• yehoshua steinberg

Haazinu: Unbendingly Twisted ~ Yehoshua Steinberg

Updated: Sep 30, 2020



Summary of the essay for P' Haazinu:

The word עקש appears for the first time in Scripture in this week's Parashah. Rashi explains the word with two similar words: עקום (bent) and מעוקל (twisted), or in a word: crookedness. But in that there are no fewer than ten "synonyms" for this concept in the Holy language, we seek in this article to discern the uniqueness of this work compared to its peers. To this end, we compare this word to other words in Leshon Hakodesh containing the string קש, all of which broadly share the meanings harshness, hardness and/or solidity.



שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹא בָּנָיו מוּמָם דּוֹר עִקֵּשׁ וּפְתַלְתֹּל (דברים לב:ה).

Corruption is not His - the blemish is His children's, a generation that is עִקֵּשׁ וּפְתַלְתֹּל (Deut. 32:5).

The root עקש appears for the first time in the Pentateuch in this week’s Parashah. Rashi explains that עִקֵּשׁ means bent and twisted (עקם and עקל), citing the following verse: Micah 3:9 - …who twist [יְעַקֵּשׁוּ] all that is straight, as well as the Mishnah:[1] "A child whose teeth are crooked [עקושות]." Ohel Moed (the first comprehensive thesaurus of Leshon kodesh) lists no less than ten synonyms for this root, each of which is connected to the concept of crookedness:[2]

1. עקש, 2. עוה [עוות], 3. עקל, 4. סלף, 5. פתל, 6. לוז, 7. עקב, 8. עול, 9. און, 10. עמל.

What then is unique about עקש? In what way does it differentiate from all the other terms in this list? Moreover, what is the difference between the two words that appear together in this verse - עִקֵּשׁ and פְתַלְתֹּל?

Of note is that these two words appear together elsewhere: II Sam. 22:26-27 - With the devout You deal devoutly, with the one who is strong in his wholeheartedness You act wholeheartedly, with the pure You act purely, with the corrupt You act perversely [וְעִם עִקֵּשׁ תִּתַּפָּל]. [3]Many commentators note the contrast between the symmetry of the first three pairs versus the lack thereof in the last pair: עִקֵּשׁ וּפְתַלְתֹּל. Why not say "with the corrupt You act corruptly" וְעִם עִקֵּשׁ תִּתְעַקֵּשׁ)), just to maintain the parallelism?

In our article on Parashat Toldot, we examined the word עקש as it relates to other words containing the string עק (including עקם and עקל cited by Rashi above). In this chapter, we will examine the root עקש as it relates to the other two-letter string in עקש, namely קש, and the other roots that contain those letters, to wit. We will visit ten such roots that contain the two-letter combination קש, and we suggest that all of these share the common concepts of solidity and/or adhesion and dense concentration. This is because the solidity of an object derives from the cohesion and concentration of its elements. Let's analyze the examples one at a time:

  1. Kashe קשה (hard, difficult) - As in: It shall not be difficult [לֹא יִקְשֶׁה] in your eyes when you send him away free from you (Deut. 15: 18).[4]

  2. Keshet קשת (archer's bow, rainbow) - In Gen. Rabba 53:15, the Sages interpret קשת as if it were written קשה (hard, tough). On the verse that states that Ishmael became an accomplished archer [רֹבֶה קַשָּׁת] (Gen. 21:20), the Sages relate that the greater Ishmael became, the tougher and more callous he became as well.[5]

The root קשת also means rainbow. This meaning as well is also interpreted homiletically by the Sages as a derivative of the root קשה: Gen. Rabba 35:3 - “I have set My rainbow [קַשְׁתִּי] in the cloud (Gen 9:13) - This is My קישות, because it [the rainbow] is compared to Me [מוּקש לי].[6] Is that possible? [No,] rather, like the hard parts of the fruit”;[7] Chen Tov (pg. 236) - “like the hard parts of the fruit - this refers to the seeds that are within the fruit, which are the fruit's hardest part[8]… so too, the ‘hardness’ means: My anger against the world I have placed in the cloud. Meaning, I punish My world by means of the clouds, when I command them to withhold their rain.” [9]

  1. Bikesh בקש (request) - As a continuation of the previous entry (which ascribed to קשת a connotation of קושי/ קשיות ), the Sages also hint to an association between קשת and the word בקשה (request): Baba Batra 123a - “And as for me, I have given you Shechem - one portion more than your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow [וּבְקַשְׁתִּי] (Gen. 48:22) - Did Jacob then take [Shechem] with his sword and his bow? But it states: For I do not trust in my bow, nor does my sword save me (Ps. 44:7)! Rather, my sword means prayer, and my bow [קַשְׁתִּי] means request [בקשתי].” Maharsha adds that on a homiletical level, it is as if Jacob states that he received Shechem from the Amorites “through” his prayer and request, with the letter ב at the beginning of בקשתי serving a double purpose (as if it stated בבקשתי).[10] This remains a curious exegesis, because when making a request, one generally does so in a mild, friendly manner. All the more so if he is making his request from God Himself! So why is Jacob’s request dressed up by the Sciptures with the term that refers to a bow?[11] The root בקש often appears concerning hard, harsh matters, such as: Pharaoh… sought to kill [וַיְבַקֵּשׁ לַהֲרֹג] Moses (Ex. 2:15). [12]Of note, as well, is that the word בקשה does not appear among the 13 expressions for prayer listed by the Sages. [13] Perhaps the explanation for this is that בקשה, more than a request, is in fact a demand - a direct assertion of entitlement from God, [14]as Moses hints to in his prayer, per the Midrash: Deut. Rabba 2:1 - “Moses said before Him, ‘Master of the World, did You not tell me that whoever does not have [merit] by Me, I will grant him for free? Now, I am not saying that there is anything owed to me [שמתבקש לי] by You; rather, grant this for free.’ From where do we know this? From what it states: And I beseeched [וָאֶתְחַנַּן]to Hashem (Deut. 3:23) - Moses asked that God grant his request חינם, for free.”[15]

  2. Mokesh מוקש (trap) - According to Radak, the root of this word is יקש, with derivatives appearing either prefixed with the letterמ or י.[16] [Although Radak lists the rootנקש separately, he qualifies this by adding that this root also refers to a trap. To illustrate to this point ,he says this about such verses as: through his own handiwork was the wicked person entrapped [נוֹקֵשׁ] (Ps. 9:17), and: the seekers of my life have laid snares [וַיְנַקְשׁוּ] (Ps. 38:13), about which Radak explains that נקש and יקש are synonyms[17]]. In Est. Rabba,[18] the Sages explain the word מוקש as referring to קשיות and קושי: "[He removes] the hypocrite from kingship, so that the people not become ensnared [מִמֹּקְשֵׁי עָם] (Job 34:30) - When a king is godless and yet bears sway over mankind, it is because of the snares of the people themselves [ממוקשי עם]. They are stiff-necked [קושי ערפם] and wicked, and do not act according to the will of God” (as explained by Eitz Yosef). CS (entry קש) adds that the above words have at their root the concept of solidity, because a מוקשrefers to a trap made of a hard, solid substance such as wood or metal.[19]

  3. Kashach קשח (hard, cruelty) - This root also means hardness, particularly hardness of the heart, as Radak (entry קשח) explains: “Becoming hardened [הִקְשִׁיחַ] against her offspring, as if they were not hers (Job 39:16), letting our heart become hardened [תַּקְשִׁיחַ] from fearing you (Isa. 63:17) - this refers to cruelty and the hardening of the heart.”[20]

  4. Kash קש / קשש (straw, collection) - CS explains that קש is the hard part of a stalk of grain, which is closest to the ground and is therefore as hard as wood.[21] This contrasts with the soft, upper part of the stalk that is edible for animals and is called תבן. Indeed, Tosafot (Baba Metzia 103a) explain this as well: "תבן is the soft part, which is harvested with the stalk, and קש is the stub that remains in the ground."[22] Rashi, however, maintains that קש means a collection. He explains the verse: לְקֹשֵׁשׁ קַשׁ לַתֶּבֶן (Ex. 5:12) as "to gather a collection for the purpose of straw for mortar. An item that is spread out and needs to be gathered is called קש in other places."[23] Nonetheless, this need not contradict CS’s definition. As we said at the beginning of this chapter, for an item to be hard, its components must be densely concentrated. In the case of straw, this means gathering the stalks and amassing them into an integrated entity (i.e. a haystack), ready to use as a resource for brick production or for animal feed[24].

  5. Lakash לקש (tardiness) - Radak (entry לקש) defines this word as lateness, a definition reflected in various ways in its derivatives, for examples: 1. the early rains and the late rains [וּמַלְקוֹשׁ] (Deut. 11:14). 2. the later growth [לֶקֶשׁ] appeared after the king's reaping [לֶקֶשׁ] (Amos 7:1). 3. and: … a vineyard, a wicked man delays it [for his evil purposes] (Job 24:6).[25] The Sages, however, interpreted מלקוש as a compound word, made up of מל andקש (including the idea of קשיות): Taanit 6a - “The Rabbis taught in a Baraita: ‘Yoreh’ (the first rain)… because it causes the fruit to fall[26]… The Torah therefore states ‘Malkosh’ [מלקוש, the late rain], just as מלקוש is for blessing, so too ‘Yoreh’ is for blessing. However, perhaps it is called Malkosh only because it knocks down houses? R’ Nehilai bar Idi said in the name of Shmuel: ‘Something that excises [מל] the hardness [קשיותיהן] of Israel.’ [27]In the academy of R' Yishmael a Baraita was taught: ‘Something that fills [ממלא] the stalks [קשיה] with grain.’ In [another] Baraita it was taught: ‘Something that descends on the ears [מלילות] and stalks [הקשין].’” [28]

  6. Kishu קשוא (cucumbers / gourds ) - The Sages explain that cucumbers are so named because they are "hard on the body like swords" (Brachot 57b).[29] On the verse: We remember… the cucumbers and the watermelons (Num. 11:5), Rashi explains that that the manna would assume the flavor of any food except for cucumbers or watermelons, because these are "hard" on the bodies of nursing mothers.[30]

  7. Kesher קשר (tying, binding) - Binding items together is called קשירה, but not only when binding is achieved by means of a knot, as we find by the קשירה of Tefillin: Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (Positive Commandment 22 [paraphrased]) - “We find in Perek Hakometz (Menachot 35b and in Tosafot): ‘When do we bless on them [the tefillin]? At the time of donning them. [Abayei and Rava both say] from the time of donning them until the time of binding them,’ in the way that the embryonic sac is bound to the fetus…[31] Mishnah Mikvaot (10:3) lists the knots that do not need contact with water during ritual immersion, and included there is the knot of the head when it is ‘utza’…[32] meaning it is fixed in its place, and not able to move about on the arm... And since one does not have to untie this at the time of immersion, we can learn from this that it constitutes an enduring knot. ‘Utza’ means it is tied tightly.”[33]

  8. Ikesh עקש (bent, twisted) - As mentioned earlier, Rashi (Deut. 32:5) explained עקש as bent or twisted, and usually, this word is interpreted as a distortion or perversion, as in: Prov. 2:15 - Whose ways are crooked [עִקְּשִׁים] and who go astray [וּנְלוֹזִים] in their courses; Rashi - “The word נלוז always means crookedness, because it always appears together with עקש, and עקש means crooked, as it states: and make the crooked places straight [ומעקשים למישור] (Isa. 42:16).”[34]

In the vernacular of the Rishonim, however, there is a different meaning for the root עקש, namely stubbornness / obstinacy, as in: Ex. 32:9 - I have seen this people and they are a stiff-necked [קְשֵׁה עֹרֶף] people; Abarbanel - “A stiff-necked [קְשֵׁה עֹרֶף] people - There are those who explain this as they will not desist from the perversity of their hearts.”[35] Gen. 42:9 - He said to them, you are spies, you have come to see the nakedness of the land; Abarbanel – “Joseph repeated (there 42:12)… no, you have come to see the nakedness of the land, as if stubbornly holding his ground: ‘no! but you indeed have come to see the nakedness of the land!’”[36] This meaning is alo alluded to in Midrash Proverbs (4:24), which explains עקשות פה as evil speech, which is as harsh / hard as actual bloodshed or idolatry.[37] In Midrash Lekach Tov (Ex. 9:35), Pharaoh’s “hardened heart” is referred to מתעקש - stubbornly refusing to send away the Israelites.[38] Radak (entry עקש) concludes that all derivatives of this root relate to brazenness.[39]

In any event, based on the above, we can suggest that the root עקש is a double root, made up of עק and קש, [40]with these two meanings integrated into a single root that means at once both עקום and קשה. In other words, the twisted ways of the stubborn man and his warped thinking[41] bring him nothing but hardship and suffering.[42]

Nevertheless, we do find a positive side to stubbornness and brazenness, in the Sages' comments about the wicked Balaam: Sanhedrin 105a - “Brazenness is effective even against Heaven. Initially, the Torah relates [that God told Balaam]: Do not go with them (Num. 22:12), and afterwards, we find [that God said]: Rise and go with them (Num. 22:20)”[43]; Rashi - “Brazenness is effective even against Heaven - Balaam's brazenness in telling the emissaries of Balak, spend the night here (Num. 22:8), was effective, because God told him initially not to go [with them], and later, He told him to go [with them].”[44]

Birkat Avraham (pg. 60) adds that if brazenness even works for Balaam’s sinister plot, then all the more it work for positive causes: "In this, the Sages imparted to us that Balaam's brazenness changed the command to fit with his will, in his great wickedness. And it seems that the main lesson to be derived is that for good as well, since [God's] good measure is much greater, if a man stubbornly persists at doing good even when faced by many setbacks and tests, and it seems that there is a [Divine] decree against him, if instead of giving up he intensifies his stubbornness for the good, these decrees will be annulled and will turn into good - commensurate with the strength of his decision for good."[45] The Vilna Gaon is also quoted as saying: "we have a rule that in spiritual matters, the stubborn one succeeds."[46]

In the Midrash, as well, we find praise for the traits of brazenness and stubbornness: Ex. Rabba 42:9 - “Said R’ Yakim, ‘there are three brazen ones: among the animals it is the dog, among the fowl it is the chicken, and among the nations it is the Israelites.’ Said R' Yitzchak son of Radifa in the name of R’ Ami, ‘you think this is meant as a denigration, but it is nothing but praise - Either be a Jew or be prepared to be hanged.’ Said R' Avin, ‘to this day, Israelites are called the stiff-necked people’”; Yad Moshe - “ Either be a Jew or be prepared to be hanged - Meaning, in times of decrees of eradication, if a Jew is given a choice to either remain a Jew or to be hanged on a tree, then [the Jew] gives over his soul and does not want to change his religion, thus turning his obstinacy into a reason for praise.”[47]

It is thanks to their brazenness that the Israelites' merited to receive the Torah: Beitza 25b - “Why was the Torah given to Israel? Because they are brazen.” Rashi - “because they are brazen - they are hard to win over”; Meromei Sadeh - “It seems that the intent is that brazenness helps in fulfilling commandments, even though this causes them many hardships… but the spirit of Israel withstands anything and can exist.”[48]

We asked above about the two wordsעקש and פתלתל appearing side-by-side in Scripture, especially in this week’s Parashah, and in the Prophets: With the corrupt You act perversely [וְעִם עִקֵּשׁ תִּתַּפָּל] (II Sam. 22:26-27). The Sages explained (Sifrei Haazinu 308) that this verse teaches us the rule of measure for measure [מדה כנגד מדה].[49]

We asked why the verse says: With the corrupt You act perversely (תתפל)