Gender in medieval and modern Jewish translation of Exodus 19:3 — House of Jacob and Children/Sons of Israel
Exodus 19:3 contains an interesting doubling:
וּמֹשֶׁה עָלָה, אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים; וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו יְהוָה, מִן-הָהָר לֵאמֹר, כֹּה תֹאמַר לְבֵית יַעֲקֹב, וְתַגֵּיד לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
And Moses went up unto God, and the LORD called unto him out of the mountain, saying: “Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: (JPS 1917)
and Moses went up to God. The LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel. (NJPS)
I want to focus on that doubling בֵית יַעֲקֹב (House of Jacob) and בני ישראל (Children/Sons of Israel) (although notice the verbs used to address these two groups are different as well). This doubling posed (and poses) a major issue for medieval and for modern translators and commentators. The problem of course is that Jacob and Israel refer to the same person in the Bible, so how should exegetes understand this doubling? The responses have a great deal to say about perceptions of men and women in different cultural times and societies.
Probably the oldest classical source is Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael (date uncertain – between 2nd century CE and 4th century CE) which writes:
תאמר לבית יעקב אלו הנשים ותגד לבני
ישראל אלו האנשים. דבר אחר כה תאמר לבית
יעקב בזכות יעקב ותגיד לבני ישראל בזכות
ישראל. דבר אחר כה תאמר לבית יעקב אמור
בלשון רכה ראשי הדברים לנשים ותגד לבני
ישראל ותדקדק עמהם.
Shalt Thou Say to the House of Jacob. That is, the women. And Tell the Sons of Israel. That is, the men. Another Interpretation: Thus Shalt Thou Say to the House of Jacob—because of the merit of Jacob. And Tell the Sons of Israel—because of the merit of Israel. Another Interpretation: Thus Shalt Thou Say to the House of Jacob. Tell the women the main things in a mild tone. And Tell the Sons of Israel. And be strict with them.
Michael Carasik in his magisterial translation of the Rabbinic Bible gives a number of medieval commentators who interact with each other:
Rashi (1040-1105): Thus. In these words and in this order. Say to the house of Jacob. These are the women"* speak gently to them. Declare to the children of Israel: These are the men; explain the punishments and the details to them “declare” (taged) to them things that are as bitter as wormwood (gidin).
*Footnote by Carasik: Some rabbinic writings understand a man’s “house” or “household” as a euphemism for his wife
Ibn Ezra (1089-1164): The house of Jacob … the children of Israel. Some take these two phrases to refer to the women and the men, respectively. But why would the women be mentioned first? Anyone who thinks the word “house” refers to women cannot have read “O house of Aaron, bless the LORD” (Psalm 135:19) where “house” refers to males.
Abarbanel’s Questions (1437-1508): What is the point of saying “the house of Jacob” as well as “the children of Israel” and why is “the house of Jacob” never mentioned again?
Abarbanel’s Commentary (1437-1508): The house of Jacob. Since the Torah was to be given to all, “the house of Jacob” referred to the sneakier ones and the “children of Israel” to the more honest. Or perhaps the “the house of Jacob” was the mass of Israelites and the “the children of Israel” the special individuals among them.
Here are how some modern Jewish translations deal with this portion of the verse (ranging roughly from egalitarian translation and commentary to strong gender-based translation and commentary):
Robert Alter: Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob, and shall you tell to the Israelites:
Alter commentary: The perfect poetic parallelism, both semantic and rhythmic, of this sentence signals the lofty, strongly cadenced language, akin to epic in its grandeur, of the entire episode.
Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig (“Die Schrift”):
So sprich zum Hause Jaakobs,
melde den Söhnen Jissraels:
Everett Fox: Say thus to the House of Yaakov,
(yes,) tell the Children of Israel:
David Stein (“Contemporary Torah [JPS]”): Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel
Aryeh Kaplan (“The Living Torah”): This is what you must say to the family of Jacob* and tell the Israelites:
*Footote by Kaplan refers to note at Exodus 16:31: Or, literally, “the house of Israel.” Some say that this deisgnates the women (Hirsch; Targum Yonathan, Mekhilta, Rashi on 19:3).
Artscroll (“Stone Edition”): So shall you say to the House of Jacob and relate to the Children of Israel
Artscroll commentary: The word תֹאמַר, say, implies a mild form of speech. When Moses spoke to the House of Jacob, which refers to the women (Mekhilta), he was to express the commandments in a manner suited to their compassionate, maternal nature. Women set the tone of the home and they are the ones responsible to inculcate love of Torah in their children, a task to which their loving nature is best suited. Because of this role, a mother should pray when she kindles her Sabbath candles that in the merit of the Sabbath flames, her children should merit the illumination of Torah, which is also likened to flames. The word וְתַגֵּיד, and relate, implies firmness or even harshness for when Moses spoke to the Children of Israel, which refers to the men, he was to teach the commandments in a firm manner. The implication of firmness is derived because the Hebrew וְתַגֵּיד is spelled with a י which alludes to the word גֵּיד, a bitter tasting root (R’ Bachya).
Chaim Miller (“Gutnick Edition”): You should say the following to the house of Ya’akov (i.e., the women) and tell (the same thing in a more explicit manner, stressing the punishments and fine details) to the sons of Israel (i.e., the men):
As a footnote to this post, I would like to recommend those interested in medieval Jewish exegesis to refer to a Rabbinic Bible. My favorite Hebrew edition of a Rabbinic Bible is the one published by Mosad Rav Kook (it is very clearly printed and includes block print rather than Rashi script). My favorite English translation of the Rabbinic Bible is by Michael Carasik (and published by the Jewish Publication Society); to date Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers have appeared. There are other more detailed sources available, but these are great starting points.