Leitwort - Part III

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman



By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman



Lecture #13a:

Leitwort, Part III


      As I have noted in previous lectures, in most cases the reader notes the theme of the unit without paying attention to the special emphasis of the mila mancha (guiding word, or leitwort). A reader may also note an additional theme which becomes clear throughout the length of the narrative without specifically relating to the leitwort itself. However, sometimes tracing the mila mancha can unearth one of the hidden messages in the narrative, and in these cases a reader who does not respond to the unique repetition of a special word is likely to miss one of the veiled aims of the narrative. 


A Dynamic Mila Mancha


            Many times, the reader can find the thread of an important process within the narrative by tracing the leitwort. In such a case, part of the power of the mila mancha is the very metamorphosis which it undergoes as it appears at different stages.  In Buber's language:


It is as if there is continuous movement, as one passes through these mutually related sounds. One who compares them throughout the text, in its entirety, can feel the waves going back and forth between them.[1]


      In fact, sometimes the last appearance of the word in a narrative retroactively clarifies the meaning of the word as it appears throughout the length of the unit.


      This may be the key to understanding the passage of the Amalek War (Shemot 17:8-16), as Cassuto points out in his commentary. Throughout the length of the story, the hands (yadayim) referred to are those of Moshe, while in the final (and seventh) appearance of the word, the reference is (perhaps) to the hand of God: "And he said, ‘The hand (yad) is upon God's throne; God's war with Amalek is from generation to generation" (v. 16). Rashi writes (and R. Avraham Ibn Ezra concurs):


The hand of the Holy One, Blessed be He, has been raised to take an oath by His throne that the war and enmity with Amalek will continue forever.


      Thus, the reader is invited to understand that although it is only when Moshe's hands are raised skyward that the Israelites begin to win the battle, it is in fact the "long arm" of God which allies itself with the Israelites in their war with Amalek and allows them to be victorious.[2]


      This is relevant for larger units as well. The root pakad, to “take account,” appears ten times throughout the saga of Yosef in Egypt, over the course of a dozen chapters, in various forms: the simple conjugation (pakad), the causative conjugation (hifkid, appoint), and the nominal form (pakid, agent). It accompanies Yosef from the moment his life in Egypt begins and until his death there. Let us follow the uses of pakad in the narrative to see how this may enlighten the reader.


      The root is first mentioned when Yosef is in the house of Potifar:


Yosef found favor in his eyes, and he served him, and he appointed him (va-yafkidehu) over his house, and he put in his hand everything he had. And it was, from the time he appointed (hifkid) him in his house and over everything he had, God blessed the Egyptian's house on Yosef's behalf; God's blessing was in everything he had, in the house and in the field. (Bereishit 39:4-5)


      Despite the fact that Yosef attains a position of authority, (becoming a pakid — an agent, a delegate, a manager),[3] he does not merit realizing his dreams in terms of dominion and rulership (to the disappointment of Yosef and the reader).  


      Shortly afterward, he is cast into prison, and even there, Yosef receives a position of authority: "The captain of the guard took account (va-yifkod) of Yosef with them, and he served them, and they were some days in the guardhouse" (40:4). Here, it is clear that the verse goes out of its way to use an unusual form, using the simple conjugation alongside "with them" (va-yifkod imam) instead of the more common causative conjugation alongside "over" (hifkid aleihem). Is Yosef in charge of these ministers, or is he their servant, as the end of the verse seems to indicate? 


      To avoid this problem, Rashbam explains: "He appointed him over all of the prisoners' needs there."  The Rashbam stresses that Yosef is made responsible for "all of the prisoners' needs," not the prisoners themselves. Other alternative readings have also been suggested (see, for example, R. Avraham Ibn Ezra's comments). For our discussion, it is important to note that is specifically the avoidance of the causative form here that draws the reader's attention further. Moreover, it gives the impression that the verse specifically integrates the verb in its usual form into the scene in which Yosef interprets Pharaoh's dreams. 


      As we know, even though Yosef properly interprets the ministers' dreams, this scene ends with disillusionment (disappointing both Yosef and the reader); the chief butler forgets the Hebrew slave who interpreted his dreams, and Yosef does not merit realizing his dreams of dominion and rulership for another two years. Unsurprisingly, in the next scene, when Yosef stands before Pharaoh, the verse once again invokes this root, but for the first time it is Yosef himself who does so — not to refer to himself as the presumptive appointee, but rather to the king's emissaries and aides:


Now, Pharaoh shall look for an understanding and wise man and place him over the land of Egypt. Pharaoh shall act and appoint agents (ve-yafked pekidim) over the land, and take a fifth of the land of Egypt in the seven years of satiety. (41:33-34) 


      Note that the root of pakad in this verse does not refer to the "understanding and wise man," but rather to the agents who will be responsible for collecting the grain. It is interesting that specifically in the place in which the root of pakad does not refer to him, Yosef merits ultimately to begin to realize his dreams, and he himself becomes the viceroy.


      The reader can feel subterranean rumblings in the narrative, and they, in some ways, indicate the opposite of the revealed reading. In the two previous scenes, at the level of the revealed plot, Yosef is appointed as a pakid, but this does not help him, at least not in the immediate sense. It is specifically in the scene in which Yosef mentions the title of pakid (in the interpretation of Pharaoh's dreams) that Yosef merits an authoritative position. 


      However, the journey of the reader does not end here.  The root of pakad returns at the end of the saga - but with a different meaning - in the last sentences that issue from Yosef's mouth:


And Yosef said to his brothers, "I am dying, but God will certainly take account (pakod yifkod) of you and bring you up from this land to the land about which He swore to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov." Yosef made the sons of Yisrael swear, saying, "God will certainly take account of you, and you will bring up my bones from this." (50:24-25)


      In these two sentences, Yosef returns twice to the language of pakad, here in the sense of remembering and paying special attention to.[4] Nevertheless, the common root serves as another dramatic station in the process that the reader undergoes via this root: here God is the one doing the action of pakad.


      As is well-known, the narrative of Yosef and his brothers is one of the most prominent biblical narratives that express the idea of dual causality. The plot progresses based on human decisions, and in parallel, in light of the divine will and its aim. It appears that the guiding root, pakad, in this narrative is integrated in numerous forms in order to beg the question:  Who is the ruler?  Who is the agent?  At first, Yosef thinks that he is the one who is supposed to reach a position of supreme rulership. However, over the course of the story, Yosef undergoes a process (as does the reader alongside him), eventually realizing that it is incumbent upon him to clear a path for the King who rules over the entire universe; He is the one who takes account and makes regal appointments. It is specifically in the scene in which the root pakad is applied to others and not to Yosef that he ascends to greatness. Ultimately, Yosef himself must coin the famous motto of redemption, stressing with his formulation that God is the Ruler who is destined to take account of the Israelites and redeem them. 


Unique or Unusual Writing


      As we said above, the central criterion for defining a particular literary expression as a leitwort is the question of whether the word captures the attention of the reader. If a word is special, unusual, or strange, it is reasonable to assume that its recurrence becomes what Buber defines as a "very significant repetition."


      For example, let us take the term “malakh” in Bamidbar 22.  This term is usually used to refer to an angel. Surprisingly, the messengers that Balak sends to Bilam are described by the Torah as malakhim: "And he sent malakhim to Bilam son of Beor, to Petor" (Bamidbar 22:5). This in itself is not that unusual, and there are a number of additional narratives in which the term "malakh" means "the emissary of a human." However, the Torah suddenly changes the terminology in the next scene; Balak's emissaries are not referred to again with this nomenclature, but are rather referred to as "Balak's officers." The reader is thus compelled to notice the wordplay in this passage.[5]


      The first contribution of the term malakhim, at the beginning of the narrative, is tied to its cohesion with the preceding narratives. In the previous stories, the Israelites send malakhim to the king of Edom and to Sichon, king of the Amorites (ibid. 20:14, 21:21), so that Balak's sending malakhim to Bilam gives the reader the feeling of encountering yet another chapter in the saga of the relationships between Israel and the kingdoms of the East Bank of the Jordan. However, Scripture's essential aim in mentioning malakhim in the beginning of the story is not to tie this story to the stories that precede it, but rather to lay the groundwork for the story of Bilam that follows. The word malakh is integrated many more times in the Bilam narrative. On Bilam's journey to Balak, he once again encounters a malakh, but this one is divine and stands in the way, preventing him from proceeding. This malakh is related to the malakhim that Balak sends to Bilam, and through the use of this connecting word, there is an ironic association forged between Bilam's agreement to the request of Balak's malakhim to curse Israel and the malakh who does not allow him to proceed on that path.[6] Bilam encounters two sets of malakhim who are only their masters' emissaries – will Bilam understand that it is incumbent upon him to listen to the voice of God's malakh and to reject the request of Balak's malakhim?


Different Points of View


      Sometimes, repeating the same word is done from different points of view in a narrative. Tracking the use of that word in the mouths of other speakers may allude to disputes between the speakers expressed through the ironic and sarcastic barbs contained in their words. A good example is the use of the verb “halakh, which is repeated in the dialogue between Moshe and Aharon with Pharaoh: 


And they said, "The God of the Hebrews has revealed Himself to us. Let us go three days' journey into the desert, and   we will sacrifice to Lord our God, lest He strike us down with the pestilence or with the sword." But the king of Egypt said, "Why, Moshe and Aharon, are you taking the people away from what they do? Go to your burdens!"


That same day, Pharaoh gave this order to the slave drivers and foremen in charge of the people: "You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw. But require them to make the           same number of bricks as before; do not reduce the quota.  They are weak; this is why they are crying out, 'Let us go and sacrifice to our God.'"


Then the taskmasters and the officers went out and said to the people, "This is what Pharaoh says: 'I will not give you any more straw. Go and get your own straw wherever you can find it, but your work will not be reduced at all.'"


…And he said, "Weak, you are weak — this is why you say: 'Let us go and sacrifice to God.' Now, go work; straw will not be given to you, but you must give the quota of bricks."  (Shemot 5:3-4, 6-8, 10-11, 17)


Both Moshe and Pharaoh use the root halakh, go, and this verb becomes the mila mancha of the narrative. Tracing the use of this word, the reader feels that Pharaoh is represented as responding derisively to Moshe and Aharon's request to journey into the desert and worship God. His response comes in the form of intensifying the servile work that the Israelites perform in his service. His response to "Let us go three days' journey" is "Go to your burdens... let them go and gather their own straw;" in response to "Let us go and sacrifice" (mentioned twice), Pharaoh declares, "Go and get your own straw...  let them go and gather their own straw."[7]


Similarly, one may track the word (trivial on its own) of “davar in chapter 1 of Esther. The special use that the author of Esther makes of this word is prominent specifically in light of the changing points of view. Davar itself can, depending on context, mean word, matter, manner, or order (among other definitions).


When Scripture first uses davar (devar, the word of), it comes from the king, taking the form of a royal edict, but already in its first appearance in the chapter, the reader hears of the violation of the king's word. "But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king's commandment (devar ha-melekh) by the chamberlains; and the king was furious, and his anger burned in him" (Esther 1:12). 


In his distress, the king gathers all of his wise men, and here as well the narrator repeats the phrase "devar ha-melekh:" "Then the king said to the wise men, who knew the times — for so was the king's manner (devar ha-melekh) toward all that knew law and judgment…"  


The representative of the wise men who responds to the king's disappointment is Memukhan, and here the reader encounters a great surprise; he too uses the same term, but with a twist.  There is another factor in the right of the king to issue commands: "For this deed of the queen (devar ha-malka) will come abroad to all women, to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes" (1:17). After devar ha-melekh is mentioned twice, the reader encounters devar ha-malka; when the queen refuses to obey the king's command, she is issuing her own command, as it were: devar ha-malka. Initially, one might be tempted to explain devar ha-malka differently, in the sense of "the events that happened with the queen," and not as a command at all. However, Memukhan immediately repeats this phrase, and the feeling that we are discussing a sort of command becomes stronger: "Today will the princesses of Persia and Media who have heard of the deed of the queen speak to all of the king's princes — and enough contempt and fury!" (1:18). There is already an address for the devar ha-malka (all of the king's princes); naturally, the feeling is that Vashti, by her deeds, is issuing a royal command to all wives to defy their husbands' requests. 


Memukhan closes his words with another use of the leitwort, seeking to return to the king his honor as the commander in chief of the kingdom, even if this is done delicately:


If it please the king, let there go forth a royal commandment (devar malkhut) from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, that Vashti come no more before King Achashverosh, and that the king give her royal estate (malkhut) to another that is better than she. (1:19)


Memukhan does not go back to the phrase devar ha-melekh, but alludes to it with the devar malkhut (literally, word of kingship) which Achashverosh is meant to issue. The "devar ha-melekh" must be revitalized, and so Achashverosh must issue a devar malkhut which will restore his status to him — and to all men their status.


If tracking this mila mancha were to conclude with this point, its essential aim would be rhetorical: to explain how Memukhan manages to convince the king that indeed a great danger is crouching at his door in the refusal of Vashti to come before him. However, the unique sarcasm of this word is integrated once again in the concluding verse of the unit: "And the matter (davar) pleased the king and the princes; and the king did according to the word of (devar) Memukhan" (1:21). The king is indeed convinced by Memukhan's words and takes his advice, but without anyone noticing, there is a new legislative authority in the kingdom: "the king did according to the word of Memukhan." The adviser becomes the commander and the lawmaker.[8]


The derision of the king and his authority that is alluded to in this chapter through the leitwort is one of the broad topics in Esther, and some in fact view in it the essential theme of the narrative. As Henshke puts it:


The true subject of the Book of Esther is not the struggle between Haman and Mordekhai; this struggle is only a test case, through which the book's author paints the character of the kingdom of Achashverosh — that is, a human kingdom.  The king, as such, is the true subject of the book, which only comes to mock, by way of sharp satire, the hubris of human kingship.[9]


Already in the first encounter with the king, the reader discovers a hint to the author's derision towards King Achashverosh, who may indeed occupy the throne, but is himself controlled by others throughout the expanses of the kingdom.


In our next lecture, we will continue to examine the many uses and forms of the mila mancha.



(Translated by Yoseif Bloch)


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

[2] The Sages also related to Moshe's hands, and their conclusion is similar: "Do Moshe's hands make war or break it? This tells you that as long as Israel would look skyward and subjugate their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they would overpower them; if not, they would fall" (Rosh Hashana 3:8).

[3] BDB, p. 824.

[4] BDB, p. 824.

[5] Here, it is the reluctance to integrate this fully in the first scene which gives it a special status, and it turns out to be a mila mancha when the verse returns to it again and again in the next scene, as will become clear below.

[6] G. Savran, "Beastly Speech: Intertextuality, Balaam's Ass and the Garden of Eden," JSOT 64 (1994), p. 35.

[7] See, for example, M. D. Cassuto, Shemot (Jerusalem, 5712), pp 45-46; J. Jacobs, "Midda Keneged Midda Be-Sippur Ha-Mikra'i," Alon Shevut (5766), pp. 131-132.

[8] In light of this, the reader is not surprised to encounter this word in the phrasing of the command, in which the dominion is expanded to each and every home: "and speaking the language of his nation."

[9] D. Henshke, "Megillat Esther — Tachposet Sifrutit", Megadim 23 (5755), p. 63. Personally, it is difficult for me to agree with the extreme phrasing of the author that "this is the true theme of the book." I feel that, even if this is one of its central themes, as Henshke demonstrates in a persuasive way, there is not to see in this theme something which negates other themes which the book deals with, and which are integrated in the essential aims of the book. Compare this to G. C. Cohen's phrasing: "It appears that that the composer of the book is interested that the observation of this rule-misrule will bring one to the recognition, that it is not the king described in the book who rules the kingdom, but that the events in this kingdom are determined in another place" (G. C. Cohen, Mavo Le-megillat Esther, Da'at Mikra, Jerusalem 5733, p. 8.