Tangible Breath (Behar)

Tangible Breath (Behar)

A people which is able to say everything becomes able to do everything. -Napoleon Bonaparte

Hebrew is a language with many amorphous words. The same word can have multiple meanings which will vary based on the context or even the interpretation. One of my favorite is the word “Havel.” It is most commonly translated as vanity or futility, as in the opening verse of King Solomon’s Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) “Havel havalim, amar kohelet, havel havalim, hakol havel. – popularly translated as “Vanity of vanities, said Kohelet, vanity of vanities, all is vain.”

However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Chidushei HaRim on Leviticus 25:8 gives a vastly deeper and more significant explanation to what “Havel” may be referring to.

He starts off with a seemingly dichotomous use of the word “Havel” by the sages who state that the world is in existence solely thanks to the “Havel” of the mouths of young students. That begs the question that if “Havel” is vanity or futility, how does such “Havel” maintain the universe? The classic translation of “Havel” in this context is the “speech” of the young students. Somehow something as nebulous as the sounds of Torah which emanate from young children’s mouths are so precious and vital that they give the universe the capacity to exist, that the breath they use to repeat the Torah they learned is so powerful that the breath in a sense creates reality.

The Chidushei HaRim compares it to God’s own “breath” which brought life to Adam and all of existence. He then takes this concept to the mortal plane. Man has the capacity to create and destroy with the breath of his mouth. The words we use have very tangible, real-world consequences. We can build up or tear down people, their identity, their reputation, their livelihood, their opportunities and everything that makes them who they are and gives them life.

In the context of the Torah reading of Behar, a person can decide whether to give instructions regarding keeping the agricultural laws, specifically the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. Proper observance of these laws is what gives the land and those who dwell on it continued existence and blessing. One opinion as to the reason the Jewish people were exiled from the land of Israel millennia ago was exactly because of their failure to keep these laws. That failure revoked their right to exist on the land and led directly to their forceful and violent expulsion.

So, another understanding of the word “Havel” might be “divine breath.” Therefore, instead of translating King Solomon’s famous phrase as “Vanity of vanities, all is vain,” we might read it as “Divine breaths of divine breaths, all is divine breath.” It is a fundamental understanding that God is behind everything and responsible for everything, and that we ourselves have the gift of “divine breath” to make a positive impact in His world.

Shabbat Shalom,



To Yair Maimon of Tekoa, for his bravery, alertness and presence of mind to shoot the terrorist attacking him right outside his home.

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