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Balak: A Hollow Curse ~ Yehoshua Steinberg

Updated: Dec 2, 2022


The bulk of the Torah portion "Balak" concerns Bilaam cursing Israel. The primary word used

for cursing though is the highly unsual term קבה –unique, according to one opinion. Furthermore, this same word is singularly used in Balak to denote tents and other objects. What is the underlying meaning of the two letters קב, and why is this string so ubiquitous particularly in this Parashah? This week's essay focuses on these questions.

Num. 22:11 – Behold! The people coming out of Egypt has covered the surface of the earth. Now go and curse (קבה) them for me; perhaps I will be able to make war against them and drive them away.

The word קבה, which means ‘to curse’, appears 10 times in this week’s Parsha. According to Ribag and Radak, this word derives from the root קבב. According to this opinion, our Parsha is the only place in Scripture where this word is used, while a similar word for cursing based on the root נקב is found in Job 3:8, ibid. 5:3 and Prov. 11:26,. However, Menachem Ben Soruk considers all of these words to be based on the same root קב (he includes all of the above mentioned verses in a single subdivision [of six such sub-sections] that are attributed to that root).

It is interesting to note that there is a verse towards the end of the Parsha that includes two other words containing the letters קב:

Num. 25:8 – He followed the Israelite man into the tent (הקבה) and pierced them both, the Israelite man and the woman into her stomach (קבתה).

The first word קבה is interpreted as meaning a tent, a singular word in this sense in all of Scripture. The meaning of the word קבתה is subject to various interpretations, some of which would indicate that it is also a unique word.

Returning to the discussion regarding the word קבה in the sense of a curse, Yeriot Shlomo (2:28b) explains that it indicates a curse which specifies G-d’s name, based on the verse in Leviticus 24:16 וְנֹקֵב שֵׁם השם.

Others interpret קבה based on the word נקב which indicates stabbing or piercing in the sense that the cursed person becomes empty and hollow (see Hirsch Numbers 22:11). We find the root נקב meaning curse in other places in Tanach (see Job 3:8, ibid. 5:3 and Proverbs 11:26)1. It seems that the above mentioned dispute stems from the two different meanings attributed to words that incorporate the letters קב.

1) To stab or penetrate – as seen in Kings II 12:10 and Isaiah 36:62

2) To fix or state explicitly – as seen in Genesis 30:28, Onkelos ad loc., Numbers 1:17, Onkelos ad loc., Isaiah 62:2, Radak ad loc., Amos 6:1, Metzudos Tzion ad loc.

Rav Hirsch (Gen. 30:27-30) finds difficulty in identifying a single underlying principle for these two disparate meanings.

We will discuss 10 different words that share the letters קב. We can group these words into two categories, 1) The first 6 which relate to the idea of a hole or cavity 2) The last 4 which relate to fixing or limiting. The following are the 10 words that we will analyze.

‘קבב’ 2. ‘נקב’ 3. ‘יקב’ 4. ‘קב’ 5. ‘רקב’ 6. ‘קבר’ 7. ‘קבע’ 8. ‘עקב’ 9. ‘קבץ’ 10. ‘קבל’1.

  1. KVV קבב – This root means to curse according to Radak, who cites three examples of this usage in our Parsha (Numbers 23:8, 23:13 and 23:27). As we saw above from Rav Hirsch, the common theme may be the desire of the curser to render cursee pierced/empty/hollow.

As mentioned above, this root appears twice in Numbers 25:8 with two different meanings: a) .s this same root twice whcurse ם, ‘יס, שנת רס תולדותן ק ון.   לקללה הנראת ‘קבה’. the first appearance, קבה, is interpreted to mean a tent, which is a unique usage in Tanach. b) the second appearance, קבתה, has three possible interpretations: 1. Stomach (as in Deut. 18:3. So interprets Onkelos in Numbers 25:8). 2. Tent[1] (similar to the word used at the beginning of the verse). 3. Female genitals (Sanhedrin 82b, Chulin 134b) (we find elsewhere the stomach being used as a euphemism for such, e.g. Ibn Ezra Genesis 15:4).

It is interesting to note that each of these three interpretations fits with the underlying meaning of an empty space or a hole (קבה in the sense of curse being interpreted as a desire to “empty” the cursee, as above).

  1. NKV נקב – As mentioned above, this word can have three different meanings; 1. A hole or cavity 2. To fix the terms of an agreement 3. To curse.

  2. YKV יקב – Generally refers to a vineyard. Rashi (Numbers 18:27) explains that this word technically refers to the pit into which the wine flows from the winepress.

  3. KV קב – A Scriptural measure of volume, equivalent to four לוג (Rashi Numbers 16:36). That is, a measure of the empty space corresponding to this volume.

  4. RKV רקב – The name of a type of worm. This usage is based on the nature of this worm to eat wood thereby carving out a cavity. (Hosea 5:12, Rashi ad loc.[2]; see also Avot DeRebbi Natan addendum to version 1 chapter 9). רקוב means spoiled or rotten; this may stem from the רקב worm that eats through and ruins wood.

  5. KVR קבר – A grave, which is a cavity in the ground in which a dead person is buried. (The word קבר is a permutation of רקב; this similarity is the basis for the ruling of the Talmud Yerushalmi that, in certain circumstances, deteriorated matter causes Tuma (ritual impurity) (Talmud Yerushalmi Nazir 7:2, Pnei Mosh ad loc., Bartenura on the Mishna Nazir 7:2).

  6. KVA קבע – This word can have three different meanings: 1. A goblet (Isaiah 51:17, Rashi ad loc. Others interpret it as referring to the residue at the bottom of the cup). 2. A helmet (I Samuel 17:38, see Metzudot Zion to 17:5 there). 3. Theft (Malachi 3:8, Rashi ad loc. Ibn Ezra points out that it can also have a related meaning, to inflict a wound. (Ibn Ezra Proverbs 22:23). All three meanings are related to the fundamental idea of a setting limitations. 1. A goblet can contain a limited volume of liquid. 2. A helmet must be fitted to the size of the person’s head. 3. Theft also relates to the fact that you are limiting the possessions of the victim (in the context of the above mentioned verse, the Jews were cutting  back on the required apportionment of tithes).

  7. AKV עקב – One meaning of this word is delay[3] (Job 37:4, Targum Yonatan ad loc., Ralbag ad loc.). This relates to the idea of withholding or limiting progress. (Note: there are those who interpret the word ויעקביני in Genesis 27:36 as synonymous with ויעכבני despite the replacement of the כ with a ק. See Gen. Rabba 67:4, Tiferet Tzion ad loc., Ramban to Leviticus 23:28, Radak to Psalms 89:52[4]).

  8. KVTZ קבץ – To gather. Chazal indicate that the word קבץ is related to the word קמץ, also meaning to gather, based on the principle that the phonetically related letters בומ”ף can be interchangeable (Ketuvot 77a, Psikta Zutra Lekach Tov to Genesis 41:47)[5].

  9. קבל – This word has two meanings: 1. To receive. This word also relates to limiting the object’s freedom of motion (Ezra 8:30, Chronicles 12:18, Proverbs 19:20). 2. To stand opposite to (Numbers 19:5, Kings II 15:10, Radak ad loc., Ezekiel 26:9). This meaning is also related to the idea of setting limitations because something standing between two opposing bodies is limited to a specific place, e.g. a river that flows between the two banks of the river.

We mentioned above RSR Hirsch’s difficulty with the apparent lack of connection between the various meanings of the word נקב. We can now suggest that just as the word קבע can be used to mean theft or injury because it limits the possessions or activity of one’s fellow, so too the word נקב can mean a curse, because such action is designed to limit the victim’s ability to succeed – in short to “peg” him in a fixed hole, as it were. So too in the phrase נוקב השם one could be said to be, G-d forbid, attempting to assign a limit to G-d’s capabilities[6].

There seems to be an interesting connection between the word קבה used in the beginning of the Parsha and the words הַקֻּבָּה and קֳבָתָהּ used at the end of the Parsha. The Midrash Tanchuma (Balak Chapter 8) points out that Balak initially used the word ארה for ‘curse’ when a requested that Balak curse the Jews. Bilam, however, substituted a different word קבה to mean curse in his response to Balak. The significance of this substitution can be appreciated based on the Midrash Rabba (20:7) which points out that the word ארה can also mean to harvest figs. The unique aspect of harvesting figs as contrasted with other fruits is that figs do not ripen simultaneously, thus they must be harvested individually. Likewise, Balak’s strategy was to curse each person individually and not the nation as a unit, in the same manner that Amalek began by attacking the weaker individual Jews ‘כל הנחשלים’. Bilam, however, felt that a different strategy would be more successful and that was to entice them all to succumb to desire and immorality. This is hinted at in his choice of the word קבה which relates to the words הקבה and קבתה which allude to the sin of immorality. This idea is also hinted at in the blessing that Bilam was forced to give the Jews ‘מה טובו אהלך יעקב’ ‘How goodly are your tents, Oh Jacob’. The sanctity of the Jewish home was the source of their strength and its contamination would bring about their downfall.

The word used here for tent is אהל which can also mean light (as in the verse in Job 25:5), to indicate the sanctity of the Jewish home. On the other hand, in the verse describing the sin of immorality the word קבתה is used to hint at the disgrace of the קבה which refers to the act of immorality. Unfortunately, this plot of Bilam succeeded in causing the destruction of a 24,000 Jews in Shittim.

We pray that the sanctity of the Jewish home will return to its full glory and will become a beacon of light to the nations. May this be fulfilled speedily in our times.

Shabbat shalom, Yehoshua Steinberg, Veromemanu Foundation for research of the Holy Tongue.

[1]  [ראב”ע כאן בבלק. ובאור חדש הציע שנקרא האהל כן בדרך לשון נופל על לשון מטעם  מקולל (בגין שימושו)].

[2]  [השוה גם משלי יב:ד].

[3]  [בענין המשותף לכל הוראות ‘עקב’, ראה מאמרינו לפרשת תולדות].

[4]  [כך פירשו שם]: רד”ק תה’ פט:נב – חרפו עקבות משיחך, הִתְאַחֲרוּת מְשִׁיחֲךָ, שֶׁמִּתְאַחֵר כל כך לבוא ואומרים שלא יבוא לעולם. וכן: וְלֹא יְעַקְּבֵם כִּי יִשָּׁמַע קוֹלוֹ (איוב לז:ד), ולא יְאַחֲרֵם, כי עקב הוא אחרית הגוף וסופו.

[5]  [וכן משמע מריב”ג ורד”ק (ערך ‘קמץ’)].

[6]  [הכוה”ק (במ’ יא:ד) מציע הקבלה לכך]: וּקְדוֹשׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל הִתְווּ (תה’ עח:מא) – [נסיון להגביל את כחו ית’ ח”ו].


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