Gen. 8:1 – וַיָּחֶל another seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark.
Gen. 9:20 – And Noah וַיָּחֶל to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard.
Gen. 10:8 – And Kush fathered Nimrod; he הֵחֵל on earth to be a mighty one.
Radak (Gen. 9:20) cites other Scriptural examples of the word in the sense of beginning (e.g. Deut. 2:25, I Sam. 14:5), and numerous others exist (Gen. 44:12, Deut. 16:9, Jud. 1:18, 16:22, 20:40, I Sam. 22:15, Jonah 3:4).3
In contrast, Onkelus and Rashi interpret וַיָּחֶל in the first verse (8:1) to mean “he waited.” Rashi brings a proof-text from Job 29:214 (and many more could be cited with this import, e.g. Jud. 3:25, I Sam. 10:8, Ps. 147:11, Job 32:11).5
Upon reflection though, these two interpretations are virtual opposites; “beginning” implies progressing, starting anew, whereas “waiting” and “delaying” signify sluggishness!
An answer can be found in the closeness of two of the meanings of the related root יחל,6waiting and anticipating. Indeed, these two meanings often overlap, and at times interpretation can go either way (e.g. Ez. 13:6 + Rashi, Ps. 42:6 + Rashi, Job 29:21 + Ralbag, Is. 51:5 + Malbim).7 The type of anticipation that יחל refers to would therefore be a passive one, i.e. trusting and waiting for Hashem’s salvation, to open a new path, a new beginning.8
In Jud. 13:5, the birth of Samson is foretold: “and he יחל to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” Here, all the commentators agree that the word simply means “he will begin.”9 Yet, the Talmud (Sota 10a) interprets this as a reference to the “cancellation” of the oath made to Avimelech by Abraham (Gen. 21:23) that the latter would live peacefully with the Philistines (the annulment being due to the Philistines ipso facto cancelling their part of the bargain by oppressing the Israelites).10 Rashi (Sota ibid.) comments that יחל has the same import here as “he shall not יחל his word” (Num. 30:3) – meaning cancellation.
So, too, we find the word הוחל interpreted by many (e.g. Rashbam, Ibn Ezra)11 as referring to beginning, as in Gen. 4:26: then הוחל to call upon the Lord by name; whereas the Sages (Mid. Aggada [Buber] Gen. 4:26)12 interpret the word as cancellation. Instead of “beginning” to call out in the Name of Hashem, they “desisted” from this! 13
One final example of opposing renderings of the word is in Hosea 8:10: “Now will I gather them, and in a little while they will וַיָּחֵלּוּ at the burden of a king and princes.” Radak explains this to mean “beginning” (to complain, apparently; see also Ibn Ezra). But once again, the Talmud (BB 8a) explains this in the sense of “desisting” (as per Rashi’s commentary there).14
We suggest the the opposite meanings of this word fit a pattern of דבר והיפוכו, “a thing and its opposite” found so often in the Holy Tongue. That is, a solitary action can bring about disparate and even opposite results. As cited above, the usual Targum of “beginning” is שרי, a term also meaning opening, untying or allowing. While these actions can be positive, they can also be negative. For example, untying a knot to be able to use the rope for a different purpose, means foregoing the purpose the knot has served until now. So, too, one who makes a hole in a wall in order to construct a window or door has indeed made a new opening, but in the meantime the once solid wall is now allowing in cold, rain, burglars, etc.We נוחילה pray that Hashem bring us good התחלותbeginnings; that He cause יחולל the new year to bring us blessing and that He יחל cancel the evil designs our enemies wish upon us and the חילול desecration of His Name once and for all!
6 According to Radak’s lexicographical system.
Yehoshua is a retired U.S. Army Chaplain and currently lives in Israel with his wife and children.
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Latest posts by Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg (see all)
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