Repetition of Sounds

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman



By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman



In loving memory of Channa Schreiber (Channa Rivka bat Yosef v' Yocheved) z"l,
with wishes for consolation and comfort to her dear children
Yossi and Mona, Yitzchak and Carmit, and their families,
along with all who mourn for Tzion and Yerushalayim.



Lecture #09:

Repetition of Sounds


Aural Triggers


In the previous lectures, we observed that every word has a unique contribution to the story beyond its conceptual meaning and its dictionary definition. In the second stage of our investigation of the individual word's contribution to the hidden reading of the narrative, I will attempt to track the contribution of repeated words, examining how they are integrated in the story and how they grab the attention of the reader. 


Before we proceed to our analysis of repeated words, I will devote this lecture to the similar phenomenon found with syllables and consonants, the repeated sound. Sometimes, a repeated sound occurs in the same sentence, capturing the attention of the reader and influencing his or her reading. Naturally, there is not always some obscure meaning behind this wordplay, but sometimes the narrative employs it to give the reader clues to a hidden reading.


Nechash Nechoshet


We find the Torah's use of this sort of wordplay in the story of the brass serpent (nechash nechoshet) in Bamidbar 21. After the people complain about their food (21:5), we read:


God sent fiery serpents (ha-nechashim ha-serafim) among the people, and they bit (va-yenashekhu) the people; and many people of Israel died. 

The people came to Moshe, and said, "We have sinned, because we have spoken against God and against you. Pray to God, that He take away the serpents from us."  Moshe prayed for the people.

God said to Moshe, "Make a fiery serpent (saraf), and set it on a standard; and it shall happen that everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live."  

Moshe made a serpent (nachash) of brass (nechoshet), and set it on the standard; and it happened that if a serpent had bitten (nashakh) any man, when he looked to the serpent of brass, he lived.


There is already some wordplay between the root of "to bite," "nashakh," and the “nachash.”  Indeed, v. 9 makes this clearer in the phrase "nashakh ha-nachash." However the wordplay is even clearer in Moshe's action.  In order to heal the people, Moshe is commanded to make a "fiery serpent" (saraf) and to put it on a pole. When Moshe fulfills this command, he makes a "nachash" — but to our surprise, he makes it out of "nechoshet"! Why doe Moshe decide to make the nachash out of nechoshet?  Note that the verse specifically emphasizes the substance out of which the serpent is made: "When he looked to the serpent of brass, he lived;" this is clearly not an insignificant detail in the manufacturing of the device.


Rashi answers this question promptly by building on the wordplay between nachash and nechoshet:


Moshe was not told to make it of nechoshet, but he said, "God called it a nachash, so I will make it out of nechoshet, a homophonic pun (lashon nofel al lashon)."


According to Rashi's reading, the literary wordplay in this case influences the real-life action; Moshe chooses nechoshet specifically in order to realize the paronomastic wordplay of nachash.[1]


How should we understand this literary phenomenon? The Ramban takes the logical position that this cannot be only aural wordplay for its own sake. Rather, the homophonic punning employed here alludes to the inner connection between the danger of the nachash and the curative power of its image of nechoshet:


It appears to me that there is a secret in this matter, for this is the way of the Torah, which in all of its aspects is a miracle within a miracle. It removes the damage with the damager and cures the infection with the infector...  It is common medical knowledge that the condition of the victim of a venomous creature's bite will worsen if the victim sees it or its likeness. This is why those bitten by rabid dogs and other rabid animals will die if they look at the water and see a reflection of the dog or other damager... and this is a fact of the wondrous powers of the soul. Since all of this is true, it would have been appropriate for those Israelites bitten by the fiery serpents that they should neither see a serpent nor recall it nor consider it at all, yet God commands Moshe to make the form of a saraf, which is killing them... The principle is that God directs [Moshe] to heal using the nature of the lethal damager, making something in its image and its name, so that when the person looks intently at the nechash nechoshet, which is totally in the form of the damager, he will live! This lets them know that God is the one who kills or resuscitates.


The words of the Ramban indicate that this repetition of sounds teaches a conceptual message – we are clearly not talking about natural healing in this context, as according to normative medical procedure, it is appropriate for a sick person to be distanced from the source of his illness, even mentally. (The Ramban, a practicing physician, even refers to "the wondrous powers of the soul" —psychology!) In order to stress that God "kills or resuscitates," Moshe specifically makes an image of a nachash, and specifically out of nechoshet, so that even the material out of which the image is made continues to remind one of the nachash. Despite this, it cures! 


The Significance of Sounds


This example suffices to establish that this sort of wordplay exists in Tanakh. In fact, it is enough to recall the hermeneutics of names in Scripture in order to realize how common this phenomenon truly is.


There are different types of aural wordplay in literature, such as rhyming, assonance, alliteration, homophonic punning, and concatenation. Since our analysis is dedicated to the hidden meaning of biblical narrative, we will not focus on the different ways in which the wordplay is expressed, but rather on the hidden meanings accompanying them. 


First, it is worth mentioning that some maintain that there are sounds that carry a distinct meaning in their very enunciation. At the very least, they direct the listener towards certain feelings. There are two different models that serve as a basis for the interaction between the sound of the word and the reality it denotes. 


The first model is that of onomatopoeia. In this case, the sound imitates the reality that the word denotes. Some examples of this in Hebrew are: tzartzar (cricket), bakbuk (bottle), rishrush (murmur), and zimzum (buzz). In Tanakh, we encounter this phenomenon in complete sentences as well. For example: "Your lips drip (titofena) as the honeycomb (nofet), bride" (Shir Ha-shirim 4:11). The very terminology used reminds one of the sound of dripping honey.  


The second model is that of high and low notes, which shape the reader's emotion. Some high or sibilant notes create tension, while other low, calm notes project tranquility and equanimity. 


This was proven in a fascinating experiment in which subjects were given full sentences that were not built out of meaningful words, but merely on phonemes. The subjects were asked to describe their emotional reaction to these sentences. It became clear that there was a remarkably consistent reaction among the subjects. Many pointed to the sentences with sibilant consonants and high notes as expressing harshness, as opposed to the sentences which had softer consonants, which the subjects saw as giving a feeling of relaxation and calm.  


This experiment is quite interesting, but its great advantage is also its disadvantage. The experiment indeed succeeded in isolating the sounds from the structure of the word, checking the reader's or listener's reaction to sounds that stand on their own. But there is a deficiency in this experiment; in the process of reading a narrative, a reader encounters words that do, in fact, have meaning.  Can we respond to a word’s sounds detached from its meaning? Does the word rasha (villain) broadcast tranquility because of its low-pitched vowelization, while the word tzedek (justice) broadcasts harshness because of its sibilant and velar consonants? It seems to me that the opposite is true – the definition of the words is what influences the reader much more than the sounds. In other words, even if this theory of vowels and consonants is interesting, it is very difficult to apply it as the same time that we are discussing words that have meanings integrated into the narrative. The reader must respond to the sense of the word along with the sound, and it is very difficult to separate between these two elements. It is more logical to say that the interaction of these sounds is tied in every place to the general content expressed in the sentence.


Sounds and Content


Thus, repeating a sound stresses something, but the emphasized segment is connected to the general content of what is being said in the narrative. For example, the consonance of the "sh" sound throughout a sentence can create different and varied feelings. Repeating the consonant may bring a feeling of comfort and love, as in the opening verses of Shir Ha-shirim (1:1-2): "Shir ha-shirim asher li-Shlomo. Yishakeni mi-neshikot..." In the first six words of this book, the consonant "sh" appears a half-dozen times (and in the first three words, it is paired with an "r"). In this case, the consonant "sh" arouses positive emotions in the context of the sentence. (I might even dare to suggest that to form the sound "sh," one must purse one's lips in a gesture reminiscent of a kiss.) On the other hand, in the verse "Va-tomer ha-isha, ha-nachash hishiani" (Bereishit 3:13), in which Chava blames the serpent for her partaking of the Tree of Knowledge, the repetition of the consonant "sh" imitates the serpent, and the "sh" and "s" sounds in the accusation leveled against Moshe, "Mi samekha le-ish sar ve-shofet aleinu?", "Who made you and officer or a judge over us?" (Shemot 2:14), broadcast enmity and anger.    


These alterations need not to bother us, because the emphasis of the consonant is tied intimately to the content of the sentence. As we have said, these repetitions may arouse an emotion in the reader's heart, but it would be very difficult to distinguish between an emotion aroused by sounds and an emotion aroused by the meaning of the word, and it seems to me that it would be appropriate to say that these two parameters integrate with each other.


Gidon: Rulership and Requisition


After Gidon's success in battle, having saved the Israelites from Midianite harassment, the Israelites suggest that Gidon rule over them: "Rule (meshal) over us – you, your son, and your grandson – because you have saved us from the hand of Midian" (Shoftim 8:22). Gidon refuses with a clear declaration of faith: "God will rule over you" (8:23). Instead, he makes an ephod, which he displays in his city, Ofra. What is the relationship between the proposal of rulership by the people and Gidon's collection of rings and making of an ephod?


This question is very broad and many commentators discuss it. The straightforward impression emerging from these verses is that there is a link between the refusal to rule and the idea of setting up an ephod because both are part of an ongoing dialogue. If so, what is the connection between the two parts of the narrative? The Malbim sees both of these passages as narratives of praise for Gidon:


After it tells us that he did not run after power, it tells us that he contemns profit, for by law he could have taken half of the booty; but he does not take anything more than a small amount, given as a gift.


Thus, according to the Malbim, this narrative closes its discussion of Gidon's era with great praise: he avoids power and he avoids money. 


On the other hand, some, such as Eliyahu Asis, have proposed that the image of the ephod is described as a contradiction to the image of Gidon's refusal to take the throne:


Gidon refuses to accept on himself the role of the king because he sees this as impinging on God's sovereignty, but he contradicts himself in the next breath, immediately initiating the construction of an ephod which impinges on God' service.[2]


Indeed, it appears that in the construction of the ephod, Gidon is acting as a king!  The verse stresses that Gidon sets up the ephod in his city. He appears to be erecting a monument, as kings do when they return from their military victories.  As Asis puts it:


Building a monument in the capital city of the victorious king is designated to focus around them the great attention and approbation of their subjects.  Erecting a monument in Ofra, Gidon turns Ofra into a pilgrimage site to commemorate his name, and this is the reality reflected in the sentence: "All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it[3] there."[4]


It appears to me that we may support this latter reading by paying attention to the aural wordplay in this short passage. It is easy to follow the consonance of the root “to rule” (mashal) throughout the length of the scene, both in its first part (offering the throne to Gidon) and its second (manufacturing the ephod): 


The Israelites said to Gidon, "Rule (meshal) over us – you, your son, and your grandson – because you have saved us from the hand of Midian."  But Gidon told them, "I will not rule (emshol) over you, nor will my son rule (yimshol) over you. God will rule over you."

And he said, "I make a request (eshala she'ela) of you, that each of you give me an earring of your plunder (nezem shelalo)." It was the custom of the Ishmaelites (Yishme'elim) to wear gold earrings.

They answered, "We will be glad to give them." So they spread out a garment (simla), and they cast (va-yashlikhu) onto it (shamma) each man a ring from his plunder (ish nezem shelalo). The weight of the gold rings (mishkal nizmei ha-zahav) he asked for (asher sha'al) came to seventeen hundred shekels, aside from the cresents (saharonim), the pendants, and the garments of purple worn by the kings of Midian (argaman she-al malkhei Midyan) and aside from (u-lvad min) the chains that were on their camels’ necks. Gidon made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in Ofra, his town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there (sham), and it became a snare (le-mokesh) to Gidon and his family. 


The consonance here, extending beyond the context of formal kingship, strengthens the unity of the two parts and creates a strong feeling that even the scene of erecting the ephod is part of the question of Gidon's authority. In other words, we have a complex character here – or perhaps we should say that the Scriptural judgment of him is complex. On the one hand, Gidon refuses to rule because of his impressive religious claim that only God is the rightful king; but on the other hand, Gidon performs royal acts and glories in his victory over Midian.  He refuses the throne, but below the surface, the trappings of rulership continue to accompany him.


Esav: Birthright and Blessing


Another clear example is the contribution to the theme of the narrative made by the words of Esav when he reveals that Yaakov his brother has stolen the blessing designated for him. He bitterly declares, "Indeed, he was named Yaakov, for he has deceived me (va-ya’akveni) these two times: he took my birthright, and now, behold, he has taken my blessing!" (Bereishit 27:36). Esav avails himself of linguistic artifice when he expounds the name of Yaakov as an expression of deceit and trickery. By Esav's logic, Yaakov did not receive this name for no reason, as he had already tricked him twice: first taking his bekhora (birthright)[5] for a lentil stew and again taking his berakha (blessing). It is logical that Esav chooses the verb "lakach" (to take) deliberately in order to describe the transfer of both the bekhora and the berakha. One might have claimed that Yaakov legally bought the bekhora, paying for it with the stew he prepared, but Esav uses an identical verb to create a link between the two events, thus emphasizing that even the transfer of the bekhora should be seen in the context of deceit, just like the unambiguous theft of the berakha.[6]


However, there is another link in Esav's words, an aural link of paronomasia between bekhora and berakha. Esav himself is interested in this connection in order to magnify Yaakov's consistent malfeasance; at the same time, however, Esav recalls to the reader (and even Yitzchak?) the decades-old incident in which Yaakov bought the bekhora from Esav. Now the reader asks himself – who really deserves Yitzchak's berakha? Is it really Esav? Perhaps it is Yaakov, who purchased the bekhora so long ago? 


This reading is alluded to by the Midrash Tanchuma, which Rashi cites:


Why did Yitzchak tremble? 

He said, "What sin is there of mine that caused me to bless the younger son before the older son, changing the order of lineage?"  

Esav started crying, "He has deceived me these two times."

His father said to him, "What did he do you?"

He said to him, "He took my birthright."

He said, "How distressed and trembling was I, thinking that perhaps I had violated the rightful order of things! But now that I have blessed the firstborn – may he also be blessed."[7]


Thus, the creation of the aural link between berakha and bekhora ultimately serves as a defense of Yaakov. Although Esav wishes to express harsh criticism of Yaakov, he ends up advocating for his younger brother. Through his words, we learn that Yaakov is in fact the legal bekhor (firstborn), and he deserves the berakha.


Moshe: Savior or Rescuer?


An interesting and unique instance of wordplay is found in the description of Moshe and his deliverance of the daughters of Re'uel. Scripture describes Moshe's actions from the third-person perspective: "Moshe arose and saved them" (Shemot 2:17) – in other words, Moshe is a savior (moshia). On the other hand, when the daughters of Re'uel give their first-person account to their patriarch, they use a different description of him, as well as a different verb): "And they said, ‘An Egyptian man rescued us from the hands of the shepherds'" (2:19). In other words, the Egyptian (Mitzri) is a rescuer (matzil). It is likely that the intent of the narrative is to teach us how fully Moshe is defined by his moral compass.  Whatever name or title is given to him, the compassion and the hunger for justice remain the same, whether it is Moshe the moshia or the matzil Mitzri. It is worth noting the use of these two dramatic verbs, which have such a deep emotional resonance, in a scene that ultimately deals with helping some sheep get their water! This prepares the reader for the latter part of the narrative, in which Moshe will be deputized to save and rescue the Israelites from their Egyptian servitude.


Yehuda and Eli's Sons


We find aural wordplay even when the character analysis is negative. For example, the verse describes "benei Eli" (Eli's sons) as "benei veliyaal" (worthless men). This anagram underscores the despicable, unredeemable character of Eli's sons.[8]  


Conversely, Yaakov blesses Yehuda, "Yehuda atta yodukha achekha yadekha be-oref oyevekha," "Yehuda, your brothers will praise you, your hand is on the neck of your enemies" (Bereishit 49:8). These blessings, the reader feels, are not mere wishes, but appropriate praise and encouragement for Yehuda, whose name alludes to his character traits. 


Rhetorical Repetition


Sometimes, the repetition of sounds serves the speaker, and one must view it as part of his rhetoric. A good example of this is when Yonatan is caught eating the honey, and he confesses and says, "Ta'om ta’amti bi-ktzeh ha-matteh asher be-yadi me'at devash – hineni amut," "Indeed, I tasted with the tip of the staff a bit of honey in my hand – behold, I will die" (I Shmuel 14:43). Despite the fact that the first words use the letters ayin and tet, while the final word uses the letters alef and tav, in light of the fourfold repetition of "ta’am", the very aurally similar "amut" must be seen as part of the series. Apparently, the aural wordplay here contrasts the insignificance of the sin (a taste, a tip, a bit) with the immense immutability of the punishment: "I will die"![9]


While the reader may often notice the aural wordplay in biblical narrative, it is not always easy to understand its contribution. The verse describes Yaakov's secret departure from Lavan's house: "Va-yignov Yaakov et lev Lavan" (Bereishit 31:20), literally, "Yaakov stole Lavan's heart." This is a noticeable instance of consonance, but what is it trying to teach us? Can it be that this linguistic wordplay is meant only for the aesthetics of the reading? 


Another example may be found in the story of Moshe at the inn, where his wife Tzippora circumcises her son and saves her husband: "Va-tikkach Tzippora tzor," "And Tzippora took a flint" (Shemot 4:25). It may be that there is an aural link between Tzippora and tzor, but is there any great hidden significance in this?  Similarly, David commands his officers not to harm Avshalom, "Le'at li la-na’ar le-Avshalom," "Deal gently with the boy, Avshalom, for my sake" (II Shmuel 18:5), and David Yellin argues that this is an intentional use of alliteration.[10]  But is there a hidden meaning here? 


Similarly, Bush argues that when the verse describes Na'ami's discovery that the famine has ended in Beit Lechem, there is another case of alliteration: Na'ami hears "that God had taken account of His people, to give them bread (la-tet lahem lechem)" (Ruth 1:6). This makes sense, but does the clear play on the name of the city, Beit Lechem (House of Bread), allude to a certain hidden reading?[11]


It is difficult to reach a conclusion in these instances, as well as in many other similar cases. It may very well be that something is alluded to in this wordplay, even if it is not clear to the reader. On the other hand, perhaps there is not always some great hidden meaning every time we hear paronomasia. 


As we explained at the beginning, the phenomenon of literary repetition which is the broadest and most significant is the repetition of a whole word. We will dedicate our next lecture to this issue.



(Translated by Yoseif Bloch)

[1] It is notable that God actually does not call it a "nachash," but rather "saraf" (unlike Rashi’s interpretation, and as the Ramban points out). The root "saraf" means "to burn;" in this context, it is used both as an adjective and as a noun and is the same word used in Scripture to refer to the angelic class, which has entered English as "seraph." This distinction in word choice strengthens the wordplay here: when Moshe prepares the saraf from nechoshet, the verse surprisingly describes it as a nachash in order to allow for the consonance with nechoshet.

[2] E. Asis, Lema’an Ammo U-lema’an Artzo: Sippuram shel Shelosha Manhigim Be-Sefer Shoftim (Tel Aviv, 5766), p. 89.

[3] Indeed, the pronoun is ambiguous in Hebrew, so that we may also render the verse, "by worshipping him" – Gidon!

[4] Asis, ibid. p. 90.

[5] Although "birthright" is probably the best translation of bekhora, it should be noted that it is directly related to the term "bekhor," which refers to the male firstborn of the family, who takes a double portion of the inheritance (Devarim 21:17).

[6] In order to create the connection, Esav is forced to use the verb “lakach in the context of the blessing, when he could have used the stronger verb “ganav (to steal). Esav is not able to say that Yaakov stole his birthright, because he agreed to the transaction. Esav is therefore forced to compromise on the neutral verb to describe both instances of Yaakov’s deceit.

[7] The Chizkuni writes something similar: "'He stole my birthright' — it was a slip of the tongue, revealing that by law, the birthright was Yaakov's" (Commentary to v. 36). See also the view of the Keli Yakar (ibid.), who makes our point about the aural game: "'He tricked me in this, because I did not know that receiving the blessing would depend on the birthright.' A hint to the matter is that the letters of 'bekhor' are the letters of 'berakha.'"

[8] Frank Polak brings this example of "repeating consonants;" however, he sees as the purpose of this phenomenon "a ratcheting-up of the consolidation of the verse" – in other words, a strengthening of the shared platform of the narrative, which allows the reader to connect the different details of the narrative and to see in them one organic unit (F. Polak, Ha-Sippur Ba-Mikra [Jerusalem, 5759], p. 99). In my view, the consonantal repetition can sometimes – although not always – add something significant to the theme and meaning of the narrative.

[9] Polak, ibid. pp. 99-100.

[10] D. Yellin, Kitvei David Yellin, E. Z. Melamed ed., vol. VI (Jerusalem, 5743), p. 286.

[11] F. Bush, Ruth and Esther (WBC, Waco, TX, 1996), p. 60