Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Metzora 5768/ April 12, 2008

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. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Healing the Leper or Healing the Leprosy?

Syntax and Style


Dr. Yair Haas 


Institute for the History of Jewish Bible Interpretation


The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:   this shall be the ritual for a leper at the time that he is to be cleansed.  When it has been reported to the priest, the priest shall go outside the camp. If the priest sees that the scaly affection has been healed on the leper … (Lev. 14:1-3)

In his commentary on these verses Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) wrote:

The grammarian Rabbi Jonah the Sephardi said that the scaly affection has been healed on the leper is a reversal; it would have been better to say that the leper has been healed of the scaly affection.  Why should we reverse the words of the Ever-living G-d [based on Jer. 23, 36] because of our own lack of understanding?   After all, it says (Lev. 13:37):  “the scale is healed; he is clean,” as well as, “the plague has healed” (Lev. 14:48).

The Rabbi Jonah to whom Ibn Ezra referred was none other than Rabbi Jonah Ibn Janah (990-1055), one of the great grammarians of the Middle Ages, whose work, Sefer ha-Rikmah, provides a systematic analysis of many stylistic features characteristic of the Bible.   One of these features, for which Rabbi Jonah Ibn Janah provides more than twenty examples, is “reversal” or hafukh, that is, reversal of the syntactical role of words in a verse. [1]   For example, in the verse at hand, the word “affection” (nega) serves as the subject of the sentence, and “leper” (tzaru’a) is an indirect object, even though the actual intention of the verse is that the leper is the healed, not the affection.  (A similar example is provided by the verse, “the waters stood above the mountains” [Ps. 104:6], which means, according to Ibn Janah, that the mountains stood above the waters.) [2]

Ibn Ezra, on whom Ibn Janah’s influence is readily apparent, did not accept Ibn Janah’s “discovery,” the reason being more a matter of principle than a matter of specific interpretation, as we see from his remarks.  He considered Ibn Janah’s interpretation too arbitrary and based on the assumption that the biblical text is insufficiently clear and requires clarification.   Ibn Ezra, in contrast, maintained that the lack of clarity in certain passages of the Torah should be ascribed to the reader’s lack of understanding rather than to an inherent shortcoming in the Creator’s mode of expression. [3]

Abarbanel’s exegetical approach is similar to that of Ibn Ezra.  He, too, explained the verse at hand according to the plain sense, i.e., that it is the affection which is healed, not the leper.  There are indications that Abarbanel, like Ibn Ezra, was uncomfortable with Ibn Janah’s notion of reversal.  Of all the examples cited by Ibn Janah in his Sefer ha-Rikmah, Abarbanel’s commentary followed the same interpretation in only one instance (see below), even though Radak (1160-1235), with whom Abarbanel’s commentaries often concur in matters of style, agreed with Ibn Janah in many of these cases.   Likewise, there are instances in which it seems that Abarbanel chose a far-fetched interpretation in order to circumvent the (quite reasonable) conclusion that the scriptural passage is employing the phenomenon of “reversal.”  For example, in his interpretation of the verse from I Kings (17:14), “The jar of flour shall not give out and the jug of oil shall not fail,” he wrote:

It should have said, “the flour of the jar shall not give out,” since it is the flour that one wants not to give out, not the jar.  But, since without flour the jar ceases to a jar of flour, it said, “the jar of flour shall not give out,” since it will always be a jar of flour insofar as it has flour in it.  Likewise with the jug of oil.

All these philosophical machinations seem to be directed at circumventing the conclusion that the intention of the verse is that the flour in the jar will not give out and that the oil in the jug will not fail (reversing the order of the construct expression). [4]

However, as we said, there is one instance in which Abarbanel agreed with Ibn Janah, namely the verse:   “And the farm hand shall be called to mourn, and those skilled in wailing to lament” (Amos 5:16), which according to the Hebrew syntax reads:  “Shall be called – the farm hand – to mourn, and to lament – to those skilled in wailing.”   Thus, we see that Abarbanel did not in principle deny the existence of a phenomenon of reversal, as did Ibn Ezra.

One of the salient characteristics of Abarbanel’s commentary is the fact that his exegetical principles are quite flexible and subject to his theological stand.  That is, when forced by his theological bias to do so, he abandoned his own exegetical principles, both the ones he explicitly formulated and those that emerge from the approach taken in many of his commentaries. [5]   We may surmise that the reason Abarbanel did not flatly reject the existence of a reversal phenomenon is that in certain instances this exegetical approach actually helped him overcome philosophical difficulties that he encountered in Scripture.  For example, in his commentary on the words, “or in the waters under the earth” (Ex. 20:4), he wrote:

This does not mean that the waters are under the earth, for they are on top of it, in the arrangement of the elements.  But it is said so that they neither make a sculptured image or likeness of things that are on the earth, nor of things and that are in the water, as if to say that the fish that spawn on the earth that is under water, and have ground under them.

According to Aristotle’s notion of physics, which was accepted by Abarbanel, it was impossible that the lighter element, water, be under the heavier element – earth (the dominant element on dry land), and therefore he reversed the words of the verse, the waters under the earth, to read:  the earth that is under the water, i.e., the bottom of the sea.  This reversal is not found in Ibn Janah or in the work of other commentators, and perhaps was an original contribution by Abarbanel.   As we said, even though Abarbanel generally refrained from applying the principle of reversal, he did not hesitate to do so when it could reconcile the text with his theological and philosophical views.



[1] This should not be confused with another phenomenon which may appear to resemble it superficially, namely that of “early and late” (or “a corrupted text”), in which exegesis suggests changing the order of the words in the verse without changing their syntactical function.  On Ibn Janah’s attitude towards both of these phenomenon see:   Ma’aravi  Peretz, “Le-Darko ha-Parshanit shel Rabbi Jonah ibn Janah:  ‘Hafukh’ u-‘Muqdam u-Me’uhar’,” Sinai  100 (1987), pp. 661-681.

[2] Ibn Ezra comes out strongly against this interpretation, as well, even though he does not mention Ibn Janah:  “Whoever changes (ha-hofekh) the order of the words of the Ever-living G-d, to say that the mountains stood above the waters, he has heretical thoughts (tahapukhot) in his heart.”

[3] On Ibn Ezra’s attitude towards “reversal” and “early and late,” see Ma’aravi Peretz, “‘Mikra Mesoras’ be-Farshanuto she Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra,” Divrei ha-Congress ha-Olami, 9 (Jerusalem 1986), Part I, pp. 117-124.

[4] Even raising the issue  itself,   that “it should have said that the flour in the jar will not give out,” intrinsically denies the possibility that that the verse should be understood as a reversal.

[5] This was the subject of my Master’s thesis.