Tuesday, December 23, 2008

What are Levivot?

Last week, I wrote briefly about some of the similarities between the Joseph story, and the account of Tamar's rape given in Samuel 2 (Related via Lurker in the comments) While reviewing the source material, I noticed (perhaps for the first time?) that Amnom makes use of a traditional chanuka treat. As a pretext for getting Tamar into his room, Amnon feigns illness, and then asks the inquiring king to send in his half-sister with some hand-baked levivot.

And what are they? Pancakes, I presumed, for all the obvious reasons.

But when I checked to see how my favorite Targum had teiched the word I found not "pancakes, or even the KJV's "cakes" but something else: "heart shaped dumplings" Heart shaped dumplings? 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 Shir HaShirim that 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] Interestingly enough, 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 l v v in the Tamar story as either a noun ora 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 say Tamar's levivot were some kind of dough boiled in water. But what was their shape? As I discussed this with my wife yesterday over breakfast, she correctly pointed out that our iconic idea of a heart is something new. Ancients would not have imagined the heart as looking like something from a Valentines 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.

[Related: 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. How's that for an interesting chain of coincidences?]

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