• yehoshua steinberg

Acharei Mot: Mixed Up and Worn out ~ Yehoshua Steinberg


The word “tevel”(תבל) appears once in Parashat Acharei Mot and once in Parshat Kedoshim, and nowhere else in the Pentateuch. In both instances, Rashi offers two similar —but not identical— explanations. The word תבלfirst appears in connection to bestiality (Lev. 18:23), and Rashi explains that it is an expression of “’kadesh’(קדש, prostitution1), ‘arayot’ (עריות, incest) and ‘niuf’ (ניאוף, adultery)”. He supports this by citing Isaiah 10:25, in which God warns the Assyrians: “My fury and My anger will destroy them for their blasphemy (תבליתם).” Alternatively, Rashi writes that תבלis an expression of mixture and combination because bestiality mixes the seed of man and animal. The second time that the word תבלappears is in regarding the sin of fornicating with one’s daughter-in-law (Lev. 20:12). In that context, Rashi first explains that the worldתבל means “gnai”(גנאי, disgrace), before again explaining that it refers to a mixture (this time, of the seed of a father and son).2

Most interpreters of Rashi explain that when he writes that תבלis an expression of mixing, he means that the root of the word תבלisבלל.3Some explain that the root of תבלis בלה(wearing out).4By contrast, in Rashi’s other explanation (that תבלmeans something related to sexual misconduct), he does not convey his opinion as to the root of the word תבל. In this explanation, the consensus5is that Rashi understood the letter תto be part of the root, making ‘תבל‘ the root itself. We will examine the differences between Rashi’s two approaches concerning the rare word תבלand the reason why the second time תבלappears, Rashi dropped his tripartite definition of “kadesh,” “arayot” and “niuf”in favor of simply writing “gnai.”

As is well-known, Rashi’s opinion concerning the roots of words in Hebrew is, in great measure, based on the work of Menachem ibn Saruk, whom Rashi cites hundreds of times throughout his commentaries to the Bible and Talmud. According to Menachem, the root of תבלis the biliteral בל. Menachem further divided the root בלinto eleven distinct subcategories, and places the word תבלin the sixth category. In said category, Menachem lists the following verses:

Do not lie with any animal to be defiled through it, and a woman shall not stand in front of an animal for mating—it is a תבל”(Lev. 18:23).

My fury and My anger will destroy them for תַּבְלִיתָם(Isa. 10:25).

And I said [about she who] has become לַבָּלָהthrough her adulteries…” (Ezek. 23:43).

Ephraim will יתבוללwith the nations” (Hos. 7:8).

The commonality between all these passages is that in each, the root בלrefers to something related to prostitution, adultery, and/or incest. Menachem clarifies that even the appearance ofבלin the context of Ephraim assimilating into the nations refers not to merely “mixing” in with them, but to their imitation of the pagan aberrations of incest and adultery.

That said, we can now better understand the background to Rashi’s first approach. In Lev. 20:12, which is the first passage Menachem cites, Rashi defines תבלas related to “sexual impropriety” and refers to Isa. 10:25, the second passage cited by Menachem. Similarly, in his commentary to Isa. 10:25, Rashi cites Lev. 20:12.

In contradistinction, Rashi to Ezek. 23:43 (“לַבָּלָה) explicitly disagrees with Menachem and instead of explaining לַבָּלָהas related to “sexual misdeeds”, he interprets it as simply “wearing out” with age. The same is true concerning the final passage which Menachem cited, Hos. 7:8. In that verse too, Rashi does not follow Menachem in explaining יתבוללas referring to “sexual misconduct,” but explains that it simply refers to the exiles of Ephraim “mixing” into the nations.

In order to understand why Menachem and Rashi differed on these two points, we will provide some background to the discussion in the form of Menachem’s eighth and ninth categories of the root בל.

In the eighth category of בל, Menachem cites the following verses:

After I had become בְלֹתִי(old), I had my [menstrual] period”6(Gen. 18:12).

“…their form shall לבלות(rot) in the grave” (Ps. 49:15).

And the Earth תִּבְלֶה(will become worn out) like clothing” (Isa. 51:6).

My chosen ones יְבַלּוּ(will become old)” (Isa. 65:22).

“…and its leaves will not become יבול(putrid)” (Ps. 1:3).

You will surely become תבול נבול(exhausted)” (Ex. 18:18).

Rags that are בְּלוֹיֵ(worn out)” (Jer. 38:11).

In the ninth category of בל, Menachem cites the following two verses:

“…and we shall נבלה(mix) their language there” (Gen. 11:7).

“…its name Babylon because God had בלל(mixed)…” (Gen. 11:9).

Menachem, as is often his wont, does not explain the connection between these verses and why he categorized them as he did. Still, the connections can be gleaned from their context: the eighth category refers to the concept of “wearing out,” while the ninth category refers to the notion of “mixture.” That said, we can now understand what motivated Rashi to differ from Menachem. Rashi understood that the rootבל which appears in Ezek. 23:43 does not belong in the sixth category of בלas per Menachem’s placement, but should be placed in the eighth category. Likewise, Rashi understood that יִתְבּוֹלָלin Hos. 7:8 should have been placed in the ninth category, not the sixth.7

Until now, we have discussed various possibilities concerning the implications of the word תבל. At least according to Menachem, its root is בלwhich Menachem understood in some cases denotes “mixing” and in other “wearing out.” After consulting with various lexicons and other sources which treat all the words which include the two-letter stringבל, it seems that all such words are connected in some way or another to the idea of “mixing” or “wearing out” – and these two notions are themselves related to one another. We will now visit numerous examples; first those clearly describing mixture:

בלל(“mixing”) – Concerning the Tower of Babel, Scripture states: “…and we shall נבלה (mix) their language there” (Gen. 11:7), and “…its name Babylon because God had בלל(mixed)…” (Gen. 11:9).

תבלול(“cataract”) – When listing the blemishes for which a Kohen might be disqualified from service in the Temple, the Bible mentions that if he has aתבלול in his eye, he is disqualified (Lev. 21:20). Rashi explains that תבלולis something which is מבלבל(“confuses”) the eye. Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, explains that תבלולis related to the word תֶּבֶלwhich means “destructive” (i.e. sexual misdeeds are destructive to society, just as a cataract is destructive to one’s eyesight) or is related to the word בלולה(“mixed”) and refers to something mixed into his eye.

בליל(“fodder”) – “Does an ox moo over בלילו(“its food”)?” (Job 6:5). Radak in Sefer HaShorashim(s.v. בלל) explains that animal fodder is called בלילbecause it is a mixture of barley and oats.

גבל(“knead”) – The Mishnah (Parah9:5) teaches that the waters of the Red Heifer which became disqualified cannot be used commercially to knead (גבל) clay. Similarly, the Talmud (Shabbat18a) says that dirt is considered fit for use in kneading clay (בר גיבול הוא).8Lastly, the Tosefta (Challah1:4) rules that roasted flour that was kneaded (קמח קלי שגבלו) into dough requires the challah tithes to be taken off.

שבלול(“snail”) – The Sages homiletically interpreted this word as שבולת(powerful current) and as בלול(mixture):Tanchuma Vayera 17– “like the snail (שבלול) that melts and slithers away.” (Psalms 58:9) – just as as a turbine-like torrent sweeps away) – everything in its path, so were the wicked Sodomites melted and swept away; Commentary of R’ Shlomo Buber– The Midrash here interprets שבלולlike the similar word שבולת(rapid current)9and also like שֶבָּלוּל(mixed and confused).

תבלין(“seasoning”) – Aruch HaKatzar10(s.v. תבל א‘) explains that seasonings are called תבליןbecause various types of spices were typically mixed in together. Maase Rokeach11(to Maimonides’ Laws of Yom Tov 3:12) explicitly writes thatתבלין is an expression of בלילהbecause it has various ingredients mixed together. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim in Cheshek Shlomo (s.v. בל) writes that the hot spices are called תבליןbecause their existence accentuates the taste of a dish and “mixes” (integrates) the flavors very well.

טבל(“untithed produce”) – Sefer HaAruchexplains that untithed produce is called טבלbecause it is unfit for consumption, and is therefore like a wooden tablet (טבלא) which cannot be eaten. However, R. Chaim Kanievsky (in Derech Emunahto Maimonides’ Laws of Maasar 5:23) and R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (in HaKetav VeHaKabbalah to Exodus 22:28) explain thatטבל refers to a “mixture” (the latter explaining that טבלis related to the word תבל12), as untithed produce is effectively treated as regular produce mixed together with holy tithes (which would render it unfit for consumption until the required tithes are given to the Kohen and Levite).

כבול(“shackles”) – As told in I Kgs. 9:13, the cities which King Solomon built and gave as a present to Hiram, king of Tyre, are called the Land of Cabul (כבול, shackles). Rashi explains that they were called so because those cities were built on marshlands, such that if one would tread on its ground, his foot would get stuck as if he were tied down in shackles.13The Medieval Yemenite exegete Rabbi Avraham ben Shlomo (in his Peirush Neviim Rishonim to I Kgs. 9:13) explains that Cabul is related to נבוכה(“perplexed” or “confused”).14

Next, thoseבלwords which relate to “wearing out,” “rotting” or “exhaustion” include:

בלה(“worn out, exhausted, rotting”) – This usage is found many times in the Bible: After I had become בלתי(old), I had my [menstrual] period (Gen. 18:12); Your clothing לא בלו (did not deteriorate) (Deut. 29:4); My flesh and my skin became בלה(worn out) (Lam. 3:4); My chosen ones will become worn out (Isa. 65:22); and more.

בל,בלתי,בלי (various expressions of negation) – Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (Yeriot Shlomo vol. 2, pg. 72a) connects these words to the notion of being worn out or exhausted (in this case, the exhaustion or collapse of a possibility). In this way, the word בלmeans “not” such that בל ידעתי (Isa. 44:8) means, “I did not know.” As derivatives of this meaning, words like בלי(“without”) and בלתי (“no other”) also denote limited choice or exclusivity.15

הבל(“futility”) – R. Shlomo Pappenheim (ibid.) continues to explain that the wordהבל is also related toבל because it denotes something “empty” or “non-existent,” similar to the “exhausted” meaning of בל(an exhausted entity being essentially useless). King Solomon famously declared: Vanity of vanities (הבל הבלים), says Koheleth, all is vain (הכל הבל) (Ecc. 1:2). R. Elazar of Worms notes that the letters in the phraseהכל הבל can be permuted to read הכל בלה (“everything is worn out”), thus cementing the association of הבלwithבלה.

נבלה(“carcass”) – R. Shlomo Pappenheim (ibid.) and R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (HaKetav VehaKabbalahto Deut. 21:23) explain that the ultimate root of this word for carcasses is בלהbecause a נבלה is a dead body left to rot.

אבל(“mourning”) – Radak (in Sefer HaShorashim, s.v. אבל) points out that one of the usages of the word אבלis as a term for “destruction,” adduced from two Scriptural texts: Therefore, the land will be destroyed (תאבל) and all who live in it will be weakened (Hos. 4:3) and He feels only the pain of his flesh, and his soul will be destroyed (תאבל) over him (Job 14:22).

חבל(“wound”) – In Nehemiah’s confessional, he admits to God: We have surely acted destructively towards You (חבל חבלנו לך) (Neh. 1:7). Rashi explains that חבלהis an expression of destruction. This is conceptually related to בלהbecause something “worn out” is essentially “destroyed.”