Shemot: A Path to Follow

Explore water, light and fire in Moses’ life and investigate a puzzle….

“She named him Moses, for I have pulled him from the water.” [Shemot/Exodus 2:4]

There is a rule that when we have a combination of light, water and fire, the creature whose soul (essence) consists of fire can elevate itself to the level of water, whereas the creature whose essence is water can elevate itself to the level of light. Seeing that Moses was essentially connected to water, having been “pulled from the water,” he can elevate himself to the level of light. This principle is alluded to in Exodus 34,29 “Moses was unaware that the skin of his face radiated light.” Continue reading

Shemot: Language and Translation

The children of Israel proliferated, swarmed, multiplied and grew more and more.* [Exodus/Shemot 1:7]

This is a very odd verse, stylistically. There are four almost synonymous verbs of increase that seem to gain momentum till climaxed by the double-barrelled adverbial intensifier of me’od me’od [note**].
–Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Exodus***

Leibowitz discusses classical views of this language, some of which attempt to “differentiate between the connotations of the four verbs.” She concludes, instead, that “this concentrated crescendo of verbs of ‘increase’ is a stylistic device emphasising the extraordinary nature of this population explosion.”

* Translator’s footnote:

I have deliberately deviated from the classic translations in an effort to reproduce the “form” as well as the “content” of the original. “To an extraordinary degree,” undoubtedly, a more elegant rendering of bi-me’od me’od would not have reproduced the doubling of the intensifier. See author’s note 2, p. 20. Similarly, the predicatives: “were fruitful” and “became strong” lack the force of the unmodified Hebrew verbs. [Aryeh Newman, translator]

** In and endnote, Leibowitz criticizes English, French and German bible translations for their failure “to reproduce in the vernacular the full force and effect of the original,” asking the reader to “Note how they weakened the effect by reducing the number of predicates and their reluctance to end with two identical words.”

Umberto Cassuto*** views this stylistic point in a slightly different way:

And the children of Israel were not merely fruitful, but they teem; they not only multiplied, but grew mighty; exceedingly [b-me'od me'od, literally, 'with strength, strongly'], in keeping with the promise given to Abraham; so that the land was filled with them, in accordance with the assurance given to Adam and Noah. We are now enabled to understand how the children of Israel could, for the first time, be called a people in v. 9

Seven expressions for increase are used in this verse, a number indicative of perfection: (1) were fruitful; (2) and teemed; (3) and multiplied; (4) and grew mighty; (5) with strength [b-me'od]; (6) strongly [me'od]; (7) so that the land was filled with them. Harmonious perfection is implied here, with the object of teaching us that all that happened was brought about by the will of God in conformity with His predetermined plan.

*** Please see Source Materials, as well as Commentators, for full citation and more details. See also Great Source(s) for more on Cassuto.

Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.
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Shemot: Something to Notice

These are the names (v’eileh shemot) of the sons of Israel (bnei yisrael) who came to Egypt with Jacob, each coming with his household. (Exodus 1:1)

These opening words elegantly make a transition from Genesis into the second book of the Torah. Ve’eileh, “And these…,” Exodus begins, indicating that this is in fact not an absolute beginning but a continuation.

A wordplay on the phrase [bnei yisrael] highlights the thematic and historical transition we make when we begin the second book of the Torah. We move from Genesis, where the focus is on individuals and their families in the stories of our matriarchs and patriarchs, to a focus in Exodus on the development of the Israelites as a people. The term bnei yisrael is translated in Exodus 1:1 as “sons of Israel.” Here bnei yisrael refers to the individual sons of Jacob/Israel, the eleven brothers who came to Egypt and joined Joseph, who was already there (Exodus 1:3). Only six verses later, the same phrase, bnei yisrael, will mean something different — “the children of Israel” — for it will refer to the Israelites as a people (Exodus 1:7). We will have moved from a family of twelve sons to a clan of tribes bearing their names — the Israelite people. Continue reading

Shemot: Great Source(s)

The entire episode of the midwives [Exodus/Shemot 1:15-21] is likewise presented poetically, in a manner beloved of ordinary folk. Conversations of this nature between the great king, who was revered by the Egyptians as a deity, and the Hebrew midwives (Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, etc.) would not be conducted literally in the form described. Yet it is precisely to its poetic character and the simplicity of its presentation that the narrative owes the impression it leaves on the mind of the reader or listener.

The attributive Hebrew applied here to the midwives represents the first use in Exodus of this term, which is due to recur a number of times in the continuation of the Book….

In Egyptian texts, the aforementioned Egyptian term refers to enslaved people, who were compelled to do forced labour in the service of Pharoah. In the Bible the children of Israel, or their ancestors, are called Hebrews particularly when the writer has in mind their relationship to the foreign environment in which they find themselves (for example, Gen. xiv 13: Abram the Hebrew; Jonah i 9: I am a Hebrew, etc.), and more especially when they are in the position of slaves (for instance, in Gen. xxxix 14, 17, Joseph, when in Potiphar’s house, is described as a Hebrew man or Hebrew servant (slave); so, too, ibid. xli 12: A young Hebrew, a servant of the captain of the guard). Here is Exodus, whilst the children of Israel are still free men, they are called by their honoured designation, children of Israel, even when Pharoah speaks of them (v.9). But after the commencement of their servitude, they are usually referred to as Hebrews….
— from Umberto Cassutto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus***

Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951) produced commentaries** on Exodus and parts of Genesis which I thoroughly recommend. His insights into the language and history of the text contribute enormously to the reading. He is often cited by Nechama Leibowitz, a great source in her own right.

Cassuto disagreed with the “Documentary Hypothesis,” instead proposing — based, in part, on extensive studies of other near eastern literatures — that an oral tradition, including a number of ancient epics, became part the Torah text.

His historical/literary method distances him from some Orthodox scholars. Jonathan Safren, editor of Moed — Annual for Jewish Studies, has the following to say in a 2004 on-line note, however:

Cassuto’s commentary is still useful, though biblical scholarship and
Semitic philology have moved on since his days…. His approach towards
the ways the laws are arranged – often by association – is an original

Fusty? Maybe. Valuable? Definitely

Cassuto’s volumes may look intimidating and/or dated at first, but don’t be daunted! His style is academic, and the mode of transliteration is outdated. In addition, translator Israel Abrahams frequently uses words that send me scurrying to my dictionary.

For example, “exordium”* appears in the first commentary sentence of A Commentary on the Book of Exodus. Some of these words turn out, in my opinion, to be succinct and useful literary expressions; many simply make me grateful that the SAT is long behind me.

Once you give Cassuto and his translator a chance, though, you’ll find him a great companion in reading Exodus.

* I’ll save you the trip: “The beginning of anything, esp. a discourse, treatise, etc.,” according to my OED.

** The commentary on Exodus appears, sadly, to be out of print. Many synagogue and JCC libraries have copies, however. There are also used copies available from Abe and e an ebook. (I’ve never used the latter, and love my paper copy, but I imagine that an electronically searchable format could have its uses.)

*** Please see Source Materials for citation and more details.

Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.
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