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Parashat Vayehi

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Parashat Vayehi 5761/ 13 January 2001

"His Eyes are Darker than Wine"

Prof. Aaron Demsky
Department of Jewish History

Jacob's blessing to Judah (Gen. 49:8-12) can be divided into two themes. The first part (vv. 8-10) promises him dominion over his brothers and the crown in years to come. In this section Judah is compared to a lion's whelp (Heb. gur aryeh), words which have been preserved throughout the generations in traditional Jewish names such as Gur Aryeh and Aryeh (Leib) Judah. In the second part Jacob blesses Judah with excellent vineyards in the Judean hills (vv. 11-12):

He tethers his ass to a vine,

His ass's foal to a choice vine;

He washes his garment in wine,

His robe in blood of grapes.

His eyes are darker than wine;

His teeth are whiter than milk.

The first distich [verse in two parts] praises the strength of his vines, that they can be used to tether a young ass, which is quite an unruly beast. The second distich explains that the land of Judah will flow with great quantities of wine, so plentiful that one could wash one's garments in it.

The last distich, Hakhlili einayim mi-yayin, u-lven shinayim me-halav, and especially the rare word hakhlili, which occurs only twice in the entire Bible (here and in Proverbs 23:29-30), has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Saadiah Gaon interpreted it as "eyes deeper red than wine and teeth whiter than milk." He took the preposition mi (min) as a comparative, meaning "more than," and not as a causative, meaning "from," "as a result of," "because of" (cf. Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam), or as meaning "from large quantities of" (cf. Targum Onkelos).

As for the word hakhlili, it is generally agreed to refer to the deep red of wine, as is its meaning in modern Hebrew. This interpretation is supported by the two previous distichs that mention the "blood of grapes" and soreka, one of the choicest varieties of grape vines, whose fruit is deep red.

Opposing these exegetes is Nahmanides, who interprets hakhlili as coming from the root k-h-l (= blue) with a transposition of the letters het, kaf, lamed. Support for his view he takes from the biblical phrase kahalt einayikh, "you painted your eyes" (Ezek. 23:40); from Mishnaic Hebrew, "not until he write and tattoo with ink or with blue [Heb. kahol] or with anything that leaves a mark" (Makkot 3,6); and from Arabic, el-kahul, "substance for darkening the eyes." Having hakhlili eyes means they are kahlili, that is, "his eyes are blue [e.g., black, dark] from wine, and he cannot disguise his drunkenness, so his eyes must be painted constantly." Nahmanides concludes surprisingly that there is no blessing here: "Scripture speaks disparagingly of wine, of its bad outward effects, causing discoloring and sores." If so, then this distich not only yields us the paired words "tooth and eye," but also draws a contrast between black and white.

In 1972 a finding was publicized of a wine jar discovered fully intact, finely engraved with a Hebrew inscription. The jar had apparently been found in illegal excavations in one of the villages in the Judean hills. Its inscription was deciphered by Prof. Nahman Avigad as follows: "For Yehezyahu. Wine. Kahol" plus a sign indicating its measure (perhaps an issaron). The jar is dated to the seventh-eighth century B.C.E. and is now on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Avigad interpreted the new term, "wine kahol" as designating the vineyard from which it came, that is, "wine from the village Beit-Kahil," which is approximately four kilometers northwest of Hebron.[1]

In the light of Nahmanides' interpretation of hakhlili einayim, we could also interpret this inscription as indicating a type of wine classified by its dark color; for in the language of the Sages we find, "Black is similar to kahol" (Kiddushin 12a). In this case, the wine would have a dark, almost black color. Compare the Mishnah, Niddah 9,11: "There are grapes that produce red wine, and there are grapes whose wine is black." In Akkadian as well the word ekelu, equivalent to the Hebrew root h-kh-l, means the dark color of eyes (the modern sense of kahol as blue is a later development, possibly dating to the Middle Ages).

I believe this to be a highly instructive example of Scripture shedding light on our understanding of an archeological finding, and of the archeological finding casting new light on an ancient exegetical difficulty. Relying both on Saadiah Gaon's interpretation and on Nahmanides, in addition to Genesis Rabbah 98.10: "Hakhlili einayim mi-yayin--These are the people from the south, whose eyes are dark (kehulot), and whose talent lends itself to Torah study," the distich could be interpreted as a blessing, and not as expressing disapproval of wine. The blessing would be that the eyes of the descendants of Judah be darker and more beautiful than the deep color of the excellent wine derived from the grapes that grow in the Judean hills.

[1] N. Avigad, "Two Hebrew Inscriptions on Wine Jars", Israel Exploration Journal 22 (1972), pp. 1-5.

A. Demsky, "Dark Wine from Judah," Israel Exploration Journal 22 (1972), pp. 233-234.