Double Mitzvah – Ki Tavo

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Tamar Fox. Tamar is Jewrotica’s Double Mitzvah columnist. Would you like to be regularly featured on Jewrotica? We are currently accepting applications for next year’s Double Mitzvah columnist. Contact editor@jewrotica.org for more information.

For a commentary on last week’s parsha, check out Double Mitzvah – Ki Tetze.

Rated PG-13In this week’s Torah portion, Moses continues giving laws (in this case, laws of the first fruit offering), and then goes on to offer the Israelites a blessing and a curse. If the Israelites choose to follow God’s ways and do as they are instructed by God, they will reap many benefits, including a plentiful harvest, victory over their enemies, and a general feeling of being blessed wherever they go. However, if they choose to stray from God’s instructions and follow after other nations or gods, they will be subject to terrible punishments, from starvation, disease, and slavery, to being conquered by other peoples, and generally being cursed in everything they do.

This Torah portion also contains one of the few cases of self-censorship in the Torah. Generally speaking, we are careful to read exactly what’s written in the Torah. It is a sin to distort the Torah, to add or take away even a single word. But here we have an exception. Deuteronomy 28:30 is translated in the Etz Hayim as, “If you pay the bride-price for a wife, another man shall enjoy her. If you build a house, you shall not live in it. If you plant a vineyard, you shall not harvest it.” Here we read the word yishkavenah, meaning “sleep with her.” You’re engaged to a lady, and someone else sleeps with her. I guess that’s bad. But the actual text, the word written on the text is yishagelnah. And yishagelnah means “raped.”

Yishagelnah was deemed too vulgar to be said in synagogue, so it became customary to read the word as yishkavenah. Meanwhile, the Etz Hayim translation splits the difference with “another man shall enjoy her.”

What’s upsetting to me about this is that the actual verse seems to allow for focusing on the woman and her experience. She was raped. This, one can assume, is terrible for both the woman, and for her fiancé. But by misreading it, and mistranslating it, the focus shifts to the fiancé. He has been wronged by having been given a woman who is no longer a virgin. The girl is not really relevant once she has been defiled. There is no mention of the fact that the woman has been traumatized. It writes off completely an important and horrifying experience.

This tradition of reading the word as yishkavenah goes back a long way, and I’ve never heard of a community that reads the word as it’s written. But this week, as I listen to the Torah portion, I’ll be focusing on the woman whose trauma has been muted in this sentence, and I’ll be thinking of all rape victims, men and women and how their voices always deserve to be heard, and not silenced.

Shabbat shalom!


Author of Jewrotica's Double Mitzvah column, Tamar Fox is a writer and editor in Philadelphia. She will try anything once, including open relationships, dating someone who is chalav yisrael, and going to Suriname.
  • Ayo Oppenheimer

    I’ve never even heard about this switcheroo! The things you learn on Jewrotica that they don’t teach in day school… Thanks for your insights, Tamar.

  • jhubby

    Two points:
    1. I’m not sure that “yishgalenah” means rape. It’s my understanding that it is a more explicit term for sexual intercourse. Torah generally avoids such explicit terms, which is why we don’t find explicit references to genitalia in the Chumash, why sex is invariably referred to euphamistically (“he lay with her,” “he knew her”), and why it was viewed as unusual for Torah to use such a term in this Parshah. Of course, when an enemy takes a woman captive and uses her for sex, it tends to pretty much be rape.
    2. Even with the use the “yishgalenah,” the focus of this verse is still on the male, and the distress that he would experience by the enemy coarsely abusing his wife.
    One can understand why the use of such an explict term would emphasize the harshness of the curse; think of a wife confronting her husband about an affair, and the difference between saying “you slept with her!” versus “you fucked her!” Additionally, perhaps the Torah is telling the male that “you don’t even get to have the satisfaction that your wife is being made love to, that she is being treated gently, that she is respected as being more than a sex object.” This is particularly emphasized by the Torah’s reference to the woman as a bride – not just a wife – perhaps emphasizing the particularly tender feelings that I man has for his betrothed.
    Indeed, it is interesting that this is almost an exact parallel to verse in Shoftim (20:7) which instructs a man who has betrothed a woman not to go to war, lest he die in battle and someone else marry his fiance. The idea of someone else marrying one’s betrothed — even when she has been widowed — is too distressing; how much more so when she is not to be married but just used for sex!

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