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Aaron Demsky





The Color of Judah’s Eyes





APA e-journal

Aaron Demsky





The Color of Judah’s Eyes








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The Color of Judah’s Eyes

חכלילי עינים מיין (Genesis 49:12) is an obscure phrase. In contrast to the standard interpretation, Nachmanides offered an original interpretation, which finds support in modern linguistic analysis and an archaeological find.


The Color of Judah’s Eyes

Farmer harvesting the grape in the vineyard Copyright : Antonio Gravante / 123rtf

Overview of Judah’s Blessing

Jacob’s blessing to Judah (Gen 49:8-12) can be divided into two parts: The first (vv. 8-10) is a promise of sovereignty over his brothers and the future kingdom/rule.[1] In this section Judah is compared to a lion whelp, an image made popular in the Jewish personal name Gur Aryeh (Leib) Yehudah (“A lion’s whelp is Judah”).[2] The second part (vv. 11-12) is a blessing for the increase in wine production in the Judean Hills, a prophecy being fulfilled in our own day.

The first set of synonymous parallels describes the strength of the vine to which one can tie even a rambunctious donkey colt.

מט:יא אֹסְרִי לַגֶּפֶן עִירֹה
וְלַשֹּׂרֵקָה בְּנִי אֲתֹנוֹ.
49:11 He tethers his ass to a vine,
His foal to a choice vine;

The second one emphasizes the great abundance of wine.

כִּבֵּס בַּיַּיִן לְבֻשׁוֹ
וּבְדַם-עֲנָבִים סוּתֹה.[3]
He washes his garment in wine;
His robe in the blood of grapes.

This image either suggests, hyperbolically, that Judah will have so much wine that people will even wash their clothing in it (Rashi), or it describes an image of people washing their wine-stained clothing, which was soiled by the great amount of wine Judah has pressed (Rashbam).

The third complementary parallel describes the colors of Judah’s eyes and teeth.

מט:יב חַכְלִילִי עֵינַיִם מִיָּיִן
וּלְבֶן שִׁנַּיִם מֵחָלָב.
49:12 His eyes are (more) ḥ-kh-l than wine,
His teeth are whiter than milk.

The meaning of the uncommon word חַכְלִילִי is uncertain and debated.[4]

ח-כ-ל in Proverbs

The root ח-כ-ל appears again in the Bible as a description of a person’s eyes and in the context of drinking wine and carousing, Proverbs 23:29-30:

משלי כג:כט לְמִי אוֹי לְמִי אֲבוֹי,
לְמִי [מדונים] (מִדְיָנִים), לְמִי שִׂיחַ
לְמִי פְּצָעִים חִנָּם,
לְמִי חַכְלִלוּת עֵינָיִם.
כג:ל לַמְאַחֲרִים עַל-הַיָּיִן
לַבָּאִים לַחְקֹר מִמְסָךְ.
Prov 23:29 Who cries, “Woe!” who “Alas”;
Who has quarrels, who complaints;
Who has wounds without cause;
Who has bleary eyes?
23:30 Those whom wine keeps till the small hours
Those who gather to drain the cups.

In this context, the term ח-כ-ל of the eyes seems to refer to the effect of heavy drinking on a person’s eyes. But what is the effect?

Eyes Red from Wine

The standard interpretation of the phrase in Gen 49:12 among the medieval commentators is that the eyes become red from drinking wine.

Rashi (1040-1105)

שכן דרך שותי יין עיניהם מאדימים
For it is the way of people who drink wine that their eyes get red.

Ibn Ezra (1089-1167)

מרוב היין, שהוא אדום. כי החכלילות עינים יראה בעין שכרות היין
From much wine, which is red. For redness of eyes can be seen in the eye as a result getting drunk on wine.

Bekhor Shor (12th cent.)

עיניו, פניו {ו}מראיתו אדום… מן היין שהוא שותה
His eyes, face, and complexion is red… from the wine which he drinks.

Abraham ben HaRambam (1186-1237)

היא אדמומית העולה על לובן העין מחוזק היין.
This is the redness that overcasts the whites of the eyes from the power of the wine.

Eyes Redder than Wine

Rabbi Saadia Gaon (882-942) offers an alternative explanation, understanding the preposition mem as “more than” rather than the causal mem “because of,” “as a result of”:

אדמדם בעיניים יותר מיין ולבן שיניים יותר מחלב.
Redness in the eyes more than wine; whiteness in the teeth more than milk.[5]

R. Joseph Bekhor Shor suggests a similar explanation as an alternative possibility to the one he staked out first (red from wine):

אדום מראיתו יותר מן היין, ושיניו לבנות יותר מחלב. כלומר: אדם יפה, ובעל תואר, והגון למלכות, כדכתיב בדוד: אדמוני עם יפה עינים וטוב רואי.
His complexion is redder than wine and his teeth whiter than milk. Meaning, he is good looking with a good physique and fit to be a king, as was written about David (1Sam 16:12): “He was ruddy-cheeked, bright-eyed, and handsome.”

All of these commentators explain חַכְלִילִי as the color red as in red wine,[6] and the word is used similarly in Modern Hebrew.[7] This explanation is reinforced by the proceeding two verses mentioning “blood of grapes” and soreka,[8] one of the best types of vine whose clusters produce dark red wine.

Nachmanides – Blackening Eyes

In contrast to this accepted interpretation of חַכְלִילִי, Nachmanides (1194-1270) stands alone explaining this word as a metathesized form (i.e., when the letters rearrange) of the root כחל (in Arabic ﻛﺣﻝ), with a doubling of the final letter. He further concludes that this color term means black,[9] referring to eye mascara or shading needed to hide the drunkards’ black eyes.

…והמשל לרבוי היין והחלב בארצו… וכן, “למי הכלילות עינים” (משלי כג,כט) – כמו ‘כחלילות’, יאמר שעיניו כחולות ביין ולא יוכל להסתיר שכרותו;
…This is a metaphor for the abundance of wine in his land… Similarly, “Who has hakhlilut of the eyes?” (Prov 23:29) This is the same as kaḥlilut, meaning that his eyes are dark with wine and he cannot hide that he is drunk.
או יאמר: “למי חכלילות עינים- שיצטרך לכחול עיניו תמיד? “למאחרים על היין” (שם ל) כי היין יחשיך את עיניהם ויורידו דמעה ותמקנה חוריהן (ע”פ זכ’ יד,יב) ויצטרך שיהיו עיניך במכחול תדיר.
Or it could be saying: “Who hasḥakhlilut of the eyes?” Such that this person must color their eyes all the time? “Those whom wine keeps to the wee hours” (v. 30). For wine darkens their eyes, and they shed tears and their sockets rot (Zech 14:12), and thus they need to use eyeshadow at all times.
יספר הכתוב בגנות היין ברעות הבאות לו מבחוץ ב”מדני” וב”פצעים”, וישמע בביתו “אוי” ו”אבוי” (משלי כג,כט) ויזכיר הנזק ההוא ההווה לו ממנו בגופו בחשכת עיניו ותחלואיהם הרבים; וזה פירוש וענין נכון.
Scripture speaks disparagingly of wine, due to the problems it causes, whether externally with quarrels or with injuries, and in his house can be heard “oy” and “avoy.” It mentions these damages that occur to him from [wine] to his body with the darkening of his eyes and many other ailments; and this is the correct interpretation and point.

Nachmanides’ translation of כ-ח-ל as black is supported by noting that the resulting stark contrast of the colors black and white.[10] There is another contrasting pair in this verse: shen va`ain “tooth and eye”, or sometimes “eye and tooth”, a metonymy for inclusive physical parts of the head as here and in other places (Exod 21:23-27).[11]

Yet another, third contrast in this verse is the allusion to the two main pillars of the agrarian economy of the biblical world, explicit in Targum Onkelos, i.e., milk referring to animal husbandry and wine to agriculture.

Nachmanides’ interpretation is surprising. Not only does he provide a new derivation for חכלילי, but, based on his use of Prov 23 (quoted above), he gives this blessing a negative connotation, i.e. that Judah will be like a drunkard, needing black makeup to hide his eyes.

Black Eyes vs. Blackening Eyes

Nachmanides’ etymological argument is strong. Of course, the modern translation of the word כחול is “blue,” but this meaning is late. In the Bible תכלת is blue (or at least one hue of blue). In Rabbinic Hebrew (Numbers Rabbah 2:7) we even find the explicit definition:

כחול דומה לשחור.
Kaol is similar to black.

Additionally, Akkadian ekêlu, cognate to Hebrew חכל, refers to the dark color of one’s eyes.[12] Nevertheless, Nahmanides’ ultimate interpretation is open to question, as the term “black eyes” can also be positive. For example, Bereishit Rabbah 98:10 states:

ואלו בני דרום שעיניהם כחולות וכחם יפה לתלמוד תורה.
These are the inhabitants of the South [around Lod, as opposed to the Galilee], whose eyes are black and their power lies in the study of Torah.

Thus, it seems reasonable to accept Nachmanides’ translation of כ-ח-ל as black/dark, but not necessarily the specific application to eyeshadow or its negative connotations.

כ-ח-ל Wine: An Ancient Hebrew Inscription

Nachmanides’ translation of kl as “black” received verification from an unexpected source. In 1972, Prof. Nahman Avigad of the Hebrew University published an unusual ancient Hebrew inscription on an undamaged decanter, likely from the 8th-7th cents. The unprovenanced vessel was assumed to have been found in a tomb in the Judean mountains.[13] The inscription reads:

יין כחל Ⲉ
Belonging to Yeḥizyahu
KḤL wine + a numeral (probably: ‘tenth’)[14]

A Wine from the Village KḤL

Avigad explained the word KḤL as referring to the vineyard in the village of Bit Kaḥil, 4 kms northwest of Hebron.

A Dark Wine

Based on the biblical verse, I suggested (in 1972) an alternative interpretation of this inscription. Wines can be identified by the location of their vineyard, by their vintage, by their fragrance and taste, or by their color. In light of Nahmanides’ insight into the meaning of the word חכלילי, I proposed that the inscription relates to a type of wine defined by its dark color.[15] The Rabbis said (m. Niddah 9:11):

יש גפן שיינה אדום ויש גפן שיינה שחור.
There is a vine that its wine is red and there is a vine that its wine is black.

Taking all our sources together – biblical, mishnaic and epigraphic in addition to Semitic parallels, we can explain Jacob’s positive blessing to Judah as having: “Eyes deeper in color than dark wine; teeth whiter than milk.”


January 11, 2017


Last Updated

June 11, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Aaron Demsky is Professor (emeritus) of Biblical History at The Israel and Golda Koschitsky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry, Bar Ilan University. He is also the founder and director of The Project for the Study of Jewish Names. Demsky received the Bialik Prize (2014) for his book, Literacy in Ancient Israel.