June 11, 2005
Manoah does not quite know what to make of his wife\’s news that an angel of God (malach Hashem) has informed her that she will soon bear a son. Not only is the message a surprise, but also the exact nature of this \”messenger\” is a matter of contention. Was he human or was he an angel? This dilemma is exacerbated by the confusing nature of his wife\’s description of the visitor: \”A man of God came to me; he looked like an angel of God, very frightening. I did not ask him where he was from, nor did he tell me his name.\” (Verse 6) When Manoah finally met this messenger and received confirmation of the prophecy that had been tendered to his wife, he was overwhelmed with gratitude. He wanted to know this messenger\’s name and moreover, he wanted to offer up a sacrificial meal before him. This messenger made it clear that he was an angel but thwarted both of Manoah\’s requests: \”So Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, \’What is your name? We should like to honor you when your words come true.\’ The angel said to him, \’Why do you seek my name, it is unknowable (pele)\’\” (Verses 17-18)
The angel\’s response is difficult. This English translation of the angel\’s response to Manoah does not even begin to capture its ambiguity, since the word \”pele\” is not easily translated. What does \”pele\” mean? The English translation, found above, is according to TargumYonathon (9th century Eretz Yisrael) which translates this word as \”mfarash – not knowable\”. Rashi offers a similar interpretation, translating it as \”covered or hidden\”. Rabbi Joseph Kara (12th century France) gives it an entirely different meaning: \”[The only reason that] Manoah is concerned with his name is because he thinks the messenger is a man. The angel does not move from his place until he informs him that he is a divine being – \’pele\’, derived from a phrase in the next verse \”maflee(from the same root as pele) laasot – and he (the angel) did a wonder\”. [This, is probably not the simple meaning of these words which are not totally understood but this is how they are understood by R. Kara.] Yaira Amit, in her modern commentary, asserts that both of these senses of the word are implied in the angel\’s reply. (Shoftim, Mikra L\’yisrael, p. 225)
The following midrash (12th century Europe) offers a veritable market place of other possible interpretations of the angel\’s reply to Manoah: 1. \”[The angel said:] You do not need to know my name because you will never see me again, as it is written: \’and he is pele – undisclosed\’, [the angel] said this referring to himself noting that his identity would remain undisclosed since he would never be seen again; 2. The angel said: I am not able to tell you my name since my name is determined according to the assignment that God gives me, as the verse says: \’he is a pele – wonder\’, namely, my name is determined according to each and every wonder that God does through our agency; 3. the name of the angel is \’peli\’ since his mission was to make Samson into a nazir, as the verse states: \’for the youth will be a nazir to God\’ (verse 5). This explains why the angel was named \’peli\’, since we learn [in this week\’s parashah about nazirite vows]: \’if any man or a woman, utters (yaflee –same Hebrew root as \’pele\’) a nazite vow\’ (Numbers 6:2)\” (adapted from Numbers Rabbah 10:5)
This last two interpretations teach us a valuable lesson about names. In both of these interpretations the angel\’s name was determined by his actions. We, too, will make our names in this world, ultimately, by what we do with our lives.
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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