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Bad language in the Good Book

November 2, 2009 – 5:31 pm14 Comments
Are there 'dirty words' in the tanakh?

Are there 'dirty words' in the Tanakh?

By Simon Holloway

In a Sydney synagogue, a local rabbi delivered a sermon in which he criticised foul language as essentially not Jewish. I will not question the fact that classical Jewish literature eschewed scatological and sexual innuendo, but many are unaware of the prevalence of such language within the Tanakh itself. I would like to look at one particular example, which can be found in Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Zechariah. This word made people so uncomfortable that, believe it or not, the generation of scholars known as the Masoretes (c. 7th-11th centuries, CE) edited it out and replaced it with a gentler term.

Etymology is fascinating and, for that reason, I would like to present the origin of this particular word. Doing so should enable us to better appreciate the precise range of meaning that this word came to have in Biblical Hebrew.

First of all, what is the Hebrew word for palace? Well, that depends on whether you were living in the south of the country (scholars refer to “Judean Hebrew”) or the north of the country (“Israelian Hebrew”). In the south, the word was quite simply בית (house), or בית המלך (house of the king). In the north, where the language was heavily influenced by Aramaic, and even in southern texts that describe palaces in the north of the country, the word used was היכל (heikhal).

This word comes directly from Aramaic, but the origin of the Aramaic word is a little more complex. It derives from the Akkadian ekal, which in turn derives from two Sumerian words: É and GAL. In Sumerian, É means “house” and GAL means “big”. A “big house”, the house in which the king and his royal entourage lived, was a feature of Ancient Near-Eastern monarchic society, and the word itself made its way from Sumer, via Akkad, to Aram and, thence, to Israel. In other words, from Sumerian, via Akkadian, to Aramaic and “Israelian Hebrew”. In later years, היכל (heikhal) became the standard Hebrew word for palace, and the name of a branch of Jewish mysticism that focused on the heavenly palace of God.

Part of the royal retinue that lived in the palace was the king’s harem. This was made up of women, whose sole purpose was to gratify their august monarch. Reading the book of Esther, we are vouchsafed a glimpse into the lives of these “women of the palace”, who beautify themselves in expectation of their night with the king, and live to serve his every need. The job may have come with some very desirable perks, but it’s fairly safe to suggest that the actual occupation was not so highly sought – and was not the sort of job that one would hope for their daughters.

“Woman of the palace”, in Akkadian, is ishi ekal, but in Aramaic and Hebrew, this becomes contracted to שיגל (sheigal). As a noun, this occurs five times in the Hebrew Bible, both in Hebrew (Psalms 45:10 and Nehemiah 2:6) and in Aramaic (Daniel 5:2, 3 and 23), but it also occurs four times as a verb. What does it mean as a verb? Can you royally concubine somebody? I am almost certain that readers of Galus can come up with an appropriate English collocation to express this particular word, and I am positive that the word they alight upon will not be the sort of word that they would expect to find in an English translation of the Tanakh.

The prophet Isaiah (13:16) speaks, for example, of the terrible things that will happen on the “day of the Lord”. Children will be smashed to pieces before the eyes of their parents, houses will be plundered, and women will be… royally concubined. Likewise, Jeremiah 3:2 features the prophet’s indictment of the Judeans who sought allies from amongst the foreign nations. Likening them to whores who are prepared to have sexual intercourse with anybody, the author lambasts them: “Lift up your eyes to the high places! Where have you not been ‘royally concubined’?” Again, I am sure that we can all come up with more appropriate translations.

The problem is, nobody feels particularly comfortable with using more appropriate translations: the Tanakh is great literature, not a source of lewdness! Well, fear not: it would seem that the earliest scholars of the Hebrew Bible had a problem with it as well. One of the many things that these scholars did was determine where words were to be read in a manner that differed from the manner in which they were to be written. This is known as Qere / Ktiv (which is Aramaic for “read” / “written”), and anybody who has ever chanted from the Torah in a synagogue would be well aware of the phenomenon.

Modern printed editions differ as regards how to represent these, but generally you find an asterisk over the word in question, which links you to an alternate word in the margin, with which you are supposed to replace it. Most of the time, this is the simple result of an error in transmission: words lack the final heh to denote the feminine, or feature an extra vav, etc. Sometimes, however, the alteration is made on stylistic or theological grounds.

If you would like to look these passages up, there are four of them. Two are mentioned above (Isaiah 13:16 and Jeremiah 3:2), but the others are Deuteronomy 28:30 and Zechariah 14:2. In each of these instances, the Masoretes replaced the offending word with a verb that possesses the root שכב (to lie down). While “lying somebody down” may have similar connotations, it is markedly gentler than the original term. The original term could not be removed, for the Tanakh already enjoyed a sacred status at this point in its history, but it could be marked as something not to be read aloud.

The Hebrew Bible is by no means a “dirty book”, but to suggest that its language was never vulgar would be to never bother reading it. Whatever your feelings are concerning appropriate discourse, it’s interesting to know that they weren’t necessarily shared by those who actually composed Judaism’s most sacred texts in the first place.

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  • ariel says:

    Please tell Artscroll to reprint their version of Shir HaShirim which they translate according to Rashi’s allegorical interpretation.
    “Your tefillin are round” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as “your breasts are round”, least of all because round tefillin are pasul

  • rachsd says:

    Ariel, I agree 100%

    Simon, I would describe the language in the Tanakh as direct rather than ‘bad.’ I think that the Tanakh is honest about all sorts of things, such as the faults of its protagonists, and this is also reflected in the language used.

  • ariel says:

    rachsd, I agree 100%
    As far as I know it’s the only Holy Book of all religions which shows flaws in every prophet no matter how great

  • Hehe. Artscroll’s “Shir HaShirim” is a profound lesson in translational avoidance. When in doubt, just translate something else instead. It’s a good point, but what I like most about the שיגל example is the fact that the people who had so many problems with it all died over a thousand years ago, and yet their method of dealing with it has deeply influenced the ways in which we read it (aloud) today!

  • Chaim says:

    Interesting. Agreed with Rachel about being direct and blunt.

    Artscroll is renowned for making up translations… There is one colour in the Neviim (can’t remember off hand) where Rashi says he has no idea what colour it is and Artscroll translated as the colour of a nut. I have no idea where they got that from except it is written that way in christian bibles………..

    For translations I personally like Judaica press..

    Rashi is always very explicit in Bereishit about sexual connotations. eg the raven would fly away because he thought Noach was going to sleep with his partner….

  • Chaim says:


    Zechariah 1:8, שְׂרֻקִּים

  • Ari Silbermann says:

    Indeed your case seems to prove the Rabbi’s point. That bad language is frowned upon. Now one could argue that the Masorites invented everything we know about how to read the text and that they were the ones that made the text gentler but is it really sound logic to suggest that such a large corpus was invented, had no basis and that the Masorites over time managed to educate the people? Indeed had it not been for this group(you do after all make it sound like they were a small group bound to a particularly small period of history) we would read the tanach to the tunes of Michael Jackson.
    Rather, the Masorites on the whole simply developed methods for recording the ways of pronunciation, chanting and reading of the biblical text as had been handed down by mouth and learning by rote through the generations(and if anyone thinks it it not possible to remember the entire text by heart I recommend that when they do leave Melbourne they take a visit to a Yemenite Shule and ask one of the older men there the exact cantillation note of any particular word)(How much they changed things and if they changed things is not as clear cut as you make out in your article). Most likely, the Prophet used the original word for desired effect and when his words were recorded it was impossible to literally change the words he had said and instead it was simply instructed that the word should be universally read as a different word with almost the same meaning. And then the Masorites simply recorded this tradition.

    I am willing to accept that the above theory may or may not be true however it is a distinct and logical possibility that has a solid basis.
    Blanket statements like yours are misleading as to the view of Jewish tradition and even current academic positions(most of which are still up for debate).
    In any case it is clear from your example how sensitive the tradition is to foul language. But I guess only a Karite worries about how it reads(Kri) and not how it sounds(Be’al Peh).

  • This was a bit of a parve post (it’s strange not suddenly finding myself in the middle of an argument…), but you’re quite correct, Ari. My presentation of the Masoretes is very simplistic and I’m quite conscious of the fact. Truth is, most people know fairly little about them so, in order to present my linguistic argument, I simply took certain things as a given.

    Interestingly, of course, even scholars of the Masoretes know fairly little about them. Consensus amongst many these days is that they were Karaites, but who they were, and the extent of their activities (not to mention the extent to which their activities were grounded in older traditions) is reasonably speculative.

  • A A Lederman says:

    By the way, there are a number of famous ‘Shegals’ out there on the web.

    Whenever the Tanach is translated by those who wish to retain its sanctity, of course some words are adjusted (ie. ‘harlot’ instead of ‘prostitute’ (Joshua, 6:25), ‘her belly’, instead of ‘her Kavatah’- uterus(?) (Numbers 25:8) come to mind).

    I guess its all social norms. In today’s age of scientific dominance, you could get away with uterus, in a serious adult text. Just don’t let the little kiddies see it…But, conservative sexual sentiment, especially by Americans, means we’ll stick with ‘harlot’ over ‘prostitute’.

    The words, like ‘to concubine’ and ‘to lay her down’ had an original meaning and purpose when written. But this seemed to be lost or drastically changed, with social changes. Words stay because they’re needed, or they change with the times, or they become archaic, and survive only in books such as Isaiah.

    Question is: Is a word what is means now, or what it meant then? And if both, then how should we take its message?

    Its historical linguistics, baby!

    Simon, I’m sure you get my very oversimplified, if partially incorrect point.

  • Another interesting example can be found in Genesis 31:35. When Laban is searching for his gods and Rachel refuses to stand for him, most Bibles have her complain that “the way of women is upon me”. The New International Version (which, while I personally find it an atrocious translation, has some theoretical elements to recommend it) has her complain that “I’m having my period”. Of course, that’s what the Hebrew means, but it’s not what traditional translations say. Needless to say, NIV detractors found that passage most “offensive”.

    (And for the record, most contemporary Bible translations that I encounter eschew “harlot” for “whore”. A small victory, for the ‘dynamic translators’ amongst us.)

  • ariel says:

    What’s the difference between “harlot” and “whore”?
    Is it like the difference between “intestine” and “gut”?
    Or “faeces” and “sh*t”?

  • According to Etymonline, “harlot” derives from an Old French word meaning “vagabond”, and its sense as prostitute was possibly reinforced by its usage in English translations of the Bible. Interesting that the English word “tramp” underwent a similar transformation.

    The Hebrew zonah more likely derives from a word for “food”: hence the innkeeper/prostitute in the book of Joshua.

  • Interesting post. I didn’t know that etymology of שגל when I wrote this post:


    And actually Klein doesn’t agree, but I think Kaddari does (even though he doesn’t mention היכל.) What was your source of the etymology?

  • My source was an article on Akkadian etymology that I read three years ago, and that I shall now have to dig up. I have a copy of it somewhere in one of the folders in my room, and I’ll let you know as soon as I come across it. I’m aware, of course, that it’s a contested etymology. HALOT, for example, suggest that the verb may come from a shafel of גלה, while they likewise suggest that the noun is a contraction of the Akkadian ša ekalli. BDB also separates the two forms, but doesn’t suggest an etymology for either.

    Thanks for the link: I think I missed that post.

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