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Parashat Vayera - Hebrew Wordplay

Hebrew Wordplay

Further thoughts on Parashat Vayera

by John J. Parsons

THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES are filled with various kinds of wordplay.  In addition to some humorous play on words (i.e., puns), you will discover alliteration, acrostics, parables, similes, metaphors, hyperboles, gematria, and other literary devices used in the Hebrew text.  Some scholars even suggest that the first two words of the Torah (i.e., בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא / bereshit bara) were intentionally spelled using the same initial three letters (בּ.ר.א) for the sake of "alliteration" (i.e., repetition of sound).  At any rate, examples of wordplay often appear on the surface-level of the texts.  For example, "Adam" (אָדָם) is a play on the word adamah (אֲדָמָה, "ground"); Chavah (חַוָּה, "Eve") is a play on the word chai (חַי, "life"); Kayin (קַיִן, "Cain") is a play on the verb kanah (קָנָה, "to get"), and so on (see Gen. 2:7, 3:20, 4:1). Even the name "Jesus" (i.e., Yeshua: יֵשׁוּעַ) plays on the Hebrew word for deliverance or salvation (i.e., yeshuah: יְשׁוּעָה). Of course, many other examples could be cited.

Of particular relevance to this week's Torah portion (Vayera) is the name Yitzchak (יִצְחָק, "Isaac"), which plays on the verb tzachak (צָחַק, "to laugh"). Some have said that tzachak is "onomatopoeic," that is, it imitates the sound of laughter itself. Appropriately enough, the root appears a number of times in the story of Isaac, though often with different connotations.  The simple stem (kal) of tzachak conveys the idea of laughter, whether in joy or incredulity, though the stronger stem (piel) suggests more intense expressions, for example rejoicing, playing, and making love -- or (negatively) mocking, scorning, and deriding. In other words, the motive for laughter is only contextually understood. After all, there's a big difference between laughing at someone and laughing with them.

At any rate, God Himself named Isaac in response to Abram's laughter over the prospect of having a child in his old age. Here's some of the "back story." God originally called Abram to leave Ur of Mesopotamia for the land of Canaan (Gen. 12:1). When he arrived there, God appeared to him and promised that his descendants would inherit the land (Gen. 12:7). Abram was 75 years old at this time. Abram wandered through the land waiting for God's promise to be fulfilled. Some time later (but before the birth of Ishmael), God came to him in a vision and reaffirmed his promise that he would have a son "from his own loins" (Gen. 15:1-5). Abram "believed in the LORD, and He credited it to him as righteousness" (Gen. 15:6). The LORD then made the "covenant of the pieces" to seal the agreement to give the land of Canaan to Abram's descendants (Gen. 15:7-20). Ten more years passed, however, and Abram and Sarai were still childless. In a lapse of faith, Sarai urged Abram to sleep with her Egyptian maidservant, Hagar, in order to produce the family heir.  Ishmael was born when Abram was 86 years old (Gen. 16:16).

Another thirteen years passed before God appeared to Abram to renew his earlier promise that he would become a "father of a multitude" (Gen. 15; 17:7). Abram was now 99 years old. To symbolize Abram's changed status, God changed his name from Avram ("exalted father" [from אָב, "father," + רָם, "exalted"]) to Avraham ("father of a multitude" [from אָב, "father" + המוֹן, "crowd"]). (Note that some scholars regard Avraham's name to mean "father of mercy" (from אָב, "father" + רחם, "womb"). Likewise God changed Sarah's name from Sarai (שָׂרַי, "princess") to Sarah (שָׂרָה) -- the exchanged Hey (ה) for the Yod (י) was given to indicate that the Divine Presence was to replace of the "hand" of Sarah's design. (Indeed, the root of Sarah's name (i.e., שׂר, "prince") later reappears when her grandson Jacob was renamed "Israel."  The wordplay occurs in the phrase "for you have striven (sarita) as a prince (sar) with God and with men and have prevailed" (Gen 32:28)).  God reaffirmed his promise to make Abram into a great nation and then gave him the commandment of brit millah (בְּרִית מִילָה, ritual circumcision) as a token or "sign" of the agreement. (There's another play on words here: Abraham's male descendants who refuse to "cut off" their foreskins would be "cut off" from the terms of the covenant).

Getting back to the wordplay on Isaac's name, when the LORD repeated his promise that Abraham would sire a son in his old age, he "threw himself on his face and laughed (וַיִּצְחָק) as he said to himself, "Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?" (Gen. 17:17). When Abraham attempted to recommend Ishmael as his heir, God said "No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Yitzchak (יִצְחָק, "he laughs").... (Gen. 17:19). After this vision of the LORD, Abraham promptly circumcised himself along with his son Ishmael (Gen. 17:23-26).

Rashi says it was the third day after Abraham's circumcision when he was visited by the Angel of the LORD (מַלְאַךְ יהוה) accompanied with the two other angels. When Sarah overheard the Angel of the LORD say, "I will certainly return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son" (Gen. 18:10), she laughed (וַתִּצְחַק) within herself (lit, "at her insides") and thought, "Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment, my husband being so old?" (Gen. 18:12). The LORD (יהוה) then asked, "Why did Sarah laugh (צָחֲקָה)? Sarah denied it (לא צָחַקְתִּי, "I didn't laugh"), but the Angel of the LORD said, "No, but you did laugh" (לא כִּי צָחָקְתְּ).

Jewish tradition maintains that Abraham laughed in joy at the prospect of becoming a father, whereas Sarah (initially) shook her head in disbelief. Sarah underwent teshuvah, however, even before her conception (see Heb. 11:11), and after the miraculous birth of her son exclaimed in heartfelt joy: "God has made laughter (צְחק) for me; everyone who hears will laugh for me (יִצְחַק־לִי)" (Gen. 21:6).

After Isaac was weaned, however, Abraham held a celebration, but Sarah saw Ishmael mocking (מְצַחֵק, i.e., the piel participle of צָחַק, "to laugh") her son and demanded that he be sent away. This grieved Abraham greatly, but God reassured him that Ishmael would become a great nation in his own right (Gen. 21:11-13). The promise of an heir belonged to Isaac alone - the miraculously given son that would bring laughter to the hearts of all those who believe.

A further example of wordplay on the name "Isaac" occurs when the Torah records how he fled to the Philistine city of Gerar to escape a famine in the land. Like his father Abraham, Isaac lied by telling people that his wife Rebekah was his "sister." The Torah records that his deception was detected when Abimelech saw him "playing" with Rebekah: יִצְחָק מְצַחֵק אֵת רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ / "Isaac was 'sporting' with his wife Rebekah" (Gen. 26:8). The verb translated "sporting" is the intensive (piel) form of tzachak (צָחַק, "to laugh"), and clearly suggests the idea of caressing and fondling -- i.e., making love.

Hebrew wordplay was also applied to Isaac's sons.  When the twins were born, the first came out hairy and was named Esau (עֵשָׂו), perhaps from the word esev (עֵשֶׂב), "grass" or "weed" of the field), whereas the second came out with his hand on his brother's heel, and was named Ya'akov (יַעֲקב, "grappler," from the word עָקֵב, "heel"). Later, when Esau learned that Jacob had taken away his blessing, he exclaimed, "Is he not rightly named "heel holder" (i.e., יַעֲקב)? For he has taken me by the heel (יַּעְקְבֵנִי) these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing" (Gen. 27:36).

[ Note: Because of time contraints this entry is currently unfinished... If it pleases God I will resume this topic at a later time, chaverim. ]

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