• yehoshua steinberg

Acharei Mot: Mixed Up and Worn out ~ Yehoshua Steinberg


The word “tevel”(תבל) appears once in Parashat Acharei Mot and once in Parshat Kedoshim, and nowhere else in the Pentateuch. In both instances, Rashi offers two similar —but not identical— explanations. The word תבלfirst appears in connection to bestiality (Lev. 18:23), and Rashi explains that it is an expression of “’kadesh’(קדש, prostitution1), ‘arayot’ (עריות, incest) and ‘niuf’ (ניאוף, adultery)”. He supports this by citing Isaiah 10:25, in which God warns the Assyrians: “My fury and My anger will destroy them for their blasphemy (תבליתם).” Alternatively, Rashi writes that תבלis an expression of mixture and combination because bestiality mixes the seed of man and animal. The second time that the word תבלappears is in regarding the sin of fornicating with one’s daughter-in-law (Lev. 20:12). In that context, Rashi first explains that the worldתבל means “gnai”(גנאי, disgrace), before again explaining that it refers to a mixture (this time, of the seed of a father and son).2

Most interpreters of Rashi explain that when he writes that תבלis an expression of mixing, he means that the root of the word תבלisבלל.3Some explain that the root of תבלis בלה(wearing out).4By contrast, in Rashi’s other explanation (that תבלmeans something related to sexual misconduct), he does not convey his opinion as to the root of the word תבל. In this explanation, the consensus5is that Rashi understood the letter תto be part of the root, making ‘תבל‘ the root itself. We will examine the differences between Rashi’s two approaches concerning the rare word תבלand the reason why the second time תבלappears, Rashi dropped his tripartite definition of “kadesh,” “arayot” and “niuf”in favor of simply writing “gnai.”

As is well-known, Rashi’s opinion concerning the roots of words in Hebrew is, in great measure, based on the work of Menachem ibn Saruk, whom Rashi cites hundreds of times throughout his commentaries to the Bible and Talmud. According to Menachem, the root of תבלis the biliteral בל. Menachem further divided the root בלinto eleven distinct subcategories, and places the word תבלin the sixth category. In said category, Menachem lists the following verses:

Do not lie with any animal to be defiled through it, and a woman shall not stand in front of an animal for mating—it is a תבל”(Lev. 18:23).

My fury and My anger will destroy them for תַּבְלִיתָם(Isa. 10:25).

And I said [about she who] has become לַבָּלָהthrough her adulteries…” (Ezek. 23:43).

Ephraim will יתבוללwith the nations” (Hos. 7:8).

The commonality between all these passages is that in each, the root בלrefers to something related to prostitution, adultery, and/or incest. Menachem clarifies that even the appearance ofבלin the context of Ephraim assimilating into the nations refers not to merely “mixing” in with them, but to their imitation of the pagan aberrations of incest and adultery.

That said, we can now better understand the background to Rashi’s first approach. In Lev. 20:12, which is the first passage Menachem cites, Rashi defines תבלas related to “sexual impropriety” and refers to Isa. 10:25, the second passage cited by Menachem. Similarly, in his commentary to Isa. 10:25, Rashi cites Lev. 20:12.

In contradistinction, Rashi to Ezek. 23:43 (“לַבָּלָה) explicitly disagrees with Menachem and instead of explaining לַבָּלָהas related to “sexual misdeeds”, he interprets it as simply “wearing out” with age. The same is true concerning the final passage which Menachem cited, Hos. 7:8. In that verse too, Rashi does not follow Menachem in explaining יתבוללas referring to “sexual misconduct,” but explains that it simply refers to the exiles of Ephraim “mixing” into the nations.

In order to understand why Menachem and Rashi differed on these two points, we will provide some background to the discussion in the form of Menachem’s eighth and ninth categories of the root בל.

In the eighth category of בל, Menachem cites the following verses:

After I had become בְלֹתִי(old), I had my [menstrual] period”6(Gen. 18:12).

“…their form shall לבלות(rot) in the grave” (Ps. 49:15).

And the Earth תִּבְלֶה(will become worn out) like clothing” (Isa. 51:6).

My chosen ones יְבַלּוּ(will become old)” (Isa. 65:22).

“…and its leaves will not become יבול(putrid)” (Ps. 1:3).

You will surely become תבול נבול(exhausted)” (Ex. 18:18).

Rags that are בְּלוֹיֵ(worn out)” (Jer. 38:11).

In the ninth category of בל, Menachem cites the following two verses:

“…and we shall נבלה(mix) their language there” (Gen. 11:7).

“…its name Babylon because God had בלל(mixed)…” (Gen. 11:9).

Menachem, as is often his wont, does not explain the connection between these verses and why he categorized them as he did. Still, the connections can be gleaned from their context: the eighth category refers to the concept of “wearing out,” while the ninth category refers to the notion of “mixture.” That said, we can now understand what motivated Rashi to differ from Menachem. Rashi understood that the rootבל which appears in Ezek. 23:43 does not belong in the sixth category of בלas per Menachem’s placement, but should be placed in the eighth category. Likewise, Rashi understood that יִתְבּוֹלָלin Hos. 7:8 should have been placed in the ninth category, not the sixth.7

Until now, we have discussed various possibilities concerning the implications of the word תבל. At least according to Menachem, its root is בלwhich Menachem understood in some cases denotes “mixing” and in other “wearing out.” After consulting with various lexicons and other sources which treat all the words which include the two-letter stringבל, it seems that all such words are connected in some way or another to the idea of “mixing” or “wearing out” – and these two notions are themselves related to one another. We will now visit numerous examples; first those clearly describing mixture:

בלל(“mixing”) – Concerning the Tower of Babel, Scripture states: “…and we shall נבלה (mix) their language there” (Gen. 11:7), and “…its name Babylon because God had בלל(mixed)…” (Gen. 11:9).

תבלול(“cataract”) – When listing the blemishes for which a Kohen might be disqualified from service in the Temple, the Bible mentions that if he has aתבלול in his eye, he is disqualified (Lev. 21:20). Rashi explains that תבלולis something which is מבלבל(“confuses”) the eye. Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, explains that תבלולis related to the word תֶּבֶלwhich means “destructive” (i.e. sexual misdeeds are destructive to society, just as a cataract is destructive to one’s eyesight) or is related to the word בלולה(“mixed”) and refers to something mixed into his eye.

בליל(“fodder”) – “Does an ox moo over בלילו(“its food”)?” (Job 6:5). Radak in Sefer HaShorashim(s.v. בלל) explains that animal fodder is called בלילbecause it is a mixture of barley and oats.

גבל(“knead”) – The Mishnah (Parah9:5) teaches that the waters of the Red Heifer which became disqualified cannot be used commercially to knead (גבל) clay. Similarly, the Talmud (Shabbat18a) says that dirt is considered fit for use in kneading clay (בר גיבול הוא).8Lastly, the Tosefta (Challah1:4) rules that roasted flour that was kneaded (קמח קלי שגבלו) into dough requires the challah tithes to be taken off.

שבלול(“snail”) – The Sages homiletically interpreted this word as שבולת(powerful current) and as בלול(mixture):Tanchuma Vayera 17– “like the snail (שבלול) that melts and slithers away.” (Psalms 58:9) – just as as a turbine-like torrent sweeps away) – everything in its path, so were the wicked Sodomites melted and swept away; Commentary of R’ Shlomo Buber– The Midrash here interprets שבלולlike the similar word שבולת(rapid current)9and also like שֶבָּלוּל(mixed and confused).

תבלין(“seasoning”) – Aruch HaKatzar10(s.v. תבל א‘) explains that seasonings are called תבליןbecause various types of spices were typically mixed in together. Maase Rokeach11(to Maimonides’ Laws of Yom Tov 3:12) explicitly writes thatתבלין is an expression of בלילהbecause it has various ingredients mixed together. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim in Cheshek Shlomo (s.v. בל) writes that the hot spices are called תבליןbecause their existence accentuates the taste of a dish and “mixes” (integrates) the flavors very well.

טבל(“untithed produce”) – Sefer HaAruchexplains that untithed produce is called טבלbecause it is unfit for consumption, and is therefore like a wooden tablet (טבלא) which cannot be eaten. However, R. Chaim Kanievsky (in Derech Emunahto Maimonides’ Laws of Maasar 5:23) and R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (in HaKetav VeHaKabbalah to Exodus 22:28) explain thatטבל refers to a “mixture” (the latter explaining that טבלis related to the word תבל12), as untithed produce is effectively treated as regular produce mixed together with holy tithes (which would render it unfit for consumption until the required tithes are given to the Kohen and Levite).

כבול(“shackles”) – As told in I Kgs. 9:13, the cities which King Solomon built and gave as a present to Hiram, king of Tyre, are called the Land of Cabul (כבול, shackles). Rashi explains that they were called so because those cities were built on marshlands, such that if one would tread on its ground, his foot would get stuck as if he were tied down in shackles.13The Medieval Yemenite exegete Rabbi Avraham ben Shlomo (in his Peirush Neviim Rishonim to I Kgs. 9:13) explains that Cabul is related to נבוכה(“perplexed” or “confused”).14

Next, thoseבלwords which relate to “wearing out,” “rotting” or “exhaustion” include:

בלה(“worn out, exhausted, rotting”) – This usage is found many times in the Bible: After I had become בלתי(old), I had my [menstrual] period (Gen. 18:12); Your clothing לא בלו (did not deteriorate) (Deut. 29:4); My flesh and my skin became בלה(worn out) (Lam. 3:4); My chosen ones will become worn out (Isa. 65:22); and more.

בל,בלתי,בלי (various expressions of negation) – Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (Yeriot Shlomo vol. 2, pg. 72a) connects these words to the notion of being worn out or exhausted (in this case, the exhaustion or collapse of a possibility). In this way, the word בלmeans “not” such that בל ידעתי (Isa. 44:8) means, “I did not know.” As derivatives of this meaning, words like בלי(“without”) and בלתי (“no other”) also denote limited choice or exclusivity.15

הבל(“futility”) – R. Shlomo Pappenheim (ibid.) continues to explain that the wordהבל is also related toבל because it denotes something “empty” or “non-existent,” similar to the “exhausted” meaning of בל(an exhausted entity being essentially useless). King Solomon famously declared: Vanity of vanities (הבל הבלים), says Koheleth, all is vain (הכל הבל) (Ecc. 1:2). R. Elazar of Worms notes that the letters in the phraseהכל הבל can be permuted to read הכל בלה (“everything is worn out”), thus cementing the association of הבלwithבלה.

נבלה(“carcass”) – R. Shlomo Pappenheim (ibid.) and R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (HaKetav VehaKabbalahto Deut. 21:23) explain that the ultimate root of this word for carcasses is בלהbecause a נבלה is a dead body left to rot.

אבל(“mourning”) – Radak (in Sefer HaShorashim, s.v. אבל) points out that one of the usages of the word אבלis as a term for “destruction,” adduced from two Scriptural texts: Therefore, the land will be destroyed (תאבל) and all who live in it will be weakened (Hos. 4:3) and He feels only the pain of his flesh, and his soul will be destroyed (תאבל) over him (Job 14:22).

חבל(“wound”) – In Nehemiah’s confessional, he admits to God: We have surely acted destructively towards You (חבל חבלנו לך) (Neh. 1:7). Rashi explains that חבלהis an expression of destruction. This is conceptually related to בלהbecause something “worn out” is essentially “destroyed.”

זבל(“dwelling place”) – When Leah names her sixth son Zebulun, she says: This time, my man will live (יזבלני) with me (Gen. 30:20). Radak (in Sefer HaShorashim, s.v. זבל) explains that the word זבלrefers to one’s domicile, such as when King Solomon stated: I surely had built a House of Dwelling (בית זבול) for You (I Kgs. 8:13). However, in Rabbinic Hebrew, the word זבלrefers to excrement or other rotting and repulsive substances used for manure. For example, Meilah12b says that one may derive benefit from זבלandפרש(excrement) belonging to the Temple’s Treasury and it is not subject to the rules of Meilah.16R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (Gen. 30:20) finds a conceptual connection between these two usages of זבל. He explains that זבלis the stuff which facilitates the growth of flora and is also the word for a house (especially the Holy Temple) because it denotes something which provides one’s needs, whether in terms of nutrition to allow a plant to grow, or whether in terms of the spiritual nourishment provided by the Temple.

סבל(“carries a burden”) – Isaiah quotes God as saying: I carry [a burden] (Isa. 46:4). The Midrash (Lev. Rabbah4:8) interprets this as referring to God “carrying” the world, so to speak. That Midrash also says that God “causes the world to expire.” These two statements about God are interconnected: God’s “carrying” the burden of world refers to His role in actively administering all of creation. Under normal circumstances, one who carries a burden eventually becomes exhausted and worn out, while the beneficiary being carried does not. However, in the case of God, the very opposite is true: Not only does God continuously “carry” the burden of creation without tiring, but the entires world and its inhabitants eventually “tires” and “wears out”). In the piyyut Melech Elyonrecited on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we describe God as: “[He] carries the burden of everything (סובל הכל), timeless (סב, lit. ‘grandfatherly’), and causes the expiration of everything (ומבלה הכל)…” In that spirit, R. Dov Kook of Tiberias (Sefer Piskuk Mikraot SheBaTorah)suggests that the very word סובל, by way of contraction, alludes to the notion that God is סב ומבלה הכל.

There are some words related to בלwhich are interpreted variously as being derived from בללorfrom בלה:

תֵּבֵל– (“the physical world”) – Both R. Yom Tov Lipmann-Heller (in his commentary to Bechinat Olam 4:6) and R. Shlomo Pappenheim (Cheshek Shlomo, s.v. 17בל) explain that the word תבלis derived from בלהbecause everything in the physical world is by nature fleeting, and will eventually “wear out” and cease to exist. Alternatively, R. Eliyahu Kramer of Vilna (Aderet Eliyahuto Nahum 1:5) explains that the word תבלis derived from בללbecause it is the home to a mixture of various sorts of creatures: humans, domesticated animals, wild animals, insects, and birds. Similarly, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ps. 9:918) writes that while both תבלandארץ refer to the Earth, the two words imply distinct states of existence: תבלimplies a population sans law and order which is mixture (בלל) of all manners of competing objectives and proclivities, while the word ארץ implies an orderly world which adheres to certain given rules.

עיבל(“Ebal”) – Mount Ebal is the site upon which the Jewish people were commanded (Deut. 27:13) to utter curses against those who fail to keep the Torah’s precepts. Rabbi Rephael Schlanger (Shivtei Nachalatecha,p. 17) suggests that the name עיבלis a contraction of the word עי(“destruction”19) and בל (“non-existence”). The very name of this site teaches the naught and destruction which is the lot of those who fail to fulfill the Commandments.

There are five derivatives of the root יבל:

יבלת(“cataract”) – Discussed above.

יבול(“produce”) – For example, God promises, if the Jews follow the Torah, then “the land will gives it יבול(“produce”)” (Lev. 26:4).

יוֹבל(“ram’s horn”) – “With the drawing of the ram’s horn” (Ex. 19:13), “Horns of the Rams” (Josh. 6:4).20


יוּבל(“river”) – Rashi (to Avot 3:17 and Isa. 30:25) explains that יובלrefers to a river.

The words יבלת21andיבול22refer to the concept of “wearing out” or “rotting”; the former, the rotting of the eye, and the latter, the potential for rotting produce. The word יוֹבלis related to בללaccording to R. Shlomo Pappenheim,23due to an upheaval and “mixture” of ownership in the Jubilee year. And, finally, both meanings of the word יוּבלare associated with mixture and wearing out, as we shall soon explain.

מבול(“flood”) – When God warned about the flood which He was to bring in the time of Noah, He said, “Behold I am bringing a מבול(flood) of water” (Gen. 6:17). Rashi explains that מבולis related to three different בל-based roots: It is related to בלהbecause the flood had “worn out” the world by destroying it. It is related to בללbecause the flood overpowered the entire world and moved everything around so that each individual/country’s property was mixed up with another’s. And thirdly, מבולis related to יובל(“transport”) because the flow of the flood’s waters relocatedeverything by driving them towards Babylonia—a valley in Lower Mesopotamia.24

תבליתם(“their lowly abominations”) – As mentioned above, Rashi equated תבליתםwithתבל in two places (Lev. 18:23, Isa. 10:25). The commentators here too are split as to the root of the word תבליתם, variously deriving it fromבלה25,בלל26orתבל .

As mentioned above, lthough Rashi wrote that תבליתםis related to תבל, his explanation of תבליתםitself (in his commentary to Isa. 10:25) differs from his explanation of תבל(in his commentary to Lev. 18:23). In Isaiah, Rashi writes that תבליתםrefers to “chiruf”and“giduf” (blasphemous aberrations), an interpretation different from his explanations of the word תבל in Lev. 18:23, where he defined תבלas: “kadesh,” “arayot” and “niuf” (prostitution, incest and adultery). On the other hand, his interpretation of תבלin Lev. 20:12 – “gnai”(disgrace), does not necessarily contradict his “chiruf”and“giduf”(blasphemous aberrations) explanation in Isaiah, because certainly blasphemous aberrations constitute one form of disgrace. By the same token though, “kadesh,” “arayot” and “niuf” are themselves disgraceful. Therefore, one could argue that Rashi understood the primary meaning of תבלto in fact be “gnai,”a general term applying to both תבלandתבליתם.”

In light of this, Rashi seems to be explaining that תבלis derived from בלה, but that בלה can indicate deteriorationor rottenof various types. That is, תבל refers not to the “rotting” in the physical sense, but to the “rotting” of society, on a spiritual plane. It is from this spiritual perspective that the “rotting” of תבלrefers to gnai, in addition to “kadesh,” “arayot” and “niuf,” plus“chiruf”and“giduf.” Indeed, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Lev. 18:23) differentiates between בלה which he explains refers to corruption or rotting in a physical/mechanical sense, and תבל/תבליתwhich refers to corruption in a spiritual/moral way.

תבל(“abomination”) – The Torah labels a woman engaging in a bestiality as a תבל(Lev. 18:23). As we mentioned above, the word תבלcan be related to בללorבלה.

To conclude, we will draw from the words of Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim who explains the connection between בללandבלה (Yeriot Shlomo, vol. 2 p. 72a–b). He writes that the prime rootבלdenotesnon-existenceand destruction, from which meaning derives the root בללi.e.mixture, and by extension:destruction of an entity’s uniquenessby means of mixture and dilution. For example, in the Hos. 7:8 verse, should Ephraim be homogenously mixed in with the other nations, it will cease to exist. It would become wasted and utterly lose its identity. From this concept derives the word נבָלה(outrage), in that disgraceful, contemptible behavior leaves confusion and bafflement, thus destroying a sense of well-being and integrity.For example, upon the defilement of Dinah, her brothers said: He [Shechem] has made an outrage (נבלה) in Israel (Gen. 34:7) – that shocking experience not only leaving her undoubtedly with lifelong fear and confusion, but leading to a chain of events with potential calamitous and destabilizing effects .

We pray that it be God’s will that we shall not become confused (שלא נתבלבל), nor shall we become wasted through futile vanities (ולא נתבלה בהבלי שוא), and that all the inhabitants of the world (תבל) shall be transported (יובלו) to a state of knowing God, and the land shall be filled with the knowledge of Torah like a flowing river (כיבלי נהר) and the land shall bear its produce (יבולה), speedily and in our days, amen.

1I Kgs. 14:24 describes the spiritual decline under the reign of King Rehoboam and tells that in his time, there was קדשin the land. Rashi explains that קדשrefers to adultery (it is probably a catch-all phrase for all sexual misdeeds).

2The connection between תבלis mixing is already found in rabbinic literature: Sifra (Kedoshim10:10) says that when one performs a תבל, he has “mixed up the ropes”, which Korban Aharon (ibid.) explains refers to the confusion in the line of lineage that results from a man fornication with the same woman as his son. This is also found in Midrash Lekach Tov(toLev. 20:11). Moreover, the Talmud (Nedarim 51a) explains that when the Bible labels bestiality a תבל, it is as if the Torah rhetorically asks one who engages in such actions, “Is there any spice (תבלין) in it? Is there more of a ‘taste’ in this sort of copulation than any other?” As we shall explain below, the word תבליןis related to בללwhich means “mixing”.

3Such is the opinion of Mizrachi, Siftei Chachamim, andMinchat Yehudah. Ibn Ezra (to Lev. 18:23), R. Yonah ibn Janach, and Radak (s. v. בלל in their respective lexicons) also cite this view. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim in Yeriot Shlomo (vol. 2, pg. 72b) and Cheshek Shlomo (s.v. בל) similarly writes that the meaning of תבלis mixing, although in his opinion the root is בל, with a single ל. Rashi himself (to Ps. 58:9) explicitly writes that the letter תin the word תבלis indeed part of its root.

4R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Lev. 18:23), Minchat Yehudah(ibid.), Kedushat HaTorah VeDikdukeha (ibid.). Likkutim MiPardes (R. Y. Sarim, pg. 68) cites both possibilities.

5.Mizrachi,Siftei Chachmim, and Moda LeBinah(to Lev. 20:12). R. Yehuda Chayuj also classifies it under the entry תבל.

6See Rashi for alternate interpretation.

7It should be noted, that the term “niuf” appears throughout the prophecy of Hosea as a way of referring to all sorts of sins (by which the Jewish people strayed from God), and it does not perforce have a sordid connotation.

8The Biblical source for the root גבלis probably I Kgs. 5:32 which refers to those who built the walls of the Holy Temple asהגבלים (see Radak there).

9Indeed, Rashi and Ibn Ezra (to Ps. 58:9) explain the word שבלולis related to aשבולת מים(concentration of water).

10Constantinople, 1516.

11R. Massud Hai Rokeach, 1740.

12The Jerusalem Talmud (Orlah 1:3, Nazir 6:9) uses the word תבלinstead of טבלbecause the lingual letters דטלנתare sometimes interchangeable.

13See Shabbat 54a for the Sages’ exegesis of this passage.

14One who is perplexed, is “all mixed-up”. Indeed, the word נבוךis translated by Targum (to Ex. 14:3, Joel 1:18, Job 38:16, and Est. 3:15) as מתערבלא, an Aramaic word which is also derived from בל.

15The Jerusalemite Talmud (Brachot