Shaya Cohen -


Spices and Heaven: Torah Puns

One of the insurmountable challenges of working with translations is that various plays on words – alliteration, rhymes, onomatopoeia and puns – are necessarily cast aside for the sake of simple clarity.

For example, the Torah speaks of spices for the tabernacle. The word is besamim. Besamim, which appears only three times in the Torah, is not the only word used for spices in the text (which prompts a question we’ll leave for another time). But what makes besamim particularly intriguing is that it shares the very same Hebrew letters as the word bashamayim, which means “in the heavens.” They also are paired: bashamayim in this form appears three times in the text – and besamim also appears three times.

Why is this a pun, as opposed to a mere coincidence? The answer is revealed when we search for where the word bashamayim, in the heavens, is found in the text similarly to where besamim is found (without the word for “earth” also appearing):

The Tower of Babel:

וַיֹּאמְר֞וּ הָ֣בָה ׀ נִבְנֶה־לָּ֣נוּ עִ֗יר וּמִגְדָּל֙ וְרֹאשׁ֣וֹ בַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְנַֽעֲשֶׂה־לָּ֖נוּ שֵׁ֑ם פֶּן־נָפ֖וּץ עַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens [bashamayim], to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”

Other powerful nations:

‘We saw there a people stronger and taller than we, large cities with walls in the heavens [bashamayim].

שְׁמַ֣ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אַתָּ֨ה עֹבֵ֤ר הַיּוֹם֙ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן לָבֹא֙ לָרֶ֣שֶׁת גּוֹיִ֔ם גְּדֹלִ֥ים וַעֲצֻמִ֖ים מִמֶּ֑ךָּ עָרִ֛ים גְּדֹלֹ֥ת וּבְצֻרֹ֖ת בַּשָּׁמָֽיִם׃

Hear, O Israel! You are about to cross the Jordan to go in and dispossess nations greater and more populous than you: great cities with walls in the heavens[bashamayim]

See the commonality? Other nations seek to climb to the heavens. The Jewish people do not. We are not competing on the basis of large buildings or physical proximity to the skies. The Torah tells us that we should not even seek to send an emissary to heaven!

לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֙יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃

[The Torah] is not in the heavens [bashamayim], that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” … No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

Our goals can be achieved right here. The path to holiness is not to physically reach to heaven: Babel and the Amorites reach for the sky, by building upward. But Jews connect to heaven by standing on the ground. We do not climb to heaven for the sake of getting closer to G-d that way.

Yet the Torah does not deny that mankind can, and should, reach upward –the pun for spices/heaven tells us that our journey upward is not meant to by physical. It is meant to be spiritual, in our imagination, closer to our souls than our body.

And that is the power of the incense. Smells ignite the imagination, dispossess us from physicality, help us realize that much that exists is not conventionally physical or tangible. Besamim are a reminder of the positive attribute of Babel, reaching upward – but altering it from a physical ambition to a spiritual goal. Heaven is a spiritual ideal, one that can be evoked by spices. We do not go upwards: we are to think upwards.

[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter work]

Comments are welcome!

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