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Jacob’s Hands: Sikel et Yadav (Gen. 48:14)

At Genesis 48 we are told that Joseph brings his two children to Jacob to be blessed. Verse 13 tells us that he put Efraim to the left of Jacob and put Menashe to the right. Verse 14 provides Jacob’s response: Jacob put his right hand on Efraim, the younger, and his left hand on Menashe. The verse continues “שׂכל (sikel) et yadav ki Menashe ha-bechor.”

After Jacob gives the blessing, Joseph responds: “Not so my father.” Menashe is the first born, put your right hand on him. But Jacob refuses. He has seen the future and that the younger will be greater.

Our question is what does שׂכל mean and what is the meaning of the entire phrase: “שׂכל et yadav ki Menashe ha-bechor”?

Let me provide some background first. As to the word כי, although it usually means “because,” there are a few times where it seems to mean “even though.” The Even-Shoshan concordance counts over 4,000 instances of the word כי in Tanach! (With such a large number of occurrences, it has a few other meanings as well.) A famous dispute is the meaning of כי at Ex. 13:17: “ki karov hu.” Does it mean “because the way of the land of the Pelishtim was near,” or “although the land of the Pelishtim was near”? (Or perhaps some other meaning of כי fits best here.)

As to the root שׂכל, it appears many times in Tanach. It always has a meaning related to doing something wisely. But there is also a root סכל that appears many times in Tanach and means “doing something foolishly.”

Now let us return to our phrase at Gen. 38:14. On the simplest level, the phrase means something like: Jacob “put his hands [in this manner] with wisdom because Menashe was the firstborn.” This translation makes no sense in the context. But if we translate כי in its less-frequent use as “even though,” we have a sensible reading of the phrase. Jacob put his hands in this manner with wisdom, even though Menashe was the first born. This is essentially the translation of Rashi.

Let us see some other possibilities:

—Rabbi Dr. Hertz: Jacob, purposely against Joseph’s wish, did what he did. (Presumably Rabbi Dr. Hertz is translating כי in the next phrase as “even though.”)

—Hizzekuni: Jacob directed his hands with wisdom (and for this reason merely switched his hands). Because Menashe was the first born, Jacob did not want to slight Menashe by physically moving him.

—Rabbeinu Chananel (quoted in Rabbeinu Bachya): Jacob was הרכיב his hands, one on top of the other. Presumably Rabbeinu Chananel is understanding שׂכל to mean something like “cross.” This also seems to be the understanding of Targum Yonatan, which uses the word פרג. See Jastrow, p. 1213, and see also R. Chananel to Bava Metzia 25a.

There are scholars who find support for such an interpretation in Arabic. E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, writes that in Arabic, “shikal” is a rope for tying together an animal’s legs. He is following Brown-Driver-Briggs in this approach.

It is obviously weak to rely on Arabic to translate a Biblical word. Although Arabic is a Semitic language, most of its words are only known to us from the time of the Quran (7th cent.). Nowhere else do we have the Hebrew root שׂכל with a meaning like “cross.” In my view there is insufficient basis to invent this new meaning “cross” for our Biblical root (even though it seems to be the view of Targum Yonatan), and even though Jacob did cross his hands.

Moreover, I do not think the subsequent phrase flows properly in this translation of שׂכל, whether the subsequent phrase means “because Menashe was the firstborn” or “although Menashe was the first born.”

(Interesting is The Living Torah. R Kaplan uses the phrase “deliberately crossed.” Is he translating שׂכל as “deliberately” or as “crossed”? The ArtScroll Stone Chumash is also noteworthy. In the official translation it translates our word as “maneuvered.” But in the commentary it specifies “crossed,” citing one of the Rishonim. Probably, they chose the word “maneuver” because it fits with the “wisdom” meaning.

—Rabbeinu Bachya understands the phrase to mean that Jacob physically switched the two brothers.

But the most interesting alternative explanation is that of S.D. Luzzatto (19th cent.). Based on the סכל meaning, he believes the meaning is: Jacob put his hands in a way that viewers would think was foolish, since Menashe was the first born (and was entitled to the blessing with the right hand).

(In the era of the Rishonim, Ralbag had interpreted שׂכל as if it were written סכל, but he defined סכל with a meaning like “crooked.” The implication in this view was that the hands were placed crossed. But “ki Menashe ha-bechor” does not read well in this interpretation, whether כי means “because” or “although.” Ralbag was following the general approach of Rashbam, who wrote too briefly.)

On the simplest level, the view of Luzzatto reads well into the verse. But can we really adopt it? We would have to postulate that שׂכל could be interpreted as if it were written סכל.

Can we find evidence for interpreting שׂ as ס elsewhere in Tanach?

—At Kohelet 1:17, we have the spelling שׂכלות for “foolishness,” instead of the word’s normal spelling סכלות (six times).

—At 2 Sam. 1:22 we have the word נשׂוג. This is consistently understood as if the root was סוג. See similarly ישׂיגו, Job 24:2.

—At Isa. 19:10, we have the word שׂכר. This is widely understood as if the root was סכר. See Daat Mikra.

(Also, at Deut. 32:2, the word שׂעירם is widely understood as if the root was סער. See, e.g., Rashi. But it is possible that sin was the original root of the Hebrew word for storm.)

While I was initially hesitant to accept Luzzatto’s interpretation, now that I have found the above references (some courtesy of my friend Sam Borodach), I am now more willing to do so.

I will also mention that שׂכל with its wisdom-related meaning is rare in the Torah. It is only found at Gen. 3:6, and Deut. 29:8 and 32:29. (But admittedly סכל with its foolishness-related meaning is only found one time in the Torah, at Gen. 31:28.)

Finally, in favor of Luzzatto’s interpretation, as opposed to Rashi’s, is that the use of כי with the meaning “even though” is rare. (Even-Shoshan lists 13 such instances out of the over 4,000, but many can be questioned.)

For more interpretations of our phrase at Gen. 48:14, see, e.g., Ibn Janach, Radak, and Seforno. See also alhatorah.org. and Torah Shelemah, Va-yechi, sec. 88.

—The Biblical שׂ often evolved into ס in Mishnaic/Rabbinic Hebrew (e.g., the Mishnaic ארוסין). We even have such an evolution in a late book of Tanach, the book of Ezra. See Ezra 4:5: סכרים (hired).

—In a widespread Christian view, Gen. 48:14 alludes to Jacob having made the sign of the cross, and the subsequent verse 19 indicates that the younger religion (Christianity) will be greater than the older religion (Judaism). (I thank Danny Chazin for sharing these comments, based on a presentation of R. Meir Soloveichik.)


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Both as an attorney and a scholar, he knows the difference between statements made with “wisdom” and statements made with “folly.”

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