June 14, 2024
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What Happened to Jacob’s Heart? ‘Va-Yafag Libo’

In this week’s parsha, Jacob’s sons return home and tell Jacob that Joseph is still alive and that he rules over the entire land of Egypt. The Chumash (45:26) then reports Jacob’s response: “Ya-yafag libo, because he did not believe them.” But in the next verse, after the sons explain more and he sees the chariots that were sent, we are told “va-techi ruach Yaakov.” So what exactly happened to Jacob’s heart initially?

The root of “va-yafag” is usually assumed to be peh-vav-gimel. (I will abbreviate this as “P-V-G.”) This root only appears six times in Tanach, and this is the only time the root appears in the Chumash.

R. Saadiah Gaon translates: “nistafek be-libo,” i.e., his heart was in doubt.

Rashi writes that Jacob’s heart was “nechelaf.” Almost certainly, Rashi means “changed.” See the ArtScroll edition of Rashi. (Compare the Metsudah and Silbermann editions.) In this approach, Jacob’s heart changed from believing to not believing.

Radak suggests: “chalash ve-nirpah.” The meaning of both of these words is “became weak.”

Ibn Ezra writes: “amad libo ve-damam,” i.e., his heart ceased working. He cites to Eichah 2:18 where “pugat” is parallel to “tidom,” implying a “rest, cease” meaning. He also cites to 1 Sam. 25:37 (“va-yamat libo”).

Many commentaries agree with Ibn Ezra here. For example, Ramban writes much. Here is an excerpt: “The movement of his heart stopped and he was like a dead person. This is a known matter when joy comes suddenly. This is mentioned in medical literature that elderly and weak people cannot bear this. Many of them will faint when joy comes to them suddenly…” (Many ask on this Ramban: If Jacob passed out from joy, how is that to be reconciled with the next phrase? But there are ways to answer this. It bears mentioning that Ramban earned his livelihood as a physician.)

Rav S. R. Hirsch also adopts the “cease” approach. His interpretation is: “His heart stood still in doubt, for he did not believe them, he could not so quickly get used to the wonderful news they brought him.” See also Rabbi J.H. Hertz.

But others think that the root P-V-G is fundamentally one of “coolness,” i.e., Jacob’s heart became cold because he did not believe them. One can see the meaning “cold” in Mishnah Yoma 1:7 (“ve-hafeg”). Perhaps one can read it into some of the biblical verses that use the root P-V-G, such as Psalms 38:9: “nefugoti.” See, e.g., the Soncino commentary there: “The root-meaning is ‘to grow cool.’ He feels the chill of death creeping over him.” The concordance of Mandelkern also believes that “coolness” is one of the primary meanings of the root. (“Frigere” is the Latin word he uses. Surely you don’t need me to translate this one!) For the “cease” meaning, he cites two verses at Eichah: 2:18 and 3:49. The Daat Mikra to Hab. 1:4 suggests that the “coolness” meaning is the meaning at Hab. 1:4. (But then in a footnote suggests the alternative meaning of “cease.”)

Closely related to the “coolness” meaning is a meaning of “numbness.” See, e.g., R. Aryeh Kaplan, The Living Torah, who gives that translation here. See also, M. Kaddari, Milon Ha-Ivrit Ha-Mikrait, p. 849. This is one of the suggested translations at Ps. 38:9 as well.

Daat Mikra translates our “va-yafag” with two words: “nikpa ve-hitalef”= his heart froze and he became faint. I suspect that their first word is the translation of “va-yafag” and their second word is only there because we are later told that Jacob’s spirit was revived.

As I stated earlier, our root P-V-G occurs five other times in Tanach. At Eichah 2:18 it very clearly means “cease,” because of the parallel that follows, and one can read the “cease” meaning into several of the other verses. But at Psalms 38:9 it is very hard to read the “cease” meaning. Here the verse begins: “nefugoti ve-nidkeiti.” The second word means “I became crushed.” It is hard to read the first word as “I became ceased.” That is why meanings like “I became weak,” “I became cold” and “I became numb” have all been suggested here.

To sum up, with regard to Gen. 45:26 and Jacob’s heart, I have offered interpretations of doubt, change, weakness, ceasing, coolness and numbness. But the root does not mean “doubt” elsewhere. As to “cease,” the verse does not clearly describe a lengthy cessation of Jacob’s heart. If Jacob’s heart really stopped, he would not have been able to be revived by the time the sons told over all of Joseph’s words. With regard to the balance of the interpretations, I think that the “coolness, cold” interpretation offers the smoothest reading of verse 26: “His heart turned cold because he did not believe them.” This is also the interpretation of Targum Onkelos: “But the words left his heart cold…” See the Drazin-Wagner edition. The Kohler-Baumgartner lexicon also adopts this interpretation.

Also noteworthy is Seforno: “nitalef ve-chasrah ketzat defikat libo ve-rucho.” Nitalef means “became faint.” Seforno is combining two approaches: “weak/faint” and “cease.” By his use of the word “ketzat,” Seforno is implicitly agreeing that a lengthy heart cessation is not implied in the verses.

The Tanach, at Psalms 39:4, refers to a “hot heart” (“cham libi”). So a “cold/cool heart” can be an idiom as well!


I suspect that the original meaning of the root P-V-G was a “coldness, coolness/numbness” meaning, and that the “weak” and “cease” meanings are later developments. Something that is cold/cool and numb becomes weak and eventually ceases to function.

The word for a premature baby in modern Hebrew is “pag.” This likely derives from the word “pag”=unripe fig at Shir HaShirim 2:13. (The exact word used in the verse is “pageha”=its unripe figs). I have seen the suggestion that the “unripe fig” meaning derives from the “weak” meaning of P-V-G. But admittedly this is only conjecture.

As to the English word “fig,” a widespread suggestion is that this word ultimately derives via several earlier languages from the above word in Shir HaShirim.

Modern Hebrew also has the term “pag tokef.” If you are unfortunate, this is what a clerk in Israel will tell you: “The authority [of your document] has expired.” This meaning surely derives from the “cease” meaning of our root P-V-G. (I thank Yehiel Levy for pointing out this modern Hebrew expression to me.)


I would like to acknowledge the post of balashon.com (David Curwin of Efrat) of July 31, 2006, from which I learned much.

Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at [email protected]. Writing this column reminds him that he should check his passport expiration date.

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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