You Keep Using That Word... (part 1)

The Hebrew word תועבה (to'evah) is often translated as "abomination." In the last post we looked at the (very few) times the word was used in the Torah. We should be clear that we're looking at the occurrences of the Hebrew word תועבה (to'evah) and NOT any appearance of the word "abomination." Many translated versions of the Torah use the word "abomination" without regard to context, comparison, or, most importantly, a true Hebrew equivalent, which means that aside from the 13 situations in which the Hebrew word תועבה (to'evah) is used and translated as "abomination," any other use of the word in English is NOT the same Hebrew word.

With all of that in mind, let's take a look at the only times the word תועבה (to'evah) is used, and how we can use that to figure out what it may actually mean.  This is the first part of two posts that go in-depth and analyze the texts. The second part will be published later this week.



If you're an Egyptian, it's not ok to eat a meal with your Hebrews. In other words, the Egyptians were forced to continue segregation, and to go against that was a תועבה (to'evah). But, there was no such commandment for Israelites.

Joseph tells his brothers that it's a תועבה (to'evah) for Egyptians to be shepherds, and because of that, it's the job they should volunteer for. Later, Moses tells the Israelites that it's not ok to sacrifice a lamb in Egypt because it's a תועבה (to'evah) for the Egyptians. 

Both of these cases make it very clear: What may be a תועבה (to'evah) for one group is not the same as for another. King David, Moses, and so many other Jews were shepherds, and we're commanded to sacrifice lambs on Passover. Clearly, the prohibitions here are very specifically for Egyptians and not for Jews. In other words, we can guess from these verses that a תועבה (to'evah) is NOT a universal prohibition - it only affects certain people at certain times. 

The word תועבה (to'evah) only appears in two other food-related verses, and it comes along with a prohibition on eating  an animal that should not have been sacrificed because it had a blemish. While this may, at one point, have been a central commandment concerning sacrifices, as Judaism no longer practices animal sacrifice as worship, it's no longer applicable today. Because of that, we can assume that this תועבה (to'evah) was valid in its time and place, but not today.



 We spoke about these verses at length last year. See that series here:  12345)


Cross-dressing is defined as a תועבה (to'evah) which seems pretty simple, but, what exactly is cross-dressing? In every society, fashions and clothing have changed and what used to be gender-neutral clothing (tunics/robes/skirts) soon became gender-specific, and as history as continued, other clothing that was once gender-specific (pants) have become much more gender-neutral. Therefore, we can assume that this is very clearly a relative term - that the תועבה (to'evah) here is very dependent on the situation, culture, time, and place. It's not at all universal and the surrounding culture matters a great deal. (Not to mention that there are many very traditional authorities who say that this law can be violated in celebration of Purim, making the case even more so that this is a relative law and not a universal one.)

If a man gets married to a woman and then decides she's ugly and he needs to move on and divorces her, he can't remarry her once her second husband's out of the picture. Why? Because the man has already decided that his wife is undesirable, it would be humiliating for the woman to come back to him a second time.  Does this happen today? I'm not sure. Certainly, there are plenty of places where there is the potential for this to happen, and we're not out to police these marriages.

So far, we can safely guess that each of these cases is a mostly specific instance of a time, place, culture, and context. In the next post we'll take a look at the actions defined as a תועבה (to'evah) that fall under the categories of idolatry, business practices, sorcery, and vows and see if those hold up to the same standard, or, if there's something else we're not yet seeing.



Robbie Medwed

Robbie Medwed began working with SOJOURN when it was known as The Rainbow Center as a volunteer in 2008. He served as chair of the TRC Advisory Board and as co-chair of Purim off Ponce (2010, 2011) before moving into his current role as Assistant Director, where he oversees SOJOURN's educational programming and outreach, including our award-winning workshops and training seminars. Robbie holds a master's degree in Jewish education from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has written curricula and nationally-recognized inclusive programs for the Marcus JCC of Atlanta, BBYO, USY, Camp Ramah, the Jewish Teen Funders Network, Babaganewz, and JewishGPS. Robbie is also a certified personal trainer, group fitness instructor, and cyclist. Robbie can be reached at [email protected]