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Parashat Lekh Lekha

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Lekh Lekha 5762/Oct. 27, 2001

From Soup to Nuts, From a Thread to a Sandal Strap
Prof. Yaakov Spiegel
Naftal-Yaffee Dept. of Talmud

In the war of the four kings against the five, Scripture does not say what befell the five kings; rather, in the text that follows, it focuses on the fate of the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah, especially on the king of Sodom. The reason is self-evident, for Lot, Abraham's nephew, lived in Sodom and therefore he, too, suffered as a result of this war, as explained in Scripture: "[The invaders] seized all the wealth of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their provisions, and went their way. They also took Lot, the son of Abram's brother, and his possessions, and departed; for he had settled in Sodom" (Gen. 14:11-12). This turn of events forced Abraham to go to war.

After his victory, the king of Sodom turned to him with the following request: "Give me the persons, and take the possessions for yourself" (v. 21), to which Abraham replied, "I lift up my hand to the Lord, G-d Most High, Creator of heaven and earth: I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap, and I will not take anything that is yours; you shall not say, 'It is I who made Abram rich'"(Gen. 14:22-23). As Rashi explains,[1] the words "I lift up my hand" mean that Abraham swore to the king of Sodom. The Hebrew text continues with "if (im mihut) ... if (ve-im eqah)" - also a turn of phrase used in formulating an oath.[2] Thus the plain sense is that Abraham said: I swear that I shall not take even so much as a thread or sandal strap, and I shall not take anything of yours.

Abraham's words appear to contain a redundancy. If he swore not to take so much as a thread or sandal strap, it seems superfluous to add the further assurance, "I will not take anything that is yours." Rashi solves this difficulty by saying that not taking so much as a "thread or sandal strap" refers to what he might take of the booty, whereas not taking "anything that is yours" refers to not accepting any remuneration from the king's coffers.

There appears to be yet another redundancy in what he said, which is not discussed by Rashi, and on which our paper focuses. The expression mi-hut ve-ad srokh na'al, "a thread or a sandal strap," itself appears redundant insofar as there is apparently no difference between a hut, rendered here as 'thread', and a srokh na'al, or sandal strap. It is as if Abraham had said: 'I will not take from you so much as a thread or a thread'. Some commentators have noted this. We shall cite a few of their remarks to illustrate the different exegetical approaches to the question of how Abraham hinted in his words that he would not take even the slightest thing.

1. Specifying items

According to one approach, in order to show that he intended not to take the slightest thing, Abraham gave as detailed a list as possible of the various options, thus covering everything. R. Bahye wrote commented on this passage as follows:[3]

According to Saadiah Gaon, in the phrase, "so much as a thread or a sandal strap," Scripture covered all plant, animal, and mineral things, which are all the possessions owned by the speaker. "A thread" refers to plants, including grains and fruits. "A sandal strap" refers to animals, including livestock and fowl. "I will not take" refers to mineral or inanimate objects, including silver, gold, precious stones and rubies. Therefore he added, "I will not take anything that is yours."

According to this interpretation the items Abraham mentioned - a thread, a sandal strap, and anything that is yours - symbolize different sorts of property. Thus Abraham conveyed to the king of Sodom that he would not take anything from him by specifying that he would not take anything from the plant, animal, or mineral realms.

2) Two items that are far apart from each other

According to another approach, Abraham specified two things that were far apart from one another, thus essentially saying that he would not take anything, similar to the expression found elsewhere in Scripture: "From head to foot no spot is sound" (Is. 1:6). This seems to be what the Hizkuni commentary (by R. Hizkiah b. R. Manoah, 13th c.) is saying:[4]

A thread - a head ornament, as we learn from the Sages in Tractate Shabbat (65a), "The threads on maidens' heads were strands of silk with which they bound their hair". A sandal strap - a foot ornament. Another interpretation: a thread - that from which the entire garment is woven, i.e., anything large or small.

Hizkuni's commentary concludes with the words, "anything large or small." It seems that this relates to both his interpretations, not only to the second one. To say that he would accept nothing whatsoever, Abraham gave an example of two things at opposite extremes. According to the first interpretation, it is not the intrinsic importance of a thread or sandal strap that is decisive; rather, it is their different locations. Being situated at two extremes, they thus denote the expanse from one end to the other. Thus, from a "thread" to a "sandal strap" is similar to the expression we encountered above - "from head to foot" (Is. 1:6; the Hebrew actually reads the opposite, "from foot to head"). So we have an example of something from one extreme to the other, according to its placement.[5] But one could also say that their different location led to a distinction in their relative importance. A "thread," being an ornament of the head, is more important that a "sandal strap," which ornaments the foot. Thus, they are also extremes in terms of importance.

The idea of giving an illustration that covers the entire spectrum in terms of importance appears to be what underlies Hizkuni's second interpretation. Apparently he meant that thread is something of consequence, since one's entire garment is made of it,[6] whereas a sandal strap is only used in footwear, which is of less note than a garment.[7][But one may also understand Hizkuni as follows: 'thread,' of which the entire garment is made, represents something large, while 'sand-strap' represents something small. Hence his conclusion, "anything large or small"-Ed.]
Clearly there is no fixed criterion for something ranging from one extreme to the other, rather various criteria can be set.[8] Here is another criterion, as found in Prof. Tur- Sinai's commentary:[9]

The apposition of "a thread or a sandal strap," presented here in the negative, is not intended to contrast something cheap with something dear, rather something thin with something thick. In contrast, in the Aramaic of the Elephantine Papyri we find the opposite order ... "all that she took in with her, she shall put out, from the widest to the thinnest".[10]

This commentary, incidentally, raises another question: does Scripture go from greater to lesser, or the other way around? Thus far we have cited two verses representing two approaches: the first, "From foot to head, no spot is sound" (Is. 1:6), i.e., from lesser to greater; and the second, "If the eruption ... covers all the skin of the affected person from head to foot" (Lev. 13:12), from greater to lesser.[11]

3) Two contiguous things

A third approach is hinted at in the remarks of the Sages. Megillah 11a reads:

(That Ahasuerus who reigned) "from India to Nubia" (Esther 1:1). Rav and Samuel [disagreed]. One said India is at one end of the earth, and Nubia at the other end. The other said India and Nubia lay next to each other. Just as he ruled over India and Nubia, so too, he ruled from one end of the earth to the other. Likewise, one says, "For he [Solomon] controlled the whole region west of the Euphrates ... from Tiphsah to Gaza" (I Kings 5:4). Rav and Samuel [disagreed]. One said Tiphsah is at one end of the earth and Gaza at the other; the other said Tiphsah and Gaza are next to each other. Just as he ruled over Tiphsah and Gaza, so too, he ruled over the entire earth.

We can understand the opinion that holds India and Nubia are at opposites ends of the earth, but how are we to make sense of the other opinion? If they are next to each other, how can one say that he ruled over the entire earth? This is explained in the following Midrash:[12]

"For he controlled the whole region west of the Euphrates ... from Tiphsah to Gaza," but Tiphsah and Gaza are next to one another. So, it is as if he started out from Tiphsah and encircled the whole earth until he came to Gaza; thus Solomon ruled over the entire world.

A similar interpretation is found in the words of R. Tobiah b. R. Eliezer, who lived at roughly the same time as Rashi:[13]

"Who ruled from India to Nubia." Rav and Samuel disagreed on this point, ... But how could both arguments be correct? Only if you interpret it as follows: they are standing together, except that it is like a person who sets out from India and heads eastward until he reaches Nubia, then turns south until he returns again to India, bordering on Nubia, thus teaching that everything is under his dominion.

In Manot Ha-Levi,[14] R. Solomon Alkabez's commentary on the book of Esther, the author cites the Sages' interpretation from tractate Megillah on the verse, "who ruled from India to Nubia," and then added the following:

Rabbi Moses ibn Tibbon, of blessed memory, wrote in Sefer Pe'ah as follows:[15] "One wonders what there is to disagree about and how can one lie when there are witnesses?[16] They could simply investigate and then they would know! Likewise, in the disagreement concerning Tiphsah and Gaza. The truth is that they did not disagree, rather they both concurred that one lay next to the other; but they did disagree as to how that signified that it included the entire world. One held (the second view presented in the Talmud) that just as he ruled over India and Nubia, so too, he ruled over the entire world. The other said India is at the end [of the world] because it is well-known that the world is spherical,[17] and there is no end to the sphere other than the place from which one begins."

Thus, according to R. Moses, the disagreement between Rav and Samuel was not in actual fact a disagreement, for one can verify whether these places lay next to each other. Indeed, according to him, they both admitted that the places are adjacent. Their disagreement was about the way we derive from this illustration that Solomon or Ahasuerus ruled over the entire world.

According to one opinion, India and Nubia are only representative places; Scripture meant to say that just as he ruled over both these places, so too, he ruled over the entire world.[18] The second view is the innovative one. India and Nubia are next to each other; both these places are specified, not as representative, but to indicate that he ruled from one end of the earth to the other, for one can travel from one to the other not via the shortest route, but via the longest, encircling the entire earth.

Now we see that Scripture has another way of denoting something that is all-inclusive: by denoting two things that are adjacent, with all the space between them being covered by traversing from one to the other, around in a circle.

We can now apply this idea to explain our verse. A "thread" and a "sandal strap" are indeed items of similar value and without importance as to their placement or size. Scripture deliberately indicates all-inclusiveness by selecting two things that are more or less equivalent in value, or adjacent in location, etc. One can traverse from one to the other figuratively by drawing a circle that "covers" all the area between them.

A similar approach can be applied to interpret the following verse: "You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your G-d - your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel ... from woodchopper to waterdrawer" (Deut. 29:9-10). One might wonder, since there is no difference in status between woodchopper and waterdrawer, how does specifying these two occupations illustrate that "all the men of Israel" are included thereby, since the examples pertain to things that are alike? This passage, as well, shows that sometimes Scripture indicates all-inclusiveness by giving examples of two things of equal value or adjacent position.[19]

[1] Likewise Radak, Ibn Ezra and others. Nahmanides, after citing Rashi, writes: "To me it seems that he said, 'I lift up [harimoti] my hand to the Lord,' to make it hekdesh, banning him from taking anything that was his; for things that are hekdesh are called terumat yad (a contribution, or "lifted by the hand"). He said so since he had promised a tithe, that all [Abraham] he might take of that which was his [the king of Sodom] would be a contribution to the Lord, and he would not profit from it." Both these approaches appear in Genesis Rabbah (43:9): "I lift up my hand - R. Judah said he made them a contribution... and R. Nehemiah said he made them an oath." Nahmanides himself actually cites this midrash. Targum Onkelos says that lifting the hands here is an indication of prayer. This seems problematic.
[2] R. Jonah Ibn Janah, Sefer ha-Shorashim, Bacher edition, under the root im, cites the verse at hand as an example of an oath.
[3] Chavel edition, Jerusalem 1977.
[4] Chavel edition, Jerusalem 1989. Also cf. R. Mecklenburg's commentary, Ha-Ktav ve-ha-Kabbalah, Chavel ed., Jerusalem 1993.
[5] The Tur commentary on the Torah says: ">From a thread, which is a small ornament (apparently meaning that it is a small ornament in relation to other head ornaments, but that it could be of equal value to a sandal strap, although this relationship is not germane to the issue) of the ornaments for the head, like the threads on maidens' heads, to a sandal strap, which is one of the ornaments on the foot; as in, 'from head to foot' (Lev. 13:12). The Tur even cites a verse directly matching the example at hand, i.e., the order being from head to foot.
[6] There is indeed a version that says "any garment" (not "the entire garment"). Thus it is in Ibn Ezra's commentary, which begins in the same way as Hizkuni, although perhaps one should not quibble over this detail: "A thread - from which any garment is sewn. A sandal strap-the leather used to tie on a shoe." Ibn Ezra's explanation is very terse and could be interpreted the same way as we have read Hizkuni. However, it could also be read similarly to R. Saadiah's interpretation, cited by R. Bahye in the quote presented above.
[7] Perhaps he meant to say that any garment could be made of thread, insofar as thread is a sort of raw material, not yet processed; whereas a sandal strap is a processed item, only appropriate for shoes and not for making garments.
[8] Cf. R. B. Epstein, Tosephet Berakhah, on the verse, "from woodchopper to waterdrawer" (Deut. 29:10), which we shall discuss later. Epstein wrote that sometimes Scripture went from greater to lesser, and sometimes from first to last; and that this verse, as well as the verse, "a thread or a sandal strap," falls into the category of first to last, although I do not quite see how he arrives at this.
[9] N. H. Tur Sinai, Peshuto shel Mikra, Jerusalem 1967, p. 37. Also see Tur Sinai, Ha-Lashon ve-ha-Sefer, Vol. Ha-Lashon, Jerusalem 1954, p. 389.
[10] [the actual Aramaic phrase, found in an ancient marriage document, Cowley 15, is min hom ad hut which is translated by the editors, Porten and Greenfield, as "from straw to string" meaning two similar items and not as Tur Sinai explains. Incidentally, note how close the Aramaic is to our biblical phrase.-Ed.]
[11] This question deserves discussion in its own right. Suffice it to present here Rashi's remark on Sotah 30b: "An infant is older than a suckling, as it is written: 'Infant and suckling' (I Sam. 15:3); it is the way of Scripture to do so, that is, to indicate inclusion of everything, going from the greater to the lesser, as in "oxen and sheep." [The New JPS rendition omits the words "from" and "to" that appear in the Hebrew.]
[12] Aggadat Shir ha-Shirim, Schechter edition, Cambridge 1894, p. 6; the same as Shir ha-Shirim Zuta, Buber ed., Lwow 1895, p. 2a.
[13] Midrash Lekah Tov al Esther, Buber edition (in Sifrei d-Aggadata al Esther, Vilna 1887), 1.1, p. 45.
[14] First printed in Venice, 1585. Photocopy of the Lwow edition, 1911, p. 25b. After citing R. Moses ibn Tabun, he also cited Lekah Tov. (Apparently he did not have the Schechter edition of Aggadat Shir ha-Shirim, and therefore did not refer to it.)
[15] R. Moses ibn Tibbon, from the noted family of translators of Jewish texts that was active in Spain and France in the 11th to 13th centuries. Most of his original writings have survived in manuscript, including the present one.
[16] An expression based on Ketubbot 27b: "[The claim] 'Why should I lie when there are witnesses' we do not say [in this specific case]." In other words, when we have testimony from witnesses, there is no point in lying, meaning in this case that India and Nubia, or Tiphsah and Gaza, are well-known places, and we can easily verify whether they are next to each other or far apart.
[17] Note that neither Aggadat Shir ha-Shirim nor Lekah Tov mentioned this point; rather, they presented a similar explanation, easily understood, without using this point. Clearly this point is absent from their remarks, insofar as the fact that the earth is spherical only became known later. However we shall not enter a discussion of this question here, since certain scholars, as we know, maintain that the Sages were aware of this fact and have found indications of this in the writings of the Sages and in the Zohar.
[18] In response to the question why these two places were specifically cited as examples, a possible explanation might be that they were very well known. This point is made by Maharsha in Hiddushei Aggadot be-Sanhedrin 20b.
[19] This was noted by Rabbi S. R. Hirsch in his commentary on Genesis: "In our language, to denote something all-inclusive we do not specify something small and something large ... and say from this small thing to that large thing ... rather we see the things as arranged in a circle, take two contiguous points, and say from this one to the other one, going full circle... Likewise, here: 'a thread or a sandal strap,' and similarly, in the opinion of the Sages, 'from India to Nubia, he ruled over all' (Megillah 11a), indicating that his sovereignty extended around the entire earth, beginning in India and coming all the way around to Nubia." Rabbi S. R. Hirsch stated this as a fixed rule, whereas I have said here that sometimes Scripture uses this approach, since we have the example of "from foot to head," as shown above, or the example, "from the cedar in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall" (I Kings 5:13). From this we see that Scripture also uses the method of specifying from greater to lesser, although one might be able to find another explanation for these verses.