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Vayeishev: A Compromised Article ~ Yehoshua Steinberg

בר’ מ:ח-וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו חֲלוֹם חָלַמְנוּ וּפֹתֵר אֵין אֹתוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יוֹסֵף הֲלוֹא לֵאלֹהִים פִּתְרֹנִים סַפְּרוּ נָא לִי.

And they said to him, “We dreamt a dream, but there is no interpreter (פֹּתֵר) for it.” So Joseph said to them, “Do not interpretations (פִּתְרֹנִים) belong to G-d? Relate it to me, if you please” (Gen. 40:8).

Although we find numerous dreams in the Bible, the root פתר (interpret) appears in all of Scripture only concerning Joseph – being mentioned thirteen times in this parashah (Vayeishev) and Parashat Mikeitz, regarding his interpretation of various dreams.However, we do find numerous instances of the similar Aramaic term, פשר, in the Book of Daniel, concerning both the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar, and the mysterious “writing on the wall” in the days of his grandson, Belshazzar. Some interpretפשרas simply an Aramaic translation of the word פתר, with the letter ש’ replacing the similar letter ת’, a common phonetic shift between Hebrew and Aramaic words. Alternatively, it is viewed as a Hebrew permutation of the root פרש (explain).1 Support for the former view can be inferred from the fact that the Scriptural Aramaic Targum (translation) of the root פתר is always פשר or one of its derivatives. In addition, we find many other words in Scriptural Hebrew in which the letters ש’ and ת’ are used interchangeably.2

In contrast to this view, however, we find the word פשר in the verse, “Who is like the wise man, and who knows the פֵּשֶׁר of things” (Eccles.8:1). While Ibn Ezra suggests that this term is also “from an Aramaic family,” Rashi (in his second interpretation) cites a Talmudic teaching (Sotah 13b) that expounds the word as being related to the word פְּשָׁרָה (compromise), with the verse asking, “Who is like the wise man (i.e. Moses), who knew how to forge compromises between Israel and their Father in Heaven?”

In light of the fact that the Sages chose not to define this particular instance of פשר as merely an Aramaic version of the verb פתר, and instead expounded it is a word that means to solve through compromise, it would appear that they viewed the Hebrew word פשר (in contradistinction to the Aramaic פשר) as somewhat distinct from the Hebrew word פתר, which simply means to solveor interpret. In order to explain this in greater depth, we shall begin by noting that there are a number of Talmudic words that are derived from the root פשר: 1. פְּשָׁרָה; 2. פּוֹשֵׁר; 3. אֶפְשַׁר; 4. הַפְשָׁרָה. Let us study each of these individually:

  1. The word פְּשָׁרָה (compromise) – “until they make a פְּשָׁרָה between them” (Ketubot 10:6). As Rambam explains in his Commentary to the Mishnah, the primary meaning of the word פְּשָׁרָה is to mediate the matter, i.e., to reach a compromise agreement in a peaceful manner.

  2. The word פּוֹשֵׁר (lukewarm) – Rambam(ibid.) explains that medium-temperature water that is neither hot nor cold is called פּוֹשְׁרִין.

  3. The word אֶפְשַׁר (perhaps/possible) – the word derives from the root פשר3; a compromise, an indecisive proposal.

  4. The word הַפְשָׁרָה (melting) – the Talmud (Pesachim 94b) discusses how the sun’s early summer path allows it to melt the mountain snow.

Upon close analysis, it would appear that common to all of these terms is the notion of release from a physical or figurative impasse,4 as follows:

  1. The word פְּשָׁרָה – Each side is adamant in its position, until a compromise is proposed to them to bridge the gap.

  2. The word פּוֹשֵׁר – One side desires cold and the other hot, and they are caught up in confrontation until they can compromise on lukewarm.

  3. The word אֶפְשַׁר – Each side insists that its view is the correct one, until a third position is set forth as a compromise offer.5

  4. The word הַפְשָׁרָה – Ice and snow “imprison” water within them until they melt, upon which the water is released.

Let us now return to the aforementioned verse in Eccles., “Who is like the wise man, and who knows the פֵּשֶׁר of things,” in which the Sages interpreted פֵּשֶׁר as פְּשָׁרָה (compromise). King Solomon refers here to wisdom, and mentions פֵּשֶׁר in that connection. Now, directly after Solomon began his reign as king, he requested of G-d, “an understanding heart, to distinguish between good and evil.” G-d responded: Behold, I have acted in accordance with your words; behold, I have given you a wise and understanding heart, such that there has never been anyone like you before, nor will anyone like you ever arise.” Immediately thereafter, his first judicial decision – involving two mothers contending over custody of an infant – came before him (I Kings,Ch. 3). Solomon sums up the testimony of the two women: The king said, “This one claims, ‘This is my son, who is alive, and your son is the dead one,’ and this one claims, ‘It is not so! Your son is the dead one, and my son is the live one’” (v. 23). In other words, each woman was adamant in her opinion, and they had reached an impasse. In an attempt to find a way out of their confrontational standoff, Solomon put forth a drastic proposal, ordering his servants to bring a sword before him and cut the child in half, with each mother getting a half of the child. This decision by Solomon, and the just result that emerged from it, is of course paradigmatic of his wisdom. But how could he permit himself to propose such an extreme solution, one that was liable to end with the death of the child?

Since Solomon received his wisdom as a direct gift from G-d, we ought to contemplate the wisdom that we find in G-d’s own actions as a possible clue to the source of Solomon’s wise solution. Our Sages tell us that in response to the stalemate in which King Hezekiah and the Prophet Isaiah found themselves trapped – with each one demanding that the other come to him, and not vice versa – G-d brought afflictions upon King Hezekiah and he was stricken with a potentially fatal illness, so that Isaiah was forced to come to him. The Sages expound all this on the Eccles. verse cited, as stated in Berachot 10a: “What is the meaning of the verse, Who is like the wise man, and who knows the פֵּשֶׁר of things?Who is like the Holy One, blessed be He, Who knew how to effect a reconciliation / compromise (פְּשָׁרָה) between two righteous men, Hezekiah and Isaiah? Hezekiah said: ‘Let Isaiah come to me …’ Isaiah said: ‘Let Hezekiah come to me …’ What did the Holy One, blessed is He, do? He brought sufferings upon Hezekiah and then said to Isaiah, ‘Go visit the sick.’” Thus, in order to bridge the gap between the obstinacy of these two righteous men, G-d imposed a פְּשָׁרָה on them whose end result was liable to be the death of Hezekiah.

Now, Since Scripture does not indicate that Solomon was ordered to impose his decision directly, we propose that this was an example of the especial wisdom G-d had granted him, namely the brilliant art of compromise. But, as seen regarding G-d’s own example of a compromise solution, the path to settlement may involve drastic and even dangerous propositions.6 Hence, Solomon’s compromise proposal regarding the mothers entailed potential danger, and yet it would seem to parallel G-d’s own use (so to speak) of this tool called פשרה, called פשר דבר by Solomon himself.

By contrast, the root פתר that describes Joseph’s solution to the dreams was truly divine in nature, as he noted: “Do not interpretations (פִּתְרֹנִים) belong to G-d? Relate it to me, if you please(Gen.40:8), and once again with regard to his solution to Pharaoh’s dreams: “That is beyond me. It is G-d Who will respond with Pharaoh’s welfare(ibid. 41:16). Since פתר is depicting a Divine act, it denotes an unambiguous and absolute meaning. This, in contrast to the Hebrew term פשר, which, as a solution arrived at by human wisdom, is neither perfect nor absolute. I propose to offer support for this theory regarding the contrasting meanings of the Hebrew words פשר and פתר based on an analysis of the respective underlying roots.

In a number of his commentaries,7 Rabbi S. R. Hirsch equates the roots ישר,כשר ,קשר andגשר 8, all of which involve notions of straightness and connection; in other words, preparing / straightening groundwork or creating a straight path to connect various views or entities. It would appear that additional words containing the two-letter string שר also share similar meanings, according to the Scriptural commentators. This list includes the following words:

  1. The word ישר: straight, upright.

  2. The word כשר: proper, fit, valid.

  3. The word קשר: link/tie.

  4. The word גשר: bridge/connect.

  5. The word חשר: The commentators interpret חשר as an expression of linkage [Metz. Tzion defines חַשְׁרַת (II Sam.22:12) as implying a connection, just as חִשֻׁרֵיהֶם (I Kings 7:33) means the spokes of a wheel, which connect the inner wheel to the outer wheel.]

  6. The word אשר: Radak defines אַשְּׁרוּ (Isa. 1:17) and מְאַשְּׁרֶיךָ (ibid. 3:12) as יַשְּׁרוּ (straighten out) and מְיַשְּׁרֶיךָ (those who should set you straight).

  7. The word תשורה: gift (I Sam. 9:7), derived from the root שור, according to Radak. Rashi (based on Targum Yonatan) links it to the words יושר (equity/ virtue) and כשר (fit/valid) – i.e., something worthy and fitting.9

  8. The word אֲשׁוּרֶנוּ (see Num. 24:17): also derived from the root שור, according to Radak. Kli Yakar suggests that the name יִשְׂרָאֵל is linked both to אֲשׁוּרֶנוּ (and thus means “he sees G-d”) and to ישר (and thus means that “he is straight / upright in the eyes of G-d). In a similar vein, Ibn Ezra (Deut.32:15) cites an opinion linking יְשׁוּרוּן (another name for Israel) to אֲשׁוּרֶנוּ. Be’er Yitzchak explains that they are linked by the notion of seeing straight, as the Children of Israel “see” their Father in Heaven in a direct manner.

  9. The word נשר (vulture): Ibn Ezra (Lev. 11:14) also sees this word as linked to אֲשׁוּרֶנוּ, because of the vulture’s ability to see (straight and) afar.

In contrast to the linkage import of the two-letter string שר (contained in the word פשר), Yeriot Shlomo (I:75a-76a) suggests10 that the meaning of the biliteral root תר is removal/separation, as the linkage or adhesive that served to keep the two things attached is removed or loosened. Thus, the term מַתִּיר אֲסוּרִים means to “release” the bound.11 This is also the reason that the word יתר means remainder/leftover, as in the נוֹתָר that remains from an offering after its time expires – as its link and relation to the other item is removed or undone. Likewise, the verse in Hab. (3:6), רָאָה וַיַּתֵּר12גּוֹיִם, means He looked and “dispersed” nations,as some nations were removed from among the rest.13 Likewise, the term תוֹר is related to הַתָּרָה, release/dispensation. This is also the essence of the word תֹּר in Est. (2:12,15),14 וּבְהַגִּיעַ תֹּר נַעֲרָה וְנַעֲרָה, which is typically translated as when each maiden’s “turn” came [to appear before the king]. This was in fact one’s turn to be set free, for the maidens had hitherto been held captive in preparatory wards for an entire year (as recorded in Esther [ibid.]). When a maiden was finally summoned to the king, this was her תֹּר, her release from imprisonment.

From the string תר also derives the verb לתוּר, which denotes spying/revealing secrets, as in the word וְיָתֻרוּ, and they shall spy (Num.13:2). In this case, the verb is named after its end result, as the information attained is used to resolve,release or expose all doubts and questions and indeed, secrets. When one sees or attains the sought-after information, he is relieved of his consuming doubts and questions.15 And by secondary derivation, the string תר refers to searching for one’s heart’s desires in order to breach the standards of permissibility, as Scripture warns, and you shall not תָתוּרוּ16 after your hearts and after your eyes (ibid. 15:39). Merchants as well are called תָּרִים (I Kings 6:15), as they are constantly reconnoitering out ways and means of infiltrating new markets.17

In my opinion, there are additional words containing the two-letter combination תר that share the meaning of release /separation /opening /revealing:

  1. The word אתר: As in18הָאֲתָּרִים (Num.21:1), meaning the revealers of secrets.19

  2. The word בתר (cutting/opening /revelation): e.g., וַיְבַתֵּר in Gen.15:10.20

  3. The word חתר (digging/revealing secrets): e.g., וָאֶחְתֹּר in Ezek.8:8 (see Metz. Tzion).21

  4. The word נתר (springing, displacing; all connoting releasing of the bonds to a given location): e.g., לְנַתֵּר in Lev.11:21.22

  5. The word סתר: an Aramaic word used in Scripture and by the Talmudic Sages that has two meanings: a) demolition/destruction: e.g., סַתְרֵהּ in Ezra5:12 (with Rashi and Ibn Ezra), and הסותר in Shabbat 73a; b) the breach of a whole thing, i.e. opening something in a negative sense.23

  6. The word עתר: e.g.,וַיֵּעָתֶר in Gen.25:21. Although its plain meaning is: he prayed, the Sages interpret it to mean חתר 24 (dug) [see Ruth Rabbah (5:6), Zohar (Vol. 1, p. 137a)].25

Finally, after a long and winding path, we can return to the word with which we began, פתר26 – which also denotes opening/revelation. There is no word that can be more fitting to the dream-interpretation of Joseph, a man in whom is the spirit of G-d (Gen.41:38). As we noted, his interpretations are entirely unambiguous. They are presented with absolute certainty, revealing the secrets represented by the dreams. [This also offers support for our earlier assessment that the Aramaic root פשר – in contrast to the Hebrew root פשר that appears in Eccl. – is indeed a precise translation of the Hebrew root פתר. For the root פשר -in Aramaic – appears in Scripture only regarding Daniel, who also attributed to G-d his power to decode dreams (see Dan.2:27-28), thereby sanctifying G-d’s Name like Joseph, the master of Divine interpretations].

In closing, let us raise our eyes to the חכם הרזים (Sage of Enigmas), that He open the Heavenly Gates and interpret our dreams positively, and return His Divine Presence to Zion, speedily, in our times, Amen.

1HaTishbi (entry פרש) notes that the word appears only in Eccl., and suggests both interpretations as possibilities. See also Malbim (Ps.137:3) and Torah Temimah (Eccl. 8, note 3).

2Sefer Zikaron of R Yosef Kimchi (p. 71) brings examples:חרושה(Jer. 17:1) and חרותה(Ex. 32:16); ותוללינו(Ps. 137:3) andושוללינו(Job 12:17). Ibn Ezra and Torah Temimah to (Song 1:17) compare the wordבְּרוֹתִים(ibid.) to בְרוֹשִׁים(I Kings 5:22).

3See Aruch HaShalem (root אפשר); Responsa Yad Yitzchak (294-295).

4The case of two opposing parties is simply an illustration. However, it is also certainly possible for an individual to resolve a private dilemma by means of compromise.

5אפשרis also an example of a “tentative” word, which can be useful in avoiding conflict and misunderstanding. Moses prudently used the “imprecise” term כחצות(Ex. 11:4) instead of the clear-cut בחצות(the term used by the Almighty), from which the Sages taught: “Teach your tongue to say I don’t know so as to avoid embarrassment” (Berachot 4a).

6Note that there are two types of פְּשָׁרָה: a) a willfully accepted compromise; b) a compromise imposed by force, which is referred to as בּוֹרְרוּת, or binding arbitration(see Sanhedrin 5b, and Chiddushei HaRan ad loc.).

7E.g., Gen.2:7; 3:6; Ps. 68:7.

8See also Tosefet HaAruch (root גמל), who likewise equates the roots כשרandגשר.

9“Worthy” and “fitting” are parallel concepts to “straight.”

10The following two paragraphs are a paraphrase of YS.

11The root of מתירisנתרaccording to Radak.

12Its root of this word too is נתרaccording to Radak.

13Compare the Sages’ exposition on the verse in Tanchuma (Shemini, Ch. 10).

14The root isתוּרaccording to Radak.

15Based on YS, we can also explain the verb לָתוּרthat appears in לִדְרוֹשׁ וְלָתוּר בַּחָכְמָה,to seek and probewisdom(Eccles. 1:13). לָתוּרmeans to arrive at obscure secrets, by opening the obstructions and thus uncovering the wisdom. This is the basis for the word תיירthat appears in the Midrash (Song Rabbah 1:7), which asks: “What isלָתוּר-to become a תיירin wisdom.” The above Midrash (ibid. 2:1-3) goes on to interpret the word תּוֹר(turtledove) mentioned in Song(2:12) based on תייר, as it states, the voice of the turtledove [הַתּוֹר] is heard in our land – this is the voice of Moses… Joshua… [the Persian king] Cyrus… (and according to Pesikta this is a reference to the Messiah). The common factor in all these leaders is that that they each opened the way to a new direction, a new hope; hence, their connection to the word תייר(fromתר-expose, uncover, open), according to YS.

We can suggest a second reason as to why the turtledove, the bird that will herald the coming of Messiah and our deliverance from the yoke of foreign rule, is called a תּוֹר. The Targumofתּוֹרthroughout Scripture is שַׁפְנִינָא- the same translation that we find in Targum for the דְרוֹר(“free” bird– see Ps. 44:8). If these two birds are indeed one and the same, we can understand why this specific bird would have been given such an esteemed mission. For according to the Talmud (Beitzah 24a), aדְרוֹרis so called because it does not accept authority, “living in [its masters] home as it does in the field.” Thus, just as the דְרוֹרdoes not accept authority and lives wherever it wishes, so will the תּוֹרherald the removal of the shackles of those who are prisoners in foreign lands (see also Malbim to Lev. 1:14).

16The root of this word too being תורaccording to Radak.

17See Abarbanel’s comments in the I Kings verse, and his commentary to the beginning of P’ Shelach.

18כן הביאו רשב”ם וראב”ע:רשב”ם במ כא:א-האתרים-כמו אפרוח,אתמול,אזרוע.הרבה אלפין אותיות א באין לשמוש בראש תיבה;אב”ע-דרך האתרים-האתרים-י”א כי האנוסף,והטעם-התרים את הארץ.וכן:א אזרועך (ירלב:כא);ומנחם חבר את הכתובים הבאים בערך תר:מנחם(ערך תר):דרך האתרים,ויתורו את הארץ,מתור הארץ.

19The Targum rendersboth the words אתרandתר(with and without the opening letterא) as אלליא, namely, spies who uncover the secrets of the enemy for the occupiers.

20See RSRH (to Ex.13:2, Lev.1:8), who suggests that the words בתר,פטר, and פתר(among others) are related, as they all denote opening/uncovering /release.

21Note that the wordחפר, which like חתרusually means digging, is also used to denote spyingand revealing secrets,as the Shelah HaKadosh(in P’ Shelach) explains, that the term וְיַחְפְּרוּin the verse regarding the spies (Deut.1:22) means that their purpose was to reveal the disgrace of the land.

22Although the literal meaning ofלְנַתֵּרisto spring, and refers to the purpose of a creatures jumping legs, Radak(rootנתר) states that לְנַתֵּרmeansto jump and transfer from its original location, and thus links it to the wordsמַתִּיר(releases) in Ps. (146:7), and וַיַּתֵּר(He dispersed) in Hab. (3:6) that we discussed above – all of which involve removal from a location. The word is also found in the sense of detergent (Jer. 2:22) – an agent to release dirt and stains.

23Regarding the connection between the two definitions, see entry סתרin Nimukei Lashon in our upcoming -with G-d’s help- Yalkut Hashorashim encyclopedic compendium.

24Due to the exchanging of the guttural lettersעandח, as noted in the HaSulam commentary to ibid.

25ומצאנו ששרש עתר משמש כשם עצם לכלי חקלאות,כדוגמת הקלשון:סוכה יד:-א”ר(אליעזר)למהנמשלהתפלתןשלצדיקיםכעתרלומרלךמהעתרזהמהפךאתהתבואהבגורןממקוםלמקוםאףתפלתןשלצדיקיםמהפכתדעתושלהקב”הממדתאכזריותלמדתרחמנות.

26First mentioned in Gen.40:8. RSRH (to Ex.25:39) suggests that it may be linked to the compoundwordכַּפְתּוֹר(button), comprised of כפתandפתר- with כפתmeaningtied,and פתר, which is itself related to פטר, meaning an opening. Thus, a button ties togetheran openingor separation.


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