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Elaine Goodfriend





Is There a Symbolic Meaning to the Awkward Syntax of Leviticus 1:1?





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Elaine Goodfriend





Is There a Symbolic Meaning to the Awkward Syntax of Leviticus 1:1?








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Is There a Symbolic Meaning to the Awkward Syntax of Leviticus 1:1?

“And He called to Moses and YHWH spoke to him” וַיִּקְרָא אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הוָה אֵלָיו —Leviticus 1:1. Why is YHWH, the subject of this verse, missing from the opening phrase, and appearing only after the second verb? Traditional and critical scholars struggle to explain this syntactic problem.


Is There a Symbolic Meaning to the Awkward Syntax of Leviticus 1:1?

Pentateuch with Rashi’s commentary and Targum Onkelos (Harley 7621), Italy, 15th century, British Library

The initial verses of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are worded in a clear and unequivocal manner, appropriate for the introductory verses of significant bodies of literature.[1] The opening verse of Leviticus, on the other hand, is syntactically difficult. It reads,

וַיִּקְרָא אֶל מֹשֶׁה
וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הֹוָה אֵלָיו
מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר.
And He called to Moses,
and YHWH spoke to him
from the Tent of Meeting, saying.

The subject of the verse (YHWH) is placed after the second verb (וַיְדַבֵּר, “spoke”) and not after the first verb (וַיִּקְרָא, “called”) as it should be. Scholars have long tried to solve this syntactic problem with a variety of different approaches.[2]

Just an Unusual Style

Some scholars simply note the anomaly and assume that placing the subject after the second rather than first verb reflects a stylistic variant of the normal pattern, and has no special significance. For example, in his commentary on Leviticus, R. Meyuhas bar Eliyahu (12thcent. Greece) writes:

ויקרא אל משה—הרי זה מקרא מסורס, וזהו סדרו: ויקרא י”י אל משה מאהל מועד וידבר אליו.
“He called to Moses”—This is a scrambled (literally “sliced” or “castrated”) verse, and its intended order is: “The Lord called to Moses from the Tent of Meeting and spoke to him.”[3]

R. Meyuhas’ thinking is reflected in many translations, which revise the order of the verse to have the subject as part of the first clause:

  • The LORD called to Moses and spoke with him (וקרא מריא למושא ומלל עמה, Syriac Peshita);
  • The Eternal One called to Moses and spoke with him (Der Ewige rief dem Mosche und redete mit ihm, Mendelssohn’s Biur);
  • And the LORD called unto Moses, and spake unto him… (KJV);
  • The LORD called to Moses and spoke to him… (NJPS);
  • The LORD summoned Moses and spoke to him… (NRSV).

Jacob Licht (1922–1993), Late Professor of Bible at Tel Aviv University, defends this interpretation:

חסר כאן הנושא הבא אחר הנשוא השני וידבר, ומשמעו ויקרא ה’ אל משה, וידבר אליו מאהל מועד. ודומה לו, ויפסל שני לחות אבנים כראשונים, וישכם משה בבקר.
The subject is missing here, and it appears after the second predicate “and he spoke.” Its meaning is, “The Lord called to Moses and spoke with him from the Tent of Meeting.” A similar construction is found (Exod 34:4), “He carved two tablets of stone, like the first, and Moses awoke early in the morning…”[4]

Many translators make the same transposition in Licht’s verse as well, moving the word Moses into the opening clause, “Moses carved.” In short, according to this approach, although this is an unusual syntactical style, it is not unheard of, and thus not grammatically wrong. Nevertheless, many commentators do consider the grammar to be odd and deserving of explanation.

1. Connecting the Calling with the Speaking

R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888) argues that the unusual syntax of the verse was meant to imply that the calling and the speaking were really one action:

אילו נאמר “ויקרא ה’ אל משה וידבר אליו”, היתה הקריאה פעולה עצמאית, הנבדלת מן הדיבור; לאמר: ה’ קראוֹ אליו כדי לדבר עמו. אך הכתוב אומר: “ויקרא אל – משה וידבר ה’ אליו”. בלשון זו הקריאה קשורה אל הדיבור, והיא באה להגדיר את טיבו: ה’ קרא ודיבר אל משה; הוה אומר: הדיבור נפתח על ידי קריאה אל משה.
If it had said “And the Lord called to Moses and spoke with him,” then the calling would be an independent action, separate from the speaking, in other words, that the Lord called him in order to speak with him. However, the verse says “and he called Moses and the Lord spoke with him.” In this language, the calling is connected to the speaking, and it comes to define its nature: God called and spoke to Moses. Meaning to say, the speaking began by the calling of Moses.

According to R. Hirsch, this syntactical anomaly is meant to clarify the relationship between the calling and the speaking.[5] But he offers no similar examples, and it is hard to see how this odd syntax makes the point he suggests.

2. To Highlight the Importance of the Calling

God calls (ק.ר.א) to Moses in only four other instances, three of which are at Mount Sinai:

At the burning bush (Exod 3:4)

וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו אֱלֹהִים מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה מֹשֶׁה
God called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!”

On top of Mount Sinai (Exod 19:3)

וּמֹשֶׁה עָלָה אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו יְ־הֹוָה מִן הָהָר לֵאמֹר
Moses went up to God. YHWH called to him from the mountain, saying

At the foot of Mount Sinai (Exod 19:20)

וַיֵּרֶד יְ־הֹוָה עַל הַר סִינַי אֶל רֹאשׁ הָהָר וַיִּקְרָא יְ־הֹוָה לְמֹשֶׁה אֶל רֹאשׁ הָהָר
YHWH came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain, and YHWH called Moses to the top of the mountain

On top of Mount Sinai (Exod 24:16)

וַיִּשְׁכֹּן כְּבוֹד יְ־הֹוָה עַל הַר סִינַי וַיְכַסֵּהוּ הֶעָנָן שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים וַיִּקְרָא אֶל מֹשֶׁה בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מִתּוֹךְ הֶעָנָן.
The Glory of YHWH abode on Mount Sinai, and the cloud hid it for six days. On the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud.

Only this fifth example, Leviticus 1:1, lacks a subject for the first verb. Noting this, R. Abraham Saba (1440–1508), in his commentary on the Torah called Tzror HaMor, argues that the problematic grammar was used to highlight the special nature of this calling in comparison with the others:

ולכן קראו בשמו למעלה גדולה. ולהורות שקריאה זו היתה למעלה מכל הראשונות, לא אמר בכאן ויקרא ה’ אליו אלא ויקרא אל משה. מי שקראו שהיא מעלה עליונה, ואחר כך וידבר ה’ אליו….
This is why he calls him by name, because of the high level, to show that this calling was above all the first ones, it didn’t say “and the Lord called him” but rather “and he called Moses,” [naming] the person who was called, which is the highest level [of calling].[6] Afterwards, [it says] “and the Lord spoke to him”….
ואולי שלזאת הסבה אמר ויקרא אל משה אל”ף זעירא. להורות שהקריאה היתה מצד אלף של שם אהי”ה.
Perhaps this is why it says “and he called [ויקרא] Moses” with a small aleph,[7] to teach that the call came from the aleph of the divine name Ehyeh.[8]

A modern version of this interpretation appears in Robert Alter’s gloss:

“And He called to Moses and the Lord spoke to him.” The translation reproduced the oddness of the Hebrew. According to normative usage, one would have expected, “And the Lord called to Moses and He spoke to him.” Is the postponement of the subject a maneuver to isolate and emphasize the act of calling?[9]

3. It Wasn’t God Who Called Him

Another approach which appears in a number of sources discerns a hint in the verse that it was not YHWH who called Moses at the beginning of the verse, but another being. For example, R. Ephraim ben Samson (late 12th–early 13th cent., France), in his commentary on Torah, suggests that the calling was done by a messenger:

נ”ל מלאך קראו ואח”כ וידבר יי אליו. מלכותא דארעא כעין מלכותא דשמייא, וכן דרך המלכים כשרוצים לדבר עם אחד קורין לו ע”י שליח
It seems to me that he was called by an angel, and afterwards “the Lord spoke with him.” The kingdom of earth is like the kingdom of heaven, for this is also the way of kings, when they want to speak with someone, they call to them through a messenger.

Here we have the exact opposite point to that of Rav Hirsch; not only was the calling not the same as the speaking, but it wasn’t even God who called. Perhaps R. Ephraim is inspired to think this way because of the angel that calls to Abraham to stop him from sacrificing Isaac (Gen 22:11, 15).

This reading was adapted by a number of kabbalists as well, who instead of pursuing the God/angel dichotomy, refer to God’s various manifestations. For example, R. Menachem Recanati (1223–1290) says that the call and the speaking came from two different names of God:

הזכיר השם המיוחד בדבור ולא הזכירו בקריאה כענין [שמות כד, א] ואל משה אמר עלה אל יי’, כי השם הנכבד קראו, וזהו סוד אל”ף זעירא דויקרא, והדבור אליו מהשם הגדול.
The special name (=YHWH) is mentioned by the speaking but not by the calling, the same as in (Exod 24:1) “to Moses he said, go up to YHWH” since it was the Name of Glory that called him. This is the secret of the small aleph in ויקרא, while the speaking was from the Great Name.[10]

R. Ephraim’s suggestion has no textual support, while the kabbalistic interpretation is entirely dependent on medieval Jewish mystical notions.

4. The Subject Appears in the End of Exodus

One approach that was popular among the medieval peshat commentators was to argue that the verse should be read as connected to the end of Exodus:

שמות מ:לד וַיְכַס הֶעָנָן אֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וּכְבוֹד יְ־הֹוָה מָלֵא אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן. מ:לה וְלֹא יָכֹל מֹשֶׁה לָבוֹא אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד כִּי שָׁכַן עָלָיו הֶעָנָן וּכְבוֹד יְ־הֹוָה מָלֵא אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן…. ויקרא א:א וַיִּקְרָא אֶל מֹשֶׁה…
Exod 40:34 The cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Glory of YHWH filled the Tabernacle. 40:35 Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Glory of YHWH filled the Tabernacle…. Lev 1:1 and he/it called to Moses…

In this interpretation, Exodus 40:36–38, which describes what Israel does when the cloud descends on the Tabernacle, must be understood as a parenthetical gloss anticipating the more detailed description of YHWH’s Glory in Numbers 9:15–23, and should not be understood as an interrupting the flow of the passage which moves from Exodus 40:35 to Leviticus 1:1.

The reading is stated most clearly by R. Joseph Bekhor Shor (12th cent.):

לפי שנאמר בסוף הספר וכבוד ה’ מלא את המשכן ולא יכול משה לבא אל אוהל מועד (שמות מ’:ל”ד-ל”ה), הוצרך לקרותו וליתן לו רשות ליכנס וכן מצינו בהר סיני כשכסהו הענן כתב ויקרא אל משה {ביום השביעי} מתוך הענן (שמות כ”ד:ט”ז). ולפי דקאי אקרא דלעיל דכתיב: וכבוד ה’ מלא את המשכן (שמות מ’:ל”ד – ל”ה), כתב: ויקרא אל משה, ולא כתב: ויקרא ה’ למשה, דאכבוד ה’ דלעיל קאי.
Because the [previous] book ends with “the Glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle and Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting…” it was necessary [for God] to call him and give him permission to enter. We find the same thing on Mount Sinai, when the cloud covered it, it is written (Exod 24:16) “He called Moses {on the seventh day} from within the cloud.” And since the [opening] verse [of Leviticus] refers back to what happened before, “the Glory of the Lord filling the Tabernacle,” it writes “and he/it called” and doesn’t write “and the Lord called” since it is referring to the Glory mentioned above.[11]

In other words, as this marks the first time that the Glory has descended and entered the Tent, with the fiery cloud filling the entire Tabernacle to sanctify it, Moses must remain outside and wait for instructions. This reading would make the passage here a direct parallel to the similarly Priestly text in Exodus 24:16:

וַיִּשְׁכֹּן כְּבוֹד יְ־הֹוָה עַל הַר סִינַי וַיְכַסֵּהוּ הֶעָנָן שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים וַיִּקְרָא אֶל מֹשֶׁה בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מִתּוֹךְ הֶעָנָן.
The Glory of YHWH abode on Mount Sinai, and the cloud hid it for six days. On the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud.

In fact, contemporary translator and commentator Everett Fox suggests that the syntax was stretched specifically to connect this passage with Exodus 24:16:

The unusual syntax here links the opening of Leviticus with the revelation at Mount Sinai in Exodus 24:16, the only other passage in the Torah where God “called to Moshe” (in these exact words). Indeed, as Milgrom points out, from the end of Exodus 40 to Numbers 9, the Torah contains the bulk of its laws given at Sinai after Exodus 20–23. Leviticus thus verbally returns to the revelation of law.[12]

To Fox, the opening verse of Leviticus echoes Exodus 24:16, God’s last instruction to Moses before the long tangent concerning Moses’ supervision of the Tent’s construction. Indeed, regarding the phrase, “and He called to Moses,” in both verses (Exodus 24:16b and Leviticus 1:1), the implied subject is YHWH’s kavod or “Glory.”

Contemporary Critical Approaches

Bekhor Shor’s suggestion is attractive and is accepted by many critical scholars. Nevertheless, it does not explain why YHWH appears as the subject in the next part of the verse, “and YHWH spoke to him.” If “the Glory of YHWH” is the subject for the first half, why not the second half as well?

5. God’s Presence Calls Moses, Not YHWH

Baruch Schwartz, Professor of Hebrew Bible at Hebrew University, suggests that it was God’s Glory (or “Presence” in his translation), not YHWH Himself, that calls Moses:

This is connected to the P narrative at the end of Exodus, so it should be translated “and it [the Presence of the LORD (Exod. 40:35)] called out to Moses.” After it filled the Tabernacle, the Presence called to Moses from within. A distinction is made between the Presence, which called, and the LORD himself, who spoke; this is similar to the first encounter with God experienced by the prophet Ezekiel (Ezek 1.28–2:1ff).[13]

Schwartz quotes Ezekiel 1, but an even closer parallel, noted by the late Hebrew University Professor of Bible, Moshe Greenberg (1928–2010), comes in Ezekiel 9:

יחזקאל ט:ג וּכְבוֹד אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל נַעֲלָה מֵעַל הַכְּרוּב אֲשֶׁר הָיָה עָלָיו אֶל מִפְתַּן הַבָּיִת וַיִּקְרָא אֶל הָאִישׁ הַלָּבֻשׁ הַבַּדִּים אֲשֶׁר קֶסֶת הַסֹּפֵר בְּמָתְנָיו. ט:ד וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הֹוָה (אלו) [אֵלָיו]…
Ezek 9:3 Now the Glory of the God of Israel had moved from the cherub on which it had rested to the platform of the House. He called to the man clothed in linen with the writing case at his waist; 9:4 and YHWH said to him…

Here too, the Tetragram seems out of place, and should have gone together with “and he called” in verse 3, if YHWH and his Glory are identical.[14] In Schwartz’s model, God’s Glory begins the interaction by calling to the person, and then YHWH continues by speaking with him.

6. Redaction-Critical Approach

A very different approach was taken by the late German Bible scholar, Martin Noth (1902–1968), who suggests a redaction-critical explanation:

The remarkable position of the subject in the introductory formula (v. 1) shows that this formula is not of uniform composition. In v. 1b we have the stereotyped introduction to divine precepts constantly repeated, from Ex. 25.1 onwards, as they are given first on Sinai, and then in Ex. 40.1 at the foot of Sinai, to Moses. The address to Moses in v. 1a looks, in view of this, like a secondary literary addition, intended to give a connection between Ex. 40.36–38 and Ex. 40.34, 35.[15]

A similar approach was taken by Jacob Milgrom.[16] He notes that although there is a break between Exodus and Leviticus—since “Exodus closes with the construction and erection of the Tabernacle,” while “Leviticus begins with the law of sacrifices”—nevertheless, “the transition point is blurred: Leviticus 1:1 is an incomplete verse; it is semantically and grammatically bound with Exodus 40:34–35.”[17]

In Milgrom’s reconstruction, Exodus 40:36–38, which describes the role of the fiery cloud in leading Israel in the wilderness, is a later interpolation that seals the book of Exodus,[18] but in doing so created a problem with the opening of Leviticus:

Possibly, when Leviticus became a separate book . . . the Tetragram was added (but in the wrong place) in order to provide a subject for this verse.[19]

In short, Noth and Milgrom broadly agree with Bekhor Shor, but add a historical dimension, suggesting that the verse ended up with its problematic syntax as consequence of dividing Exodus and Leviticus into two books (Milgrom) or combining them (Noth) at some stage in the creation of the Pentateuch.

7. Making YHWH the Fifth Word?

Without dismissing the previous critical solutions, I would like to offer another tentative consideration for the unusual syntax of the verse, which may supplement, rather than replace those described here.

In my “Why Is the Torah Divided into Five Books?” (TheTorah.com, 2018), I discussed that one reason for the five-part division of the Pentateuch may have to do with the symbolism surrounding the number five and the letter heh—the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet:

  • Heh is associated with the Tetragram (the four-letter name of God), which includes two hehs.
  • Heh is the first letter of the word, HaShem, literally, “the Name”—a circumlocution for the Tetragram that appears twice in the Hebrew Bible and is common in Mishnaic Hebrew.[20]
  • Five is suggestive of the number of fingers on a hand. The Hebrew Bible has many references to the divine hand as an agent of divine destruction, benevolence, and prophecy.

I therefore suggested that in a religious system in which no image of the deity was permitted, the five-ness of the Torah functions as a subtle image for God’s hand and thus represents God’s presence. Similarly, I suggest here that the word was deliberately moved to be the subject of the second verb instead of the first so that the name YHWH could be the fifth word in the sentence.[21]

Examples of YHWH as the Fifth Word

A number of other important verses in which YHWH appears as the fifth word support this suggestion:

1. The Third Commandment

The Decalogue’s third commandment (Exodus 20:7), which deals with the misuse of the divine name, has the Tetragram as its fifth word:

שמות כ:ז לֹא תִשָּׂא אֶת שֵׁם יְ־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לַשָּׁוְא…
Exod 20:7 You shall not swear falsely by the name of YHWH your God…

This verse poignantly invokes the symbolism of YHWH’s hand or presence.

2. Love Your Fellow

Another important phrase, which is the second half of the verse that Masoretic commentaries have long called the central phrase of the Torah,[22] has YHWH as the fifth word:

וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי יְ־הֹוָה.
Love your fellow as yourself, I am YHWH.

In that case, perhaps the unusual prefix lamed (and not the more predictable direct object marker ‘et) was chosen precisely to allow YHWH to stand as the fifth word.

3. The Shema

The important declaration of faithfulness to YHWH, found in Deuteronomy, which became a basic building block for Jewish liturgy, also has YHWH as the fifth word (in addition to it also being the third word):

דברים ו:ה שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְ־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְ־הֹוָה אֶחָד.
Deut 6:5 Hear Israel, YHWH is our God, YHWH alone.

Perhaps the desire to have the name in the fifth place can help explain why it is repeated, when it would have been possible to phrase this with only one mention of the Tetragram.

4. Final Verse of Leviticus

Scholars have long noted that Leviticus 27 is an addendum to the book of Leviticus,[23] and that its final verse is a Wiederaufnahme (resumptive repetition) to the final verse of chapter 26. It is instructive to compare the original and the secondary final verses, keeping in mind the placement of the Tetragram in each:

Leviticus 26:46 Leviticus 27:34
אֵלֶּה הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים וְהַתּוֹרֹת אֲשֶׁר נָתַן יְ־הֹוָה בֵּינוֹ וּבֵין בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהַר סִינַי בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה.
אֵלֶּה הַמִּצְו‍ֹת אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ־הֹוָה אֶת מֹשֶׁה אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהַר סִינָי.
These are the laws, rules, and instructions that YHWH established, through Moses on Mount Sinai, between Himself and the Israelite people. These are the commandments that YHWH gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai.

In 27:34, “commandments” (הַמִּצְו‍ֹת) replaces the terms “laws, rules, and rituals” (הַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים וְהַתּוֹרֹת) of 26:46. Perhaps the brevity of Leviticus’ second conclusion in 27:34 can be attributed to the desire that YHWH be its fifth word, just as the Tetragram is the fifth word of its first verse.[24] Thus, the first and last verses of Leviticus, along with its key central clause, Leviticus 19:18b, all have the Tetragram as the fifth word.

Another possible example of connecting the number five with the Tetragram can be seen if we count every eight letters from the first yod of the verse, we find yod, heh, vav, heh [25]יקרא אל משה וידבר יהוה אליו מאהל מועד). The author patterned God’s name into the first verse of Leviticus because it is, after all, the central book of the Torah and serves as a compendium for many of its most important laws.[26]

A Special Form of Number Symbolism

That number symbolism is employed by scribes to enrich the biblical text has been noted by many scholars.[27] Other, more familiar examples of number symbolism are the use of “three days” and “forty days” as clichés for short and long periods of time,[28] or the use of seven in personal names to anticipate good fortune.[29]

I tentatively suggest that the unusual syntax of Lev 1:1 reflects the author or editor’s desire to add another level of significance to the initial verse of the book by artificially placing the name YHWH as the fifth word in the sentence, and by writing the verse so that it spelled out YHWH in an 8-letter-sequence pattern.

As Leviticus is the middle book of the Torah and offers YHWH’s prescription for Israel’s ethical holiness (chapter 19), as well as other topics of great significance (sacrifice, eating, impurity, sexuality, festivals), YHWH’s name is underscored in its opening, central, and closing verses through the use of number symbolism.


March 12, 2019


Last Updated

April 13, 2024


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Dr. Elaine Goodfriend is a lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies and the Jewish Studies Program at California State University, Northridge. She has a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from U.C. Berkeley. Among her publications are “Food in the Hebrew Bible,” in Food and Jewish Traditions (forthcoming) and “Leviticus 22:24: A Prohibition of Gelding for the Land of Israel?”