Devarim: Giving Sound to the Silence ~ Tzvi Abrahams

Parshas דְּבָרִים

Giving Sound to the Silence

דְּבָרִים: words

דָבָר: thing

מִדְבָּר: desert

דְבִיר: Holy of Holies

אַבְּרָא כְּדַבְּרָא: abra k’dabra/I create as I speak

דְבוֹרָה: bee

דְבוֹרָה: name of a prophetess

דֶבֶר: death, pestilence

דְּבָרִים: Words, Things

אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן בַּמִּדְבָּר
These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel in the plains of Jordan in the desert.

Hashem created the world with words. Words create things. The world is full of things, but really there is nothing but Hashem. Our job is to put all the things together and see the bigger picture. 

מִדְבָּר: Desert

The midbar is a place free from distractions, free from the world of things. Midbar is lashon speaking, because only in a place free from distractions can we ever hope to hear Hashem speaking to us. For this very reason, the Midrash tells us to make ourselves into a midbar. There is a little voice inside all of us, giving us advice on what to do or what not to do. This is the softly spoken voice of אָנֹכִי, the voice of the yetzer tov, but it takes a lot of training to hear this voice over the very loud voice of אַנִי, the voice of the ego. The difference in gematria between אָנוֹכִי [מלא] and אַנִי is twenty-six, which is Hashem’s name י-ה-ו-ה, hinting to us of this idea that אָנֹכִי is a much loftier state of being. The pasuk says that Hashem is not in the wind, or the loud noise, or the fire, only in the very fine sound of silence/.קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה

דְבִיר : Holy of Holies

The Holy of Holies is the place from where Hashem spoke to Moshe. A voice that only Moshe could hear came out from the Holy of Holies.

אַבְּרָא כְּדַבְּרָא: Abra k’Dabra/I Create as I Speak

Man was created with the power of speech. This elevates man above all other creations. Speech has the ability to relate how we are feeling, to express our inner world, to tell the outside world who we really are. This is why the skin of the lips is really the inside turned outwards. Words have the power to raise up or bring down, to create or destroy. Hence the meaning of the words abra k’dabra/I create as I speak.

דְבוֹרָה: Bee

In the Midrash, Hashem compares His children to bees because we are led by tzaddikim and prophets. The רד”ל says that the reason why the bee has the name דְבוֹרָה is because:שֶׁמִתְנַהַגִים ע”פ דָבַר וּמִנְהִיג נְקֵיבָה /they behave according to the word of their leader who is female. So too we are led by the words of the תּוֹרָה, which is also female. The lives of the ones who follow the Torah are sweet, whereas it stings the ones who choose to go against its ways. 

We can learn a lot from bees. They all work in harmony to serve the queen. When they sting they die, and they are willing to die for her. What they produce from their mouths is something sweet. So too, our words have the power to sting or be filled with the sweetness of Hashem’s Torah. All that we do should be to serve the King, to the extent that just like a bee we are willing to give up our lives. 

Sometimes, when one passes by a shul or beis midrash, the sound that emanates from the hum of its divrei Torah, its דִבּוּרִים/words can sometimes be mistaken for the sound of דְבוֹרִים/bees humming busily around the hive. And to the one who busies himself with the worthwhile pursuit of seeking to know Hashem’s Torah, he will eventually taste the sweetness that lies beneath its teachings.

דְבוֹרָה: Name of a Prophetess

The Gemara in Megillah quotes the pasuk in Shoftim that mentions Devorah sitting under a palm tree, symbolizing that just like a palm tree doesn’t branch out but rather grows directly upwards, so too the Jewish People in Devorah’s generation had one heart directed to their Father in Heaven. Appropriately named, Devorah exemplified the comparison of the Jewish People to bees, because they were led in unison by a prophet, and, more specifically, a female prophetess.

The Devorah who appears in Parshas וַיִשְׁלַח and who was buried by the tamar/date palm was Rivkah’s wet nurse. It is appropriate that Rivkah should be nursed by a Devorah, because just like a bee sustains the queen bee so that she can give birth to future generations, so too it was Devorah who sustained Rivkah, the mother of Yaakov/Yisrael and the future generations of Bnei Yisrael.

דֶבֶר: Death, Pestilence

סוֹף דָבָר הַכָּל נִשְׁמַע

The end thing, everything will be heard.

At the end of someone’s life, Hashem sends His ministering angels to hear what people are saying about ploni/so-and-so — is he a tzaddik or a rasha, does he have a good name or a bad name?

Here too סוֹף דָבָר /the end thing is connected to dever/pestilence, because it refers to death. Only when we cross the finishing line is our fate sealed. Everything goes after the seal. As Hillel said, “Do not believe in yourself until the day you die.”

The davar here also refers to divrei Torah, because at the end of one’s life, each and every one of us will be called upon to relay the Torah we have learned. Did we waste our lives pursuing the hevel havalim/vanities of this world, or in the end will the words of our Torah be heard?

In order for the words of our Torah to be heard, we first have to understand what they are saying, because we know that sometimes words have two meanings. The more we busy ourselves with the Torah, the more we give sound to the silence. Then, as the words come alive and speak to us, we find ourselves humming with excitement. Then we perceive “things” more clearly and live in a world where we can see the bigger picture.

Tishah B’Av – The Language of Love

וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֵלַי לֵאמֹר
And Hashem spoke to me saying.

Instead of the usual lashon of the Torah, where Hashem speaks to Moshe, here Hashem speaks “to me,” which Rashi denotes as lashon חִיבָּה/a language of love. Only now is Hashem speaking to Moshe in a loving way, whereas during the course of the thirty-eight additional years in the desert due to the sin of the spies, Hashem was more distant because Moshe lacked the aspaklariah/the clear vision of face-to-face communication.

Each and every one of us is a Beis HaMikdash. Each and every one of us has a דְבִיר/a Holy of Holies where Hashem speaks to us in a voice that only we can hear. When we sin, we lose our ability to hear Hashem speaking to us. The דְבִיר no longer functions as it ought to, as a place of דִבּוּר, and instead we block up the lines of communication.

Tishah B’Av is not only the loss of the Beis HaMikdash, but also the loss of our ability to see Hashem clearly in the world and individually in our lives. Instead, we go after our heart and eyes, our own מְרַגְלִים/spies, which cause us to lose that close connection with Hashem.

If we could only turn away from the distractions of the outside world and make ourselves into a מִדְבָּר/desert, then our inner world would come alive, giving sound to the silence, where once again we could hear the language of love, of וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֵלַי /Hashem speaking to me.  

1 Devarim 1:1.

2 See Avi Ezer to Shemos 3:11, who comments on the difference between אני ואנכי.

3 Melachim I 19:12.

4 Devarim Rabbah 1:6.

5 Megillah 14a.

6 Koheles 12:13.

7 Brachos 12a.

8 Avos 2:4.

9 Midrash Koheles 12:13.

10 Devarim 2:17.

Devarim: The Number Eleven ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

The Number Eleven

images.jpgIn the first three verses of Deuteronomy, the number eleven makes two appearances: “These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel… eleven (achad-asar) days from Horeb… in the fortieth year, in the eleventh (ashtei-asar) month…” (Deut. 1:1–3). In this passage, there are two different modes of writing the number eleven: achad-asar and ashtei-asar. Truth be told, if we take into account male and female forms of the word, there are a total of four words for “eleven”: achad-asar/achat-esreh and ashtei-asar/ashtei-esreh. All in all, ashtei-asar/ashtei-esreh appears nineteen times throughout the Bible, while achad-asar/achat-esreh appears thirteen times. But what is the difference between these two different ways of expressing the number eleven?

R. Yonah ibn Janach (990–1055) explains that ashtei-asar is a contraction of the words al (“on”) and shtei-asar (“twelve”). He understands that the number which is “on top” of twelve is eleven. Ibn Ezra disagrees with this understanding, as he explains that, au contraire, twelve is “on top” of eleven, not vice versa. Moreover, if R. Yonah’s explanation was true, then one would expect that for male-gendered situations, the number eleven would be ashnei-asar, because the number twelve in such cases is shnei-asar/shneim-asar, not shteim-esreh. Yet, there is no such term as ashnei-asar or shneim-asar; only ashtei-asar and ashtei-esreh—which casts a shadow of doubt over R. Yonah’s innovative proposal.

Instead, Ibn Ezra explains that ashtei of ashtei-asar is a cognate of the word ashtanotav (“his plans”), which appears in Ps. 146:4. He clarifies that just as “plans” are born out of one’s thoughts, so is the number eleven born from the number ten (eser). According to this, ashtei-asar literally means, “that which is born out of ten [i.e. eleven].” Ibn Ezra admits that there is a “great secret” behind the connection between ten and eleven, but does not further elaborate.

R. Yonah’s connecting eleven to twelve, and Ibn Ezra’s connecting eleven to ten may have interesting implications for Jewish numerology. Nonetheless, Radak rejects both R. Yonah’s and Ibn Ezra’s explanations, and concludes that we do not understand the etymological basis of the word ashtei-asar.

Peirush HaRokeach offers a somewhat cryptic explanation of the phenomenon at hand. He explains that whenever the number eleven is invoked in a situation where all the preceding numbers are also included, then achad-asar appears. On the other hand, in cases where only the eleventh of a set is spoken about and the others are disregarded, then ashtei-asar is used. I am not quite sure what he means, but perhaps he means to draw a distinction between the ordinal eleventh (ashtei-asar) and the numeral eleven (achad-asar), in the same way the Bible differentiates between the ordinal first (rishon) and the numeral one (echad), or the ordinal fourth (revii) and the numeral four (arbah).

In a funerary inscription concerning Niqmaddu, king of Ugarit, archeologists found the word ashtei in Ugaritic to mean “first”. According to linguists, Ugaritic and Hebrew are somewhat similar languages, and both can be classified under the more general category of Semitic languages. It is thus not totally irrelevant that in Ugaritic ashtei means “first”; it fits with out suggestion that ashtei-asar means “eleventh” as opposed to “eleven”. Nevertheless, if we try to apply this approach to all cases in the Bible, it simply does not pan out.

R. Meir Mintzberg (son-in-law of R. Leib Mintzberg, the spiritual leader of the Jerusalemite “Masmidim” movement) points out another interesting factoid: Whenever the number eleven appears in the ordinal form as ashtei-asar (i.e. the eleventh), the Bible omits the definite article prefix ha- from the number (even though for all other numbers, including achat-esreh or achad-asar, it uses that prefix). In explaining the meaning of ashtei, R. Mintzberg explains that the word eshet refers to an overly-distended body (see Rashi to Song of Songs 5:14, Jer. 5:28, Yoma 34b, and Menachot 28a), so ashtei-asar refers to the number eleven as a “bloated ten”. Because ashtei-asar connotes the number eleven as an extension of ten, it is never attached to the definite article; that is, because it has no real significance of its own. By contrast, the words achat-esreh or achad-asar connote eleven as an independent number, not as an extension of ten. This might actually be the intent of Peirush HaRokeach who also differentiated between an independent eleven and dependent eleven.

Devarim: Where in the World is Tophel? – Yehoshua Steinberg


Tophel or Bust!


Deut. 1:1 – These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on this side of the Jordan in the wilderness, in the Arabah opposite the Red Sea, between Paran, and Tophel, and Lavan, and Hazeroth, and Dizahab.


Our Sages noted that there is no place called Tophel in any of the accounts of the voyages in the desert: Deut. Rabba (Lieberman) 1:9[1] – R’ Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi) said: I have reviewed all 42 travels (in the desert) but have found no place called Tophel. Rather, he derived this homiletically as תְפִלּוֹת (the meaning of which is the subject of this article, but which apparently means “idle complaints”), which they directed at the manna. What then is Tophel? Words of תִּפְלוּת which they directed at the manna, which was called “Lavan” (white), as Scripture states: And the manna was as coriander seed, and its color as the color of crystal (Num. 11:7). A similar homily is found in the Sifrei (Deut., Piska 1): Words of תִּפְלּוֹת which they directed at the manna, and thus does Scripture state: and our soul loathes this light bread (Num. 21:5). Why is it that the Midrash Rabba omits the clearer reference to the Israelites’ complaint cited by the Sifrei? If because of the upcoming verse: Then Moses heard the people weep throughout their families (ibid. 11:10), why not cite it directly? Why reference a description of the manna, which in any case had previously been described (vis. Ex. 16:31)? We will return to this question later in the article.


We must first seek to understand the nature of the hinted rebuke alluded to in the word תִּפְלוּת. Most Rabbinic grammarians consider the root of the Biblical תּפְלָה to be ‘תפל’[2], which is explained with related adjectives such as: bland, futile, unstable, incomplete, uncooked, inferior, blemished[3]. Others relate ‘תפל’ to [4]‘טפל’, which means connecting, appending[5] in Scripture[6].


We find similar meanings in the Talmudic vernacular as well, such as: 1. Futile (e.g. Tosephta Brach. 6:7, Talmud Horayos 12b). 2. “Lame” excuses (Tosephta Sota 6:7-8). 3. Bland (Shabbos 128a, Nidda 61b +Rashi).


Similarly, the commentary “Me’at Tzori” on Targum Onkelus (Deut. 1:1) explains that the root ‘תפל’ can be explained according to the two essential meanings of the Biblical root ‘תפל’: 1. Futile, baseless 2. Append, affix, as follows: 1. They said futile and baseless things about the manna. 2. They “appended” and “affixed” non-existent defects to the manna.


However, we find an additional –and very different– meaning in Chazal’s vernacular as well, namely incest and immorality (Sota 3:4 + Bartenura, Pesachim 91a + Rashi[7], Ex. Rabba 5:1, Lev. Rabba 5:3, Tosephta Av. Zara 42. The word is also used in reference to legitimate marital relations (e.g. Tanna De’bei Eliyahu Rabba 16, Ketub. 62b).


What is the source of this dissimilar, non-Biblical denotation? If it is meant to allude to the uselessness of sexual immorality, a thousand other futile behaviors could just as easily be included as meanings of the word. Furthermore, this usage is found in the Rabbinic literature as many times as all the other meanings of the word combined, all pointing to a deeper meaning and connection[8].


We opened with a Midrashic exposition of words Tophel and Lavan, in which Tophel was homiletically interpreted as תִּפְלוּת, and we asked why the Midrash Rabba used a different proof-text from that used by the Sifrei, whose reference appears much more directly connected to the grumblings about the manna. One thing at least seems clear both in the Midrash Rabba and the Sifrei: the word תִּפְלוּת here simply means useless, lame complaining.


Or does it? In Numbers 11:7-10, the Torah tells us the Israelites cried about the manna, as follows:  And the manna was as coriander seed, and its color as the color of crystal. And the people went about, and gathered it… And when the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell upon it. Then Moses heard the people weep throughout their families. The Talmud (Yoma 75a) however, teaches: And Moses heard the people weeping for their families, i.e., because of the families [relations] with whom they were forbidden to have relations (see also Sifrei Zuta 11:10). Now, what does this verse, which clearly refers to the crying over the manna, have to do with incestual relations?


The answer may be hinted to in the Zohar, as follows. As quoted, the Torah describes the manna as “as coriander seed”, the word for coriander being גד. The Tikunei Zohar (Tikun 20-21, p. 54a) connects גד with גיד, the male reproductive organ. The “white” (לבן-lavan in Hebrew) is the seed, the purveyor the soul, called יונה in Kabbalah[9], the leading letter י of which creates the conduit through which life emanates. And the narrative concludes by saying that this י is the “holy seed” which transforms the גד to the holy, life-giving גיד. In short, the description of the manna is an allusion to the holy sexual standards expected of the Israelites.


The Israelites (called the “Generation of Understanding”) understood the hint immediately. They understood the great good and benevolence which the manna represented, but also realized that the price would be abstinence from forbidden relationships – and this was the underlying source of their complaint, their תִּפְלוּת.


This then resolves the difficultly we noted on the Midrash Rabba, whose author is none other than R’ Shimon bar Yochai – the author of the Zohar. Who better than Rashbi understood the profound lesson of the manna –and the real source of the Israelites’ complaint? For this reason, no other verse than the manna’s description as והמן זרע גד needed to be cited, for these words represented the basis and quintessence of the Holy Nation, a concept the nascent Israelites had not yet grown to fully appreciate.


Closing prayer: may we dedicate our energies to transforming useless תִּפְלוּת into holy תפילות and תפילין. May we live up to the lofty lessons of the manna, and merit and appreciate the Infinite Good it represents, which G-d always bestows on us.





[1]  [מובא ברש”י (דב’ א:א) בש”נ. וע’ תרגום אונקלוס כאן].

[2]  [בניגוד למנחם בן סרוק, שחבר אותה בערך ‘פל’ (במחלקת “לא נפל אנכי מכם”, היינו  פחות, ירוד). ומעניין להעיר שמחלוקת הפוכה בצינו בין הערוך לבין שאר המפרשים בענין “תפילה”/”תפילין”, שחברה הערוך בע’ ‘תפל’, ובעלי הלשון גזרוה מן ‘פלל’. ראה תשבי ערך ‘תפילין’, ור’ אור ישראל (מאנסי, תשס”א סימן כה). ובענין מקבילות בין ‘תפל’ ל”תפילה”, ראה קדושת לוי המבואר (שה”ש דף לח)].

[3] Vis. Jer. 23:13, Job 1:22, 6:6, 24:12, Lam. 2:14, Ez. 13:1 (with commentaries). Rashi explains the latter verse somewhat differently in OF (translated as coating, plastering), but these too may be connected, as those offering inferior work often seek to hide the mediocrity through these means.

[4]  [בחילוף אותיות דטלנ”ת. ראה מעט צרי על התרגום (דב’ א:א), המובא להלן].

[5]  [וראה שם משמואל (נצבים, תרע”ז) שקישר ‘תפל’ לשרשים אחרים הקשורים לחבור: ‘פתל’ (“פתיל צמיד”, “נפתלתי”), בחילוף מיקום אותיות (‘תפל’-‘פתל’). וראה רש”י (בר’ ל:ח) שקישר בדרך אחרת].

[6] Viz. Ps. 119:69 + Metz. Zion. From here too derives the phrase עיקר וטפל (Brachos 35b) – principle and ancillary, that is, something added as an appendage.

[7]  [רש”י נוקט שם במלה “עבירה”, והיא כינוי לעריות בלשונו בכ”מ, כגון]: מגילה לא. – ובמנחה קורין בעריות; רש”י – קורין בעריות – שמי שיש עבירות בידו יפרוש מהן… שהעריות עבירה מצויה. יומא סט: – הואיל ועת רצון הוא נבעי רחמי איצרא דעבירה [נבקש רחמים על יצר העריות]. בעו רחמי ואמסר בידייהו… נבעי פלגא; רש”י – לבעו פלגא – שלא יהא שולט במקום עבירה, כדי שלא יהא תובע עריות. רש”י סנהד’ ק: – המרגילים לדבר עבירה – ניאוף, הרי הן כניצוץ מבעיר גחלת.

[8]  [נראה שאפשר שהרע”ב הנ”ל הרגיש בקושי הזה ורמז לקשר בפירושו: “חבור משכב אנשים”. הרי המלה “חבור” כאן מיותרת, אמנם בכך אולי רמז לקשר מהותי ל’תפל’/’טפל’ בהוראת חבור, כנ”ל. אולם עכ”ז, עדיין רחוקה ההוראה מן המשמעויות המקוריות].

  [9] [ראה זהר ב:קצט,ב].