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Va’era: Positively Divided! ~ Yehoshua Steinberg


The root פלה first appears in this week’s Parsha, and it appears here twice, which is more than any other Parsha in the Torah. The first appearance is:

On that day I shall set apart [וְהִפְלֵיתִי] the land of Goshen (Exodus 8:18).

The second occurrence is:

Hashem shall distinguish [וְהִפְלָה] between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt (ibid. 9:4).

What is the unique meaning of this word, and what is its especial relevance to our Parsha?

Wherever this root appears, Rashi explains it as separation or distinction. In verse 8:18 cited above, Rashi explains: וְהִפְלֵיתִי — I will separate; also וְהִפְלָה (Exodus 9:4); and: It is not hidden [נפלאת] from you (Deuteronomy 30:11).[1]

Of note is that Rashi includes a word[2] whose root is notפלה but rather פלא. Evidently, he equates the two roots[3] (unlike the system of Radak, which distinguishes between them).[4] However, unlike the root פלה, in most cases where the root פלא appears, Rashi uses the additional terms covering or concealing. For example on the verse: is anything beyond [היפלא] Hashem? (Gen. 18:14); Rashi comments: היפלא – the simple explanation is per the Targum: is it hidden, can anything be beyond [Hashem], separated or covered from Me that I cannot do My will?[5] Two further examples [in the same vein]: Deut. 30:11 – It is not hidden [נפלאת] from you; Rashi: it is not covered from you. II Samuel 13:2 – but it seemed impossible [וַיִּפָּלֵא] for Amnon to do anything to her; Rashi: it was covered and concealed from him.[6]

According to Yeriot Shlomo (YS), the rootsפלה and פלא both stem from the two-letter root פל, which means distinction and differentiation:

Yeriot Shlomo (2:17a [paraphrased]) – The root פל refers to anything that is exceptional relative to the norm of the group to which it belongs… From the root פל stems the word פלא, with an א’, and פלה, with a ה’… For example: (בר’ יח:יד) הֲיִפָּלֵא מֵה’ דָּבָר, meaning, can there be such a thing as this in the world, that something be beyond the ability of Hashem? Also, On that day I shall set apart [וְהִפְלֵיתִי] the land of Goshen (Exodus 9:4), meaning the Land of Goshen will be outside of the plague of arov, which will spread throughout the rest of the country. And – Hashem will differentiate [יַפְלֶה] (ibid. 11:7) between the animals of the Jews and those of the Egyptians. Another example: And I and our people will be made distinct [וְנִפְלִינוּ] (ibid. 33:16). We will be singled out and distinguished from among all other nations. Also – …a man or a woman who aeta himself apart [יַפְלִא] by taking a Nazirite vow of abstinence (Numbers 6:2), and – an articulated [לְפַלֵּא] vow (Leviticus 22:21) – meaning to separate oneself from other people, to separate from permitted things or vow to consecrate an object (i.e. set it aside for sacred purposes).

In any case, these two rootsפלה and פלא are clearly closely related in meaning. Additionally, Rashi’s added meaning of covering is a branch of separation, since any item that is covered is by nature removed – from sight and/or consciousness.

From the root פלא, meaning separate and covered, derives the word פלוני, as in: Ruth 4:1 – Come over, sit down here, Ploni Almoni (unnamed, anonymous one); Ibn Ezra – פלוני is “one who is unique in that he has no known name to be called by.” Daniel 8:13 – …to the anonymous one who was speaking (לַפַּלְמוֹנִי הַמְדַבֵּר); Ibn Ezra [paraphrased]palmoni is made up of… two words, Ploni Almoni: because Daniel did not know his name at first.

Indeed, Leshon Kodesh has a number of words which include the string פל, all sharing the theme of distinction and separation, namely: 1. “פלה”. 2. “פלא”. 3. “פלח”. 4. “נפל”. 5. “אפל”. 6. “פלג”. 7. “פלט”. 8. “פלך”, 9. “פלש”. 10. “עפל”. 11. “שפל”. 12. “טפל”. 13. “ספל”. 14. “תפל”,

Having discussed #1 & #2 above, we examine below each word, beginning with #3:

  1. [7]פלח: A piece or slice, set apart from the rest. RSR Hirsch (RSRH) connects this word to the roots פלא and פלה: RSRH Ex. 8:18 – On that day I shall set apart [וְהִפְלֵיתִי] the land of Goshen. פלה is close to פלא and פלח,[8] which means to separate from the rest in a sharp and clear manner.[9]

  2. 4. נפל: YS adds to this list the word the “Nefilim,” those who were distinguished from the rest of mankind due to their height:

YS 2:17a – The Nefilim were on the earth in those days (Genesis 6:4). This is a description of men unlike all other men, due to their extreme height.

Furthermore, “falling” (נפילה) itself constitutes the separation of the faller from his normal state:

YS (ibid.) – The verb נפל (falling) itself [fits the idea of separation] inasmuch as falling itself is a departure from the norm.[10]

  1. 5. אפל: YS suggests that this word implies a form of separation, dividing and blocking vision between the two sides[11]:

YS (II 47b – 48a) – The word אפל means the forming of darkness by means of making a divider before the one who sees … such as in [the following verses]: Joshua 24:7 – and He placed darkness [מַאֲפֵל] between you and the Egyptians.[12] Exodus 10:22 – …And there was a thick darkness [אֲפֵלָה] on the land of Egypt. Exodus 9:32 – And the wheat and the spelt were not struck because they ripen later [אפילות].

Meaning, these are grains that are planted in the time of year when the days are dark, namely, the Autumn months of Tishrei and Marcheshvan. Grain planted then will not flourish so fast. Therefore, these plantings were not struck – because they were still soft and moist.

The root אפל is compared in the Midrash quoted below as being related to the word:

Exodus Rabba 12:6 – And the wheat and the spelt were not struck because they ripen later [אפילות]. Rebbe Pinchas says: What are [אפילות]? [This word refers to] the wonders [פלאים] Hashem did with them.[13]

According to the Eitz Yosef commentary, this homiletic interpretation is based on a permutation of the root letters פלא-אפל: The word אפילות is explained as פלאות in the same way as the word for sheep, כבש, is sometimes spelled כשב.

Further, we find a reversal of this same interpretation in Mechilta D’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (15):

Hashem “does wonders” [עושה פלא]. Not like those of flesh and blood is Hashem. Those of flesh and blood cannot create a form in the darkness [באפילה], but Hashem… does create a form in the darkness, as the verse states: I was made in concealment; I was knit together in the lowest parts of the earth (Psalms 149:15).

6-9. פלג, פלט, פלך, פלש – Avnei Shayish broadens the association between roots that share the letters פל, adding several words to theis family:

Avnei Shayish (entry פלא [paraphrased])[14]: The roots ‘פלא’, ‘פלה’, ‘פלח’, ‘פלג’, ‘פלט’, ‘פלך’, ‘פלש’ all stem from one source [פל], indicating separating one thing from another… ‘פלא’ indicates a phenomenon which transcends nature, and is also מופלג, superlative.[15] This, as we see in Exodus 15:11 – Doer of wonders [פלא]. So too in Psalms 139:14 – wondrous [נִפְלָאִים] are your works. ‘פלה’: Exodus 9:4 – Hashem shall distinguish [וְהִפְלָה] between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt. ‘פלח’: Psalms 141:7 – like one who chops [פֹלֵחַ] and splinters wood on the ground, which means to split and separate.[16] ‘פלט’: escaping / separating from the enemy, as in Genesis 14:13 – Then there came the fugitive [הַפָּלִיט]. It also denotes birth –separation from the mother’s womb, as in Job 21:10 – his cow gives birth [תְּפַלֵּט]. A ‘פלך’ is a district of a country,[17] as in Nehemiah 3:17. ‘פלש’, as in Job 37:17 – Do you understand the spreading out [מִפְלְשֵׂי] of the clouds? [18] (separation of the clouds from one another).

  1. עפל – Radak cites two interpretations of this word in the Book of Kings:

II Kings 5:24 – When they came to a secluded place (הָעֹפֶל) he took from their hands…; Radak — הָעֹפֶל – a high place where the house was… and Targum Yonatan calls this a hidden place, and he took this from the word וּבַעְפֹלִים, [19] which means hemorrhoids, which are in a hidden place.

In any event, both explanations have in common the ideas separation and distinction: 1) A high place is separate from its surroundings. 2) Something hidden is separated from one’s sight.

Our Sages explained the word ויעפילו as if it were written with an א’instead of an ע’:

Numbers 14:44 – But they defiantly ascended [וַיַּעְפִּלוּ] to the mountaintop, while the ark of Hashem’s covenent and Moshe did not move from the midst of the camp. Bamidbar Rabba 17:3 – Their defiant ascension [וַיַּעְפִּלוּ] led to darkness [אפילה] upon those dwelling in the camp.

Indeed, אפלה in the sense of darkness is a way of hiding and separating things from the eye.[20] Even those commentators who adhere strictly to a word’s simple meaning see a connection between עפל and ,אפל for instance:

II Kings 5:24 – When they came to a secluded place [הָעֹפֶל]; Metz. David – הָעֹפֶל is similar to האפל, and refers here to a dark place.

Deut. 28:27 – Hashem will strike you with the boils of Egypt, with hemmorhoids [וּבַעְפֹלִים]; Chizkuni – וּבַעְפֹלִים here is like הָעֹפֶל quoted just above from Kings, which is a hidden place [and is therefore similar to וּבַאפֹלִים], as rendered by Targum Yonatan and Radak.

  1. שפל – Sometimesנפל is synonymous with שפל, such as:

Nehemiah 6:16 – they fell greatly in their own eyes; Ibn Ezra – “like the lowly ones (כשפלים) who fall from their high places.”[21]

  1. טפל: In most cases, this root refers to joining, e.g.:

Psalms 119:69 – Willful sinners have piled [טָפְלוּ] accusations upon me, but I guard your precepts with all my heart; Rashi – accusations were placed upon [טָפְלוּ] me, as in: My transgressions are sealed in a pouch, and you cling [וַתִּטְפֹּל] to my iniquity (Job 14:17).

Malbim, however, in his commentary on the verse in Job cited by Rashi, defines the word as covering or plastering (whitewashing):

Job 14:17 – My transgressions are sealed in a pouch, and you cling [וַתִּטְפֹּל] to my iniquity; Malbim – ותטפול על עוניWith mortar, so it should be covered. Job 13:4 – But you are concocters [טֹפְלֵי] of falsehood; worthless healers, all of you!; Malbim: טפלי, as in “one who puts a coating on the oven,” or ” ותטפול על עוני” – cover it/him over with false words.

And we find טפל used by the Sages to mean sealing, as in:

Keilim 5:11 – An oven…that is punctured, marred or cracked, one makes for it a sealing or adds a layer of mortar, it is impure; Bartenura – “Punctured, marred or cracked” – and he added a coating of lime to seal the hole, blemish or crack.

Clearly, this is all one idea, because one who attaches lime or mortar to a utensil to seal a crack or the like is “covering” the utensil with this material, and “separating” the blemish from the eyes of the beholder.

  1. ספל – A vessel used to contain liquids, as in:

Judges 6:38 – a full container [הַסֵּפֶל] of water; Radak – this is the חמת מים waterskin made of leather used to hold water, according to Rav Sharira Gaon.

Of note is that this waterskin protects the water, keeping polluting elements away. RSR Hirsch[22] suggests that the root of this word is חמה, which is also the root of חומה – a wall that separates and protects.

  1. תפל – The grammarians differ over the root of this word.[23] Radak[24] holds that the letter ת’ is integral to the root, whereas Menachem and YS hold that the root is פל and the ת’ is extraneous. YS explains that food which is תפל is מופלא, meaning “exceptional in its inferior taste.” So too, a futile, useless action or entity “falls out of existence”:

YS 2:17a – The root פל applies to anything that is separated from the rest… and from this root come alternate words with the added letters האמנתי”ו. For example… תפל, as in: Is bland [תָּפֵל] food eaten without salt (Job 6:6). This refers to low-grade sustenance, exceptional in its bad taste, from which the senses recoil unless salt is added to flavor it. It is the opposite of the adjective ערב as applies to food. When food is areiv, tasty, the senses mix [מתערב] with it. Also: and they are even smearing it with weak plaster [תָּפֵל] (Ezekiel 13:10) – i.e., a weak coating that does not adhere and falls off. Also: Your prophets envisioned for you vanity and foolishness [וְתָפֵל] (Lamentations 2:14). Here, the word means something that falls away, has no basis.

If so, every root which shares the letters פל, without exception, is related in some way to the concept of separation / differentiation. The root פלה also fits into this group, but a careful look at its appearances in Scripture reveals a unique aspect not found in the otherפל derivatives. Notes Haksav Vekabala,[25] Exodus 8:18 – והפלתי is a form of differentiation used only when such separation is wrought in a wondrous manner, one to be found not by the deeds of men of flesh and blood but rather of Hashem alone. This is found also in Psalms 17:7 – Demonstrate clearly [הַפְלֵה חֲסָדֶיךָ] Your kindnesses. Exodus 11:7 – that Hashem will have differentiated [יַפְלֶה]. and 33:16 – And I and our people will be made distinct [וְנִפְלִינוּ].[26]

In our Parsha, the Redemption is foretold with four separate expressions:

Exodus 6:6-7 – I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt; I shall rescue you from their service; I shall redeem you…, I shall take you.

The Midrash relates that the Israelites merited this redemption because of certain outstanding traits:

Numbers Rabba 13:20 – Israel possessed three positive traits in Egypt, and in their merit they were redeemed. They did not change their names, they did not change their language and they girded themselves from immorality.

In other words, the Jews separated and sanctified themselves, keeping aloof from the loathsome ways of the Egyptian heathens, as is stated:

Mechilta of Rabbi Yishmael (Yitro, “Masecta Bachodesh” Parsha 2) – Who is like Your people, like Israel, one nation in the world (II Samuel 7:23). Holy, sanctified and separate from the idolatrous nations of the world and their loathsome practices.

The verse in Samuel cited in the Mechilta goes on to say that precisely because of their being holy and separate, Hashem chose to redeem them from Egypt: אֲשֶׁר הָלְכוּ אֱלֹהִים לִפְדּוֹת לוֹ לְעָם…whom G-d went to redeem for Himself as a people[27].

This then explains the initial appearance of the root פלה specifically in our Parsha, in contrast to the many other words denoting separation and distinction in the Sacred Tongue. This word underscores that their redemption came about in the merit of their separation from the abhorrent ways of the local inhabitants. The Jews understood that Hashem wanted this separation; their פלה brought on Hashem’s פלה, leading to פלא after פלא. May we too merit to be redeemed from the impurity of the pagans, to purify ourselves in the great and wondrous house, the Beis Hamikdash, speedily, in our days.

[1] Rashi explains similarly in Exodus 1:7 and 33:16, Psalms 4:4, and also in Bava Basra 15b: ונפלינו – ונבדלנו בלכתך עמנו מכל האומות.

[2] Deuteronomy 30:11.

[3] [וכך משמע גם מפרש”י בתלמוד, שפירש שהמלה “להפלות” נגזרת מלשון “יפליא” המקראית]: רש”י נדה מה: – להפלות – לפרש לשם מי נדרה ולישנא דקרא נקט כי יפליא לנדור. [והשוה גם רש”י ערכין ב. ד”ה מופלא].

[4] [אולם אף רד”ק פ’ ש”יפליא” של נדרים נגזרת מן ‘פלה’. וכן להיפך, “נפליתי” (תה’ קלט:יד) מגזרת ‘פלא’].

] [5] וכן דרשו ז”ל את שמו של “פלוא” בן ראובן מלשון הבדלה וחורבן]: שכל טוב (בובר) ויגש מו:ט – ופלוא (שמ’ ו:יד). לשון הבערה, כדכתיב: ובערת הרע (דב’ יג:ו), ומתרגם ותפלי עביד ביש, שרוב בניו נתפלו מן העולם, שלא הוליד אלא את אליאב… ונתפלו דתן ואבירם. [ונחלקו המפ’ גם בענין “פלת” (במ’ טז:א) אם הינו פלוא (ראה פתרון תורה, אברבנאל [תחלת פ’ קרח], אם לאו (ראה מפרשי רש”י שם)].

[6] [והשוה רש”י דב’ יז:ח, שופ’ יג:יח, ש”א כא:ג, ישע’ כח:כט, כט:יד, תה’ קיט:קכט, קלט:ו, דנ’ ח:יג, רות ד:א].

[7] ש”א ל:יב – וַיִּתְּנוּ לוֹ פֶלַח דְּבֵלָה; מצ”צ – פלח – חתיכה כמו כפלח הרמון (שה”ש ד:ג).

[8] בחילוף אותיות אחה”ע – ע’ נספח א’ “חילוף אותיות”.

[9] [דברים דומים אומר רשר”ה גם במקום אחר]: רש”ר הירש ויקרא כב:כא – ד”ה לפלא נדר – רמזנו על קירבת השרשים ‘פלא’, ‘פלה’, ‘פלח’ – המורים כולם על הבדלה חדה ומוחלטת.

[10] [וכן מצינו שרש ‘נפל’ מתורגם בלשון הפרשה]: איוב יב:ג – לֹא נֹפֵל אָנֹכִי מִכֶּם; תרגום – לא פריש אנא מנכון.

[11] [וכבר מצינו חשך וערפל קרוים מחיצות, כגון]: שמ’ כ:יח – אֶל הָעֲרָפֶל; רש”י – הערפל – לפנים מג’ מחיצות, חשך ענן וערפל, שנא’: חֹשֶׁךְ עָנָן וַעֲרָפֶל (דב’ ד:יא). [וכן תיבת “ערפל” היא מלה נוספת ממשפ’ ‘פל’ המורה על מחיצה].

[12] אלשיך – וישם מאפל באויר, שלא יראו אתכם המצריים בלי ילחמו בכם ביבשת; [ומצינו שבניית קיר מהווה “מאפל”, היינו מחיצה המחשיכה]: בבא בתרא ז. (ת”ד) – תרי אחי דפלגי [שני אחים שחלקו את נכסיהם], חד אספלידא וחד תרביצא [לאחד טרקלין ולשני גינה], אזל ההוא דמטייה תרביצא וקא בני אשיתא אפומא דאספלידא [הלך בעל הגינה ובנה קיר ליד הטרקלין]… א”ל: קא מאפלת עלי… מעיקרא אספלידא [מתחילה טרקלין] השתא משוית לי אידרונא [עכשיו אתה עושה אותו חדר סגור. ר’ ברוך היווני פירש שהמחיצה הקרוייה “אידרונא” היינו “מאפל”]; ר’ ברוך מארץ יון – השתא אדרונא, פירוש מאפל.

[13] ידי משה (שמ”ר יב:ו) – פלאים עשה – פ’, שהיה פלא גדול ששאר תבואות נלקו והם לא נלקו.

[14] [ע”ש לבאור שרשים נוספים בעלי אותיות ‘פל’, כגון ‘פלגש’].

[15] [כמפורש בהופעה הראשונה שלה בתורה]: בר’ י:כה – שֵׁם הָאֶחָד פֶּלֶג כִּי בְיָמָיו נִפְלְגָה הָאָרֶץ; [פירש רש”י שהמלה מורה על חילוק]: רש”י דה”א א:יט – כי בימיו נפלגה הארץ – נתחלקו.

[16] רש”י תה’ קמא:ז – פולח – לשון בקוע, כמו: יפלח כליותי (איוב טו).

[17] [‘פלך’ נרדף עם ‘חלק’ ו’חבל’, כגון]: דב’ ג:ד – שִׁשִּׁים עִיר כָּל חֶבֶל אַרְגֹּב; הדר זקנים שם ג:יג חבל ארגוב. חלק ארגוב לשון פלך ומחוז כתרגומו. נחמיה ג:ט – רְפָיָה בֶן חוּר שַׂר חֲצִי פֶּלֶךְ יְרוּשָׁלִָם; מצ”צ – פלך – מחוז, כי: חבל ארגוב (דב’ ג) ת”א בית פלך. צפניה ב:ה – הוֹי יֹשְׁבֵי חֶבֶל הַיָּם; רד”ק – הוי יושבי חבל הים – חלק כמו חבל נחלתו.

[18] [כדכתיב לעיל בספר איוב]: איוב לו:כט – מִפְרְשֵׂי עָב. מצ”צ שם לז:טז – מפלשי – כמו מפרשי בחלוף ל’ בר’. [ופ’ רד”ק (ערך ‘פרש’, שהוא ענין התפשטות העבים [הפרדתם הנה והנה])]: מִפְרְשֵׂי עָב… התפשטות העבים.

[19] See Deuteronomy 28:27.

[20] [ראה לעיל בסעיף “אפל”, והערותינו שם בענין תכונות החושך].

[21] Metzudat David adds more examples: מצ”ד – ויפלו – היו פחותים ומושפלים בעיני עצמם; מצ”צ – ויפלו – ענינו שפלות וגרעון, כמו: נופלים מערלים (יחז’ לב).

[22] RSR Hirsch Genesis 21:15.

[23] [וראה בהרחבה במאמרינו לפ’ דברים המוקדש למלה הזאתSee article dedicated to this word, P’ Devarim. ].

[24] [ערך ‘תפל’].

[25] In the name of Rav Yehuda Leib Shapira, author of Harechasim Labika’a.

[26] [כפי שתרגמו את המלה “ונפלינו” התרגומים: “פרישן”, שהינו התרגום המצוי של נס ופלא (דוגמאות: שמ’ טו:יא, לד:י, ישע’ כה:א, כט:יד, תה’ עז:יב). ובדומה לכך פי’ רמב”ן את המלה]: ונפלינו – שיהא חלקנו במופלא. [לעומת זאת, רש”י לכאורה פי’ את המלה כלשון הבדלה פשוטה]: רש”י – ונפלינו – ונהיה מובדלים בדבר הזה מכל העם. [ברם, להלן בפ’ כי תשא השווה רש”י את המלה “נפלאות” ל”ונפלינו”]: שמ’ לד:י – נֶגֶד כָּל עַמְּךָ אֶעֱשֶׂה נִפְלָאֹת; רש”י – אעשה נפלאות – לשון ונפלינו, שתהיו מובדלים בזו מכל האומות. [בכך פרש”י שבתשובה לבקשת “וְנִפְלִינוּ אֲנִי וְעַמְּךָ” ענה לו הקב”ה בחיוב: “אֶעֱשֶׂה נִפְלָאֹת”, כלומר אכן אפלה אתכם מאוה”ע בדרך ניסי ופלאי].

[27] מצ”ד – לפדות לו לעם – לפדות ממצרים להיות לו לעם. [ומשמע מפירוש מהרז”ו למדרש, שה’ פדה אותם מאחר והיו “יחידים” ופרושים במצרים]: במדבר רבה ג:ו – ישראל יחידים היו, שנא’: ומי כעמך ישראל גוי אחד בארץ (ש”ב ז); פי’ מהרז”ו – [ממשיך הכתוב]: אשר הלכו אלהים לפדות לו לעם… משמע שאחר שהיו יחידים במצרים פדה אותם.


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