• yehoshua steinberg

Lech Lecha: Run, Lot Run ~ Yehoshua Steinberg

Article abstract for Lech Lecha: In this week's Parashah, we are introduced to Abraham's nephew, Lot. What is the meaning of his name, and could it provide insight into his choices and actions?

Our Sages interpreted many names as hints to their character (see e.g. Tanch. Haazinu 7), and indeed said this about Lot's name as well (Tanch. Vayeshev 6), but in this case the Midrash did not specify what the name alludes to (but see Etz Yosef commentary ad loc. for his suggestions).

This article seeks to determine the underlying meaning of the name by comparing it to other words in the Holy Language containing the string לט, the consonant letters of the word. We hope our proposals help to unpack this enwrapped (לוּטָה) mystery and illuminate concepts shrouded in murkiness (עלטה).

וַיֵּלֶךְ אַבְרָם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֵלָיו ה' וַיֵּלֶךְ אִתּוֹ לוֹט וְאַבְרָם בֶּן חָמֵשׁ שָׁנִים וְשִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה בְּצֵאתוֹ מֵחָרָן (בראשית יב:ד).

And Abram went, as the Lord had spoken to him, and Lot went with him (Gen. 12:4).

Lot’s name in Hebrew is spelled לוט, yet the meaning of this name and it significance is unclear. The two radicals in this word are לט, so we will examine the meaning of that string of letters in other contexts.

Avnei Shayish proposes a common theme to three words containing the string לט, namely: מלט, פלט and שלט. All three are related to defense / salvation:

1. מלט (fleeing from danger) – see Gen. 19:17, Ps. 124:3.[1]

2. פלט (escaping war) - see Gen. 14:13, Jer. 44:25, Ps. 17:13.[2]

3. שלט (meanings discussed below) - This word has two meanings: A. shield (e.g. II Sam. 8:7, Song 4:4),[3] B. national rulers (e.g. Gen. 42:6, Ecc. 7:19),[4] those charged first and foremost with defending their nations.[5]

I would humbly suggest adding more words to the לט family, all of which are related to various aspects of defense / salvation:

4. Kalat קלט (see below) - This word has two meanings: A. Refuge, shelter (Num. 35:11),[6] B. Closure (Lev. 22:23[7] - a form of protection or enclosure).

5. Alat עלט (darkness)[8]- See Gen. 15:17, Ez. 12:6.[9] Darkness in general is often described as cover / concealment (see Ps. 44:20); so too is עלטה used in this sense (e.g. Abarbanel on Ezek. 12:6;[10] see also RSRH on Deut. 17:14). Others suggest a direct connection between עלטה and וילט,[11] both of which denote wrapping / concealing.[12]

6. Chalat חלט (snatching) - RSRH (Gen. 15:17)[13] cites an instance of חלט (I Kgs. 20:33) in the sense of snatching.[14] Based on this usage, he comments that both חלט in this sense and עלט denote types of concealment from sight. Both darkness and snatching lead to the same outcome - hiding and concealment from sight.

7. Leta לטא (lizard) - This is the root of the word לטאה, the lizard referred to in Lev. 11:30.[15] Onkelus renders the word וחלטתא.[16] Perhaps Onkelus chose the root חלט, which in Aramaic refers to snatching, because the lizard is among the quickest of reptiles, disappearing into cracks and crevices in split-seconds, as if “snatched” - hidden from the eye and thereby saved.[17]

8. Letash לטש (sharpener) - In Gen. 4:22, we find Tubal-Cain (a descendent of Cain) referred to as a לטש - sharpener.[18] While sharpening is a skill applicable to peaceful purposes like agriculture or art,[19] Rashi emphasizes that Tubal-Cain’s talents were directed in the main to sharpening implements of war.[20] Moreover, most instances of the root לטש in Scripture relate to war and violence (e.g. Ps. 52:4[21] [the same is true of the related word שנן - e.g. Ps. 64:4]). In fact, we find the foreign rulers of the Land of Israel prohibiting all sharpening of metal implements there for fear that such efforts would be applied to tools of war (see I Sam. 13:19).[22]

How is this last meaning connected? Until now, we have described defense techniques such as hiding, fleeing, and enclosing. However, a most important aspect of defense is deterrence. The very knowledge that one’s neighbor possesses an arsenal of weapons at the ready, ironically, often serves to foster peaceful coexistence. And if all else fails, the best defense is a good offense - with sharpened spears at the ready.

We also note that the letters of which the words לטש and [23]שלטare comprised are the same—albeit in permuted order (ala כבש-כשב, שמלה-שלמה). This too may allude to a shared or similar meaning as well. As we’ve seen above, the Biblical שלט is in fact a shield, and the שליט (ruler) is first and foremost charged with defense of his nation.

9. Lot לוט (wrapping) - See I Sam. 21:10 + Rashi.[24] Derivative meanings are concealment / secrecy (see Ex. 7:22 + Rashi, Sanhedrin 67b + Rashi).[25]

10. Malat מלט (mortar, cement) - Rashi (Jer. 43:9)[26] comments that the word מלט derives from the biliteral root לט; cement seals, envelopes, and protects.[27]

It may be suggested that the above list can also explain the mysterious origins of the name לוט. At every critical juncture of his life, Lot either fled or hid - from enemies, dangers and trials. We know about four such episodes concerning Lot:

1. We are introduced to Lot as the orphaned son of Haran (who was killed by Nimrod, see Rashi on Gen. 11:28), escaping and finding refuge under his uncle Abraham’s wing.

2. Lot then fled from Abraham—whose success he may have viewed as a threat to his own ambitions (more on this below)—and therefore settled in the City of Sin, Sodom (Gen. 13).

3. When Sodom and its neighbors were attacked by four kings, Lot was kidnapped and then rescued by his uncle Abraham, finding salvation after being held captive (Gen. 14:16).

4. Finally, Lot and his daughters escaped the destruction of Sodom, and found haven in a nearby cave (Gen. 19:20).


Of note is the fact that the Hebrew root מלט (escape, finding refuge) is found only five times in the Pentateuch (in contradistinction to rest of תנ"ך) - all exclusively in connection with Lot (Gen. 19:17 [2x], 19:19, 19:20, 19:22).[28]

Also of note is that the angel warning Lot to flee from Sodom uses the word להמלט three times, and does not use other synonyms for escape such as לנוס or לברוח. Lot himself uses the term twice, adding the word לנוס only in verse 20. Why is the word מלט so special, and why did Lot conclude with an alternate word?

A hint towards our answer may be found in Gen. 19:17, where the angel urges Lot to: flee to the mountain. Rashi comments that “the mountain” alludes to Abraham, who lived on a mountain.[29] The simple understanding is that Lot was to be saved in the merit of Abraham. Lot refuses, but explains: I cannot flee to the mountain, lest the evil overtake me, and I die (Gen. 19:19). The commentators explain that Lot was simply afraid that he may not run fast enough to complete the journey in time.

However, in the next verse Lot offers his reason for choosing to flee to Zoar instead: Behold now, this city is near to flee there, and it is small (Gen. 19:20). While the statement “near to flee” is fair enough, how is “and it is small” connected to his reason for fleeing there?

The commentators again offer explanations, but perhaps one could suggest that Lot feared fleeing to Abraham for the same reason he had left him in the first place. Namely, in the shadow of his towering uncle, Lot was a nobody; compared to Abraham’s righteousness, Lot was a fiend. Ergo: lest the evil overtake me, and I die (there). In other words, he said that he cannot to run away or hide from Abraham’s greatness and uprightness there. Instead, Lot chose to remain in Zoar – a small, young town— where he can be considered important and righteous on his own right. There, he could be the “head of the foxes” (as opposed to the tail of the lions, see Avot 4:15).[30]

This may explain Lot’s use of the term לנוס for the first time, in reference to Zoar: This city is close to flee [לָנוּס] to there (Gen. 19:20). I would suggest that the word לנוס indeed refers to the physical feasibility of fleeing to and arriving at the destination on time, as per commentators cited above. Lot explains that in fact Zoar is a more viable destination per its proximity. But then, he switches back to the root מלט at the end of the verse: …it is small, I will flee now to there (Gen. 19:20). In other words, Zoar is not just closeby, it has the added advantage of being small and young city - a place where Lot can be honored as an elder and revered as a tzaddik… and hide from the true righteousness of Abraham. The addition of אמלטה here suggests: Even if fleeing [לנוס] to “the mountain” is logistically possible, Lot still prefers to escape that place and hide among those who are smaller than him, so that in comparison to them, he will be considered a tzaddik.[31]

Lot’s name, therefore, expresses his essence with extraordinary accuracy: evasion, avoidance and escape from trials. In contrast with Abraham, who triumphed in all his trials, thereby rising to spiritual greatness, Lot remained eternally mired, self-absorbed, enwrapped and enveloped in darkness.

Our lesson is to learn from Lot’s tragic failure and to aspire to the greatness of our father Abraham, Prince of the Lord. Let’s do what we can to live up to it!

[1] הִמָּלֵט עַל נַפְשֶׁךָ (בר' יט:יז); הַפַּח נִשְׁבָּר וַאֲנַחְנוּ נִמְלָטְנוּ (תה' קכד:ג). [2] וַיָּבֹא הַפָּלִיט (בר' יד:יג) - שנפלט מהמלחמה; פַּלְּטָה נַפְשִׁי מֵרָשָׁע חַרְבֶּךָ (תה' יז:יג); וּפְלִיטֵי חֶרֶב יְשֻׁבוּן (יר' מד:כה). [3] ש"ב ח:ז - וַיִּקַּח דָּוִד אֵת שִׁלְטֵי הַזָּהָב; רד"ק - שלטי הזהב - מגיני הזהב; מצ"צ - שלטי - כעין מגן. [4] הוּא הַשַּׁלִּיט עַל הָאָרֶץ (בר' מב:ו); מֵעֲשָׂרָה שַׁלִּיטִים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ בָּעִיר (קהלת ז:יט). ועוד: אֵין אָדָם שַׁלִּיט בָּרוּחַ לִכְלוֹא אֶת הָרוּחַ וְאֵין שִׁלְטוֹן בְּיוֹם הַמָּוֶת (שם ח:ח).