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Phil Lieberman

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Is Yellow a Biblical Color?

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Phil Lieberman

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Is Yellow a Biblical Color?

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Is Yellow a Biblical Color?

If a man or woman suffering from tzaraʿat, a skin disease, has hair that turns tzahov, they are impure. In modern Hebrew, tzahov means yellow, but what does it mean in the Bible?

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Is Yellow a Biblical Color?

“The priest shall examine the affection. If it appears to go deeper than the skin and there is thin yellow hair in it, the priest shall pronounce him unclean; it is a scall, a scaly eruption in the hair or beard”- Leviticus 13:30. 123rf

The basic rules for identifying ritually impure skin disease (tzaraʿat)[1] are based on color changes: The afflicted individual is impure if the color of the affected skin turns לָבָן “white” or לְבָנָה אֲדַמְדָּמֶת “reddish white” and if the affected hair turns white. One subcase, however, mentions the color tzahov. This is a rare Hebrew word, found only three times, all in this section (Lev. 13:30, 32, 36). Its first mention notes:

ויקרא יג:כט וְאִישׁ אוֹ אִשָּׁה כִּי יִהְיֶה בוֹ נָגַע בְּרֹאשׁ אוֹ בְזָקָן. יג:ל וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן אֶת הַנֶּגַע וְהִנֵּה מַרְאֵהוּ עָמֹק מִן הָעוֹר וּבוֹ שֵׂעָר צָהֹב דָּק וְטִמֵּא אֹתוֹ הַכֹּהֵן נֶתֶק הוּא צָרַעַת הָרֹאשׁ אוֹ הַזָּקָן הוּא.
Lev 13:29 Now a man or a woman—when they have an affliction on the head or on the [site of the] beard: 13:30 and the priest looks at the affliction, and here, its look is deeper than the skin, and in it there is thin tzahov hair, the priest is to declare them tamei—it is a (netek) scall, it is tzaraʿat of the head or of the beard.

The contrast here is to black hair—presumably the standard hair color of the Israelite population at the time, as noted in the next verse:

יג:לא וְכִי יִרְאֶה הַכֹּהֵן אֶת נֶגַע הַנֶּתֶק וְהִנֵּה אֵין מַרְאֵהוּ עָמֹק מִן הָעוֹר וְשֵׂעָר שָׁחֹר אֵין בּוֹ וְהִסְגִּיר הַכֹּהֵן אֶת נֶגַע הַנֶּתֶק שִׁבְעַת יָמִים.
13:31 But when the priest looks at the affliction of the scall, and here, its look is not deeper than the skin, and black hair there is none on it, the priest is to shut up the one afflicted with the scall for seven days.[2]

The priest then quarantines him or her for another seven days, after which he checks a third time. If it hasn’t spread at all, the priest declares the person clean.[3] If it has spread, the person is declared impure.[4] If black hair returns, the person is considered pure again.[5]

The word tzahov is unique to this passage. In Modern Hebrew, it means “yellow,” but is this what it means in the Bible?

Is Tzahov Red?

Onkelos translated tzahov hair as שְׂעַר סוּמָּק (seʿar sumaq)—red hair. Sumaq is the same word he uses to render לְבָנָה אֲדַמְדָּמֶת “reddish-white,” חָוְרָא סָמְקָא, which appears elsewhere in this chapter (v. 19). Similarly, Esau is described (Gen 25:25) as having been born אַדְמוֹנִי כֻּלּוֹ כְּאַדֶּרֶת שֵׂעָר “ruddy, like a hairy mantle all over,” which Onkelos renders as סָמוֹק כּוּלֵּיהּ כִּגְלוֹם דִּסְעַר. Thus Onkelos seems to equate tzahov and adom. This is also how the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament [HALOT] understands them term, “bright red.”

Saadiah Gaon (882–942) may also understand the term as red. In his Judeo-Arabic translation, the Tafsir, he renders the phrase seʿaro aṣhabu, (שַׁערֹ אַצהַבֻּ). The Brown, Driver, and Briggs (BDB) dictionary notes that the Arabic cognate to ṣahov (صهب, ṣ-h-b), means “reddish” and the Hans Wehr’s Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic translates it as “red-brown.” Nevertheless, for the term אֲדַמְדָּמֶת, Saadiah uses a different root, מֻחמַרַּתֹ, muḥammara.”[6] It is thus unclear whether he understood tzahov as red, or if he believed that ṣahov and muḥammara were two different colors—in which case tzahov might have been something else.

Is Tzahov Pale?

Also using Arabic, Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089–1167) understands the term as a type of whiteness, or perhaps paleness/pallidity:

אבן עזרא ויקרא יג:ל צהב – בלשון ישמעאל, קרוב מעין הלובן.
Ibn Ezra, Lev 13:30 Tzahov: in Arabic, is suggestive of a kind of whiteness/pallidity.

In favor of Ibn Ezra’s reading, white makes sense in this context: hairs in a skin infection that turn from dark to white would be recognizable to the eye of the priest, as opposed to “reddish-brown” that would be hardly distinguishable from the person’s black hairs, and is just a natural hair color.

Is Tzahov Yellow?

The Septuagint translates to turn tzahov with xanthidzo (ξανθίζω), from the root xanthos (ξανθός) meaning “yellow.” So too does Jerome’s Vulgate, which uses the Latin flavus “yellow.” Similarly, the Sifra, a midrash on the book of Leviticus from the early post-Tannaitic period, connects tzahov with gold:

ספרא תזריע - פרשת נגעים פרשה ה סוף פרק ז אות ה צהוב לא ירוק לא אדום ולא שחור... ולמה הוא דומה לתבנית הזהב.
Sifra Tazria, Negaim, par. 5 7:5 Tzahov is not green or red or black… to what is it similar? To the appearance of gold.

This interpretation is adopted by Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzhaki, ca. 1040–ca.1105), who quotes this text. The Leipzig manuscript, typically considered the best Rashi manuscript, adds an Old French gloss:

רש"י ויקרא יג:לז [כת"י לייפציג 1] צהוב—כמו זהוב, אורבלא [=אור פלא] בלעז.
Rashi Lev 13:37 [MS Leipzig 1] Tzahov—like golden, or pâle “pale gold” in Old French.[7]

This interpretation is also adopted by R. Moses Maimonides (Rambam, 1138–1204), another Arabic speaker, who writes in his gloss on Mishnah Negaim:

רמב"ם פירוש משניות נגעים י:א [אבן תיבון] צהוב הוא מראה הזהובה והוא מראה מעורב מאדמימות וירקות אמרו למה הוא דומה לתבנית הזהב.[8]
Maimonides Commentary on Mishnah Negaim 10:1 Tzahov has the look of gold, and it has the appearance of a mix between reddish and greenish. They said: “What is it like? It is similar to the appearance of gold.”

Noting the interpretation of the Sages and its adoption by Maimonides, R. Chaim ibn Attar (1696–1743), a Bible commentator and kabbalist who lived in Morocco, Italy, and eventually Israel, castigates Ibn Ezra for using an Arabic cognate to change the accepted meaning of the text:

אור החיים ויקרא יג:ל נראה שיחשוב כי לזה נתכוון הכתוב ואנו מבני גלות ישמעאל ואותו גוון שקורין אותו בלשון ישמעאל כן הוא לבן דיהוי קצת, וכפי זה הוא בהיפך מפירוש התנאים,
Or HaChaim Lev 13:30 It appears therefore that he thinks this is the intention of the passage. We, who live in exile among the Arabs [know] that the Arabic word tzahov means some kind of pallidity. According to this, [the verse’s meaning] contradicts the opinion expressed by the Tannaim.
ובמחילה מכבודו אם באנו לחלוק על רז"ל ולפרש מלות התורה בלשון ישמעאל היינו עושים תורת שקר, וכי כעורה זו שפירשו רז"ל בלשון הזה"ב. ובפירושים כאלו נתן הרב יד לחכמי הדורות לזלזל בכבודו...
With all due respect, if we were to contradict the Sages and explain the words in the Torah in terms of the Arabic language, this would lead to making our Torah into a book of lies. What is so objectionable in the rabbinic interpretation that it is the language of “golden.” With such interpretations, the Rabbi (=Ibn Ezra) lent his hand to those who mock his honor.

Putting aside Ibn Ezra, who might just mean “pallid” as opposed to white, traditional commentaries favor yellow or red.

Tzahov Means Shiny

The Syrian Peshita renders the term shamsha שמשא (ܫܡܫܐ), i.e., like the sun. This could be a reference to the color yellow,[9] or a golden color, but also could refer to how the sun shines. The Jerusalem Targumim (JT) all use an Aramaic cognate in the form צלהב.[10] Sokoloff translates this term as “to redden, burnish” and Jastrow “to redden,” and in its past participle form “burnished, red or yellow”:

JT-Neofiti translates שער מצלהב “burnished hair”

JT-Pseudo-Jonathan שער מצלהב כחיזו דהב yields “hair gleaming like the appearance of gold.”

This grammatical form, the past participle, is used in Ezra’s description of the treasures he has gathered for the Temple coffers, the only other place in the Bible where we find צ.ה.ב:

עזרא ח:כז וּכְפֹרֵי זָהָב עֶשְׂרִים לַאֲדַרְכֹנִים אָלֶף וּכְלֵי נְחֹשֶׁת מֻצְהָב טוֹבָה שְׁנַיִם חֲמוּדֹת כַּזָּהָב.
Ezra 8:27 Also, twenty gold bowls worth one thousand darics and two vessels of good, bronze mutzhav, as precious as gold.

The term here is generally understood as “gleaming,” “shining,” or “bright.” This suggests that ṣahov refers not to the specific shade of the hairs in the skin condition (white, yellow, or red), but to a gleaming character of those hairs.

David Clines, in his Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, translates צהב as “gleam” and comments on the verb in Ezra “gleam, be shiny, rather than be red.” Clines notes that the related verb appears in a Hebrew fragment of Ben Sira (A III Verso):

בן סירא י:י שמץ מחלה יצהיב רופא מלך היום ומחר יפול.
Ben Sira 10:10 The whisper of a sickness makes the physician’s face gleam (=in shame), a king today but tomorrow he will fall.[11]

For the verse in Leviticus, Clines suggests “red, red–yellowish, or perh[aps] gleaming, as a result of a skin disease.” The latter suggestion seems to be the best explanation of the verse.

That the term is a reference to gleaming/shiny as opposed to a specific color may explain the active participle form we find in the Damascus Document 3 (4QDa 6, 1, ln. 7): והפך מראה לדק צוהב “And its appearance changed to thin tzohev (gleaming).”[12]

Perhaps because of its association with נְחֹשֶׁת מֻצְהָב “good, shining bronze” in Ezra (8:27), tzahov came to mean yellow in post-biblical Hebrew, already in the LXX translation. It is difficult sometimes for later readers to see this, once it becomes “obvious” that tzahov means yellow, since that is what it means now, but context allows us to read the biblical text with open eyes and be sensitive to context. Here in Leviticus, where the goal is for the priest to decide whether or not the person suffers from a disease, tzahov likely refers to hairs that stand out by their gleaming appearance rather than denoting a specific color.

Published

April 9, 2024

|

Last Updated

May 23, 2024

Footnotes

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Prof. Rabbi Phil Lieberman is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and Law, Classical and Mediterranean Studies, History, and Islamic Studies at Vanderbilt University. He is currently on military leave and serves as Associate Professor in the Department of History at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He holds an M.A. in Talmud and Rabbinic Ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, a ..D. in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, a D.Min from Lipscomb University, and Rabbinic Ordination from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He served as editor of The Cambridge History of Judaism, volume 5 (Cambridge University Press, 2021), and is the author most recently of The Fate of the Jews in the Early Islamic Near East (Cambridge University Press, 2022). His translation with Lenn Goodman of Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed is due from Stanford University Press in May 2024. Lieberman also serves the United States Navy Reserve as a chaplain, currently holding the rank of captain. From 2021-2022, he served as command chaplain at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.