John Steinbeck’s Confused Hebrew

In his novel East of Eden, John Steinbeck tells a tale of several generations of an American family, using the stories of Adam and Eve and of Cain and Able as his templates. At a key juncture near the end of the book, two characters debate the meaning of God’s words to Cain after He has rejected his offering, which was read in synagogues last Shabbat: “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.” One of them, a Chinese immigrant named Lee, then consults with the elders of his own community over the verse’s meaning, and they in turn consult with a group of rabbis. Lee concludes:

The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in “Thou shalt,” meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—“Thou mayest”—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if “Thou mayest”—it is also true that “Thou mayest not.” Don’t you see?

Although Steinbeck’s grandparents came to the U.S. from Ottoman Palestine, he had to do some consultations of his own to write this passage. Sheila Tuller Keiter tells the story:

Timshel” or “thou mayest” becomes the mantra, the moral core of East of Eden. It is, in fact, the final, redemptive word of the novel. . . . Yet, as others have noticed before me, it makes little sense. The word in the Torah is “timshol,” not “timshel,” and it doesn’t mean simply “thou mayest”; it means something like “thou mayest rule over.” Steinbeck’s translation accounts only for the tav at the beginning of the word, a prefix that indicates you, singular masculine, future tense—you will. The remaining letters of the verb, mem, shin, lamed, form the Hebrew root that means to rule, control, or govern. How did Steinbeck get both the pronunciation and the meaning of the key word in, arguably, his most ambitious novel wrong?

John Steinbeck began almost every working day of 1951 with a letter to his editor at Viking Press, Pascal Covici, before turning to East of Eden. At one point Steinbeck recruited Covici, himself a Romanian Jew (Pascal Avram), to find a rabbinic authority to consult with on the original Hebrew of the key phrase in Genesis 4:7. As the fictional Lee’s Chinese elders turned to the rabbis, Covici turned to Professor Louis Ginzberg of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, one of the preeminent rabbinic scholars of his generation.

Alas, the Steinbeck-Covici letters do not reveal exactly what Ginzberg told Covici and what Covici relayed to Steinbeck in this game of exegetical telephone. However, it seems that great minds did not think alike. For some reason, Steinbeck was not entirely pleased with Ginzberg’s interpretation of the key word.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Biblical Hebrew, Genesis, Literature


Hizballah Is Learning Israel’s Weak Spots

On Tuesday, a Hizballah drone attack injured three people in northern Israel. The next day, another attack, targeting an IDF base, injured eighteen people, six of them seriously, in Arab al-Amshe, also in the north. This second attack involved the simultaneous use of drones carrying explosives and guided antitank missiles. In both cases, the defensive systems that performed so successfully last weekend failed to stop the drones and missiles. Ron Ben-Yishai has a straightforward explanation as to why: the Lebanon-backed terrorist group is getting better at evading Israel defenses. He explains the three basis systems used to pilot these unmanned aircraft, and their practical effects:

These systems allow drones to act similarly to fighter jets, using “dead zones”—areas not visible to radar or other optical detection—to approach targets. They fly low initially, then ascend just before crashing and detonating on the target. The terrain of southern Lebanon is particularly conducive to such attacks.

But this requires skills that the terror group has honed over months of fighting against Israel. The latest attacks involved a large drone capable of carrying over 50 kg (110 lbs.) of explosives. The terrorists have likely analyzed Israel’s alert and interception systems, recognizing that shooting down their drones requires early detection to allow sufficient time for launching interceptors.

The IDF tries to detect any incoming drones on its radar, as it had done prior to the war. Despite Hizballah’s learning curve, the IDF’s technological edge offers an advantage. However, the military must recognize that any measure it takes is quickly observed and analyzed, and even the most effective defenses can be incomplete. The terrain near the Lebanon-Israel border continues to pose a challenge, necessitating technological solutions and significant financial investment.

Read more at Ynet

More about: Hizballah, Iron Dome, Israeli Security