What if the fifty righteous people should lack five? Would You destroy (הֲתַשְׁחִית) the entire city because of the five? (Gen.18: 28)
There are eight occurrences of the root ‘שחת’in the Torah portion Va’eira,exceeding its incidence in any other Torah portion. However, it is worth noting that the description of Sodom’s destruction also includes four other expressions denoting destruction: 1) “לכלות”(termination) – (18:21); 2) “לספות”(stamp out) – (18:23-4; 19:15, 17); 3) “להמית”(kill) – (18:25); 4) “להפוך” (overturn) – (19:21, 25, 29). Thus, we must try to distinguish between these terms, and understand the message that each of them teaches us. Lastly, how do these words relate to the question of questions – why did Abraham seek to rescue the evil inhabitants of Sodom?
We find the root ‘שחת’ in connection with the sin of the Golden Calf: Go, descend – for your people (שִׁחֵת) have become corrupt(Ex.32:7). Our Sages interpreted the wordשִׁחֵתin the sense of קִלְקוּל(deterioration/ spoilage),1and in the sense of חֲבָּלָה(damage / corruption).2Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, commenting on the phraseוַתִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ,and the earth had become corrupt (Gen. 6:11),points out that קִלְקוּלis an expression of incomplete destruction. The term “השחתה” takes on this meaning because it is derived from the root ‘שחת’ that means a pit/trap.3Rabbi Hirsch makes a similar linkage regarding the phrase,פֶּן תַּשְׁחִתוּן, lest you act corruptly (Deut. 4:16), noting that the root ‘שחת’in that verse denotes a spiritual/ moral deterioration, for like the descent of the pit, one who falls off of the proper moral path sinks into spiritual decline.
We also find the destructiveחֲבָּלָה)) aspect of the root ‘שחת’in describing the blemish of an animal offering, in the verse (Lev.22:25) for their corruption (מָשְׁחָתָם) is in them, a blemish is in them.4[As explained by Ibn Ezra,its root is ‘שחת’, as the letter ‘מ’is superfluous.] Ramban explains this linkage in his comments to the verse, Their blemish has corrupted his non-children for him(Deut. 32:5): “A blemish is referred to as a “corruption,”5as it is stated, for their corruption is in them, a blemish is in them…[Thus, our verse] is saying that the blemish of Israel has corrupted for the Rock (i.e., G-d) His nation and His heritage.
To summarize, our early commentators use several concepts in an effort to clarify the meaning of the word “השחתה”. They are: 1) spoilage/ blemish; 2) damage/ break; 3) decline/ descent. We should also note that we find similar meanings in other roots containing the letters ‘חת’. They are:1.שחת 2.פחת 3.תחת 4.חתם 5.חתה 6.נחת 7.חתן 8.חתת 9.חתך 10.חתר 11.חתף 12.חתל:
3) Root תחת: This term has three meanings in the above context, all of which are directly linked to its literal meaning, “below/beneath”: a) lowliness11;b) instead of /in exchange for12(as if the potential replacement is sitting beneaththe original, ready to replace it at the appropriate time. In this sense, it is similar to the English word “lieu-tenant,” a subsidiary officer who is on call to serve “in lieu of” his boss); c) because/due to(the primary motive, which lies just beneaththe surface).13
4) Root חתם(sign/ seal): A seal is sunken into the wax / lime. Also, when part of a signet ring, it serves to leave an indelible and irreversible impression.14
5) Root חתה(rain down): This is how Yer. Shlomointerprets the term in the verse, for you will(חֹתֶה)rain down coals on his head (Prov. 25:22). Likewise, Midrash Sechel Tov,on the verse, Now Hashem had caused sulfur and fire to rain down upon Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen.19:24), states: “When [G-d’s] children were hungry, he rained down bread from the heavens, and when the Sodomites revolted [against Him], He rained down ((חתהcoals.”
6) Root נחת(descent/ land/ sink).15
7) Root חתן(son-in-law)16: Yeriot Shlomo (Vol. I: 112, 2) links the terms “נחת”and “חתן”as both are based on the two-letter root ‘חת’in his view. Thus, the term נַחַת רוּחַdenotescalmsatisfaction, as the person arrives at a state of peace and settling down. Likewise, a son-in-law is one who “acquires an encampmentin the family and settlesinto it.” In this manner, it is similar to the word שִׁידוּך, the betrothalof two people, which is the Aramaic translation of “שכך”(immersion) and “שקט”(calm).17
9) Root חתך(breakingan item via knife or sword).20
10) Root חתר(dig/shatterfor some purpose).21
11) Root חתף(seize/capture): The verbs “חתף”and “חטף”have the same meaning, as noted by IbnEzra to Prov. 23:28.22In his comments to both Job 9:12 and Ex. 7:27, Ibn Ezra seems to equate the verbs “חתף”and”שחת”ascapturing in a trap.23Thus, it would appear that he understood “חטף”to mean specifically seizure via trap,where the seizureis a prelude to destruction. Indeed, we find similarly that Rashi and Ibn Ezra interpret the verse (Lam. 4:20)נִלְכַּד בִּשְׁחִיתוֹתָםascaptured in the pits that they dug.24
12) Root חתל(repair a rupture /breakage)25: However, as we find in a number of other roots whose opposite meanings have the same root (e.g., ‘שרש’, ‘דשן’, etc.), so too with the root ‘חתל’: a broken bone that is boundwith a bandage is concomitantly separatedfrom other objects [just as the banks (“גדות”) of the river are so called both because they simultaneously hold the river waters together while dividing it from the surrounding land (“גודו אילנא”)].
Having discussed at length the various meanings of the root “שחת”and the underlying biliteral ‘חת’, let us return to the question we raised at the outset regarding the numerous instances of this root in connection with the destruction of Sodom, and the distinction between this word and the various other terms of destruction that appear less frequently in the context of this story. After all, it would appear at first glance that all of Abraham’s great efforts to prevent the destruction of Sodom were for naught, for in the end it was utterly destroyed. However, if we analyze more deeply the use of these alternate expressions in Abraham’s “bargaining” with G-d, a very different picture is revealed to us.
We have seen that G-d began to inform Abraham about the imminent overturning of Sodom with the word כָּלָה, a word that denotes the utter elimination of everything contained in the city. This is evident both from Onkelos26and Rashi,27as well as from Onkelos’ interpretation of other instances of the root ‘כלה’in Scripture.28However, in his response (vv. 23-24), Abraham chose an alternative expression of destruction, תִּסְפֶּה. Although Onkelos translates it here as “תשיצי”, which is the same “utterly destructive” expression that he uses in the aforementioned instances of “כלה”,we find other instances of the term in this very portion which Onkelos translates as “תלקי”, an expression of lashingrather than destruction.29As he continues to plead on behalf of Sodom, Abraham alters his expression yet again, stating, It would be sacrilege to You to do such a thing, לְהָמִיתthe righteous along with the wicked (18:25). While Onkelos translates this too as “לשיצאה”, throughout Scripture he translates לְהָמִיתas”קטלא”,30which simply means killing.Finally, in his closing argument (v. 18:28), he alters his expression yet again, this time using the word הֲתַשְׁחִית. As we have shown above, the root ‘שחת’is interpreted by the early commentators as an expression of spoilageandsinking,and it is translated regularly in Aramaic as “חבל”, an expression of breakage,orshattering(see Targum Yonatanto Isaiah 10:27).
Abraham was not naive. It certainly dawned upon him from the very beginning that there might not exist even a single righteous person in Sodom outside of Lot and his family. However, G-d provided him with an opening by stating that He wished to destroy(לְכַלוֹת) the city. Abraham thus responded in a similar but not identical manner, using instead the root ‘ספה’, which can imply a mere lashing (הַלְקָאָה) rather than utter destruction, as above. Since G-d, as it were, was silent and did not respond, Abraham continued by mentioning the wordלְהָמִית- a word that relates to individual people, but not to the city as a whole, in the hope that G-d would allow certain individuals to survive. Once again, G-d did not protest. So Abraham concluded his plea by using the word “שחת”, a word that does not even denote destruction and elimination at all, but rather spoilage/defect, sinking, andbreakage-situations that can be overcome in principle- as long as the location is not obliterated in its entirety.
Looking at it from this perspective, Abraham did indeed succeed in his mission. For from the time he began his supplications, the word “כלה”was no longer mentioned. Although the angels did use the word “תספה”, Onkelos merely translates it as the far milder “תלקי”, and perhaps they merely used the word in the context of warning Lot about the imminent doom, so that he would hasten his departure. In any case, the word “כלה”wasno longer being used. The destruction of Sodom was now merely being described via the words “השחתה”and “הפיכה”,overturning. Targum Yonatan (to Amos 4:11) describes the “מהפכת סדום”asthe distancing of the Divine Presence,31and we also find the term”הפיכה”interpreted in the sense of withdrawal /setback (see Targum Yonatan and Metz. David to Jud. 20:39).32In any case, the site was not wiped off the map forever, and some remnant thereof was allowed to remain. This could seemingly be accredited to Abraham and his tireless pleas.
Finally, we also asked above: What was Abraham’s motive in pleading for the rescue of the evil Sodom? Perhaps our Sages provided us with clues to the answer in the Midrashic citations referred to above in reference to the verse, Go, descend – for your people (שִׁחֵת)have become corrupt (Ex.32:7). Exodus Rabba (42:1) states: “[The term] שִׁחֵתcan only mean that they corrupted their deeds.” Tanchuma (Ki Tisa, 20) states: [The term] שִׁחֵתcan only mean the spoiling of deeds.” Hence, we see that the sin of the Golden Calf – the greatest sin in the history of the Jewish people – is nonetheless described “merely” by the term “השחתה”, which denotes spoilageand corruption. Is this possible? However, the survival of the Jewish people in this incident may also stem from the merit of our Forefather Abraham, who foresaw the future of his own people in his relentless pleas on behalf of the evil Sodomites. In other words, whatever transgression Israel might commit in the future would surely not rise to the level of the evils of Sodom. Hence, if even Sodom itself was not completely wiped off the face of the earth, and it was “merely” נשחתה, it goes without saying that certainly the Jewish people deserve to survive forever. G-d’s description of even the cataclysmic sin of the Golden Calf as שחתtherefore serves to reaffirm Israel’s destiny to survive in perpetuity – and the Eternal One of Israel does not lie!