Reflected Meaning

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman



By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman



Lecture #06:

Associative Meaning



As I noted in the end of the previous lecture, attributing an allusive meaning to a word because of an alternative reflected meaning puts the reader in the lexical-conceptual domain: namely, interpreting a word which has dual meanings in Hebrew according to both of its definitions (even if one of them is an "essential meaning" and the other is only a "reflection").  The model which we will now discuss is not built on words which have two parallel meanings, but words or phrases which have an associative charge. Since one may speak of a hypothetical "intended reader" to whom the biblical narrative is directed, one may take into account the associative dimension of this reader. Sometimes, these associations depend on biblical connotations, and sometimes even on the unbridled imagination of the reader. However if one is accustomed to Scriptural language, these imaginings have value as well.


An example of this may be found in the description of the dove's return to Noah after it has been sent to investigate whether the waters of the Deluge have receded:


But the dove found no place of rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned to him to the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth; and he put forth his hand, and he took her, and he brought her in to him into the ark. (Bereishit 8:9)


The conceptual significance of the words in front of us is clear: since the dove could not find a resting place, it returns to Noah, who extends his hand and brings it back into the ark. However, beyond the essence of the plot, a sensitive reader will notice the surprising association of conjugality that Scripture raises: "And he took her, and he brought her in to him into the ark." This phraseology is found only in the context of conjugality. For example, "And it was in the evening that he took Leah his daughter, and he brought her in to him; and he went in to her" (ibid. 29:23).  


Nachmanides is aware of this association. In his commentary, he writes: "Therefore, the dove could not find a place of rest that would be good for it."  Nachmanides’ terminology is a paraphrase of Naomi's words to Ruth: "My daughter, should I not seek for you a place of rest that would be good for you?" (Ruth 3:1)  This is the preface to Naomi's proposal to Ruth of a conjugal relationship with Bo'az. Obviously, there is no true conjugal relationship between Noach and the dove ("she" could easily be translated "it"), but it is worthwhile to raise this association in the reader's consciousness, in order to characterize the warm relationship between Noah and the dove, as opposed to his relationship with the raven. Part of the creation of this warm, convivial environment between Noach and the dove is the selection of words designed to arouse associations of conjugality. There is more to discuss regarding this issue, but this will suffice for now.


The associative dimension of the reader takes a role in shaping the meaning of a given expression specifically because it is done many times without the full consciousness or control of the reader. It recalls what I termed the "collocative meaning" — the identity of a word in terms of its belonging to a given domain, so that its use reminds the reader of that context. Here, we are not speaking specifically of a semantic domain, but rather the common use of a given word, so that the habitual context is "dragged in" like a hump on the back of that word, and this influences the reader.


Yaakov Greets Esav


In order to clarify this phenomenon, let us turn to a statement which is very difficult to interpret without the associative dimension. Can the associative meaning help us explicate this incident?


After Yaakov sends messengers to his brother Esav, they return with following message: "We came to your brother, to Esav, and also he comes to meet you, and four hundred men are with him" (Bereishit 32:7). How should we understand the words of Yaakov's messengers? Is Esav heading towards war, or is he turning towards peace and reconciliation? 


It is no coincidence that many commentators grapple with this question.  Rashi adopts the view that Esav was indeed coming to meet Yaakov in battle[1] at first, but in light of the gifts which he receives and in light of Yaakov's prostrations, Esav changes his mind and decides in the end to kiss Yaakov and not to bite him.  The Rashbam, on the other hand, maintains that originally Esav has no intention of battling with Yaakov. He brings along four hundred men in order to honor his younger brother.[2] Yaakov himself "holds like Rashi," as it were — he prepares himself for combat. It appears that he believes (or at least suspects) that Esav intends to fight him. 


In these cases, the associative meaning that accompanies the words has even more significance, because through it one may understand the allusive intent of the verse. In order to describe Esav's motivations, does Scripture select words with a martial association or words with a convivial association? We must keep in mind that we have a variation of the children's game "Telephone" here: Esav himself is not quoted, so that we must hear his intent in the words of Yaakov's messengers. Their description of Esav may, understandably, be colored by their own impression of his intentions. (Perhaps this is the reason that they neglect to mention the gifts that Esav is bringing with him.) Also, Yaakov's reaction to the messengers' words does not clearly demonstrate the original intent of Esav, because it is not certain that Yaakov understands Esav's intentions correctly! Thus, the reader reacts to the words of the messengers and to Yaakov's response with the knowledge that this is in the absence of direct information about Esav's own intentions.[3]


Examining the Scriptural associations and connotations that accompany the words of Yaakov's messengers, the reader stumbles across another difficulty. This is because there is an inherent ambivalence in the report of Yaakov's messengers. The messengers’ words are split into two clauses: "And also he comes to meet you/ and four hundred men are with him." Concerning the phrase "comes to meet," Amnon Shapira writes:


The phrase "comes to meet" (halakh likrat) appears in Tanakh, aside from in our verse, fourteen times, in three of which it has a martial connotation; but in eleven cases, which are 78% of the references to this expression, it has a connotation of peace. One must assume that this is the essential note that an ancient Hebrew, with an ear attuned to the tones of Scriptural language, would hear in the words "coming to meet".[4]


I am not convinced that calculating the percentages of the references of a certain expression is decisive when it comes to the reader's awareness. It is logical that this consciousness is influenced by the network of words which appear around a given expression, more than the statistics of connotations which accompany the expression. Therefore, in opposition to Shapira's view in terms of the expression on its own, it is difficult to point to a definitive connotation, in Sarna’s qualification of this expression, of "amity or enmity."[5]  However, Shapira is right that the eleven references in which it is used with a peaceful connotation influence our case, in terms of the specific associations which the narrator encourages and the verbal tapestry which is woven around the words of the messengers.


Yaakov’s messengers open their report in a seemingly innocuous way: "We came to your brother, to Esav." The double description ("to your brother/ to Esav") creates a distinct emphasis on these titles.[6] The use of the term "your brother" is prominent against the background of its absence in Yaakov's initial words when he sends the messengers:


So shall you say to my lord[7] Esav: "So says your servant Yaakov, 'I have dwelt with Laban, and I have delayed until now.  And I have oxen and bulls, sheep, servants and maids, and I have sent to inform my lord, to find favor in your eyes.'"


The master-servant relationship in Yaakov's speech is, understandably, tied to the rhetorical purpose of his words, which are designed to make clear to Esav his desire for reconciliation while accepting his authority as the older brother.  However, in the messenger's report, there is a significant alteration; they speak of coming "to your brother, to Esav."  The Abarbanel writes (ibid.) [8]:


They thought that he was coming to honor him, and because of this they returned to Yaakov and told him that they came "to [his] brother, to Esav,"[9] as if to say: Why do you call him "my lord"? He is no more than a loving, faithful brother. "And also, behold, he comes out to meet you" — meaning: He does not suffice in accepting your delegation; he himself is journeying and coming out to meet you and to greet you!


However, the second half of the messengers' report arouses an alternative awareness, and this is also part of the "associative meaning" that accompanies this expression. Why does Esav come to this encounter accompanied by four hundred men? In the Scriptural lexicon, "four hundred men" represents an attacking phalanx, an army battalion. For example, this is the number of men who gather around David when he flees from Saul ("about four hundred men"), and he is appointed "an officer over them" (I Samuel 22:2).  These four hundred men (along with another two hundred who stay behind to guard the supplies) build David's battalion, and with them he goes out to battle (ibid. 25:13, 30:10).


Naturally, the reader encounters a problem when he tries to clarify the hidden motivations of Esav, as the associative dimension of the words creates different levels of meaning.[10] Perhaps, as R. Shlomo Efrayim Luntschitz (the Keli Yakar) suggests, Yaakov's messengers themselves are perplexed and unable to determine the motivation of Esav in coming to Yaakov:


"We came to your brother," who presented himself in the spirit of brotherhood and love; however, at the same time, we saw the opposite of this - "also he comes to meet you" - so that we are confused about this.[11]


Yaakov himself, in fact, interprets the intent of Esav as evil; however, the ambivalence of the reader remains unchanged. First, it is possible that Yaakov is wrong in his understanding of Esav's aim; second, it may be that Yaakov acts "just to be safe" — even if he is not convinced that Esav has violent intent, he prepares himself for any trouble that might come along. Emanueli puts it well:


This obscure formulation, which can be understood in either way, is the intent of the author, who does not reveal to us the end — which is so well-known to the narrator.  In this, the author raises the tension and leaves the question open: does Yaakov err in his analysis, or had it truly been the premeditated aim of Esav to attack him, but the impressive gift changes his plans.[12]


In fact, at the end of the narrative, this question remains open.  Even if, at the end of the day, there is no violent encounter between the two brothers, there is no way of knowing what the original intent of Esav had been. Does the battalion which Esav brings to this encounter return to Mount Se'ir disappointed at not seeing any action? Perhaps their mission ab initio was to honor Yaakov, which indeed happened.


The obscurity of Esav's motivations in the narrative serves two different purposes in the design of the story. First of all, in this way Scripture focuses the attention of the reader on Yaakov, on his suspicions and his point of view of the events. It is not important, the narrative hints to its readers, whether these suspicions are justified or not. One must examine the mental processes that Yaakov passes through in this narrative; from this perspective, on the contrary, the ambiguity of Esav's motivations dovetails with the obscurity and the lack of knowledge in which Yaakov finds himself. In this way, it is easy for the reader to identify with the hero of the story.


Second (and in this context, we will not examine this point at length), the question of Esav's intent influences Yaakov's judgment in the narrative. Does he succeed in appeasing his brother through his sophisticated actions (the gift and the prostrations), or does Yaakov perhaps suspect the innocent - Esav from the start wants only to hug his younger brother? It is this scene, in which the brothers are reacquainted, that ultimately closes the book on the theft of the blessings, the source of the tension between them. In both instances, the reader has questions about Yaakov's judgment. Leaving Esav's intent ambiguous allows the reader to have some ambivalence about Yaakov's actions and the soundness of his judgment.


Symbolism and Ancillary Associations


Sometimes, the associative dimension that accompanies the word adds something significant to the symbolism of the narrative. This issue applies mostly to motifs that are stressed in the narrative, such as dress, food, etc. In these cases, paying attention to the associative meaning is so imperative that without doing so the reader may miss the primary significance of the verse.


In order to clarify this issue, we will turn to an ancient example of biblical analysis with which the Sages of the Talmud have already struggled. After Hagar flees from her mistress's house, the angel encounters her and asks her to return to her there, despite the fact that her humiliation and affliction will continue. In compensation for this, the angel promises Hagar various things, among them that she will give birth to a son to be named Yishma'el ("God will hear"), because God has heard her humiliation.[13] In addition to this promise, the angel adds that her son "will be a wild (pere) man" (Bereishit 16:12). The dictionary definition of “pere is "a wild donkey, a desert-dwelling animal from the horse family."[14]


According to this, when the angel compares Yishma'el to a pere, his intention is that he will dwell in the desert, as indeed happens later on (ibid. 21:20-21). However, it appears that the word pere has certain connotations in Tanakh, which the reader can hear when encountering this metaphor. The symbolism of the pere is most prominent in Iyov's words:


Who let the wild donkey (pere) go free?

Who untied his ropes?

I gave him the wasteland as his home,

the salt flats as his habitat. 

He laughs at the commotion in the town;

he does not hear a driver’s shout. 

He ranges the hills for his pasture

and searches for any green thing. (Iyov 39:5-8)


Iyov describes the pere as a free animal, unbound by chains, ropes or fetters, roaming the world.  The pere derides the hunter's victorious cries when he returns to his city, because the pere can never be caught or tamed. In other words, the association — and naturally, the symbol — that accompanies the pere is freedom. In light of this, the essential intent of the angel becomes clear: Hagar is asked to return to being Sara's maid, but her unborn son will be as free as a desert pere; he will not tolerate any further servitude.


Associations and Character Evaluations


Another facet of the associative dimension that accompanies a word is its great influence on character evaluation. This phenomenon is very broad, and here I will only highlight it briefly.


I assume that every reader feels great empathy towards Hagar at the time that she is forced to disengage from her son because he is about to die.  Hagar distances herself from her son, sits down "opposite him," and raises her voice to cry. Despite this identification with the deep pain of Hagar, the verse alludes in a number of ways to a hidden criticism of her for leaving her son Yishma'el alone.  First, the verse emphasizes that Hagar cries loudly - "And she sat opposite him and raised her voice and cried" (Bereishit 21:16) - but immediately after this we find that "God has heard" — not her voice, but rather "the voice of the boy."  Immediately, the angel who appears to Hagar from the heavens stresses that "God has heard the voice of the boy as he is there," as if the angel is saying to Hagar: You indeed have distanced yourself from your son, but God has heard his voice — in the very place where you abandoned him. Indeed, the immediate imperative which the angel gives to Hagar is focused on the renewal of intimacy between mother and child: "Rise, lift up the boy and take him by the hand" (v. 18).


It may be that the alluded criticism of Hagar is expressed by the mention of the bow in the narrative. The verse chooses to characterize Hagar's distance from her son the in a unique way: "And she went and sat down opposite him, about a bowshot away" (v. 16). In other words, Hagar sits at the distance of an arrow's flight from Yishma'el. Indeed, at the end of the story, the verse returns to this phrase when it describes the mature Yishma'el: "And he resided in the desert, and he became an archer" (v. 20). I will propose a symbolic-psychological reading. The adult Yishmael seeks constantly to bridge the gap between him and his mother. I would be so bold as to suggest, in modern parlance, that the only way for Yishma'el to overcomes his fear of abandonment by his mother — a fear which accompanies him all of his life — is through firing arrows that may reach that place where his mother sat, weeping, after abandoning him at death's door.  (Perhaps, in firing these arrows, there is also a repressed violence directed towards the mother who remains "opposite him, about a bowshot away"?)


For the purposes of our analysis, the criticism of Hagar is realized in the associative dimension, which accompanies the verb used by the verse to describe the separation between mother and son: "The water in the bottle was spent, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs" (v. 15). This choice of verb is very surprising.  In Tanakh, it is generally objects which are "cast." Consider the example of Moses’ staff: "And He said, ‘Cast it to the ground,' and he cast it to the ground, and it became a serpent" (Exodus 4:3); or the law of tzara'at of a house: "They will extract the stones in which the plague is, and they will cast them outside the city, to an impure place" (Leviticus 14:40); and many others.  Sometimes, the act of casting relates to people, but in such a case, it is accompanied by violence. Consider Joseph's ordeal at the hands of his brothers: "And they took him and cast him into the pit" (Bereishit 37:24). Naturally, when a verse seeks to describe the desecration of a corpse, this verb, which refers to casting a worthless object away, is used: "And the king of Ai... they took his body down from the tree, and cast it at the entrance of the gate of the city" (Joshua 8:29); "They took Avshalom and cast him into a deep pit in the forest and erected over him a very great heap of stones" (II Samuel 18:17). Thus, using this verb to describe Hagar's act arouses in the reader the feeling that Hagar "casts" her son like an object. The verb "to place" would have been more befitting, as we see, for example, in the case of Levi’s daughter, who is compelled to separate from her son Moses on the edge of the Nile:


But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and placed it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. (Exodus 2:3)


It appears that the verse chooses the verb "and she cast" on purpose, because of the associations which accompany it and which add to the critical judgment of Hagar in her disengagement from her son.


As this lecture has already exceeded the usual length, I will mention very briefly one additional example, which Yisrael Rosenson has dealt with thoroughly.[15] The question of evaluation of King Yehu is an extremely complex issue. It is sufficient to mention the multifaceted epitaph for his reign:


And God said to Yehu: "Because you have done well in executing that which is right in My eyes, and you have done to the house of Achav according to all that was in My heart, your sons of the fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel." 

But Yehu took no heed to walk in the law of Lord, God of Israel, with all his heart; he departed not from the sins of Yeravam, by which he caused Israel to sin. (II Kings 10:30-31)


Two "hearts" are mentioned consecutively and in absolute opposition - "according to all that was in My heart," followed by, "Yehu took no heed to walk in the law of Lord, God of Israel, with all his heart." 


This topic, as we have noted, is extremely complex, and perhaps we will return to it when we dissect character evaluation in the biblical narrative. For the sake of our analysis today, I would like to talk about one scene of Yehu's revolution, the killing of the family of Achazya, King of Judea:


Yehu met with the brethren of Achazya king of Judea, and said: "Who are you?"  

And they answered: "We are the brethren of Achazya; and we go down to salute the children of the king and the children of the queen."

And he said: "Take them alive."  And they took them alive, and he slaughtered them at the pit of the shearing-house, forty-two men, leaving not one man alive. (II Kings 10:13-14)


Let us set aside the question of whether Yehu has to kill these Judean aristocrats, the kin of Achazya, when his struggle is directed against the House of Achav, the royal family of Israel. Even if we may justify the killings as a necessary component of the revolution (which was itself initiated by prophetic command), the verb that the narrator chooses to describe their killing is surprising: "and he slaughtered them at the pit of the shearing-house."  It appears that in selecting this verb, Scripture succeeds in broadcasting the bitterness of spirit in Yehu's actions. Slaughtering people seems to be a barbaric act.[16] It would have been sufficient if the verse would have used the verb "and he killed them" to avoid these associations. Clearly, the verse wants to arouse a feeling of discomfort and disgust in the reader with the account of the killing-slaughtering of Achazya's family!


For those who are beginning to lose their patience, I will note that we will deal in the next lecture with the final ancillary meaning, "temporary meaning," and with this we will conclude our analysis of the many types of peripheral connotations of words and expressions in the biblical narrative.

[1] Rashi's Commentary on the Torah, Bereishit 33:4.

[2] Rashbam's Commentary on the Torah, Gen 32:7.

[3] A simple technique which Scripture could have employed is to let us into Esav's mind, as we see, for example, when David comes to harm Naval: "Now David had said, 'Surely in vain have I kept all that this fellow has in the wilderness, so that nothing was missed of all that pertained to him. He has returned me evil for good. God do so to the enemies of David, and more also, if I leave of all that belongs to him by the morning light so much as one who urinates on a wall'"  (I Samuel 25:21-22). Scripture's abandonment of its omniscient-narrator perspective leaves the door open for different explanations of Esav's actions and makes the picture more obscure.

[4] A. Shapira, "Yaakov Ve-Esav: Keria Rav Mashma'it," Iyunei Mikra U-Farshanut 4 (5757), p. 271.

[5] N. Sarna, Bereishit (JPS: Philadelphia, New York and Jerusalem, 1989), p. 224.

[6] As the Rashbam indicates ibid., this expression raises a parallel image, in which God describes to Moses how his brother is going to greet him: "Is there not Aaron your brother the Levite? I know that he can speak well. And also, behold, he comes out to meet you; and when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart" (Ex. 4:14). The reader's recollection is triggered on two planes. On the linguistic plane, this expression constitutes a prominent allusion to Esav's story, "and also he comes to meet you" paralleling "And also, behold, he comes out to meet you." On the plane of plotting and structure, there is a similarity between the two main characters, Yaakov and Moses, which forms a connection between the two descriptions. Each hero flees his place of birth, meets a girl at a well and marries her, and becomes a shepherd for his father-in-law. After a long period, God appears to each and asks him to return to his birthplace, after which each ends up being confronted by and struggling with God on the way to fulfill His command. Naturally, the continuation of the story, in which Aaron greets Moses ("when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart") also sends the reader back to Esav's meeting with Yaakov, and the reader feels that the point of his journey must be reconciliation and peace. Nevertheless, one must be cautious about these proofs, as Scripture may have the opposite aim: contrasting these two basically similar scenes.  Perhaps there is even some tension in the relationship between Moses and Aaron, just as there is in the relationship between Yaakov and Esav.

[7] Attention should be paid to the fact that Yaakov describes Esav with the term "my lord" when he addresses his messengers, even in the words that are not part of the script that they must say: "So shall you say to my lord Esav..." 

[8] Abarbanel Le-Sefer Bereishit (Jerusalem, 5724), p. 339. He continues: "'And four hundred men are with him' to honor you."

[9] In fact, the messengers are echoing the opening of the narrative: "And Yaakov sent messengers before him to Esav his brother, to the land of Se'ir, the field of Edom" (v.  3). Scripture defines Esav as "his brother," just as the messengers do later — as opposed to Yaakov himself.

[10] Amnon Shapira points out that R. Chayim ibn Attar explains the matter this way: "And in truth, 'and also he comes to meet you,' etc. — the explanation is: he comes to meet you in the way of brotherhood, 'and four hundred men are with him' — for evil intent" (Or Ha-Chayim, Bereishit 32:7).

[11]  Keli Yakar, ibid.

[12] Y. M. Emanueli, Sefer Bereishit: Hesberim Ve-He'arot (Tel Aviv, 5738), p. 426.

[13] This arises, in my humble opinion, from the structural design of the narrative and its similarity to the narrative of Hagar's banishment in chapter 21. For further study, see my essay "Shenei Sippurim Kefulim Be-Sefer Bereishit: Peredat Hagar (16:21) U-Vesorat Leidat Yitzchak (17:18)," Megadim 29 (5758), pp. 9-30. For an alternative reading, according to which these promises do not come from compensation for the humiliation, see E. Samet, Iyunim Be-Farashat Ha-Shavua (Jerusalem, 5762), Parashat Lekh Lekha, pp. 31-40.

[14] M. Z. Kadari, Millon Ha-Ivrit Ha-Mikra'it (Ramat Gan, 5766), p. 876.

[15] Y. Rosenson, "Sippur Yehu U-She'elat Ha-Meser Ha-Kaful," Megadim 25 (5756), pp. 111-124.

[16] This is a verb that Scripture uses to describe the murder of Achav’s children as well (II Kings 10:7). The verb shachat is applied to the slaughter (potential or actual) of human beings in the following instances: the binding of Isaac (Bereishit 22:10); Moses’ prayer after the sin of the Spies (Num. 14:16); the murder of the Ephraimites by Jephta's warriors (Judges 12:6); Elijah’s extermination of the priests of Ba'al (I Kings 18:40); the killing of Zidikiah by the Babylonians (II Kings 25:7; Jer. 39:6, ibid. 52:10); the murder of Israelites by Yishma'el ben Netanya (Jer. 41:7); and in Ezekiel’s prophecy of the foundling girl (Ez. 16:21, cf. 23:39). In the first and the last case, the context is ritual slaughter, and the use of the verb shachat is therefore not surprising. The other mentions of the verb carry with them connotations of mass, indiscriminate killings. There is a very interesting connection between Jeremiah 41 and the narrative before us, that in both of them the slaughter is done "to the pit." See Y. Hoffman, "Al Darko shel Ha-Mesapper Be-Farashat Gedalyahu," Iyunei Mikra U-Farshanut 5 (5760), p. 114.