Harry Freedman
Writing on Jewish history, Jewish books, Jewish ideas

When Biblical Names tell a Story

The Bible frequently talks about the Children of Israel (or ‘Israelites’ as the old English translators would have it). In only two places does it refer to an ‘Israeli’. The Book of Samuel (II Sam 17,25), speaks of a certain Yitra the Israeli, but elsewhere he is called an Ishmaelite (1 Chronicles 2,17), so we probably can’t read too much into that. The only reliable mention of ‘Israelis’ is in Leviticus 24, in the intriguing 3-verse passage where the son of an ‘Egyptian man’ and an ‘Israeli woman’ gets into a fight with an ‘Israeli man’.

The passage is unusual not just for its use of the word ‘Israeli’. It is one of only three instances in the Torah where laws were clarified in response to specific events. The others are the case of the man who gathered sticks on Shabbat, and the limited rights of women to inherit land.

In our passage, as the two men fight, the son of the Egyptian man blasphemed God’s name, and cursed. These were two different offences, denoted by two different verbs; the distinction between the two acts is hinted by the use of language. The verb translated as ‘blaspheme’ can also mean ‘to pierce’ or ‘specify’; the implication being that he both singled God’s name out for his blasphemy as well as cursing in a more general sense.

This distinction is supported by the sequel to the passage, in which different punishments are mandated for each of two offences, one for ‘cursing his God’, the other for singling out and blaspheming the divine name.

The lack of detail about the man’s offence is not surprising, the Bible frequently alludes rather than tells. What is surprising though is that we are told his mother’s name; she is named and shamed even though we have never heard of her before, and we will never hear of her again. It is not a level of detail we expect to find in the Torah and her name itself is far more revealing than any other biblical name. She is Shlomit, Bat Divri of the tribe of Dan.

It is the fact of her name that gives the passage its third distinguishing feature. This is perhaps the only place in the Torah in which the aggada, the imaginative rabbinic interpretation of non-legal passages, accurately uncovers the plain meaning of the verse. Aggada, exposition of the biblical narrative, is about ideas; it encourages us to look more deeply into the text, to think creatively, to explore and learn. It has no interest in literal translation. But on the narrative level, telling us the blasphemer’s mother’s name seems to be pointless. It tells us nothing about her, we’d have been no wiser if we have been told that her name was Minnie Mouse.

It is the aggada which tells us what it thinks her name means, and why it is important. Shlomit is someone who chats and greets everyone, saying shalom shalom, hello hello. Bat Divri means a daughter of words. She’s a gossip, someone who through too much chatter indulges in lashon hara, slander, that most heinous of sins according to the rabbinic mind.

The whole passage is a cautionary tale. Because she didn’t pay attention to her speech, she raised a son who became a blasphemer.

Of course, it didn’t help that his father was an Egyptian. But there’s another aggada to explain that.

Harry Freedman’s 2014 book The Talmud: A Biography is now available in paperback on Amazon. His most recent book, Kabbalah: Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul will be published in the USA next week.

About the Author
My new book is Kabbalah: Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul, published by Bloomsbury. Bloomsbury also published my previous books The Talmud: A Biography in February 2014 and The Murderous History of Bible translations in 2016. I wrote Kabbalah: Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul to try to give some context to contemporary attitudes to Kabbalah. Kabbalah became fashionable at the end of the 20th Century, largely due to the interest shown in it by Hollywood celebrities and rock stars, the most famous being Madonna. But Kabbalah's history goes back two thousand years and its story is far more interesting and profound than some of things written about it in the popular media. You can find out more about my books and why I write them at www.harryfreedmanbooks.com
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