Parshat Kedoshim – which begins with the famous injunction, “you shall be holy” – includes a series of warnings against all kinds of horrifying idolatrous practices, replete with gory description: eating blood; gashing the flesh of dead bodies; passing children into fire. Part of what it takes to “be holy,” it seems, is to stay away from these strange cultic rituals.
But one case in particular reads as the most bizarre, precisely because it isn’t clear what is being described at all:
Do not turn to Ovot, nor inquire after the Yidoni, to be defiled by them – I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:31)
אַל–תִּפְנוּ אֶל–הָאֹבֹת וְאֶל–הַיִּדְּעֹנִים, אַל–תְּבַקְשׁוּ לְטָמְאָה בָהֶם: אֲנִי, ה‘ אֱלֹקיכֶם.
What – or who – are these entities: ‘Ovot’ and ‘Yidoni’? Are they foreign gods, or types of people? How do they defile? And what, exactly, is being forbidden here?
This warning is repeated in Deuteronomy, and there we get a little more context:
When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to do the abhorrent practices of those nations. Let no one be found among you who passes his son or daughter into the fire, performs magic, tells fortunes, makes predictions, or is a sorcerer. One who casts spells, or asks Ov (here in the singular) and Yidoni, or inquires of the dead. For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to the Lord…(Deut. 18:9-12).
כִּי אַתָּה בָּא אֶל–הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר–ה אֱלֹקיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ—לֹא–תִלְמַד לַעֲשׂוֹת, כְּתוֹעֲבֹת הַגּוֹיִם הָהֵם. לֹא–יִמָּצֵא בְךָ, מַעֲבִיר בְּנוֹ–וּבִתּוֹ בָּאֵשׁ, קֹסֵם קְסָמִים, מְעוֹנֵן וּמְנַחֵשׁ וּמְכַשֵּׁף. וְחֹבֵר, חָבֶר; וְשֹׁאֵל אוֹב וְיִדְּעֹנִי, וְדֹרֵשׁ אֶל–הַמֵּתִים. כִּי–תוֹעֲבַת ה, כָּל–עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה…
Okay, so consulting Ov and Yidoni falls into a general category of magic that includes sorcery and divination. The language of “asking” and “inquiring” makes it clear that the practitioner is looking for answers – some kind of secret knowledge or future-forecasting.
But still, what do we make of these names? Who is it that does the predicting, and how?
The Ibn Ezra does a little linguistic work to come up with an answer:
Ovot – related to the word for “jugs” of wine, because they would perform their rituals with them. Yidoni – related to the word for “knowledge,” because they sought knowledge of the future.
האבת. מגזרת וכאובות חדשים כי הם עיקר זאת האומנות: והידענים. מגזרת דעת שיבקשו לדעת העתידות
Well, that makes some sense of the terms. But it doesn’t really explain why we have such unusual language for these particular acts. What is so distinct about them that they get their own formal name?
Rashi takes our investigation a step further, by describing the specific practices of the Ov and the Yidoni:
An Ov Master is a necromancer of Pithom, who speaks from his armpit. And a Yidoni puts the bone of an animal, whose name is “Known,” into his mouth, and the bone talks.
בעל אוב זה פיתום המדבר משחיו. וידעוני מכניס עצם חיה ששמה ידוע לתוך פיו והעצם מדבר
Well, that was unexpected! There are some strange magic rituals out there, to be sure, but channeling the dead through one’s armpit – that takes the cake! Not to mention the guy who puts the animal bone in his mouth. Oh, and remember – it’s not that he speaks with a bone in his mouth; the bone speaks!
But here’s where things get really crazy. Because there is some speculation as to what kind of animal bone this is. The reference to the animal is mysterious to begin with, because we are told that its name is: “Known,” (or yadua– ידוע) – meaning, not just that we know its name, but that its actual name is: “Known.” There’s clearly a bit of wordplay going on here, as if to say, “Come on, you know what animal this is…”
So what is it? The Sifsei Chachamim, a supercommentator on Rashi, tries to explain, using an eerie image, taken from a Mishnah in Tractate Kilayim (8:5). And get ready, because this is going to be a wild one:
This is the creature whose name is ‘Known’: Something like big rope comes out of the earth, and on it grows this animal, growing like some kind of squash or melon. Its form is well-known, for it is the form of a person – in its face, and hands and legs. And it is connected, through its bellybutton, to the rope coming out of the ground. And no creature should go near it, because it kills and rips apart anyone who comes close. And it guards its territory all around, as far as the rope will stretch. So if you want to trap it, shoot arrows at the rope from far away, until it snaps, and then it dies immediately.
שהיא חיה ששמה ידוע, וכמין חבל גדול יוצא משורש שבארץ ששם גדלה אותה חיה כעין קשואין ודלועין, אלא שהידוע צורתה כצורת אדם בין בצורת פניו בין בצורת שאר אבריו, ומטבורו הוא מחובר באותו חבל, ואין כל בריה רשאי להקרב במלא החבל שטורפת והורגת את הכל, ובמלא החבל רועה את כל סביבותיה, וכשבאים לצוד אותה מורים בחיצים מרחוק אל החבל עד שיפסוק ומיד מתה.
There you have it, folks. That has got to be one of the weirdest things I have ever read in the annals of Torah commentary.
Part of me wants to just leave it there, no further comment. Just take that image and sit with it, and I’ll see you next week.
But there is one more very strange thing to explore, before we finish. And this final oddity is not one of content, but of placement.
At the very end of Parshat Kedoshim, after a long series of laws, the parsha ends with a line that echoes almost exactly the line it began with:
You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples, to be Mine. (Lev. 20:26)
וִהְיִיתֶם לִי קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי ה‘; וָאַבְדִּל אֶתְכֶם מִן–הָעַמִּים, לִהְיוֹת לִי.
That would make for an elegant closing, bookending our reading with a perfect parallel to its opening.
But then, out of nowhere, there’s one more verse:
A man or woman who has an Ov or a Yidoni in them will be put to death. They shall be stoned, and their blood will be upon them. (20:27)
וְאִישׁ אוֹ–אִשָּׁה, כִּי–יִהְיֶה בָהֶם אוֹב אוֹ יִדְּעֹנִי—מוֹת יוּמָתוּ; בָּאֶבֶן יִרְגְּמוּ אֹתָם, דְּמֵיהֶם בָּם.
What is going on here? Why are we talking about the Ov and the Yidoni again? And what kind of awkward ending is this to the parsha?
Rashi and other commentators try to explain this abrupt callback by pointing out that this time, the death penalty is added, which could be understood as an indication that capital punishment is to be implemented for all such serious crimes. It is a kind of broad legal principle tacked on to the end of this long list of laws. In other words, be holy…. or else.
But this doesn’t address the reappearance of the Ov and the Yidoni. Why use this specific – and strangest – of examples?
The best answer I found comes from the Abarbanel, the 15th-century Portuguese statesman and philosopher, who was also an absolute parshanut master. He focuses on the specific wording of the last verse, and explains:
It says, “A man or woman who has an Ov or a Yidoni IN THEM,” not just that they turn to the Ov or the Yidoni. And I would explain this literally… that sometimes we find people who do not actually perform these impure services, but they believe that they have, in themselves, in their natural abilities, the demonic power of an Ov or a Yidoni, and that they can reveal hidden things. That is why the Almighty warns of, “A man or woman who has an Ov or a Yidoni IN THEM.” Not that they turn to these things, like those we spoke of earlier… but that they have it in them. That is, they evoke, through their words, the powers of Ov or Yidoni – the demonic power to speak of hidden or future things. Such a man or woman, even when they do not actually practice the rites, they nurture the Ov, the demon inside of them…
כי יהיה בהם אוב או ידעוני כי היה ראוי שיאמר אשר יפנה אל האוב או אל הידעוני לא אשר יהיה בהם. ולכן אחשוב לפרש בו ע“ד הפשט… והיה שכבר ימצאו מבני אדם שלא יעשו מלאכה מאלו המלאכות הטמאות. אבל יאמרו שבעצמם וטבעם יש כח שד או אוב וידעוני יגידו בו הדברים הנעלמים לכן הזהיר עליו יתברך ואמר איש או אשה כי יהיה בהם אוב או ידעוני. ואין פירושו שיפנו אליהם לעשותם כמו שאמר למעלה… אלא שיש בהם ר“ל שימצא בהם בעצמם לפי דבריהם כח אוב וידעוני שהוא כח שד להגיד הדברים הנעלמים העתידים. כי הנה האיש או האשה אע“פ שלא יעשה מלאכה בזה כיון שהוא מפורסם שהאוב או השד הוא בקרבו…
We have spent much of our parsha warning of all the strange and sinister rituals out there in the world. We have tried to convey the awareness that the prohibition of idolatry is not just a jealous injunction against worshipping foreign gods; it is a real fear of the bizarre and violent rituals that can accompany such worship – drinking blood, consorting with dead bodies, and killing children. And we have exposed just how ridiculous these cultic practices can get, with their talking armpits and bones.
All the while, we have been asked to turn away from all of this, and to be holy. So we are not like these other people, we might think, because we don’t do these things. We are better. We are holy.
But in the last breath of the parsha, we are reminded that one doesn’t have to actually engage in idolatrous rituals in order to summon dark forces. The truth is, that darkness is inside of us, waiting to be unleashed by our pride and our self-indulgence. Lest we think that holiness was a description of our essential being, or that we were safeguarded by our religion… we ought to remember that one doesn’t have to put a bone in one’s mouth to speak nonsense and lies. For the real demons are not out there, but within us.
That is why the bone of the ‘Known’ comes from a creature that looks remarkably like a human being. Sure, we tell the tale of the wild little men that grow in the fields, and attack anyone who comes close. But perhaps we are really speaking of the wildness of the human spirit, the dangerous parts of ourselves that can grow out of control, and come looking for blood.
So be holy. Be careful. Watch out for bizarre rituals that trade in death and lies. Watch out for strange creatures that lurk in the fields…. and the strangest creature of all – the one who lurks within.