August 12, 2006
In this week\’s haftarah, the second of the seven haftarot of consolation (shiva denehamta) that follow Tisha b\’Av, there are messages both of comfort and of urging the nation to repent. God exhorts Isaiah to have the strength to convey these important prophecies to God\’s people, as Isaiah reports: \”The Lord God gave me a skilled tongue, to know how to speak timely (la-oot) words to the weary, morning by morning; He rouses my ear to give heed like disciples.\” (Isaiah 50:4)
What was the nature of the message that Isaiah was meant to express to the weary? This message is described by the Hebrew word \”la-oot\” (lamed-ayin-vav-tav), a unique usage in the Bible (hapax legomenon). The obvious result of using a unique word is that later generations, unfamiliar with the word, will have difficulty understanding its meaning. Rashi quotes one of the earliest Hebrew grammarians, Menahem ben Saruk (10th century Spain), who derives this word from the word \”ait\”
(ayin tav) which means \”time\”. (Mahberet – \”et\”). Some modern scholars associate the word \”la-oot\” with the Arabic word \”ooth\”, meaning \”strengthen\” or \”assist\”. We would then translate this phrase \”to know how to speak words to strengthen the weary\”. (A. Hacham, Isaiah, Daat Mikra, p. 540)
A different meaning for this word is found in the Talmud Yerushalmi where it is used to help define a difficult word found in the Mishnah. (It is somewhat ironic to use one lesser known word to define a second lesser known word.) The Mishnah relates the law of how one says the blessing over the candle light in the havdalah ceremony: \”One does not recite the blessing over the candle [for havdalah] until one has benefited (sheyai-utu) from its light.\” (Berachot 8:6) (This explains why we look at our fingertips using the light of the havdalah candle. See Shuchan Aruch Orach Hayyim 398:3-4)
The root of the word \”yai-utu\” in the Mishnah is \”alef-vav-tav\”. The tradition of the Mishnah recorded by the Amoraic sage, Samuel, however, had an \”ayin\” instead of the \”alef\”. Consequently, he used the verse from Isaiah as proof for the meaning of this verse but, in truth, it appears that he really learned the meaning of this word from the context of the Mishnah and then applied it to his understanding of the verse in Isaiah. (See Yerushalmi Berachot 8:6 Venice ed. 12c) He, therefore, understood the verse to mean: \”to know how to speak words that will benefit the weary\”.
This brings us back to the beginning of our discussion. What was Isaiah\’s message? He intended to give encouragement to the spiritual weary so that they would have strength to carry on God\’s ways in the world.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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