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Lecture #27: Malbim

  • Dr. Avigail Rock




R. Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel Weisser (1809-1879) — hereinafter: Malbim — was one of the most prominent figures in Eastern European Jewry in the 19th century, both in the realms of biblical exegesis or rabbinical leadership. Malbim was born and educated in Volochysk in the Volhynia region of what is now western Ukraine. He married at the age of fourteen, but his marriage was unsuccessful, and he got divorced soon after.


Malbim left his city of birth and moved on to Warsaw, where he became known as the “Illui of Volhynia.” From there he moved to Łęczyca, Poland, where he married the daughter of the town’s rabbi, R. Chayim Auerbach. At this time, Malbim wrote Artzot Ha-Chayim, his commentary on the Orach Chayim section of Shulchan Arukh, and upon its completion, he set out on a journey in order to receive the approbations of prominent rabbis for his book. After a multi-year journey, he became the rabbi of the town of Września in the Poznań district of Poland, and he lived in the city for seven years. In 1845, he became the rabbi of Kempen. [1]


In 1858, Malbim was invited to become the rabbi of the Jewish community in Bucharest, and in the year 1860, he was appointed as the chief rabbi of Romania. Malbim was accepted graciously, both by haredi Jews who saw him as a rabbinical figure of great renown and by Maskilim who saw him as a rabbinical figure endorsing a modern intellectual approach. However, this high position quickly became the source of many troubles; at a later point, it even endangered Malbim’s life.  


In the second half of the 19th century, the spirit of the Reform movement blew from Western Europe to Eastern Europe. Malbim, who became acquainted, during his travels, with the destructive influences of Reform Judaism upon Orthodox Judaism, came out sharply against the leaders of the Reform movement in Romania and against certain developments that the heads of the community supported in order to modernize and reshape the Jewish community of Romania. His main opposition was to the relationship of Reform Judaism towards Written Torah and Oral Torah.


One of the struggles against Reform Jews came to a head in 1858, after great efforts by the leader of the Haskalah community to build a synagogue in the style of a Christian church, with a choir and organ. This Templul Coral (Choral Temple) was authorized by the Prince of Moldavia, Grigore Alexandru Ghica. Malbim opposed the style of this synagogue forcefully; he was concerned with its imitation of both Christian architecture and the Reform synagogues of Western Europe. Similarly, Malbim sharply opposed the modern Jewish schools established in the city, criticizing them for putting too great an emphasis, in his view, on secular studies, and making holy studies ancillary. Malbim even complained about the biblical translations which came out in different languages, except for those in Yiddish.


An additional source of conflict between him and the “modern” Jewish community was his passionate support of punctilious standards in the halakhic realm; for example, he inspected each morning the knives of the kosher butchers. Thus, Malbim earned the reputation of being a zealot among the “modern” Jews of Romania.


However, Malbim faced criticism from the traditional wing as well. Hasidim, incensed by his support for reviving the Hebrew language,[2] viewed him as irredeemably progressive, and he was targeted with sharp criticism.


Ultimately, the arguments with the “modern” community, coupled with Malbim’s powerful sermons against Reform Judaism, led to a proposed compromise, in which Malbim would be offered monetary compensation for relinquishing his rabbinical position, but he demurred. Because of this refusal, his opponents turned to the local rulers and accused him of treason. As a result of this, Malbim was thrown into prison and sentenced to death. He was released only due to the involvement of Sir Moses Montefiore.[3] The condition of his being freed to leave the soil of Romania.

Malbim then set out on a grand journey in order to purify his name and to have his decree of banishment rescinded. At one point, he reached Constantinople (Istanbul) in order to appeal to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Romania at the time, but this did not help. He also travelled to Paris,[4] but there as well his efforts were unsuccessful.


Without any other options, Malbim accepted his decree of banishment, and he wandered to many places. Among other locations, he served in the community of his father-in-law, Łęczyca, and from there he moved on to Kherson, Ukraine and Mogilev, Belarus. Even in these places, Malbim suffered the persecution and slander of the Maskilim and assimilationists on one hand and the Hasidim on the other. Despite Malbim’s opponents, he succeeded in drawing many attendees to his sermons, but in the end, he was compelled to leave the area by the local governor, apparently due to the activities of informers.


He had to leave the Russian Empire, and he moved on to Prussia and its capital, Kצnigsberg, where he took over the rabbinical position of R. Yaakov Mecklenburg (author of Ha-Ketav ve-ha-kabbala) for four years. In 1879, after twenty years of conflict, wandering, and humiliation, Malbim left Kצnigsberg, returning to the Russian Empire to assume the position of rabbi in Kremenchug, Ukraine,[5] but he died on the way, on the first day of Rosh Hashana, in the year 5640.[6]


B. Commentary to the Narrative Portion of the Torah




Malbim composed a comprehensive commentary on all of Tanakh (except for Kohelet and Eikha). Without any doubt, this commentary became the most widely read of the more recent biblical exegetes’ works.


The commentary on the Torah may be divided into two parts — the narrative part and the halakhic part. His style in the narrative part is very similar to the style of Abarbanel’s commentary. He usually explains a full unit, placing the questions at the beginning.[7] In his introduction to his commentary on Yeshayahu,[8] Malbim expands on his exegetical philosophy, and he explains there that his commentary follows the peshat of the verse, rather than the derash (or, to use his term, derush).[9]


The most prominent characteristic of Malbim’s commentary is his analysis of synonyms and various forms of repetition in Tanakh (parallelism and recapitulation). In his view, Scripture is divine, and as a result, it does not speak in the human way. Therefore, it includes no synonyms for the sake of poetic beauty; every word has a special significance of its own, and every word is chosen with punctiliousness, in order to transmit a certain specific message. Similarly, there can be nothing redundant, duplicative, or extraneous in the biblical narrative.[10]


In Malbim’s introduction to Vayikra,[11] Malbim counts six hundred and thirteen principles of linguistics, many of which deal with the distinctions between ostensible synonyms. Malbim dedicates so much time to this topic partly because of his great desire to strengthen the study of peshat among Orthodox Jews, but mainly, it is polemic directed against the interpretations of the Maskilim. During his time, the Maskilim began developing a literary relationship to the Torah, similar to the relationship of the local culture to classical Greek literature, an approach which extinguishes the holiness of the Torah.[12] Expressing the antithesis of this approach, Malbim works hard to prove that the Torah is not “literature”; rather, it was written in holiness, with utmost precision in the composition of every jot and tittle.   




We will demonstrate this with Malbim’s analysis of synonymous parallelism in his comments on Yaakov’s words to Shimon and Levi: “Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel!” (Bereishit 49:7). The classic approach sees this as direct parallelism, with the initial word, “Cursed,” serving both hemistiches:


A: Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce,

B: And [cursed be] their wrath, for it is cruel!



If “their anger” parallels “their wrath”; “fierce” parallels “cruel,” and the second hemistich adds nothing to the first.


Malbim, on the other hand, explains that wrath and anger are not equivalent:[13]


There is a difference between anger and wrath, for anger is what one feels towards one who has sinned against him, and wrath is the expression of one’s fury toward another who did not sin against him, until it crosses a line. Towards Shekhem ben Chamor, there was anger expressed, but towards the rest of the citizens of Shekhem, there was wrath expressed.[14]


Malbim reads the verse very carefully, and his precise reading produced many pleasing and felicitous comments. Thus, for example, Malbim claims that one should differentiate between the term “selicha” (absolution) and other expressions of forgiveness:


The definition of the verb “to absolve” is that one removes the sin from reality totally, as if it had never existed in reality at all. This is its distinction from other terms. For example, when he says, “I have taken away your sin” (Zekharya 3:4), the sin has an independent existence,[15] it is just being taken away from the person…

Therefore, you will find the term “selicha” only in association with God, not in terms of one person’s relation to another. While a person may “take away sin” or “bear sin” he cannot absolve, for this means that the matter, in reality, is as if it had never existed at all. (Vayikra 4:26)


This interpretive approach has ramifications for resolving contradictions in Tanakh. Thus, for example in the Bilam narrative, at first God tells Bilam not to join the officers of Moav, saying “You shall not go with them (imahem)” (Bamidbar 22:12) while below God says, “If the men have come to call you, rise, go beside them (itam)” (ibid. v. 20). Bilam indeed goes with the officers of Moav, and God becomes angry (“And God’s anger was kindled because he was going,” v. 22). The resulting difficulties have been addressed by many biblical commentators.[16] Malbim distinguishes between imahem and itam:


There is a distinction between “beside him” and “with him,” for “with him” indicates equality, while “beside him” will tell us that one is the principal. Now, God let him know that he must not go “with them” equally, but only “beside them” — his mind must be separated from their minds, because he was forbidden to go with the intent to harm Israel. He does not do so, for he went “with them”.


Another nice example may be found in the words of Yosef’s brothers to themselves after their father’s death, “Lu Yosef loathe us” (Bereishit 50:15). The difficulty in the verse is that it should have used the term “pen” (lest) rather than “lu” (would), because “lu” is used when one wants something to happen, while “pen” is for when one is concerned about some eventuality.[17] Malbim has a nice comment here, explaining the use of the word “lu”:


I have already explained… that the greatest revenge upon one’s enemy is if, in place of his enmity and the evil he dealt him, [the victim] will make [the aggressor] one of those who eat at his table, doing him only good and kindness, for then he will remember constantly the evil which he has done…

Now, Yosef’s brothers felt this, and Yosef’s good was in their eyes akin to stoking the coals in their heads, and they said: Would it only be that Yosef may loathe us certainly! Thus, would that “he may return to us all of the evil which we have dealt him.” Let him do evil in practice, not good, for that is to us like stabbing us with a sword.[18]


C. Commentary to the Halakhic Portions of the Torah




Malbim’s commentary on the halakhic part of the Torah is a magnum opus in its own right; apparently, in his view, it is the central part of his commentary on the Torah. A proof of this is the fact that Malbim begins the writing of his commentary on the Torah with the Book of Vayikra, the content of which is almost exclusively halakhic, and his commentary for Vayikra is significantly longer than his commentaries on the other books of the Pentateuch.


Malbim expands on the significance of interpreting the Torah’s halakhic sections in his commentary on the Book of Vayikra. He explains that his commentary was composed in order to counter his generation’s disrespect for Oral Torah and the authority of the Sages.[19] This disrespect was a product of the apparent lack of connection between the law of Oral Torah and the text of the Written Torah; the links seemed forced, and the derivations did not seem to be the natural products of the verses.[20] Because his contemporaries found the Sages’ hermeneutics unconvincing, they concluded that the Oral Torah was not binding.[21] Malbim writes his commentary in order to fight these views,[22] which spread progressively through the second half of the 19th century. His aim is to prove that the Sages’ exegesis is in fact based upon the rules of language.[23]


For this purpose, Malbim formulates six hundred and thirteen linguistic principles that the Sages carried with them when they analyze these verses. (These rules are written individually in his work Ayelet Ha-shachar.[24]) According to his view, these rules were correct in the biblical era, and Tanakh was written according to them. The reason that the Maskilim opposed these rules was, he maintained, out of ignorance.[25] They were unfamiliar with these rules, and specifically the words of the Sages written according to these principles. Ultimately, these derivations point towards the peshat of the verse, unlike the words of the Maskilim, who did not recognize the rules of language according to which Tanakh was written.


Aims of the Commentary


Malbim’s commentary deals with three areas in particular:


  1. Explaining halakhic exegesis: in his commentary on the Torah, Malbim cites the compendia of Tannaitic Midrash — Mekhilta, Sifra, and Sifrei — and he explains these derivations at length.
  2. Explaining the peshat of the verses: for this purpose, Malbim uses the rules of biblical linguistics, formulated in his introductions to Yeshayahu and Vayikra.
  3. Exploring the connection between peshat and derash.[26] In light of this link, Malbim gives his commentary the name Ha-Torah Ve-Ha-Mitzva.[27]


Examples of Halakhic Commentaries


The following examples are taken from halakhic passages, and they demonstrate the essentials of Malbim’s interpretive approach and his exegetical innovations.


  1. The verse, “Judge your comrade righteously” (Vayikra 19:15), is understood in the Sifra as “Give every person the benefit of the doubt.” Malbim explains how this explanation of the Sages, which apparently has nothing to do with the peshat, is actually the depth of the simple meaning of the verse:


An additional derash is based on the phrasing of “Judge your comrade righteously” in the singular language, for there are always two litigants, as it says, “And you shall judge righteously between each man and his brother” (Devarim 1:16)…

However, we can imagine justice limited to one person if another examines his acts, along the lines of “Judge me God, according to my righteousness” (Tehillim 7:9). Thus, this means that you should judge your fellow favorably; you shall not see him as evil…


In other words, a court case always involves two litigants, and therefore the Sages expound that we are talking about judging the behavior of one’s fellow. Thus, upon each person is the obligation to give his fellow the benefit of the doubt, to find him righteous.


  1.  Devarim 23:25 says:

When you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, then you may eat grapes until you are fully satisfied, but in your vessel you may not put any.


The simple meaning of the verse is apparently that whenever a person enters his fellow’s vineyard, he may eat some grapes, as long as he does not store it in a vessel. But the Sages understand (see Bava Metzia 87b and Rashi’s comment on the verse) that this verse is speaking only about a person working in a vineyard — a laborer is allowed in to eat in the vineyard while he picks grapes, but it is forbidden for him to store any in a vessel. Malbim sets out to prove that the derush of the Sages which determines that we are talking about a laborer doing his job is in fact the depth of the simple meaning of the verse.


He distinguishes between two forms of commands in the Torah. The first is when the verb appears, followed by the object (e.g. “You shall not curse the deaf,” Vayikra 19:14); the second is when the object appears first, and then the verb (e.g. “The nakedness of your daughter-in-law you shall not reveal,” ibid. 18:15). When the verb appears first, the Torah is presenting an absolute prohibition, even if the given object in the verse is not at issue (e.g., “You shall not curse the deaf” is actually a general prohibition against cursing anyone, even those who cannot hear). When the object appears first, the Torah forbids only in a situation in which the object which appears in the verse is at issue (e.g. “The nakedness of your daughter-in-law you shall not reveal” — the prohibition applies only to one’s daughter-in-law). In other words, when the object appears first, it defines the command.


According to this rule, the verse should read, “When you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, then you may eat grapes until you are fully satisfied, but you may not put any in your vessel.” Then there would be total opposition between “you may eat” and “you may not put” — it is permitted to eat the grapes, but it is forbidden to put them in vessels. However, in the form in which the verse is written, “When you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, then you may eat grapes until you are fully satisfied, but in your vessel you may not put any,” the definition of the prohibition is determined by “in your vessel,” and the matter is apparently perplexing.


Malbim explains that if we understand that we are talking about a laborer, whose main occupation is putting the owner’s produce in the owner’s vessels, the verse may be understood: when the laborer does his job and puts produce in the basket, it is allowed for him to eat, but concerning putting in vessels, it is only permitted for him to put in the owner’s vessels and not his own vessels.[28]




We will conclude with Malbim’s commentary on Devarim 30:1, “…and you shall call them to mind among all the nations where Lord your God drives you off;” this comment explains the unique significance of the verb “to drive off” as reflecting God’s love for the Nation of Israel, even at the time that He punishes them:


The distinction between casting off and driving off is threefold:




However, one who drives off, as long as he drives off, he must be close to the object, and through driving it off, it will not be ruined, and he will know where it is…

This is testimony and evidence that God’s eyes are upon you solely to do good for you.


[1] This book was greatly appreciated by the Chafetz Chayim, and its rulings are mentioned in Mishna Berura more than a hundred times. It was first printed in 1837.

[2] In Bucharest, Malbim established an association for the dissemination of the Hebrew language.

[3] In the Hebrew periodical “Ha-Levanon” (17 March 1865), Malbim describes his imprisonment:

It was the eve of the Shabbat on which we read “Remember what Amalek did to you” (Devarim 25:17)… when the agents of the police came, by the order of the minister… They surrounded my house on every side… and they took me by force and cast me into the wagon and the cage which they brought, and the entire battalion, all the police captains and the guards, the armed men and the patrolmen and the cooks and their servants and their dogs, surrounded the cage on every side. It was treatment normally accorded to one of the thieves or the murderers who are infamous and notorious throughout the land.

In the continuation, Malbim indicts the Jews who brought this about:

This was by the hand of adversaries from among our own people; they were the ones who destroyed our Temple and sold their own brothers into the hands of their adversaries, who shunned them…

[4] There he met the heads of the Alliance Israיlite Universelle, an international organization founded in 1860 by the French statesman Adolphe Crיmieux in order to safeguard the human rights of Jews around the world.

[5] In the year 1879, a number of congregations in New York invited him to come to the United States and to serve as the chief rabbi of the country, but he rejected this proposal.

[6] In 2000, Yisroel Meir Gabbai, founder of Agudas Ohalei Tzadikim, dedicated to maintaining Jewish graves and cemeteries in the Diaspora, attempted to find Malbim’s grave in Kiev. R. Gabbai found his headstone, but beneath it was bedrock, indicating that the ground beneath had never been excavated. R. Gabbai hypothesized that the Jewish community buried Malbim in one place and put the headstone in another place, out of the concern that those who opposed him would violate his grave; thus, the exact location of his grave in the cemetery is unknown.

[7] Abarbanel is very well-regarded by Malbim; the latter calls the former the “knight-errant of exegesis, our noble teacher, R. Yitzchak Abarbanel” (commentary on II Shemuel 24).

[8] Malbim began his biblical commentary with the Book of Esther (1844), and afterwards he moved on to the Book of Yeshayahu (1849).

[9] These are his words:

I have now taken out, in the light of the sun, this commentary on Yeshayahu’s vision (Yeshayahu, ch. 1), and I will bring out other parts of this sort… It follows, in the general and the specific, the pathways of peshat, which have been paved by many… It does not travel down the pathways of derush; it does dig deeply with the shovel of criticism… You will find it neither derush nor criticism, neither secret nor allusion, only the simple peshat

[10]         This is what he writes in the introduction to the Book of Yeshayahu:

In the parables of the prophets, there is no repetition of the matter in different words — neither the matter itself, nor the statement, nor the parable… There cannot be found in the parables of the prophets or in their statements… nouns or verbs left out by happenstance… The parables of the prophets cannot be found to be empty shells… for the utterances of the Living God are they all; the Living God is in their midst, the spirit of life in their nostrils…

[11] We will look at this introduction at length below.

[12] Concerning this phenomenon, Malbim relates in his introduction to the Book of Vayikra:

There is “a time to act for God” (Tehillim 119:126), a time to act for the Written Torah… For this evil congregation has likened it to one of the stories of primitive peoples, and its poems and its parables they have equated to that of the emir and of the Greeks.

[13] The assumption of Malbim, assigning significance to every word and every expression, does not necessarily mean that we cannot apply a word which appears in the first hemistich to the second; it merely means that we must reject the idea that there is no significant distinction between the hemistiches.

[14] In his commentary on this verse, Malbim applies an exegetical principle which he sets down in his introduction to the Book of Yeshayahu:

Know that this is a great principle and a basic tenet: the parable will always proceed conceptually from the light to the heavy, from the small to the great, from the few to the many, and not in the opposite direction. Any place which appears that it will be found in Holy Writ two words or equivalent issues, the second must necessarily add something to the first…

Now, should you find a source in Tanakh in which the second word or sentence appears to be lighter or smaller than the first, know certainly that you have not understood the explanation of these verses fundamentally.

Indeed, all of the linguists have mentioned this, but they have not kept to it and they have not used it; according to them, this is rule which holds true in most cases, but not in all of them. However, I say that we will not find in any place an exception to this rule…

Indeed, we may rely on this for the purpose of distinguishing synonyms, for every later word we know certainly to include more than that which precedes it…

[15] It continues to exist on its own.

[16] See the Ramban’s commentary and Akeidat Yitzchak.

[17] In Modern Hebrew, a similar distinction exists between chance (sikkui) and worry (chashash): there may be a sikkui of a good outcome, but there is a chashash of a bad outcome.

[18] See Bekhor Shor’s commentary on this verse.

[19] As Malbim puts it:

They denied it, and they said that it is not so. They have mocked the Sages, and [deniers] have said that [the Sages] did not know the simple meaning of the verses and were unfamiliar with the specifics of language… It has been in their eyes a source of derision and laughter all through the day.

[20]         In his language:

This matter is yet another step beyond, exceeding all ideas of the most shocking audacity! Our coreligionists, who breach everything, have arrogated for themselves a new vision and failed. From them have emerged the Karaites and the deniers who have shattered the yokes and who burst the bonds. They have corrupted the mighty ones, the nation of holy people.

[21] This is what he writes:

However, when we investigate the verses themselves and we pay attention to the paths which they took in deriving many laws from the verses, we discover that the roads have moved and all traces have vanished. In most cases, it seems that we find that not only does the simple meaning of the verse not compellingly lead to the derush which is derived from them; moreover, we find the opposite: the depth of the peshat contradicts the derush and opposes it. In the majority of instances, it seems that they have hung the shields of the mighty upon spider webs. Great and consequential laws are supported by a single word or a single letter, and despite massive toil expended, one cannot comprehend or find the way that this word or letter proves to be so compelling…

[22] Malbim puts this quite poetically, playing “the Hebrews” off “the blind” (both of which are pronounced ivrim, but which are spelled differently):

The Hebrews will see/ That diamonds flow free

Ten times over with glee/ While the blind must fearful be

For there are weapons and engines of war

Where the wolves of evening and the mixed multitude roar

Against every heretic and denier

Every critic and defier

Against all who to uproot and deracinate aspire

Who deny the essence, who doubt or investigations require

Their mouths will be shut, alongside every liar.

[23] As he defines it:

…for all the words of the Oral Torah are compelling, engrained in the peshat of the verse and in the depth of the language.

[24] He justifies his choice of this name for his composition, Ayelet Ha-shachar (Morningstar or Breaking Dawn), writing that just as daybreak disperses the dark, his work aims to do the same:

They are the six hundred and thirteen lights which illuminate and glitter and shine like the stars of light upon the face of the heavenly firmament, and they will enlighten all dark place and cast aside the gloom in the lands of the living (artzot ha-chayim)…

[25] In his words:

There is wisdom, the boors must see

Though it be hidden in mystery

From the eye of every grammarian

Every researcher and critical utilitarian.

All of those in language reputed wise

You shall not to the ankles of the first generation rise

And if the latter ones walk in the dark

The former ones are nigh to the angels’ mark.

Holy officers is the rank they achieve

By the holy spirit they perceive

By them alone is wisdom amassed

Among them no foreigner has passed.

[26] Malbim formulates it this way:

On the third side, “the center crossbar” which “extend[s] from end to end” (Shemot 26:28) connects the writ and the tradition with loops, “and the tabernacle will be one” (ibid. v. 6). This explains the words of the Sages and their enigmas, the words of our rabbis in their tradition on the basis of the fundamentals of language…

And all the words of the tradition and the Oral Torah are explained in Writ and maintained in the depth of peshat and parable…

For the derush is the simple peshat, and all the words of the Sages are compelling, engrained in the depth of language and the fundamentals of the Hebrew language.

[27] In the language of Malbim:

It is upon the reader to connect the Torah and commandments with clasps, to connect the explanation of the Torah (Holy Writ) and mitzva (the teaching of the Sifra) one opposite another, each will cleave to his brother, come together, and not be separate, “and the tabernacle will be one.”

[28] These are his words:

We may begin with one rule: every place in the Torah where it says not to do something and includes a detail, if there is an aspect in which it is forbidden even without this detail, the “You shall not” will be mentioned first and only afterwards the detail. 

Consider this (Vayikra 19:11): “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie each man to his comrade” — even though it says “each man to his comrade,” stealing, falsehood and lying are inappropriate in all circumstances, so first we have the act, and then the detail. Similarly (ibid. vv. 13-18), “You shall not oppress your fellow;” “You shall not curse the deaf;” “You shall not corrupt justice;” “You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people;” “You shall not stand upon your fellow’s blood;” “You shall not hate your brother in your heart;” “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your own countrymen.” However, when without this detail there is no reason to forbid the act, such as the forbidden sexual relationships, it always mentions the detail and afterwards the act…

It turns out, according to this rule, that after it says that he will eat as much as he wants, it should have been stated, “but you may not put any in your vessel,” for when it says “but you may not put any” there is an aspect to forbid regardless, for putting is the opposite of eating. Thus, we have proven that the verse must be talking about a laborer, for the sole occupation of the laborer is to put produce into the owner’s vessels.