Leitwort - Part I

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman



By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman


 Lecture #11:

Leitwort - Part I




Some words draw the reader's attention in a special way because of their constant repetition in a narrative or in a narrative cycle.


Since the time of Martin Buber, we customarily refer to this phenomenon as a "mila mancha," a guideword or leitwort. This term indicates that the word seeks to guide the reader in the process of reading the passage, alluding to something hiding beneath the surface of the text. Martin Buber, like his friend Franz Rosenzweig, put great stock in the contribution of the leitwort to the meaning of the story:


The measured repetition which matches the internal rhythm of the text and, one might say, becomes it, is generally the strongest of the tools to convey meaning without expressing it.[1]


The specific definition of this is a little obscure. Buber defines it in this way:


A word or linguistic root, which recurs within a text, a series of texts or a set of texts in an extremely meaningful manner, so that when one investigates these repetitions, the meaning of the texts is explained or becomes clear to the reader, or at least it is revealed to a much higher degree.[2]


There are two interesting foci of Buber's definition:


1. According to his definition, one can track the occurrences of a word through the length of a full narrative cycle, not just in a lone story or a small literary unit.  Indeed, many of the examples cited by Buber and Rosenzweig for this phenomenon are intertwined in different narratives that appear in the same wider story cycle.


2. Buber stresses that we are talking about a word that recurs "in an extremely meaningful manner." He adds this reservation deliberately; otherwise, a “circumstantial repetition” of a given word might lead the reader to believe that it is an especially significant mila mancha. However — and here the definition of this phenomenon relies on a certain circularity — the reader first discovers this special significance of the repetition of the word in the narrative, and only then can he define the special repetition as the use of a mila mancha. In this sense, the meaning that the reader grants to a literary phenomenon precedes the characterization of the phenomenon in the text. The beginning of the process lies, practically, in the decision of the reader about its significance. At its end, the characterization of the vessel expresses the meaning of the leitwort.


It is important to clarify the two different ways that a word becomes a mila mancha. This can be accomplished by offering two different definitions (as Yaira Amit suggests[3]):


1. A word can only become a mila mancha if it appears many times in a narrative, so that the reader feels that a special effort is being made to integrate it in the story and that it naturally signifies a special, hidden intent. It is clear that “many times” is a relative term; obviously, three mentions of a word can give the feeling of intensity in a short story, while in a longer story, we would expect to see a more impressive number of mentions.


2. Sometimes, it is not the number of repetitions of a given word that transforms it into a leitwort, but rather the fact that this word attracts the attention of the reader due to its repetitive placement in central places in a text or a plot, due to its unusual nature. (Amit suggests calling this a “milat achiza”).


In modern research, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, and Moshe David Cassuto were the first to note the phenomenon of the mila mancha in biblical narrative, although they related to it in different ways.


In Cassuto’s view, the repeated words serve as proof of the unity and cohesiveness of the story. In opposition to bible critics, who divide different passages into different elements and claim that the story is composed of different source materials and different stages of writing, Cassuto seeks to demonstrate that the narrative is complete and unified. To this end, he notes the repetition of a given word through the length of the entire narrative, essentially focusing on the specific number of appearances of a given word, mainly seven times or multiples of seven. According to Cassuto, this not circumstantial, but rather proves the organic, complete nature of the unit.

For example, in his commentary on the creation of the world (Bereishit 1), Cassuto writes:


In accordance with the importance of the number seven generally, and in connection to the story of Creation in particular, this number recurs over and over again in the structure of the passage.   


Cassuto brings many examples of this, some of which are doubtful:


Every one of the three nouns which appear in the first verse, and which express the basic concepts of the passage — God, heavens, land — appear in the passage a certain number of times, which is a multiple of seven: 35 times, i.e., five times seven, "God" appears; 21 times, i.e., three times seven, "land" appears; and another 21 times, the noun "heavens" (or "sky").[4]


Cassuto continues at length, offering additional examples of words which recur in the passage seven times or in multiples of seven. There are seven appearances of the word “light” on the first and fourth days of creation; seven appearances of water on the second and third days, etc. In summary, he states: "It is impossible to think that this is a mere coincidence."


One might easily suggest that there is a unique use of the solemn and important words seven times specifically in the story of Creation, which is intimately connected to the structure of seven days. However, Cassuto writes similar things about many other passages - for example, the appearances of the word "hand" in the war with Amalek: "And perhaps the matter is not circumstantial, because the word hand recurs in this passage, in its two meanings, seven times."[5]  According to this approach, there is importance to the number of appearances of the word in the passage, and not only the very repetition, which draws attention. The number of its appearances teaches about the intentional use of this word and proves, as we said, the unity of the passage.


As opposed to Cassuto, Buber and Rosenzweig do not use the leitwort to resolve contentious issues at all. Rather, they see repetition of a word as one of the ways of shaping the story, a narrative tool that carries within it a unique symbolism and meaning. Naturally, according to them, there is no significance to the number of appearances of the word; it is enough that it recurs at significant junctures, and it is sufficient that it draws the attention of the reader to attribute any symbolism or meaning to it. Among the examples they cite for the phenomenon are phrases that appear twice (for example, "Go for yourself," which is said to Avraham in his first revelation, Bereishit 12:1, as well as his last — the Binding of Yitzchak, Bereishit 22:2). They view even this recurrence as intentional repetition; the repeated phrase must be one that directs the reader to a significance hidden below the surface.[6] Sometimes, it appears that Buber and Rosenzweig talk practically about a "linguistic allusion" which creates a connection between the two passages. If it is two passages that are woven together in the same narrative cycle, Buber and Rosenzweig call this a mila mancha.[7]


Two Trends in the Integration of a Repeated Word


A leitwort may make different contributions to the narrative's design and its theme, as will be demonstrated below. At the beginning of our analysis, it is worth mentioning the basic distinction between two different trends dependent on the leitwort, as Frank Polak stresses.[8]


Sometimes, the contribution of a leitwort is to the very cohesiveness of the text, giving the reader the feeling of one, continuous narrative. Beyond the continuity of the plot, which clearly joins together the different facts of the narrative, the tapestry of words gives a feeling of an "individual narrative" first and foremost by way of the leitwort. Polak terms this role of the repeated word as a "structural function," and in fact this is the central use which Cassuto points to in his commentaries. 


However, sometimes the mila mancha carries within it some symbolic meaning, and it plays a role in part of the rhetoric of the story. This function is the integrating of the leitwort in a narrative, which Polak calls the symbolic function.  This matter is stressed by Rosenzweig and Buber.   


This division is so basic division that it is difficult to relate to both trends together in the same analysis. We will concentrate on the leitwort that carries a symbolic meaning within it, contributing to the hidden trend of the narrative. We must note that often a word that appears at first glance to contribute only to the cohesiveness of the narrative can be seen, upon further study, to have a symbolic significance, so that this word may have been chosen specifically for its symbolism.


The Sages' View of the Leitwort


Although modern critics may have coined the terminology, millennia beforehand, the Sages of the Talmud displayed a broad awareness of the repeated mention of words in a narrative unit. Moreover, many times the Sages expound the repeated appearance of a unique guiding expression throughout the length of a narrative or even a complete narrative cycle.


We will focus on a number of instances from the Babylonian Talmud. In Berakhot, calculating the number of appearances of a certain word within a unit is integral to the basis of the regular Amida prayer and its component blessings.  The Talmud (28b) states:


To what do these eighteen benedictions correspond?

R. Hillel the son of R. Shmuel bar Nachmani said: To the eighteen times that David mentions the Divine Name in the psalm, "Ascribe to God, sons of the mighty" (Tehillim 29:1).

R. Yosef said: To the eighteen times the Divine Name is mentioned in the Shema.

R. Tanchum said in the name of R. Yehoshua ben Levi: To the eighteen vertebrae in the spinal column.    


Similarly, in the continuation of the passage, the number of blessings in the Shabbat and High Holiday prayers is determined:


To what do the seven blessings said on Shabbat correspond?

R. Chalafta ben Shaul said: To the seven voices mentioned by David [commencing with], “On the waters” (Tehillim 29:3).

To what do the nine said on Rosh Ha-Shana correspond? 

R. Yitzchak from Carthage said: To the nine times that Channa mentioned the Divine Name in her prayer (I Shmuel 2). For a Master has said: On Rosh Ha-Shana, Sara, Rachel and Channa were taken account of.

To what do the twenty-four said on a fast day correspond? 

R. Chelbo said: To the twenty-four songs that Shlomo used on the occasion when he brought the ark into the Holy of Holies (I Melakhim 8).


Indeed, the word "voice" in Tehillim 29 does appear to be a leitwort, just as one may view the terms "song," "supplication" and "prayer" that recur in a unique way in Shlomo's prayer as a mila mancha in I Melakhim 8.


We may even go back to the famous Mishnaic saying in Tractate Avot that claims, "With ten statements was the universe created" (5:1), based on the repeated verb "Va-yomer," "And he said," in Bereishit 1 (see Rosh Ha-Shana 32a). This is an important example, because the word "Va-yomer" does not make a special impression upon the reader. This is a common word, and it is difficult to claim that it is meant to draw the attention of the reader. However, as we pointed out above, even a hackneyed, trivial word can be loaded with powerful significance. In the story of creation, there is no linguistic communication between the speaker and a listener, yet this "Va-yomer" is mentioned again and again. 


One may also find additional examples of the Sages' awareness of repeated uses of a given word in a literary unit in halakhic contexts. Take, for example, the view of R. Shimon ben R. Yosei, who seeks to derive the thirty-nine forbidden labors of Shabbat from the thirty-nine appearances of the word "labor" in the Torah (Shabbat 49b), or the derivation in Sanhedrin (3b) of the need for three judges in monetary matters from the fact that God's name appears three times in the passage of the unpaid guardian (Shemot 22:7-8).      


Medieval Commentators: Rashi


Do the medieval commentators point to the phenomenon of the mila mancha? Do they note the leitwort in their commentaries? This question is complex. On the one hand, one may find many examples of an awareness of this phenomenon, as will be demonstrated below, but on the other hand, the commentators limit this to a double mention and nothing more – they do not note cases in which the leitwort is mentioned more than twice. The commentators (at least, those which I studied) note the two appearances to buttress their points.


Let us demonstrate the commentator's awareness of the leitwort and the complexity of the matter using the commentary of Rashi. In the story of the Tower of Bavel, the verb "to scatter" predominates – in the concern of the Tower's builders ("lest we be scattered over the face of the whole world," Bereishit 11:4), in God's action ("And God scattered them from there," v. 8) and in the explanation of the name Bavel ("And from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole world," v. 9). Rashi (commentary to v. 8) sees in this repetition a Scriptural allusion to the gap between the human planning in the narrative and the divine reaction:


"And from there the Lord scattered them..."  What they said, "Lest we be scattered" was ultimately carried out upon them.


Rashi finds a similar irony in the story of Korach's rebellion. On Datan and Aviram's words to Moshe, "And they said, 'We will not ascend'" (Bamidbar 16:12), Rashi points out: "Their mouth made them stumble, because only descent (yerida) awaited them." Rashi is noting that in the description of the ground swallowing up Datan and Aviram, the verse uses the verb of yerida: "And they descended, they and all of theirs, alive to the netherworld, and the land covered them over, and they were lost from the midst of the community" (v. 33).  Indeed, the pair aliya and yerida, ascent and descent, constitute a pair of guiding words in this narrative.[9]


Similarly, Rashi points to the root kaved, heavy, as the guiding root in the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Regarding the description of the Egyptian army's disorientation in the bowels of Yam Suf, "And He took off their chariot wheels and He made them drive heavily" (Shemot 14:25), Rashi notes:


"And He made them drive heavily" — with driving that is heavy and harsh, appropriate to the measure that they doled out: "And he made his heart heavy, he and his servants" (ibid. 9:34).  So too here, "And He made them drive heavily."


Indeed, this root constitutes a leitwort in the story of the Exodus, as Jonathan Jacobs notes:


The root "kaved" appears with different meaning throughout the course of the chapters of Egyptian slavery and the splitting of Yam Suf (Shemot 5-14). The root is used in the description of the sins of Pharaoh towards the Israelites on two planes: the physical plane, in the description of Pharaoh's decrees upon the slaves: "Make the work heavier on the men and they shall do, and they shall not seek salvation in words of falsehood" (5:9); and in the metaphysical plane, describing the inner thoughts of Pharaoh as a result of the plagues: "Pharaoh's heart is heavy" (7:14)… Scripture uses the verb "heavy" also in the description of his punishment. First, in the description of some of the plagues, "And a heavy mixture came to the house of Pharaoh and the house of his servants" (8:20)... Second, the word kaved is used to described the final punishment of Egypt at Yam Suf, in the physical plane:  "And He took off their chariot wheels, and He made them to drive heavily (14:25); and in the metaphysical plane, in the description of God's intent, "And I will deal heavily with Pharaoh and all of his host, and Egypt will know that I am God" (14:4), and "I will deal heavily with Pharaoh and with all his host, with his chariot and with his cavalry. And Egypt will know that I am God when I deal heavily with Pharaoh, with his chariot and with his cavalry" (14:17-18). The sin of Pharaoh was a continuous sin of heavy-handedness upon Israel and heavy-heartedness; so too his punishment, measure for measure, is designed as a continuous punishment of heavy plagues which come upon him and his nation.[10]


Here it is uniquely prominent that Rashi finds it sufficient to refer to two mentions of the root, even though, as we said, it is mentioned many times throughout the course of the story of the exodus.


Sometimes, Rashi (relying on a Midrashic source) uses the words that accompany the leitwort, thereby strengthening the connection between the appearances of the word. When Pharaoh speaks with his nation and warns them of the Israelite threat, he says, "Let us outsmart it, lest it multiply (pen yirbeh)" (Shemot 1:10). Because of this concern, he decrees servitude on the people.  Two verses later, the verse explains that Pharaoh’s program does not succeed: "As he mistreated it, so it multiplied (ken yirbeh) and so it burst forth" (v. 12). The word "yirbeh" is mentioned in the same way in the king's worries and in the results of his actions, but alongside this word we can hear the similarity between "pen yirbeh," "lest it multiply," and "ken yirbeh," "so it multiplied." Indeed, it seems that this connection stands before Rashi at the time that he explains:


And its Midrashic understanding is that the Holy Spirit says this: "You say 'pen yirbeh,' but I say 'ken yirbeh.’" (Rashi 1:12) 


Rashi's use of the mila mancha raises a number of basic questions about the definition of an expression as a leitwort and the ways it is manifest. On the words of Avraham to his servants at the binding of Yitzchak — "Stay here with the donkey, and I and the boy will go so far (ad ko), and we will bow and return to you" (Bereishit 22:5) — Rashi states:


 "So far" — i.e., a short distance to the place (makom) which is before them. Its aggadic understanding is: I will see where is that which the Omnipresent (Ha-Makom) said to me, “So (ko) will your seed be."  


As we said, according to Buber and Rosenzweig, one may follow a leitwort or key expression beyond the limits of a small unit. Here, the Sages allude to the tragic, cutting connection between the two appearances of the word "ko": Avraham's words to his servants ("ad ko") recall to the reader the words of God to Avraham (then Avram) before the Covenant Between the Parts (15:5): "And He took him outside and He said, 'Look now to the heavens and count the stars, if you can count them,' and he said to him 'So will your seed be.'" The cynicism that wafts from the Midrashic version expresses Avraham's disappointment at the time that he goes to bind his son, the feeling that all of the divine promises which he has been told are now disintegrating before his eyes and by his own hand, holding the knife.


This sensitive Midrashic passage is based on the double appearance of the word ko. Can we consider this repeated word one that draws the reader's attention in a unique way? Is this a true leitwort? The question in this situation is more complex, because this word appears to be trivial; it is difficult to view its integration in the narrative as something special or unusual. However, practically speaking, this is not such a common word, and in the cycle of Avraham's story it is only mentioned one more time (24:30). It is also worth noting that in other places as well, there is similar wordplay using this very term, ko. Along with the warning to Pharaoh before the plague of Blood, Moshe is commanded to tell him:


And you shall say to him, "God, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, 'Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness,' but you have not obeyed so far (ad ko). So (ko) says God: 'With this you will know that I am God.'" (Shemot 7:16-17)


The two consecutive appearances of ko, in the characterization of Pharaoh on the one hand — "you have not obeyed so far (ad ko)" — and the divine response on the other hand — "So (ko) says God" — serve to concretize the visceral nature of God's response to Pharaoh's refusal. Thus, in the plague of Blood, the integration of two appearances of ko, one right after the other, leads to the reader's impression of intentional wordplay. May one tie together the two appearances of such a trivial word across a huge distance within the same narrative cycle, as Rashi suggests?


I do not have the power to decide this question, and I seek only to arouse the reader's attention to the problematic nature in identifying a mila mancha. In any case, even if it seems like hermeneutics, it is clear that the Sages and Rashi shared a wide awareness of the phenomenon of the repeated word, guiding the reader through the text. However, as I have said, I have not found a relation to the repeated word three or more times. In all of the examples which I cited above and in all similar cases, Rashi relates to the double mention of the word (even if it in fact shows up three or more times in the passage). I invite all readers to pay attention to this phenomenon, and should anyone find a case in which the commentators point to a three-times-or-more occurrence of a given word, I would be very happy to hear about and publicize it to the rest of the audience! In the absence of such evidence, I begin to suspect that the technique employed by Rashi in the places I cited is not the use of a mila mancha, but rather a linguistic allusion (which we will discuss in later lectures) that generally ties the two narratives together. According to Rashi, one may tie together two different images in the same narrative or in the same narrative cycle based on such an allusion.


Up to this point, we have dealt with the general definition of the leitwort and the awareness of the Sages and of Rashi as to its contribution to the narrative. In the next lecture, we will demonstrate the ways that a mila mancha is manifested.



(Translated by Yoseif Bloch)

[1] M. M. Buber, Darko shel Mikra (Jerusalem 5724), p. 284.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Y. Amit, "Ba’ayat Ha-Shimmush Ha-Rav Takhliti Be-Munach 'Mila-Mancha'," Sadan 1 (5754), pp. 35-47.

[4] M. D. Cassuto, Peirush al Sefer Bereishit (Jerusalem 5725), pp. 5-6.

[5] M. D. Cassuto, Peirush al Sefer Shemot (Jerusalem 5712), p. 143.

[6] R. Elchanan Samet uses an interesting synthesis of these two views. On the one hand, he seeks to find in the leitwort a level of symbolic meaning that contributes to the theme of the story (like Buber and Rosenzweig), but on the other hand, he counts the number of appearances of the word and expects it to appear specifically seven times or in multiples of seven (like Cassuto). If one does not take the latter approach as well, in his opinion, one is not talking about a true leitwort at all. R. Samet told me that there are narratives in which it appears that the verse switches the leitwort for a different word so that the leitwort will appear only seven times.

[7] Compare to the abovementioned words of Yaira Amit. We will discuss a similar ambiguity below when we analyze the medieval commentators.

[8]  Polak, Ha-Sippur Ba-Mikra (Jerusalem 5759) (2nd ed.), pp. 91-93.

[9] Aliya and yerida serve as a pair of guidewords in other stories as well, many times alluding to spiritual and moral aliya and yerida rather than topographical or spatial facts. See, for example, Y. Rosenson, "Tzora-Timna, Aliya and Yerida: Iyun Be-Mashmautum Ha-Parshanit shel Ha-Tiurim Ha-Geografiyim Be-Sippurei Shimshon," Beit Mikra 41 (5756), pp. 135-152

[10] J. Jacobs, "Midda Keneged Midda Be-Sippur Ha-Mikra'i," (Alon Shevut 5766), pp. 138-140.