Examining the Word Moriah

Vayera By :  Robert Harris Professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages Posted On Nov 11, 2006 / 5767 | Main Commentary

Years ago, in a national television program called Laugh In(yes, I lived during the Stone Age — the Rolling Stone Age. Never mind.), a comedian lampooned the song “They Called the Wind Moriah” from the Broadway show Paint Your Wagon. Instead of the actual lyrics, he sang the following words: “A way out West, they’ve got a name, for rain and wind and fire. The rain is ‘Tess,’ the fire’s ‘Joe,’ and they called the wind . . . ‘Wind’.” Ahem. . .

Moriah is, of course, first encountered in the Bible in this week’s Torah portion. At first glance, the reference to Moriah seems clear enough: our tradition associates it with the place that Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac (in the narrative that the Rabbis called “the Akedah”) and, later on, with the site of Solomon’s Temple.

Let us, however, examine this text (Genesis 22:2), where the word “Moriah” is first mentioned in the Bible, a little more closely:

And [God] said, “Take your son, your singular one, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I will say to you.”

As it happens, all is not as clear as we might have thought: God does not actually command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on “Mount Moriah.” And, actually, he does not even really say “land of Moriah,” as I previously translated, but (literally), “land of the Moriah” (the prefix heh identifying a definite article is added). In fact, the medieval exegete Rashbam (grandson of Rashi) considered that the Hebrew letter aleph was elided between the prefixed heh and the first letter of “Moriah” (something that is not altogether uncommon in biblical Hebrew) and that the word should therefore be construed as האמוריה [Ha’amoriah]: God has commanded Abraham to go to the Land of the Amorites!

Rashbam’s interpretation, although it finds some support in the ancient Christian Aramaic (or Syriac) translation of the Bible called the Peshitta, is virtually unique in Jewish circles. As I mentioned before, Jewish tradition mostly associated the place with the site of Solomon’s Temple. This identification is generally considered to be rooted in 2 Chronicles 3:1:

Then Solomon began to build the House of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the LORD had appeared to his father David, at the place which David had designated, at the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite.

Once again, however, all is not as it seems: this verse mentions “Mount Moriah,” not “the land of (the) Moriah.” While it does seem evident that by the later biblical books, Moriah was a place–name identified with Jerusalem, it is less clear that this site is necessarily the same one to which Abraham led Isaac. To make a long story short, an exact understanding of the name (or word) “Moriah” will likely always elude us. As Radak (the medieval commentator R. David Kimhe) wrote, “We have no written proof why (the place) was called by this name.” If you are interested in following up on this mystery from a historical–critical point of view, you might wish to take a look at the brief discussion offered by the modern biblical scholar Nahum Sarna in the back of the Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary on Genesis (391-392).

For now, let us instead follow the age–old practice of studying Rashi’s commentary on the verse. While in this instance Rashi may not give us the correct historical understanding, he will offer us a distinctly Jewish interpretation — and that is no small achievement! In the comment we will examine, Rashi offers three different interpretations for this place–name:

Land of Moriah: Jerusalem, and so (is found) in Chronicles: to build the house of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah (2 Chronicles 3:1). And our Rabbis have interpreted it on account of (the fact that) from there, Instruction (hora’ah) went forth to Israel. And Onkelos (the Rabbinic Aramaic translation) renders it on account of the service on incense that contains myrrh, nard and other spices.

While we see that Rashi, too, begins with an association of the “land of Moriah” with the “Mount Moriah” found in Chronicles, we also see that he does not quite find the interpretation to be sufficient. He then continues by offering two different interpretations based on “name–play.” While this strategy might seem entirely fanciful, a close reading of the entire narrative of Genesis 22 reveals that the Torah itself resorts to word–play in order to illuminate the meaning of “Moriah” (see for example Genesis 22:4, 8, 14). So, maybe we should not discount Rashi before he even begins!

The first of Rashi’s word–plays makes a connection between Moriah and the Hebrew word for “instruction” (הוראה); the Hebrew term for teacher, moreh or morah (מורה), comes from the same Hebrew word. According to this understanding, the name “Moriah” means “land of teaching” or even “land of Torah” (remember Isaiah 2:3 or Micah 4:2: “for from Zion shall go forth Torah”).

Rashi’s second word–playful interpretation is based on the Aramaic Targum Onkelos, which renders: “to the land of Worship.” According to Rashi, this involves more of a linguistic and semantic stretch: the incense that was burned in the Temple service included myrrh (מור [mor]), and this ingredient gave its name to the entire mountain. Thus, “Moriah” means “land of myrrh” and therefore “the place where God is worshipped.”

Now that we are entirely confused as to exactly where Abraham led Isaac, we are duty bound to ask: So, nu? Where does Rashi lead us?

In a way, the name “Moriah,” like God, remains a mystery. In the absence of any Moses–like revelation, where the very essence of God is experienced, there remain for us only “secondary” ways of understanding God — and those are found in the various explanations of the name “Moriah” that we have just studied!

From Rashi’s commentary, we learn that Moriah can lead us to worship God: by davening/praying, both in the synagogue and privately, we can seek to feel close with God: we “say the words” and try to draw close to God and hope that at the same time God will draw closer, as it were, to us. This is certainly the conventional way! But we can also “see” God by experiencing “awe” of God (again, remember the word–plays of both Genesis 22:8, 14): you may have felt this when you got up early and witnessed a beautiful dawn breaking, or perhaps on a trip when you saw a majestic site such as Masada, or the view of the Galilee from the Golan Heights. You know, there are all sorts of blessings, birkot nehenin, that we recite not only when we eat or drink, but also when we sense the presence of God in seeing a shooting star or feeling the pounding of thunder during a storm. See a rainbow, and — even though you know the “truth” of how light is refracted through water —worship, and be in awe of God.

Finally, Rashi shows us that we can study and teach Torah: through studying the texts of Written and Oral Torah that our ancestors preserved and gave to us as our inheritance, we can sense both God’s presence and God’s purpose. And when we want to remember why we do all this (!), think of Moriah!

Since I began with a song, perhaps it would be a good thing to end with one (or perhaps not?). Nevertheless, here it is; I do not remember where I first came across it, but I offer it here (with apologies to Lerner and Lowe):

There is a land where God is seen
They worshipped him with fire
They also taught the Torah there
And they called the land … Moriah (OY!)

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Robbie Harris