Acharei/Kedoshim: The Realm of the Undertaker ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

In this essay we will explore the different words for gehinnom (commonly translated as “hell” or “purgatory”). The Talmud (Eruvin 19a) cites Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s statement that there are seven Biblical terms which refer to gehinnomsheolavadonbe’er shachat, bor shaon, tit hayaven, tzal-mavet, and eretz hatachtit. In the following paragraphs we will explore the literal and esoteric meanings of these seven terms, as well as several more.

The word sheol and its various forms appear close to seventy times in the Bible. Sheol’s literal meaning is “grave.” Interestingly, Ibn Ezra to Gen. 37:35 criticizes the Christian Vulgate for translating sheol in that verse as the Latin infernus (“inferno”), because Ibn Ezra maintains that sheol literally means grave. However, Rashi (there) explains that although the plain meaning of sheol is “grave,” exegetically it can refer to the post-mortem purgatory of the soul. The Malbim writes that sheol literally means a deep pit from which it is impossible to get out. This may apply to both a “grave” and gehinnom.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) explains that the root of the word sheol is SHIN-LAMMED, which denotes something “thrown away” or “negated.” That meaning extends to the grave because death marks the onset of a plane of existence which is “away” from the realm of the living. My friend Rabbi Tzvi Matisyahu Abrahams takes a more exhortative approach in his book Root Connections in the Torah. He writes (p. 274): “The grave is called sheol because at the time when we will be placed into the ground, there will be a big question (sheilah) mark hanging over our heads as to where we will be headed.”

A second word for gehinnom is avadon (Ps. 88:12), which either refers to the destruction/rotting of the body after death, or the fact that souls are “lost” (avad) there for some time.

The third term for gehinnom is shachat or be’er shachat (Ps. 16:10, 55:24). In many cases the word shachat in the Bible does not clearly refer to the grave or gehinnom, but refers to a pit. Rabbi Avraham Bedersi HaPenini (1230-1300) explains that a shachat is a pit dug for the purpose of capturing wild animals. He connects this to gehinnom by noting that the wicked sometimes set up traps in order to ensnare the righteous. He also explains that shachat is an expression of “destruction” (hashchatah), for the body rots and decomposes in the grave.

Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the root of shachat is SHIN-CHET, which refers to “bending.” This is connected to a “pit” because when one is stuck in such a cramped place he is forced to “bend” his body. Other words which are derived from this root include hishtachavah (“bowing,” by which one “bends” his posture) and mashach (“anointing,” because applying oil to hard things softens them, leaving them more pliable and “bendable”).

The fourth term cited by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi is bor shaon (literally, the “Pit of Noise”), found in Ps. 40:3. Rabbi Yonah ibn Janach and others explain that shaon — which means a “ruckus of noise” — and shaanan — which means “quiet” — are actually related to each other. This is an example of a common phenomenon in Hebrew where words with diametrically opposed meanings sometimes have related roots. In light of this it seems that bor shaon might actually means “Pit of Silence,” and refer to the fact that one can no longer complain or even speak after death.

Rashi (to Isa. 9:4) and Radak in Sefer HaShorashim explain that the word shaon has the same root as the word shoah (“holocaust” or “destruction”). This fits with the terms avadon and shachat,which are also related to “destruction.”

The fifth term proffered by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi is tit hayaven (literally, “slimy mud”), also found in Ps. 40:3 (alongside with bor shaon). Gehinnom restricts one’s freedom of movement like somebody stuck in quicksand, and in death the dead lie lifelessly in the grave. Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the word hayaven is derived from the root YUD-NUN, which refers to “trickery” or “deception.” This root is related to the word onaah (essentially “to profit by ripping somebody off”), and yayin (“wine,” which deceives the drinker by tasting good but then taking away his capacity to think properly). In the same vein, quicksand also “deceives” people by appearing to be dry land that one can walk on top of, but, in reality, if one attempts to do so he will drown in the slime. (Similar explanations are offered by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary to Gen. 9:20 and by Rabbi Aharon Marcus in Keset HaSofer to Gen. 10:2.)

The sixth synonym for gehinnom is tzal-mavet, literally “shadow of death” (Ps. 107:10, Iyov 10:21). The connection is obvious.

The seventh and final term that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi mentions is eretz hatachtit (literally, “the underworld”). When discussing this term the Talmud cannot find an example of Biblical usage, and so it simply concludes that there is a tradition linking this term with gehinnom.

Another version of Rabbi Yehoshua’s list, found in Sefer Russiana and in Menorat HaMaor by Rabbi Yitzchak Abuhab (14th century Spain) has eretz chittit (literally, “the Land of the Hittites”) instead of eretz tachtit. In fact, the Tosafists actually prefer this version. They argue that the term eretz tachtit actually does appear in the Bible (several times in Ezek. 31, see also Deut. 32:22), so if eretz tachtit was a term for gehinnom the Talmud would not have had to resort to a non-Scriptural tradition to prove so. The term eretz chittit, on the other hand, does not appear in the Bible. This substantiates the position that the Talmudic passage in question should indeed read eretz chittit, which was inadvertently changed toeretz tachtit by a scribal error. In other words, if we assume that the seventh term is eretz chittit, the Talmud’s entire discussion makes more sense.

Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555-1631), also known as the Maharsha, explains that these seven names for gehinnom correspond to seven different places in gehinnom (see Sotah 10b). Indeed, Midrash Konen (printed in Rabbi J. D. Eisenstein’s Otzar Midrashim, p. 256) writes that different types of sinners occupy different places in gehinnom: Korach and his companions occupy sheol; the lost souls of the wicked occupy avadon; robbers, thieves, and those who withhold wages from workers occupy be’er shachat; those who violated the laws governing intimate relations occupy tit hayaven; slanderers occupy tzal-mavet; those who argue with Torah Scholars occupy eretz tachtit; and so forth…

The Tosafists cite several sources that presume that alukah (literally, “leech” or “sanguisuga”) — a word that appears in Prov. 30:15 — is another term for gehinnom (although they also discuss the possibility that it is an alternate name for King Solomon). Maharal explains that just as a leech sucks out a person’s blood, so does gehinnom “suck out” a person’s soul. Similarly, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821) explains in Nefesh HaChaim (1:12) that gehinnom is called a “leech” because a leech sucks out a person’s bad blood and then dies. This is comparable to gehinnom which cleanses a person of his sins, thus causing all impure pollutants created by his sin to disappear.

Before continuing with the Talmud’s reaction to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, I must state that other sources have alternate versions of his list: Midrash Hallel (Otzar Midrashim, p. 134) omits bor shaon and eretz hatachtit, and instead includes gehinnom and tziyah (literally, “place of desolation). Midrash Din HaKever (Otzar Midrashim, p. 94) replaces bor shaon with be’er shaon; eretz hatachtit with bor hatachtit (literally, “the underpit”)andtzal-mavet with chatzar-mavat (literally, “Courtyard of Death”). The Targumic Tosefta (beginning of Ezek.) replaces bor shaon with dumah (literally, “quiet” — in Kabbalistic sources, dumah is the name of the angel in charge of gehinnom). It also replaces eretz hatachtit with arka (Aramaic for “earth,” see Jer. 10:11), and tzal-mavet with gehinnom.

After citing and finding proof-texts for the seven words in Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s list the Talmud then turns to another two words which he seems to have neglected: gehinnom and tophet. Those two words do not explicitly refer to the netherworld in the Bible. In the Bible the terms gei ben hinnom (the “Valley of Ben Hinnom,” from which the word gehinnom is derived) and tophet refer to sites in Southern Jerusalem where idol worshippers served the Baal, in part with child sacrifices (see Jer. 19).

Nonetheless, these two terms were borrowed as expressions of the sinner’s afterlife. Based on that borrowing, the Talmud asks why Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi did not include these two terms in his list. The Talmud answers that gehinnom and tophet are not additional names for the underworld or places within that realm, but are actually allusions to the reasons why somebody might end up there. Meaning, the Talmud expounds on the word gehinnom as referring to the deep “valley” (gei) into which those who engage in “pointless” (chinam, which Rashi explains refers to sexual impropriety) activities descend. Similarly, the Talmud expounds on tophet as referring to the place into which those who are “convinced” or “seduced” (mifateh) by the Evil Inclination fall. In light of this, gehinnom and tophet do not fit into the theme of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s list (i.e. Biblical terms which refer to gehinnom) and he therefore left them out.

Acharei Mot: Mixed Up and Worn out ~ Yehoshua Steinberg

The word “tevel”(תבל) appears once in Parashat Acharei Mot and once in Parshat Kedoshim, and nowhere else in the Pentateuch. In both instances, Rashi offers two similar —but not identical— explanations. The word תבלfirst appears in connection to bestiality (Lev. 18:23), and Rashi explains that it is an expression of “’kadesh’(קדש, prostitution1), ‘arayot’ (עריות, incest) and ‘niuf’ (ניאוף, adultery)”. He supports this by citing Isaiah 10:25, in which God warns the Assyrians: “My fury and My anger will destroy them for their blasphemy (תבליתם).” Alternatively, Rashi writes that תבלis an expression of mixture and combination because bestiality mixes the seed of man and animal. The second time that the word תבלappears is in regarding the sin of fornicating with one’s daughter-in-law (Lev. 20:12). In that context, Rashi first explains that the worldתבל means “gnai”(גנאי, disgrace), before again explaining that it refers to a mixture (this time, of the seed of a father and son).2

Most interpreters of Rashi explain that when he writes that תבלis an expression of mixing, he means that the root of the word תבלisבלל.3Some explain that the root of תבלis בלה(wearing out).4By contrast, in Rashi’s other explanation (that תבלmeans something related to sexual misconduct), he does not convey his opinion as to the root of the word תבל. In this explanation, the consensus5is that Rashi understood the letter תto be part of the root, making ‘תבל‘ the root itself. We will examine the differences between Rashi’s two approaches concerning the rare word תבלand the reason why the second time תבלappears, Rashi dropped his tripartite definition of “kadesh,” “arayot” and “niuf”in favor of simply writing “gnai.”

As is well-known, Rashi’s opinion concerning the roots of words in Hebrew is, in great measure, based on the work of Menachem ibn Saruk, whom Rashi cites hundreds of times throughout his commentaries to the Bible and Talmud. According to Menachem, the root of תבלis the biliteral בל. Menachem further divided the root בלinto eleven distinct subcategories, and places the word תבלin the sixth category. In said category, Menachem lists the following verses:

  1. Do not lie with any animal to be defiled through it, and a woman shall not stand in front of an animal for mating—it is a תבל”(Lev. 18:23).

  2. My fury and My anger will destroy them for תַּבְלִיתָם(Isa. 10:25).

  3. And I said [about she who] has become לַבָּלָהthrough her adulteries…” (Ezek. 23:43).

  4. Ephraim will יתבוללwith the nations” (Hos. 7:8).

The commonality between all these passages is that in each, the root בלrefers to something related to prostitution, adultery, and/or incest. Menachem clarifies that even the appearance ofבלin the context of Ephraim assimilating into the nations refers not to merely “mixing” in with them, but to their imitation of the pagan aberrations of incest and adultery.

That said, we can now better understand the background to Rashi’s first approach. In Lev. 20:12, which is the first passage Menachem cites, Rashi defines תבלas related to “sexual impropriety” and refers to Isa. 10:25, the second passage cited by Menachem. Similarly, in his commentary to Isa. 10:25, Rashi cites Lev. 20:12.

In contradistinction, Rashi to Ezek. 23:43 (“לַבָּלָה) explicitly disagrees with Menachem and instead of explaining לַבָּלָהas related to “sexual misdeeds”, he interprets it as simply “wearing out” with age. The same is true concerning the final passage which Menachem cited, Hos. 7:8. In that verse too, Rashi does not follow Menachem in explaining יתבוללas referring to “sexual misconduct,” but explains that it simply refers to the exiles of Ephraim “mixing” into the nations.

In order to understand why Menachem and Rashi differed on these two points, we will provide some background to the discussion in the form of Menachem’s eighth and ninth categories of the root בל.

In the eighth category of בל, Menachem cites the following verses:

  1. After I had become בְלֹתִי(old), I had my [menstrual] period”6(Gen. 18:12).

  2. “…their form shall לבלות(rot) in the grave” (Ps. 49:15).

  3. And the Earth תִּבְלֶה(will become worn out) like clothing” (Isa. 51:6).

  4. My chosen ones יְבַלּוּ(will become old)” (Isa. 65:22).

  5. “…and its leaves will not become יבול(putrid)” (Ps. 1:3).

  6. You will surely become תבול נבול(exhausted)” (Ex. 18:18).

  7. Rags that are בְּלוֹיֵ(worn out)” (Jer. 38:11).

In the ninth category of בל, Menachem cites the following two verses:

  1. “…and we shall נבלה(mix) their language there” (Gen. 11:7).

  2. “…its name Babylon because God had בלל(mixed)…” (Gen. 11:9).

Menachem, as is often his wont, does not explain the connection between these verses and why he categorized them as he did. Still, the connections can be gleaned from their context: the eighth category refers to the concept of “wearing out,” while the ninth category refers to the notion of “mixture.” That said, we can now understand what motivated Rashi to differ from Menachem. Rashi understood that the rootבל which appears in Ezek. 23:43 does not belong in the sixth category of בלas per Menachem’s placement, but should be placed in the eighth category. Likewise, Rashi understood that יִתְבּוֹלָלin Hos. 7:8 should have been placed in the ninth category, not the sixth.7

Until now, we have discussed various possibilities concerning the implications of the word תבל. At least according to Menachem, its root is בלwhich Menachem understood in some cases denotes “mixing” and in other “wearing out.” After consulting with various lexicons and other sources which treat all the words which include the two-letter stringבל, it seems that all such words are connected in some way or another to the idea of “mixing” or “wearing out” – and these two notions are themselves related to one another. We will now visit numerous examples; first those clearly describing mixture:

  1. בלל(“mixing”) – Concerning the Tower of Babel, Scripture states: “…and we shall נבלה (mix) their language there” (Gen. 11:7), and “…its name Babylon because God had בלל(mixed)…” (Gen. 11:9).

  2. תבלול(“cataract”) – When listing the blemishes for which a Kohen might be disqualified from service in the Temple, the Bible mentions that if he has aתבלול in his eye, he is disqualified (Lev. 21:20). Rashi explains that תבלולis something which is מבלבל(“confuses”) the eye. Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, explains that תבלולis related to the word תֶּבֶלwhich means “destructive” (i.e. sexual misdeeds are destructive to society, just as a cataract is destructive to one’s eyesight) or is related to the word בלולה(“mixed”) and refers to something mixed into his eye.

  3. בליל(“fodder”) – “Does an ox moo over בלילו(“its food”)?” (Job 6:5). Radak in Sefer HaShorashim(s.v. בלל) explains that animal fodder is called בלילbecause it is a mixture of barley and oats.

  4. גבל(“knead”) – The Mishnah (Parah9:5) teaches that the waters of the Red Heifer which became disqualified cannot be used commercially to knead (גבל) clay. Similarly, the Talmud (Shabbat18a) says that dirt is considered fit for use in kneading clay (בר גיבול הוא).8Lastly, the Tosefta (Challah1:4) rules that roasted flour that was kneaded (קמח קלי שגבלו) into dough requires the challah tithes to be taken off.

  5. שבלול(“snail”) – The Sages homiletically interpreted this word as שבולת(powerful current) and as בלול(mixture):Tanchuma Vayera 17– “like the snail (שבלול) that melts and slithers away.” (Psalms 58:9) – just as as a turbine-like torrent sweeps away) – everything in its path, so were the wicked Sodomites melted and swept away; Commentary of R’ Shlomo Buber– The Midrash here interprets שבלולlike the similar word שבולת(rapid current)9and also like שֶבָּלוּל(mixed and confused).

  6. תבלין(“seasoning”) – Aruch HaKatzar10(s.v. תבל א‘) explains that seasonings are called תבליןbecause various types of spices were typically mixed in together. Maase Rokeach11(to Maimonides’ Laws of Yom Tov 3:12) explicitly writes thatתבלין is an expression of בלילהbecause it has various ingredients mixed together. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim in Cheshek Shlomo (s.v. בל) writes that the hot spices are called תבליןbecause their existence accentuates the taste of a dish and “mixes” (integrates) the flavors very well.

  7. טבל(“untithed produce”) – Sefer HaAruchexplains that untithed produce is called טבלbecause it is unfit for consumption, and is therefore like a wooden tablet (טבלא) which cannot be eaten. However, R. Chaim Kanievsky (in Derech Emunahto Maimonides’ Laws of Maasar 5:23) and R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (in HaKetav VeHaKabbalah to Exodus 22:28) explain thatטבל refers to a “mixture” (the latter explaining that טבלis related to the word תבל12), as untithed produce is effectively treated as regular produce mixed together with holy tithes (which would render it unfit for consumption until the required tithes are given to the Kohen and Levite).

  8. כבול(“shackles”) – As told in I Kgs. 9:13, the cities which King Solomon built and gave as a present to Hiram, king of Tyre, are called the Land of Cabul (כבול, shackles). Rashi explains that they were called so because those cities were built on marshlands, such that if one would tread on its ground, his foot would get stuck as if he were tied down in shackles.13The Medieval Yemenite exegete Rabbi Avraham ben Shlomo (in his Peirush Neviim Rishonim to I Kgs. 9:13) explains that Cabul is related to נבוכה(“perplexed” or “confused”).14

Next, thoseבלwords which relate to “wearing out,” “rotting” or “exhaustion” include:

  1. בלה(“worn out, exhausted, rotting”) – This usage is found many times in the Bible: After I had become בלתי(old), I had my [menstrual] period (Gen. 18:12); Your clothing לא בלו (did not deteriorate) (Deut. 29:4); My flesh and my skin became בלה(worn out) (Lam. 3:4); My chosen ones will become worn out (Isa. 65:22); and more.

  2. בל,בלתי,בלי (various expressions of negation) – Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (Yeriot Shlomo vol. 2, pg. 72a) connects these words to the notion of being worn out or exhausted (in this case, the exhaustion or collapse of a possibility). In this way, the word בלmeans “not” such that בל ידעתי (Isa. 44:8) means, “I did not know.” As derivatives of this meaning, words like בלי(“without”) and בלתי (“no other”) also denote limited choice or exclusivity.15

  3. הבל(“futility”) – R. Shlomo Pappenheim (ibid.) continues to explain that the wordהבל is also related toבל because it denotes something “empty” or “non-existent,” similar to the “exhausted” meaning of בל(an exhausted entity being essentially useless). King Solomon famously declared: Vanity of vanities (הבל הבלים), says Koheleth, all is vain (הכל הבל) (Ecc. 1:2). R. Elazar of Worms notes that the letters in the phraseהכל הבל can be permuted to read הכל בלה (“everything is worn out”), thus cementing the association of הבלwithבלה.

  4. נבלה(“carcass”) – R. Shlomo Pappenheim (ibid.) and R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (HaKetav VehaKabbalahto Deut. 21:23) explain that the ultimate root of this word for carcasses is בלהbecause a נבלה is a dead body left to rot.

  5. אבל(“mourning”) – Radak (in Sefer HaShorashim, s.v. אבל) points out that one of the usages of the word אבלis as a term for “destruction,” adduced from two Scriptural texts: Therefore, the land will be destroyed (תאבל) and all who live in it will be weakened (Hos. 4:3) and He feels only the pain of his flesh, and his soul will be destroyed (תאבל) over him (Job 14:22).

  6. חבל(“wound”) – In Nehemiah’s confessional, he admits to God: We have surely acted destructively towards You (חבל חבלנו לך) (Neh. 1:7). Rashi explains that חבלהis an expression of destruction. This is conceptually related to בלהbecause something “worn out” is essentially “destroyed.”

  7. זבל(“dwelling place”) – When Leah names her sixth son Zebulun, she says: This time, my man will live (יזבלני) with me (Gen. 30:20). Radak (in Sefer HaShorashim, s.v. זבל) explains that the word זבלrefers to one’s domicile, such as when King Solomon stated: I surely had built a House of Dwelling (בית זבול) for You (I Kgs. 8:13). However, in Rabbinic Hebrew, the word זבלrefers to excrement or other rotting and repulsive substances used for manure. For example, Meilah12b says that one may derive benefit from זבלandפרש(excrement) belonging to the Temple’s Treasury and it is not subject to the rules of Meilah.16R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (Gen. 30:20) finds a conceptual connection between these two usages of זבל. He explains that זבלis the stuff which facilitates the growth of flora and is also the word for a house (especially the Holy Temple) because it denotes something which provides one’s needs, whether in terms of nutrition to allow a plant to grow, or whether in terms of the spiritual nourishment provided by the Temple.

  8. סבל(“carries a burden”) – Isaiah quotes God as saying: I carry [a burden] (Isa. 46:4). The Midrash (Lev. Rabbah4:8) interprets this as referring to God “carrying” the world, so to speak. That Midrash also says that God “causes the world to expire.” These two statements about God are interconnected: God’s “carrying” the burden of world refers to His role in actively administering all of creation. Under normal circumstances, one who carries a burden eventually becomes exhausted and worn out, while the beneficiary being carried does not. However, in the case of God, the very opposite is true: Not only does God continuously “carry” the burden of creation without tiring, but the entires world and its inhabitants eventually “tires” and “wears out”). In the piyyut Melech Elyonrecited on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we describe God as: “[He] carries the burden of everything (סובל הכל), timeless (סב, lit. ‘grandfatherly’), and causes the expiration of everything (ומבלה הכל)…” In that spirit, R. Dov Kook of Tiberias (Sefer Piskuk Mikraot SheBaTorah)suggests that the very word סובל, by way of contraction, alludes to the notion that God is סב ומבלה הכל.

There are some words related to בלwhich are interpreted variously as being derived from בללorfrom בלה:

  1. תֵּבֵל– (“the physical world”) – Both R. Yom Tov Lipmann-Heller (in his commentary to Bechinat Olam 4:6) and R. Shlomo Pappenheim (Cheshek Shlomo, s.v. 17בל) explain that the word תבלis derived from בלהbecause everything in the physical world is by nature fleeting, and will eventually “wear out” and cease to exist. Alternatively, R. Eliyahu Kramer of Vilna (Aderet Eliyahuto Nahum 1:5) explains that the word תבלis derived from בללbecause it is the home to a mixture of various sorts of creatures: humans, domesticated animals, wild animals, insects, and birds. Similarly, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ps. 9:918) writes that while both תבלandארץ refer to the Earth, the two words imply distinct states of existence: תבלimplies a population sans law and order which is mixture (בלל) of all manners of competing objectives and proclivities, while the word ארץ implies an orderly world which adheres to certain given rules.

  2. עיבל(“Ebal”) – Mount Ebal is the site upon which the Jewish people were commanded (Deut. 27:13) to utter curses against those who fail to keep the Torah’s precepts. Rabbi Rephael Schlanger (Shivtei Nachalatecha,p. 17) suggests that the name עיבלis a contraction of the word עי(“destruction”19) and בל (“non-existence”). The very name of this site teaches the naught and destruction which is the lot of those who fail to fulfill the Commandments.

  3. There are five derivatives of the root יבל:

    1. יבלת(“cataract”) – Discussed above.

    2. יבול(“produce”) – For example, God promises, if the Jews follow the Torah, then “the land will gives it יבול(“produce”)” (Lev. 26:4).

    3. יוֹבל(“ram’s horn”) – “With the drawing of the ram’s horn” (Ex. 19:13), “Horns of the Rams” (Josh. 6:4).20

    4. יוּבל(“transportation”).

    5. יוּבל(“river”) – Rashi (to Avot 3:17 and Isa. 30:25) explains that יובלrefers to a river.

The words יבלת21andיבול22refer to the concept of “wearing out” or “rotting”; the former, the rotting of the eye, and the latter, the potential for rotting produce. The word יוֹבלis related to בללaccording to R. Shlomo Pappenheim,23due to an upheaval and “mixture” of ownership in the Jubilee year. And, finally, both meanings of the word יוּבלare associated with mixture and wearing out, as we shall soon explain.

  1. מבול(“flood”) – When God warned about the flood which He was to bring in the time of Noah, He said, “Behold I am bringing a מבול(flood) of water” (Gen. 6:17). Rashi explains that מבולis related to three different בל-based roots: It is related to בלהbecause the flood had “worn out” the world by destroying it. It is related to בללbecause the flood overpowered the entire world and moved everything around so that each individual/country’s property was mixed up with another’s. And thirdly, מבולis related to יובל(“transport”) because the flow of the flood’s waters relocatedeverything by driving them towards Babylonia—a valley in Lower Mesopotamia.24

  2. תבליתם(“their lowly abominations”) – As mentioned above, Rashi equated תבליתםwithתבל in two places (Lev. 18:23, Isa. 10:25). The commentators here too are split as to the root of the word תבליתם, variously deriving it fromבלה25,בלל26orתבל .

As mentioned above, lthough Rashi wrote that תבליתםis related to תבל, his explanation of תבליתםitself (in his commentary to Isa. 10:25) differs from his explanation of תבל(in his commentary to Lev. 18:23). In Isaiah, Rashi writes that תבליתםrefers to “chiruf”andgiduf(blasphemous aberrations), an interpretation different from his explanations of the word תבל in Lev. 18:23, where he defined תבלas: “kadesh,” “arayot” and “niuf” (prostitution, incest and adultery). On the other hand, his interpretation of תבלin Lev. 20:12 – “gnai”(disgrace), does not necessarily contradict his “chiruf”andgiduf(blasphemous aberrations) explanation in Isaiah, because certainly blasphemous aberrations constitute one form of disgrace. By the same token though, “kadesh,” “arayot” and “niuf” are themselves disgraceful. Therefore, one could argue that Rashi understood the primary meaning of תבלto in fact be “gnai,”a general term applying to both תבלandתבליתם.

In light of this, Rashi seems to be explaining that תבלis derived from בלה, but that בלה can indicate deteriorationor rottenof various types. That is, תבל refers not to the “rotting” in the physical sense, but to the “rotting” of society, on a spiritual plane. It is from this spiritual perspective that the “rotting” of תבלrefers to gnai, in addition to “kadesh,” “arayot” and “niuf,” plus“chiruf”andgiduf.Indeed, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Lev. 18:23) differentiates between בלה which he explains refers to corruption or rotting in a physical/mechanical sense, and תבל/תבליתwhich refers to corruption in a spiritual/moral way.

  1. תבל(“abomination”) – The Torah labels a woman engaging in a bestiality as a תבל(Lev. 18:23). As we mentioned above, the word תבלcan be related to בללorבלה.

To conclude, we will draw from the words of Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim who explains the connection between בללandבלה (Yeriot Shlomo, vol. 2 p. 72a–b). He writes that the prime rootבלdenotesnon-existenceand destruction, from which meaning derives the root בללi.e.mixture, and by extension:destruction of an entity’s uniquenessby means of mixture and dilution. For example, in the Hos. 7:8 verse, should Ephraim be homogenously mixed in with the other nations, it will cease to exist. It would become wasted and utterly lose its identity. From this concept derives the word נבָלה(outrage), in that disgraceful, contemptible behavior leaves confusion and bafflement, thus destroying a sense of well-being and integrity.For example, upon the defilement of Dinah, her brothers said: He [Shechem] has made an outrage (נבלה) in Israel (Gen. 34:7) – that shocking experience not only leaving her undoubtedly with lifelong fear and confusion, but leading to a chain of events with potential calamitous and destabilizing effects .

We pray that it be God’s will that we shall not become confused (שלא נתבלבל), nor shall we become wasted through futile vanities (ולא נתבלה בהבלי שוא), and that all the inhabitants of the world (תבל) shall be transported (יובלו) to a state of knowing God, and the land shall be filled with the knowledge of Torah like a flowing river (כיבלי נהר) and the land shall bear its produce (יבולה), speedily and in our days, amen.

1I Kgs. 14:24 describes the spiritual decline under the reign of King Rehoboam and tells that in his time, there was קדשin the land. Rashi explains that קדשrefers to adultery (it is probably a catch-all phrase for all sexual misdeeds).

2The connection between תבלis mixing is already found in rabbinic literature: Sifra (Kedoshim10:10) says that when one performs a תבל, he has “mixed up the ropes”, which Korban Aharon (ibid.) explains refers to the confusion in the line of lineage that results from a man fornication with the same woman as his son. This is also found in Midrash Lekach Tov(toLev. 20:11). Moreover, the Talmud (Nedarim 51a) explains that when the Bible labels bestiality a תבל, it is as if the Torah rhetorically asks one who engages in such actions, “Is there any spice (תבלין) in it? Is there more of a ‘taste’ in this sort of copulation than any other?” As we shall explain below, the word תבליןis related to בללwhich means “mixing”.

3Such is the opinion of Mizrachi, Siftei Chachamim, andMinchat Yehudah. Ibn Ezra (to Lev. 18:23), R. Yonah ibn Janach, and Radak (s. v. בלל in their respective lexicons) also cite this view. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim in Yeriot Shlomo (vol. 2, pg. 72b) and Cheshek Shlomo (s.v. בל) similarly writes that the meaning of תבלis mixing, although in his opinion the root is בל, with a single ל. Rashi himself (to Ps. 58:9) explicitly writes that the letter תin the word תבלis indeed part of its root.

4R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Lev. 18:23), Minchat Yehudah(ibid.), Kedushat HaTorah VeDikdukeha (ibid.). Likkutim MiPardes (R. Y. Sarim, pg. 68) cites both possibilities.

5.Mizrachi,Siftei Chachmim, and Moda LeBinah(to Lev. 20:12). R. Yehuda Chayuj also classifies it under the entry תבל.

6See Rashi for alternate interpretation.

7It should be noted, that the term “niuf” appears throughout the prophecy of Hosea as a way of referring to all sorts of sins (by which the Jewish people strayed from God), and it does not perforce have a sordid connotation.

8The Biblical source for the root גבלis probably I Kgs. 5:32 which refers to those who built the walls of the Holy Temple asהגבלים (see Radak there).

9Indeed, Rashi and Ibn Ezra (to Ps. 58:9) explain the word שבלולis related to aשבולת מים(concentration of water).

10Constantinople, 1516.

11R. Massud Hai Rokeach, 1740.

12The Jerusalem Talmud (Orlah 1:3, Nazir 6:9) uses the word תבלinstead of טבלbecause the lingual letters דטלנתare sometimes interchangeable.

13See Shabbat 54a for the Sages’ exegesis of this passage.

14One who is perplexed, is “all mixed-up”. Indeed, the word נבוךis translated by Targum (to Ex. 14:3, Joel 1:18, Job 38:16, and Est. 3:15) as מתערבלא, an Aramaic word which is also derived from בל.

15The Jerusalemite Talmud (Brachot 6:1) exegetically expounds on the word בל to refer to both “wearing out” (בלה) and “mixing” (בלל). Cf. Midrash SocherTov(Ps. 16).

16In this case, R. Shmuel Strashun (רשש) explains that זבל refers to excrement which already exited the body, while פרשrefers to excrement still inside the intestine.

17Cf. R. Pappenheim’s comment in Yeriot Shlomo, vol. 2 pg. 72b.

18See also R. Hirsch’s commentary to Ps. 24:1.

19For example, Jer. 26:18 prophesies doom for Jerusalem by saying, “Jerusalem will be עיים”. See also Mic. 1:6, Isa. 17:1, Ps. 79:1, Job 30:24.

20R. Shlomo Pappenheim (Yeriot Shlomo, vol. 2, p. 72b) explains that the Jubilee Year (שנת היובל) is called so because it involves the mixing of different authorities as slaves are freed from the authority of their master to their own devices, and the ownership of properties are reverted to their natural owners.

21See Yeriot Shlomo, vol. 2 pg. 72b, Cheshek Shlomo (s.v. בל), and HaKtav VeHaKabbalah (to Lev. 26:4). In Mishnaic Hebrew, there is a verb מייבלין(see Sheviit 2:2), which Maimonides (ibid.) and Sefer haAruch s.v. זבל) explain is derived from the word יבולand refers to reaping produce. R. Shimshon of Sanz (in his commentary to the Mishnah, ibid.) explains that it refers to removing dried branches, thus associated מייבליןwith בלה(“worn out” or “putrid”)

48R. Dov Heiman points out that this is found in the Warsaw edition of the Jerusalemite Talmud, but later prints read: יבללו, a textual variance which he prefers. Other sources read: יובלוwhich is interpreted as abbreviated notation for the phrase יובל שי לו (“he transports a gift for him”).

22Yeriot Shlomo, vol. 2 pg. 72a and HaKsav VeHaKabbalah (to Lev. 26:4). Cheshek Shlomo (s.v. בל) cites alternate explanations.

23Yeriot Shlomo, vol. 2 pg. 72a and Cheshek Shlomo (s.v. בל).

24Radak (Sefer HaShorashim, s.v. בול) explains that the name of the eighth month of the Ancient Hebrew calendar—Bul (mentioned in I Kgs. 6:38)—is related to the wordמבול because the flood in Noah’s time began in that month. This month is known as MarCheshvan in the contemporary Jewish Calendar (whose month names are derived from the Babylonian calendar).

25R. Y. Chayyuj, R. Yonah ibn Janach, Radak, R. Isaiah of Trani (to Isa. 10:25), and Ibn Ezra (ibid.). This is also the opinion of R. Hirsch (to Lev. 18:23), as well as the Kedushat HaTorah VeDikdukah (ibid.) and HaTorah VeHaTalmud (1:11).

26This is also implied by the Midrash Lekach Tov, cited above in a footnote. We also mentioned that Menachem classifies this passage in the same category as Hos. 7:8 which refrring to Ephraim mixing in with the nations, even though the “mixing” usage of בלis a separate category for Menachem. This suggests that perhaps תבליתםand יתבוללmight share a meaning in that both imply some form of mixing (even though Menachem himself explained that their common denominator is an implication of sexual misconduct).

Acharei Mot: Confronting Death ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein


The Torah introduces the laws of the sacrificial services of Yom Kippur by noting that G-d relayed them to Moses after the deaths (acharei mot) of Aharon’s two sons (Lev. 16:1). The Torah then continues to discuss various other topics, running the gamut from sacrifices outside of the Temple, the prohibition of eating blood, forbidden relationships, and various interpersonal and agricultural laws (Lev. 16-20). All in all, the theme of death underlies all of these passages and, in fact, permutations of the Hebrew words mavet/mitah(death) appear twenty-four times in the parshiot of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim that we recently read — more than any other two joined parshiot in the Torah. The Talmud does not generally use the word meit (died) to refer to someone’s passing on, but rather uses the expression nach nafshei (literally, “his soul has rested”). Regardless, the Hebrew word commonly used when colloquially referring to someone who died, or “passed away”, is niftar and the noun for death is known as petirah. In what way is the Hebrew word niftar different from the seemingly synonymous word meit?

The term niftar in reference to somebody dying is first found in the Mishnah which uses the expression “niftar from the world” (Peah 8:9). The root of the word niftar is peh-tet-reish (exit) which can refer to a firstborn animal exiting its mother’s womb (peter rechem) or somebody who takes leave of his friend (niftar). In the context of death, a person is niftar when he exits This World in anticipation of entering the Next World. However, the most common use of the word patur is in the legal sense of a person who is exempt from a given punishment or obligation. This, of course, begs the question as to why the death of a person is connected to the concept of a legal exemption.

In contemporary times, the controversy over the changing definition of death rages on. However, in Judaism, the definition is pegged to the exit of the soul from one’s body. Based on this, we can understand the correlation between death and the idea of being exempt. All the while a person’s body houses his soul, his inner soul obligates his outer body to live for a higher purpose and existence. It represents his accountability to law and order, as well as G-d’s oversight of the world. When a person’s soul leaves his body, then the body is no longer bound to those higher callings — it is exempt from all obligations. For this reason a person who dies is said to have been niftar — a word related to patur (exempt).

In truth, only a person who lives for a higher purpose is considered living. A person who lives for no other reason than to enjoy life itself is considered dead even as he breathes and walks and bungee-jumps off the Empire State Building. To this effect, the Talmud (Berachot 18a-18b) unequivocally states that the righteous (tzaddikim) — even when dead — are considered alive (chaim), while the wicked (reshaim) — even when alive — are considered dead (metim). A person who lives a life that looks to a higher purpose is niftar when he dies because his physical life was not his end-all objective, but was simply a means to reaching a higher goal. Such a person is akin to somebody who exits one room to enter another. The term mitah, on the other hand, can be applied to any living being (even an animal) that experiences the separation of body and soul. Mitah is the conclusion of life; it does not connote anything to come afterwards. Even the wicked experience what is called mitah, while the term petirah is reserved for the righteous.

The late Rabbi Moshe Shapiro (1935-2017) observes that plants, which are firmly rooted in the ground, are also connected to their lifeline in the soil, just as man is attached to his soul. That very connection shows that the plant does not simply grow of its own accord, but connects to something loftier. On the other hand, mushrooms, like other fungi, rise from the ground without roots. They are disconnected from any sense of responsibility or accountability. They are free-floating, self-serving entities. For this reason, mushrooms are called pitriyot in Hebrew — they are patur from any obligations. While they too might technically be considered alive, such a life is more akin to death than to life. Thus, what scientists call the largest living organism on Earth — a certain honey fungus in the Blue Mountains of Oregon — is actually dead!

Rabbi Avraham Chaim Schor (d. 1632) takes a slightly different approach to explaining the difference between seemingly synonymous words niftar and meit. Almost by definition, righteous people do not focus on the carnal pleasures of This World, while the wicked generally tend to indulge in such pursuits. As a result, the worldly existence of a pious man can be characterized as relatively full of suffering. When the righteous man dies and moves to the Next World, he has effectively become “exempt” from the life of suffering in This World and can now move forward. This is why the term niftar applies specifically to the death of a tzaddik, while mitah refers to death in general.