The Bible was written a long time ago, and therefore needs to be appreciated within the context of the ancient Near Eastern literature. To assume that the words used then mean the same thing today is wrong, and can often lead to major misunderstandings. Let’s take the word “heart,” which in our culture is considered to be the seat of human emotions. When we say, “I love you with all my heart,” everyone today gets the message. However, in the past, the heart was not viewed as the seat of emotions, but primarily as the seat of the intellect. In those days, they did not know much about the role of the brain. (Only, secondarily, was the word used to refer to emotions).
Here are a few examples where “heart” (lev or levav in Hebrew) clearly means “mind.” When Laban accused Jacob of taking away his daughters, he said, “Why did you keep me in the dark” (vatignov et levavi, lit. ‘you stole my mind,’ Gen. 31: 26). When the Israelites escaped from Egypt, the Bible tells us, “Pharaoh and his courtiers changed their mind” (vayeafeh levav paro va-avadav, Ex. 14: 5). Note: they did not change their “heart.” Here the word lev means “mind.” In biblical Hebrew a wise person is called haham levav (“wise of mind”, Job. 9: 4). Similarly, the book of Deuteronomy urges the Israelites to love God “with all your mind (levavha), life (nafsheha) and means (meodeha)” (6: 5). Old translations used to render this phrase as “with all your heart, with all your soul and your all your might.” I think this is wrong. levavha means “your intellect;” nafsheha means “your body” (nefesh coming from the Akkadian napishtu meaning “throat,” symbol of body); and meodeha simply means, muchness, whatever you have. The Hebrew lev or levav corresponds to the Akkadian libbu, meaning “mind.” Thus, for example, in Babylonian language, ul libbi simply means “I do not know;” ina hub libbishu means “of his own free will.”
So, if the heart is primarily the seat of the mind, where do the emotions or conscience lie in the human body? In the Bible, they are located in the kidneys!!! Thus, for example, Proverbs says, “my kidneys shall rejoice” (ve-taalozna hilyotay, 23: 16), meaning, “I will be happy.” Psalms complains, “I was pierced through in my kidneys” (ve-hilyotay eshtonan, namely “my feelings were numbed,” (JPS) 73: 21), or “my conscience (namely, “my kidneys,” hilyotay) admonished me at night” (16:7). So, in biblical Hebrew, if someone wanted to say “I love you,” he would probably say, “my kidneys go for you”—not an expression we would recognize or appreciate today.
Not knowing these subtle differences often leads us to misunderstanding of the language used in those ancient days. The Bible, great as it may be in many areas, reflects its own time and terminology. Though many of its teachings are elevating and timeless, others are primitive and even incomprehensible to us. It was left up to the Rabbis to try to understand the teachings from the perspective of their own time and place. We need to do the same now, always trying to figure out what it meant then, and what it can mean today; keeping some, and ignoring the others.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D
Aug. 24, 2015.