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Meaning of the Tanakhs mention of accents

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Rabbi David Sperling

Tishrei 30, 5782
Question
Why would the Tanakh mention the exact way Yiftach found people of Efrayim (their accents)? What is it trying to teach us? Is it trying to say that Yiftach was perhaps justified in his war because the people had changed the original Hebrew accent and for some reason that incurs punishment? Or could it just be in the Tanakh to show how separated the people were?
Answer
Shalom, Thank you for your question. There are great depths of meaning in all the verses of the Tanach – and you are certainly correct in looking for it. In this case (the book of Judges, chapter 12), the tribe of Ephraim were recognized by their accents – they could not pronounce the word Shibbolet, but rather said “Sibbolet”. The word means a stalk of grain, or a river in flood. Some of the commentators explain that the choice of this word as the “tribal test” was because it showed up serious problems with the tribe of Ephraim. For example, the Meam Loez writes that they were told to confess and admit that idolatry “rotted” (shebalah) and passed from the world. However, they only admitted that it “aged” (sibolet, from the root word siv), but did not rot and pass on. The work Elyahu Rabbah explains that they said “sibolet” because they were accustomed to saying “sa aal” which mean to exalt or carry the idol ba’al, and therefore they deserved the death penalty. Of course, these explanations are just possible ways to explain the text. I’ll leave you with the task of continuing your learning, and delving into the commentators on the chapter. Blessings.
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