In this week’s Torah (old testament) portion, Parashat Mishpatim, read on Shabbat (Saturday) in synagogues around the world, we encounter an example of a homonymic antonym: words that sound the same but have opposite meanings.
In this blog I’d like to illustrate the concept of homonymic antonyms with some examples from the Torah, wrapping it all up with a surprisingly related anecdote from the musical world of Benjamin Britten, Julian Bream, and the classical guitar.
The Hebrew Maidservant
In the Book of Shemot (Exodus), chapter 21 verses 7 – 11, we read about the Hebrew Maidservant. Although somewhat anachronistic today, the Torah sanctioned the socially advanced notion of allowing a man who was absolutely destitute to ‘sell’ his minor daughter to a well-to-do family. The hope, as explained by the Rabbis, is that either the master or his son would eventually take the girl as their bride. If this blessed occasion did not take place by the time she was 12 years old, the girl was free to go, released from the employment.
In verse 8, we read:
In the sixth word position of the Hebrew verse is the word “LO”, spelled “lamed-aleph”. This is the way it is written in the Torah, and in this form is an adverb denoting “no” or “does not”. The phrase “asher lo ye’adah‘ then means “does not designate her”. This is known as the “k’tiv”, the written Torah tradition.
But the ancient Rabbis passed us the oral tradition, believed by traditional Judaism to reach back to the giving of the Written Torah on Mount Sinai: although written using the letters “lamed–aleph“, the word should be pronounced as if it were spelled “lamed–vav” (it, too, pronounced as “LO”). In this form, the word means “to him” or “should”, and the phrase “asher lo ye’adah” means “does designate her” or “should designate her”. Pronouncing a word differently than the written form is known as the “k’ri”, the oral Torah tradition.
Here we have what appears to be a contradiction: is the word “LO” to be read as “does not” or as “does”?
The Talmud (Kiddushin 19a) explains the above quandary as follows: the Torah wants to tell us two different but related ideas with the single word “LO”. The written verse indeed refers to what will happen should the master decline to designate the maidservant, while the oral word refers to the ideal situation — that the master should designate her as his wife.
We find another example of the Hebrew word “LO” as written (“k’tiv”) and as pronounced (“k’ri”) in the Book of VaYikra (Leviticus), chapter 11 verse 21. The verse, which describes those species of locust which are kosher, is found within a larger section discussing kosher and non-kosher animals, birds, and insects:
Once again, the word “LO” has a written and an oral tradition. This time, however, the interpretation is critical: if practiced as read, one may eat locust that do not have knees extending above their feet, while the oral tradition indicates the exact opposite — one may only eat locust that have extended knees. For a Jew committed to the oral Torah, this will make the difference between eating a kosher locust or committing a culinary abomination. Without Jewish rabbinic tradition one would be lost in deciding which is the correct interpretation.
As before, rabbinic tradition consistently explains the verse as follows. The oral tradition (“k’ri”) of “lamed-vav” (i.e., “it has”) makes the phrase “asher lo chera’ayim mima’al leraglav” mean “which has extended knees above its feet”. Indeed, halachically, one may eat specific known types of locust that have extended knees (if it is one’s tradition to do so).
The Torah, however, imparts another halachic principal with the written tradition (“k’tiv”): even if the locust is a young one and has not yet (“LO” meaning “no” or “not”) developed its extended knees, since it will eventually do so (“LO” as “it has”), you may eat it at any point in its development cycle.
Houses in Walled Cities
As our last example of a homonymic antonym we have a verse from VaYikra (Leviticus) chapter 25 verse 30. The verse is found in the section that teaches us that a house in a walled city is not returned to its original owner in the Jubilee year if it hadn’t been redeemed within a year of the transaction:
By now we’re familiar with the quandary: is it a house in an unwalled city or a walled city that does not return to its original owners in the Jubilee year? As in the previous example, the oral tradition takes precedence: a house in a walled city must be redeemed within a year. If not, it does not return to the owners in the Jubilee.
But the written tradition teaches us another important halachic (legal) law: if the city was walled at some time in its past (the oral form), even if it is unwalled today (the written form), it is considered legally to be a walled city.
The idea behind written versus oral traditions
If we summarize the ideas above, we see a consistent Rabbinic method of interpreting written and oral forms of a word in the Torah: both forms are meant to impart important information. Although only one form can be the one actually pronounced, a person should keep both meanings in mind when reading the passage. This has a distinctly Zen-like meditative feeling to it — the existence of two diametrically opposing ideas co-existing consistently in a real world.
Benjamin Britten, Julian Bream, and written / oral traditions
One of my loves for the past thirty years has been playing the classical guitar, and one of my heroes has been the world-renowned guitarist Julian Bream. His fascinating biography, “Julian Bream: A Life on the Road” by Tony Palmer, is an intimate and personal portal into the wonderful and difficult world of a concert virtuoso.
Julian Bream is pre-eminent among contemporary British virtuosi for encouraging modern-day composers to write music for the classical guitar. Bream was successful in getting Benjamin Britten, the famous English composer, to write one of the masterpieces of contemporary guitar literature, the Nocturnal, opus 70.
On page 87 Tony Palmer writes:
‘When the piece first arrived,’ Bream told me, ‘I found I didn’t have to change anything, not one note. It’s the only piece written for me of which that is true. Oh yes, except for one tiny blemish where Britten had contrived to place two notes on the same string, which was naturally impossible to play. When I pointed this out to him he was simply horrified! It was as though you had pointed out some terrible gaff in his social behaviour. He said “Oh my God! Julian! How did I do that?” And I said, “Well, Ben, there it is. There’s a B♭ and a C♯, and I’ve only got one A string to play them on.” He looked at it, and he looked at it again, and he then said: “Look, I’ll tell you what, Julian. Let’s put one of those notes in brackets, so that when you come to play the piece, play the C♯ and just think of the B♭.” That’s rather nice, don’t you think?’
Play the C♯ and just think of the B♭. An unexpected parallel to the Torah’s concept of k’ri and k’tiv, oral and written forms, from the enchanting world of music.