Friday, 21 July 2017

Wordplay in Tanakh

From RRW

Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                           Wordplay in Tanakh

                  One of my favorite examples of wordplay in Tanakh is at Gen. 18:23, where Avraham is negotiating with God about the destruction of Sodom. Avraham says: ha-af tispeh tsaddik im rasha? The literal translation is: “will you even destroy righteous people with evil people?” But “af” also means “anger,” so the statement simultaneously means: “will your anger destroy righteous people with evil people?” Rashi presents both interpretations as if they are alternative choices, but one does not have to choose between them. Both can coexist, as it is wordplay.
                Now let us deal with a different kind of wordplay. At Gen. 2:25, Adam and Chavah are described as “arumim.” In precisely the next verse, 3:1, the nachash is described as “arom.”  Arumim means “naked,” from the root ayin, resh, heh, which means “bare” (like “ervah”). “Arom,” on the other hand, means “wise” or “cunning.”  The text has cleverly used two similarly spelled words that have different meanings, playing a little joke on us without any substantive import. (But there is one source that believes that both words are used here with the same meaning. That is TargumYonatan, who interprets the 2:25 reference as meaning “wise.”)
               Ibn Ezra is one commentator who comments on the wordplay here. He points out some similar instances of wordplay in Tanakh. For example, at Judges 10:3-4. we are told about Yair the Giladite: He had thirty sons that rode on thirty “ayarim,” and they had thirty “ayarim.” The first “ayarim” is a kind of animal. The second “ayarim” means “cities.” Both are spelled exactly the same way.
                Going back to Gen. 2:25-3:1, I have to mention a humorous comment. The first mem in “arumim” has a dot (dagesh) in it, strengthening it, while the mem in “arom” has no dot. The post-Talmudic Masoretes, who were responsible for these dots and other symbols, had an interesting mnemonic here: “The “wise” are weak and the “naked” are strong.”
                Another example of wordplay is at Ruth 2:10. Here Ruth says to Boaz: Why have I found favor in your sight “le-hakireni, ve-anokhi nakhriah?” Here the wordplay is subtler, since there is no visible nun in le-hakireini (since the original root nun dropped). But both “hakireni” and “nakhriah” come from the same root: nun, caf, resh. Yet they have opposite meanings: “recognize” and “strange.”  (Whether this is coincidence or not is still debated. It has been suggested that the process of recognizing something begins with recognizing its strangeness/uniqueness.)
                  Now I am going to mention a wordplay that will surprise you because it is generally unnoticed, even though it is literally right under our noses. I am referring now to the text of the Chumash regarding the mitzvah of tzitzit. At Numbers chap. 15, the word tzitzit is used three times:   ve-asu lahem tzitzit…, ve-natnu al tzitzit ha-kanaf..., ve-hayah lachem le-tzitzit u-reitem oto…
              The root tzade, yod, tzade has various meanings, all related.  One of its meanings is something that protrudes outward and blossoms. Another meaning is something that is visible, (e.g., the tzitz on the forehead of the high priest). While the first and second uses of tzitzit in parshat tzitzit are referring to the literal mitzvah object (which protrudes outward), the third use is relying primarily on the other meaning: something that is visible. Now all of a sudden we understand the flow of the sentence: ve-hayah lachem le-tzitzit, u-reitem oto u-zekhartem…(The conventional translation: “And it shall be for you tzitzit” is obviously very awkward.)
                One commentator who noted the wordplay on the third reference to tzitzit was Rashbam. See his comment on the third reference at 15:39:  petil ha-tzitzit ha-zeh yihiyeh lakhem le-reiah she-tiru oto.
               The English translations are faced with a dilemma here. Even though some probably realize that there is a wordplay here, they cannot show it. Because the three uses of the word “tzitzit” are in close proximity to one another, they all feel the need to translate the word tzizit the same way throughout (whether as “tassels”, “fringes,” or merely “tzitzit”).  
              (I will also note that Rashi, in his comment on the first use of tzitzit, mentions both the “protruding” meaning of tzitzit and the “visible” meaning. But it is Rashbam, by making his comment on the third use of tzitzit, who clearly emphasizes that there is a wordplay here with the third instance having a different meaning.)
               A most dramatic wordplay is found in the story of Yosef and his interpretations of the dreams of the chief butler and baker at Genesis chapter 40. When Yosef interprets the dream of the chief butler, Yosef says that in three days “yisa Paroh et roshekha” and he will return you to your position. But a few verses later, when Yosef interprets the dream of the chief baker, Yosef says that in three days “yisa Paroh et roshekha me-alekha” and he will hang you on a tree! The term “yisa et rosh” (literally: “lift the head”) has a few different meanings and the text has dramatically juxtaposed a positive one with a negative one!
                 Finally, another wordplay is the reference to the “nachash ha-nechoshet” at Num. 21:9. Most likely, the Hebrew words “nachash” (=snake) and “nechoshet” (brass/copper/bronze) are not related to one another. What we have here is mere wordplay. (Whether  n-ch-sh=snake is related to n-ch-sh= divination is a separate issue. The suggested connection is that the divination ritual was originally done with snakes. But most scholars today reject this connection.) 
                  Since we just mentioned some metals, I am reminded of something I learned recently about the English word “cop” for policeman. I had always wondered about this word. I imagined, without any basis, that it was an abbreviation for “commander of police.” Then I recently came across an article in the Wall Street Journal which reported that originally each policeman in New York City wore a copper star and that this led to “coppers” and finally to “cops.”  But then I found that there is an alternative view that “cops” comes from a verb “to cop,” meaning “to seize or to capture.” Of course, perhaps both explanations are correct, each one explaining what happened in a different region (New York City vs. England). But this all deserves more research and a separate column.                  
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is: Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy. He can be reached at  He is thinking of a third profession, a diviner, to finally determine whether snakes are an integral part of the ritual.

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