The word זה is what the linguists call a ‘demonstrative pronoun’. It is used to indicate that something is present. Like many languages, Hebrew has two words to indicate things – a word to indicate something that is near – זה – and a word to indicate something which is far – הוא – . The feminine form of these words is זאת and היא. English also has 2 words to indicate things – ‘this’ and ‘that’.
The word זה plays a special role in Rabbinic Midrash. In Midrash, the Rabbis try to read extra meaning into the words of the Torah. The Rabbis usually don’t read the word זה as referring to something abstract. Instead, they will use their powers of interpretation to explain that זה refers to something concrete which is actually present. This is because זה indicates something near – so you need to find what that near thing is. This can lead to some surprising interpretations.
Let’s look at some examples. In Exodus 32 we are told that the people complained that Moses, who had led them out of Egypt, had disappeared up Mount Sinai. The verse reads: כִּי זֶה משֶׁה הָאִישׁ … לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה הָיָה לוֹ- Because this man Moses, we do not know what has become of him. The Midrash says: Satan showed them something resembling Moses, being carried in the air, high above in the sky. [BT Shab. 89a] Although this seems like a strange interpretation, it makes sense if you think like the Midrash does. The word זה indicates something you can actually see. If the verse says this man Moses – then they were pointing to an actual picture of Moses.
There are other examples of this style of Midrash. The first commandment in the Torah is found in Exodus 12. הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים – This month shall be to you the first of the months. Rashi brings the Rabbinic understanding: Moses found difficulty [determining] the [precise moment of the] renewal of the moon, in what size it should appear before it is fit for sanctification. So God showed him with His finger the moon in the sky and said to him, “You must see a moon like this and sanctify [the month].” Again, this is an odd comment if you don’t realise that the word זה indicates that God was pointing to something concrete when he spoke to Moses.
Finally, understanding how the Rabbis use the word זה can help us understand a well-known passage in the Haggadah. Discussing the obligation to tell our children about the Exodus from Egypt, the Haggadah asks: יכול מראש חודש – Can one teach the child from the beginning of the month (rather than on the night of the Seder)? The Midrash eventually comes to the conclusion that the commandment to teach our children can only be fulfilled on the night of the Seder, because the verse specifically says בעבור זה- because of this – meaning at a time that the Matzah and Maror is before you. This makes no sense at all to the casual reader. But when we realise that the word זה means that you are pointing to something concrete it makes sense. The word זה is therefore referring to the Seder plate.You must teach your child when the actual ‘props’ are there in front of you to be part of the lesson.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner
My Hebrew Word thanks the World Zionist Organisation and Masorti Olami for their support of this Project.