The Meaning of Repetition, Repetition
This fall, join Dr. Moster for a deep dive into how Hebrew grammar
shapes meaning in The Book of Ruth in this seminar.
When it comes to reading the Tanakh, much is lost in translation, so even a bit of knowledge of Biblical Hebrew can go a long way. Here is one grammatical insight into this week’s parashah, Parashat Re’eh.
According to Deuteronomy 14:22, Israelite farmers must tithe the produce of their field שָׁנָה שָׁנָה, shanah shanah, which at first glance means “year, year.” Later in the parashah, Deuteronomy 15:20, we are told that firstborn animals shall be eaten at God’s chosen place שָׁנָה בְשָׁנָה, shanah veshanah, which apparently means “a year in a year.” What does the repetition mean in these two verses?
In Biblical Hebrew, repetition conveys a sense of plurality often translated as “every,” “each,” or “any.” Joseph resisted the sexual advances of Potiphar’s wife יוֹם יוֹם, yom yom, “every day” (Genesis 39:10). Samson awoke from his sleep thinking he would again break free from Delilah as he had done כְּפַעַם בְּפַעַם, kefa’am befa’am, “each time” (Judges 16:20). We are told that אִישׁ אִישׁ, ‘ish ‘ish, “any man” who curses his parents shall be put to death (Leviticus 20:19).
Returning to our parashah, what do the phrases שָׁנָה שָׁנָה, shanah shanah, and שָׁנָה בְשָׁנָה, shanah veshanah convey? They mean the Israelites were supposed to visit God’s place “every year.” This phrase has a similar meaning to לְדֹר דֹּר, ledor dor, in Exodus 3:15, in which God reveals his name to Moses “for every generation.” As the years and generations pass, God is still waiting to be served.
If we look closely, sometimes we find syllables repeating themselves within a single word. This has a slightly different nuance. Instead of meaning “every,” “each,” or “any,” this type of repetition occurs when a great plurality is to be imagined. The תַּלְ-תַּלִּ-ים, taltallim, “locks of hair” in Song of Songs 5:11 convey a full head of hair with bountiful locks; עֲ-קַלְ-קַלּ-וֹת, ‘akalkallot, “twisted” in Judges 5:6 suggests a road with frequent turns; עַפְ-עַפַּ-י, ‘af‘appay, “my eyelids” in Psalm 132:4 connotes blinking repeatedly; the name דַרְ-דַּר, dardar, “thistle” of Genesis 3:18 warns of its many thorns; and the גַלְ-גִּלָּ-יו, galgillav, chariot “wheels” in Isaiah 5:28 implies spinning round and round.
With this knowledge we can better understand a noun in the second half of the parashah:
אֶת־זֶה תֹּאכְלוּ מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר בַּמָּיִם כֹּל אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ סְנַפִּיר וְקַשְׂקֶשֶׂת תֹּאכֵלוּ׃
This you all shall eat from everything in the water: everything that has fins and scales you all shall eat.(Deut. 14:9)
Whereas the plurality of שָׁנָה שָׁנָה, shanah shanah, means “every year,” the repetition of קשׂ-קשׂ in קַשְׂקֶשֶׂת, kaskeset, conveys the hundreds, if not thousands of individual scales on each fish. The repetitive form suggests abundance.
Looking beyond the parashah, repetition can be found in some of the most well-known verses in the Tanakh. For example, the angels surrounding God are described in Isaiah as follows:
וְקָרָא זֶה אֶל־זֶה וְאָמַר קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל־הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ׃
And each one called to another “kadosh kadosh kadosh” is the Lord of Hosts, his honor fills the entire world!(Isa. 6:3)
What does kadosh kadosh kadosh mean? Most translations have something like “holy, holy, holy!” but our approach adds new meaning to the repetition, rendering it “holy in every way” or “infinitely holy.” This happens to be the understanding of the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, which adds that God is “holy” in the heavens, “holy” on the earth, and “holy” for all eternity. God is holy in every conceivable way.
In next week’s parashah we will read that judges must be fair and righteous:
צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ׃
Pursue tzedek tzedek so that you may live and possess the land which the Lord your God is giving you(Deut. 16:20)
What does tzedek tzedek mean? Some translations have “justice, justice,” but our approach suggests “every type of justice.” Justice for the rich and the poor. Justice for your friend and your foe. As it turns out, this is the approach of the King James Bible, which translates tzedek tzedek as “that which is altogether just.” The way to say “altogether” in Biblical Hebrew is to repeat.
Repetition is so uncommon in the English language it is underlined in red in Microsoft Word. This is not the case in Biblical Hebrew. As we have seen, some of the most familiar and influential verses contain repetition, and our approach can be applied to each and every one. All you have to do is repeat, repeat.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).