Thursday, January 18, 2007

Moses, the Egyptian, and the Killing Curse (complete)

Here is a complete version of the essay developed last week about Biblical killing curses. I may add more material to this at a later time, but this is essentially a complete first draft of a chapter just like the ones in my Harry Potter and Torah book.

Moses, the Egyptian, and the Killing Curse

In the first chapter of Harry Potter and Torah I discuss at length that the "killing curse" in Harry Potter, Avada Kedavra, is the only incantation in the Harry Potter series that's based not on Greek or Latin words but on words from Hebrew and Aramaic. In Hebrew avada means "I will destroy," and kedavra means "as I will speak," so the killing curse in Hebrew means "I will destroy as I will speak," a fitting translation.

We learn about the Avada Kedavra curse in chapter 14 of Goblet of Fire:

'Ah," said Moody... 'Yes, the last and worst. Avada Kedavra ... the
killing curse.'

He put his hand into the gladd jar, and almost as though it knew what was
coming, the third spider scuttled frantically around the bottom of the
jar.... but he trapped it, and placed it upon the desktop....

Moody raised his wand... 'Avada Kedavra!' Moody roared.

There was a flash of blinding green light, and a rushing sound, as though a
vast invisible something was soaring through the air - instantaneously the
spider rolled over onto its back, umarked, but unmistakably dead....

Might killing curses appear in the Torah?

The Torah tells us that Moses, who had been raised in Pharoah's house but knew that he was Jewish, saw an Egyptian beating a Jewish man (Ex 2:12). When he saw that there was noone coming to help the Jewish man, Moses killed the Egyptian. The next day he saw two Jewish men fighting with each other, and asked one why he was beating up the other. The man responded "Who made you our judge? Are you saying you'll kill me as you killed the Egyptian?" (Ex 2:14)

The Midrash and many commentaries (Rashi, Ramban, Rabbeinu Bechaya) explain the wording of the Jewish man's retort to Moses, "are you saying you'll kill me," to mean literally that Moses might kill him by talking, "saying he'll kill," and had done so to the Egyptian. In the original Hebrew this is clearly a grammatically correct reading of the sentence.

As commentaries elaborate, if the man had said to Moses, "are you planning to kill me," we wouldn't have any reason to think that Moses killed him through speech. But the use of the word "saying" implies killing by speech. Commentaries also elaborate that the man must have seen the Egyptian man drop dead without Moses touching him.

When Jewish commentaries discuss performing magical acts through speech, the words spoken are not incantations or curses, but rather various names of G-d. Even though the Avada Kedavra curse in Harry Potter has its roots in the Hebrew language (as is discussed in Harry Potter and Torah), the Torah's magical incantations are all names of G-d. The magic which is performed, in this case killing the Egyptian without touching him, is not an independent magical act by Moses, but is rather carrying out G-d's plan for the world.

As a side note, the Midrash says that the Egyptian was beating up the Jewish man because he was enamored with the Jewish man's wife, who was named Shlomit. This will be relevent later when we look at other examples of killing curses in the Torah.

So far, we've seen killing curses in the Torah described a lot like those in Harry Potter, causing a person to drop dead on the spot without being touched. But rather than carrying out the decision of a wizard, like Avada Kedavra, the Torah's killing curses are names of G-d, and carry out His decisions for the world.

This story helps us understand a somewhat strange sequence of events that happens later in the Torah during the Jews travels in the desert. In Leviticus (24:10-14) the Torah tells us:

"The son of a Jewish woman and an Egyptian man went out and had an argument with a Jewish man in the camp. The Jewish woman's son then used G-d's Name to curse. The people brought him to Moses. His mother's name was Shlomit, daughter of Divro, from the tribe of Dan. They kept him in custody until G-d could explain what to do."

The Torah continues that G-d specified the death penalty for the man, which raises an obvious question: what's going on here?

Rashi's commentary, based on the Midrash quoted previously (Shmos Raba 1:28-29), explains that this man, the "son of a Jewish woman and an Egyptian man," was the son that was born from the relationship between the Egyptian man and the Jewish man's wife. This man wasn't simply cursing the way people curse nowadays, he was trying to kill the other man the same way Moses had killed his father (the Egyptian). This explains why the Torah connected his cursing to an argument with another Jewish man, and why he received such a serious punishment. This wasn't just cursing, this was attempted murder. And it wasn't a circumstantial action on his part, it was his carrying on in his fathers footsteps, and expressing anger against society for his father's being killed.

Killing curses gives us a new perspective on these Biblical stories. Rather than a series of disjointed events that don't fit together, the stories give us a clear progression across time and generations. At the same time, the Biblical perspective on killing by speech is different from the notion in Harry Potter. Biblical killing curses don't require the venemous hatred that avada kedavra requires, otherwise Moses's would have failed and the son of the Egyptian's would have succeeded. Rather, it requires the killing to be carrying out the will of G-d, to save a man from being killed rather than to express anger at society. In the Torah, the true source of magic, of events that transcend the natural order of the world, is always Divine.


Unknown said...

I have a suggestion about the origin of Avada Kedavra. As said above, it is derived from Hebrew and Aramic. I see that you explained it as:אבדא כדברא which means I will kill as I speak. But had it been the meaning, it would have been Avada Kedabra (rathen then Kedavra)! The beit would have a dagesh if it would mean to speak! Here is how it is written: אבדא כְּדַבְּרָא
I think that the meaning of avada Kedavra is rather: אבדא קְדָבְרָא which means, I will destroy this thing (קא-דברא) and then the business with the Beit and the Veit will be settled.
(It's true to say that JKR might have just mistaken a bit, or that there are many names that change from Hebrew to English - such as Chevron in Hebrew, but Hebron in English - but I think that is not the case)

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