Right and Left
RIGHT AND LEFT
RIGHT AND LEFT (right: Heb. יָמִין; Akk. imnu, imittu; Ugaritic, ymn; left: Heb. שְׂמֹאל; Akk. šumēlu; Ugaritic, (u)šmʾal; and common Semitic). The biblical usages of "right" and "left" are basically fourfold: right as opposed to left; directions (cardinal points); strength and weakness; merism. As is the case in many cultures, right is favored over left in various contexts. Examples for each of these usages will be presented below, as well as Ancient Near Eastern parallels wherever appropriate.
Right as Opposed to Left
Right and left play an important role in Jacob's final blessing to his grandsons, Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen. 48: 12–20), whom Joseph places at the left and right sides of Jacob, respectively (verse 13), expecting his father to place his right hand on Manasseh (the firstborn) and his left on Ephraim, and then bless them. But Jacob crosses his hands, placing his right hand on Ephraim (verse 14) and his left on Manasseh, despite Joseph's objections (verse 18). Jacob explains his actions by stating that Ephraim will be greater than Manasseh (verse 19). Right and left parts of the body also play an important role in sacrifices as may be seen from the following phrases which occur many times in the Book of Leviticus and elsewhere: "the right thigh" (Ex. 29:22; Lev. 7:32, 33; 8:25, 26; Num. 18:18, etc.); "the right ear and the right thumb [or big toe]" (Ex. 29:20; Lev. 8:23, 24; 14:14, 17, 25, 28, etc.). Two Ancient Near Eastern parallels to this usage in sacrifice have been found at Ugarit. In one (rŠ 24.253; Ugaritica, 5 (1955), no. 13), in a sacrificial context, the phrase Žṣb šmʾal dalpm appears which may be provisionally translated: "the left protuberances [?] of two bulls." In another (rŠ 261.247; not yet published but quoted by C.H. Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook (1965), Glossary, nos. 1107, 2393a), the phrase šq ymn occurs, which is the same as the Hebrew shoq ha-yamin, שׁוֹק הַיָּמִין, "right thigh," quoted above. Finally, the right side (of the throne) is usually the side on which the king's or God's associates sit (i Kings 2:19, the queen; Zech. 3:1, Satan; Ps. 109:6, Satan, etc.). This is paralleled in Ugaritic literature by the following passage: tʿdb ksu wyṯṯb lymn aliyn Bʿl, "A throne is placed and he is seated to the right of Puissant Baʾal" (ii ab 5:108–10; Pritchard, Texts, 134).
Direction (Cardinal Points)
Because the Hebrews – like others – oriented themselves by the place where the sun rises, in many biblical passages "right" means "south" and "left" means "north." In Abraham's separation from Lot (Gen. 13:9ff.), Abraham says (according to one interpretation): "If [you go] north [הַשְּׂמֹאל], I will go south [וְאֵימִנָה]; And if you go south [הַיָּמִין],i will go north [וְאַשְׂמְאִילָה]." The southern border of Manasseh is described in the Book of Joshua as ha-gevulʾel ha-yamin (הַגְּבוּל אֶל־הַיָּמִין, Josh. 17:7) "the boundary of the right," while "north of Damascus" is expressed as mi-semoʾl le-Dammeseq (מִשְּׂמֹאל לְדַמָּשֶׂק), "to the left of Damascus" (Gen. 14:15). Perhaps the most instructive passages for this usage are those which use right and left together with the regular words for the other directions: "North and south [צָפוֹן וְיָמִין] You [God] have created them" (Ps. 89:13); "Then it [the border] turns eastward [מִזְרַח הַשֶּמֶשׁ]… and touches… northward [צָפוֹנָה], then it continues northward [מִשְּׂמֹאל ; lit. "left"]…" Josh. 19:27). Finally, the tribe *Benjamin (ben-yamin, "son of the right") was the most southern tribe in "the House of Joseph" (ii Sam. 19:17–21), and this usage has a direct parallel in the Mari letters where both the dumu-Iamīna, "southern tribe," and the dumu-Simal, "northern tribe," are often mentioned (e.g., Archives royales de Mari, 1 (1950), 60:9, p. 116). Semantically, dumu-Iamīna (probably to read mārē-yamīna) is exactly parallel to Benjamin, though there is no valid evidence for any historical connection between the two.
Strength and Weakness
It is clear from several biblical verses that "right [hand]" was often a symbol for strength. The "right hand of God" was that which overcame Israel's enemies (Ex. 15:6, 12; Isa. 62:8; Ps. 17:7; 44:4, etc.) and which was worthy of the Psalmists' praises (Ps. 98:1; 118:15, 16, etc.). The "right eye" was considered the more valuable (Zech. 11:17) and it was the putting out of "every right eye" which Nahash the Ammonite demanded in return for making a nonaggresion pact with the inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead (i Sam. 11:2). Conversely, that left-handedness was conceived of as a weakness, even a malady, is seen from the description of Ehud (Judg. 3:15), where the latter is called ʾishʾiṭṭer yad yemino (אִישׁ אִטֵּר יַד יְמִינוֹ), "a man obstructed [in the use of] his right hand." The word used for "obstructed" is of the nominal construction that is usually utilized for physical defects–e.g., "blind" (עִוֵּר), "dumb" (אִלֵּם), and "deaf " (חֵרֵשׁ). Left-handed men are mentioned elsewhere in Judges 20:16, where it is stated that (despite their left-handedness) they never missed the target, and in i Chronicles 12:2, where both right-handed and left-handed men are mentioned. The right side of a man is the side on which God "marches" when assisting him in battle (Isa. 63:12; Ps. 109:31; 110:1, 5) and it is the right hand which God grasps as a symbol of election (Isa. 41:13; 45:1; Ps. 73:23). Finally, the pair "hand//right hand" is often used in synonymous parallelism to evoke the image of the might of God (Ps. 21:9; 74:11; 89:14; 91:7 (emended); 138:7; 139:10), the brave deeds of Israel's war heroes (Judg. 5:26), or God's power of creation (Isa. 48:13). In extra-biblical sources, the Ugaritic parallel pair yd//ymn, "hand//right hand," is often found conjuring up the same image of power as its biblical counterpart (e.g., ii 76:6–7): qšthn aḥd bydh wqṣʿth bm ymḥ, "His bow he has taken in his hand, also his darts in his right hand." The Akkadian creation epic, Enūma eliš, yields an interesting parallel to the use of "the right hand of God" iššīma miṭṭa imnašu ušāḥiz, "He [Marduk] lifted the mace, grasped it in his right hand" (Enūma eliš 4:37; Pritchard, Texts, 66). Finally, the Epilogue of the Code of Hammurapi has a parallel to God's proceeding on the right side when helping someone in battle: Zababa… āliku imniya ašar tamḥārim kakkīšu lišbir, "May Zababa … who goes at my right side break his weapons on the battlefield" (27:81–87; Pritchard, Texts, 179; cf. Isa. 63:12). Related to the opposition strengthweakness is the opposition good luck-bad luck, which seems to be represented in Ecclesiastes 10:2; as interpreted in the (Hebrew) commentary of H.L. Ginsberg: "The wise man's mind (tends) to his right (i.e., to what brings him good luck), and the fool's to his left." The belief that omens that appear on the right side are lucky and such as appear on the left unlucky is implied by Ezekiel 21:27. Parallels from other cultures are very numerous. In Arabic, for example, šimāl means both "left hand" and "bad omen" (see also the Arabic dictionary on the verbs šaʿama and yamana and their derivatives).
Perhaps the most common usage of right and left in the Bible is as a merism meaning "everywhere, in any direction." The phrase "to deviate from the path in any direction" (Num. 20:17; 22:26; Deut. 2:27; 5:29; 17:11; i Sam. 6:12, etc.) is so common that it had probably reached the level of a cliché in early biblical times. Aside from "path," "instructions" (e.g., Josh. 1:7; 23:6), "commandment" (e.g., Deut. 17:20), and "commandments" (e.g., Deut. 28:14) may also be the object of deviation. In the same way, the verbal forms "to go right" and "to go left" are used together meaning "to depart from in any way" (ii Sam. 14:19; Isa. 30:21). The meaning "everywhere" is also very common for this merism (i Kings 22:19; Isa. 9:19; Zech. 12:6, etc.). In extra-biblical sources, right and left are often used as a merism which may be seen from the following Akkadian and Ugaritic passages: panukki Šēdu arkātuk Lamassu imnuk mešrû(!) šumēlukki dumqu, "Before you is the protective spirit, behind you is the protective goddess, at your right riches, at your left prosperity" (E. Ebeling, Die akkadische Gebetsserie Šu-ilu "Handerhebung"… (1953), 60:16–17); yʿdb uymn ušmal bphm "[things] are placed in their mouths 'on right and on left'" (C.H. Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook (1965), 52:63–64; cf. Isa. 9:19).
In Talmudic Literature
Although there does exist some evidence that the left was regarded as "sinister" in the Talmud, the general opinion, both in halakhah and aggadah, is merely that the right is more important and significant than the left. The word yad ("hand"), without qualification, was taken to refer always to the right hand, as the word eẓba ("finger") to the index finger of the right hand (Zev. 24a). All religious duties had normally to be performed with the right hand (or foot, see below). The only exception is the laying of tefillin which are laid (except in the case of a left-handed person) on the left hand. The reasons given are, firstly, that the plene spelling ידכה ("thy hand") in Exodus 13:16 is taken to indicate יד כהה ("the feeble hand"), and also that since the injunction is "and ye shall bind" (Deut. 6:8) and not "and ye shall place," the essential commandment is the binding, which must therefore be done with the right hand (Men. 36b, 37a). Thus it is stated, "the right hand controls all the precepts except for the tefillin" (Mid. Ps. 17). As a result, particularly because "one uses the right hand to point to the cantillation of the Torah," it was not to be used for unclean or unseemly purposes (Ber. 62a). Added to that was the statement, based on Deuteronomy 33:2, that the Torah was given with the right hand of God.
The right was the position of honor. All the turns of the high priest in the Temple as he encircled the altar to perform the sprinkling of the blood had to be to the right (Yoma 15b). It was regarded as a boorish lack of etiquette to walk on the right of one's teacher; but when he was accompanied by two, he walked in the middle and the greater of his companions walked on the right (Yoma 37a).
Left-handedness was not regarded as a disability, but it was naturally assumed that a person was right-handed. Nevertheless, it was regarded as so essential that ḥaliẓah be performed on the right foot of the levir (Yev. 12:2) it was stated that in the case of a left-footed person the ceremony had to be performed twice, once on each foot, and there is even one opinion that it cannot be performed at all (Sh. Ar., eh 169:25).
Since the *etrog was regarded as the most important element of the *Four Species, it had to be taken in the right hand and the lulav and the other two in the left. Nevertheless, there is one statement to the effect that it is the lulav which is to be taken in the right (Yal. Ps. 670).
In rabbinic theology, God's right hand represents the Attribute of Mercy, his left hand, the Attribute of Judgment (mry, p. 134). Similarly the question of the Midrash on the verse i Kings 22:19, "I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the Host of Heaven standing by him on his right hand and on his left," namely, "Is there then a left on high? Is it not all right there?… (Song. R. to 1:9, no. 1) indicates that in the upper realm there is only mercy, and no judgment. This reflects an abstraction of the identification of right with mercy, even where there is no spatial or physical opposition to any "left." To give more encouragement than discouragement was expressed in the words, "Let thy left hand repulse and thy right attract" (Sot. 47a). Solomon ibn Gabirol says: "A man without a companion is like the left without the right" (Mivḥar ha-Peninim 20:11; cf. Meiri to Prov. 17:17).
[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz /
Stephen G. Wald (2nd ed.)]
U. Cassuto, in: Tarbiz, 14 (1943), 420; Y. Kaufmann, Shofetim (1962), 107; ch Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook (1965); J.C. de Moor, Ugarit-Forschungen, 2 (1970), 323–25. in talmudic Literature: M. Plessner, in: Folklore Research Center Studies (1970), 259–74. add. bibliography: S. Wald, The Doctrine of the Divine Name (1988), 66–67.