November 29, 2023
November 29, 2023

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Translating Tanach is not easy. Aside from the difficulties expressing nuances when translating anything into a different language, made even harder when translating biblical Hebrew, how should words be translated when the commentators have different approaches? An example from our parsha are the words ויסע לוט מקדם (Bereishis 13:11).

We know that Lot traveled/journeyed, which takes care of two of the three words. We also know where he was (between Beis El and Ai, see 13:3) and where he went (the Jordan Plain, eventually settling in Sedom). But did he travel east or west? Well, let’s just look at a map! Since Beis El is slightly east of the center of the country, with the Mediterranean to the west and the Jordan River to the east, it should be pretty obvious! Lot traveled east! And the word the Torah uses, מקדם, has already appeared in the Torah several times (e.g. 2:8, 3:24, 12:8), where it seems to mean east. Problem solved! Or is it?

Rashi tells us “he traveled from being next to Avram and went to Avram’s west, so he traveled from east to west.” Huh? Maybe Ibn Ezra can help us. Uh oh. He doesn’t even translate the word מקדם, but tells us that the reason Lot traveled מקדם is “because Sedom is west of Beis El.” Really? It is? What about Ralbag? Yikes! He explains our words as “meaning ‘from the east,’ as he went to the west of the place where Avram was.” Am I in the Twilight Zone? What’s going on here?

Truthfully, we kinda cheated, because we have maps (and Google); in the Middle Ages they didn’t. When Sefornu also posits that Lot journeyed “from east to west,” he explains why he thinks this was the direction Lot traveled: “to distance himself from Avraham, who was dwelling in the eastern part of Eretz Yisroel, close to Ai, which was where the tribes who entered the land first went when they came from the eastern side of the Jordan [River].” Indeed, Ai was the second city they captured, after Yericho (see Yehoshua 7/8). Since Avram seems to have been in the east, without having access to maps telling them otherwise, the conclusion reached was that Lot must have traveled west. Nevertheless, since the Jordan River was the eastern boundary of Eretz Yisroel, shouldn’t that have tipped off even map-less commentaries that Lot traveled east, not west?

Nachalas Yaakov (and others) suggests that the Jordan Plain was very large, starting on the east (by the river) and extending west, past Beis El, with Lot traveling to the cities on the western side of the plain. (We now know that the plain is much narrower than that, although it does cover much ground north to south.) B’er Basadeh references Rashi’s commentary on Bamidbar 34:11, where he says that the Jordan flows north to south on an angle. If it flows from the northeast towards the southwest, even if the most western part of the Jordan is the eastern border, cities that are north of the Dead Sea (such as Ai) can be further east than cities near the Dead Sea (such as Sedom), requiring one to travel west (and south). [It should be noted, though, that Rashi’s “angle” seems to refer to the part of the Jordan that is north of the Kinneret, not the part between the Kinneret and the Dead Sea.] B’er Yitzchak suggests that the Jordan curves just north of the cities of the plain, (making an inverted “c”) with Ai located within this protrusion, putting it further east than the cities of the plain.

The most widely quoted explanation for Rashi saying that Lot traveled “from east to west” despite the Jordan Plain being east of Ai is the Taz (Divrei Dovid), who suggests that Lot was too embarrassed to let Avraham know he was going to live among wicked people, so tried to mislead him by first traveling in the opposite direction before making a U-turn once out of sight. (Some suggest the roads east were only accessible via roads that first went west, but I doubt the overall direction would be ignored in favor of the direction of the on-ramp.) If Rashi meant that Lot tried a misdirection, I would have expected him to say so explicitly. Besides, other commentaries saying that Sedom was west of Ai indicates otherwise; even if this is what Rashi meant, it won’t work for them.

Based on Maharal (and Rav Saadya Gaon), it would seem that these commentaries simply translated the word מקדם as “from the east” because קדם alone means “east,” so the מ prefix changes it to “from the east.” And even though the word מקדם elsewhere usually means “east” (and not “from the east”), there is almost always another point of reference (e.g. “east of Beis El,” making it “from the east of Beis El”). Which instance has no other point of reference? When they traveled מקדם to build the tower (11:2), where it likely does mean “from the east” (since Shinar is southwest of Ararat). [It would seem to be no coincidence that in both cases the Midrash says that they “journeyed from the One who preceded the world” (Bereishis Rabbah 38:7 and 41:7).]

Radak does say that Lot traveled east, but rather than translating מקדם as “eastward,” he says that it means Lot traveled within the eastern region of the land. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (“The Living Torah”) translates it as “eastward” because of the context, attributing it to Radak, but acknowledges that the word literally means “from the east.” Artscroll translates it as “from the east,” while Dr. J. H. Hertz (Soncino) translates it as “east” (on 11:2 too!) without explaining why. Interestingly, in their linear translation of “The Pentateuch and Rashi’s Commentary” (yes, the old blue volumes), Rabbis Abraham Ben Isaiah and Benjamin Sharfman translate ויסע לוט מקדם as “and Lot journeyed east,” despite Rashi explaining that he journeyed west.

How would you translate מקדם? (What if your work focused on Rashi’s commentary?)

Rabbi Dov Kramer is convinced that the Jordan Plain is east of Beis El. He hopes to discuss where on the plain Sedom was next week; stay tuned!

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