Monday, May 03, 2010

Death and Life are in the power of the tongue

There is a nice Midrash Rabba at the start of Behar, and rather than coming up with any new insight, I would like  to present and translate it.

We start, as we often do in midrash, with a pasuk from some foreign source, and work our way until we get to an idea in the present parasha. The target pasuk is וכי תמכרו ממכר לעמיתך. And so, we start with a source pasuk in Mishlei, perek 18:

כא  מָוֶת וְחַיִּים, בְּיַד-לָשׁוֹן;    וְאֹהֲבֶיהָ, יֹאכַל פִּרְיָהּ.21 Death and life are in the power of the tongue; and they that indulge it shall eat the fruit thereof.

The midrash offers several explanations. The first is:

א [מוות וחיים ביד לשון]

וידבר ה' אל משה וכי תמכרו ממכר לעמיתך.הדא הוא דכתיב: (משלי יח) מות וחיים ביד לשון. 
תרגום עקילס:

מיצטרא מכירין מות מכאן וחיים מכאן. 
That is, Aquilas, who authored a Greek translation, explained/translated this idea מות וחיים ביד לשון as a mystro macherion. A mystro is a spoon and a macherion is a knife, in Greek, and so a mystromacherion is a spoon-knife, one eating utensil, in which one side is a spoon and the other a knife. One side you can use for cutting (or stabbing!) and the other for bringing food to the mouth. Thus, death on one side and life on the other. That both are eating utensils is the connection to beyad lashon. Perhaps -- indeed, it seems somewhat likely -- Aquilas intended this to be a further allegory. (Note: While Origin, in his Hexapla, includes readings from Aquila, I don't see him citing anything on this particular pasuk here.)

The midrash continues with a similar expansion, this time from Ben Sirah:
בר סירא אמר:
היתה לפניו גחלת ונפח בה וביערה רקק בה וכבת. 
We can find this in our copies of the book (outside the Biblical canon) of Ben Sirah:
[12] If you blow on a spark, it will glow;
if you spit on it, it will be put out;
and both come out of your mouth.
Once again, I don't think this is meant to be the nimshal. Rather, it was a further illustration of the mashal, as found in Mishlei as well. Also, the idea that both come from your mouth, just as in Mishlei, that it is beyad lashon.

The midrash continues:
אמר רבי ינאי:
היה ככר טבול אכלו עד שלא עישרו מות ביד לשון.
עישרו ואכלו חיים ביד לשון. 

Rabbi Yanai said: If there was a piece of bread which was tevel, and he ate it before he separated off tithes, then it is death via the tongue. If he separated off tithes and then ate it, it is life via the tongue.

The midrash continues:
אמר ר' חייא בר אבא:
היתה לפניו כלכלה של תאנים אכלה עד שלא עישרה, מות ביד לשון.
עישרה ואכלה חיים ביד לשון. 

Rabbi Chiya bar Abba said: If he had a basket of figs. If he ate them before he separated off tithes, then (he sinned and) it is death via the tongue. If he separated off tithes and then ate, it is life via the tongue.

In this instance, it seems to me that this is intended to be a nimshal rather than a mashal. Which is what threw me about the other cited sources. (But based on the next, it would seem that some of these are indeed intended as further allegories.)

The midrash continues:
ארבי שמעון בן גמליאל לטבי עבדיה:
פוק זבין לי צדו טבא מן שוקא. נפק זבן ליה לישן.
א"ל: פוק זבין לי צדו בישא מן שוקא, נפק זבן ליה לישן.
א"ל: מהו דין דכד אנא אמר לך צדו טבא את זבן לי לישן. וכד אנא אמר לך צדו בישא את זבן לי לישן.
א"ל: מינה טבתא ומינה בישתא. כד הוה טב לית טבה מיניה, וכד ביש לית ביש מיניה. 

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said to Tavi his servant, "go purchase for me good (/the best) provisions from the market. He went and bought for him a tongue." He said to him "purchase for me bad (/the words) provisions from the market. He went out and bout him a tongue. He said to him, "What is this? When I say to you to the best provisions, you buy me a tongue, and when I say to you the worst provisions, you buy me tongue!" He {=Tavi} said to him, of it is good and of it is bad. When it is good, there is none better than it, and when it is bad, there is no worse than it."

The midrash concludes:
רבי עשה סעודה לתלמידיו הביא לפניהם לשונות רכים ולשונות קשים. התחילו בוררין ברכים ומניחין הקשים.
אמר להם: דעו מה אתם עושין, כשם שאתם בוררין את הרכין ומניחין את הקשים,
כך יהיה לשונכם.
כך אלו לאלו לפיכך משה מזהיר את ישראל: וכי תמכרו ממכר.

Rabbi made a feast for his students. He brought before them tender tongues and tough tongues. They began to choose for themselves the tender tongues and left alone the tough tongues. He said to them, "Know what you are doing. Just as you are choosing the tender (soft) tongues and leaving alone the tough one, so shall your own tongues be. So shall you be, each to one another.

Therefore, Moshe warned Israel (in parashat Behar):

יד  וְכִי-תִמְכְּרוּ מִמְכָּר לַעֲמִיתֶךָ, אוֹ קָנֹה מִיַּד עֲמִיתֶךָ--אַל-תּוֹנוּ, אִישׁ אֶת-אָחִיו.14 And if thou sell aught unto thy neighbour, or buy of thy neighbour's hand, ye shall not wrong one another.

I suppose that it based on אַל-תּוֹנוּ. There is a possible connection of timkeru mimkar with macherion, the Greek word for knife, but this does not seem to be so. Rather, it meandered through different explanations of the pasuk in Mishlei, and finally arrived at this pasuk in Behar.

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