June 26, 2004
The story of Jephtach has a painful and problematic ending. Jephtach, the tough, life worn general and leader of the people made a thoughtless pledge to God in order to insure victory over Israel’s enemy, the Ammonites: “And Jephtach made the following vow to the Lord: ‘If you deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s and shall be offered (v’haaleeteehu) by me as a burnt offering.” (verses 30-1) As events have it, Jephtach’s daughter was first to come out to greet him after his victory against the Ammonites.
Rabbi David Kimche’s father, Rabbi Samuel Kimche (12th century Provance) attempted to ameliorate the serious consequences of this promise through a creative interpretation of the above verse. He asserted that the letter “vav” in the word “v’naaleeteehu” means “or” in this sentence rather than “and”. The intent of the sentence would then be that Jephtach would offer up a sacrifice if that which exited his house was appropriate for sacrifice. Otherwise he would donate what left his house to God. As a result of this interpretation, Jephtach’s daughter was not sacrificed. Instead she became a celibate servant of the God.
The following passage from the Talmud saw the events differently, deriving from this story a painful lesson. The underlying assumption of this story, according to these sages, was that Jephtach did indeed sacrifice his only daughter: “Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of Rabbi Jonathan: Three people made requests of God in an inappropriate way. Two of them were nevertheless answered affirmatively by God while the third’s prayers were rejected: Eliezer, the servant of Abraham; Saul, the son of Kish; and Jepthach the Giladi. Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, as it is written: ‘So it came to pass, that the woman to whom I say, ‘Let down your pitcher etc.’ She might have been blind or lame, but he was fortunate in the answer given to him [by God] in that Rebecca chanced to meet him. Saul, the son of Kish, as it is written, ‘And it shall be, the man who kills him [Goliath], the king will make him rich and will give him his daughter.’ He might have been a slave or a mamzer but he was fortunate that it happened to be David. Jephtach, [on the other hand], about whom it is written, ‘Then it shall be that whatever comes through the doors of my house…’ It might have been an unclean animal. He, however, had the misfortune that that his daughter was the first to come to meet him…” (adapted and abridged from Taanit 4a)
At first glance, Jephtach’s fate, as interpreted by this midrash, seems mean-hearted and capricious when compared with how the others fared. Why should Jephtach be the brunt of such a cruel joke? Rabbi Jonathan wanted to teach us that people should exercise care and discretion when they express themselves. One never knows, in advance, the repercussions of one’s words, so, according to Rabbi Jonathan, one should always be careful. Jephtach learned this painful lesson the hard way.
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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