Shemot: Forever Building! ~ Yehoshua Steinberg
Updated: Feb 27
In Parashat Shemot, the word "הָאָבְנָיִם" appears, denoting a birthing stool. The word also appears in the Book of Jeremiah, but with a completely different context and import. The article examines the depth of this word, and the relationship between it and all other words in the holy language which include the string "בן" – the results are surprising! Shabbat Shalom.
שמ' א:טז - וַיֹּאמֶר בְּיַלֶּדְכֶן אֶת הָעִבְרִיּוֹת וּרְאִיתֶן עַל הָאָבְנָיִם אִם בֵּן הוּא וַהֲמִתֶּן אֹתוֹ.
When you deliver the Hebrew women, and you see on the birthing stool [הָאָבְנָיִם], if it is a son, you shall put him to death, but if it is a daughter, she may live (Ex. 1:16).
Rashi ties the word הָאָבְנָיִם, here meaning birthing stool, to its only other occurrence in Scripture: על" האבנים - the seat used by the woman giving birth. Another term used is מַּשְׁבֵּר. Similarly, we find: עֹשֶׂה מְלָאכָה עַל הָאָבְנָיִם (Jer. 18:3) - work while on the workbench [at the potter's wheel]."
Although Rashi does not delve into the root of the word, Ibn Ezra holds that the root of האבנים is אבן: Ibn Ezra Ex. 1:16 (paraphrased) - Ben Karish classifies the word as a derivative of the root בן (as in בנים - children), the א' being extraneous to the root, meaning birthing chair. This is similar to the word מי אפסים (Ez. 47:3) [whose root is פס, referring to water covering the soles of the feet, with an extrinsic leading א']. But the correct explanation is that the א' is part of the root, אבן, and is referring to stone [seats].
Radak lists the word האבנים in entry אבן, yet understands the root to be בן / בנים, explaining that the א' is indeed extraneous to the root. Writes Radak: וּרְאִיתֶן עַל הָאָבְנָיִם, this is called the משבר. This word, though, stems from the word בן / בנים, with an added א'. In my opinion, the word אָבְנָיִם actually refers to the womb, and is so called because of the בנים (i.e. the children borne there).
Along the same lines, Radak quotes his father, who explains that in the word אָבְנָיִם in Jeremiah (referring to work done at the potter's wheel) - the א' is extraneous, but the word derives not from בן / בנים, but rather from בנה / בנין (building). Ibn Janach (entry אבן) also writes that the word אָבְנָיִם in Exodus derives from בן / בנים due to children birthed there; yet understands that the א' in the word אָבְנָיִם in Jeremiah is part of its root and means the potter's wheel, despite it's not necessarily being made of stone. In any case, regarding the word אָבְנָיִם in Exodus, the rationale of all commentators cited up to now who explain that the א'is extrinsic is because the purpose of אָבְנָיִם is birthing children - בנים.
In contrast to this consensus, however, is the view of Rabbi S. R. Hirsch (Ex. 1:15-16). While RSRH concurs that the א' of אָבְנָיִם in Exodus is extraneous, the underlying meaning is not בן / בנים (children) but בנה / בנין (construction). He writes (paraphrased): וראיתם על האבנים, the root [seems to be] אבן conjugated from אֹּבֶן whose plural form is אָבנים. Yet we assume that at its root lies בנה (with a leading, non-root א', similar to the word אפן whose root form is פנה - turn), which refers to building and forming. [Rabbi S. R. Hirsch’s disagreement with Radak and the other commentators cited (who ascribed אבנים to בן / בנים) may be due to the appearance of the identical word in Jeremiah, whose meaning is universally associated with building / forming and does not refer to בנים / children; hence, the common denominator between them would be based on that same import of building / forming].
Nevertheless, even if we ascribe the word אָבְנָיִם in the verse in Exodus to the root בנה, as per RSRH, this does not necessarily contradict the other opinions cited. As the author of Gei Chizayon (p.131) writes: The word אבנים here refers to building, as we find in the Tractate Ta'anit (4a), the Sages homiletically explain the verse: "The land whose stones [אבניה] are composed of iron (Deut. 9:8) - Do not read it as אבניה - stones, but rather בוניה - builders." A similar exposition is found connecting בנים (children) and בונים (builders) in Tractate Brachot (64a): "Talmudic scholars generate peace in the world [through their Torah learning], as it says: All your children will be students of God, and your children's [בָנָיִךְ] peace will be abundant (Isa. 54:13). Do not read it as בניך - your children, rather read it בוניך - your builders."
These interpretations illustrate the connection between various words containing the string בן, namely: בנים - בונים - אבנים and highlight the common בניה / בנין - literal or figurative “building” that they share. It is also interesting to note that there are two words found more in this Parashah than in any other (each one appearing six times); both having the root of בן and related to בנין / בניה - building, namely: 1. לְבֵנִים (bricks). 2. תֶּבֶן (straw). The Torah relates: They embittered their lives with harsh labor, mortar and bricks [לְבֵנִים] (Ex. 1:14), and: Don't give more straw [תֶּבֶן] to the nation, for forming bricks (Ex. 5:7).
Based on these examples, we will examine other words which include the string בן to determine if they too belong to the family of words connected to בנין (tangible or intangible). The following is a comprehensive list:
בנה – building / to build, as in: Come, let us build [נבנה] ourselves a city and a tower (Gen. 11:4).
אבן - a stone can be used in building, as in: And the house, when it was being built, was built of complete [ready-made] stone [אֶבֶן שְׁלֵמָה] (I Kings 6:7).
תבן - straw, a component in the formation of bricks, as in: provide no more straw [תֶּבֶן] to the people to make the bricks [לִלְבֹּן הַלְּבֵנִים] (Ex. 5:7).
בנים - sons, builders of a family / nation, as in: Perhaps I will be built up [אִבָּנֶה] through her [i.e. have sons] (Gen. 16:2). Rashi explains that this teaches us that one who does not have children is not "built," but rather "shattered."
הבן - ebony - a prized dark wood (or other material) used in ornate construction or for building ornamental objects and furniture, brought by the merchants from India to Tyre (Tzur), as in: Ez. 27:15 - Ivory tusks and ebony [וְהָבְנִים].
גבן - cheese-making, which is classified in the Talmud as building (one of the forbidden categories of work on the Sabbath): Shabbat 95b - מגבן חייב משום בונה - making cheese is punishable as it is classified as בונה - building.
בינה – understanding / insight, a type of wisdom, as in: Job 32:16 - If you wish to understand [בִּינָה], hear this. The Sages connect this word to בנין (building) andבינה (understanding), as follows: Niddah 45b – "And God built [וַיִבֶן] the rib He took from man into a woman (Gen. 2:22) - this teaches us that God gave enhanced insight (בינה יתירה) to women - more than He gave to men." The Sages add that it is therefore the woman who is extolled for building her home with insight and understanding, as Solomon taught: Prov. 14:1 - The wise among women - each built her house.
לבֵנה – brick (building block), as in: so the bricks [הַלְּבֵנָה] were to them for stones [לְאָבֶן] (Gen. 11:3). Note that Radak (entry לבן) suggests the possibility that the word לבֵנה - brick, is derived from the word לבן - white, as bricks are baked to a white heat in a furnace.
We will investigate the word לבן itself, to examine if a possible link exists between the color white and בנין / בניה.
In this regard, the Sages in fact homiletically link the color לבן with בן (children, representing the figurative building blocks of future generations, as mentioned earlier). The Talmud (Ketubot 111b) compares the word "לבן" with "ל-בן" in the following verse (Jacob's blessing to Judah): His eyes become red from wine, his teeth become white [וּלְבֶן שִׁנַּיִם] from milk (Gen. 49:12) – this refers to the great abundance of grapes in the Land of Israel, the wine produced therefrom drawing enthusiastic response. Were one to suggest that only the youth will find it delightful but not the elders, do not read it as וּלְבֶן שִׁנַּיִם (referring to the whiteness of teeth), but rather לְ-בֶּן שָנִים (literally: the son of [many] years) - one advanced in years will also find in it exquisite taste.
Another connection between the לבן and בן may be hinted at in the description of the Manna that fell in the Wilderness. The Torah describes the Manna as וְהוּא כְּזֶרַע גַד לָבָן, It looked like coriander seed [it was] white, and it tasted like a wafer with honey (Ex. 16:31). The Talmud (Yoma 75a) learns from this verse that the Manna had the ability to determine if a child was born after a full term pregnancy or was two months premature. Were a woman to remarry within three months of divorce, and then bear a child born four months later, we would be uncertain if the infant was from the first husband or the second. Thus the Manna could "tell" us, after the child was born, by an extra portion falling at the doorstop of the present or previous husband. The author of Yismach Yehudah (p. 223) writes: We can explain the word לבן in this verse as stemming from the word בן (Thus the word ל-בן would hint: this portion is for child X).
In Kabbalistic sources, we also find an association between the color לבן - white, and בנין - building. The world was founded on the attribute of kindness, as the verse states: עולם חֶסֶד יִבָנֶה - Forever it will be built with kindness (Ps. 89:3). Kindness is represented by the color white according to Kabbalah, and the constant goodness that God showers upon the world is embodied in this color. Following are two examples, the first relating to the “building” of the woman with the white צלע (rib / side); the second concerning the “building” of children through the white seed of the male:
The first time the root בנה is used in Scripture is regarding the creation of the woman, where it states: And God built [וַיִבֶן] the צלע he took from man into a woman (Gen. 2:22). The Zohar (vol. 1 p. 28a) explains why she was created from a צלע, whose color is white: "The צלע is derived from the attribute of kindness, which is categorized as לבן - white. For this reason also, the ירח (moon) is called לבנה – white/." [Commentary of Sulam: its white light replicating the attribute of kindness shone upon it, which in turn it reflects onto the world below]."
The male's contribution to conception is a white drop, which is the foundation of kindness. Man's input (to the child) is white (semen) whereas the woman's contribution is red (Kehillat Yaakov, entry הד).
May the Almighty shine his pure חסד upon us and rebuild the Holy Temple -with its צלעות- where our sins will be whitened. May our hearts of אבן be replaced with hearts of flesh, and may this come about speedily and in our days, Amen.