Megillah 25

Dirty laundry.

The rabbis were, of course, extraordinarily familiar with Judaism’s sacred texts and therefore aware that it’s not all puppies and roses. Our biblical heroes do not always act admirably, and some narrative twists are not only not family friendly, they’re downright disturbing. Today’s page addresses how much of this “dirty laundry” should be aired. 

The Talmud discusses three categories of biblical text: sections that are read and translated, sections that are read but not translated, and sections that are neither read nor translated. By “read,” the Talmud means read out loud in a public forum. In ancient times, public Torah readings included a meturgaman, a person who translated the Hebrew text into the vernacular. But according to the rabbis, not every word of the Bible needs to be publicized to the masses.

The rabbis were not heavy censors. The first category, texts read aloud and translated, encompasses almost everything in the Bible. But, the rabbis comment, some sections that are singled out for public translation might have reasonably fallen into one of the more limited categories. One of these is the story of creation. But isn’t it obvious, asks the Gemara, that creation should be read out loud? What is the potential issue? 

Lest you say that people will come to ask: What is above and what is below? What was before creation and what is after?

The Talmud explains that we might have thought that translating this section would invite difficult questions about the origins of the universe — questions that are better not asked. (Yes, despite their enthusiasm for asking questions, the rabbis do have limits.)

Another example is the story, related in chapter 19 of Genesis, in which Lot’s daughters, having witnessed the destruction of their home city and now hiding in a cave with no potential suitors, have sexual relations with their father in a misguided effort to continue his lineage. One might have thought that since Lot is Abraham’s nephew, the story would bring shame to the Jewish patriarch. But the Talmud assures us that Abraham’s reputation is not soiled by association.

However, there’s no getting around the fact that the story of the Golden Calf does bring shame to Israel. Nonetheless, it is both read and translated, despite this fact — at least in part. (The second half of the story, in which Aaron recounts the events, is not translated.) Indeed, argues the Talmud, we intentionally translate it so that our collective shame can lead to atonement.

The second category comprises sections that are read out loud but not translated. One of these is the story of Reuven, who has sex with his father’s concubine. A more surprising inclusion is the priestly blessing. The Talmud explains that we do not translate the priestly blessing for fear that listeners might interpret it as divine favoritism shown toward God’s chosen people. The rabbis themselves may indeed have understood these verses as divine favoritism, but there’s no need for other nations to resent the Jews for it.

The final category is sections that are neither read nor translated. The result is what we refer to as a kri/ktiv — words in the Bible that are read (kri) differently than they are written (ktiv). Most of these are grammatical in nature, such as a word written in the plural but read in the singular because the latter simply makes more sense in context. (For example, Exodus 32:19 reads “[Moses] hurled the tablets from his hand” which is changed, when read, to “from his hands.”) But some are words that the rabbis considered too crude for the average ear. Torah readers may be familiar with some of these examples, which are still adhered to, including replacing the word yishgalena (“he revealed her”) with the more gentle yishkavena (“he slept with her”) (Deuteronomy 28:30) and replacing the word afelim with tehorim, a more palatable term for hemorrhoids (Deuteronomy 28:27).   

The rabbis seem to be implying that the better versed you are in the Bible, the less likely you are to be offended by it. But they’re really protecting the text more than they’re protecting the people. They see a danger in people jumping to conclusions about the whole while only having familiarity with the part. And so instead of trusting that people can handle the truth, the rabbis fall back on the idea of hamavin yavin: those who know, know. And those who don’t know, don’t need to.

Read all of Megillah 25 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 6th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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