Thursday, December 02, 2010

What were the original levivot?

Might the first levivot
have been shaped like this?
In 2 Samuel 13, Amnon a son of David, rapes his half-sister Tamar. As a pretext for getting Tamar into his room, Amnon feigns illness, and after the worried king inquires says:
Let my sister Tamar come, I pray thee, and make me two levivot in my sight, that I may eat at her hand.
And what are levivot? The famous translations don't agree. NIV has "special bread"; KJV has "cakes";

When I checked Robert Alter, my favorite targum, I found something else: "heart shaped dumplings." Explanation and discussion after the jump.

>> Read the rest of this post
 In his note, Alter provides symbolic and etymological justifications:
The verb and its object are both transparently cognate with lev “heart” The term could refer to the shape of the dumplings, or to their function of “strengthening the heart” (idiomatic in biblical Hebrew for sustaining on encouraging) In the Song of Songs the same verb is associated with the idea of sexual arousal.
The word from Song of Songs/Shir HaShirim Alter has in mind is l'vavtini, which means something like "you have charmed me" or "you have made my heart beat faster" [more possibilities]

In a nice coincidence (or perhaps not), the word l'vavtini (and indeed the entire chapter where it appears) is directed at a "sister bride" whom the speaker is attempting to flatter or seduce. Recall Tamar and Amnon were half-siblings. That, and the 6 instances of lvv in the Tamar story as either a noun or a verb seem to justify Alter's reading, and his view that the biblical levivot are somehow connected to the heart or its affairs.

But what exactly were these things? The Aramaic targum on the spot seems to be the source for Alter's idea that they are dumplings, and Rashi agrees: Both Rashi and the Aramaic targum say Tamar's levivot were some kind of dough boiled in water. But how were they shaped? As my wife correctly points out our iconic idea of a heart's shape is something new. Ancients would not have imagined a heart looking anything like something from a Valentine's Day card. They lived closer to nature, and were familiar with blood and gore. More likely, their idea of a heart was closer to reality, and a real heart does look something like a dumpling.

Another nice coincidence (or perhaps not)  As we talked, my wife went to a computer where she found this post. A bit of digging at that interesting site revealed that the yiddish word latka is derived from a Ukrainian word for pancake, that is itself derived from a Greek word for oil.

Search for more information about the things we eat at

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