Vayishlach: Saving Survivors
In a standard Chumash, at the end of every Parashah there is a comment from the Masoretes that tells the reader how many verses were in that particular Parashah and provides a mnemonic for easily memorizing that number. In general, these mnemonics consists of a word/phrase from the Parashah, or the name of a Biblical character, either of which has a gematria that equals the sum of the verses in the Parashah. However, for Parashat Vayishlach, the Masoretes gave the word klitah — which literally means “surviving/saving” — as the mnemonic for remembering that its total sum of verses equals one-hundred and fifty-four. The word klitah is neither a word that appears in the Parashah, nor the name of a Biblical character*, but it does echo the theme of Jacob dividing his camp so that if Esau attacked one group, the rest of will be “for survival” (Gen. 32:8). A similar theme appears in the Haftara to Vayishlach, which foretells that Mount Zion will be a place “for survival” in the final showdown with the House of Esau (Obad. 1:17). But the word for “survival” in these Biblical passages is pleitah — not klitah. In this essay, we address three Hebrew synonyms for “saving/surviving”: klitah, pleitah, and seridah.
In general, the Targumim translate inflections of the Hebrew words klitah and pleitah into the same Aramaic word for “salvation” (shizba/shaziv and its cognates). This suggests that in some ways, those two Hebrew terms can be viewed as synonymous, as they both refer to “saving” in a general way. Nonetheless, this essay will show that there is a fine line between the deeper meanings of these two Hebrew terms: the core meaning of klitah refers to being saved by being “received” or “collecting into” a safe space, while the core meaning of pleitah refers to being saved by being “expelled” from a place of danger.
The term klitah per se does not actually appear in the Bible, but two forms of its root KUF-LAMMED-TET do appear in the Bible. One form is the noun miklat (whose initial MEM is not really part of the root), which means “place of receiving [i.e., refuge].” This word appears twenty times in the Bible, all in the books of Numbers and Joshua, except for two cases in Chronicles (I Chron. 6:42, 6:52). This word invariably appears relates to the Ir Miklat (“City of Refuge”) into which somebody who murders by mistake may flee and escape the wrath of his victim’s vengeful relatives. This clearly refers to the concept of “saving,” as such cities “receive” those who flee into them and offer legal protection and sanctuary to save murderers from retribution.
In Modern Hebrew, the term miklat came to refer to a “bomb shelter,” which likewise “receives” those fleeing air raids and protects them. Along these lines, the noun klitah in Modern Hebrew means “reception,” in the sense of “comprehending” an idea by receiving it in one’s brain, as well as in the sense of cell phone reception and immigration absorption.
The second form of the root KUF-LAMMED-TET in the Bible is in the word kalut (Lev. 22:23), which refers to non-Kosher animals whose hooves are “not split.” This word also appears in the Mishnah (Bechorot 6:7, 7:6) in the same context. It relates to the ideas discussed above in the sense that something “received” by a safe shelter is protected from harm by being “closed in,” so a kalut refers to an animal whose hooves are likewise “closed” and not “split/open.”
Similarly, verb forms of the root KUF-LAMMED-TET appear in the Mishnah as variations on this theme. For example, the Mishnah rules that if one throws an object through a public domain on Shabbat, and it was intercepted by another person or a dog who "receives" (kalat) the object, then the thrower is not liable for violating the prohibition of "carrying" on Shabbos (Shabbat 11:6). In this case, whoever caught the flying object can be said to have “received” it. Similarly, according to Beit Shamai, one may not dye cloth on Friday unless one ensures that the dye will “be received” (kalat) by the cloth before Shabbat (Shabbat 1:6). This too refers to the new color “catching on” to the cloth.
In fact, the “receiving” meaning of klitah is so central that we even find that word referring to one being “received” by something which causes their demise. This shows that klitah does not always have to refer to “saving,” but only incidentally refers to “saving” when discussing one being “received” by shelter. Case in point: the Talmud (Yevamot 79a) relates that when King David took revenge from King Saul’s family on behalf of the Gibeonites, he decided which members of his predecessor’s family should be killed by performing a trial by ordeal. He passed all the relevant family members before the Holy Ark, and those whom the Ark was kolet were put to death. In this context, Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (1832–1909) in Benayahu (there) explains that the word kolet refers to them miraculously being rendered immobile while passing before the Ark. In other words, it means that those people whom Hashem had decided should be killed were “received” by a sort of “force field” emanating from the Ark that marked them as condemned.
Interestingly, Rabbi Yitzchak of Zeldin in Shoresh Yesha argues that KUF-LAMMED-TET is a metathesized form of LAMMED-KUF-TET, which refers to “gathering/assembling” (leket or yalkut). This is because those sheltered together can be viewed as if they were “gathered up” together to be placed in a safe spot. Rabbi Yehoshua Steinberg of the Veromemanu Foundation takes a different approach, seeing KUF-LAMMED-TET as a metathesized form of KUF-TET-LAMMED (“killing/murdering”) because klitah often refers to those who have been “received” by a sanctuary and thereby escape the clutches of death and avoid being killed. [For more about ketilah and other words for “murder,” see my earlier essay “Murder He Wrote” (Feb. 2023).]
The term pleitah typically refers to a “survivor,” “remnant,” or “refugee,” and thus also relates to “saving.” For example, when a refuge from the war between the four kings and the five kings comes to tell Abraham that his nephew Lot was captured, said refugee is called a palit (Gen. 14:13). However, as mentioned above, a closer examination of the usages of the root PEH-LAMMED-TET (from which pleitah derives) shows that its core meaning connotes “spitting out,” “releasing,” or “emitting.” This is why the term used by Targum (to Jonah 2:11) to describe Jonah being “spit out” by the fish that swallowed him is an Aramaic verb cognate of pleitah. Similar verbiage is used in the Talmud (Chullin 108b, 111a, 112b) to describe vessels “expunging” (polet) whatever whiffs of taste they had absorbed.
Thus, in the context of being saved, pleitah implies one being “spit out” from harm’s way. Meaning, pleitah implies that which is spared by being taken out of or excluded from a destructive fate. As noted above, this contrasts with klitah, which connotes the converse idea of being saved by being “received” by into a safe-haven. This dichotomy also presents itself in Modern Hebrew in the context of computer science, in which the term kelet refers to "input" and pelet refers to "output." Similar terminology is used to described neurological processes.
The “salvation by expulsion” dimension of pleitah is seen in various related verbs that appear in the Mishnah: For example, the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:4) rules that because individuals who commit idolatry are killed by stoning, which is a more severe type of execution, their property is "saved" (palat) from sharing in their lethal fate (i.e., their property is not likewise destroyed). This is contrasted to the case of communal idolaters in an idolatrous city (Ir HaNidachat), who are killed by the sword, which is a less severe form of execution, so their property is not spared. Similarly, the Mishnah (Sotah 1:7) relates that the adulterous woman who drinks from the Sotah waters first experiences her punishment in the parts of the body which enjoyed her sinful acts, but then states "and the rest of the body is not saved (palit)” from her lethal fate. An example of “expulsion” that has nothing to do with “saving” appears in the Mishnah (Brachot 3:6, Shabbat 9:3, Mikvaot 8:3), which rules that a woman who engaged in intimacy and “emits” (poletet) semen for three days afterwards is ritually impure.
Parallel to our examples above of forms of klitah that refer to “being received” to one’s detriment (the opposite of “saving”), we also find inflections pleitah used in the sense of being “expelled” to one’s detriment (which is also the opposite of “saving”). One example of this can be found in a rabbinic tradition concerning the Clouds of Glory that protected the Jews during their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness. According to that tradition, those Jews who had sinned in the desert were “expelled” from the Clouds of Glory and became easy prey for the Amalekites to attack (Midrash Tanchuma Ki Teitzei §10, Targum pseudo-Jonathan to Deut. 25:18, Rashi to Deut. 25:18). All the sources who cite this tradition use cognates of pleitah to denote the Clouds “expelling” those wanton Jews, who, in this case, lost the special protection that would otherwise have “saved” them.
Interestingly, despite the possible negative connotation of pleitah, various Biblical personal names derive from the root PEH-LAMMED-TET, including Palti (Num. 13:9, I Sam. 25:44), Pilti (Neh. 12:17), Paltiel (Num. 34:26, II Sam. 3:15), Platyah (Neh. 10:23, I Chron. 3:21, 4:42), and Platyahu (Ezek. 11:1, 11:13). Additionally, the post-Biblical given name Paltoi was once popular in Geonic and early Medieval times, and is also seemingly derived from this root.
Although most philologists and lexicographers trace the word pleitah to the triliteral root PEH-LAMMED-TET as we have done, some understand the initial PEH as radical to the core root. For instance, Rabbi Moshe Tedeschi-Ashkenazi (1821–1898) in Otzar Nirdafim (§380) writes that pleitah derives from the two-letter root LAMMED-TET. Similarly, Rabbi Yehoshua Steinberg of the Veromemanu Foundation penned an essay entitled “Run, Lot Run,” which also connects pleitah and many other words to that biliteral root. In fact, Rabbi Steinberg even sees klitah as derived from that biliteral root, so according to him, pleitah and klitah actually share an etymological source!
There is a third term in Biblical Hebrew that refers to a “survivor” of a war or other calamity: sarid. Rabbi Meir Leibush Weiser (1809–1879), better known as the Malbim, explains that the difference between a sarid and palit is that that a palit refers to one who was in the trenches of war or some other calamity, but was able to flee and thereby save himself from harm's way. (Following our nomenclature, he was “spit out” from harm’s way.) On the other hand, sarid refers to a person who was caught in the middle and was unable to escape, yet somehow still survived without getting killed. This same explanation is presented in brief by Rabbi Avraham Bedersi (13th century) in Chotam Tochnit. Essentially, this amounts to the idea that palit means “refugee,” while sarid more-accurately means “survivor/remnant.” [The Vilna Gaon (to Isa. 1:9) implies that sarid has a quantitative aspect to it, in that it refers to a member of an exclusive club of those who survived, while the vast majority of the others were not as lucky.]
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Shain notices another pattern as to when the Bible uses the term sarid versus when it uses the term palit. In general, a survivor or potential survivor of wars waged by non-Jews is referred to in the Bible as a palit (for example, Gen. 14:13, Ezek. 33:21-22), but in similar situations in wars waged by Jews, such a person is called a sarid (Num. 21:35, Deut. 2:34, 3:3, Josh. 10:28, 10:30, 10:33, 10:37, 10:39, 10:40, 11:8, II Kgs. 10:11). Rabbi Shain accounts for this phenomenon by explaining that palit refers to one who was totally surrounded (“swallowed” or “absorbed”) by enemies, but was “spit out” in a way that allowed him to escape. On the other hand, sarid simply connotes a survivor who was not necessarily totally enveloped by enemy troops.
Accordingly, he explains that there is a Halacha (see Sifrei to Matot §157 and Maimonides' Laws of Kings 6:7) that when a Jewish army wages war, it cannot besiege a city or enemy on all four sides, but rather must take humanitarian considerations into account and allow one side open for refugees to flee. Because of this, one who survives a war that was waged by Jews is not generally called a palit — as such survivors were never truly “surrounded” on all sides that they could be figuratively “spit out” from that situation — but rather can only be called a sarid. By contrast, non-Jewish militaries do not typically take such humanitarian interests into consideration, as they typically wage war from all sides without leaving their enemies a way to escape. Because of this, those who survive wars waged by non-Jews are referred to as a palit, but not sarid.
Curiously, when reporting that there were no Canaanite survivors from the Jewish conquest of Ai, the Bible writes that there was neither sarid nor palit from that battle (Josh. 8:22). Rabbi Shain accounts for the presence of the word palit in this context by explaining that because the Canaanite inhabitants of Ai took advantage of the humanitarian corridors that Halacha demands in order to attack the Jewish army, it became dangerous to allow them an escape route, so the Jewish Army was allowed to surround them on all sides. [By the way, that Biblical expression “sarid and palit” became a stock phrase used in the Bible (Jer. 42:17) and the Talmud (Brachot 7a, Yoma 72b, 77a, Megillah 12b, Sanhedrin 44b, 95b, 105b, Avodah Zarah 4b).]
In listing the component of the Tabernacle, the Bible mentions something called the “clothes of srad” (Ex. 31:10, 35:19, 39:1, 39:41). Rashi and his grandson Rashbam (to Ex. 31:10) explain that this does not refer to the priestly garments worn by the Kohanim, because those are listed separately in these passages. Instead, they posit that “clothes of srad” refer to the cloth covers placed upon the Tabernacle’s paraphernalia when travelling (Num. 4:1–15). Rashi cites Targum Onkelos as explaining that in this context srad means “worship/service,” but admits that the root SIN-REISH-DALET is not used elsewhere in that sense.
On the other hand, Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni (to Ex. 31:10) explain the word srad as a cognate of sarid, explaining that the cloth covers in question were fashioned out of the “leftover” cloths that remained after using the donated materials for the other cloth-based components of the Tabernacle (like the priestly garments and curtains). Thus, both srad and sarid share a common theme in referring to those “remnants,” or “survivors,” or “leftovers.”
Nachmanides (to Ex. 31:10) actually explains the “clothes of srad” as referring to the priestly garments. The Talmud (Yoma 72a-72b) also adopts this interpretation, explaining that if it were not for the priestly garments — which are integral to ritual services in the Tabernacle/Temple by which the Jews' sins are atoned — then no “sarid or palit” of the Jewish People would remain (as Hashem would likely have wiped out the nation due to their sins).
Sarid is also the name of a place along the southern border of Zebulun’s tribal territory (Josh. 19:10, 19:12) and, in more recent times, has become a popular Jewish name.
*NOTE: Although I mentioned that klitah is not used as a name of any Biblical characters, that is not quite accurate. Rabbi Nosson Kamenetsky (1930–2019) points out that the name Klitah appears three times in the Bible (Ezra 10:23, Neh. 8:7, 10:11), although that name is spelled with a final ALEPH, so it is not quite the same thing as the word klitah mentioned in the Masoretic comment at the end of Parashat Vayishlach (which is spelled with a final HEY).