Moshe-Mordechai van Zuiden
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Parashat Yitro: Once Upon a Time

Israeli youth have an easier time reading the Hebrew Bible and Mishnah because Modern Hebrew is often their “mother tongue” – though regularly not their mother’s tongue. (In Israel, many mothers learn the mother tongue from their children – Ephraim Kishon.) But there are differences worth noticing. Our Sages warn that even the meaning of a word in Mishnaic Hebrew doesn’t prove the connotation of the term in Biblical Hebrew.

One such discrepancy between the Biblical and Modern Holy Tongue I think I discovered the past Shabbat. It says in Exodus 20:21 that you shall slaughter an offering “‘Al” (‘Ayin Lammed) the Altar. In Modern Hebrew, ‘Al means: upon. But the Sages teach that such slaughtering must be done next to the Altar, not on it.

The obvious question should be: If it means “next to it,” why does it say “upon it”?

This Shabbat, I remembered that a similar thing is with Pharaoh standing “‘Al” the canal (the Nile – Rashi) (Genesis 41:1). The rabbis explain that the Egyptians saw the Nile as a god, but that Pharaoh was the supreme god – above the Nile. What if here too ‘Al would mean: close to?

Back to the beginning. The first time we encounter “‘Al” in the Torah is already in verse Genesis 1:2 saying that Darkness was ‘Al the surface of the deep (waters – Rashi) and the Breath of G^d was hovering ‘Al the surface of the waters. If ‘Al would just mean here above, it would give us no information, be superfluous. What other place was there for anything but above the waters? No, also here, it must mean: close to the surface. (Darkness and Light penetrate the waters – don’t stay above them.)

And then, very soon in the Bible (Genesis 1:7), we find its Hebrew for above: Mei’al. The waters that were above the firmament. Just like in Modern Hebrew: Mei’al uMei’ever – above and beyond

In my little experience, the Torah is very precise. (When it seems “off,” some deeper meaning is hinted at.) So, let’s look if this holds up.

Soon (Genesis 1:11) we learn that G^d placed trees close to the dirt – not “on the earth” because the most important part of trees (take away the trunk, the tree might recover; cut off the roots, the tree is doomed) is below the surface.

In Genesis 1:26, we learn that G^d wants us to rule over all animals including the creeping things that creep ‘Al the earth. We must assume that moles and worms are included. ‘Al here too means: close to the dirt.

In Genesis 4:14, Cain wonders to be above (Mei’al) the face of the earth. Under the ground would not a problem for him since he repented.

In Dutch we have the same. Bovenop means: smack on top of something. But when we say that he stood bovenop something, it may normally mean not literally upon but rather very very close. We may say: Hij stond er met z’n neus boven op (er pal naast), literally: He stood with his nose on top of it (directly next to it) – He stood very close by.

From now on, Jews, you don’t need to have any Commands upon your heart or bind them on your arm (that would be on your shoulder) or write them on top of your doorposts. Rather, have them close to your heart, tie them close to your arm and have them written down close to your doorposts (Deuteronomy 6:6, 8-9).

Biblical ‘Al means close to it; above in the Bible is Mei’al.

About the Author
MM is a prolific and creative writer and thinker, an almost daily blog contributor to the Times of Israel, and previously, for decades, he was known to the Jerusalem Post readers as a frequent letter writer. He often makes his readers laugh, mad, or assume he's nuts—close to perfect blogging. He's proud that his analytical short comments are removed both from left-wing and right-wing news sites. * As a frontier thinker, he sees things many don't yet. He's half a prophet. Half. Let's not exaggerate. He doesn't believe that people observe and think in a vacuum. He, therefore, wanted a broad bio that readers interested can track a bit about what (lack of) backgrounds, experiences, and education contribute to his visions. * To find less-recent posts on subject XXX among his over 1550 archived ones, go to the right-top corner of a Times of Israel page, click on the search icon and search "zuiden, XXX". One can find a second, wilder blog, to which one may subscribe, here: * Like most of his readers, he believes in being friendly, respectful, and loyal. Yet, if you think those are his absolute top priorities, you might end up disappointed. His first loyalty is to the truth. He will try to stay within the limits of democratic and Jewish law, but he won't lie to support opinions or people who don't deserve that. He admits that he sometimes exaggerates to make a point, which could have him come across as nasty, while in actuality, he's quite a lovely person to interact with. He holds - how Dutch - that a strong opinion doesn't imply intolerance of other views. * Sometimes he's misunderstood because his wide and diverse field of vision seldomly fits any specialist's box. But that's exactly what some love about him. He has written a lot about Psychology (including Sexuality and Abuse), Medicine (including physical immortality), Science (including basic statistics), Politics (Israel, the US, and the Netherlands, Activism), Oppression and Liberation (intersectionally, for young people, the elderly, non-Whites, women, workers, Jews, LGBTQIA+, foreigners and anyone else who's dehumanized or exploited), Integrity, Philosophy, Jews (Judaism, Zionism, Holocaust, and Jewish Liberation), the Climate Crisis, Ecology and Veganism, Affairs from the news, or the Torah Portion of the Week, or new insights that suddenly befell him. * His most influential teachers (chronologically) are his parents, Nico (natan) van Zuiden and Betty (beisye) Nieweg, Wim Kan, Mozart, Harvey Jackins, Marshal Rosenberg, Reb Shlomo Carlebach, and, lehavdil bein chayim lechayim, Rabbi Dr. Natan Lopes Cardozo, Rav Zev Leff, and Rav Meir Lubin. * He hopes that his words will inspire and inform, and disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. He aims to bring a fresh perspective rather than harp on the obvious and familiar. He loves to write encyclopedic overviews. He doesn't expect his readers to agree. Rather, original minds should be disputed. In short, his main political positions are among others: anti-Trumpism, anti-elitism, anti-bigotry and supremacy, for Zionism, Intersectionality, and non-violence, anti those who abuse democratic liberties, anti the fake ME peace process, for original-Orthodoxy, pro-Science, pro-Free Will, anti-blaming-the-victim, and for down-to-earth, classical optimism, and happiness. * He is a fetal survivor of the pharmaceutical industry (, born in 1953 to parents who were Dutch-Jewish Holocaust survivors who met in the largest concentration camp in the Netherlands, Westerbork. He grew up a humble listener. It took him decades to become a speaker too. Bullies and con artists almost instantaneously envy and hate him. * He holds a BA in medicine (University of Amsterdam) – is half a doctor. He practices Re-evaluation Co-counseling since 1977, is not an official teacher anymore, and became a friendly, empowering therapist. He became a social activist, became religious, made Aliyah, and raised three wonderful kids non-violently. For a couple of years, he was active in hasbara to the Dutch-speaking public. He wrote an unpublished tome about Jewish Free Will. He's being a strict vegan since 2008. He's an Orthodox Jew but not a rabbi. He lives with his library in Jerusalem. Feel free to contact him. * His writing has been made possible by a (second-generation) Holocaust survivors' allowance from the Netherlands. It has been his dream since he was 38 to try to make a difference by teaching through writing. He had three times 9-out-of-10 for Dutch at his high school finals but is spending his days communicating in English and Hebrew - how ironic. G-d must have a fine sense of humor. In case you wonder - yes, he is a bit dyslectic. If you're a native English speaker and wonder why you should read from people whose English is only their second language, consider the advantage of having an original peek outside of your cultural bubble.
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