• yehoshua steinberg

Vayigash: Confused About Crying ~ The Wonders of the Holy Tongue

Updated: Feb 27



Article abstract:


Parashat Vayigash relates the emotional scene of Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers. With emotions often comes crying - בכה in Hebrew, and this word appears seven times in this week's portion, more than in any other weekly portion. In the article we examine this word by comparing it to other words containing the two core letters בכ, in an attempt to understand the depth of the word and what "crying" actually means in the Torah's view.


May all of our tears be only tears of joy and celebration!



וַיְמַהֵר יוֹסֵף כִּי נִכְמְרוּ רַחֲמָיו אֶל אָחִיו וַיְבַקֵּשׁ לִבְכּוֹת וַיָּבֹא הַחַדְרָה וַיֵּבְךְּ שָׁמָּה (בראשית מג:ל).

Joseph rushed because his compassion for his brother had been stirred, and he wanted [לִבְכּוֹת] to weep; so he went into the room and wept [וַיֵּבְךְּ] there (Gen. 43: 30).

According to Radak, the root of the two words for crying in this passage is בכה (weeping / confusion). Derivatives of this root appear seven times in Parashat Vayigash - more than in any other weekly Torah reading.

Machberet Menachem maintains that the root of this word is actually the two-letter root בך, and he divides the Scriptural verses derived from this root into two subsections in his entry for בך. The first subsection includes verses denoting quandary or bewilderment (in Menachem's terminology, הנעה [understood as agitation, turmoil as we shall explain below]). The second of the two subsections in entry בך contains verses that crying. The following are the two subsections of בך:

1. From the tumultuous depths [מִבְּכִי], He fashioned rivers;[1]Have you entered the נִבְכֵי יָם?;[2] Those who pass through the Valley of Thorns [הַבָּכָא];[3] herds of cattle are bewildered [נָבֹכוּ];[4] and the city of Shushan was bewildered [נָבוֹכָה];[5] now will be their bewilderment [מְבוּכָתָם];[6] they will become bewildered [וַיִּתְאַבְּכוּ] by the intensity of the smoke [7]- These are all matters of הנעה.

2. Wailing, bitter crying [בְּכִי];[8] She prayed to God, weeping continuously [וּבָכֹה תִבְכֶּה];[9] and his father cried [וַיֵּבְךְּ] him;[10] you will not have to weep [בָּכוֹ לֹא תִבְכֶּה].[11]

Following his usual practice, Menachem does not allude to any logical link between the two subcategories, or even whether such a connection exists. On the other hand, his decision to assign a given verse to a specific subcategory serves as a manner of interpretation of that passage, as evidenced from the hundreds of examples in which Rashi explains the meaning of a verse by the simple statement that “Menachem linked” a given expression to a particular subcategory. Here, Menachem himself made clear that the verses in the first subcategory all share the general meaning of הנעה; but what exactly is meant by הנעה in this context?

In the words of the Sages, הנעה means a state of mind bordering on insanity, as in: Ex. 20:15 - The people saw and trembled [וַיָּנֻעוּ] and stood from afar; Mechilta of Rashbi, Ex. 20:15 - “The only meaning of ניעה is טירוף (insanity), as in: the land will totter [תָּנוּעַ] like a drunkard (Isa. 24:20), and: and his heart shuddered [וַיָּנַע], and the heart of his people, like the shuddering [כְּנוֹעַ] of the trees of the forest in the wind (Isa. 7:2).”[12]

According to this, the verse: Those who pass through the Valley of Thorns [הַבָּכָא], which Menachem placed in the subcategory that expresses הנעה, is to be understood as: Those who pass through the Valley of Bewilderment and Confusion.[13]

As noted, Rashi mentions Machberet Menachem hundreds of times in his commentaries, and it is uncommon to find an instance in which Rashi disagrees with his interpretation. Therefore, it is particularly surprising to find that in this case, Rashi differs with Menachem's interpretation in two of the verses that he assigned to the subsection of quandary / bewilderment:

1. In Ps. 84:7, Rashi interprets עֹבְרֵי בְּעֵמֶק הַבָּכָא as: “Those who transgress Your laws and are in the depth of Hell, weeping[14] and howling.”[15]

2. In Job 28:11, Rashi interprets מִבְּכִי נְהָרוֹת חִבֵּשׁ as: “At the time of Creation, when the lower waters wept[16]; בכי is similar [in meaning] toנִבְכֵי יָם (Job 38:16).”[17]

Note that Rashi, in his interpretation of the second verse, citesנִבְכֵי יָם from later in Job (38:16), but if his intent is to explainמִבְּכִי נְהָרוֹת חִבֵּשׁ as crying, an apparent contradiction would seem to arise in Rashi's own commentary, because in interpreting Job 38:16 itself, he defines נִבְכֵי יָם as quandary and not crying![18]

Also, in Rashi's explanation of the word נְבֻכִים in Ex. 14:3, which he explains as quandary, he again brings נִבְכֵי יָם as a support, adding the terms imprisoned and sunk in.[19]

Moreover, Rashi explained both בְּעֵמֶק הַבָּכָא and מִבְּכִי נְהָרוֹת in their places as meaning crying, which seemingly contradicts his commentary in Exodus, where he brought these self-same verses as examples of quandary. And again in Isaiah, Rashi explains וַיִּתְאַבְּכוּ as an expression of quandary, while bringing support from מִבְּכִי נְהָרוֹת and בְּעֵמֶק הַבָּכָא.[20] Clearly, Rashi's true intent in explaining these verses requires further study.

In Ibn Ezra's commentary to the verse from Ex. 14:3, they are (נְבוּכִים) in the land, he differs with Rashi’s view[21] that נְבוּכִים is similar in meaning to נִבְכֵי יָם, with both of them used in the sense of being entrapped, or closed off. Rather, he sees them as derived from two entirely separate roots. The term נְבוּכִים is from the root בוך, and means perplexed “like a man who cannot find a solution and does not know what to do”[22] (with the "nun" at the beginning merely added due to the passive form of usage [נפעל]).[23] By contrast, נִבְכֵי יָם is a derivative of the three-letter root נבך, and means the depths of (or, the waves of)[24] the seas - which certainly does not apply to the desert wilderness.[25]

In explaining Rashi's view, the commentators clarify that this is an instance par excellence of a dispute between the French and Spanish Sages regarding how to assess the roots of words. For example, Mizrachi, commenting on Rashi comparing נְבוּכִים to נִבְכֵי יָם, writes:[26] “The correct [understanding]... is that the Rabbi [Rashi] was of the opinion that the words נְבוּכִים, נִבְכֵי יָם, עֵמֶק הַבָּכָא, and מִבְּכִי נְהָרוֹת, are all derived from the two-letter root (i.e., בכ). For he was one of the French Sages, who argued that all roots in which the second or third letter do not appear at times are in fact two-letter roots.”[27]

However, we must still explain Rashi’s view concerning the words containing the two-letter root בכ, which he at times interpreted as expressions of weeping, and in other places as quandary, as shown above.

Haketav Vehakabbalah compares מבוכה (from root בוך, according to the "Spaniards") to בכיה (from root בכה, according to the same) in his comments to the words וַיִּבכְּוּ אֹתוֹ - and they bewailed him (Gen. 50:3). He writes: “The verb [form of] בֶּכִי [namely בכיה] is derived from the root בך according to R’ Shlomo Pappenheim,[28] indicating confusion and delirium[29] Crying is the revelation of the confusion in one's heart and its outward expression, in the form of wailing and tears.”[30]

Perhaps some support can be found for Haketav Vehakabbalah’s view in the Jerusalem Talmud[31] (Taanit 2:1):[32] “R’ Berachiah decreed thirteen fast days [as days of penitence and prayer for rain and an end to a drought], but no rain descended. At the end [of the fast days], locusts came. On the day that you awaited, your punishment came… (Micah 7:4).[33] The people cried out: ‘The day on which we expected rain has brought us locusts instead!’ …now shall be [34]!מבוּכָתָם Meanwhile, the people cried and cried until the rain began to fall.”[35] In this context, the word מבוּכָתָם is understood as: their weeping.[36]

As we noted, the author of Haketav Vehakabbalah saw the notions of quandary and confusion as common to both מבוכה and בכיה, since a quandary ultimately leads to a feeling of helplessness. By contrast, Rashi, in his commentary on Ex. 14:3, when comparing נְבוּכִים with the words נִבְכֵי יָם, עֵמֶק הַבָּכָא, and מִבְּכִי נְהָרוֹת, expands his explanation of these words in a way that anticipates and addresses the objection of Ibn Ezra (who holds that נְבוּכִים and נִבְכֵי derive from different roots). By using the terms “imprisoned and sunk in” to describe the underlying meaning of both verses, Rashi employs concepts that on an abstract level relate both to the sea and the wilderness, since it is possible to experience a feeling of imprisonment and sinking in every difficult situation whose solution is not straightforward. Additional terms used by Rashi in interpreting various expressions of מבוכה are: closure (e.g., Isa. 9:16; Joel 1:18; Job 38:16)[37] and turbulence / swirling (Joel 1:18; Micah 7:4).

It is based on the above definitions that Rashi also defined the root אבך. In his comments to the verse: and they will be overcome [וַיִּתְאַבְּכוּ] by the intensity of the smoke (Isa. 9:16), Rashi writes: "They will be bewildered and enclosed by the heavy smoke of the conflagration. וַיִּתְאַבְּכוּ - For every expression of [the form] נבך, the root of the word is בך alone, as in מִבְּכִי נְהָרוֹת (Job 28:11), and בְּעֵמֶק הַבָּכָא (Ps. 84:7)."[38]

Avnei Shayish (entry אבך) suggests additional roots that derive from בך (namely סבך and רבך),[39] thus the complete list of derivatives would be: אבך, נבך, סבך and רבך. The fundamental meaning that links all these terms according to Avnei Shayish is: grasping / attachment. Their different opening letters merely signify differences between their secondary concepts:

1. אבך: וַיִּתְאַבְּכוּ גֵּאוּת עָשָׁן (Isa. 9:16), meaning: the smoke clouds were connected.[40]

2. נבך: נְבֻכִים הֵם בָּאָרֶץ (Ex. 14:3), meaning: they are caught without an ability to exit.

3. סבך: [41] נֶאֱחַז בַּסְּבַךְ (Gen. 22:13), meaning: stuck in the thorns.[42]

4. רבך: מֻרְבֶּכֶת תְּבִיאֶנָּה (Lev. 6:14), meaning: stuck through frying.

In listing מֻרְבֶּכֶת among this group of words meaning attached, Avnei Shayish is referring to the consolidation of the dough. Tosefet Brachah (to Lev. 6:14) suggests that the word מֻרְבֶּכֶת denotes stirring and mixing (as per the aforementioned view of R’ Pappenheim cited in Haketav Vehakabbalah). He offers support from the Pesikta,[43] which equate מרבכת and מנבכת (due to the phonetically related letters למנ"ר), with מנבכת derived from the root נבך, as in נִבְכֵי יָם (Job 38:16). The word מנבכת (and נִבְכֵי יָם) according to this view would thus denote areas of turbulence / rapids / whirlpools where the waters are “mixed” and “stirred.”[44]

In summary, there are two overarching explanations regarding the link between all the words containing the two-letter string בך: A) confusion, bewilderment and disorientation. B) closure, imprisonment, grabbing, and attachment. However, it seems obvious that these two explanations are not necessarily contradictory, since a confused person is one who feels that he is being held back from advancing and making progress; he is stuck in his place. Similarly, we can explain the link in reverse manner, for one who is stuck in a cul-de-sac is liable to reach a situation of confusion and quandary, which can ultimately lead to feelings of depression and aggravation that are expressed with weeping and tears.

However, in contrast to the common meaning of the term בכה (i.e., weeping due to internal bewilderment and aggravation) elsewhere in Scripture, the appearance of the root in this weekly portion actually implies a feeling of release from pain. At long last, Joseph found relief from his pain and reconciled with his brothers. Thus, the בכיה in our verse is a weeping of joy and renewal.

May it be the will of God that all our weeping shall be weeping out of joy [בכיות של שמחה] , and that God shall hear our prayers and open up the Heavenly Gates of Tears [שערי דמעות]- and send us the true redeemer, tom unstick us from the mud [רפש המרובך] speedily in our times. Amen.