the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
Coming Out of Your Nose
Prof. Maya Fruchtman
Department of Hebrew Language
ha’alotekha deals with the problematic behavior of the
Israelites in the wilderness: they have complaints and grievances against their
leaders and they fear the wilderness and its hardships as well as the new land
to which they are going. The reading begins with the complaints of the people
who had grown sick of manna as the sole source of nourishment, longing
for meat and all the side-dishes that they had eaten freely in
This theme of the people’s grievances and the Lord’s response is developed in an interesting rhetorical fashion. In the context of the narrative about their complaints and grievances, Scripture describes the Lord’s great anger at the people with the words va-yihar appo – “He fumed in anger.” The text then proceeds to mention how G-d punished them for that particular behavior or complaint, and concludes with naming the place after the punishment given there. Twice the Lord is described as fuming in anger at the complaints of His people or their contemptible behavior, and twice He punishes them and names the place of their punishment metaphorically. In the first instance, they were consumed by fire and the place was called Tab`erah (from the root b`r = to burn; Num. 11:1-4), and in the second (in this week’s reading) the Lord’s anger raged and he smote the Israelites on account of the quail, since they craved it and gathered it in large quantity, and that place was called Kibroth-hatta’avah (meaning “the graves of craving”; Num. 11:33-34).
At the heart of the story we find a rhetorical expression to show the Lord’s response to the Israelite craving for meat and their continuous complaints (Num. -22). Previously, G-d’s anger was termed hori-aph (fuming anger; literally “fuming nose”).
“And say to the people: Purify yourselves for tomorrow and you shall eat meat, for you have kept whining before the Lord and saying, ‘If only we had meat to eat! Indeed, we were better off in Egypt!’ The Lord will give you meat and you shall eat. You shall not eat one day, not two, not even five days or ten or twenty, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils (yetze me-appekhem) and becomes loathsome to you, for you have rejected the Lord who is among you, by whining before Him and saying, ‘Oh, why did we ever leave Egypt!’”
The word aph (= nose or nostrils) thus plays a central role in this week’s parasha in those collocations pertaining to the Holy One, blessed be He, and the pictorial quality of these biblical metaphors remains live and clear. We find several instances of the phrase hori aph where the image of fuming anger is still evoked. In the middle of the passage just cited we have the expression “ yetze me-appekhem” (“comes out of your nostrils”) in the sense described forthwith: it will become loathsome to you. Here, too, the original metaphor is very much alive. These phrases play a central role in biblical rhetoric.
The isolated expression, “Comes out of his nostrils,” in the sense of being sick of something, is perceived in our day as a stock metaphor in colloquial Hebrew and slang. For example, in the comprehensive dictionary of slang by Rubik Rosenthal (Keter Publishers, 2005), the Hebrew expression Yatza lo me-ha-aph (lit. = it came out of his nose) is defined as equivalent to the Yiddish, “‘sgeit im schoin fon der nooz.”
And so the biblical expression, “will come out of your nostrils,” found its way into Yiddish and from there back into our language as a new metaphor. The phrase is ostensibly a translation borrowed from Yiddish into our common speech. Similar instances of biblical phrases finding their way into spoken Hebrew include such expressions as “she did her nails” (as in Parashat Ki-Tetze, Deut. 21:12), and “it is not in Heaven” (i.e., unattainable; as in Parashat Nitzavim, Deut. 30:11).