Bo: The Sign is Coming ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

In Parshat Bo there are three signs: The plagues in Egypt are called a “sign” (Ex. 10:1-2), the blood which the Jews were supposed to place their doorpost was called a “sign” (Ex. 12:13), and the tefillin which the Jews are supposed to wear is called a “sign” (Ex. 12:9; 12:16). The Hebrew word for “sign” in all of these cases is oht. However, there is another word for “sign” in Hebrew: mofet. In fact, the Ten Plagues are not just called oht, but they are also called mofet (Ex. 11:9-10). So what is the difference between an oht and a mofet?

Nachmanides (to Deut. 13:2) explains that an oht is a sign that is supposed to portend the fulfillment of a prophecy. For example, when a prophet predicts that if such-and-such will happen it will be a sign that something-or-other is true, then such-and-such is an oht which serves as a “sign” for the prophecy. Nachmanides further explains that the word oht (ALEPH-VAV-TAV) is related to the word for “coming” (ALEPH-TAV-HEY, or more commonly in its Aramaic form with a second ALEPH instead of the HEY), because it is a sign of things “to come.” The word mofet, on the other hand, denotes a “sign” that will come about in a miraculous way that bends the apparent rules of nature. Nachmanides explains that the word mofet is shorthand for muflat/niflah/pele (“wonderous”) with the LAMMED dropped for the sake of brevity.

Nonetheless, Nachmanides cites the Sifrei (to Num. 6:3) which explicitly notes that oht and mofet are the same thing. Nachmanides explains that this does not literally mean that the two words are true synonyms that bear the exact same meaning. Rather, it means that the two words refer to the same sort of phenomenon. Midrash Lekach Tov, also known as Pesikta Zutrata, cites the Sifrei,but adds that an oht is a “sign” about something in the future, and a mofet is a sign of something imminent. Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) explains that this is not a contradiction, because Midrash Lekach Tov understood that the Sifrei means that there is no difference between the two words in that they both mean “a sign”, but they can differ in the details as to when the implications of that sign are to manifest themselves.

Rabbi David Kimchi (1160-1235), also known as Radak, explains in Sefer HaShorashim that an oht is any type of “sign”, while a mofet refersspecifically to the type of “sign” whose purpose is to cause one to believe in something set for the future.

Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (to Ex. 7:9) explains that when G-d sends someone to perform some sort of miraculous feat, then, depending on the purpose of the miracle, one of the two words in question will be used. If the purpose of the miracle is to relate a message about G-d, the term mofet is used. But, if the purpose of the message is to relate something about the messenger/medium, the term oht is used.

Rabbi Don Yitzchak Abarbanel (1437-1508) writes that some commentators claim that oht and mofet are synonyms that refer to supernatural phenomena. However, he disagrees with this understanding and explains that neither word refers to any supernatural wonders. Rather, both words refer to natural “signs”. An oht is a sign or symbol which can be within nature. For example, Gen. 1:14 reveals that the benefit of having a sun and moon is to serve as an oht for different periods of time. Moreover, tefillin is called an oht that symbolizes the Exodus, and the flags of each tribe had images which served as an oht that symbolized the tribe (see Num. 2:2). Abarbanel also notes that each letter of the alphabet is called an oht because that letter is a “sign” that represents a certain sound. All of these examples suggest that an oht can be a “sign” that lies within the confines of nature.

On the other hand, Abarbanel explains that a mofet refers to a non-physical “sign”, to a more abstract, logical argument. He explains that the word mofet is related to yofi (“beauty”) because the veracity of a logical argument lies in the beauty of its honesty. Indeed, the Radak in Sefer HaShorashim writes that the root of mofet is YUD-PEH-TAV.

The earliest person to use the mofet in this way was Rabbi Shmuel Ibn Tibbon (1150-1230), best known for having translated the works of Maimonides and others from Judeo-Arabic into Hebrew. He writes that mofet refers to a proof which conclusively proves a certain idea; while an oht refers to evidence which points in the direction of a certain idea, but does not conclusively prove it.

Malbim explains that an oht is any “sign” or “symbol” which is used to remind one of something that the sign symbolizes. A mofet, by contrast, is a supernatural “sign” which is used to remind one of G-d — the ultimate mover behind all natural and supernatural phenomena. Malbim simplifies this distinction by explaining that every mofet is an oht, but not every oht is a mofet. [Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) contrasts oht with eid, writing that an oht is simply a reminder, while an eid serves to remind and spur one into action.]

Rabbi Avraham Menachem HaKohen Rappaport (1520-1594) writes in his work Minchah Belulah that there are two differences between an oht and a mofet: An oht directly brings one to a certain belief, while a mofet only pushes one in the direction of a certain belief but does not directly bring him to any conclusions. He writes that mofet is related to the word mefateh — “seduce” or “convince”, see Devarim Rabbah §7:9. Alternatively, he explains that an oht is a sign of the Heavenly realm, while a mofet is a sign in the Earthly realm. Finally, Rabbi Rappaport concludes that oht and mofet are simply synonyms that mean the exact same thing.

Malbim explains when Moshe turned his staff into a snake in front of the Jews it was called an oht because it was a sign to them that he was really sent by G-d. However, when Moshe performed the same act in front of Pharaoh it is described as a mofet because to Pharaoh it was simply a supernatural parlor-trick, but had no deeper meaning (because he denied G-d).

Rabbi Wertheimer writes that some claim that the root of the word mofet is YUD-PEH-AYIN, but that the AYIN is always dropped, and the YUD sometimes morphs into a MEM. Accordingly, he explains that mofet is related to mofia (“presents itself”), because a sign is the way one presents an idea to others. Alternatively, he explains that mofet to mean the “presentation of a new, hitherto unseen, phenomenon”.

Chanukah: Spinning in Concentric Circles ~ Reuven Chaim Klein

Long before the fidget spinner became the world’s favorite pastime, Jewish children played with spinning tops on the holiday of Chanuka. Such a spinning device is known in Yiddish as a dreidel, while in Modern Hebrew it is called a sevivon. The word sevivon is derived from the Hebrew saviv (“around”), which appears in the Bible. There is, however, another Hebrew word which also means around: haikef. The circumference of a circle is known as its haikef (which is, of course, “Pi” times the diameter), and the traditional circuits around the bimah (almmamar, or “table” upon which the Torah Scroll is read) that are performed during Succot and on Simchat Torah are likewise known as hakafot. So what is the difference between saviv and haifek, and are there any other words which also mean “around”?

Rabbi Meir Leibush Weiser (1809-1879), better known as the Malbim, explains that haikef denotes a complete circle, while saviv is not necessarily a complete circuit (though, he notes the phrase saviv saviv indicates a full circle).

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) also explains that the word saviv does not denote a complete circle, but simply means going around the center in a circular way, which could include a semi-circle or even just an arc. When the Jews circumvented traversing Philistine land by traveling around them (Ex. 13:18), it is described as a sivuv, even though they obviously did not make a full circle. This is because any round-about movement whose purpose may be to avoid a certain point (conceptually, “the center of the circle”) can be called a sivuv. The term saviv can also be used metaphorically, such as when one speaks in a round-about way without saying one’s point explicitly (II Sam. 14:20).

Nonetheless, Rabbi Pappenheim writes that saviv or saviv-related words usually refer to complete circles. To this effect, the Hebrew word siv refers to the bast of a palm tree, which is a fibrous material that surrounds the branches. Similarly, a drunkard is called a soveh (see Deut. 21:20, Proverbs 23:20, and Isa. 56:12) because he circulates around the taverns and bars (to taste different types of intoxicating beverages, to avoid being recognized by the bartenders, or because he uses up his credit in one shop and must drink elsewhere). An elderly gentleman is called a sav (Job 15:10) or a “grandfather” — saba — because he is nearing the completion of the circle of his lifecycle.

By contrast, the word haikef always refers to a full circuit. The seven circuits around the bimah (mentioned above) are called hakafot (or hakafah in singular) because they ought to be complete circuits. By contrast, the word for a spinner is sevivon because it need not necessarily make any full circles but might stop spinning in the middle of rotating without completing the last circle. Interestingly, Rabbi Pappenheim writes that a frozen or congealed substance is described as kafah/kafui, which is related to the word haikef because it is completely enclosed within the framework of its current state and cannot change shape as easily as a liquid can do so.

As the Targumim imply and Radak confirms, the Aramaic equivalent to the Hebrew root-word saviv is sachor, and sachor-related words appear in the Bible in the general meaning of round: a socheirah (mentioned in Ps. 91:4) is a type of round shield, and a merchant is called a socher because he travels around trying to sell his merchandise.

Another Hebrew root word related to circles is afef. We say in Hallel, “The pains of death encircled (afefuni) me… and I would call out in the name of G-d, ‘Please G-d, save my soul’” (Ps. 116:3-4). Malbim explains that the encircling denoted by afef always has a negative connotation. Regarding its etymology, Malbim explains that afef is related to the Hebrew word peah “corner” (in plural peyot) because it denotes enveloping someone or something from all possible corners.

Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (1578-1654) writes that the original meaning of the word chag (“holiday”) is “circle”, which conjures the circles of dance which people enjoy on holidays (Sefer Ha’Aruch and Radak to I Sam. 30:16 offer similar understandings). For this reason, he explains, of all the holidays called a chag in the Torah (i.e., Pesach, Shavout, and Succot), the Mishnah consistently uses the term chag to refer to Succot in particular, because that is the holiday which is the most associated with happiness (see Deut. 16:15), and, thus, with dancing. Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) slightly disagrees with this when he writes that the word chag for “holiday” conjures the celebratory gait with which celebrants would walk on their thrice-yearly pilgrimages to Jerusalem. (Chanuka is never called a chag, and for that reason, the customary greeting on Chanuka is not “Chag Sameach” — “Happy Holiday” — but is something along the lines of the Yiddish expression: A Lichtege Chanuka, “An Illuminating Chanuka”).

Relatedly, Radak writes that chug is something that orbits around another body, like a planet. Malbim explains that chug or machug denotes a circle with a focus on the center of the circle. And, as we mentioned in an earlier essay, the word chagorah refers to a “belt” because it encircles a person’s body.

Rabbi Wolf Heidenheim (1757-1832) writes that because the letters CHET and AYIN are sometimes interchangeable, the word chag is the same as the word ag, which means circle. Thus, ugah is a circular food (e.g., a cake), agil refers to an earring, and when the Mishnah (Ta’anit 3:4) relates the story of Choni HaMe’agel (Onias the Circlemaker), it says that he was ag ugah (which basically means that he circumscribed himself within a drawn circle).

Yom Kippur: Degrees of Sin ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

Throughout the Yom Kippur services we repeatedly confess our sins and beg for forgiveness. In doing so, we mimic the confessionals of the Kohen Gadol in the Holy Temple. The Mishnah (Yoma 4:2) relates that when the Kohen Gadolwould confess his sins and the sins of his household, he would specifically admit to three types of sins: chetavon, and pesha. These three words are not synonymous, but rather refer to different degrees of sin. The Talmud (Yoma36b) explains that chet refers to an inadvertent sin (the state of mind known as shogeg), avon refers to wanton/intentional sins (meizid), and pesha refers to sins of rebellion. Nevertheless, there are other ways of explaining the differences between these three types of sins.

When King David was nearing the end of his life, his oldest surviving son, Adonijah, began to proclaim himself as king. Batsheba, the mother of Solomon, came before her husband, King David, and demanded that he fulfill his promise that Solomon would succeed him. She said to him that if Adonijah succeeds in securing the throne, “…then I and my son Solomon will be chataim” (I Kings 1:21). What does the word chataim meanin this context? Rashi explains that chet means “lacking”, and in this case it means that Batsheba and Solomon would be lacking the royal titles due to them. Probably based on Rashi’s comment, the Vilna Gaon (in his commentary to Prov. 1:10; 13:6) writes that chet means a sin through a lacking. In other words, he writes, a chet refers to thefailure to perform a positive commandment.

Rabbi Yechezkel Landau (1713-1793) also understands that chet refers to the lack of fulfilling a positive commandment, but synthesizes this with the Talmud’s contention that chet refers to an inadvertent sin by explaining that it refers specifically to the failure to fulfill the commandment of repenting after one has committed an inadvertent sin.

Rabbi Moshe Shapiro (1935-2017) defends the classic rabbinic definition of chet as an inadvertent sin, but still draws an important lesson from Rashi associating chet with a “lack”. He explains that a chet is not simply the lack of something, but represents the failure to achieve a goal. A sin is therefore called a chet because the sinner deviates from the goal of mankind, and misses his intended objective. His lack of achievement in that area is called a chet.

Similarly, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) writes that chetdenotes the sinner’s lack of intentions/mindfulness when committing his sin. By contrast, an avon denotes the sin of one who “thinks too much”. He wrongly concludes that sinning is the proper way to go, and acts accordingly. A pesha refers to the sin of somebody who knows that his forbidden actions are completely wrong and should not be done, but carries them out anyways in order to rebel against G-d.

Malbim takes a slightly different approach. He understands that all three wordscouldrefer to an offense committed purposely, but reflect varying motives. A chet refers to a sin committed because a person was swayed by his physical temptations, and purposely indulged in what he knew to be wrong. An avon refers to a sin that a person commits because his intellect had been negatively persuaded, causing him to stray. Finally, a pesha refers to the iniquities of one who shamelessly sins as a way of rebelling against G-d.

Peirush HaRokeach also slightly disagrees with the Talmud’s way of differentiating between chetavon, and pesha. He explains that chet refers to an inadvertent sin, pesha refers to a willful sin, and avon refers specifically to a sin from which one derived physical pleasure or gained some other benefit.

The truth is, it’s not so simple. Rabbi Netanel Weil (1687-1769) writes that the differences between the terms chet and avon are only apparent when those terms are juxtaposed to each other. In such contexts, chet means whatever chet means, and avon means whatever avon means. However, when the terms appear on their own, without the other, then each of these terms includes all types of sins, not just the specific type of sin that it otherwise means.

Moreover, classifying sins is not so black-and-white. In his Laws of Teshuvah(Repentance), Maimonides codifies the requirement for a penitent to confess his sins by saying, “Chatati (I committed a chet), Aviti (I committed an avon), Pashati (I committed a pesha)” — the same formula that the Kohen Gadol said in the Temple.

Rabbi Yosef Babad (1801-1874), in his seminal work Minchat Chinuch, writes that one need not necessarily make all three declarations. Rather, one should confess whatever sins are relevant in each situation. However, Rabbi Elazar Menachem Mann Shach (1899-2001) disagrees with this position, and maintains that Maimonides’ wording implies that in all situations a person should always recite all three declarations. He argues that not only is this because the formula instituted for the confessional includes all three types of sins, but also for another reason: Even though these three words represent three different degrees of sin, Rabbi Shach argues that no sin is so clear-cut that it fully fits into one of these three categories. Rather, every sin has different elements of chetavon, and pesha. For example, someone may have sinned inadvertently, but that sin also contains elements of wantonness and rebelliousness. Or, conversely, somebody may have sinned rebelliously, but his sin may also have some traces of inadvertency and/or pure wantonness.

A fourth term for a “sin” appears in rabbinic sources, but not in the Bible: aveiraAveira literally means “transgression” or “violation”, and although it once specifically referred to crimes of indecency, it now colloquially serves as a general term for all types of wrongdoings. Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) writes that aveira comes from the root AYIN-BET-REISH, which means “passes” in a physical sense. He explains that the concept of an aveira is that somebody morally “passes over” his thoughts in order to not focus on the nefariousness of his deeds. We might also suggest that he who commits an aveira has crossed a rabbinic red line, and, indeed, the Talmud (Shabbat 40a) maintains that even a person who violates a rabbinic prohibition can be called an avaryan.