Tophel or Bust!


Deut. 1:1 – These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on this side of the Jordan in the wilderness, in the Arabah opposite the Red Sea, between Paran, and Tophel, and Lavan, and Hazeroth, and Dizahab.


Our Sages noted that there is no place called Tophel in any of the accounts of the voyages in the desert: Deut. Rabba (Lieberman) 1:9[1] – R’ Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi) said: I have reviewed all 42 travels (in the desert) but have found no place called Tophel. Rather, he derived this homiletically as תְפִלּוֹת (the meaning of which is the subject of this article, but which apparently means “idle complaints”), which they directed at the manna. What then is Tophel? Words of תִּפְלוּת which they directed at the manna, which was called “Lavan” (white), as Scripture states: And the manna was as coriander seed, and its color as the color of crystal (Num. 11:7). A similar homily is found in the Sifrei (Deut., Piska 1): Words of תִּפְלּוֹת which they directed at the manna, and thus does Scripture state: and our soul loathes this light bread (Num. 21:5). Why is it that the Midrash Rabba omits the clearer reference to the Israelites’ complaint cited by the Sifrei? If because of the upcoming verse: Then Moses heard the people weep throughout their families (ibid. 11:10), why not cite it directly? Why reference a description of the manna, which in any case had previously been described (vis. Ex. 16:31)? We will return to this question later in the article.


We must first seek to understand the nature of the hinted rebuke alluded to in the word תִּפְלוּת. Most Rabbinic grammarians consider the root of the Biblical תּפְלָה to be ‘תפל’[2], which is explained with related adjectives such as: bland, futile, unstable, incomplete, uncooked, inferior, blemished[3]. Others relate ‘תפל’ to [4]‘טפל’, which means connecting, appending[5] in Scripture[6].


We find similar meanings in the Talmudic vernacular as well, such as: 1. Futile (e.g. Tosephta Brach. 6:7, Talmud Horayos 12b). 2. “Lame” excuses (Tosephta Sota 6:7-8). 3. Bland (Shabbos 128a, Nidda 61b +Rashi).


Similarly, the commentary “Me’at Tzori” on Targum Onkelus (Deut. 1:1) explains that the root ‘תפל’ can be explained according to the two essential meanings of the Biblical root ‘תפל’: 1. Futile, baseless 2. Append, affix, as follows: 1. They said futile and baseless things about the manna. 2. They “appended” and “affixed” non-existent defects to the manna.


However, we find an additional –and very different– meaning in Chazal’s vernacular as well, namely incest and immorality (Sota 3:4 + Bartenura, Pesachim 91a + Rashi[7], Ex. Rabba 5:1, Lev. Rabba 5:3, Tosephta Av. Zara 42. The word is also used in reference to legitimate marital relations (e.g. Tanna De’bei Eliyahu Rabba 16, Ketub. 62b).


What is the source of this dissimilar, non-Biblical denotation? If it is meant to allude to the uselessness of sexual immorality, a thousand other futile behaviors could just as easily be included as meanings of the word. Furthermore, this usage is found in the Rabbinic literature as many times as all the other meanings of the word combined, all pointing to a deeper meaning and connection[8].


We opened with a Midrashic exposition of words Tophel and Lavan, in which Tophel was homiletically interpreted as תִּפְלוּת, and we asked why the Midrash Rabba used a different proof-text from that used by the Sifrei, whose reference appears much more directly connected to the grumblings about the manna. One thing at least seems clear both in the Midrash Rabba and the Sifrei: the word תִּפְלוּת here simply means useless, lame complaining.


Or does it? In Numbers 11:7-10, the Torah tells us the Israelites cried about the manna, as follows:  And the manna was as coriander seed, and its color as the color of crystal. And the people went about, and gathered it… And when the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell upon it. Then Moses heard the people weep throughout their families. The Talmud (Yoma 75a) however, teaches: And Moses heard the people weeping for their families, i.e., because of the families [relations] with whom they were forbidden to have relations (see also Sifrei Zuta 11:10). Now, what does this verse, which clearly refers to the crying over the manna, have to do with incestual relations?


The answer may be hinted to in the Zohar, as follows. As quoted, the Torah describes the manna as “as coriander seed”, the word for coriander being גד. The Tikunei Zohar (Tikun 20-21, p. 54a) connects גד with גיד, the male reproductive organ. The “white” (לבן-lavan in Hebrew) is the seed, the purveyor the soul, called יונה in Kabbalah[9], the leading letter י of which creates the conduit through which life emanates. And the narrative concludes by saying that this י is the “holy seed” which transforms the גד to the holy, life-giving גיד. In short, the description of the manna is an allusion to the holy sexual standards expected of the Israelites.


The Israelites (called the “Generation of Understanding”) understood the hint immediately. They understood the great good and benevolence which the manna represented, but also realized that the price would be abstinence from forbidden relationships – and this was the underlying source of their complaint, their תִּפְלוּת.


This then resolves the difficultly we noted on the Midrash Rabba, whose author is none other than R’ Shimon bar Yochai – the author of the Zohar. Who better than Rashbi understood the profound lesson of the manna –and the real source of the Israelites’ complaint? For this reason, no other verse than the manna’s description as והמן זרע גד needed to be cited, for these words represented the basis and quintessence of the Holy Nation, a concept the nascent Israelites had not yet grown to fully appreciate.


Closing prayer: may we dedicate our energies to transforming useless תִּפְלוּת into holy תפילות and תפילין. May we live up to the lofty lessons of the manna, and merit and appreciate the Infinite Good it represents, which G-d always bestows on us.





[1]  [מובא ברש”י (דב’ א:א) בש”נ. וע’ תרגום אונקלוס כאן].

[2]  [בניגוד למנחם בן סרוק, שחבר אותה בערך ‘פל’ (במחלקת “לא נפל אנכי מכם”, היינו  פחות, ירוד). ומעניין להעיר שמחלוקת הפוכה בצינו בין הערוך לבין שאר המפרשים בענין “תפילה”/”תפילין”, שחברה הערוך בע’ ‘תפל’, ובעלי הלשון גזרוה מן ‘פלל’. ראה תשבי ערך ‘תפילין’, ור’ אור ישראל (מאנסי, תשס”א סימן כה). ובענין מקבילות בין ‘תפל’ ל”תפילה”, ראה קדושת לוי המבואר (שה”ש דף לח)].

[3] Vis. Jer. 23:13, Job 1:22, 6:6, 24:12, Lam. 2:14, Ez. 13:1 (with commentaries). Rashi explains the latter verse somewhat differently in OF (translated as coating, plastering), but these too may be connected, as those offering inferior work often seek to hide the mediocrity through these means.

[4]  [בחילוף אותיות דטלנ”ת. ראה מעט צרי על התרגום (דב’ א:א), המובא להלן].

[5]  [וראה שם משמואל (נצבים, תרע”ז) שקישר ‘תפל’ לשרשים אחרים הקשורים לחבור: ‘פתל’ (“פתיל צמיד”, “נפתלתי”), בחילוף מיקום אותיות (‘תפל’-‘פתל’). וראה רש”י (בר’ ל:ח) שקישר בדרך אחרת].

[6] Viz. Ps. 119:69 + Metz. Zion. From here too derives the phrase עיקר וטפל (Brachos 35b) – principle and ancillary, that is, something added as an appendage.

[7]  [רש”י נוקט שם במלה “עבירה”, והיא כינוי לעריות בלשונו בכ”מ, כגון]: מגילה לא. – ובמנחה קורין בעריות; רש”י – קורין בעריות – שמי שיש עבירות בידו יפרוש מהן… שהעריות עבירה מצויה. יומא סט: – הואיל ועת רצון הוא נבעי רחמי איצרא דעבירה [נבקש רחמים על יצר העריות]. בעו רחמי ואמסר בידייהו… נבעי פלגא; רש”י – לבעו פלגא – שלא יהא שולט במקום עבירה, כדי שלא יהא תובע עריות. רש”י סנהד’ ק: – המרגילים לדבר עבירה – ניאוף, הרי הן כניצוץ מבעיר גחלת.

[8]  [נראה שאפשר שהרע”ב הנ”ל הרגיש בקושי הזה ורמז לקשר בפירושו: “חבור משכב אנשים”. הרי המלה “חבור” כאן מיותרת, אמנם בכך אולי רמז לקשר מהותי ל’תפל’/’טפל’ בהוראת חבור, כנ”ל. אולם עכ”ז, עדיין רחוקה ההוראה מן המשמעויות המקוריות].

  [9] [ראה זהר ב:קצט,ב].

Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg

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