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Genesis 7:20, describing the flood, says:

חֲמֵשׁ עֶשְׂרֵה אַמָּה מִלְמַעְלָה, גָּבְרוּ הַמָּיִם; וַיְכֻסּוּ, הֶהָרִים.‏

Almost everybody translates the first clause as some approximation of "fifteen cubits upward the waters rose". I've always understood this to mean the waters rose fifteen cubits above the peaks of the mountains; this is Rashi's opinion.

I am trying to unpack the word "מִלְמַעְלָה" and am having trouble. I know that "ma'alah" means "up" from the root ayin-lamed-hei, but the leading mem and lamed are throwing me. ("From to"???) What is the literal meaning of this word here?

This question (err) arose because someone who has studied modern but not biblical Hebrew suggested that this passage should be translated somewhat differently, and I'd like to understand whether that interpretation has any basis in this context.

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Thank you for asking on my behalf. I'm especially glad you wrote this up because I love puns. ;-) –  Jon Ericson Sep 20 '12 at 18:13
    
FWIW there are a few instances of the opposite word: מלמטה from/to below. See Ex 26:24, 27:5, 28:27, 36:29, 38:4, 39:20. –  Double AA Sep 20 '12 at 18:52
    
i've suggested like the questioner, that the waters arose 15 cubits, such that all of the mountains were partly covered. to prove or disprove, consider the immediately preceding verse, 7:19. –  josh waxman Sep 21 '12 at 3:51
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1 Answer

In response to the question: "What is the literal meaning of the word here?" It means on top of something. I'm not sure why this is so controversial, as the word is not uniquely in this verse. Consider Exodus 25:21:

And you shall place the ark cover on the ark from above

Same word, translated here as "from above." We don't discuss the cover of the ark being from the top of the mishkan or some roof. It is placed on top the ark. Similarly here, the water is on top of something. It is a bit ambiguous in the verse above what, so Rashi explains above the mountains.

In response to the comment that an answer should unpack it, I don't really see how that answers the question. The usage could be idiomatic. But anyway, למעלה means on top, above or higher (למעלה מעשרה טפחים, for example). מלמעלה means "from on top" or "from above" or "from higher [than]" [the mountains - Rashi]

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−1: the question specifically asks for a parsing of the word, and you merely translate it. –  msh210 Sep 20 '12 at 22:11
    
@msh210, not sure I agree, but I expanded my answer anyway. –  Yishai Sep 20 '12 at 23:24
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To be fair, it's not really controversial at all outside the mind of one eccentric translator. I think that your updated answer helps in that the translation could work grammatically (though it flies in the face of every other translation). Thanks. –  Jon Ericson Sep 21 '12 at 16:03
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