21. דבר [daber] – The Way We Speak

The word דבר [daber] means ‘to speak’. It frequently comes together with the word אמר [AMAR], which means “to say”. The most frequent phrase in the Torah is וידבר ה’ אל משה לאמר … – and the Lord spoke [Daber] to Moses saying [AMAR] which uses both of these words together.

Although there is a clear difference between ‘speaking’ and ‘saying’, the way that Torah uses them raises the question of how they differ from each other. I will address this conundrum in this post.

Let’s start with an example. The Torah usually prefaces its commandments with the word DABER, וידבר ה’ – and the Lord spoke. But not always. At the beginning of Parshat Emor, in a section dealing with commandments addressed to the priests, the paragraph not only starts with the word AMAR – it uses AMAR three times in the same verse!

Amor Text

Why does God address Priests with the word AMAR and normal Israelites with DABER?

Even traditional commentators were challenged by the seeming randomness with which the Torah uses the two words. For instance, Rabbi Abraham, the son of the Rambam, said “I do not know what’s the difference between VaYomer and VaYedaber, and why sometimes the Torah uses one, and sometimes the other, and if it seems meaningless, it’s your shortcoming.”[Commentary to Va’era, 7:8]

That did not stop rabbis from trying to find a distinction.

The Midrash (Deut. Rabba 42, Tanchuma Tzav) says the difference between the two is mainly a difference of tone. It considers DABER a harsh way of speaking and AMAR as being softer. Others say that DABER is used for elaborate or detailed explanations which AMAR is more direct and to the point. Rabbi Elijah of Vilna (Aderet Eliyahu) suggests that DABER is used for commandments that are spelled out in the written Torah whereas AMAR is used for those commandments found in the oral Torah. There is a sense that DABER suggests that there is a distance between the speakers and AMAR communicates closeness and intimacy. Perhaps God feels closer to his priests then to the man on the street.

The Ten Commandments are called עשרת הדברות –  [Aseret HaDibrot] – the 10 utterances, which derives from the word DABER. They are short, concise and to the point. According to the Mishna, the world was created with 10 statements  עשרה מאמרות [Asara Ma’amarot] – using AMAR. Perhaps the world in all its complexity cannot be contained in DABER. It needs the detail, the fullness and the personal connection suggested by the word AMAR. You choose DABER if you only need to tell people what to do, but AMAR if the task is so complex that it requires a partnership and people working together. According to the Rabbis, we are considered God’s partners in the act of creation!

So the relationship between DABER and AMAR is indeed very complicated. This is not surprising. Communication is complicated and our relationships complex. It’s not surprising that we need a range of words to describe the different types of communication and the relationships that they reveal.

Rabbi Chaim Weiner

Shevat 5776

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2 comments

    1. There are a lot of commentaries that try to explain the meaning of לאמר. One of the traditional interpretations is that God was telling Moses to speak of these words to the Children of Israel. I suggest you go to this site: http://www.aspaklaria.info/030_LAMED/%D7%9C%D7%90%D7%9E%D7%A8.htm where lots of different opinions are summarised. The idea that לאמר is just the opening of our quote is the way it was understood by the Vilna Gaon
      where lots of different opinions are summarised.

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