By Israel Drazin
We have been offering some unusual and controversial Bible interpretations that the Jewish iconoclast Arnold B. Ehrlich (1848-1919) placed in his book Mikra Ki-Pheshuto (The Bible According to its Literal Meaning) with the hope that whether readers agree with them or not they will provoke thought. We added some ideas by the Orthodox Jewish thinker Baruch Epstein (1860-1919) from his biblical commentary Torah Temimah (The Perfect Torah). He raises penetrating questions and rational solutions that are generally traditional. We included some interpretations by the famed Bible commentator Rashi (1040-1105) who unlike the other two fills his commentary with derash, homiletical interpretations that others are unable to see in the plain meaning of the biblical text. The parenthetical statements are mine, making the presentation a quartet of different sounds. The following are some comments on the biblical portion Va’eira (Exodus 6:2 to 9:35).
- God tells Moses in 6:3 that he appeared to the patriarchs under the name of El Shaddai. What is the meaning of “name” and “El Shaddai”? (Name, as we mentioned in the past, frequently denotes “essence” or “being” in the Bible. Thus God is telling Moses how Abraham. Isaac, and Jacob understood him.) El means God. The meaning of Shaddai, mentioned five times in relation to the patriarchs – see, for example, Genesis 17:1 – is obscure and there are several ideas of what it might mean. The Babylonian Talmud, in Chagigah 12a and other places, derive its meaning from she’dai, “(I gave them) enough.” Saadiah is similar: “who metes out to the world sufficient supplies.” Nachmanides states that it indicates miracles that do not suspend nature. Thus the patriarchs did not see the kind of miracles that will take place in Egypt. Ehrlich and most scholars see its rood as sh-d-d, meaning “strength.” Similarly, some see its connection to the Acadian shadu, “mountain,” so El Shaddai could mean “mountain God” or a divinity as powerful as a mountain. Still others derive it from shadayim, “breasts,” implying a God who assures fruitfulness.
- God also tells Moses “but by my name y-h-v-h (the Tetragrammaton) I was not known to them (to the patriarchs).” Rashi: this means “I was not recognized by them by my attribute of faithfulness as indicated in the name y-h-v-h, which denotes being faithful to verify my words, for I promised them but did not fulfill (my promises to give them the land of Canaan).”
- Moses tells God that Pharaoh will not hear him because he is aral sefasayim in 6:12, which literally means “uncircumcised lips.” Rashi: The basic meaning of aral is “closed,” an uncircumcised male’s “penis is closed.” Thus Moses is saying his lips are closed, impeded. Ehrlich: The Israelites understood that the foreskin is a bodily defect. They used the term aral, uncircumcised, metaphorically to indicate a defect. Moses was saying, I have a speech defect.
- Why does the Hebrew name in 6:23, Abihu, end with the letter aleph, the letter seems unnecessary? Ehrlich has an unusual answer. Early writing, Hebrew and Arabic, had no space between words. Learned people had some difficulty distinguishing where new words begin and less educated people could hardly read this writing at all. Both the Arabs and Jews developed a system of adding an aleph at the end of words to alert readers not to combine one word with the next. This is the origin of the spelling of the Hebrew words hu and hi, “he” and “she,” with an unnecessary aleph as its last letter.Thus the meaning of Abihu is Ab=father followed by a yud and a hay, which is a shortened version of the Tetragrammaton y-h-v-h – with the final letter aleph not being part of the name – yielding, “God is (my) father.” This understanding, Ehrlich adds, proves that the current wording of Scripture is not as old as many think since the system of adding an aleph is not very old.
- 8:2 mentions that a frog (singular) came and covered Egypt. The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 67b, states that Rabbi Akiva felt that a single frog miraculously covered all of Egypt. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said: “One frog croaked for the others, and they came.” Rashi notes that these views are midrashic, the Torah frequently uses the singular form when speaking of an entire species, as in verse 13 where “lice” is singular, although lice is plural in 8:14. Epstein suggests that some sages thought that a midrashic interpretation was necessary since while the singular is sometimes used the plural form is ubiquitous, and they felt they had to explain why the Torah made the change.
- Ehrlich: What does the Bible’s hitpa’eir alai in 8:5 mean? Hitpa’ier usually means “boast,” or as the Jewish Publication Society translates the verse: “And Moses said unto Pharaoh: ‘Have this glory over me; against which time shall I entreat for thee…?’” While Jewish prayer begins with the Jew humbling himself before God and glorifying God, the ancients, including the Greeks in Homer’s Iliad, and most likely the Hebrews before the time of the Torah, did the opposite. They boasted of all the good things they did and asked their gods to pay them by granting their wish. Ehrlich sees this in the word for prayer tephilah whose root is p-l-l meaning “judge.” The prayer is saying, “see all the good I did, judge it in my favor and grant my wish.” Thus Moses is saying to Pharaoh, “Request (or supplicate) of me which time shall I entreat for thee.” This is exactly how p-l-l is used in Isaiah 45:14 when nations beseech Israel when they realize they were defeated. (Tephilah could mean that prayer is a time where a person could become inspired to think of his and her past deeds and future plans and make a judgment about them. Is this how I should act?)
- Ehrlich: When Pharaoh’s magicians tried to copy Aaron’s plague of lice and were unable to do so, they exclaimed in 8:15, “This is the finger of God.” The Torah depicts common work as work of the “hand,” but delicate and remarkable work with the word “finger,” such as the Decalogue being produced by the “finger of God” (Exodus 31:18). Some of the Talmudic sages believed that magic works, but other Talmudic sages strongly disagreed. An example appears in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 67b, focusing on this verse. “Rabbi Eleazar said: This (the fact that Pharaoh’s magicians could not magically produce lice, as Aaron did) proves that a magician cannot produce a creature less than a barley corn in size. Rabbi Papa said: By God! He cannot produce even something as large as a camel” but all they can do is create an illusion that he magically created something.
- Scripture frequently disparages idols with derogatory terms, as it does in 8:22. Moses says to Pharaoh that the Israelites cannot sacrifice “the abomination of the Egyptians to the Lord our God…will they not stone us?” The translation Targum Onkelos, the Talmud, Rashi, and others recognize that “abominations” means “idols.” While the Torah calls them “abominations,” Moses certainly didn’t use this word in front of Pharaoh.