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Leitwort - Part II

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman



By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman


Lecture #12:

Leitwort - Part II



In the previous lecture, we discussed the literary phenomenon known as mila mancha — a leitwort or guiding word. In this lecture, I would like to examine a number of cases in which the narrative uses a mila mancha, demonstrating how Scripture can convey hidden messages by using the repetition of a certain word. At the beginning of the analysis, let us examine some simple cases of repeating a word within a narrative in Tanakh and the contribution of the repetition to the meaning of that narrative.


Highlighting the Issue in Depth


The most basic contribution of the leitwort to the significance a passage is that it stresses the issue being discussed and explored in the passage. This is the most elementary contribution, and therefore, generally speaking, the reader can interpret the central issue of the narrative even without relying on the mila mancha. A simple example of a word repeated in a passage to this effect can be found in Vayikra 25, which is not even a narrative at all, but rather a collection of laws relating to the sabbatical (seventh) and jubilee (fiftieth) years. As Yitzchak Avishur points out, the mila mancha here is “shabbat,” used as both noun and verb (vv. 3-8):


When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep (ve-shaveta) a sabbath to God… But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest (shabbaton) for the land, a sabbath to God... It shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. And the sabbath of the land shall be for food for you…


And you shall number seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years; and there shall be for you the days of seven sabbaths of years, forty-nine years.


      It is difficult to claim that this leitwort surprises any reader. The theme of the unit is the seventh year, which is the "sabbath of the land," and in a symbolically resonant way, this term is mentioned seven times in the first seven verses (and two more times in the verse introducing the jubilee year).[1]


      In this sense, the contribution of the leitwort is minimal, and in fact, this role of the mila mancha is similar to what Polak defines as the "structural function." On the other hand, the mila mancha will often rise above the surface of the motif of the narrative, so that it will not be identical to the main theme. In these cases, the reader who pays attention will notice the repeated word in a unique way in the passage, wisely perceiving another idea hidden beneath the visible story.


      For example, there is a certain stress on the root of “re'iya (seeing) in the narrative of David's anointment as king (I Shmuel 16:1-13). In the beginning, God commands Shmuel to go to the house of Yishai in Beit Lechem "for I have seen among his sons a king for me." The meaning of "I have seen" in this verse is, evidently, a selective gaze; God has perceived that there is a person who is fit to reign in Shaul's stead among the sons of Yishai. Indeed, Shmuel arrives in Beit Lechem and fills the shoes of his Master, as he becomes the Seer: "And it was when they arrived that he saw Eliav, and he said, 'Indeed, God's anointed is before Him'" (v. 6). This re'iya of Shmuel, as becomes clear immediately, is a mistake, and he and God do not see eye-to-eye, as it were, when it comes to Yishai's children:


And God said to Shmuel, "Do not look (tabbet) to his appearance (mareh), for I have rejected him, for it is not as man sees, because man sees the eyes, while God sees the heart."[2]


      This is criticism is especially cutting because it comes directly from God to his prophet Shmuel, and because of its general phrasing: "for it is not as man sees"! The verse here contrasts explicitly the external human re'iya (the eyes) with the penetrating, visceral, incisive re'iya of God ("while God sees the heart)." One might think that in light of this criticism the verse would not even mention the visible, external form of the son of Yishai whom God has indeed selected, but to our great surprise, when David arrives, the verse focuses on re'iya as well: "And he sent and he brought him and he was ruddy, beautiful of eye and of good appearance, and God said, 'Rise and anoint him, for this is he'" (v. 12). In other words, this story does not express a rejection of the importance of outside appearance (as David is also described as attractive), but a rejection of the human ability to decide based on external observation.  


The verb of re'iya is more prominent in this small unit, both in the consecutive mentions of this root and in the utilization of other words which are tied to the semantic field of re'iyafor example "look" and "eyes." What is the aim of highlighting the theme of re'iya in this story?


In the first appearance of the root, it appears that it is directed towards the main theme of the unit: "For I have seen among his sons a king for me" — in other words, the choice of a son of Yishai who is appropriate for the kingship, the theme of the story. However, with the development of the narrative and the new meaning which comes up with the other appearances of the root (external re'iya vs. internal re'iya), it appears that there is a secondary theme buried within the narrative which is also realized in the scene of David's anointment. This secondary theme can be called “the unseeing seer” — the words which are integrated in the narrative provide criticism of the prophet who goes astray after his eyes and wants to anoint Eliav at first. (According to the Radak, ibid., Eliav apparently reminds Shmuel of the tall Shaul).


This criticism makes a special impression because the prophet whom it is aimed at is known by this very title: "the Seer" (ibid. 9:9), a term used in the story of the first royal anointment in Israel, that of Shaul. As Ya'ir Zakovitch has shown, after Shmuel identifies himself as "the seer" in that story, he adds an expression which echoes with great force in the context of our present story:


And Shmuel answered Shaul, and he said, “I am the seer. Ascend before me to the high place, and you will eat with me today, and I will send you in the morning, and everything which is in your heart I will tell you" (ibid. v. 19).[3]


At this point, it is revealed to Shmuel (and even to the reader of the story) that human re'iya — even that of a prophet — cannot always uncover what is taking place in the heart, "because man sees the eyes, while God sees the heart."


      However, at the time that the "re'iya" is mentioned in the narrative in relationship to David, the verse does not describe those who stand before him and see him ("because man sees the eyes," which are unimportant); rather, the re'iya is phrased as an independent quality of David: "beautiful of eye and of good appearance." The literal meaning of the phrase is, naturally, that David looks good to those who surround him, but the manner of phrasing, focusing on David, refines the outer layer of human observation and alludes to the inner qualities which shine forth through David's handsome appearance.[4]


      Similarly, one may track the term "nissayon," test, which recurs in the unit describing the Israelites' complaints on their way from Egypt to Mount Sinai (Shemot 15-17). The central topic of this unit is, as is evident, the Israelites' complaints, and therefore it is unsurprising that term "telunna," complaint, recurs over and over again. However, to our great surprise, the term nissayon shows up every time the term telunna is used.


      In the first case, when the Israelites complain about Mara's bitter waters (chapter 15), the verse explains that God subjects the nation to a nissayon: "There He set a law and a statute for it, and there He tested it" (v. 25).


      In the following complaint, in the Sin Desert, the Israelites protest that they do not have anything to eat (chapter 16), and the nissayon turns out to be one of the central motifs of the unit. It is already mentioned in the beginning, in the words of God to Moshe (v. 4): "'So that I will test it, whether it will follow My teaching or not.'" The nissayon in this telunna is realized in two ways: a) gathering only the amount of manna which is needed for that very day, and b) not collecting the manna on Shabbat. The Israelites fail both of these tests. Concerning collecting manna only for that day, Scripture states: "But they did not listen to Moshe, and some men left over some of it until morning, and it bred worms and rotted, and Moshe was furious with them" (v. 20). The Israelites fail the test of Shabbat as well: "And it was on the seventh day that some of the nation went out to collect, but they did not find anything" (v. 27). However, at the end, through these two tests, the Israelites internalize what they must do, and they then gather the manna properly.


      In the third complaint at Refidim (chapter 17), which returns to the issue of water, the nissayon becomes a central element of this telunna; it is because of this event that the place is called Massa (cognate to nissayon) U-mriva: "because they tested God" (v. 7).


      However, whoever tracks this guiding word (which turns into a guiding motif) immediately feels the dramatic revolution occurring before the reader's eyes in this complaint, the final one. Until this point, it is God who tests Israel, and in light of the development between the first two complaints, one might expect that in the story of the third complaint, God would test Israel with special intensity. On the contrary, it becomes clear that the Israelites are the one to test God: "And Moshe said to them: 'Why are you fighting with me? Why are you testing God?'" (v. 2); "And he named the place Massa U-mriva, for the Israelites' fight (riv) and for their testing God, saying: 'Is God in our midst or not?'" (v. 7).


      In this case, there is, of course, some criticism of the people. It appears that the Sages in Midrashic sources are responding to this criticism when they explain the Amalek War (vv. 8-16), which occurs in textual and geographical proximity to this complaint (both are at Refidim), as a punishment for the people and as a response to "their testing God," as Rashi cites (ibid.):


"And Amalek came," etc. — This passage [Amalek] is placed next to this verse [the complaint about water in Refidim] as if [God] says: I am always among you and available for all of your needs, but you say: "Is God in our midst or not?"! By your lives, the dog will come and bite you, and you will cry out for me and know where I am.


It is analogous to a person who gives his son a ride on his shoulders, and they set out on a journey. The child sees an object and says, "Father, take this object, and give it to me," and he gives it to him; this happens a second time and a third. They encounter another person, and the child says to him: "Have you seen my father?" His father says: "Don't you know where I am?!" So he casts him down from upon him, and a dog comes and bites [the son].


      Indeed, one can find the guiding root of nissayon also in the story of the Amalek War, which is mentioned after the telunna in Refidim, even though it is only alluded to in the aural plane (v. 15): "Moshe built an altar and named it 'God is My Banner (Nissi).'" The repetition of this sound (in addition to other links[5]) connects this passage to the chain of the stories of complaint and strengthens the Sages' approach, viewing the Amalek War a response to the Israelites' words and "their testing God." Thus, following the mila mancha in the unit of these complaints raises an educational process which the Israelites pass through on their way from Egypt to Mount Sinai to the forefront, a process in which there are ascents and descents, as with every educational process.


Creating the Narrative Environment


      Just as the leitwort may allude to a hidden theme which becomes progressively clearer throughout the course of a story, it is worth mentioning the contribution of the mila mancha to creating the general environment that accompanies the narrative. By repeating a word or expression that has an emotional sense or makes a unique impression upon the reader, an emotional environment is added to the narrative. One example of this will suffice.


      The Sinai Covenant (also known as the Covenant of the Basins; Shemot, chapter 24) is comprised of two separate pieces, and the relationship between them remains a great question. At first, the covenant itself is described (vv. 1-11), in which the Israelites build an altar, bring ascension-offerings (olot) and peace-offerings (shelamim), read "the book of the covenant," and sprinkle the blood on the altar and the entire nation. This part ends with unique solemnity (v. 11): "And they had a vision of God, and they ate and drank." The second part of the covenant (vv. 12-18) deals with Moshe's ascent to Mount Sinai, into the cloud which covers the mountain, in order to receive "the tablets of stone and the teaching and the commandment" (v. 12). The commentators dispute whether there is a connective plot between the two parts (the Rashbam, R. Avraham ibn Ezra, and the Ramban) or if they happen at different stages and there is no consecutive plot between the two parts (Rashi, Ri Bekhor Shor, and Rabbeinu Bachya, following the Mekhilta).[6]


      To answer this question, looking for the leitwort may help us. Are there words that unite the two halves of the narrative and give it the feeling of a cohesive unit? The answer to this is affirmative. There are common words which unite the two parts - for example, the verb "to draw close." In the first part — "Moshe shall draw close alone to God, but they shall not draw close" (v. 2); in the second part — "And behold, Aharon and Chur are with you, whoever is a litigant shall draw close to them" (v. 14). Similarly, we find writing in both halves: "And Moshe wrote all of God's words" (v. 4); "And I will give you the tablets of stone and the teaching and the commandment which I have written to teach them" (v. 12), etc. However, there is one root which returns again and again in a unique way, and it prominently unites the two halves of the chapter - that of aliya, ascent:


·         "And to Moshe he said: 'Ascend to God, you, Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel'" (v. 1)

·         "Moshe shall draw close alone to God, but they shall not draw close, and the nation shall not ascend with him" (v. 2)

·         "And he sent forth the Israelite boys, and they offered up ascension-offerings" (v. 5)

·         "And Moshe ascended, Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel" (v. 9)

·         "And God said to Moshe: 'Ascend to Me'" (v. 12)

·         "And Moshe ascended to God's mountain, but to the elders he said: 'Stay here'" " (vv. 13-14)

·         "And Moshe ascended to the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain" (v. 15)

·         "And Moshe came into the cloud, and he ascended to the mountain" (v. 18)


      Throughout the course of the two parts together, ascending to the mountain is mentioned seven times, and the prominence of the verb is strengthened by the expression "vaya’alu olot," "and they offered up ascension-offerings." Through this, one may prove the view of the Ramban and his colleagues that the Torah views the two parts of this story as one unified, cohesive narrative. Even if someone were to conclude that Rashi's view is justified, and from a realistic point of view the two part of the narrative occur at different times, nevertheless, one must analyze them as one unit from a literary point of view. Moreover, tracing the root of aliya in the narrative will prove a determined connection between the appearances of the root in the two halves of the story:


Part I:

1.    "And to Moshe he said: 'Ascend to God, you, with Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel'"

2.    "Moshe shall draw close alone to God, but they shall not draw close, and the nation shall not ascend with him"

["And he sent forth the Israelite boys, and they offered up ascension-offerings"]

3.    "And Moshe ascended, Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel" (v. 9)


Part II:

1.    "And God said to Moshe: 'Ascend to Me'"

2.    "And Moshe ascended to God's mountain, but to the elders he said: 'Stay here'"

3.    "And Moshe ascended to the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain"

4.    "And Moshe came into the cloud, and he ascended to the mountain"


      The two halves of the story open with God turning to Moshe and commanding him to "ascend" to God (1). In the two parts of the story, there are reservations noted immediately; even if certain people are invited to ascend with him, they are not authorized to draw close — to enter the cloud on top of the mountain (2). The next stage in the two parts of the story is the realization of the commandment: "And Moshe ascended" (3). Concluding the second half (4), there is a summation of the entire narrative, which describes Moshe's entering into the cloud, ascending the mountain and staying there for forty days and forty nights.   


      The relationship between the two halves of the story is fascinating. In the revealed reading, which is tied to the contents of the plot, the reader follows the two different levels of ascending to the mountain: the first half describes the first aliya, to which the nation's leaders are invited; the second part describes the second aliya, into the cloud, which Moshe does on his own.


      However, the connection between the two parts conceals also a hidden meaning, which is tied to the two writings and the two sets of stones — Moshe writes down God's words and sets up "twelve monuments" (v. 4) paralleling "the teaching and the commandment" which God writes on the "tablets of stone" on behalf of Israel (v. 12).[7] These issues deserve a broader discussion than we can accommodate here. For the sake of our analysis, I would like to note that beyond the "structural function" of the mila mancha of aliya in the narrative, there is a more important contribution in the integration of the verb over and over again. Aliya to the mountain, which is stressed in our narrative, turns into a symbol of spiritual, mental, and moral ascension. Accepting "the teaching and the commandment" from God invites the person to ascend, and the physical-topographical description connotes a metaphorical significance of aliya to God from the foot of the mountain next to which the Israelites are encamped before they receive "the tablets of stone" (see v. 4). Moshe's aliya, which is stressed here again and again, parallels God's descent (yerida) to the mountain, which is stressed also throughout the story of the Convocation at Mount Sinai in chapter 19: "And be prepared for the third day, because on the third day, God will descend before the eyes of the entire nation on Mount Sinai" (v. 11); "And the whole of Mount Sinai was smoking because God was descending upon it in fire" (v. 18); "And God descended on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain" (v. 20). So too, with the integration of these two verbs — yerida and aliya — the verse alludes to a unique encounter which is happening on the mountain's summit. God, from His point of view, is descending into reality, and man must ascend; there, inside the cloud cover, God's Torah is given to flesh and blood.


      In the next lecture, we will, God willing, continue to track the different ways of integrating a repeated word in a narrative and how it has the power to guide the reader in decoding the hidden meaning of biblical narratives.


(Translated by Yoseif Bloch)

[1] Y. Avishur, "Darkhei Ha-Chazara Be-Misparei Ha-Shelemut Ba-Mikra U-Ve-Safrut Ha-Shemit Ha-Keduma," Be'er Sheva 1 (5733), pp. 1-55.

[2] The Malbim has a unique reading here. According to him, Eliav is disqualified because he is too similar to Shaul. "Do not look to his appearance" refers to the appearance of Shaul; "for I have rejected him" should be rendered "for I have rejected it" — i.e., height as a prerequisite for monarchy. We have followed the accepted commentary, according to which Shmuel initially thinks that Eliav is appropriate for the monarchy because of his own appearance and height.

[3] Y. Zakovitch, David — Mei-Ro'eh Le-Mashiach, (Jerusalem, 5756), ch. 3.

[4] Equate this to the words of the Malbim ibid.: "'And he was ruddy' — here he shows him the truth of what he said at first, 'For it is not as man sees,' because David was ruddy. Now, the redness was powerful in him, and he in his nature was ready for spilling blood; however, on the other hand, there were visible in him good qualities, because he had 'beautiful of eye and of good appearance.' This teaches that he was perceptive and good-natured in the natural way. If he would have stayed with the human perception, Shmuel would have decided that he would be unsuitable. 'But God sees the heart,' and He knows that out of the goodness of [David's] free choice, he would do only justice and righteousness. His natural redness, which was planted in him, he would use to fight God's wars and to cut off from God's city all the evildoers, and this is what was desirable in the eyes of God. Even if one finds a bad inclination in his nature, he must rule over it from his righteous side and the goodness of his free choice."

[5] An exhaustive analysis of the links, in language and content, between the Amalek War and the complaint about water in Refidim (Massa U-Meriva) can be found in Bernard P. Robinson, "Israel and Amalek: The Context of Exodus 17:8-16," JSOT 32 (1985), pp. 15-22

[6] This argument continues among the modern critics. Nicholson dedicates three essays to this issue, and his conclusion echoes the Ramban's conclusion, inasmuch as he builds on the consecutive flow between chapter 19 and our chapter. See E. W. Nicholson, "The Antiquity of the Tradition in Exodus XXIV 9–11," VT 25 (1975), pp. 69–79; "The Covenant Ritual in Exodus XXIV 3–8," VT 32 (1982), pp. 74–86; "The Interpretation of Exodus XXIV 9–11," VT 24 (1974), pp. 77–97. In addition, his approach is also interesting because of his belief that one should not view the consumption of the peace-offerings by the Israelite nobility as the sealing of a covenant, but rather as a feast joyously celebrating the very revelation of God. This question is important for understanding the peace-offerings in general.

[7] It is interesting that in the Septuagint and the Samaritan text, stones are mentioned also in Moshe's actions: "And twelve stones for the twelve tribes of Israel" (instead of "And twelve monuments"). According to this translation, the parallelism between Moshe's actions and God's actions is even more prominent.