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‘Ve-Heishiv Lev Avot Al Banim’ (Malachi 3:24)

In our tradition, Malachi was the last prophet. He lived in the early Second Temple period. Here is the first half of the last sentence in his book: “ve-heishiv lev avot al banim, ve-lev banim al avotam.” The party doing this is Eliyahu.

The simplest interpretation is that the verse refers to a reconciliation between fathers and children. See, for example, the translation in the Soncino: “And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers.” (The Soncino translation is a reprint of the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation.) The ArtScroll Stone Chumash adopts this translation as well.

A weakness with this translation is that the verse uses the verb על, not אל. The Even-Shoshan concordance lists 4,004 occasions of the words על and ועל in Tanach. (I am not counting other variants like מעל.) It writes that in 28 of these occasions the meaning is אל (=to). Admittedly this is only a small percentage. Nonetheless, it is not a totally insignificant one.

I will now mention two other interpretations that are widely offered. But in my view, the weaknesses with them are more severe.

The Return-to-God Approach

The “avot” and “banim” are returning in teshuvah to God. This is the view of Rashi and many Rishonim. In this view, על means “with.” על can certainly mean “with.” It is one of its many meanings.

But there are two problems with this approach. First, God is not mentioned in the verse. השיב appears many times in Tanach. Nowhere else does this word alone imply a return to God. Second, the repetition: “lev avot al (=with) banim, ve-lev banim al (=with) avotam” is also a weakness. Why should the phrase be repeated? Nothing is added by the repetition.

One can tweak this approach and translate “al” as “al yedei” (=by means of). Rashi is one who does this. This way the first phrase is referring to fathers who are caused to return by their sons and the next phrase is referring to sons who are caused to return by their fathers. But I doubt that “al” is used anywhere else to mean “al yedei.” (If I am wrong, please tell me!) But in any event, this is still not a solution to the first problem, the lack of mention of God.

The Return-to-the-Covenant-and-Values-of-the-Forefathers Approach

In this approach, “avot” means our forefathers: Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Eliyahu is going to cause “the bonding of the current generation of postexilic Israelites to the Mosaic covenant of their ancestors,” as one scholar has put it. (In short: “faithless descendants” to “faithful ancestors.”) Interpreting “avot” as our forefathers is reasonable and this message is consistent with other passages in the book such as 3:7. (Two sources that take this approach are The Anchor Bible edition of Malachi, pp. 374 and 388, and Sefas Emes to Parshat Vayera, sec. 661.)

But does this approach fit the language “ve-heishiv lev avot al banim, ve-lev banim al avotam”? If this was the proper interpretation, the order should be the reverse: Eliyahu is going to come and cause the descendants to return to the values of the forefathers and then the forefathers accept them.

So I think we have to stick with our initial approach: fathers and children returning to one another. The only issue is whether we read it literally and try to suggest some type of interfamily strife that was prevalent at the time (as some scholars do) or whether we read it metaphorically as reflecting societal strife in general. As examples of the latter, Eduyot 8:7 cites our verse for the idea that Elijah will come la’asot shalom ba-olam, and Rambam, in his commentary here, understands the specific teaching to be that Elijah will remove the שנאה that there is between bnei adam.

Finally, there is another approach, a double meaning. One can read the verse as implying both the interfamily and the return to God approaches. For example, The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot, p. 365, views the plain sense of the verse as implying that “Elijah will work to bring harmony between the generations, reciprocally.” But then it adds: “Healing between parents and children is…part of the nation’s reconciliation with their God, and the textual ambiguity imbeds a profound and double-edged point.” (But since God is not mentioned in the verse, I don’t think there is a textual ambiguity here.)

Ibn Ezra writes something similar to the above JPS Bible commentary: The avot and banim are returning to one another, so that kulam yihiyu lev echad when they return to Hashem. See also the Soncino commentary on our verse.

Additional Notes

—The book of Malachi gives no background information about him. His father’s name is not mentioned. His location is not mentioned. The king in whose time he prophesied is not mentioned. The book begins only: “The burden of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi.” But from the ideas that he expresses (e.g., his criticisms of the sacrifices), one can see that the Temple has already been rebuilt. Most likely, Malachi is the prophet’s name (and does not just mean “my messenger”) and is an abbreviation from מלאכיהו. See Daat Mikra, intro., p. 7.

—An interesting attempt at a plain-sense interpretation is offered by R. Eliezer of Beaugency (12th cent., found on alhatorah.org). Eliyahu will make sure that fathers teach the laws of the Torah to their sons, as stated in Deut. 11:19: “ve-limadetem otam et bneichem,” and children will ask questions to their fathers, as stated in Deut. 32:7: “she’al avicha ve-yagedcha.”

—We know from verses in Ezra, Nechemiah and Malachi that there was much marriage to foreign women in that period. The Maggid edition of I Kings (p. 272) has the following suggestion: “The children born to mixed marriages, and raised in the tradition of their pagan mothers, shall be restored to their fathers, who will teach them to follow God.”

—A wild interpretation is given by Abravanel: The reference is to Eliyahu reviving the dead: Sons who lost fathers and fathers who lost sons will see them revived!

—I mentioned above that the ArtScroll Chumash, first published in 1993, follows the “fathers to children” approach. But the ArtScroll Tanach, first published in 1996, follows the “return to God” approach: “And he will turn back [to God] the hearts of fathers…” I have not researched all the various printings of these works, but I believe that this inconsistency has not been resolved and they are still publishing these two different interpretations.

(Similarly, the Conservative movement’s Chumash, Etz Hayim, mentions both of these approaches in its commentary to the Shabbat Ha-Gadol haftarah and cannot decide which to prefer.)

—P.S. Regarding the meaning of the word על, we have to praise Even-Shoshan for giving those lists of meanings with verse citations at the beginning of every entry. Even though he is often only guessing the meaning (sometimes he lists the meaning with a question mark) and many of his thousands of interpretations are wrong, nonetheless he was willing to undertake this Herculean task and surely got it correct 98% of the time. His meaning lists enable anyone to quickly see what meanings a word is used with in Tanach and which meanings are frequent and which are rare.

I would like to acknowledge the article in Hakirah vol. 30 by Dr. Yaacov Krausz, which got me interested in this issue.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He hopes that the last sentence that he writes before he retires as a columnist will be a clear one.

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