We all know the above phrase. It is the beginning of the Torah reading on fast days. The context is that Bnei Yisrael had sinned with the Golden Calf. At verse 32:10, God offers Moshe the plan that He will destroy Bnei Yisrael and turn Moshe into a great nation. Verse 32:11 is the prelude to Moshe’s response: “Va-yechal Moshe et pnei Adoshem Elokav.” After Moshe made his arguments, (e.g., remember the promises to the Avot, and why should the Egyptians say that God took the Israelites out only to destroy them), God was convinced to change His mind.
From the context, “va-yechal Moshe et pnei” describes a petition to God. The 1917 JPS translation (utilized at the top in the Chumash of Rabbi Dr. Hertz) translates it as “besought.” The ArtScroll Stone Chumash translates it as “pleaded.”
But how do we get this from the Hebrew? After all, the widespread meaning of the root “chet-lamed-heh” is “to be sick.”
Let us review some initial possibilities:
1) He prayed so hard he made himself sick.
I did see this suggestion, but it does not fit the balance of the phrase.
2) “Va-yechal” is related to “beginning.” For example, in The Living Torah, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan translates: “Moses began to plead…”
But if “va-yechal” means “began to,” then the Torah did not use any word for what Moshe actually did.
3) The root is yod-chet-lamed. This root means “wait, hope.” Accordingly, we could translate: “he hoped [for a response].”
But anyone who knows Hebrew grammar realizes that the “yod” here is not part of the root in our word.
(There is an oft-recited phrase in the High Holiday davening: “ochilah [to God] ki achale panav.” The first word here is based on the root Yod-Chet-Lamed, and it is followed by something like our phrase. But this is just wordplay, not evidence of word relation and word meaning.)
After that warm-up, it is now time to provide the solution.
The root chet-lamed-heh followed by some form of the word “panim” (=face) appears 16 times in Tanach. (Exodus 32:11 is the only time this occurs in the Torah.) The idiom occurs both in the context of a petition to the Divinity and a petition to a fellow man.
The solution is based on the root “chet-lamed-heh” meaning “to be weak, ill.” That is what the root means in the “kal” construct. But in our 16 expressions, it is in the “piel” construct. The suggestion is that in the “piel” construct it means “to cause someone else to be weak.” Moreover, as to “panim,” although it means “face,” it often has the connotation of an “angry face.” See, e.g., Lev. 26:17 and Psalms 34:17. Therefore, the entire expression means “to weaken the angry face,” i.e., Moshe was trying to weaken God’s angry face.
Rav S.R. Hirsch mentions this suggestion but disagrees with it since “Ch-L-H panim” occurs in passages even where anger is not involved. For example, it occurs in the context of attempting to gain the favor of a superior. He cites Psalms 45:13, Mishlei 19:6 and Iyov 11:19 as examples.
Nevertheless, one can easily suggest that the idiom arose in the context of “weakening an angry face” and then expanded into other contexts. Some who propose the above solution are: S. Mandelkern, U. Cassuto, and most importantly, Daat Mikra. For the last, see their note 12 on Ex. 32:11.
(Also supporting our interpretation is that Tanach has an expression for a “hard face.” See Deut. 28:50, Dan. 8:23, Kohelet 8:1, and Mishlei 7:13 and 21:29.)
There is one other solution that is sometimes proposed. (It seems to be the solution adopted in the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon. It is mentioned elsewhere as well, such as in Daat Mikra, note 13.) This proposed solution observes that there is an Arabic root that sounds like “chet-lamed-heh” and means “to be sweet, pleasing.” Perhaps this Arabic root existed as early as Biblical times and the meaning of our “chet-lamed-heh” would be “to appease someone with sweet words.” (Most interestingly, as mentioned in the Daat Mikra, the name for the candy “halva” probably derives from this “sweet” word!)
But the assumption that this Arabic root existed as early as Biblical times is very speculative. (There are words for “jewelry” in Tanach with the roots chet-lamed-yod, and chet-lamed-yod-heh. See Mishlei 25:12 and Hoshea 2:15. See also Shir Ha-Shirim 7:2. It has been suggested that these nouns are evidence of a verb with the “pleasing” meaning. But this is very far-fetched.)
The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament is another source that prefers the “sweet, pleasing” solution. Their article makes the following argument. The “Ch-L-H panim” expression is for gestures of respect, worship and submission, performed with the purpose of seeking favor. “It appears very dubious…that the usage of the phrase carries overtones associated with the semantic field of…“be weak, sick.” But I do not find this argument compelling.
The above article also mentions the possibility that the root of our “va-yechal” is Ch-L-L with the meaning “free, empty,” i.e., Moshe was trying to make God’s face free and empty of anger. (As to Ch-L-L with this meaning, see, e.g., the Biblical word “chalon.” In Biblical times, this meant something like a hole/empty area for ventilation and illumination.) But the Biblical root Ch-L-L is more of a word for “opening” than a word for “emptiness.”
The Talmud (Brachot 32a) provides many interpretations of our “va-yechal.” But it is evident that this passage is homiletical (See also Ber. 30a.) One of the interpretations provided at Brachot 32a is “achilu.” Jastrow defines this Aramaic word as “chills and fever.”
Finally on a Kabbalistic level, there are those who see in “va-yechal” an allusion to the word “techilah”=beginning. Moshe was praying that God should judge Bnei Yisrael with “midat ha-rachamim” and not “midat ha-din.” “Midat Ha-din” is the lowest level, nearest to us. “Va-yechal” was alluding to the fact that Moshe was praying for “midat ha-din,” the lowest level, to be removed when God judged the people. This explanation is perhaps alluded to in Nachmanides. The English translation by Rabbi Chavel explains it in the notes. (But even on a homiletical level, I would expect an allusion to be to the “midah” that you wanted God to use, not to the one you were seeking to be removed.)
Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Of course, he feels connected to any discussion about the word “techilah”=beginning. For more of his articles, please visit his website www.rootsandrituals.org.