Tetzaveh: Language and Translation

You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly [ner tamid]. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting outside the curtain which is over the Pact, from evening to morning before the LORD. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.

[Note:] Kindling lamps regularly. The lights were to be kindled on the lampstand previously described. The translation of [ner tamid] as “perpetual light” or “eternal light” is grammatically inaccurate and is also contradicted by verse 21. (The so-called ner tamid of the synagogue is of much later origin.) — Exodus/Shemot 27:20-21, JPS/Plaut* and commentary

Cassuto* says that tamid is “intrinsically capable of two interpretations: it can mean ‘continuously, without interruption’ — that is the lamps would never be extinguished, either by day or by night; or it can signify ‘regularly’ — that is, the lamps would burn every night; on no night would its light be wanting — as in the expression [olat tamid, ‘continual burnt offering’].” He concludes that the “second sense is more probable” from context.

In addition, Cassuto says that “ner [‘lamp’] is used here in a collective sense: ‘lamps’ or ‘candelabrum.’

For more on the ancient lamp(s), see, e.g., Wikipedia’s article.

Here’s a quick reference on the later, synagogue “ner tamid.” To the right is an example of a new photovoltaic “ner tamid,” designed to save energy; this one was installed at Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, Evanston, IL.


*Please see Source Materials for complete commentary and Torah/translation citations. Note: Tetzaveh is also transliterated Tetsaveh or T’tzavveh.

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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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Terumah: Language and Translation

“And they shall make [v’asu (third person plural)] an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and cubit and a half high. Overlay [v’tzipita (second person masc. singular)]…Cast [v’yazkakta (second person masc. singular)] four gold rings… Make [v’asita (second person masc. singular)]…” — Exodus/Shemot 25:10-13

Why is the third person plural — “they shall make” — employed in verse ten while all the other verbs in making the Tabernacle and its accoutrements are second person masculine singular, as in “[you, male individual] make”?

Contemporary Translation

I don’t know of a commentary directly noting that use of the third person plural here has the effect, grammatically, of including males and females in construction of the all-important ark — and, by extension, Torah study and Torah implementation* — while the second person verb forms generally used in the tabernacle instructions, as throughout Exodus/Shemot, address a masculine singular “you.”

However, this week’s portion begins with “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts: you shall accept gifts for Me from every person [kol ish] whose heart is so moved” (Exodus 25:2). The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (TWC) ** notes here that later verses — Exodus/Shemot 35:22, 35:29 and 36:6 — explicitly include men and women, thus arguing for the translation as “every person,” rather than as the more usual “every man.”

In her “Post-Biblical Interpretations” in the same volume, Ruth Gais (rabbi of Chavurat Lamdeinu) also references comments from Ramban (aka Nachmanides, 13th Century CE) — see section below — on the involvement of “all Israel” in the work (see TWC, p. 468). In addition, however, Ramban comments on Exodus/Shemot 35:22 that the women actually went first, in the bringing of the gifts for the Tabernacle.

Ramban’s reading of the women’s precedence is based on another grammatical point. The text reads: “And they came [va’yabo-u], the men [ha-anashim] with/because of the women [al-nashim], all whose hearts moved them….”

Varieties of Traditional Readings

In her essay, “The ark and its poles,” (in New Studies in Exodus/Shemot), Nechama Leibowitz** explores the third-person-plural vs. second-person-singular topic. While she quotes her usual range of traditional and contemporary commentators, she minces no words in outlining her view of some:

As we have noted the slaving adherence to the literal wording of the text can often blind one to its real inner meaning. This, for instance, is what Ibn Ezra has to observe on the text:

Since the text originally stated: “they shall make Me a sanctuary,” it begins here with the wording; they shall make an ark”

Cassuto similarly observes in his commentary to Exodus (p. 328):

The reversion to the third person plural instead of the 2nd person singular is meant here to link up with the phrase: “the children of Israel shall make Me a sanctuary,” and, first of all, they shall make an ark.

We may justifiably wonder at these literalists…Does not the very faithfullest interpretation of the text, the plainest sense in its profoundest connotation, imply that here we have the singling out of the ark for a special role, the enlisting, in contrast to all the other appurtenances, of all Israel in its making? Must we not admit that the Midrash has plumbed the depths of the text’s plainest and literal sense?

Leibowitz quotes three midrashic sources:

1) R. Judah said in the name of R. Shalom: “Let all come and occupy themselves with the ark so that they should all qualify for the Torah.

2) Ramban (Nachmanides) explained that “all the Israelites should participate in the construction of the ark because of its supremely sacred role in housing the tablets of the Law,” through donation, direct help or “directing their minds to it.”

3) Or Ha-chayyim (Chayyim Ibn Atar, 18th Century CE) stresses that all Israel is required to complete the ark, just as no one Israelite alone can implement the whole Torah: Some laws pertain only to priests or Levites, for example, while a priest would not redeem his own firstborn.

In an endnote to the essay (not included in the on-line version), Leibowitz also quotes Midrash Tanchuma (early medieval commentary):

We find that when the Holy One Blessed be He instructed Moses to build the Tabernacle He used the expression ve-‘asita “thou shalt make” but with regard to [the ark] He said: ve-‘asu “they shall make.” Why? The Holy One Blessed be He wished to stress that the command applied to each and every Israelite alike. No one should have the excuse to say to his fellow: I contributed more to the ark. Therefore I study more and have a greater stake in it than you! (continued below*)

*Bonus Midrashic Note

Proving that the best stuff is often in the footnotes, the quote from Midrash Tanchuma continues:

For this reason the Torah is compared to water, as it is stated: “Ho, whoever is thirsty come to the water” (Isaiah 51:1). Just as no one is ashamed to ask his fellow to give him a drink so no one should be ashamed to ask his junior to teach him Torah. No one should be able to say: I am a Torah scholar and the Torah is my hereditary privilege because my ancestors too were scholars whereas you and your forbears were not scholars but were proselytes. That is why it is written (Deut. 33:4): “An inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.” Whoever is part of the congregation of Jacob including even proselytes who devote themselves to Torah — they are just as important as the High Priest (i.e., they acquire hereditary right by being included in the congregation.” — Leibowitz, New Studies in Exodus/Shemot, p.495

** Please see Source Material for complete translation and commentary citations.

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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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Mishpatim: Language and Translation

In Exodus/Shemot 22:20-23, God commands the people not to “wrong* or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Plaut/Stern translation**), adding a note about also caring for widows and orphans and concluding with one of those dire warnings that is apparently so unspeakable, the text breaks off, causing some translators to resort to ellipsis, before presenting a very specific threat:

Oh, if you afflict, afflict them…
For (then) they will cry, cry out to me,
and I will hearken, hearken to their cry,
my anger will flare up
and I will kill you with the sword,
so that your wives become widows, and your children, orphans!– Fox**

If you [dare to] cause him pain…! for if he shall cry out to Me, I shall surely hear his outcry. My wrath shall blaze and I shall kill you by the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children orphans. — Stone**

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Beshalach: Language and Translation

There are several significant shifts of number in this week’s portion. One occurs earlier in the portion, when “Egypt” and “the Egyptians” chase the Israelites.

In Shemot/Exodus 14:9, the Egyptians are plural and take a plural verb:

Va-yirdefu Mitzrayim achareihem [The Egyptians set out after them]

In the next verse, however, the Israelites view “Egypt” as a singular entity traveling — nosea [singular] — after them.

Alan Lew writes in Be Still and Get Going:*

Why does the Torah shift number so cavalierly here? According to Rashi, it is because the Torah wishes to emphasize what it was the Israelites saw when they raised their eyes to the horizon. They saw not the Egyptians themselves, in the plural, but the spirit of Egypt, in the singular. They saw their idea of Egypt. They saw the Egypt in which they had cowered as slaves for four hundred years, in which they were abused and outnumbered. In other words, they saw their fear of Egypt. They saw a mental construct, or in Rebbe Nachman’s words, something that they were afraid of but didn’t have to be.

The biblical text takes pains to make the same point. This text is ambiguous about exactly how many chariots there were in the army that had pinned the Israelites down at the sea….

…Why would such a tremendous throng be afraid of 1,800, or even 180,000, charioteers? The answer is that they were not responding to what was really there, nor even to what they saw. Rather they were responding to a phantom. They were responding to a fear-inducing product of their own imagination.

Later, at the Song of the Sea — when Moses and then Miriam sing to the LORD — there is another shift:

Ashira L’YHVH — I will sing to the LORD (Exodus/Shemot 15:1)
Shiru L’YHVH — Sing [plural] to the LORD (15:21)

*For complete citation and other information, please see Source Materials.

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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.

Va-eira: Language and Translation

Exodus/Shemot 6:30-7:1

And Moses said before the LORD, “Look, I am uncircumcised of lips [ani aral sephataim], and how will Pharaoh heed me?” And the LORD said to Moses, “See, I have set you as a god to Pharaoh [elohim l’pharo], and Aaron your brother will be your prophet [n’vi-echa].” — Alter*

Moses appealed to YHVH, saying, “See, I get tongue-tied [ani aral sephataim]; how then should Pharaoh heed me!” YHVH replied to Moses, “See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh [elohim l’pharo], with your brother Aaron as your prophet [n’vi-echa]. — [Hebrew characters for God’s name], TWC (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary)*

Moses said before HASHEM, “Behold! I have sealed lips [ani aral sephataim]; so how shall Pharaoh heed me?” HASHEM said to Moses, “See, I have made you a master over Pharaoh [elohim l’pharo] and Aaron your brother shall be your spokesman [n’vi-echa]. — Stone*

Like its translation, Stone commentary does not read “elohim” as “god,” but focuses on Moses’ state of mind: “In response to Moses’ doubts of his chances for success, God tells him that he will now begin to exercise domination over Pharaoh and that Aaron will speak for him, so that Moses’ speech impediment will not be a factor.”

Alter and Rachel Havrelock, who wrote the commentary for this portion in TWC, remark on the “bold comparison” and “astonishing analogy”:

“…as a god to Pharaoh. The reiteration of this bold comparison may have a polemic motivation. Pharaoh imagines himself a god, but I have made you a god to Pharaoh.– Alter

: “…role of God to Pharaoh.” This astonishing analogy promotes Moses to the role of the Deity, lording over Pharaoh–who in Egyptian society was considered divine.”– TWC

Cassuto begins in a vein similar to the Stone commentary. He, however, goes on to consider the language of the two verses and link them:

…the Lord deals with his objections seriatim. He begins in a paternal tone….Regarding your first fear, that you are of ‘uncircumcised lips’, let me put you at ease at once: you have no need to do much speaking, for I have made you a god to Pharaoh. You will not only be a god vis-a-vis your brother Aaron (iv 16) — that is, you will instruct him what to say, just as God instructs His prophets — but I have also made you a god before Pharaoh. Although Pharaoh is himself considered a deity, he is nevertheless accustomed to hear the prophets of Egypt address hi in the name of their dogs; now you will appear before him as one of the divinities, who do not speak directly but through their prophets, and Aaron your brother shall be your prophet, and he will speak your name to Pharaoh. These words possibly contain a bitter ironic reflection on the Egyptian deities who ‘have a mouth yet do not speak.’ [psalm 135] — Cassuto,* p.89

* Please see Source Materials for complete translation and commentary citations.

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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.

Shemot: Language and Translation

The children of Israel proliferated, swarmed, multiplied and grew more and more.* [Exodus/Shemot 1:7]

This is a very odd verse, stylistically. There are four almost synonymous verbs of increase that seem to gain momentum till climaxed by the double-barrelled adverbial intensifier of me’od me’od [note**].
–Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Exodus***

Leibowitz discusses classical views of this language, some of which attempt to “differentiate between the connotations of the four verbs.” She concludes, instead, that “this concentrated crescendo of verbs of ‘increase’ is a stylistic device emphasising the extraordinary nature of this population explosion.”

* Translator’s footnote:

I have deliberately deviated from the classic translations in an effort to reproduce the “form” as well as the “content” of the original. “To an extraordinary degree,” undoubtedly, a more elegant rendering of bi-me’od me’od would not have reproduced the doubling of the intensifier. See author’s note 2, p. 20. Similarly, the predicatives: “were fruitful” and “became strong” lack the force of the unmodified Hebrew verbs. [Aryeh Newman, translator]

** In an endnote, Leibowitz criticizes English, French and German bible translations for their failure “to reproduce in the vernacular the full force and effect of the original,” asking the reader to “Note how they weakened the effect by reducing the number of predicates and their reluctance to end with two identical words.”

Umberto Cassuto*** views this stylistic point in a slightly different way:

And the children of Israel were not merely fruitful, but they teem; they not only multiplied, but grew mighty; exceedingly [b-me’od me’od, literally, ‘with strength, strongly’], in keeping with the promise given to Abraham; so that the land was filled with them, in accordance with the assurance given to Adam and Noah. We are now enabled to understand how the children of Israel could, for the first time, be called a people in v. 9

Seven expressions for increase are used in this verse, a number indicative of perfection: (1) were fruitful; (2) and teemed; (3) and multiplied; (4) and grew mighty; (5) with strength [b-me’od]; (6) strongly [me’od]; (7) so that the land was filled with them. Harmonious perfection is implied here, with the object of teaching us that all that happened was brought about by the will of God in conformity with His predetermined plan.

*** Please see Source Materials, as well as Commentators, for full citation and more details. See also Great Source(s) for more on Cassuto.



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.

Vayechi: Language and Translation

Genesis/Breishit 50:24:

Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will surely remember [pakod yifkod] you and bring you up out of this land to the land that He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” — Stone* translation

Joseph then said to his kin, “I am dying, but God will surely take care of you [pakod yifkod] and bring you up out of this land to the land that [God] promised to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” — JPS/Stein* translation

Yosef said to his brothers:
I am dying,
but God will take account, yes, account of you, [pakod yifkod]
he will bring you up from this land
to the land about which he swore
to Avraham, to Yitzhak, and to Yaakov. — Fox* translation

And Joseph said to his brothers “I am about to die, and God will surely single you out [pakod yifkod] and take you up from this land to the land He promised to Isaac and to Jacob.” [Abraham inexplicably missing here]
— Alter* translationContinue Reading