Matot: Words

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Chalkboard I Promise To
23 Jul 2008

Peddlers of the English language have the good fortune of choosing from hundreds of thousands of words. Any given idea may be stated in the Latin, Germanic or Saxon tongues. Are you crazy (Scandinavian), lunatic (French), insane (Latin) maniacal (Greek) or just meshuge (Yiddish/Hebrew)? For those that count these sorts of things, there are approximately 825,000 words and counting.

Hebrew on the other hand is word poor (approximately 5,000 Biblical roots) and meaning-full. Its word paucity allows each root to enjoy rich connectivity. For example, a thing can be an object, a happening, or a matter. Yet in Hebrew, one word, davar, encompasses them all. Maharal forges the davar – dibbur (speech) etymological link by teaching that every thing that happens expresses a meaningful message. The way we respond to the events of our life must first begin with the question of davar, i.e. What is it saying?

There is a word that I find myself drawn to in this week’s parsha. It appears only once in the Torah (in this particular form) even as it shares great resonance and relationships with so many words that are commonplace in Chumash.

First, please consider the following word associations:

The word for …

Obviously, the key word here is chol which connotes “mundane”-ness or profanity in the realm of time (a & b) and matter (c,d, & e). It appears that the simple form of the word (chol, chullin) merely speaks of a de facto state of the ordinary while the alliterative double lamed (challal, chillul) connotes a profaning of preexisting sanctity.

Equally clear is the notion that whenever we speak of chol, sanctity (1) (kedusha) is lurking in the shadows. Thus one of the gravest sins is called chillul Hashem – profaning the name of God (2). For commensurate to the degree of sanctity is the depth of profanity. Is it not interesting to consider that the word for a human corpse in the Torah is called challal (3), implying a vacating of the great sanctity that is humanity?

Our parsha adds another critical dimension to the chol word. While describing the laws of oaths, the Torah mandates one to keep his oath (although there are ways out, that’s for a different story). The terminology of the Torah is lo yacheil (יחל) devaro (4) (he shall not profane his word). This simple use of the word opens up a new world – for if the Torah is teaching us that a word violated is profanity (5), even a non rocket scientist may deduce that a carefully crafted and kept word is sanctity (6).

Jews in general place words at a premium. Prayer and Torah are our word weapons of choice. Particularly at this time of year, we live with painstaking awareness of the negative repercussions of lashon hara. It is hard to imagine a more massive kulturkampf from the blogosphere/talk radio/tv/ email saturated world we reside in; one where talk is cheap, words are sullied, gossip sells, his business is our business, and the other’s privacy is not a respected right but a challenge to overcome.

A closing profundity I heard last year in a poignant message delivered to a bar mitzvah boy. Neither the Torah nor (for the most part) the Rabbis require a minor to fast before coming of age (7). The Torah does not tell an 11 353/354 year old girl or a 12.999 year old boy to eat kosher. However, prior to bar mitzvah there is a little known Biblically mandated category of mufleh samuch l’ish (8) which requires 11 year old girls and 12 year old boys to keep their oaths and word constructed realities.

Ergo, even more than (and before) the Torah cares about what enters our mouths is the Torah super concerned about what comes out of it!

Good Shabbos, Asher Brander

1. See for example, Vayikra 10:10 u’lehavdil bein hakodesh u’vein hachol. We also find the notion of chillul in the context of the Sanctuary (Vayikra 21)
2. Cf. Vayikra, 18:21 and Vayikra, 19:12. Note the obvious distinction between profaning the name of God and profaning God – the latter is a notion that never appears in Torah and is a theological impossibility. Profaning the name of God would indicate that we besmirch the perception of God in the world.
3. Bereishis, 34:27; Bamidbar 31:19; Devarim, 21:1
4. Similarly, when a covenant is violated, the Torah describes it as chillul habris. Cf. Tehillim, 55:1, 89:35
5. Bamidbar, 30:3; Rashi, ibid, comments that lo yachel = lo yechalel – consistent with our definition of profanity.
6. Moreover, in a related notion, words are a prime force in the creation of sanctity Rambam (Beis Habechira, 6:16) famously distinguishes between the sanctity of Yehoshua and the sanctity of Ezra. The former more impressive conquest has lapsed while the underwhelming return of the Jews in the 2nd Temple Period served to create a sanctity that lasts till this very day. Wherein lays the distinction? Radvaz explains that Yehosha’s conquest was a brute force one which was undone by the Babylonians while Ezra’s sanctity was created through the word.
7. Surely not for the mourning fasts (Tisha B’av etc.). With Yom Kippur there is a requirement of chinuch that depends on the minor’s strength
8. See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 233, Rambam, Nedarim, 11:1-2, Temurah 2b, Nidah 45b. This applies to the realm of creating sanctity with one’s words. Thus different types of oaths as well as arachin and hafrashos challah are also included

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.