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May 22, 2024
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That Wondrous and Marvelous Root Peh-Lamed-Aleph

1. Our topic is the word פלא and its derivatives such as נפלא. As one scholar has written, this root usually describes “extraordinary phenomena, transcending the power of human knowledge and imagination… The usual translation… ‘be marvelous’ comes close to the basic meaning.”

The common English translation of פלא is “wonder” so I will generally use that, but I agree with the above analysis.

Our root occurs many times in Tanach. One example is in Oz Yashir (Ex. 15:11). God is here described as “oseh פלא”=doing wondrous things.

Another example is Ex. 3:20. God says that He is going to strike Egypt “be-chol niflotai” (=with all My wonders). Niflaot in general, when referring to acts of God, refer to actions that are unfathomable to human beings and at variance with human understanding.

Finally, another example of our root is at Psalms 118:23 (Hallel): “This was God’s doing; hiy niflat be-eineinu” (=it is wondrous in our eyes).”

2. There is another root in Hebrew: פלה. This root means “separate.” A main issue in analyzing our root is whether פלא is related to this other root. After all, wonderful things are separate from normal things. Many scholars believe the two roots are related. But I am going to follow the approach that the roots are distinct. This is the approach taken in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 12, p. 536.

3. Sometimes we have a word where the third root letter has dropped and the word could be from either פלא or פלה. One example is Ex. 33:16: ונפלינו. But from the context, it is evident that this word is from פלה: “Ve-niflinu ani ve-amecha mi-kol ha-am…”

4. At Ex. 9:4, although the plain sense of והפלה here is “separate,” both Targum Yonatan and Nachmanides give interpretations related to פלא =wonder.

5. What about the meaning at Deut. 17:8? Here we have “ki yipale (יפלא) mimcha davar la-mishpat…” The translation in the Hertz Pentateuch at the top (the 1917 Jewish Publication Society of America translation): “If there arises a matter too hard for thee in judgment…” But the commentary of Rabbi Dr. Hertz correctly suggests “extraordinary” instead of “hard.” Another interesting use of the root is at 2 Sam. 13:2 in the context of Amnon being in love with Tamar but being unable to do anything about it (“va-yipale be-einei Amnon laasot lah meumah”). It can be concluded from both of these examples that the root פלא is used when individuals are confronted with tasks and obstacles that are beyond their imagination and ability.

6. A main issue in the root פלא are those five occasions in Chumash where it is used in connection with vows. For example, the first is Lev. 22:21: “le-fale (לפלא) neder.” The phrase does not fit the “marvel, wonder” meanings. Also, making a neder is not something beyond human imagination and ability.

Rashi here writes “le-hafrish be-diburo,” giving it a meaning relating to “separate”=to set aside through his statement. (Similarly, Rashi on Deut. 17:8 writes that the root פלא is always one of “havdalah u-ferishah.”) Similarly, Ibn Ezra on Lev. 22:21 suggests the meaning “le-faresh.” (As to other commentators: R. Saadiah translates our word as: “la-tet be-lev shalem.” The Living Torah uses the word “presents.” R. Hirsch makes a very speculative attempt to relate this פלא to our other meaning of פלא.)

One solution is to treat these words in the vowing context with the root פלא as deriving from פלה and its meaning “separate.” Radak suggests this in his Sefer Ha-Shorashim, entry פלא. But perhaps it is simplest to view the use of the root in the vowing context as fitting within the root פלא and indicating an “extraordinary” type of speech.

7. At Judges 13:18, an angel tells Manoach and his wife (the future parents of Shimshon) not to ask what his name is and instructs that it is פלאי. Many Rishonim understand the meaning here as “covered.” But most likely, the meaning is something like “high and beyond human comprehension.” One can see this meaning at Psalms 139:6 where our root appears and is parallel to נשגבה (=high). See also Radak, Sefer Ha-Shorashim, פלא. His translation of our phrase: My name is “nifla ve-nisgav mei-lehodia lecha.” See also Judges, Anchor Bible, p. 222 (“beyond comprehension”). See also Daat Mikra to Psalms 139:6, which cites Deut. 17:8.

8. I previously discussed the possible roots of the word מופת and came to no definite conclusion. One suggestion I mentioned was that of Nachmanides that it is a shortened form of מופלאת, from our root פלא. (See his comm. to Deut. 13:2.) He wrote that מופת is used when something is done that involves a change of the natural forces of the world. As I learn more about the root פלא, his suggestion sounds more attractive. (Without discussing the root of the word מופת, Malbim writes something similar. A מופת is something that involves a change of nature and is מפליא for all to see. See his comm. to Ex. 7:3.)

9. פלא is the first name of the child with a long name mentioned at Isa. 9:5: “pele yoetz kel gibor avi ad sar shalom” (=wonderful in counsel is God the mighty, the everlasting father, the ruler of peace).

10. Of course, it is interesting that our word is used in the asher yatzar prayer: “u-mafli laasot.” The ArtScroll Siddur translates the entire phrase as “Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.”

The phrase “u-mafli laasot” is taken from Judges 13:19 and the above story about the angel who informed the parents of Shimson about his forthcoming birth. The phrase “u-mafli laasot” is used in conjunction with the angel’s ascent to heaven on fire that came from an altar. There is a widespread view that to better understand the phrases in our prayers one has to see how they are used in their original context. One wonders what message is being conveyed by the borrowing of this phrase from this story!

In a different context, the phrase in our Rosh Hashanah liturgy “harat olam” (=birth of the world) is taken from Jer. 20:17. There it means “eternally pregnant”! So it seems that Biblical phrases are sometimes creatively borrowed into our prayers without the borrowing indicating an underlying message.

11. I always wondered about the phrase “ploni almoni.” (I wonder why I keep using the term “wonder”!) This phrase appears three times: 1 Sam. 21:3, 2 Kings 6:8 and Ruth 4:1. Also, at Dan. 8:13, we have פלמני, which is probably a contraction of the two words.

The root פלה = “separate” is likely the root of the first word. The second word derives from אלם with its meaning “silent.” Therefore, the phrase means something like “the separate person who is not mentioned.” See, e.g., the Brown- Driver-Briggs lexicon, p. 811, and Daat Mikra to Ruth 4:1.

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He had always thought “ploni almoni” was essentially gibberish like “Joe Shmoe”! It is wonderful that he continues to learn new insights!

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