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Zev Farber





Unspoken Hemorrhoids: Making the Torah Reading Polite





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Zev Farber





Unspoken Hemorrhoids: Making the Torah Reading Polite








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Unspoken Hemorrhoids: Making the Torah Reading Polite

Two places in the Bible describe God striking people with hemorrhoids (ophalim): the curses in Deuteronomy 28 and the story of the Philistines’ capture of the ark in 1 Samuel 5-6. In the latter, the Philistines make golden statues of their afflicted buttocks to propitiate the Israelite deity. Traditional readings replace these crass references with the less offensive term techorim (abscesses).


Unspoken Hemorrhoids: Making the Torah Reading Polite

The Run-of-the-Mill Ketiv-Qeri

The Masoretic Text (MT) of the Hebrew Bible contains numerous examples of texts that are written one way but are meant to be read out loud a different way. The phenomenon is referred to as Ketiv-Qeri (כתיב-קרי), meaning, the “written” version (ketiv) and the publicly “read” version (qeri).

As was already noted by some medieval commentators, a great many of the instances of Ketiv-Qeri make no difference in meaning, and can be explained by assuming that the scribes were unsure which text was correct and found a way of including multiple options.[1] Examples of such differences are:

  • Defective (חסר) vs. plene (מלא) spelling,
  • Inclusion or exclusion of the conjugal vav,
  • Different grammatical constructs,
  • Similar looking letters,
  • Archaic spelling or grammatical features modernized over time.

Certain instances of Ketiv-Qeri, however, cannot be explained by scribal confusion or slight adjustments in spelling or grammar over time. In this piece, we will examine one example of this type.

Crass Terminology: Abscesses vs. Hemorrhoids (Deut 28:27)

As part of the curses in Parashat Ki Tavo, YHWH—a name that comes with the invariable qeri of Adonai[2]—threatens Israel with a number of bodily afflictions if they do not abide by the covenant. One of these threats contains a Ketiv-Qeri:

What the Text Actually Says (Ketiv)

What the Listener Will Hear (Qeri)

יַכְּכָה יְ-הֹוָה בִּשְׁחִין מִצְרַיִם ובעפלים וּבַגָּרָב וּבֶחָרֶס אֲשֶׁר לֹא תוּכַל לְהֵרָפֵא:
יַכְּכָה יְ-הֹוָה בִּשְׁחִין מִצְרַיִם וּבַטְּחֹרִים וּבַגָּרָב וּבֶחָרֶס אֲשֶׁר לֹא תוּכַל לְהֵרָפֵא:
Yhwh will strike you with the Egyptian inflammation, with hemorrhoids, boil-scars, and itch, from which you shall never recover. Yhwh will strike you with the Egyptian inflammation, with abscesses, boil-scars, and itch, from which you shall never recover.

The words ophalim and techorim do not sound similar and they are not synonyms. They are both painful, physical afflictions, however, whose main difference lies in where on the body the affliction occurs. Techorim are probably abscesses, which can appear anywhere on the body. Ophalim, however, which literally means “swellings,” likely refers to hemorrhoids,[3]an affliction of the anus, which is not generally discussed in polite company. Thus, in this case, the Ketiv-Qeri reflects not scribal doubts about the proper term, but rather their aesthetic or religious sense that the word should not be read in public.[4]

This type of scribal adjustment appears in a few places in the Hebrew Bible, mostly in connection with scatological (i.e., bathroom) terminology,[5] but only once more in the Torah, also in Parashat Ki Tavo (Deut 28:30), in which a crasser term for sex (ש-ג-ל) is replaced with the more polite “lie with” (ש-כ-ב).

Samaritan and LXX

Other traditions appear to have been less squeamish, although confusion about the exact meaning of the curse remains. The Samaritan Pentateuch (SP), for instance, reads ophalim, with no adjustments.[6] The Septuagint (LXX) combines the first two curses to threaten that God will strike the Israelites, “with Egyptian inflammation in the buttocks.”[7] It sounds as if the scribe thought of hemorrhoids as an Egyptian affliction. Whatever the explanation, the translator is not bothered by making reference to this private area in his popular translation.

When YHWH Struck the Philistines with Hemorrhoids

The curse of hemorrhoids comes up again in the Hebrew Bible in 1 Samuel 5-6, in which the Philistines go to war against the Israelites and defeat them in the battle of Even HaEzer. During this battle, the Philistines take possession of the ark and bring it back to the Philistine city of Ashdod. But then, YHWH strikes them with a curse (1Sam 5:6, MT[8]):

וַתִּכְבַּד יַד יְ-הוָה אֶל הָאַשְׁדּוֹדִים וַיְשִׁמֵּם וַיַּךְ אֹתָם בעפלים (קרי:בַּטְּחֹרִים)…
The hand of YHWH lay heavy upon the Ashdodites, and he wrought havoc among them: He struck them with hemorrhoids (read: “abscesses”)…

The Ashdodites are unhappy with their lot and send the ark to another Philistine city, Gath, where the same thing happens again (1Sam 5:9).

…וַיַּךְ אֶת אַנְשֵׁי הָעִיר מִקָּטֹן וְעַד גָּדוֹל וַיִּשָּׂתְרוּ לָהֶם עפלים (קרי: טְחֹרִים):
…He struck the people of the city, young and old, so that hemorrhoids (read: “abscesses”) broke out among them.

The Gathites come to the same conclusion as the Ashdodites did, and send the ark to yet a third Philistine city, Ekron. The same thing then happens a third time, only worse, since YHWH kills many of the Ekronites as well (1Sam 5:12):

וְהָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר לֹא מֵתוּ הֻכּוּ בעפלים (קרי: בַּטְּחֹרִים)
And the men who did not die were stricken with hemorrhoids (read: “abscesses”)…

The Philistine’s Golden Hemorrhoids

Eventually, the Philistines understand that the Israelite God is wroth with them and wants his ark returned to his people, so they send the ark back. They further reason that it would be necessary to send an offering to appease this God, and they decide to make five golden statues of theirophalim, one for each of the five main Philistine cities, and send this along with the ark (1 Sam 6:4-5).

וַיֹּאמְרוּ מָה הָאָשָׁם אֲשֶׁר נָשִׁיב לוֹ וַיֹּאמְרוּ מִסְפַּר סַרְנֵי פְלִשְׁתִּים חֲמִשָּׁה עפלי (קרי: טְחֹרֵי) זָהָב וַחֲמִשָּׁה עַכְבְּרֵי זָהָב כִּי מַגֵּפָה אַחַת לְכֻלָּם וּלְסַרְנֵיכֶם. וַעֲשִׂיתֶם צַלְמֵי עפליכם (קרי: טְחֹרֵיכֶם) וְצַלְמֵי עַכְבְּרֵיכֶם הַמַּשְׁחִיתִם אֶת הָאָרֶץ וּנְתַתֶּם לֵאלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּבוֹד אוּלַי יָקֵל אֶת יָדוֹ מֵעֲלֵיכֶם וּמֵעַל אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וּמֵעַל אַרְצְכֶם.
They asked, “What is the indemnity that we should pay to Him?” They answered, “Five golden hemorrhoids (read: “abscesses”) and five golden mice, corresponding to the number of lords of the Philistines; for the same plague struck all of you and your lords. You shall make figures of your hemorrhoids(read: “abscesses”) and of the mice that are ravaging your land; thus you shall honor the God of Israel, and perhaps He will lighten the weight of His hand upon you and your gods and your land.

The LXX’s Golden Buttocks

It is unclear what it might mean to make a golden statue of hemorrhoids or abscesses. The LXX’s translation, however, avoids this problem. As we saw above, the LXX renders the verse in Ki Tavo as “an affliction of the behind.” Similarly, in 1 Samuel 6:17, the LXX describes the offering as “five golden behinds (αἱ ἕδραι αἱ χρυσαῖ).”[9] Radak (R. David Kimchi, 1160-1235), in his gloss on 1Sam 5:6, also understands the word ophalim as buttocks as opposed to hemorrhoids.[10]

Even if we do not accept the LXX and Radak’s translation of ophalim as “buttocks,” and assume that it does mean “hemorrhoids,” the LXX’s suggestion of golden buttocks may be correct. It seems much more likely that the author of Samuel is using the term “golden hemorrhoids” as a synecdoche, and imagining statues of the men’s afflicted bottoms as opposed to statues of the affliction itself, since how does one make a statue of hemorrhoids?[11]

Lampooning the Philistines

The image of the powerful rulers of the Philistines, who routed Israel in a humiliating defeat, making golden images of their afflicted bottoms to offer to the Israelite God is certainly meant to be comical. (The surprising addition of golden mice will have to wait for a different piece.)

The text lampoons Israel’s powerful enemies in an ancient example of toilet humor. Nevertheless, as we saw in Deuteronomy, the later scribes were uncomfortable with this mode of expression in the holy texts and compromised by creating the tradition of not reading the word ophalim in public.

Two Cases of a Missing Ketiv

The Philistine gifts appear two more times in the story (1Sam 6:11, 17); both times, however, the Masoretic Text, uses techorim, without writingophalim in the main text. A reader unaware of the qeri tradition, who was simply reading along in the main text, would not know why the hemorrhoids of the narrative have suddenly appear as abscesses.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Biblica Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS), the standard scholarly Bible, notes that in verse 11 the word ophalim appears in more than 20 medieval Hebrew manuscripts, and in v. 17 it appears in a few manuscripts.

ו:יא וַיָּשִׂמוּ אֶת אֲרוֹן יְ-הוָה אֶל הָעֲגָלָה וְאֵת הָאַרְגַּז וְאֵת עַכְבְּרֵי הַזָּהָב וְאֵת צַלְמֵי טְחֹרֵיהֶם (כת”י רבים: עפליהם).
6:11 They placed the Ark of YHWH on the cart together with the chest, the golden mice, and the figures of their abscesses (many mss: hemorrhoids).[12]
ו:יז וְאֵלֶּה טְחֹרֵי (כת”י אחדים:עפלי) הַזָּהָב אֲשֶׁר הֵשִׁיבוּ פְלִשְׁתִּים אָשָׁם לַי-הוָה…
6:17 The following were the golden abscesses (some mss: hemorrhoids) that the Philistines paid as an indemnity to YHWH…

The Qeri became the Ketiv or Reverse Redaction

One way to understand why the standard MT does not have the qeri here is to assume that the current text of vv. 11 and 17 reflects a scribal error in which the qeri supplanted the ketiv. The existence of multiple manuscripts with ophalim instead of techorim supports the possibility that these verses too once had a ketiv and qeri.

Alternatively, it may be that the phrase in v. 11 and the entirety of v. 17 are themselves late redactional supplements (see appendix for discussion), in other words, that the scribes who added them were not the same authors as wrote the main text and they used a different term. Perhaps they did so for aesthetic reasons. It may even be that the tradition to avoid saying the termophalim aloud is ancient and goes back to the Second Temple period, when this supplement was likely added. If this is correct, then some later scribes, assuming that the earlier scribe had mistakenly put the qeri text in place of the ketiv, reverse corrected the text and put in ophalim in.[13]

Compromising on Crass Language

The Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 25b) quotes a baraita (an early rabbinic source) listing all the times we avoid crass language in public readings and substitute the terms with euphemisms.

כל המקראות הכתובין בתורה לגנאי קורין אותן לשבח…
All the verses that include rude words are read with euphemisms…

Unsurprisingly, both Deut 28:27 and 1Sam 5-6 are mentioned. To the ancient scribes as well as the rabbis, it is one thing to have these words appear in the biblical text, perhaps for shock value, or, in the case of Samuel, comic effect, but quite another to have them read aloud in polite company, whether in synagogues or other Torah-reading venues.


Redactional Supplements in the Philistine Story and the Reverse Ketiv-Qeri

Both verse 11 and 17 of 1 Samuel 6 contain awkward phrasing, which imply that they were added at a late stage of the transition.

  1. What’s in the Box?

Verse 11 describes the Philistines loading the box:

וַיָּשִׂמוּ אֶת אֲרוֹן יְ-הוָה אֶל הָעֲגָלָה וְאֵת הָאַרְגַּז
They placed the Ark of YHWH on the cart as well as the chest,
וְאֵת עַכְבְּרֵי הַזָּהָב וְאֵת צַלְמֵי טְחֹרֵיהֶם.
the golden mice, and the figures
of their abscesses.

The box is clearly meant to be where the golden statues are stored and there is no need to mention them separately. A later scribe did not understand this and wondered what happened to the statues, so he added them in, but only used the word techorim.

  1. Continuing the Story After It Is Over

Vv. 17-18, which also do not contain the ketiv-qeri, come after the story is over. The earlier ending to the story is easy to see (1Sam 6:15-16):[14]

וְהַלְוִיִּם הוֹרִידוּ אֶת אֲרוֹן יְ-הוָה וְאֶת הָאַרְגַּז אֲשֶׁר אִתּוֹ אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ כְלֵי זָהָב וַיָּשִׂמוּ אֶל הָאֶבֶן הַגְּדוֹלָה וְאַנְשֵׁי בֵית שֶׁמֶשׁ הֶעֱלוּ עֹלוֹת וַיִּזְבְּחוּ זְבָחִים בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לַי-הוָה. וַחֲמִשָּׁה סַרְנֵי פְלִשְׁתִּים רָאוּ וַיָּשֻׁבוּ עֶקְרוֹן בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא.
And the Levites took down the Ark of YHWH and the chest beside it containing the gold objects and placed them on the large stone. Then the men of Beth-shemesh presented burnt offerings and other sacrifices to YHWH that day. The five lords of the Philistines saw this and returned the same day to Ekron.

This is a natural ending. The ark is returned, the golden objects unpacked, the Israelites are celebrating, and the Philistines go home. Why suddenly do we return to list the cities that contributed the golden figures? Narratively speaking, there is little reason to do so here. This was likely a gloss on the side of the manuscript added into the text later, to deal with the problem that the story tells only of three cities that were smitten but assumes five cities contributed. The supplementer has added these verses to explain which cities contributed.


September 22, 2016


Last Updated

June 9, 2024


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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).