Morsels of Hebrew Grammar  
This Week's Parsha | Previous Issues

Parasha Acharei-mot 5763

The commentary must be understood in social context

eshet avicha (Levit. 18:8) (‘wife of your father’): R’ A. ibn Ezra explains these words as ‘wife of father not being the mother.’ R’ A. ibn Ezra means that it is possible for a man to have two wives, whether concurrently like Abraham’s wives Sarah and Hagar, or consecutively like Sarah and Ketorah (according to the opinion that Hagar and Ketorah were not the same person). It is clear that the Torah forbids relations with a father’s wife as a form of incest in both cases. This is the opinion of R’ A. ibn Ezra. Ramban also states so explicitly and I have yet to find anyone who disagrees. It is also laid down so in Halacha (Rambam, Prohibitions of relationships 1:4; Shulchan Aruch, E.HaE. 15:5).

However R’ Asher Weiser, (editor of commentary of R’ A. ibn Ezra in Torat Haim, Mossad HaRav Kook), explains R’ A. ibn Ezra with the words em choreget (‘step mother’). Although each of these words is ancient, (em occurs frequently in the Bible, and choreg occurs in the Mishna (Sanhedrin 3:4), and in the Gemara (Sotah 43:2), and elsewhere in the writings of the Sages) the combination of the two words is an innovation of Modern Hebrew, as is indicated by a small circle at its entry in Even Shoshan Dictionary. It means a woman who marries a child’s father, and raises his offspring of a previous marriage, and presupposes a system of monogamy. The explanation ‘step mother’ limits the commentary of R’ A. ibn Ezra to the consecutive possibility (my son R’ Ezra added that the term ‘step mother’ actually limits the prohibition to a subsequent wife, while the above-mentioned consecutive possibility includes a previous wife). Although R’ A. ibn Ezra’s comment includes ‘step mother’ it is much wider; he is discussing the polygamous society that the Torah is referring to, and not one subject to the monogamy rule introduced by the Cherem of Rabbenu Gershom.

The above reminds me of a related problem: reading the Bible as though it were Modern Hebrew. Purim-time I came across a Megillat Esther translated into English. There I found moladti (Est. 8:6) translated as ‘birthplace.’ This is incorrect. In Modern Hebrew moledet certainly means ‘birthplace’ but not in the Bible. The phrase eretz moledet occurs in the Bible (Gen. 31:13; Jer. 22:10; 46:16; Ezek. 23:15) and means ‘birthplace.’ It may be that the modern meaning grew up by way of abbreviation. This meaning is noted by the Even Shoshan Dictionary entry moledet ‘birthplace,’ that has a small circle indicating that this meaning is of the modern era. Be that as it may in the Bible moledet means ‘birthgroup’ or ‘family.’ The Targum renders Esther’s term genisat yalduti (‘family of birth?’). According to Jastrow’s Aramaic Dictionary genisat is derived from the Latin gens ‘family’ or ‘gentry’ (the English word ‘genetics’ has the same origin). Esther was saying that her family, or her aristocratic family (referring to her descent from the family of Israel’s first king), was in danger.

The Gemara points out that the word for pouring (a drink) is different in the Bible than in the Mishnah and explains this by the adage ‘the language of the Torah is distinct from the language of the Sages’ (Avodah Zara 58B). The time span for the changes noted in the Talmud was less than a thousand years; since then almost two thousand years have passed and further great changes have taken place Hebrew. The moral of the above is: We must be very careful not to impose meanings that words have acquired recently, on their prototypes in the Bible.

* * * *

The limited number of abominations

to’eva (Levit. 18:22 etc.) (‘abomination’): There are not many prohibitions in the Torah which are allocated this term of opobruim. In addition to the above we find it used in connection with idolatry (Deut. 7:26; 13:15), prohibited foods (Deut. 14:3), a defective sacrifice (Deut. 17:1), the prohibition of wearing clothes of the opposite gender (Deut. 22:5), the prohibition of bringing immoral earnings, or the price of sale of a dog, as a sacrifice (Deut. 23:19), cheating in measuring, counting or weighing [things being sold] (Deut. 25:16). It seems to me that all of these include an element of perversion. If so one would expect that a perverted judgment would be subject to this denigrating term. Perhaps this is why Rashi on the verse avel bamishpat (Levit. 19:15), (‘unrighteousness in judgment’) comments, ‘for the judge who distorts judgment is called … to’eva for distortion is called to’eva as it says ‘for the to’eva of G-d … all those who commit distortion’ (Deut. 25:16 – Rashi, Levit. 19:15).

I will be pleased to have comments on these notes on the Parasha.
Good Shabbos, Meshullam Klarberg, 35/4 Meshech Chochma, Kiryat Sefer, Israel 71919
E-mail address:


This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.

For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael
Classes, send mail to

Jerusalem, Israel