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An Insight Into Shema: Pen Yifteh Levavchem

We all recite this phrase daily in Shema. But what does it mean? The word that needs a proper translation is יפתה. The phrase comes from Deut. 11:16.

ArtScroll consistently translates this phrase as “lest your heart be seduced.” Similarly, the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation (at the top in the Chumash of Rabbi Dr. Hertz) has “lest your heart be deceived.” An early rabbinic source, Sifrei, names the yetzer hara as the party doing the seduction/deception.

But there is a problem with the above translations. יפתה (yifteh) is in the kal. It is not in the nifal (“yipateh”). “Be deceived” and “be seduced” are translations that correspond to a nifal: Some other party is causing the deception/seduction. But that is not the import of the kal construct. (See, e.g., the commentary of S. D. Luzzatto here.)

I have also seen the translation “be tempted” (R. Aryeh Kaplan, and various siddurim with the commentary of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks). This is better as one could interpret this as meaning being tempted by oneself.

R. Hirsch offers: “that your heart does not open itself to being led astray.” (See also the Siddur of R. Hirsch: “lest your heart open itself to temptation.”)

Let us evaluate the suggestion of R. Hirsch. The verb פתה occurs 28 times in Tanach. In the nifal, it means that you were led by another to do a foolish thing. In the piel, you are persuading or misleading someone else. But what does the verb mean in the kal? The verses in the kal most analogous to ours are Mishlei 20:19 and Job 31:27.

In Aramaic, the kal has the meanings “open” and “expand.” We do see the “expand” meaning once in Tanach at Gen. 9:27: God will cause to expand the (borders of) Yafet. But is the “open” meaning found in Tanach? Most likely, “open” is the meaning of פתה at Mishlei 20:19 (based on the parallel there to גולה = reveal).

Once we accept that the “open” meaning is found for the kal of פתה at Mishlei 20:19, then we can accept the suggestions of R. Hirsch above. At least one scholar has made a similar suggestion: “lest your לב become so open that you turn aside…” This scholar suggests that “open” here has the meaning “open-minded.” He writes: “That was exactly the complaint of the prophets and of Deuteronomy against the people-they were too tolerant of alien gods.” See T.J. Meek, Journal of Biblical Literature 67, pp. 235-36.

Now I will offer another approach that is consistent with the kal. Let us look at the other very analogous verse, Job. 31:27. This verse has the phrase “va-yift ba-seter libi.” This is not only another instance of our root in the kal but also a verse using it with the word לב. The previous verse referred to the sun and moon shining as it is normal for them to do. Then comes verse 27 where Job refers to the possibility (which he denies) that he might have had foolish thoughts relating to paying homage to the sun and the moon. (See the Soncino commentary.) But if he would have, he in no way would have been misled by the sun and the moon. He would have been thinking these foolish thoughts on his own. That is why the verb is in the kal. The Daat Mikra commentary here suggests that the same explanation applies to Deut. 11:16.

For this same reason, Daat Mikra on 11:16 translates our three words as: yihiyeh le-feti (פתי) ve-kal daat. Their translation of the entire phrase would be: “lest you be foolish and of light mind and [because of this], ve-sartem…”

Earlier, Hizzekuni also adopted such an interpretation. See also the translation of our phrase offered in the scholarly work Koehler-Baumgartner: “be simple, gullible.” See similarly Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 12 p. 169: “simple and foolish.”

To sum up, I have been able to provide alternative approaches to the “be seduced/be deceived” approach which was grammatically problematic. My suggestions are an approach based on an “open” meaning and an approach based on a “be foolish” meaning.

A remaining issue is whether the “open” meaning and the “foolish” meaning are related. Most likely, they are, as a foolish person is one who is open to different ideas (whether wisdom or folly) but finds it hard to discern the truth. See, e.g., Brown-Driver-Briggs, p. 834 and Mishlei 14:15 (peti yaamin le-chol davar). See also Rav S.R. Hirsch on Gen. 9:27.

Now I want to mention a different problem that always bothered me that I can now probably explain. Seven times in Tanach we have a word פתע that means “sudden.” Twenty-five times we have another word פתאם that means “sudden.” But why is one with ayin and one with aleph? We even have the words together several times with their contradictory spellings. “Peta pitom” is at Num. 6:9 and Isa. 29:5. “Pitom le-peta” is at Isa. 30:13.

The most likely explanation is that the original word for “sudden” is פתע. But when there is a mem after these letters, this makes it hard to pronounce the ayin properly, so an aleph became the letter instead. But I cannot explain why that synonym פתאם arose at all.

I included this topic here because I have seen the suggestion that פתע is related to פתה =be foolish and that the latter originally meant “to act suddenly, without consideration.” This is mentioned as a possibility in E. Klein’s, “A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language,” p. 536. See also Rav Hirsch to Gen. 9:27. But I think the connection of פתה =be foolish with the meaning “open” is more likely.

The father of the prophet Yoel was named פתואל. This is the only time this name is in Tanach. Daat Mikra (introduction to Yoel) suggests that it comes from the “expand” meaning of the root פתה, and that the name is analogous to the Biblical name רחביה. Interestingly, in the Greek translation of the Torah, the name begins with their letter for “B.” They gave him the same name as the father of Rivka!


Mitchell First is a scholar and an attorney. He can be reached at [email protected]. As a scholar, he has an open mind. In the field of law, both sides are trying to mislead the jury. (Fortunately, most cases settle without a trial.)

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