Vered Hollander-Goldfarb

About Vered Hollander-Goldfarb

Vered Hollander-Goldfarb received her M.A. in Judaic Studies and Tanach from the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Yeshiva University and studied at Bar-Ilan University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Before making aliyah, she taught at Ramaz School and Stern College in New York. She teaches Tanach and Medieval Commentators.

Vered Hollander-Goldfarb

His Daughters (and Lot) – (Some) Villains of Tanakh

His Daughters (and Lot) (Genesis 19:30-38)

Background reading:  Gen 19:1-29

Some points to think about:

  1. What kind of a person is Lot (especially if a person’s true colors might come out in a crisis?)
  2. How does he think about his family?
  3. What is the role of the wife?
  4. As we get to our story, what have Lot and his 2 daughters witnessed over the last 24 hours?

Part 1: Close reading of the text:  Genesis 19:30-38.

Reading the text in Hebrew will add to your appreciation of it, but regardless of the language you study in, part 2 will study some of the important words in the Hebrew in this narrative.

Read through the story once.  As you read, jot down questions and thoughts that come to your mind.  When you finish reading: What is your reaction?  As you work through it slowly, check to see if the narrator shares your view.

  1. To your understanding, what was the concern of the daughters that caused them to choose this course of action?  Base your answer on your reading of the biblical text.  Come back to this question after reading part 3.
  2. Compare the behavior of the Elder and the Younger daughters.  Is there any difference in the narration of the 2 events? Start on your own.  Part 2 focuses on some significant words in the Hebrew text (that unfortunately gets lost in most translations) that might make this narrative very interesting.
  3. Was Lot an unaware victim throughout this story, or did he, at some point, begin to have a clue as to what was going on? This question should be revisited as you study parts 2 and 3.  Right now, what is your gut reaction?  (If you can prove it from the text, it would be great!)
  4. Pay attention to the names of the sons that are born:  Mo’av and Ben Ami.  In Hebrew names have meanings:  Mo’av = me’av = from father.  Ben Ami = child of my nation.  How do the names differ in their messages?
  5. As in many narratives in Bereshit (Genesis), this too is the foundation story of a nation (or two) told from an Israelite perspective.
    1. Read Deuteronomy 2:9, 18-19.  What is God’s attitude towards the nations that came from the daughters of Lot?
    2. Now read Deuteronomy 23:4-7.  How does the Torah wish the Israelites to relate to the nations that came from the daughters of Lot in the long run? 
    3. How can we explain the difference in attitude? (Is it different?)

Part 2: The fine shades of Hebrew: 

Two similar, but not identical, terms are used to describe sexual relations in this section:   לשכב את  (‘to lay’ followed by an object) and לשכב עם (to lay with.)  To learn what the difference means, let’s examine other places in Tanakh where these terms are used.

After studying this on your own, you might find the video segment for this session helpful.

לשכב את:

בראשית לד,ב

ב וַיַּרְא אֹתָהּ שְׁכֶם בֶּן-חֲמוֹר הַחִוִּי נְשִׂיא הָאָרֶץ וַיִּקַּח אֹתָהּ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ וַיְעַנֶּהָ.

שמואל ביג, יד

יד וְלֹא אָבָה לִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקוֹלָהּ וַיֶּחֱזַק מִמֶּנָּה וַיְעַנֶּהָ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ.

‘To lay’ followed by an object:

Genesis 34:2

2 And Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her; and he took her, and lay her, and oppressed her.

Samuel II 13:14

But he would not hearken to her voice; and being stronger than she, he oppressed her, and lay her.

לשכב עם:

שמואל ביג, יא

וַתַּגֵּשׁ אֵלָיו לֶאֱכֹל וַיַּחֲזֶק-בָּהּ וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ בּוֹאִי שִׁכְבִי עִמִּי אֲחוֹתִי.

בראשית ל טוטז

וַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ: הַמְעַט קַחְתֵּךְ אֶת-אִישִׁי, וְלָקַחַת גַּם אֶת-דּוּדָאֵי בְּנִי?! וַתֹּאמֶר רָחֵל: לָכֵן יִשְׁכַּב עִמָּךְ הַלַּיְלָה, תַּחַת דּוּדָאֵי בְנֵךְ.  טז וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב מִן-הַשָּׂדֶה בָּעֶרֶב, וַתֵּצֵא לֵאָה לִקְרָאתוֹ וַתֹּאמֶר: אֵלַי תָּבוֹא! כִּי שָׂכֹר שְׂכַרְתִּיךָ בְּדוּדָאֵי בְּנִי. וַיִּשְׁכַּב עִמָּהּ בַּלַּיְלָה הוּא.

‘To lay with’

II Samuel 13:11

11 And when she had brought them near to him to eat, he took hold of her, and said to her: ‘Come lie with me, my sister.’

Genesis 30:15-16

15 And she said to her: ‘Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? and you will take away my son’s mandrakes also?!’ And Rachel said: ‘Therefore he shall lie with you tonight for your son’s mandrakes.’ 16 And Jacob came from the field in the evening, and Leah went out to meet him, and said: To me you shall come! since I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.’ And he lay with her that night.

Part 3: Rabbinic and Medieval commentators:

Q) Why did the daughters do what they did?

1)  בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) פרשה נאMidrash Bereshit Rabba 51  

(לא) ותאמר הבכירה אל הצעירה אבינו זקן ואיש אין בארץ וגו’ שהיו סבורות שנתכלה העולם כדור המבול.

And the Elder said to the Younger: Our father is old and there is no man in the land…” – For they thought that the world became extinct like in the generation of the flood.


Q) According to this Midrash (from early centuries CE,) what was the concern of the daughters?

2)  רד”ק בראשית יט לא R. David Kimchi (Radak – Medieval commentator) Gen. 19:31

רוב המפרשים פרשו כי חשבו כי כל הארץ כסדום ועמרה שלא נשאר איש ואישה.  וזה רחוק, שהרי יצאו הם מצוער שלא נהפכה, וכן יש להם לחשוב כי שאר הארץ גם כן לא נהפכה.  גם שמעו מאביהן כי סדום ובנותיה – מרעת יושבי בה נהפכה. וטוב הוא מה ששמעתי בשם ר’ יוסף קרא, כי אמרה הבכירה “לא נמצא בארץ שירצה לקחת אותנו לנשים, כי יאמרו: מאנשי ההפכה הן אלו, אין ראוי להתחבר להן.”

Most commentators explained that they thought that all the land was like Sodom and Gomorra, that there was no man or woman left.  But this is far fetched, for they left Tzoar which was not over- turned, so they should have realized that also the rest of the land was not overturned.  Also, they heard from their father that Sodom and its environs were overturned because of the evil of their inhabitants.  And what I heard in the name of R. Joseph Kara is good: The Elder said: ‘There is no one on Earth that will want to take us as wives, for they will say:  They are of the people of the Over-turn, it is inappropriate to connect to them.”

Q) Do you agree with Radak’s criticism of the view presented by the Midrash?  Why?

Q) Is the comment brought in the name of R. Joseph Kara reasonable?

It is an interesting idea, especially in light of Deut. 23:4-7…


Q) Was Lot merely a victim or perhaps a bit of a villain as well?

3)  רש”י בראשית פרק יט,לג Rashi Genesis 19:33  

ובקומה – של בכירה נקוד, לומר הרי הוא כאילו לא נכתב, לומר שבקומה ידע, ואף על פי כן לא נשמר ליל שני מלשתות.

When she rose – [When this word appears] with the Elder daughter, it has a dot* over it, as if it should not have been written, to tell that when she rose he did know.  None the less, he was not careful not to drink on the second night.

*In 10 places in the Torah dots, that have nothing to do with the trop (the music and punctuation,) appear over words.  These dots indicate some doubts as to whether or not these letters/words should indeed have been written.

Q) Did the Rashi, and the Midrash that he based his comment on, have to rely solely on the dot to come to their conclusion?

Q) How did the Rabbis view the proactive behavior of Lot’s daughters?

4)  בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) פרשה נא Midrash Bereshit Rabba 51

(לב) לכה נשקה את אבינו יין וגו’: ר’ תנחומא משום שמואל: ‘ונחיה מאבינו בן’ אין כתיב, אלא “זרע” –  אותו זרע שהוא בא ממקום אחר. ואי זה? זה מלך המשיח.

Let us go and cause our father to drink wine…” R. Tanhuma [said] in the name of Shmuel:  It does not say ‘and we shall keep a child alive from our father’ but rather “seed” – a seed that comes from a different place.  And which is that?  The Messiah king.

Q) How is the Messiah connected to the daughters of Lot?

Remember the story of Ruth?  She was a Moabite who married Boaz from Bethlehem. (See Ruth chapter 4.) Their great grandson was David.  The Messiah will be a descendent of David


5)  תלמוד בבלי מסכת נזיר דף כג עמוד ב- כד עמוד א

אמר ר’ חייא בר אבין, אמר ר’ יהושע בן קרחה: לעולם יקדים אדם לדבר מצוה, שבשכר לילה

אחת שקדמתה בכירה לצעירה – זכתה וקדמה ארבעה דורות בישראל למלכות.

Said R. Hiya son of Abin said R. Joshua son of Karha:  A person shoul always be early for [performing] a commandment/good deed.  For as a reward for the one night that the Older daughter was ahead of the Younger, she merited being 4 generations before her to the royalty in Israel.

Q) Which women from these nations are connected to the royal house of Israel?


In the previous Midrash we saw Ruth.  She was from Moab – the son of the Elder daughter.  Here is the Amonite queen of Judah: (Amon/Ben Ami was the son of the younger daughter.)

I Kings 14:21

מלכים א יד כא 

כא וּרְחַבְעָם בֶּן-שְׁלֹמֹה מָלַךְ בִּיהוּדָה ….וְשֵׁם אִמּוֹ נַעֲמָה הָעַמֹּנִית.

21 And Rehoboam the son of Solomon reigned in Judah…. and his mother’s name was Naamah the Amonite.

Q) So, how did the rabbis view the proactive approach and acts of the daughters of Lot?

Taking this one step farther:  Remember the prohibitions against allowing these nations to enter the community of the Israelites?  How does that sit with the rabbinic writings above?


Go to Next Class – Esau or Jacob?


Esau or Jacob?! – (Some) Villains of Tanakh

Esau – or Jacob?!

If you grew up on midrash-infused stories than you know that Esau is BAD.  But if you read the text, you may be less certain about Esau’s poor reputation.  We will take a look at this character that we love to hate, and at his twin brother as well.  Just how good is Jacob?

Part I: Birth to Young Adulthood (Gen. 25:21-34)

  1. How do you understand the pre-birth prophecy that Rebecca receives regarding her twins?
  2. Why is it significant that Esau and Jacob are twins? What is their birth order?  Of what significance is it?  What is unique about their birth and how does it echo through their lives?
  3. Esau’s appearance is stunning enough to warrant a description.  Why is their difference in appearance important?
  4. What is the profession of each of the twins?
  5. How do you understand the parental relations with these two boys/men?
  6. Vv.29-34:  A transaction takes place between Esau and Jacob.  What is traded, and what is your impression of each of the brothers?

Part II: The Blessing (Gen. 26:34-28:9) and Its Aftermath

At the heart of this story is a blessing.  What does a blessing mean?  a lot more than it does today.  A blessing (and a curse) carries real power; it is able to make wishes come true.

As you read through the narrative, pay attention to the descriptive titles that people bear.  Whose son are they at any given time, and when are they titled ‘brother’?
Q1) In your opinion, what blessing did Isaac intend to give Esau, and what did Rebecca expect the blessing to be?

Rebecca was willing to go through great personal risk to ensure that Jacob received the blessing.  (In v.13 she commits to receive any curse that is put on Jacob because he tricked his father.)  Why did Rebecca not confront Isaac, her husband, about her feelings rather than force Jacob to trick his father and cause Esau to hate him?
Q2)  Is Jacob’s refusal to do as his mother wishes a technical or a moral one? Which is more powerful and why?

Read carefully through Isaac’s words to Jacob-acting-as-Esau in vv.18-27.
Q3) Did Isaac know that the person in front of him was Jacob?!  Try to ground you answer in the text.

It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for garments: בגדים shares its root with the term for treason.  Clothing has a sinister ability to them.  (You can also contemplate the English use of turncoat.)

Q4) What is Esau’s reaction and how does Isaac respond?  How do you feel about it?

Q5)  What problem does Rebecca try to solve by sending Jacob away?

Q6)  How does Rebecca enlist Isaac’s cooperation in removing Jacob from the house?

Jacob receives a blessing from Isaac before leaving (28:3)  Compare it with the previous blessing that Isaac gave (27:27-30.)
Q7) What light, if any, does it shed on the question we opened with – what blessing was Esau supposed to get?

Q8)  The marriages: Who ‘directs’ the marriages? What is the significance of whom they marry?

Think about the trouble that Abraham went through to ensure a proper wife for his son, Isaac. (Genesis 24)  Marriage is an alliance.  Who does each son align himself with?

At this point of the story, who is the villain?

Closure: They Meet Again – Genesis 33:1-11

Read Genesis 32:4-33:17 to get the full picture.

Q9)  What does Jacob seem to feel as he approaches Canaan after an absence of at least 20 years?

What could be the cause of such feelings?  How much do past events play a part in his feelings?  How much does his absence (justified as it may have been) cause him to feel like a stranger compare to his brother?

Q10)  How does Esau behave when they finally meet? (Gen 33:4 etc) Does this fit with your expectations of Esau?  Was Jacob just paranoid?

If you continue reading to v.11, you will come across a good bit of irony.  What is Jacob asking Esau to take?


Part III – Rabbinic Material

Source 1.  Within the framework of understanding how Abraham’s life was shorter than Isaac’s, various rabbis bring a common approach to Esau:

Midrash Genesis Rabba 63

בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) פרשה סג 

ויבא עשו מן השדה וגו’ – ר’ פינחס [בשם ר’ לוי ורבנן] מש’ ר’ סימון: את מוצא אברהם חי קע”ה, יצחק חי ק”פ! אלא אותן חמש שנים שמנע הקב”ה מחייו שלאברהם מפני שבא עשו על נערה מאורסה והרג את הנפש. ההא דאמר “ויבא עשו מן השדה” שבא על נערה מאורסה שנאמר: “ואם בשדה ימצא האיש את הנערה המאורשה” וגו’ (דברים כב כה).

והוא עיף  – שהרג את הנפש, כמה דאת אמר עיפה נפשה להורגים (ירמיה ד לא). ר’ ברכיה ור’ זכיי רבה: אף גנב, כמה דאת אמר “אם גנבים באו לך” (עובדיה א ה).

אמר הקב”ה: כך הבטחתי את אברהם ואמרתי לו: “ואתה תבא אל אבותיך בשלום תקבר בשיבה טובה” (בראשית טו טו). זו היא שיבה טובה יהא רואה את בן בנו עובד עבודה זרה ומגלה עריות ושופך דמים?! מוטב לו שיפטר בשלום, שנאמר: “כי טוב חסדך מחיים” וגו’ (תהלים סג ד).

And Esau came from the field… – R. Pinhas in the names of R. Levi and The Rabbis from R. Simon:  Abraham lived 175 years, Isaac lived 180!  Rather, those 5 years that the Holy One Blessed Be He deprived from Abraham’s life [were] because of Easu who raped a betrothed girl and killed a person, as it says: “And Esau came from the field”, and it says (Deut. 22:25)  “If the man finds the betrothed girl in the field…[and forcibly holds her and lies with her…]”

And he was tired” – since he killed a soul, as it says “for my soul is tired from killers” (Jeremiah 4:31).  R. Berachia…: He also stole as it says: “If thieves came…” (Obadiah 1:5 – the book of Obadiah is about Edom, the nation that came from Esau.)

Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: I promised Abraham saying “You will come to your ancestors in peace, you will be buried in a good ripe age.” (Gen 15:15)  Would it be a good ripe age seeing his son’s son worshiping idols, committing adultery and spilling blood?!  It is better for him to pass away in peace.

S1Q)  According to this Midrash, what were Esau’s sins?  How do they get to that?

Pay attention to the great significance the sound of the language plays in connecting the verses to each other. (The similar words are in Italics.) The “proofs” are verses that share a word with the original verse in the story.

The quote from Obadiah is based on the content of that prophecy.  Notice that at the end 3 sins are listed: Idol worship, idolatry, and murder.  These are the “3 big ones” for which a Jew should allow himself to be killed rather than commit them.

Source 2.

 Midrash Genesis Rabba 65

2)  בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) פרשה סה 

טו) ותקח רבקה את בגדי עשו בנה הגדול החמודות אשר איתה בבית שבהן היה משמש את אביו. אמר רבן שמעון בן גמליאל כל ימי הייתי משמש את אבא ולא שימשתי אותו אחד ממאה ששימש עשו את אביו, שאני הייתי משמשו בבגדים מלוכלכין וכשהייתי יוצא [לשוק הייתי יוצא] בבגדים נקיים, אבל עשו בשעה שהיה משמש את אביו משמשו בבגדי מלכות, אמר אין כבודו שלאבא אלא בבגדי מלכות.

And Rebecca took the garments of Esau her elder son, the choicest ones that were with her in the house – the ones that he used when he served his father.  Rabban Shimon b. Gamilel said:  All my life I served my father, but I did not serve him even one hundredth of how Esau served his father.  For I would serve in soiled garments, and when I went out [in public] I would go out in clean garments.  But Esau, when he would serve his father did so in royal garments, saying ‘it is not proper honor for my father in anything less than royal garments.’

S2Q1)  Rabbinic sources see Esau’s honoring of his father as a powerful positive attribute of his. Did you see anything(s) in the Torah text that pointed in this direction?

S2Q2)  Why were the garments chosen by the Midrash as a proof of Esau’s great respect for his father?

Of course, there is plenty of irony here.  Jacob could not have tricked his father without Esau’s garments.  And, the whole story is possible since Isaac’s eyesight is failing.  None the less, Esau honors his father by wearing his finest robes…

S2Q3)  Why is honoring of one’s parent considered such a powerful positive behavior?

True, there is such a commandment, and we are told that if we keep it we will be rewarded (or perhaps we shall say the out come will be) with a long life on our land.  But what is it in the essence of such behavior that makes the rabbis put it on such a high level? (There is even a midrash that suggest that Jacob feared Esau’s merit when he returned after many years since Esau had been honoring their father, and Jacob had not.)

Source 3.

 Rashi Genesis 33:4

3)  רש”י בראשית פרק לג פסוק ד 

וישקהו – נקוד עליו, ויש חולקין בדבר הזה בברייתא דספרי (בהעלותך סט), יש שדרשו נקודה זו לומר שלא נשקו בכל לבו. אמר ר’ שמעון בן יוחאי הלכה היא בידוע שעשו שונא ליעקב, אלא שנכמרו רחמיו באותה שעה ונשקו בכל לבו:

And he kissed him – it is dotted over, and there is a debate about this in the Braita in Sifrei (Beha’alotcha 69.)  Some learned this dot to mean that he did not kiss him with all his heart.  Said R. Shimon b. Yochai:  It is a known thing that Esau hates Jacob, but at that moments his compassion overwhelmed him and he kissed him with all his heart.

*For the meaning of dots over words in the Torah, see the class about Lot’s daughters.

S3Q1)  Rashi is bringing, in a concise manner, the debate regarding the relationship of Esau and Jacob.  What seems to be his conclusion?

S3Q2)  Is R. Shimon b. Yochai speaking about 2 individuals named Esau and Jacob?

Already in biblical times 2 (rival) nations had grown out of these brothers.  In its heydays Israel oppressed Edom, while Edom helped out with Israel’s destruction.

Of Interest:  R. Shimon b. Yochai lived under the Roman rule in the land of Israel, and he was quite critical of the Romans.  (The Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 33b, brings the story of his outspoken criticism of the Roman government and the Roman building projects.  The Romans got wind of this and sought to kill him.)  It is important to realize that Jews in the land of Israel in that period did not enjoy freedom of speech.  To make it possible for them to speak out against the Roman decrees they had to name that nation a different name.  The Roman Empire (and eventually Christianity) became known as Edom.  When reading rabbinic material, one should read it on 2 levels: The Torah story about Jacob and Esau, and the national story of the historic conflict between Judaism and Rome/Christianity.  (As for Rashi, remember that he lived through the first Crusade.  He expresses his criticism of the Christian world very discreetly.)

Source 4. A Modern Reading:

4)  רש”ר הירש בר’ כה כזRabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch* Gen 25:27 

המושיב את יעקב ועשו על ספסל לימודים אחד, ובאותם הרגלי החיים מחנך אותם כאחד לחיי לימוד ומחשבה – מובטח לו שאת האחד מהם הוא מקלקל. יעקב ישאב ממעיין החכמה בחפץ גובר והולך, ואילו עשו רק יצפה ליום בו ישליך מאחורי גבו את הספרים הישנים, ויחד אתם תעודת חיים גדולה, שהכיר אותה רק באופן חד-צדדי, ובדרך שמעצם טבעו הוא סולד בה. אילו העמיקו יצחק ורבקה לחדור לנפש עשו, אילו הקדימו לשאול את עצמם, היאך יכולים גם האומץ, הכוח והגמישות הרדומים בנפש עשו – היאך יכולים כל אלה להטות שכם לעבודת ה’, כי אז ‘הגיבור’ שלעתיד לא היה הופך ל’גיבור ציד’, אלא ל’גיבור לפני השם’ באמת.

He who puts Jacob and Esau on the same school bench and educates them as one in the same habits to a life of learning and thought – is guaranteed that he is ruining one of them.  Jacob will draw from the spring of wisdom with an ever increasing desire; but Esau will just wait for the day when he will throw the old books behind him and with them a great life that he only knew in a one-dimensional manner and that by his nature he despises.  If Isaac and Rebecca had looked deeper into Esau’s soul, if they had asked themselves early on how could the courage, the strength and the agility that are latent in Esau’s soul – how could all these be shouldered to the worship of the Lord, for then the ‘hero’ of future would not have turned into a ‘mighty hunter’ but a real ‘mighty one before the Lord.’

*Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888) was among the most influential leaders of modern Orthodoxy.

S4Q)  How does his commentary differ from the rabbinic midrash written about a millennium and a half earlier?

View the summary lesson here:

Go to Next Class – Potifar’s Wife

Delilah (Judges 16) – (Some) Villains of Tanakh

Delilah (Judges 16)

She is one of several women in the story of Samson, but she is the only one with a name.  She was a Philistine woman and he was an Israelite who loved her at a time when the Israelites living by the border (the tribe of Dan) felt squeezed by the Philistines on one side and the mountain people from Judah on the other.  Let’s meet Delilah.

View an introductory video here:

Background:  Judges 13:1-16:3

  1. It is important to realize that unlike other judges, Samson’s birth is a miraculous one.  How does it compare to other miraculous births that you know about in Tanakh? 
    • Think of Isaac (Sarah), Esau and Jacob (Rebecca), Samuel (Hannah).
  2. What role do women play in the life of Samson?  Who are these women?
    • Notice the different roles that the women have:  A wife (and a substitute wife) and a harlot. How are these relationships perceived by his family and people?  Why?

Part I: Text and Content (Judges 16:4-21)

  1. We know how Samson feels about Delilah.  What are her feelings?
    • It is rare that a woman’s feelings towards a man are described. (I can think only of Michal, Saul’s daughter, who loved David. I Sam 18:20) Jacob loved Rachel, but what did she feel? (We will discuss the term vaye’ehav – ‘he loved’ in the video.)
  2. What motivates Delilah to undo Samson’s power?
  3. Why did Samson not leave Delilah after repeated attempts to deplete his power?
    • Delilah does not even attempt to conceal her actions.  She uses the information against him time and again, but Samson does not leave her.  Why?
  4. Compare the first 3 times that Delilah asks Samson to tell her what the secret of his power is, with the fourth time.  Why does she succeed on her fourth attempt?
    • Pay attention to the passage of time and to the quality of the arguments.  What had she succeeded in doing in the fourth attempt?
  5. Now pay attention to the method that she uses to deliver him to the Philistine.  How does it differ?
    • Why did she choose a different method?  What is she doing now that she did not do before?
  6. Verse 16:22 is full of anticipation.  What is the significance of the re-growing of Samson’s hair?
    • Is it only physical?  What mental cycles had Samson gone through in this story?
  7. What motivates Samson in the closing of the story (perhaps the part most remembered)?
  8. As the story closes, what is Samson’s relationship with God and with his people?
    • To fully answer this, think of all the chapters of the story.  What role did God play in his life?  What was his relationship with his immediate family?  How did he get along with other Israelites?

Part II: The “Three and Four” Structure

The unit of 16:4-21 is very structured.  It contains a frame at the opening and closing, and a middle that works in the so called “three and the fourth.”  (Based on the first chapter of Amos)  In this structure something occurs 3 times, forming an expected pattern, only to be broken in the fourth and crucial occurrence. Our focus is then shifted to the fourth time.

Now to our story: 

The Frame:

Vv.4-5 are inversely related to vv.20-21.  The outer sentences (4, 22) relates to time and to Samson’s inner world. The inner ones (5, 21) tell of the Philistine plot and its successful conclusion.

4 And it came to pass afterward, that he loved a woman in the valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah.

5 And the lords of the Philistines came up to her, and said to her: ‘Entice him, and see wherein his great strength lies, and by what means we may prevail against him, that we may bind him to afflict him; and we will give you every one of us one thousand one hundred pieces of silver.’

21 And the Philistines laid hold on him, and put out his eyes; and they brought him down to Gaza, and bound him with fetters of brass; and he did grind in the prison-house.

22 And the hair of his head began to grow again after he was shaven. {P}

And what about the middle?

Now I want you to work.  The text is divided along the 4 attempts.  (Of course, if you would like to try it in Hebrew it would be great!)

  1. How similar are they?  Pay close attention to the small differences as well.
  2. Please think of how this story might have been shared among people and how that is reflected in its rhythm.
  3. Pay attention to the pattern of “three and the fourth.”

On a personal note:  I usually keep a box of colored pencils on hand to mark the repeating phrases (and note the omissions!)  If you are doing it on the computer, you can avail yourselves of the colors and high-light options.  Of course, you can also set up the text better (not only in big paragraphs.)

6 And Delilah said to Samson: ‘Tell me please, wherein your great strength lies, and how you might be bound to afflict you.’ 7 And Samson said to her: ‘If they bind me with seven fresh bowstrings that were never dried, then shall I become ill, and be as any other man.’ 8 Then the lords of the Philistines brought up to her seven fresh bowstrings which had not been dried, and she bound him with them. 9 The liers-in-wait were in the room for her. And she said to him: ‘Philistines upon you, Samson!’ And he broke the bowstrings as a string of tow is broken when it touches the fire. So his strength was not known.

10 And Delilah said to Samson: ‘Behold, you have mocked me, and told me lies; now tell me please, how you might be bound?’ 11 And he said to her: ‘If they bind-certainly bind me with new ropes with which no work has been done, then shall I become ill, and be as any other man.’ 12 So Delilah took new ropes, and bound him with them, and said to him: ‘Philistines upon you, Samson!’ And the liers-in-wait were in the room. And he broke them from off his arms like a thread.

13 And Delilah said to Samson: ‘Until here you have mocked me, and told me lies; tell me how you might be bound?’ And he said to her: ‘If you weave the seven locks of my head with the web.’ 14 And she fastened it with the pin, and said to him: ‘Philistines upon you, Samson!’ And he awoke out of his sleep, and plucked away the pin of the beam, and the web.

15 And she said to him: ‘how can you say: I love you, when your heart is not with me? You have mocked me these three times, and have not told me wherein your great strength lies.’ 16 And it came to pass, when she pressed him daily with her words, and urged him, that his soul was vexed to death. 17 And he told her all his heart, and said to her: ‘There has not come a razor upon my head; for I am a Nazirite to God from my mother’s womb; if I be shaven, then my strength will go from me, and I shall become ill, and be like any other man.’ 18 And when Delilah saw that he had told her all his heart, she sent and called for the lords of the Philistines, saying: ‘Come up this once, for he has told me all his heart.’ Then the lords of the Philistines came up to her, and brought the money in their hand. 19 And she made him sleep upon her knees; and she called for the man, and shaved off the seven locks of his head; and she began to afflict him, and his strength went from him. 20 And she said: ‘Philistines upon you, Samson!’ And he awoke from his sleep, and said: ‘I will go out as at other times, and shake myself.’ But he knew not that the LORD was departed from him.

Part III: Rabbinic Texts

The following piece of Midrash is concerned with the meaning of the name of Delilah.  Interpreting the name to get a deeper sense of the character’s personality is known as Midrash Shem (exegesis of a name.)  This is a literary device widely used in Tanakh since names in Hebrew have meanings.  It is fairly lose – it does not need to be grammatically correct, and is often based on sound. For example:  Jacob (Ya’akov) is named so after holding on to his brother’s heel (‘akev).

 Midrash Numbers Rabba 9

במדבר רבה (וילנא) פרשה ט

“ושמה דלילה” – רבי אומר: אלמלא לא נקרא שמה דלילה, היתה ראויה שתקרא כן. דלדלה את כחו, דלדלה את מעשיו, דלדלה את לבו.

“And her name was Delilah” – Rabi says: If her name was not Delilah, she was deserving to be named so; for she weakened (dildelah) his strength, she weakened (dildelah) his deeds, weakened (dildelah) his heart.

Q)  How does Rabi (presumably R. Judah the Nasi who compiled the Mishna around 200 CE) see the character of Delilah?

His analysis is not based on grammar, as he freely added another letter to explain the name.

Q)  Note the format of his explanation:  He repeats it 3 times…  What do you think that he means by ‘his strength,’ ‘his deeds,’ ‘his heart’?

Q)  The second part of the Midrash deals with Delilah’s confidence of her success in the fourth occurance.  What are the 2 suggestions as to how she would have known that Samson told her the truth this time?

Q)  Going back to Joseph:  How come Potifar came to trust him?  Rashi suggests that the name of God was common-place in his mouth – all his actions were guided by awareness of God.  What similar thing do you see here?

Midrash Numbers Rabba 9

במדבר רבה (וילנא) פרשה ט

כתיב (שופטים טז יח) “ותרא דלילה כי הגיד לה את כל לבו” וגו’. מנא ידעה? אמר רבי חנן: ניכרין דברי אמת.  נחמני אמר: ידעה ביה באותו צדיק דלא מפיק שם שמים לבטלה. כיון דאמר לה “נזיר אלהים אני”, אמרה: השתא ודאי קושטא קא אמר!

It is written (Jud 16:18) “Delilah saw that he had told her all his heart.”  How did she know? R. Hanan said:  honest words are recognizable (as such).  Nahmani said:  She knew that that righteous person would not utter the name of Heavens in vain.  Since he told her “I am a Nazirite to God” she said ‘now he is surely telling the truth!’

Q)  “Seeing” is an interesting expression.  How is the word understood here?

The word carries multiple meanings in English as well.  What do we mean when we say “I see what you mean?”

Q)  According to Nahmani, what was the key word that gave Delilah the confidence to call back the lords of the Philistines despite the 3 previous failures?

Q)  Which of the 2 explanations seems more plausible to you?  What is the strong point of each explanation?

What is a Nazirite?

Samson explains that he is a Nazirite from (pre)birth.  The laws of the Nazirite are found in Numbers 6:1-21.  Over time different categories of Nazirites seem to have developed.  Samson became a proto type.

Mishna Tractate Nazir 1:2 

משנה מסכת נזיר פרק א משנה ב

“הריני נזיר מן החרצנים ומן הזגים ומן התגלחת ומן הטומאה” הרי זה נזיר, וכל דקדוקי נזירות עליו.

“הריני כשמשון, כבן מנוח, כבעל דלילה, כמי שעקר דלתות עזה, כמי שנקרו פלשתים את עיניו” הרי זה נזיר שמשון. מה בין ‘נזיר עולם’ ל’נזיר שמשון’? נזיר עולם: הכביד שערו – מיקל בתער, ומביא שלש בהמות, ואם נטמא מביא קרבן טומאה. נזיר שמשון: הכביד שערו – אינו מיקל, ואם נטמא אינו מביא קרבן טומאה:

[He who says] “I am “naziring” (removing myself from) the pits and the peels and hair cutting and impurity” – he is a Nazirite and all the details of Naziritism apply to him. “I am as Samson the son of Manoah (Samson’s father), as the husband of Delilah, as the one who uprooted the gates of Aza, as the one whom the Philistines put his eyes out” he is a Samsonite Nazirite.   What is the difference between the Eternal Nazirite and the Samsonite Nazirite? An eternal Nazirite, if his hair becomes heavy, he may lighten it with a razor, and he brings 3 animals as a sacrifice, and if he becomes impure he brings a sacrifice for impurity.  A Samsonite Nazirite, even if his hair is heavy he does not lighten it, and if he becomes impure he does not bring a sacrifice for impurity.

Q)  What in Samson’s story taught them that they can become impure?  (Look at chapter 15)

Q)  How many titles can Samson be called by?

This is relevant since this is a legal text.  If a person took a vow to be a Nazirite like “the son of Manoah” or any other title, is this still accepted as a vow to be a Samsonite Nazirite?

Q)  He was married several times, why, out of all the women in his life, is he known as Delilah’s husband?

Maybe this tells us something of how the rabbis saw the relationship.  Or perhaps they are trying to deal with one of our questions above:  Why did he not leave her after her repeated attempts to harm him?  (Whether or not the relationship was officially marriage is irrelevant, if Samson understood it as marriage.)

View the summary video here:

Go to Next Class – Ba’alat Ha’ov – The Witch of Ein Dor

Datan and Aviram – (Some) Villains of Tanakh

Datan and Aviram

Datan and Aviram (Dathan and Abiram) always appear as a pair, we have no knowledge about them as individuals.  In Part I we will study the story in which they appear, in Part II we will look at other biblical material that responds to their story, and in Part III we will examine some rabbinic commentaries on them.

View an introductory video here:

Part I:  Numbers 16:1-35.

Korach is a major player here, but we will not focus on him.  He seems to have had his personal reasons for causing a rebellion against Moshe and Aaron, and altruism had nothing to do with it.

  1. What was the complaint of this rebellious group? (V.3)
  2. How do we know that the request is not a genuine desire to move closer to God?
    • Notice the ridiculous nature of their argument:  They claim that all are קדושים (Kedoshim = sanctified.)  A sanctified thing is a thing/person set aside for a specific purpose. If an entire crowd is sanctified, the uniqueness is lost.
  3. The group is described as approaching: “They assembled on  (ויקהלו על)Moshe and Aaron.” What does the expression mean? (It appears again in v.19)
  4. Why do you think that Moshe sent to call Datan and Aviram? (v.12)
    • And what does it say about Moshe as a leader and a person?
  5. What do Datan and Aviram answer?
    • The boundaries of their response are clearly marked by a repeating phrase that says it all.  Pay attention to the linguistic details here.    In the body of the message there is a play on the Land of Milk and Honey.  Which land is that?  What seems to be at the center of their response?
  6. What is Moshe’s reaction?  Is it justified?  What did God think?
    • What in Datan’s and Aviram’s case might have set off Moshe? (Remember that in chapter 12 Moshe did not open his mouth when his siblings bad mouthed him, and God had to take up the case.)
  7. What does God plan to do as a reaction to the situation? (2 phases)
    • Notice that just like in other cases, God is willing to give a sweeping punishment, and Moshe objects.  Is it possible that more people (not only Datan, Aviram and Korach) deserved to die?  In other words, is it possible that such people thrive without some communal backing?

The punishment of Datan and Aviram also functions as the proof that God appointed Moshe.  The conflict moves from one between people to a conflict with God.

Part II: Other Biblical Sources

Datan and Aviram are mentioned (by name) twice outside of the story in Numbers.  How are they viewed?

Deuteronomy 11

דברים יא  

ג וְאֶת-אֹתֹתָיו וְאֶת-מַעֲשָׂיו אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה בְּתוֹךְ מִצְרָיִם לְפַרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ-מִצְרַיִם וּלְכָל-אַרְצוֹ.  ד וַאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְחֵיל מִצְרַיִם לְסוּסָיו וּלְרִכְבּוֹ אֲשֶׁר הֵצִיף אֶת-מֵי יַם-סוּף עַל-פְּנֵיהֶם בְּרָדְפָם אַחֲרֵיכֶם וַיְאַבְּדֵם ה’ עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה. ה וַאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לָכֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר עַד-בֹּאֲכֶם עַד-הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה.  ו וַאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְדָתָן וְלַאֲבִירָם בְּנֵי אֱלִיאָב בֶּן-רְאוּבֵן אֲשֶׁר פָּצְתָה הָאָרֶץ אֶת-פִּיהָ וַתִּבְלָעֵם וְאֶת-בָּתֵּיהֶם וְאֶת-אָהֳלֵיהֶם וְאֵת כָּל-הַיְקוּם אֲשֶׁר בְּרַגְלֵיהֶם בְּקֶרֶב כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל.  ז כִּי עֵינֵיכֶם הָרֹאֹת אֶת-כָּל-מַעֲשֵׂה ה’ הַגָּדֹל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה.  ח וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת-כָּל-הַמִּצְוָה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לְמַעַן תֶּחֶזְקוּ וּבָאתֶם וִירִשְׁתֶּם אֶתהָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.  ט וּלְמַעַן תַּאֲרִיכוּ יָמִים עַל-הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע הלַאֲבֹתֵיכֶם לָתֵת לָהֶם וּלְזַרְעָם אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ.

3 His signs, and His works, which He did in the midst of Egypt to Pharaoh the king of Egypt, and to all his land; 4 and what He did to the army of Egypt, to their horses, and to their chariots; how He made the water of the Red Sea to overflow them as they pursued after you, and how the LORD has destroyed them until this day;

5 And what He did to you in the wilderness, until you came to this place; 6 And what He did to Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav, the son of Reuben; how the land opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their households, and their tents, and every living substance that followed them, in the midst of all Israel; 7 indeed, your eyes have seen all the great work of the LORD which He did.

8 Therefore you shall keep all the commandment which I command you today, so you may be strong, and go in and possess the land, which you are going over to posses; 9 and so that your days will be prolonged upon the earth which the LORD swore to your fathers to give to them and to their seed, a land flowing with milk and honey.


 Psalms 106  

תהילים קו

טז   וַיְקַנְאוּ לְמֹשֶׁה בַּמַּחֲנֶה    לְאַהֲרֹן קְדוֹשׁ ה’.

יז   תִּפְתַּח-אֶרֶץ וַתִּבְלַע דָּתָן    וַתְּכַס עַל-עֲדַת אֲבִירָם.

יח   וַתִּבְעַר-אֵשׁ בַּעֲדָתָם    לֶהָבָה תְּלַהֵט רְשָׁעִים….

כא   שָׁכְחוּ אֵל מוֹשִׁיעָם   עֹשֶׂה גְדֹלוֹת בְּמִצְרָיִם.

כב   נִפְלָאוֹת בְּאֶרֶץ חָם    נוֹרָאוֹת עַל-יַם-סוּף.


16 They were jealous of Moses in the camp,

and of Aaron the holy one of the LORD.
17 Earth opened and swallowed up Dathan,

and covered the company of Abiram.
18 And a fire was kindled in their company;

the flame burned up the wicked….

21 They forgot God their savior,

who had done great things in Egypt;
Wondrous works in the land of Ham,

awe-full things by the Red Sea.

1)  What is the general context in which they are mentioned?

Both settings are historic recaps of Israelite history.  But a recap is brief, so it is interesting to see which details the narrator chose to include in his limited space.  Which events were deemed important enough by both Deuteronomy (Moshe’s parting speech) and the Psalmist to be included?

2)  Does the speaker seem to be familiar with the Numbers version?

A story can appear in different places, sometimes with very similare details, sometimes with real differences. In addition to the details, pay attention to the language that is used:  Is it reminiscent of that which is found in the version in Numbers that you studied earlier?

3)  Notice that Egypt is mentioned in both sourced.  What might it tell us about Datan and Aviram?

This is somewhat connected to the first question.  In what setting does their name come up?  Why might it be significant that they are associated with Egypt?  Look at their response to Moshe – their version of what has happened since the Exodus until that point.  Were they alone in their “pro-Egyptian” sentiments?  After the spies came back with a subtly negative report about the land, the people suggest appointing a leader and returning to Egypt… (Numbers 14:2-4) What could we learn about some of the winds that might have been blowing among the Israelites during the years in the desert (and even be before being forced to leave?)

Part III – Rabbinic Sources

Perhaps due to the scant (but troubling) material about Datan and Aviram in the Torah, rabbis and commentators have augmented our understanding of these people with links to other narratives.  Here is a sampling:

The following comments appear in Rashi (10th century) and in Exodus Rabba (a medieval midrash) regarding Exodus 2:13-14:  Moshe intervenes when he sees two quarreling Israelites. One of them turns on him saying: “Who made you prince and judge over us?  Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”

Rashi Exodus 2:13

רש”י שמות פרק ב פסוק יג  

(יג) שני אנשים עברים – דתן ואבירם. הם שהותירו מן המן:

Two Hebrew men – Datan and Aviram.  They are the ones who left over of the Manna.

Midrash Shemot Rabba

שמות רבה (וילנא) פרשה א ד”ה וירא כי     

ויצא ביום השני והנה שני אנשים עברים נצים –  זה דתן ואבירם. קראם “נצים” על שם סופם. הם הם שאמרו דבר זה, הם היו שהותירו מן המן, הם היו שאמרו (במדבר יד ד) “נתנה ראש ונשובה מצרימה”, הם שהמרו על ים סוף.

And he went out on the next day and here: two Hebrew men scuffling – Those are Datan and Aviram. He called them “quarreling” because of what will become of them:  They are the ones who said this, they are the ones who left over of the Manna, they are the ones who said (Num. 14:4) Let us give head and return to Egypt,” they are the ones who rebelled at the Reed Sea.

Q)  Why did Rashi bring a shorter list than the midrash brought?

Rashi is very sensitive to the Hebrew text.  He fully expects you to check his sources and see the philological link. To check his source on the Manna, read Exodus 16:20.  Do you see any language incommon? The sourced for the additional 2 stories that the midrash brought: The reference to the spies’ episode, in which the Israelites did not wish to enter the land, is found in Numbers 14:2-4. The reference given for the Reed Sea (based on the language) is taken from Psalms 106:7.

The video at the end of this class works through this question.

Q)  Philology might provide a link, but why do you think that both Rashi and the midrash attributed all these incidents by nameless people to Datan and Aviram?

Midrash Tanhuma Korach III

מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) פרשת קרח סימן ג 

 אמר משה: הואיל ולא רצו לבא, אני אלך אצלם, אולי יתביישו ויחזרו בהם, שנאמר ויקם משה וילך אל דתן ואבירם. (במד’ טז כה) כשראו אותו התחילו לחרף ולגדף שנאמר ודתן ואבירם יצאו נצבים (שם כז). וכי יושבין או כורעין או נופלין יוצאין בני אדם?! אלא מלמד שיצאו כשהן מחרפין ומגדפין, שנאמר כאן יציאה והצבה ונאמר בגלית הפלשתי יציאה והצבה, שנאמר (שמואל א’ יז ד,טז) “ויצא איש הבינים… ויגש הפלשתי השכם והערב ויתיצב” מה יציאה והצבה התם בחרופין ובגידופין, אף כאן בחרופין ובגדופין.

Moshe said:  Since they did not to come, I will go to them; perhaps they will be ashamed and repent, as it says: “And Moshe arose and went to Datan and Aviram.” (Num. 16:25)  When they saw him they began to shame and curse [him] as it says “and Datan and Aviram came-out stationing [themselves]” (Num.16:27).  Do people come out sitting or kneeling or falling?! Rather it teaches that they came out shaming and cursing, as it says here ‘coming-out’ and ‘stationing’ and with Goliath the Philistine it says ‘coming-out’ and ‘stationing’ as it says “and the champion came-out…and the Philistine stepped forward morn and eve and stationed [himself]” (I Samuel 17:4,16.)  There he was shaming and cursing, so here it is shaming and cursing.

Q)  How does the Midrash understand Moshe in this episode?

Moshe’s second (attempted) contact with Datan and Aviram seem unclear. But the idea that is put forth by the midrash appears also in the Talmud Bavli in the name of Reish Lakish: “From here we learn that we are not to hold onto a dispute.” (Sanhedrin 110a)

Q)  What did this midrash accomplish by using philology?

What we might have sensed but not found in our text in Numbers, becomes clearer when compared with another character in a story in which similar language is used.

Q)  Finally, by linking these 2 stories, this midrash might answer why God got involved.  Why do you think He did?

Something to think about when we put it all together:

Reading the story of the Exodus from the beginning, one realizes that while the event was miraculous, not all the Israelites were grateful for it. Moshe was criticized by the Israelites from early on, while still in Egypt. (He anticipated this already when told about his mission. He had some experience with the Israelites in Egypt.)  The Israelites finally left because they were forced out by the Egyptians, not because they broke free.

Who were those ‘nay-sayers’?  When and why did they start? Did this “pro-Egypt” party last as a subversive force among the people?  Who were their leaders?

Go to Next Class – Delilah

Ba’alat Ha’ov (the Witch) of Ein Dor – (Some) Villains of Tanakh

The Ba’alat Ov of Ein Dor

Part I – Text:  I Sam 28:3-25


Saul is forced into war against the Philistines in the region of the Gilboa Mountains.  He and his army seem to be stationed at the lower level of the mountains facing the Jezre’el Valley.  The Philistines are stationed in Shunem (current day village of Sulem, near the town of Afula) in the valley, across from the Gilboa Mountains.  Ein Dor is located in the valley.

“Ba’alat ov:” There are several translations for this biblical term: a medium, a familiar spirit, a ghost, a witch.  What seems clear is that this woman communicates with the spirit of the dead in some manner that allows her to see the dead person, but the person that sought her services is only able to hear.  It is not obvious that she was able to hear the spirit she raised.

  1. Pay attention to the opening verse (3.)  It is full of information that is significant to understanding the events that follow.
  2. Many different ways are listed as means of receiving a response from God.  What does it tell us about the Tanakh’s approach to the human desire to know the future?
    • We may view it negatively, but various forms of divination seem perfectly acceptable at this point in history.  However, some forms are strictly forbidden by the Torah.
  3. Why does Saul disguise himself?
    • Is it due to shame, fear of his own people, fear of the reaction of ba’alat haov, fear of the enemy?
  4. What is the significance of the event taking place at night?
  5. Why does the narrator tell us that the woman accuses the man (whose identity she does not know) of trying to have her killed, as Saul has killed off the ovot?
    • Sometimes a narrator gives confirmation of an event by telling it twice; once the narrator speaks, and once it comes out of the mouth of a character.  It helps us believe that the event happened as told.
  6. How did the woman come to know that the unidentified visitor was Saul?
    • Her response recalls episodes in Genesis:  The great cry of Esau that has been tricked (Gen 27:34,) and the accusation of Jacob who was tricked by Laban (Gen 29:25.)  This may seem insignificant, but as the story proceeds we will be pointed to Genesis again.
  7. Where is Samuel located?
    • This might sound like a funny question, but in biblical times all dead people were understood as going to Sheol, the nether world.  Pay attention to the verbs that indicate this.
  8. Samuel’s answer is what Saul has already said himself (“God has left me”).  If Saul knew this, why did he go the ba’alat ov?
  9. Why does Saul collapse upon hearing Samuel’s words?
    • It is not only the shock of the message (which was cruelly blunt.)  There is a physical reason for this.  How can you explain that Saul allowed himself to get to this point? (If you are familiar with the rest of stories about Saul, try to think of any incidents that might shed light on this.)
  10. In vv.21-22 the woman creates an interesting bargain:  Because she risked her life and adhered to his request, Saul now has to do as she requests.  This seems even, until you look at the details in the text.  How does what Saul asked from her compare with her request from Saul?
  11. What other biblical character does her behavior remind you of?  What is the narrator telling us?
    • As we have seen, narrators were familiar with other stories and sometimes use them to add depth to their own story.

Part II – The Torah Sources of the Prohibition

 Leviticus 19:31

ויקרא פרק יט לא

אל תפנו אל האבת ואל הידענים, אל תבקשו לטמאה בהם, אני ה’ אלהיכם:

Do not turn your face to mediums (ovot) or favorable spirits to seek to become impure by them. I am the LORD your God.

Leviticus 20:6  

ויקרא פרק כ ו

והנפש אשר תפנה אל האבת ואל הידענים לזנת אחריהם, ונתתי את פני בנפש ההוא והכרתי אתו מקרב עמו:

And the person that will turn his face to the medium (ovot) and the favorable spirits to whore after them, and I shall direct my face at that person and I will cut him off from among his people.

  Leviticus 20:27

ויקרא פרק כ כז

ואיש או אשה כי יהיה בהם אוב או ידעני, מות יומתו – באבן ירגמו אתם, דמיהם בם:

And a man or a woman if they shall have in them a medium (ov) or a favorable spirit, they shall certainly be put to death – with stones they shall be pelted, their blood-guilt is upon them.

Deuteronomy 18:9-11

דברים פרק יח ט-יא 

(ט) כי אתה בא אל הארץ אשר ה’ אלהיך נתן לך, לא תלמד לעשות כתועבת הגוים ההם: (י) לא ימצא בך מעביר בנו ובתו באש, קסם קסמים מעונן ומנחש ומכשף: (יא) וחבר חבר ושאל אוב וידעני ודרש אל המתים:

(9)When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to do as the abominations of those nations.  (10)There shall not be found among you one passing his son or daughter through fire, an augurer of augury, a hidden sorcerer, a diviner, or an enchanter, (11)or a tier of (magical) tying-knots, a seeker of ghosts (sho’el ov) or favorable spirits, or an inquirer of the dead.

(Some of the above translations are based of Everett Fox’s translation of the Torah.)

1)  How is the practice the ov viewed?

Notice the company it keeps, and the issue of impurity that is mentioned as resulting from such consultation. (Impurity has nothing to do with physical cleanliness.)  The choice of punishments is also interesting as it has 2; one that seems Heaven-given and one that is carried out by the community.

2)  Why does it seem to be prohibited?

And what is prohibited? Who is to receive which punishment?

3)  What was the basis for Saul’s killing of all the Ovot?

There is clearly a death penalty involved, but does it require the “law” (king, in our case) to actively pursue the issue, or is it only in cases that it is brought to the attention of the court? Pay attention to the word for Saul’s killings used by baalat haov in our story, and the terminology used in the Torah.  Did you understand the term (and its context) in the same manner that Saul seems to have understood it?

Part III – Rabbinic Material

 Leviticus Rabba 26:7 

ויקרא רבה (וילנא) פרשה כו ז

וישבע לה שאול בה’ – למה שאול דומה באותה שעה? אמר ר’ לוי: משל לאשה שהיתה אצל אוהבה, ונשבעת בחיי בעלה. כך שאול שואל באוב וידעוני, ואומר: “חי ה’ אם יקרך עון בדבר הזה!” (שמ”א כח י)

And Saul swore to her by the LORD – what was Saul like at that time? Said R. Levi:  An allegory: A woman, while with lover, takes an oath by her husband’s life.  So Saul is inquiring of the Ov and the familiar spirit and swears “by the LORD, if any sin will befall you for this matter!”

Indeed, if we stop to think about it, Saul’s behavior is less than logical, but it is very human.  What does this Midrash high-light about Saul in that situation?

We are not well trained at oath taking, so let us just remember that one takes an oath by something that is very dear to us, that being functioning as collateral.  Breaking the oath would harm that being, or cause great harm to the oath-taker.

Deuteronomy Rabba Parashat Va’etchanan

דברים רבה (ליברמן) פרשת ואתחנן 

כל מי שהוא בוטח במה שאומרים לו נביאים, כמי שהוא נוטל חרב ודוקרה לתוך מעיו.

ממי אנו למדין? משאול, שבטח בדברי שמואל. בשעה שהלך שאול ושאל באשת בעלת אוב, והעלת לו שמואל, ואמר לו שמואל כל אותן הדברים. וכיון שאמר לו שמואל “אתה ובניך עמי” (שמואל א’ כ”ח י”ט), בטח שאול על דבריו ונתייאש מן התפלה.

אמר:  הואיל ואמר לי שמואל שאני מת, מה אני מועיל מתפלל?! ישב לו מן התפלה, ונדקר בחרב, שנאמר: “ויאמר שאול לנושא כליו” (שמואל א’ ל”א ד’) וגו’, ומה עשה? נטל החרב ודקרה במעיו.

מי גרם לו? על שבטח בדברי שמואל. שאילו היה מתפלל לפני הקב”ה, היה מבטל ממנו את הגזרה.

Anyone who trusts what prophets tell him is like a person who takes a sword and stabs it into his guts.

From whom did we learn? From Saul, who trusted the words of Samuel.  At the time that Saul went and inquired in the baalat ov woman and she raised Samuel for him, and Samuel told him all those words.  And since Samuel said to him “you and your sons ]will be] with me” (I Sam 28:19) Saul trusted his words and despaired from praying.

He said:  Since Samuel told me that I am going to die, what good is my prayer going to do?  He sat [down] from praying, and was stabbed by a sword, as it says: “And Saul said to his arms bearer…” (I Sam 31:4)  What did he do?  He took the sword and stabbed it in his guts.

What caused him [to do this]? He trusted the words of Samuel.  For if he would have prayed before the Holy One Blessed Be He, He would have canceled the decree.

A general suggestion:  Several verses are partially quoted here.  It is a common practice by Midrash to quote only part of the verse, expecting the reader to know the rest. (This was the best that they could do as the rabbis had no easy reference system.  The current chapter-and-verse system was still centuries away.) The part quoted is not necessarily the relevant part, or at least not all the relevant parts.  Look up the full verses.

1)  It seems to be a strange statement – anyone who trusts what prophets tell him is as one who takes a sword and stabs his guts.  What approach to prophecy do we find here?  Does this apply to all prophecy?

Keep in mind that there are many prophecies of doom in Tanakh.  Do they have to come true?  What is their purpose?

2)  This midrash fleshes out the state of mind that Saul was in over the last hours of his life.  Does it seem consistent with the text?  Is it consistent with life?

Midrash is often set in a particular narrative, but its message is universal and human.  If you can scrape off the story layer, you arrive at serious comments about human psyche and behavior.  The midrash that might not be historically true (although some could be) could be humanly true.

View the summary video here:


Go to Next Class – Jezebel

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