The Problem with Y-S-F
In this week’s Torah Reading, Moses gathered up the 70 elders of the people and stationed them all around the Tent of Meeting (Num 11:24). Then God came down in a cloud, and the divine spirit was transferred to the 70 elders. When the spirit rested on them, they begin to prophesy in ecstasy, and they did not… Did not what? Here is a problem.
The Hebrew text says they did not y-s-f-w. As is well known, the Hebrew writing system sometimes uses consonant letters to represent vowel sounds: vav (or waw) can stand for the vowel-sound u or o, the consonant heh can represent the sound ah (or sometimes o, as in shelomoh, Solomon), and so forth. The use of these and other consonants to represent vowels is done rather consistently for final vowels (for example, nafshi, “my soul”) but less consistently elsewhere in the word. So, when the Torah says that the 70 elders prophesied and did not y-s-f-w, it could be saying they prophesied and did not continue (Heb. yasefu, from the root y-s-f), or it could mean the exact opposite: they prophesied and did not stop (yasufu, from the root s-w-f).
Which is right? Most modern translations understand the text to mean that the elders prophesied once, but then they did not continue—this in contrast to the two men mentioned next, Eldad and Medad, who remained in the camp and apparently did keep on prophesying. This is the understanding that appears in the early midrash Sifre on the book of Numbers (section 95), which was later restated by Rashi (“they prophesied only on that day”). Long before Sifre, the Septuagint translation of the Torah into Greek similarly rendered the phrase, and they did not continue. On the other hand, in Onkelos’s Aramaic targum (translation) of the Torah, this verb appears as did not cease, and the same understanding occurs in the targum Pseudo-Jonathan and elsewhere; see also the discussion in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 17a.
Interestingly, the same potential ambiguity surrounds the end of the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38. Judah accuses his daughter-in-law Tamar of promiscuity, but then he himself turns out to have been the unwitting father of her child: Tamar is exonerated, and Judah did not y-s-f to have sexual relations with her. Here, Onkelos translates the text to mean that Judah did not continue to have relations with Tamar, and the same understanding is found in the Septuagint and virtually all ancient interpreters. According to the book of Jubilees (ca. 200 BCE), however, Judah was informed by angels that his sons had actually never consummated their consecutive marriages to Tamar; if so, one could conclude that in those pre-Sinai days, Judah did not cease to have relations with Tamar—they could be considered legally married. (Nevertheless, Jubilees says the opposite: Judah did not have further relations with Tamar.)
Perhaps the most striking y-s-f ambiguity comes in the Deuteronomy account of the Ten Commandments. There, the Torah reiterates the Ten Commandments and adds that God spoke these things “with a mighty sound/voice and did not y-s-f.” Does this mean that He did not cease speaking, or that He did not continue? As in the passage from this week’s reading, ancient interpreters were divided. Onkelos says He did not cease speaking, perhaps reflecting the fact that in Onkelos’ time, certain “heretics” claimed that the Ten Commandments, first promulgated in Exodus 20, had been the sum total of God’s speech. On the other hand, the Septuagint has the opposite: And He did not continue to speak in this loud voice, presumably suggesting that the public promulgation of laws at Mount Sinai ended with the Ten Commandments—after that, the laws were given to Moses to be passed on to the Israelites.
Which is right? Perhaps the best interpretation is one that preserves the ambiguity. According to Midrash Tanhuma (Yitro, 11), Moses was not the only prophet present at Mount Sinai: all those prophets who were yet to be born were also present there in spirit. “And not only the prophets,” the midrash continues, “but also all the sages who have [subsequently] come and who are yet to come [were there], as it says, ‘The Lord spoke these words to your whole congregation at the mountain [amidst the fire and the cloud and the deep darkness, a mighty voice that did not y-s-f].’” This means, according to the midrash, that there was truly only one great divine revelation, the one at Sinai, where all subsequent prophets and sages heard what they were to speak centuries later: it was thus the one-time revelation, “a mighty voice that did not continue.” At the same time, however, these later prophets and sages did go on to speak in the ages to come; in this sense God’s words at Mount Sinai were indeed “a mighty voice that did not cease.”