involved in every transgression, but Bachya notes that nefesh sometimes means the combination of soul and body, sometimes body alone (e.g., Lev. 21:1).

Incurs guilt. These words render a form of the verb chata, “to sin.”
— JPS/Plaut**

[YHVH] spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a person unwittingly incurs guilt in the regard to any of [YHVH’s] commandments about things not to be done, and does one of them —

person. Heb. nefesh, which indicates that the law applies equally to women and men.

unwittingly incurs guilt. The concern is with inadvertent moral or physical violations.

HASHEM spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel, saying: When a person will sin unintentionally from among all the commandments of HASHEM that may not be done, and he commits one of them.

[nefesh]A person [lit., soul]. Because thoughts originate in the soul, the sins that necessitate this offering — sins born of careless inadvertence — are attributed to the soul, and it is the soul that is cleansed by means of the offering (Rambam [Maimonides])
— Stone**

The Stone chumash elaborates on this verse:

1) “No offering is sufficient to remove the stain of [intentional] sinfulness; that can be done only through repentance and a change of attitudes…”

2) “…if the sin was committed accidentally and without intent, no offering is needed.”

This leaves “deeds that were committed [bi-shegagah], inadvertently, as the result of carelessness.” Ramban [Nachmanides] teaches, the text continues, that “such deeds blemish the soul…for if the sinner had sincerely regarded them with the proper gravity, the violations would not have occurred.” One who cares about honoring the Sabbath, “would not have ‘forgotten’ what day of the week it was,” for example.

Another view:

The person who brings forth a sacrifice in the Torah is called a nefesh — in Rabbinic Hebrew, literally, a “soul.” When we give our sacrifices, we should give from the heart, or even more deeply, from the soul….We reach out from our soul to connect with the souls of others.
— Joseph B. Meszler, “Sacrifice Play”
IN The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary (Jewish Lights; full citation in Source Materials**)

*“B-R” is the Martin Buber-Franz Rosenzweig translation of the Bible into German, on which Fox based his translation. (I just figured out, finally, how to do text jumps in these posts! [return to text])

** Full citations and more details about each translation available at Source Materials. (return to text)

See also, Unintentional Soul-Fail: Pursuing Connections

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.