Peripheral Linguistic Connotations II - Reflected Meaning

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman



By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman



Lecture #05:

Peripheral Linguistic Connotations II —

Reflected Meaning



As I noted at the end of the previous lecture, a true double meaning for a word or phrase is uncommon in narratives in Tanakh, and even if awareness of the phenomenon adds to the reader's understanding of hidden meanings in the narrative, at the end of the day, the widespread, standard technique is to use words with a single meaning. In contrast, the issue for our analysis in this lecture, "reflected meaning," is much wider, and it influences the experience of reading to a greater extent. 


The phenomenon I would like to discuss, reflected meaning, is taken from Geoffrey Leach's analysis of seven types of meaning, as we mentioned already in the previous lecture.[1] With this type of meaning, it is often absolutely clear what the intended definition of a word or sentence is (unlike the polysemy we discussed in the previous lecture); however, there are other additional meanings which echo (or are "reflected") in the reader's awareness for that word or sentence. Although the reader understands immediately that the intent of the sentence is not the meaning echoing in the reader's head, nevertheless this meaning can take a role in the hidden nature of the linguistic expression, in the hidden meaning of the sentence. This is a classic instance in which there is a true distinction between the original language of the narrative and its translation in another tongue. The essential dictionary definition can be maintained in the transition to another language, but the reflected meanings in a word, flowing from its alternative interpretations, will not survive the transition to another language. 


"In the Pit"


A good example to begin this analysis is Yosef's statement to the butler in the Egyptian prison: "For indeed I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews; and here also I have done nothing that they should put me in the pit" (Bereishit 40:15).  The simple, immediate (and justified!) meaning of "pit," bor in the words of Yosef is the prison in which he finds himself, even if this is a surprising description. However, as Nechama Leibowitz points out, in the story of Yosef and Potifar's wife (chapter 39), this site is consistently described as "the prison-house," beit ha-sohar (ibid., vv. 20, 21, 22, 23). This term is repeated also in the story of the chief butler and the chief baker (40:3, 5), but it is accompanied by an additional term - "guardhouse," [beit] mishmar (ibid., vv. 3, 4, 7).[2]  Thus, there are two common expressions in the narrative for the site of Yosef's confinement. In the words of Yosef, the reader encounters for the first time a third term for this place: "bor," usually translated as "pit." Obviously, the reader cannot help but be thrown back to the opening of Yosef's saga, to the scene of his brother stripping him of his tunic and casting him into a "bor".[3] In the story of the sale of Yosef (chapter 37), this term is mentioned very often (seven times), and this is one of the keywords of the unit.


Naturally, when reaching Yosef's surprising term for the prison, the reader recalls how Yosef was sold into Egyptian slavery by his brothers, and the reader is inclined to bring the "bor" of chapter 37 into chapter 40, the story of the dreams of the royal officer. Thus, we may hear the cry of Yosef as a double cry: "I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews" when they cast me into the bor; and even in Egypt "I have done nothing" to justify casting me "in the bor."


It seems that Scripture itself encourages this reading because of an additional gap that exists in the narrative. Yosef's confinement is described by the verse in the singular - "And he [Potifar] put him in the prison-house" (39:20) - while in the words of Yosef, the subject is in the plural - "that they should put me in the pit."[4]  In this way, the verse encourages the reader to look for "them" — the many who imprisoned Yosef.  In this is buried an allusion to Yosef's brothers, in addition to Potifar.


Furthermore, before mentioning the "bor", Yosef creates an obvious link between his experience in the Land of Cana'an, at the hands of his brothers ("I was stolen away out of the land of the Hebrews") and what has happened to him in Egypt ("and here also I have done nothing"). The link between these images is stressed by the "also". This link encourages the reader to read the end of the verse ("that they should put me in the pit") on the basis of the two images together. Practically, this unit in its entirety recalls to the reader the story of Yosef's youth in the Land of Cana'an because of the pair of dreams appearing in each story, all of which deal with matters of power and authority. Naturally, it is easy for the "bor" into which Yosef is cast in the Land of Cana'an to be reflected once again in this scene, beyond the terminology of his confinement.


As we noted above, this wordplay can be lost when the narrative is transferred to another language. In many translations, the reader cannot equate the "bor" in Yosef's words to the butler as referring to the "bor" into which Yosef was cast when he was stolen away from the land of the Hebrews.  Thus, for example, Onkelos and Pseudo-Jonathan render the "bor" in the land of Cana'an as "pit," while the Egyptian "bor" is rendered "house of prisoners." E. A. Speiser, in his Anchor Bible translation of Bereishit, renders the former "pit" and the latter "dungeon."


The double tragedy of Yosef's life, his repeated plunge into the pit when he has done nothing wrong, will be repaired in another mention of "bor" when Yosef is rescued from it and presented to Pharaoh: "And they brought him hastily out of the bor" (41:14). At this time, Yosef is described as one who leaves the Egyptian bor because of his interpretation of the dreams of Pharaoh's officers; in fact, at this time, Yosef's own dreams from Cana'an begin to be realized — the very dreams which originally were the cause of his being cast into the bor. Yosef emerges from this bor as well as he begins to realize his dreams.


Thus, if the reader encounters one word with an extremely clear definition that reflects other meanings — or, as in our case, other scenes — the reader must be open to experience the entire array of connotations accompanying the simple meaning.


"And They Came Upon Moshe and Aharon"


As we explained in our discussion of multiple meanings, it is difficult to argue that any free association of any reader draws out the original intent of the verse and its hidden aim.  Here also, we must explore how Tanakh encourages different readings: does it indeed support gleaning additional meanings from a linguistic expression? One of the prominent ways that Tanakh encourages the reader to see the reflected meaning is employing this reflected meaning in proximity to the linguistic expression under discussion.


An example of this may be seen in the description of the Jewish officers' confrontation with Moshe and Aharon in Egypt: "And they came upon Moses and Aaron, who stood in the way, as they came forth from Pharaoh" (Shemot 5:20). The verb "va-yifge'u," conjugated in the simple (kal) construction, is used in two other contexts in Tanakh.[5]


Sometimes, the verb describes a neutral encounter, without any particular emotion of love or anger, as in the description of Yaakov's journey to Charan: "And he came upon the place, and he spent the night there because the sun had set" (Bereishit 28:11), or as it appears when he returns to the land: "And Yaakov went on his way, and God's angels came upon him" (ibid. 32:2), as well as (I Shmuel 10:5): "And you will come upon a band of prophets."[6] 


However, sometimes the verb refers to an attack, and negative, violent connotations accompany it, as with Do'eg's murder of the priests of Nov (ibid., 22:18: "The king then ordered Do'eg, 'You turn and strike down the priests.' So Do'eg the Edomite turned and struck down (va-yifga) the priests."  Similarly, we find (II Shmuel 1:15): "Then David called one of his men and said, 'Go, strike (pega) him down!' and he struck him and he died." On the opposite extreme, we find a prophecy from Yeshayahu (64:4) which is usually rendered: "You welcome (pagatta) those who gladly do good," and many others.[7]


The conceptual meaning of the verb that introduces the officers' confrontation with Moshe and Aharon is clear, and the reader should interpret it using the first definition, as this is a chance encounter. Indeed, the various commentators have explained it in this way, starting from Onkelos and Pseudo-Jonathan: "And they happened upon Moshe and Aharon."


Despite this, it appears that the choice of this verb is not coincidental.[8] This verb appears in the previous scene, in Moshe's request from Pharaoh to release the Jewish people (ibid., v. 3):


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 (yifga'enu) with the pestilence or with the sword.


Here, the verb indicates the alternative meaning, the violent definition of a physical encounter ("with the pestilence or with the sword"). It appears that this request of Moshe and Aharon from Pharaoh stands as the background for the words of the officers to Moshe and Aharon, because this request is quoted in Pharaoh's response to the officers (v. 17): "Weak, you are weak — this is why you say: 'Let us go and sacrifice to God.'"  In this way, the road is paved in the reader's consciousness to associate the word "va-yifge'u" with the word "yifga'enu" and the meanings previously raised in Moshe and Aharon's words to Pharaoh, even if it only an allusive reflection.


Not only in the verb "paga" does the verse allude to the creation of a relationship between these two images (Moshe and Aharon standing before Pharaoh and Moshe and Aharon standing before the Jewish officers), but also in the shared worry in both scenes because of the sword which is hanging over the heads of the speakers. Paralleling the words "lest He strike us down (yifga'enu) with the pestilence or with the sword," the Jewish officers claim that Moshe and Aharon have "put a sword in their hands to kill us." Practically, the analogy between the two pictures is even deeper, because in both of them the speakers raise a terrifying revelation of God. Speaking to Pharaoh, Moshe and Aharon begin, "The God of the Hebrews has revealed Himself to us," while the officers now hope, "Let God appear to you and judge you" (v. 21). It may be that the significance of the relationship between these two pictures is the irony which penetrates the words of the Jewish officers - while Moshe is concerned about God's sword, they feel Pharaoh's sword!


I would like to suggest that because of the connection between these two scenes and their textual proximity, one must impart a negative reflected meaning to the verb "va-yifge'u" in the heading of the Jewish officers' encounter with Moshe and Aharon. It is clear that the verse does not indicate a physical altercation, but choosing this verb reflects a violent atmosphere, so that the verse assimilates in the reader associations of deep struggle and sharp contention. Here too, the wordplay is lost in most translations, but there are those who maintain this reflected meaning: "Thus they hurried to confront Moses and Aaron."[9]


"I Will Get Away" — A Subconscious Hint?


Beyond the reflected meaning of any given word, the narrative may allude to latent meanings which are sometimes hidden even from the consciousness of the speaker in the narrative, and in this sense, they serve as an entree into the subconscious of the character of the speaker in the narrative.  In fact, we may wonder if Yosef picks the term "bor" for his prison in order to allude to the bor in Cana'an, where his downfall began, or if this was perhaps only an unthinking choice of a word that reflects what is going on in his soul - a Freudian slip. An additional example in which the reader may have some ambivalence about whether terminology indicates an intentional choice of a word with a reflected meaning or perhaps allows us to intrude into the subconscious of the character may be seen in Yonatan's attempt to explain to his father Sha'ul why David is absent from the New Moon feast. Since this is a scene of a prince lying to his father, the key plot elements already raise the level of the reader's tension and anticipation. According to Yonatan, David had requested permission to visit his family in Beit Lechem: "Now, if I have found favor in your eyes, please let me get away (immaleta) and see my brethren" (I Shmuel 20:29).  The simple meaning of "immaleta" is to travel quickly: "I will hurriedly go and return."[10]  However, Yair Zakovitch points out the reflected meaning accompanying Yonatan's words. According to him, the use of this specific language indicates what Yonatan and David are really thinking: David must flee from Sha'ul.[11]


It seems to me that we can confirm Zakovitch's proposal in terms of the overarching unit. Indeed, it appears that the structure of the story encourages the reader to impart the reflected meaning to this word in addition to the clear conceptual meaning. The sense of hurried travel, which is the accepted interpretation, strikes the reader when comparing David's words to Yonatan as they are planning what Yonatan will say to his father to the words that Yonatan ultimately uses in speaking with his father:


David to Yonatan (20:5-8)

Yonatan to Sha'ul (20:28-29)

David earnestly

asked leave of me

David earnestly

asked leave of me

that he might run

to Beit Lechem his city;

to go

to Beit Lechem;

for it is the yearly sacrifice there for all the family

"for we have a family sacrifice in the city... 

"please let me get away (immaleta) and see my brethren"


Interestingly, David expresses his supposed desire "to run to Beit Lechem his city." To our surprise, Yonatan omits this, speaking simply instead of David's requesting permission "to go to Beit Lechem," and the absence of this verb echoes in the reader's mind. This alteration encourages the reader to seek out the compensation of this verb in the continuation of Yonatan's words to his father.[12] The deficiency is resolved when Yonatan throws in at the end "please let me get away and see my brethren," which serves as the parallel of "to run" in David's words — and with a greater emphasis on the word, once it was left out initially. Despite this, when we examine these two verbs side-by-side, there is a hidden clue to the distinction between them. Why does Yonatan exchange the verb he and David planned to use for a different verb?


Moreover, the term "to get away" brings us back to the previous chapter, in which Mikhal helps David escape. In the span of nine verses in chapter 19, this term is used five times to describe David's evasive actions:


1.            "David ran off and got away on that night" (v. 10)

2.            "'If you do not get yourself away tonight...'" (v. 11)

3.            "And he went, and he fled, and he got away" (v. 12)

4.            "'You have sent my enemy off and he has gotten away'" (v. 17)

5.            "And David fled and he got away" (v. 18)


Considering that "getting away" in all of these instances in the immediately preceding scene clearly means "escape," there is a natural tendency to impart this meaning (even if it is merely reflected) to Yonatan's mention of David's "getting away" in this situation. 


      However, it is not merely an issue of textual proximity that encourages the reader to hear in "immaleta" a reflected meaning of escape. The two stories — Mikhal's rescue of David and Yonatan's rescue of David — stand in parallel. In each of them, a member of the royal family saves David, his daughter in the former and his son in the latter. The analogy between Mikhal's rescue of David and betrayal of her father on the one hand and Yonatan's rescue of David and betrayal of his father on the other is indisputable.[13] Naturally, Yonatan's version of David's words, "please let me get away," must be read in the context of Mikhal's words to David, "'If you do not get yourself away tonight.'" Thus, the hidden meaning of "immaleta" ("I will flee from Sha'ul") is an addendum to the simple meaning - "I will depart quickly." In this case, the addition of this double expression is tied to the emotional stress upon Yonatan as he is misleading his father.[14] As we said, it is difficult to decide if Yonatan chooses a word with an implied meaning of escape consciously and with intent, or if this is an unwelcome imposition of the truth.  Although Yonatan tries to hide it from his father, it bursts forth against his will.[15] 


Reflected Meaning in the Exegesis of Names


Reflected meaning usually finds expression in the Midrashic exegesis of the names of characters in Tanakh. Since this is well-known, I will suffice with a few brief examples. 


In Rut, the verse does not explain the names of the children of Elimelekh and Na'ami, Machlon and Kilyon. Some explain these names as connected to the ideas of expectation and longing, in keeping with Psalmist's language: "My soul longs (kaleta) for your salvation; I hope (yichalti) in your word" (Tehillim 119:81). Nevertheless, it is indisputable that the reader feels, even as the story opens, that the names of the brothers also connote illness (machala) and destruction (kilayon).[16]  


Thus, it may be that the name of Eglon, King of Mo'av, is meant to allude to "egel" (calf) in the mind of the reader, as Eglon is described as "a very corpulent man" (Shofetim 3:17).  His name would then fit into the general derision shown to this monarch in the narrative.[17] 


Similarly, even if the verse does explain the etymology of a given name, there may still be an ancillary meaning to that name, just as the name Yisrael, which replaces Yaakov, is not only given because "you have contended (saritta) with gods and with men and you have emerged triumphant" (Bereishit 32:28), but also because the implication of "yashar" (just, straight) replaces the derogatory implication of "akov" (corrupt, twisted).[18]


Giving an ancillary allusive meaning to a word because of a reflected, alternative definition puts a reader into the polysemous arena, a place wherein one must interpret a term which has two meanings in Hebrew according to all of its meanings (even if one has the status of a "main definition" and the other is a mere "reflection"). 


The next model which we will deal with is not that of a word with dual meanings, but one which has an associative charge.  What happens when a verbal expression is loaded with potent associations?  I will dedicate the next lecture to this topic.


(Translated by Yoseif Bloch)

[1] In his 1974 book, Semantics: The Study of Meaning. The examples in this lecture are taken from the essay discussed in the previous lecture: "Kefel Mashma'ut Be-Sippur Ha-Mikra'i U-Terumato Le-Itzuv Ha-Sippur" (Bar-Ilan University, 5766).

[2] Yosef also mentions "this house" (40:14), which could be a contraction of "prison-house" or "guardhouse" (see v. 7). In 42:19, the phrase for the latter is "beit mishmar:" "One of your brothers will be imprisoned in your guardhouse (beit mishmarkhem)." In chapter 40, "mishmar" is used alone or immediately preceding "beit" (house of).

[3] N. Leibowitz, Iyunim Be-Sefer Bereishit (Jerusalem, 5727), p. 309.

[4] Compare this to the commentary of Y. Kil, Bereshit, Vol. III, Da'at Mikra (Jerusalem, 5763), p. 105.

[5] In the causative (hifil) construction, there are other meanings, as in Yeshayahu 53:6 and Yirmeyahu 36:25. See Z. Raday, Ha-Milon He-Chadash La-Tanakh (Jerusalem, 5749), pp. 467-468; BDB, p. 803. Very rarely, these meanings can be found in the kal construction as well; see, for example, Yirmeyahu 7:16.

[6] V. P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50 (Michigan, 1995), p. 317), may be right that this verb indicates unexpected, surprise encounters.

[7] The reader may sometimes find himself in some doubt as to which of these meanings is intended in the narrative, as, for example, when Rachav tells the spies of Yehoshua (2:16): "Go to the mountain, lest the pursuers yifge'u you" — this may be rendered "lest the pursuers come upon you" or "lest the pursuers strike you down."

[8] It is noteworthy that there is a more common verb in Tanakh to describe an encounter - "pagash." This may describe an intentional, planned encounter, as when Moshe and Aharon meet earlier in Shemot after the vision of the Burning Bush: "God said to Aharon: "Go towards Moshe in the desert,' and he went and met him at God's mountain, and he kissed him" (4:27). But it may also describe an accidental encounter, such as Avigayil's meeting with David and his warriors, which Scripture presents from David's point of view as a coincidental meeting: "And behold, as David and his men descended to greet her, she met them" (I Shemu'el 25:20), or "And Yo'av ben Tzeruya and David's servant went out and met them by the Pool of Givon" (II Shemu'el 2:13), et al.

[9] J. I. Durham, Exodus (WBC: Waco, TX 1987), p. 66.

[10] Commentary of R. Yeshayahu di Trani (Ha-keter ed., Bar-Ilan University, 5753), p. 109.

[11] Y. Zakovitch, Abbia Chidot Minni Kedem (Tel Aviv, 5766), pp. 156-157. Segal already points out the double meaning in Yonatan's words, but according to him, "The king hears this word in a sense which Yonatan did not attend: I will flee and spare my life" (M. Z. Segal, Sifrei Shemu'el Arukhim U-Mevuarim [Jerusalem, 5747], p. 168).

[12] Some have proposed that Yonatan's ambiguity is an intentional representation of the confusion and bewilderment of the speaker: "Yonatan had to deliver this fictitious version to his father, the wrathful monarch. There is no question that this fact on its own is sufficient to explain to us why Yonatan gave Sha'ul a corrupted version of what was originally planned" (Y. Bacon, "Dialogim Ba-Mikra Ha-Mekhilim Divrei Sheker," Beit Mikra 15 [5730], p. 425).

[13] See, for example, M. Garsiel, Sefer Shemu'el Alef — Iyun Sifruti Be-Ma'arkhei Hashva'a Be-Analogiyot U-Vemakbilot (Ramat Gan, 5743), p. 172.

[14] Not coincidentally, there are a great number of polysemous expressions in narratives of obfuscation and trickery. One who wishes to delve into this may read my essay, "Ha-Shimmush Be-Lashon Du Mashma'it Be-Sippurei Mirma Ve-Hataya Ba-Mikra," Tarbitz 73 (5764), pp. 483-515.

[15] In an analysis of the subconscious of characters in Tanakh, the assumption is that the use of a given word reflects specifically the thoughts of the character. Another possibility is that the use of a given word is directed specifically at the reader. This is an issue which will arise many more times as we continue our analysis.

[16] Zakovitch, Abbia Chidot, pp. 131-132.

[17] Y. T. Radday, "Humor Be-Shemot Ha-Pratiyim Ba-Mikra" in Hagut, Safa, Omanut: Asufat Ma'amarim Li-khvod Aleksander Barzel (Haifa, 5747), p. 118.

[18] E. Chadad, "'Ve-Haya He-Akov Le-Mishor' — Mi-Yaakov Le-Yisrael", Megadim 38 (5763), pp. 9-15. (In n. 24, the author notes how Chasidic writings already raise this point.) On this phenomenon in general, see the expansive treatment by M. Garsiel, Midreshei Shemot Ba-Mikra (Ramat Gan, 5748).