חֶרְפָּה: disgrace, shameful, detested
חַרִיף: sharp, strong, biting
נֶחֶרֶפֶת: designated, singled out
וְאִישׁ כִּי יִשְׁכַּב אֶת אִשָּׁה שִׁכְבַת זֶרַע וְהִוא שִׁפְחָה נֶחֱרֶפֶת לְאִישׁ וְהָפְדֵּה לֹא נִפְדָּתָה אוֹ חֻפְשָׁה לֹא נִתַּן לָהּ בִּקֹּרֶת תִּהְיֶה לֹא יוּמְתוּ כִּי לֹא חֻפָּשָׁה
And a man if he will lie with a woman intimately and she is a maidservant designated to a man, and she has been redeemed yet not redeemed (fully), or freedom has not been given to her, an investigation will be conducted, they will not be given the death penalty because she was not freed.1
Not only is the winter biting, but it is also a time where everything is cold and desolate, barren of any life. It is not a productive time of year and is therefore not the preferred season. Much better is theaviv/spring, where everything starts to grow and bloom and where the temperatures are pleasant and temperate.
The Ramban explains that the word נֶחֱרֶפֶתcomes from חוֹרֶף/youth, because the winter is the beginning of the year, whereas the summer is compared to old age because it is the time of the ingathering of the harvest.2
חַרִיף: Sharp, Strong, Biting
I used to compare the winter to death and therefore the end of life, spring being the days of youth, summer the days of one’s prime, and autumn the days of old age. We see from the wisdom of lashon hakodesh, however, that really the חוֹרֶף/winter is the time of youth, where one is very חַרִיף/sharp, sharp-witted, but also one can be sharp to the point where one’s words can be biting.
In one’s youth, one has still not sprouted forth his own individuality; he is still living at home, being nurtured by his family. Only when he leaves home and gets married does he really start to grow and find out who he really is. Just like the winter is raw, one who is in his youth is uncultured, not temperate but rather tempered and wild, full of mood swings, symbolized by the winter storms with their thunder and lightning.
The summer comes after many years of growth, producing fruits after a long maturation period. At the end of the summer the fruits have ripened, and at a ripe old age we are ready to be picked off the tree and gathered in. No wonder the summer is called the קַיִץ, from lashonקֵץ/the end, and the time of אַסִיפָה/ingathering.
Rosh Hahanah, the beginning of the year, comes at the end of the summer. The autumn hails the beginning of the winter when everything withers and dies. But nevertheless the winter is still considered the start of a new year.
Winter also represents rebirth and תְּחִיַת הַמֵתִים/coming back to life, because even though everything seemingly has withered and died, we know that soon the seeds will once again sprout. And just like a seed just needs water, earth, and time to come alive, so too there should be no reason why one should not believe that in time we too will rise from the earth and come back to life, after being nurtured from the life-giving waters of Hashem’s Torah.
נֶחֶרֶפֶת: Designated, Singled Out
In this parshah, the case of the שִׁפְחָה חַרוּפָה is mentioned. A שִׁפְחָה חַרוּפָה is a maidservant who has been partially freed. For instance, she was jointly owned by two people and one of the owners freed her. A maidservant who is fully free automatically becomes Jewish. Being half-Jewish, the שִׁפְחָה חַרוּפָה can no longer have relations with a non-Jewish slave (to a Jew), and being half non-Jewish she cannot be with a full-fledged Jewish man either. Her half-owner, however, can designate his עֶבֶד עִבְרִי/Jewish slave to have relations with her, because the Torah permits a master to allow his עֶבֶד עִבְרִי to have relations with a שִׁפְחָה/non-Jewish maidservant in order to produce more servants.
There is a Mishnah that brings an argument between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel regarding an עֶבֶד כְּנַעַנִי/a Canaanite servant who similarly has been partially freed.3Beis Hillel suggests that he should work one day and be free the next. Beis Shammai quotes the following saying: לֹא נִבְרָא הָעוֹלָם אֶלָא לְפִּרִיָה וּרְבִיָה/the world was only created in order to go forth and multiply, arguing that since this man will therefore lay idle, not being allowed to be with a Jew because he is half non-Jew and also not allowed to be with a non-Jew because he is half-Jew, the only solution is to get the other owner to free him completely. Beis Shammai’s argument is so powerful that Beis Hillel is forced to retract and agree with Beis Shammai.
חֶרְפָּה: Disgrace, Shameful, Detested
When Rachel Imeinu finally gives birth to Yosef, she says: אָסַף אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת חֶרְפָּתִי/ Hashem has gathered in my shame.4In other words, for a woman not to be able to give birth is shameful and humiliating for her, because her whole being is designed to this end. Therefore, the Torah calls not being able to fulfill her intended mission a חֶרְפָּה.
Similarly, a שִׁפְחָה חַרוּפָה/ half-freed maidservant, can only give birth to partially Jewish slaves who, like the Mishnah brought above said, are unable to procreate. Since the world was only created for procreation, they are therefore unable to fulfill their mission, which too is a חֶרְפָּה, and hence she is known as a שִׁפְחָה חַרוּפָה.
And it doesn’t end here! לְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר לוֹ עָרְלָה כִּי חֶרְפָּה הִוא לָנוּ/to the man who has an orlah, it is a disgrace.5The pasukdescribes how Yaakov’s sons relate to the townspeople of Shechem after the rape of their sister Dinah that they could not join together as one people because they are uncircumcised, i.e., they have an עָרְלָה, which is a חֶרְפָּה, a shame and a disgrace.
What is it about being uncircumcised that the Torah calls it a חֶרְפָּה?
People who are not circumcised are more predisposed to do immoral acts. There is no self-control; at best they are faithful to their spouse, but this faithfulness is no more than an animal’s loyalty to one partner to satisfy its desires. The world was created for פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ/to reproduce; Hashem created this desire in us so that we should come together, though not with the intention of satisfying our own selfish desires. It should be an act of giving, an act of sowing seeds, of producing holy fruits, of bringing down holy נְשָׁמוֹת/souls from above. No wonder Chazal call this act the “holy of holies.” Chazal also tell us that the thoughts that one has during the conception of our children impact the type of neshamosthat we bring into the world. By having children, we become more of aצֶלֶם אֶ-לֹהִים/creation in the image of G-d, for just like Hashem is אָבִינוּ שֶׁבַּשָׁמַיִם/our Father in Heaven who gives to his children unconditionally, we too as parents have the opportunity to emulate Him by giving unconditionally to our children.
What helps to engage in this holy act is to do בְּרִית מִילָה. This helps us to exercise self-control and not to behave like aבְּהֵמָה/animal out of instinct and raw desire, since there is a higher purpose to our procreation. No coincidence that the rape of Dinah was at the hands of an animal, שְׁכֶם בֶּן חַמוּר/Shechem the son of a donkey!
So getting back to our question of why the Torah labels the uncircumcised as a חֶרְפָּה, it is because people who have no control over their desires, who just have relations to satisfy themselves, are not interested in the higher purpose of having children; and as we have seen, not having children is considered a חֶרְפָּה.
Returning to our connection with the חוֹרֶף, the winter is the season where nothing takes seed, where nothing is produced and the land lays barren. So too, then, a woman who is barren considers herself to be a חֶרְפָּה, because her whole purpose for being born is to produce.
2Ramban to Vayikra 19:20.