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Metzora: The Place Where I Belong, My Ken ~ Yehoshua Steinberg

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

Article abstract for Metzora:

As part of the leper’s purification process following his affliction with tazraat, this week’s portion mandates all the hair on his head, including his beard, the זקן. This word is obviously derived from the same root as זָקֵן, aged, but the root is expounded by the Sages as a compound word, based on the underlying two letters קן. The article examines the core meaning running through all the words in Biblical Hebrew containing this string, and the profound message embodied in this import regarding the very creation of the world and its continual renewal.

ויקרא יד:ט – וְהָיָה בַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי יְגַלַּח אֶת כָּל שְׂעָרוֹ אֶת רֹאשׁוֹ וְאֶת זְקָנוֹ וְאֵת גַּבֹּת עֵינָיו.

And it shall be, on the seventh day, that he shall shave off all his hair: [that of] his head, his beard [זְקָנוֹ], his eyebrows (Lev. 14:9).

In the verse quoted above, the Torah lists a number of actions which the מצורע must perform as part of his spiritual cleansing process. Among them, he must shave off all of his hair, including his beard.

The word זָקָן (beard) is clearly derived from the word זָקֵן (older person). But our Sages interpreted the word זקן homiletically, as an acronym of זה קנה חכמה (one who has acquired wisdom): Kiddushin 32b – The word זקן refers to the wise man, as it states: Gather to me seventy men from the זִּקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; R’ Yossi Hagelili says, the only זקן is one who acquires wisdom, as it states: Prov. 8:22 – Hashem made me [קָנָנִי] as the beginning of His way.

Rashi explains that this interpretation is based on viewing the word זקן as an abbreviation[1]: “The only זקן is one [זה] who has acquired [שקנה] wisdom – the verse employs an abbreviation.” But since there is no letter ‘ח (the first letter of חכמה) in the word זקן, the abbreviation would appear to apply only to the words זה קנה. Support for this can be found in a Midrash (Gen. Rab. 59:6), where זקן is interpreted as “the acquisition of two worlds” without a connection to חכמה specifically: וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן (בר’ כד:א), זקן זה קנה שני עולמות.

Another word is also homiletically treated in the Talmud (Brach. 56b) as a reference to wisdom: “One who dreams of a reed [קָנֶה] should anticipate [acquiring] wisdom.” The common thread between these three expositions is that all the words interpreted contain the two letters קן – which the Sages apparently see as a hidden reference to קנין (acquisition).

These two letters first appear in Scripture in the naming of Cain, the meaning of which is explained in the verse itself: Gen. 4:1 – She conceived and bore Cain, and she said, “I have acquired [קָנִיתִי] a man with the Lord.” This is interpreted in various ways by the commentators. Ramban (ad loc) explains that she meant that he would be “an acquisition” (קנין) to God, Whom he would serve in their place after she and Adam died.

Haketav Vehakabbalah, however, explains that Eve’s expression קָנִיתִי stems from the word קנאה (jealousy): Haketav Vehakabbalah (ibid.) – In the Midrash Hane’elam[2]… this one will not be like us, to give his honor to another, because the very name of Hashem is the ‘Zealous One’ [קַנָּא] He is a zealous God [קַנָּא הֽוּא] (Ex. 34:14) [here ends the quote from the Midrash Hane’elam]… It seems to me that the intent of קניתי is קנאה [jealousy], and this is not such a strange thing, because we find in Ezekiel (8:3) that the symbol of jealousy isהַמַּקְנֶה ,[3] and Rashbam[4] explains that the word הַמַּקְנֶה is to be understood as המקניא… [therefore, Eve] called her son Cain… because he would be a man who be jealous / zealous for the honor of God.

Haketav Vehakabbalah then offers an explanation as to the connection between קנה and קנא: “Upon reflection, it seems that קנאה is related to קנין, because קנין is the word used for an item’s coming into someone’s domain; it now belongs to him; he is its owner.” Rabbi S. R. Hirsch explains similarly concerning God, as it were: R’ S. R. Hirsch Ex. 20:5 – A zealous קנא God – “קנא is close to קנה,[5] to make a claim of ownership and demand something as one’s right, to claim the offense of a right that was compromised – one’s own right or that of someone else.”

Separately from the connection between קנה and קנא, Ricanati (Gen. 1:1) hints tersely to a link between קנה and קן צפור – a bird’s nest.[6] The background for his comments apparently derives from the words of the Zohar (2:8b) – “Once the Messiah has been ‘rectified’ (אתקן)… he returns to a place called ‘the bird’s nest,’ קן צפור, where he observes a vision of the destroyed Temple along with the many righteous people murdered there. He then takes from there ten… garments of zealousness.” Notice that the Messiah takes the garments of קנאה from the place called the קן, and he enters there only when he is מתוקן. We can explain, based on Ricanati’s words, that the concept of acquisition [קנין] begins with the home, the קן. Acquisition means bringing something into my home / nest.[7] And once it is in my nest, I either guard it zealously, or run the risk that this “acquisition” will be appropriated by strangers, i.e., it will fall into an outsider’s קן.

On the verse: God is the Maker [קֹנֵה] of heaven and earth (Gen. 14:19), Haketav Vehakabbalah (paraphrased) expands on the connections between these words: “The term קנין comes in reference to doing, creating, as in: for you have created [קָנִיתָ] my kidneys [the seat of my thoughts] (Ps. 139:13)… and also: Is He not your father and Master [קָּנֶךָ], has He not created you and firmed you? (Deut. 32:6)… and it seems to me that the word קנה is an expression of תיקון, of repair, ordering, straightening out and preparing, as in: a twisted thing cannot be made straight [לִתְקֹן] (Eccles. 1:15) and: arranged [תִּקֵּן] many proverbs (ibid. 12:9), and like the word תקנה used by the Rabbis… And [קן can mean תקון even] without the ת’ as well, [as] the Sages said, ‘he heard the sound of the etching [קַן] of the scribe’s quill and the etching [קַן] of the scroll,’ (Gittin 6a) – referring to the תיקון and etching of the quill… And perhaps for this reason the bird’s nest is called a קן, because it is ordered and prepared to guard the chicks and the eggs against dropping to the ground and being destroyed, and this too is an expression of תקנה. According to the Sages the word קנה as well implies תיקון, for they explained that the statement ‘קונה of heaven and earth’ refers to Abraham – who ‘repaired’ the world from the destruction of their deeds and their flawed opinions[8]…” Haketav Vehakabbalah adds from the Mechilta of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (chapter 7):[9] “God is the קונה of heaven and earth – He is the one who leads and shapes and repairs” the world.

In fact, Rashi preceded both Ricanati and Haketav Vehakabbalah in his explanation of אביך קניך as an expression of תיקון, קן and [10]תקנה: Deut. 32:6 – Is He not your father and קָּנֶךָ; Rashi – [The word קָּנֶךָ means:] Who created / acquired (קָנָה) you; [alternatively it means:] Who nested you (קִנְנֶךָ) in a nest (קַן) of rocks and in a strong land; [alternatively it means:] Who has rectified you (תִּקְּנֶךָ) with every type of repair (תַּקָּנָה).” One could ask, though, why Rashi did not explain קָּנֶךָ according to its plain meaning of doing and creating,[11] as he himself explained in: Gen. 14:19 – God is the Maker [קֹנֵה] of heaven and earth; Rashi – קֹנֵה of heaven and earth, as in Maker of heaven and earth (Ps. 134:3). We will return to this question shortly.[12]

We cited above what the Sages said about קנה סוף: Brach. 56b – One who sees a reed [קנה] in a dream should anticipate acquiring [the type of wisdom called] חכמה, as Scripture states,קְנֵה חָכְמָה ; acquire wisdom (Prov. 4:7); [one who sees] reeds should anticipate acquiring [they type of wisdom called] בינה, as it states (ibid.), וּבְכָל קִנְיָנְךָ קְנֵה בִינָה – from your every acquisition acquire בינה.

Previously, when we cited the Sages’ interpretation of the word זקן (literally, an older person) as one who acquires wisdom, that seemed reasonable, because the average person will accumulate wisdom over the years to some degree or other, This time, though, the Sages are saying that one who sees reeds in a dream can expect wisdom. How are reeds connected to wisdom?

A hint may be found in one general property of reeds, namely: hollowness (the basis for e.g. the branches of the Menorah being referred to as קנים).[13] The structure of the reed is similar to a pipe, generally used for transmitting water from place to place. On the abstract level, water is the symbol of Torah wisdom (BK 17a). Thus, the logic of the proof-text brought by Rabbi Yossi Hagelili (ibid.) becomes apparent: The Lord קנני me at the beginning of His way (Prov. 8:22). The choice of the word קנני as a synonym for creation -as opposed to e.g. ברא or עשה- may be interpreted by way of its connection to קָנֶה in the sense of reeds. G-d created the world and constantly renews it by means of pipelines and channels through which the wisdom of Torah flows.

This interpretation is reinforced in the following verses: When there were no depths, I was formed [חוללתי] (ibid. 24). The word חוללתי is another synonym for creation, but again, this word implicitly suggests hollowness. That is, God created the world on a foundation of “pipelines,” capable of continually conveying the eternal תיקון so that this world not deteriorate, because degradation is indeed the default outcome for any object which is left to follow its natural course.[14]

Therefore, although Rashi is typically the commentator who provides the simple meaning of a word or verse, when it came to אביך קניך, he saw fit to provide three meanings, because unlike the root ברא, which indicates creation ex- nihilo (something from nothing, יש מעין) and nothing more, the root קנן intimates the constant involvement of the Creator, and the ongoing system of renewal of the world. God revealed this to us and connected us to this eternal “fountain of youth,” through which we can acquire this world and the next.

May we acquire eternal renewal through the קנים our קונה has been מקונן for us. And may the Messiah soon leave his קן and redeem us!


[1] נוטריקון in Hebrew, which can also mean contractions and acronyms.

[2] מדרש הנעלם פ’ בר’, מאמר קניתי איש את ה’. זהר חדש פ’ בר’, מאמר קניתי (א:לג.) – א”ר אליעזר חזרה חוה להודות על אותו עון שעברה, ואמרה לא יהיה זה כמונו לתת כבוד לאחר זולתו. אבל זה [יהיה] את השם ממש ולא לאחר.

[3] כלומר, אע”פ שהמלה “המקנה” מורה ג”כ על קנאה, היא מופיעה כאן באות ה’ תמורת א’, בהתאם למדרש הנעלם, שדרש “קניתי” מלשון “קנאה”, שמרמז לקשר בין שני הענינים הללו, כפי שמסביר בהמשך.

[4] צ”ל רד”ק, וכ”כ אברבנאל ומצ”ד שם.

[5] בחילוף אותיות אחה”ע.

[6] ריקאנטי בר’ א:א – מלת קן מלשון קנין ומלשון קן צפור והבן.

[7] כפי שדרשו ז”ל את הפסוק “קנים תעשה את התיבה“ מלשון “קן” צפור: ב”ר נח לא:ט – קִנִּים תַּעֲשֶׂה אֶת הַתֵּבָה (בר’ ו:יד), קילין ומדורין; מת”כ – דרש לשון “קן צפור“.

[8] ב”ר מג:ז, ע”ש ובמת”כ וידי משה.

[9] השוה מכילתא דרשב”י בשלח פ’ טו.

[10] ספר קדושת התורה ודקדוקיה לדברים לב:ו. וראה גם את ספר משכיל לדוד שם.

[11] כפירוש רמב”ן כאן, וכדמשמע מהזוהר בפסוק אחר: מדרש הנעלם דף ה. – בתורה ברא את העולם, שנאמר: ה’ קָנָנִי רֵאשִׁית דַּרְכּוֹ (משלי ח:כב). וזהו בראשית ברא אלהים. וראה גם ספר חרדים, מצוות התלויות בארץ פרק ג.

[12] אמנם בפשטות, י”ל שכאן רש”י מפרש “קונה” מהמבט של הגוי הצדיק מלכי-צדק. בניגוד לכך, בהאזינו הַמְדַבֵּר הוא כביכול הקב”ה בכבודו ובעצמו – שהתכוון ללמד לעם את כל ההיבטים שמָנָה רש”י – במלה “קנך”.

[13] שמות כה:לב – וְשִׁשָּׁה קָנִים יֹצְאִים מִצִּדֶּיהָ; אב”ע – טעם קנים. עגולים ארוכים, חלולים. ומכאן יש להסביר מלים אחרות משרש ‘קן’ (לשיטת מחברת מנחם), כגון המלה “קִינוֹ”, שפרש”י כלשון תיק המתלבש מעל ידית הרומח: ש”ב כא:טז – וּמִשְׁקַל קֵינוֹ שְׁלֹשׁ מֵאוֹת; רש”י – ומשקל קינו – הוא כמו תיק שבראש בית יד הרומח. היינו חללו של התיק (בדומה לחלל הקנה). ושמא יש להציע שהמלים “קינה” ו”קוננים”, נגזרות בהשאלה מהמקוננות שניגנו בכלי בעל חללא: יחז’ כז:לב – וְנָשְׂאוּ… קִינָה וְקוֹנְנוּ עָלָיִךְ. תת הערה: אהיינו ה”אירוס” בלשון משנה (כלים טו:ו, ועיי”ש גם ביכין טז:ז), שפירש רמב”ם בפה”מ: “בלע”ז טבור”י (תוף מרים), וכבר יקוננו בזה הכלי על המת”.

[14] ואכן, המלה “טבע מבטאת את הרעיון הזה: שרש ‘טבע’ מורה בין השאר על טביעה, היינו שקיעה תמידית, קרי: שחיקה תמידית. וכן הכינוים המצויים במקרא ל”עולם” מורים על כך: “תֵּבֵל” נגזרת מן ‘בל’1, כדוגמת: “לֹא בָלוּ שַׂלְמֹתֵיכֶם מֵעֲלֵיכֶם” (דברים כט:ד). וכן “חלד”: הַאֲזִינוּ כָּל יֹשְׁבֵי חָלֶד (תה’ פרק מט:ב), ופרש”י שנקראת הארץ כן ע”ש שהיא נושנת ומתחלדת. בניגוד לכך, המלה “עולם” במקרא לפי רוב המפרשים תמיד מורה לא על כדור הארץ, אלא על נצחיות (כמו: “וְגַם בְּךָ יַאֲמִינוּ לְעוֹלָם” [שמות יט:ט]). ונראה לכאורה שחז”ל אימצו את המלה הזאת בדווקא לתאר את העולם הגשמי – בדרך סגי נהור. אמנם עומק סיבתם נלע”ד הוא האמור כאן: למרות השחיקה הבלתי נפסקת של העולם הגשמי, דווקא בו ניתנו לנו הכלים לקנות את הנצחיות שכולנו משתוקקים לה. תת הערה: 1ראה ח”ש ערך ‘בל’ (ומאמרינו לפ’ אחרי מות בהרחבה).

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