Leitwort - Part V

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman

 

LITERARY STUDY OF BIBLICAL NARRATIVE

By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman

 

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This series is dedicated to the refuah sheleimah of

our dear mother

עטל רחל בת פעראל

by Frieda and Dovid Wadler

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Lecture #14:

Leitwort, Part V

 

 

As we noted in the end of the previous lecture, in this lecture we will continue to specify the different uses of the mila mancha, the guiding word or leitwort.  This will be our penultimate lecture on this topic.

 

Irony

 

Since tracing the mila mancha involves keeping track of and examining the recurrences of a certain word in the text, the reader cannot help but compare the different appearances of the word and its variable use throughout the unit.  The reader may then be surprised to find that the narrative contains, subsumed within it, different ironic jabs. We will examine this through a brief case study.

 

Shimshon in Gaza

 

Let us begin with the repetition of the word "night" (layla) in the story of Shimshon and the Gazan prostitute. Yaira Amit argues that layla should be seen as the leitwort of this small passage:[1]

 

And Shimshon went to Gaza,[2] and he saw there a harlot, and he came to her. To the Gazans, saying: "Shimshon has come here." And they surrounded him, and they lay in wait for him all night at the gate of the city,

 

And they kept quiet all the night, saying: "Until the morning's light — then we will kill him." And Shimshon lay down until midnight; and he arose at midnight, and he grabbed the doors of the gate of the city and the two posts, and he plucked them up, bar and all; and he put them upon his shoulders, and he carried them up to the top of the mountain that is before Chevron. (Shoftim 16:1-3)

 

Laila is prominent in the story because of its appearance in two consecutive phrases (four times in two verses). At first, the Gazans are described with a twofold use of the expression "all the night" (kol ha-layla), and after that Shimshon's act is described with the double use of the expression "midnight" (chatzi ha-layla, literally "half the night"). The demarcation of this night is particularly noticeable because of its role in the secret plan of the Gazans: "Until the morning's light — then we will kill him."

 

Tracing the mentions of layla in the narrative allows the reader to notice the mockery of the Gazans in this scene: while the Gazans are waiting for Shimshon "kol ha-layla" and maintaining operational silence ("And they kept quiet"), "be-chatzi ha-layla," Shimshon already takes off, stopping to uproot the gates of the city and carry them off with him. The derisive tone becomes quite clear when the reader pays attention to the fact that the Gazans are maintaining their silence at the very same time that Shimshon is uprooting "the doors of the gate of the city," presumably not without a great cacophony. As Amit puts it, "They continued keeping quiet, but he was no longer present in the place."[3]  

 

In light of this, one may question whether the narrator alludes to a double meaning of the reflexive verb "And they kept quiet," "Va-yitcharshu."  This conjugation, which appears nowhere else in Tanakh, is from the root cheresh, which can be an adjective referring to quiet or secrecy or a noun referring to a deaf-mute. The conceptual meaning, in keeping with the context, is clearly that of sitting quietly, waiting without making a sound. Nevertheless, as a complementary definition it is difficult to ignore the alternative meaning: they made themselves deaf-mutes.[4]

 

Guiding — In the Opposite Direction

 

The reader's natural inclination is to see in the recurring word an attempt on that part of the verse to highlight that word and to raise its prominence it in the reading process. 

 

Despite this, sometimes Scripture's aim in emphasizing a given word is not to allude to the fact that the concept represented by that word is realized in the narrative in a unique way, but specifically to point out to the reader that the recurring word's referent is not being realized. The repeated presence of the word highlights the absence of its fulfillment. At first, this may sound bizarre, but the reader must view this as an additional way to assimilate an ironic allusion in the narrative. A certain idea is stressed in the narrative specifically because it is not being realized, and the reader is required to pay attention to the gap between what is emphasized through the lexical network of the narrative and what is actually happening in the plot itself — which is advancing in the opposite direction. 

 

Let us take two scenes from the book of Bereishit in order to examine this phenomenon.

 

The Less-than-Brotherly Brother

 

The mila mancha of Hevel's murder at the hands of Kayin (4:8-11) is clearly ach, brother. It recurs six times[5] in the four verses of the episode of the murder and God's immediate reaction to it — even, notably, in places where it is wholly superfluous:

 

And Kayin spoke to Hevel his brother.

 

And it was when they were in the field that Kayin rose up against Hevel his brother and killed him.

 

And God said to Kayin, "Where is Hevel your brother?"

 

And he said, "I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?"

 

And He said, “What have you done?  The voice of your brother's blood cries to Me from the ground.”

 

"And now cursed are you from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand."

 

The first three times that we encounter the term "brother," it is conjoined to the name of Hevel, making it wholly extraneous. Does the reader not know by now that Hevel is Kayin's brother? This superfluity strengthens the feeling that the integration of the term "brother" in the narrative is intentional and an attempt to transmit some hidden message.[6]  It is logical that the significance of this is to force the reader to note that despite their fraternal relationship, Kayin is not treating Hevel as his brother — indeed, not even as a living creature![7]  Alternatively, this is an ironic emphasis that alludes to what is not occurring in the narrative. Repeating the term brother recalls to the reader that we are talking about brothers, despite the fact that one murders the other![8]

 

Hearing Without Listening

 

A second example of this sort of use of a mila mancha is found in the story of the purchase of the Makhpela Cave (Bereishit 23). It is striking how each side in a commercial dialogue opens with the appeal, "Listen to me."   

 

The Hittites replied to Avraham, "Sir, listen to us. You are a mighty prince among us..." (5-6)

 

He said to them, "If you are willing to let me bury my dead, then listen to me and intercede with Efron son of Tzochar on my behalf..." (8)

 

Efron the Hittite was sitting among his people, and Efron the Hittite replied to Avraham...  "No, my lord, listen to me; I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it..."  (10-11)

 

Avraham bowed down before the people of the land.  And he said to Efron in the hearing of the people of the land, "Listen to me, if you only would.  I will pay the price of the field..." (12-13)

 

Efron answered Avraham, saying to him, "Listen to me, my lord; the land is worth four hundred shekels of silver, but what is that between me and you?" (14-15)

 

Avraham listened to Efron, and Avraham weighed out to Efron the price he had named in the hearing of the Hittites, four hundred silver shekels, according to the merchant's standard. (16)

 

Because this word opens every statement of each side, and it is even mentioned in the conclusion ("Avraham listened to Efron's terms"), it is clear that the verse stresses this in a unique way. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the form "Listen to me," "Shema'eni," as a request or a command is unusual and not mentioned elsewhere in Tanakh. This suffices to attract the attention of the reader to this word and its repeated appearances.

 

It appears that here as well the repeated use of this verb alludes to the reversal of the meaning of the term; in other words, it is a verbal exchange in which neither side is listening to the other, a sort of dialogue of the deaf. In lieu of an actual meeting of the minds, each participant in the conversation is trying to put pressure on the other, beseeching in courtly language: hear me out, accept what I am saying. This is particularly clear in Avraham's words in verse 13: "Listen to me, if you only would."

 

Why, in a narrative which is based totally on a dialogue, is there is a lack of communication between the speakers? It appears that both sides of the dialogue have obscure motives, which they take pains to conceal. 

 

Efron, on one side, presents himself as polite and courteous, but in fact he is asking a tremendous price for the cave (and he adds the field incidentally, something that pushes up the price even higher).[9]  

 

Avraham, on the other side, initially gives the impression that he is only asking the Hittites for authorization for one burial plot among the Hittites; however, as the dialogue progresses and the interlocutor changes from anonymous Hittites to Efron, Avraham lets the cat out of the bag by revealing that he does not want a lone plot in the communal Hittite cemetery, but rather a specific cave that he will conclusively acquire to be his and his descendants' forever.[10]  

 

The polite dialogue that hides so much beneath the surface creates the feeling of "double talk." There are things which are said explicitly, but there are also things which are hinted to between the lines, and still others which are not even alluded to, although they may very well be the primary motives of the speakers. In light of this, it is not surprising that each participant feels that his companion is not listening to him because the companion is only hearing himself.

 

Thus, the use of the root “shama,” with its varied meanings of hearing, listening, and hearkening, makes for a subversive mila mancha.

 

Next week, we will analyze an interesting phenomenon that appears all over Tanakh: the teamwork of complementary guiding words. In particular, we will look at a natural pairing of shama and its familiar companion, ra'a (seeing).  With this, we will finally conclude our series on the leitwort.

 

 

[Translated by Rav Yoseif Bloch]



[1]  Y. Amit, Shoftim (Mikra Le-Yisrael, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 5759), p. 245.

[2] Biblical Gaza refers to Gaza City, one of the five ancient capitals of the Pelishtim (Philistines).  

[3] Y. Amit, Likro Sippur Mikra'i (Universita Meshuderet, Misrad Ha-Bitachon, 5760), p. 17.

[4] Yaira Amit also proposes that this verb has an intentional double meaning, but she takes it in a different direction: "It must be that this root is preferred because of its dual significance: whispering and plotting" (Amit, Shoftim, p. 245).

[5] For the reader who is expecting to encounter this word seven times specifically, I will note that at the beginning of the narrative, the verse states: "And she went on to bear his brother, Hevel" (4:2). 

[6] Compare F. Polak, Ha-Sippur Ba-Mikra (Jerusalem, 5759), p. 93.

[7] Note that throughout the length of Hevel's story, he is referred to as the brother of Kayin, while Kayin is never called Hevel's brother. It is clear that the verse seeks to stress the criticism of Kayin, who does not relate to Hevel as his brother; therefore, this description is placed specifically next to the murdered brother's name.

[8] The ironic mockery of Kayin is expressed in his response to God's question, "Where is your brother Hevel?"  Interpreting God's question in its literal sense, as a request for information, allows Kayin to dodge the question, claiming ignorance ("I do not know"). Kayin thereby makes himself the object of mockery, as noted by M. Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington, 1985), p. 92.

[9] The Sages alluded to this, as Efron is criticized for initially offering the cave and the field for free and then demanding top dollar.  Rashi notes this in his commentary to v. 16, pointing out that Efron's name is here spelled without the letter vav (E-f-r-n): "'And Avraham weighed out to Efron' — missing a vav, because he said a lot but did not even do a little. He took from him large shekels which were hundredweights, as it says, 'according to the merchant's standard' — which are accepted as a shekel everywhere. There is a place where their shekels are as big as hundredweights." On Efron's double talk in this passage, see M. Sternberg, "Double Cave, Double Talk: The Indirections of Biblical Dialogue," in J.P. Rosenblatt and J.C. Sitterson (eds.), Not in Heaven (Philadelphia and Bloomington, 1991), pp. 28-57.

[10] For a fuller treatment of this issue, see my essay, "Ha-Shimmush Be-Lashon Du-Mashma'it Be-Sippurei Mirma Ve-Hataya Ba-Mikra," Tarbitz 73 (5764), pp. 483-515.