Leitwort - Part IV

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman


By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman



Lecture #13b:

Leitwort, Part IV



As we continue to examine the mila mancha (guiding word or leitwort), I would like to examine a number of cases in which the mila mancha appears in different forms in the same narrative or series of narratives. Sometimes, these different forms strike a dissonant note, contrasting two ideas sharply; at other times, they are complementary. In either case, the use of this technique helps imbue the text with additional, hidden levels of meaning. 


Two Different Meanings


The Weightiness of Eli's Fall


It is not only different points of view that create a dynamic as the reader tracks the leitwort in a narrative. As we have already noted, sometimes even the meaning of the word itself changes from one phrase to another. In other words, the mila mancha in the narrative is based on a root with two different meanings, both of which are expressed in the narrative. In the words of Buber: "On the contrary, the very shift of the words often magnifies the totality of the dynamic action of repetition."[1]


We may see this phenomenon when tracing the root of “kavod (honor) in the narrative about Eli. In I Shmuel, chapter 2 (vv. 29-30), the "man of God" delivers a prophecy of rebuke to Eli, quoting God:


Why do you kick at my sacrifice and my offering, which I have commanded in My abode, and honor your sons above Me, to make yourselves fat with the foremost of every offering of Israel, for My people? Therefore, Lord, God of Israel, declares: "I certainly said that your house and the house of your father would walk before me forever. But now," declares God, "far be it from me, for those who honor me, I will honor; but those who despise me will be taken lightly.


Linguistically, “kavod (respect, honor, glory) comes from the same root as “kaved,” heavy. Here, the root is used to refer to the former meaning, but when Eli dies and this prophecy is fulfilled, this root is used once again with the latter meaning (4:8): "He fell off his seat backward by the side of the gate, and his neck broke, and he died; for he was an old man, and heavy." In the second case, the definition of the word is tied to the idea of great weight, but soon after (4:21-22), the reader encounters this word once again in the description of the birth of Eli's grandson to the widow of his son, Pinchas. There, the meaning is once again honor and glory:


And she named the child I-khavod, saying: "Honor has been exiled from Israel," because the ark of God had been taken, and because of her father-in-law and her husband. And she said: "Honor has been exiled from Israel, for the ark of God has been taken."[2]


Thus, the narrator integrates this verb in its two different meanings, contrasting physical weightiness with spiritual and social weightiness.


First and foremost, the contribution of this mila mancha is in the explication of Eli's death and the catastrophes visited upon him as recompense for his previous sin. Because he shows more honor (kavod) to his sons than he does to God, the old and heavy (kaved) man is punished and dies, and even the name of his grandson echoes the sin and its punishment: Dishonor (I-khavod).[3] However, in the unique interplay of the two meanings of this root, the reader is invited to test the relationship between these two definitions. Is there a link between the physical weightiness of Eli and the spiritual and social weightiness which he grants his sons at God's expense? 


When the reader arrives at the end of the trail, as it were, in tracking the leitwort, he must go back and reinterpret the meaning of the word in a broader sense. When one returns to the first appearance of the root under discussion, it becomes clear what the connection is between the two meanings: "And honor your sons above Me, to make yourselves fat with the foremost of every offering of Israel, for My people." The honor of Eli's sons overwhelming the honor God is expressed with the unique verb le-havri, which, as the Radak explains, is used in the same sense as the adjective bari in Shoftim 3:17: "And Eglon was a very fat (bari) man."[4]  In other words, Eli's sons eat the Israelites' offerings in order to make themselves fat — not as part of God's service. In this regard, there is a distinct contrast between the honor of the priests and the honor of God, and the criticism of Eli is that he does not castigate his sons when he sees them taking advantage of their status in order to fatten themselves.  Naturally, the relationship between the two definitions of the word that are integrated into the narrative now emerges. The honor of the priests is expressed in their physical weightiness.  Their obesity becomes a symbol of misappropriating the contributions to the divine, and it is as if their physical heaviness (koved) comes at the expense of God's honor (kavod). 


Joy and Scorn


Another example in which use is made of a verb with different (almost diametrically opposed) meanings can be found in the story of Yitzchak's birth and Yishmael's banishment (Bereishit 21). The root of “tzachak in this narrative reappears over and over again:


And Avraham named his son, who was born to him, which Sara bore to him, Yitzchak. (21:3)


And Sara said, "God has made laughter (tzechok) for me; whoever hears will laugh (yitzachak) for me." (21:5)


And Sara saw the son of the Egyptian Hagar, who bore to Avraham, playing (metzachek). And she said to Avraham: "Banish this maid and her son, for the son of this maid will not inherit with my son, with Yitzchak." (21:9-10)



The multiplicity of uses of the root tzachak is very appropriate for this story. In the first half of the story, Yitzchak is born, and with the many uses of tzachak, his name is expounded over and over again. In particular, it is important to note Sara's laughter, since this may be a rectification of her previous laughter, which God had criticized (18:12-15). However, to the reader's surprise, this verb is utilized not only to discuss Yitzchak and his parents' happiness at his birth, but also to address Yishmael and the justification for banishing him.  When it comes to Yishmael, tzachak appears with a different definition; in biblical Hebrew, the simple conjugation of this verb is not the same as the intensive conjugation. While in the simple conjugation it means to laugh (as a sign of joy), in the intensive conjugation it means to play, an idea ostensibly tied to sexual activities,[5] and in every case that this root appears in the narrative, it is a negative activity worthy of criticism. 


The fact that the mila mancha has two definitions in the narrative contributes to the creation of a contrasting relationship between Yitzchak, who enters his house with the laughter of all around filling the house, on the one hand; and on the other hand, Yishmael, who because of Yitzchak is banished from Avraham's house to the desert, where his mother cries.[6]


Despite this, the very use of this verb to describe the two sons forges a bond between them, ostensibly linked to what may be called anarchy: breaking the accepted rules. Yitzchak, who is born to an elderly couple, represents in his name a living tribute to God's ability to break the laws of nature. In parallel (and contrast), Yishmael plays (metzachek) - he mocks the cultural norms and the accepted moral rules.  What Avraham's two sons share is the secret of tzechok; however, for one of them, the tzechok indicates the miracles which exist in the world and the providence by which God overrides the rules, while for the second, the tzechok indicates the violation of natural law, abrogating the cultural consensus on which society is based.[7]


Observation and Observance


In the previous example, we saw how the mila mancha contributes to shaping a contrasting analogy, but sometimes the use of the same word with different definitions seeks to allude specifically to the contours of a mutual and harmonious relationship.  The root “shamar is mentioned in the story of the Exodus (Shemot 12) seven times in various contexts with different meanings.[8] At first, the root is used in God's command to the Israelites to take a sheep for each household (6): "And it shall be a keeping (mishmeret) for you," but then it returns in a number of contexts in terms of the command for each generation (17, 24-25): "Keep (u-shmartem) the matzot… keep this day;" "Keep this matter;" "Keep this service." At the end (42), this root is mentioned two more times, with noticeable solemnity, but this time with a different meaning:


It is a night of observance (shimmurim) for God, to take them out of the land of Egypt; it is this night for God, an observance for all the Israelites for their generations.


The reader who follows this mila mancha gets the impression of a special mutual relationship between the Israelites, who are commanded to observe, and God, Who himself observes this night in order to bring Israel out of Egypt. In different ways, these complementary meanings point to the contribution of this leitwort to the interlocking structure of this narrative.  Thus, Avishur, for example, puts it: "On this night, God is observant, not letting the Destroyer plague Israel; because of this, there must be an observance for the Israelites, so that they can celebrate for all generations."[9]  Propp explains that just as God keeps and protects Israel at the time that they offer the paschal sacrifice, so too Israel is obligated in the future to keep the paschal ritual.[10]  


Dynasty and Dwelling


Similarly, we find complementary contributions of the term “bayit” (house) in Natan's words to David after the king seeks to build God's house (II Shmuel 7).


After the king was settled in his house... (1)


"Here I am, dwelling in a house of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent." (2)


"Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in?  I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, 'Why have you not built me a house of cedar?'" (5-7)


"God declares to you that God himself will establish a house for you." (11)


"He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever." (13)


"Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever."  (16)


"Who am I, God, and what is my house, that you have brought me this far? And as if this were not enough in your sight, God, you have also spoken about the future of the house of your servant. Is this your usual way of dealing with man, Lord?" (18-19)


"And now, Lord God, keep forever the promise you have made concerning your servant and his house. Do as you promised, so that your name will be great forever. Then men will say, 'God of Hosts is God over Israel!' And the house of your servant David will be established before you. God of Hosts, God of Israel, you have revealed this to your servant, saying, 'I will build a house for you.'" (25-27)


"Now be pleased to bless the house of your servant, that it may continue forever in your sight; for you, Lord God, have spoken, and with your blessing, the house of your servant will be blessed forever." (29)


The many appearances of the word bayit are especially interesting in this unit because there are two different houses: God's house, which David wants to build, and the royal house, in which David sits and which God promises him will endure. (Of course, a royal house itself has a double meaning - the palace and the royal family). The complementary relationship is stressed by the fact that it is not merely the same root used here, but the exact same word (bayit) which defines the two houses.[11]  Consider also the repetition of other words which describe David's house on the one hand and God's house on the other. For example, the same verb (yashav) is mentioned in the context of both houses: David dwells in his house and opens his words to the prophet Natan with, "Here I am, dwelling in a house of cedar," and God says, "Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in?  I have not dwelt in a house…" Similarly, David talks about his palace as a cedar house, and God says to him, "Did I ever say to any of their rulers, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, 'Why have you not built me a house of cedar?'"  This network of guiding words presents a compelling thesis, linking the Davidic dynasty to the Temple, the kingship of man to the kingship of God.


In the next lecture, we will demonstrate, God willing, a number of additional uses of the leitwort in the narrative, and it will be our penultimate analysis of this subject. 



(Translated by Yoseif Bloch)

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

[2] It is interesting that this root, in its kavod and kaved incarnations, continues to be sprinkled throughout the next passage as well (I Shmuel 5:6, 11; 6:5-6): "God’s hand was heavy upon the people of Ashdod and its vicinity; He brought devastation upon them… For death had filled the city with panic; God’s hand was very heavy upon it…  Pay honor to Israel’s god. Perhaps he will lift his hand from you and your gods and your land. Why do you make your hearts heavy as the Egyptians and Pharaoh made their hearts heavy…" (In the biblical context, of course, heavy-heartedness refers to obstinacy, not sorrow.) As we pointed out above, following the leitwort can help in the demarcation of units when it suggests the cohesiveness of the narrative. In the example before us, there are a number of allusions to the fact that one should read the story of the Ark among the Philistines (chapters 5-6) as a balancing response to the story of the ark being taken captive (chapter 4).

 [3] This name appears below (14:3) as one word: "Ikhvaod". It will be familiar to many readers from the King James Bible version, "Ichabod."

[4] See, for example, M. Garsiel, Sefer Shmuel Alef — Iyun Sifruti Be-Ma'arkhei Hashva'a Be-Analogiyot U-Ve-Makbilot (Ramat Gan, 5743), pp. 63-64; J. P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel (Assen, 1993), vol.4, p.139.

[5] For example, Avimelekh looks through the window and sees "Yitzchak playing (metzachek) with his wife Rivka" (Bereishit 26:8). See BDB, p. 850. In Akkadian as well, the verb sāhu has a double meaning: "to laugh, to smile, to be seductive, to initiate activities in the sexual realm (also acts which exceed the accepted norms)" (CAD, S, pp. 64-65).

[6] This opposition arises from the literary structure of the narrative (the concentric structure around v. 11). See Rav E. Samet's analysis in Iyunim Be-Parashat Ha-Shavua, Parashat Vayera, pp. 49-51.

[7] For an elaboration on this matter, see my essay dedicated to the relationship between the two sons: "Ha-Yesod Ha-Pera'i Ve-Ha-Yesod Ha-Meturbat Be-Sefer Bereishit," in Lilkot Shoshannim: Le-Zikhra shel Shoshanna Kind z"l (Jerusalem, 5767), pp. 349-368.

[8] Cassuto, Shemot, p. 102: "To stress the essential idea: God is Israel's guardian."

[9] Y. Avishur, Shemot, Olam Ha-Tanakh (Tel Aviv, 5753), p. 84.

[10] W. H. C. Propp, Exodus 1-18 (AB, New York, 1999), p. 416.

[11] As often happens, we find here that in addition to the word bayit, which is repeated over and over again, other words are mentioned that are tied to the semantic field of bayit - for example, the verbs to build, to establish, to found, to dwell.