Parashat Acharei Mot – Mixed Up and Worn out


The word תבל, denoting depravity, appears only twice in Scripture, in אחרי מות and קדושים. We explore in this article many related words to try to uncover the unique meaning of this word and it’s profound lessons.

The word תֶּבֶל appears once in Parashat Acharei Mot and once in Parashat Kedoshim (both quoted in the next paragraph), and nowhere else in the Pentateuch. In both instances, Rashi offers two similar -but not identical- explanations. In both Parshiyot, Rashi’s second explanation is that תֶּבֶל is an expression of בלילה ובלבול (mixture, confusion). As for his first explanation, in Acharei Mot, Rashi explains that this refers to immorality, while in Kedoshim he explains it as disgrace.

The word’s first appearance is: Lev. 18:23 – A woman shall not stand before an animal for mating, this is a תֶּבֶל; Rashi – This is a תֶּבֶל – it is an expression of קָדֵש (prostitution[1]), עריות (incest) and ניאוף (adultery), as in My fury and My anger will destroy them for their תַּבְלִית[2] (Isa. 10:25). Another explanation is that תֶּבֶל is an expression of mixture and confusion – of the seed of a man and the seed of an animal.

The second appearance of תֶּבֶל is: Lev. 20: 12 – A man who shall lie with his daughter-in-law, the two of them shall be put to death. they have committed a תֶּבֶל, their blood is upon themselves; Rashi – they have committed a תֶּבֶל – a גנאי (disgrace). Another explanation is that this mixes and confuses the seed of the father and the seed of the son.[3]

Most of Rashi’s super-commentators explain that when he writes (in his second explanation) that תֶּבֶל is an expression of mixing, he means that the root of the word is בלל,[4] while others explain that the root of תֶּבֶל is בלה (wearing out, erosion, decay).[5] By contrast, in Rashi’s first explanation (that תֶּבֶל means something related to immorality or disgrace), he does not convey his opinion as to the root of the word תֶּבֶל. In this explanation, most commentators[6] agree that Rashi understood the letter ת’ to be part of the root, making תבל the root itself. Let’s examine the derivatives of  בלה and בלל, the possible sources for this distinctive word, תֶּבֶל, and the reason Rashi defined this word’s second appearance only as disgrace, instead of his detailed definition of prostitution, incest and adultery – in its first occurrence.

As is well-known, Rashi’s approach to Biblical Hebrew roots is based in great measure on the work of Menachem Ibn Saruk. According to Menachem, the root of תֶּבֶל is the biliteral בל. Menachem lists no less than eleven distinct subcategories of the root בל, with the word תֶּבֶל comprising the sixth subcategory. The following is this subcategory in full:

Sixth subcategory – they have committed a תֶּבֶל,[7] My anger will destroy them for their תַּבְלִית,[8] she has become לַבָּלָה through adulteries,[9] Ephraim will יתבולל with the nations[10] – ]Menachem explains the common thread]: Common to all these passages is immorality. [She has become] לַבָּלָה means she has become a harlot. As for Ephraim’s mixing into the nations, [this means] he will become immoral through their impurity, and become impure through incest and adultery.

Menachem opened here with the word תֶּבֶל (from Lev. 18), and Rashi’s first explanation ad loc. concords with Menachem’s interpretation (prostitution, incest and adultery), and he further compares this word to the second word that appears in Menachem’s list, תַּבְלִיתָם. So too in his commentary to Isaiah, Rashi compares תֶּבֶל to תַּבְלִיתָם, as per Menachem’s opinion: Isa. 10:25 – My fury and My anger will destroy them for their תַּבְלִית; Rashi – for תַּבְלִיתָם – This is an expression of they have committed a תֶּבֶל (Lev. 20), for the blasphemous pronunciations of the King of Assyria’s men against Me.

However, when it comes to the third word that Menachem puts into this subcategory, לַבָּלָה נִאוּפִים, Rashi -in contrast to his usual wont- argues on Menachem: Ezek. 23:43 – And I thought of this one, who had become לַבָּלָה נִאוּפִים through her adulteries; Rashi – “My heart had said to me about this woman, who became old and worn out in adulteries, that ‘now that she is old, her adulteries will stray from her, and her desire for immorality will depart from her heart and she will change her ways’… and Menachem placed this [word] in the category of they have committed a תֶּבֶל (Lev. 20), which is untenable.”

In short, according to Rashi, the word לַבָּלָה  is not intrinsically connected to adultery. Rather, it means that the aging adulteress is now worn out.

The same is true concerning the final passage: Ephraim will יתבולל with the nations, in which Menachem spoke at relative length in showing that יתבולל means adopting the immorality of the gentiles. There, Rashi explains that יתבולל means only that the exiles of Ephraim will mix into the nations, without reference to immorality: Hos. 7:8 – Ephraim will יתבולל with the nations; Rashi – יתבולל he will become confused and mixed among the nations in the Exile.

We will therefore try to understand Menachem’s position and Rashi’s objection to it. As background, we’ll cite two additional subcategories of the root בל brought by Menachem:

Eighth subcategory – After I had become old [אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי][11], their form shall rot [לבלות] in the grave,[12] and the Earth willתִּבְלֶה  (become worn out) like a garment,[13] My chosen ones will wear out [יְבַלּוּ] (their handiwork), [14]whose leaf will never wither [יִבּוֹל],[15] You will surely become worn out [נָבֹל תִּבֹּל],[16] Worn-out rags [בְּלוֹיֵ סְחָבוֹת].[17]

Ninth subcategory – …let us confuse [נָבְלָה] their language,[18] [Its name is] Babel, because it was there that Hashem confused [בָּלַל] the language of the whole earth.[19]

As is often the case, Menachem does not explicitly clarify the connection between the verses in these subcategories and why he categorized them as he did. Still, the connections can be gleaned from their contexts: the eighth category refers to the concept of wearing out[20] and loss,[21] while the ninth category refers to the notion of confusion and intermixture.

We now return to Menachem’s sixth subcategory of the root בל; it seems we can divide his explanations there into three parts:

1) Common to all these passages is immorality (with this, Menachem describes the category as a whole. This idea applies to all the words here, in his opinion).

2) [She has become] לַבָּלָה means she has become a harlot (with this, Menachem connects this verse to the idea of harlotry, which Rashi does not accept).

3) For Ephraim’s mixing into the nations, [this means] he will become… impure through incest and adultery. (This verse as well, according to Menachem, does not describe wearing out or mixing in the sense of assimilation, but rather mixing in a manner of impurity and harlotry).

When Rashi rejected Menachem’s explanation of [She has become] לַבָּלָה as “untenable,” this is because Rashi holds that the word בָּלָה means wearing out,[22] and therefore belongs in Menachem’s eighth subcategory. Similarly, according to Rashi, the wordיתבולל  belongs in Menachem’s ninth subcategory, of mixing and confusing. This is because Rashi explains this word in its simple sense, that of being lost among the gentiles[23] (see footnote for explanation of Menachem’s approach).[24]

Before resolving the differences between Rashi’s two approaches to the word, תֶּבֶל, let’s first explore the root בל, the root of תֶּבֶל according to Menachem, and which the source of many words denoting mixing and/or wearing out. Furthermore, upon close examination of a wide range of words containing the letters בל –beyond those Menachem included- a clear pattern appears to emerge, with each and every instance indeed being connected on the one hand to the notions of mixing and/or wearing out, the two concepts themselves bearing commonalities. We will now analyze the examples, one by one:

Derivatives of בלל (mixing, confusion):

  1. בלל (mixing) – As quoted above: Let us confuse [נָבְלָה] their language,[25] [Its name is] Babel, because it was there that Hashem confused [בָּלַל] the language of the whole earth.[26]
  2. תְּבַלֻּל (an eye ailment) – Rashi explains this word as expressing confusion: 18:20 – Who has a blemish… or a תְּבַלֻּל in his eye; Rashi – אוֹ תְּבַלֻּל  – “something which confuses [מבלבל] the eye,[27] such as a thread of white extending from the sclera [white of his eye] into his iris.” Ibn Ezra offers two explanations: a) תבלול is related to the word תֶּבֶל, destruction, presumably from the root בלה.[28] b) It is comparable to the word בלולה, from the root בלל: Ibn Ezra – Some say the word תְּבַלֻּל  is a derivative of: they have committed a תבל (Lev. 20:12), meaning destruction. Others say that this is derives from בלולה בשמן, mixed in oil (Lev. 2:5). And according to both explanations the ת’ is extraneous [to the root].
  3. בליל (the mixed feed of animals) – Job 6:5 – Does an ox moo over בלילו; Radak (in Sefer HaShorashim, entry בלל) explains that animal fodder is called בליל because it is a mixture of barley and oats.
  4. גבל (mixing clay, flour and the like with water) – Parah 9:5 – Waters of the Red Heifer that become disqualified must not be kneaded [יְגַבְּלֵם] with clay; Rambam (Mishnah commentary) – … and according to R’ Eliezer, once they are kneaded with clay, their status is annulled and they no longer render impure. Shabbat 18a – Dirt is fit for kneading; Rashi – It is kneadable, for use with clay for construction. [29] Brachot 40a – גביל for the oxen; Rashi – גביל for the oxen – knead the bran with water for the oxen. Tosefta Challah 1:4 – Roasted flour that was kneaded [שגבלו] into dough requires the challah tithes to be removed.[30]

שבלול (a type of snail) – In Shabbat 77b, Rashi explains that this is a “limacon” (snail), and so too he explains in his Scriptural commentary (Ps. 58:9). However, he adds that there are those who interpret this word as a שבולת,[31] a powerful current that stirs the water of the sea,[32] from the word בלול (mixed / stirred). This appears as well in the Midrash: Tanchuma Vayera 17 – And

[1] “קדש,” מלשון “וְגַם קָדֵשׁ הָיָה בָאָרֶץ” (מ”א יד:כד).

[2] As we will soon see, Rashi here is following the approach of Menachem Ibn Saruk, who saw both of these words [תבל and תבלית] as expressions of immorality.

[3] ביאור זה של עירבוב ובלבול מקורו מדבריהם ז”ל: פסיקתא זוטרתא וי’ כ:יא – תבל עשו. שתיבלו את החוט. ודומה לו: על תבליתם (ישע’ י) והיא תועבותם, לשון בלבול. ספרא קדושים י:י – תבל עשו – על שם שתיבל את החוט; קרבן אהרן – שתבלו את החוט – כלומר שערבו חוט של שלשלת, דבא הוא ובנו על אשה אחת. וכן דרשוה מלשון “תבלין”: נדר נא. – תבל הוא (וי’ יח:כג) – תבלין יש בה? מי שניא הדא ביאה מן כולהון ביאות?; רש”י – וכי תבלין יש בה – כלומר יש בביאה זו טעם מבאחרות? וראה להלן בסעיף “תבלין” שפירשו המפרשים ש”תבלין” נגזרת משרש ‘בלל’.

[4] מזרחי, שפתי חכמים, מנחת יהודה. וכן הביאו ראב”ע (וי’ יח:כג בדעה ב’), ריב”ג, רד”ק (ערך ‘בלל’). והסכים רש”פ (י”ש ב:עב,ב, ח”ש ערך ‘בל’) שענינה ענין  בלילה וערבוב, הגם ששרשה ‘בל’ לדעתו.

[5] Rabbi S. R. Hirsch (to Lev. 18:23), Minchat Yehudah (ibid.), Kedushat HaTorah VeDikdukeha (ibid.). Likutim MiPardes (pg. 68) cites both possibilities.

[6] Mizrachi, Siftei Chachmim, and Moda LeBinah (to Lev. 20:12). R”Y Chayuj also classifies it under the entry תבל.

[7] Lev. 18:23 – A man who shall lie with his daughter-in-law… they have committed a תֶּבֶל, their blood is upon themselves; Rasag – תֶּבֶל – Abomination, going astray and baseness – to the extreme.

[8] My fury and My anger will destroy them for their תַּבְלִית (Isa. 10:25);מצ”צ – תבליתם – ענינו דבר מגונה שאין ראוי לעשותם, כמו: תבל הוא (ויקרא יח).

[9] And I thought [about she who] has become  לַבָּלָה through her adulteries (Ezek. 23:43).

מנחם מייחס הוראת  קדש למלה “לבלה”. וקצת סמך לכך במדרש: ויק”ר לג:ו – אמר רבי יהודה ב”ר סימון, אין לשון לבלה אלא לשון ע”ז, כמו דאת אמר: בל בבבל (יר’ נא). והרי ע”ז וג”ע אחים, כגון בבעל פעור. וראה רדצ”ה שמ’ כב:יז-יט.

[10] Hos. 7:8.

כאן ייחס הוראות  טומאה וניאוף למלה “יתבולל”. ואכן, פ’ בעל העלי תמר (ירוש’ תענ’ ב:ו) שהושע ניבא במיוחד על כך: הושע קורא מנהמות לבו למלכות ירבעם שנשתקע בטומאת ע”ז – אפרים בעמים יתבולל.

[11]  ברא’ יח:יב – אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי; ת”א – בתר דסיבית – לשון  שיבה, כלומר אחרי שנשחקתי.

[12]  תה’ מט:טו – לְבַלּוֹת שְׁאוֹל; מצ”צ – לבלות – מלשון בליה ורקבון.

[13]  ישע’ נא:ו; מצ”צ – תבלה – מלשון בליה ורקבון.

[14] ישעיהו סה:כב; מצ”צ – יבלו – ענין זוקן כמו יבלו בטוב ימיהם (איוב כא).

[15] תהלים א:ג; מצ”צ – יבול – יכמוש כמו כאלה נובלת עליה (ישעיה א’).

[16] שמ’ יח:יח – נָבֹל תִּבֹּל; רש”י (שמ’ יח:יח) – נבל תבל… ל’ כמישה… כמו: והעלה נבל (יר’ ח:יג), כנבול עלה (ישע’ לד:ד)… תש ונלאה.

[17] יר’ לח:יא; רד”ק – בְּלוֹיֵ סְחָבוֹת – בגדים בלוים נשחתים; מצ”צ – בלוי – מלשון בליה ורקבון.

[18] בראשית יא:ז; רש”י – ונבלה – ונבלבל. נ’ משמש בלשון רבים, וה”א אחרונה יתירה כה”א של נרדה.

[19] בראשית יא:ט; רש”י סנהד’ קט. – כי שם בלל ה’ – בלבל לשונם.

[20] וגווניה השונים:  שחיקה, כמישה, רקבון, קלקול, השחתה, כפי שפירש רשר”ה את המלה “לַבָּלָה”: רש”ר הירש ויקרא יח:כג – וָאֹמַר לַבָּלָה נִאֻפִים (יחז’ כג:מג); הווה אומר: סוף ניאופים לבּלה – להשחתה מוסרית גמורה.

[21] “הפסד” היא מלה שנקט בה מצ”צ במקומות אחרים: איוב יד:יח – הַר נוֹפֵל יִבּוֹל; מצ”צ – יבול מל’ בליה והפסד. דה”א יז:ט – וְלֹא יוֹסִיפוּ בְנֵי עַוְלָה לְבַלֹּתוֹ; מצ”צ – לבלותו – מל’ בליה והפסד כמו: בלה בשרי (איכה ג).

[22] כמוכח מפירושו שם: רש”י יחזקאל כג:מג – לבלה נאופים – זו שבלתה והזקינה.

[23] ראה גם את ההערה האחרונה במאמר להצעה בענין סברת מנחם בחלוקתו בין “יתבולל” במחלקה ו’ לבין מחלקה ח’.

[24] רש”י הושע ז:ח – יתבולל – יבולבל בגולה בין האומות. הגם שנזכר “ניאוף” בפס’ ד’ שם (וכמה פעמים בס’ הושע), הוא מוזכר בין עבירות אחרות, ואין קשר מוכרח למלה “התבוללות” לדעת רש”י, כפי שאין “לבלה” מורה על  ניאוף, הגם שהמלים מופיעות ביחד בס’ יחזקאל. ולכאורה, מנחם כן סבר שההקשר קובע במשמעות המלים האלו.

[25] בראשית יא:ז; רש”י – ונבלה – ונבלבל. נ’ משמש בלשון רבים, וה”א אחרונה יתירה כה”א של נרדה.

[26] בראשית יא:ט; רש”י סנהד’ קט. – כי שם בלל ה’ – בלבל לשונם.

[27] השוה בכורות לח:, מד. (ופ’ רבנו גרשום שם).

[28] כפי שפי’ רד”ק את ל’ “בלוי”: רד”ק יר’ לח:יא – בְּלוֹיֵ סְחָבוֹת – בגדים בלוים נשחתים. וחבר “בלוי” בערך ‘בלה’.

[29] ושמא מקור לשון חז”ל קשור למלאכת ה”גבלים”, בוני הקירות (עם טיט / מלט): מ”א ה:לב – וַיִּפְסְלוּ בֹּנֵי שְׁלֹמֹה וּבֹנֵי חִירוֹם וְהַגִּבְלִים; רד”ק – ויונתן תרגם וארגובליא… יהיו הגבלים בוני הקיר. אח”כ ראיתי שכך הציע גם בספר לשון התרגום לנביאים ראשונים (דף 177, הערה 80). ורד”ק בשרשיו הציע שהיא מלשון גבול ע”ש. ויש להוסיף שהגבול הוא המונע עירבוב ובלבול.

[30] See Radak (entry גבל) for his suggestion of the connection between this root and the word גבול (border).

[31] See Isa. 47:2 and Rashi there for a connection to this word and the similar words שביל and שֹׁבֶל. See further Song Rabba 3:2 with the commentary, Kanfei Yonah.

[32] וכמו שכתב רשר”ה: רש”ר הירש בר’ מא:ה – “שבולת”, מציינת גם את מערבולת הנהר, “וְשִׁבֹּלֶת שְׁטָפָתְנִי” (תה’ סט:ג). מקור מלה זו מארמית, והיא תרגומו של ענין  מבוכה, כגון: שמות יד:ג – נְבֻכִים הֵם בָּאָרֶץ; ת”א – מעורבלין אנון בארעא. יואל א:יח – נָבֹכוּ עֶדְרֵי בָקָר; ת”י – מִתְעַרְבְּלָן בְּקָרַן דְתוֹרִין. איוב לח:טז – עַד נִבְכֵי יָם; תרגום – עד מערבלי סגור ימא. אסתר ג:טו – שׁוּשָׁן נָבוֹכָה; תרגום – דשושן מתערבלא.

Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg

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