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In Hungarian medieval history there's an interesting episode, when a few high ranking noblemen conspired to kill the queen. They asked the archbishop what to do, but he was hesitant to join either side, so he wrote an ambiguous message in Latin:

Reginam occidere bonum est timere nolite et si omnes consenserint ego non contradico.

Based the punctuation it can both mean:

  • To kill the queen, it's good to fear, I don't want you [to do this], if everyone agrees, I don't, I contradict.
  • To kill the queen it's good, I don't want you to fear, if everyone agrees, I don't contradict.

Rashi in his commentary to Yechezkeil 1:11 has a similar issue with the punctuation:

אלמלא שראיתי טעם זקף גדול נקוד על ופניהם, לא הייתי יודע לפרשו, אבל הניקוד למדני להבדילם זו מזו, ולהעמיד תיבת ופניהם בפני עצמה.‏

Had I not seen the cantillation sign of a “zakef gadol” [indicating a pause] punctuating “And so were their faces,” I would not know how to explain it, but the punctuation taught me to separate them [the words of the verse] one from the other and to place the word וּפְנֵיהֶם by itself.

Is there a similar case in the Tanakh, the Talmud or other Midrashim, where someone sends such an ambiguous message to confuse other people?

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  • I would much appreciate if you could help me with a better English translation reflecting the ambiguity. Better tag ideas are also welcome! Dec 24 '20 at 17:35
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    אני עשו בכורך ?
    – Double AA
    Dec 24 '20 at 17:36
  • @DoubleAA Indeed! Is it nasty to add it to the question and ask for other examples? :-) Dec 24 '20 at 17:43
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I'm not sure about purposeful examples, but there are plenty of examples of semantic ambiguity which is only clarified by the cantillation.


One classic example is Genesis 39:17, the second clause. בָּֽא־אֵלַ֞י הָעֶ֧בֶד הָֽעִבְרִ֛י אֲשֶׁר־הֵבֵ֥אתָ לָּ֖נוּ לְצַ֥חֶק בִּֽי׃

The translation when factoring cantillation is: "He came to me — that Hebrew slave that you brought to us — to fondle me." If it weren't for the cantillation, then it could be read as "That Hebrew slave that you brought to us to fondle me came to me."

Rashi comments: בָּא־אֵלַי — לְצַחֶק בִּי הָעֶבֶד הָעִבְרִי אֲשֶׁר הֵבֵאתָ לָּנוּ: "He came to me to fondle me, that Hebrew slave who you brought to us." Normally Rashi wouldn't just reorder the verse, but here he does just that. Why? To emphasize that Joseph was NOT purchased for the purpose of serving as Potiphar's wife's concubine.


Another classic example is Exodus 20:20. לֹ֥א תַעֲשׂ֖וּן אִתִּ֑י אֱלֹ֤הֵי כֶ֙סֶף֙ וֵאלֹהֵ֣י זָהָ֔ב לֹ֥א תַעֲשׂ֖וּ לָכֶֽם׃

The translation when factoring cantillation is "Do not do such with Me; a god of silver or a god of gold do not make for yourselves." Without cantillation, then the Hebrew itself would suggest by parallelism "Do not make alongside Me a god of silver; and a god of gold do not make for yourselves." But the etnaḥta on אִתִּ֑י makes that reading impossible.


Sorry if this isn't exactly what you were looking for! One which might be a better fit is Genesis 25:23 — וְרַ֖ב יַעֲבֹ֥ד צָעִֽיר׃. Because of the syntactic looseness of Hebrew, the prophecy could be read as "the older will serve the younger" or as "the older the younger will serve." The rabbis realized this in their well-known midrash that suggested that at any point in history either Jacob or Esau is dominant.

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  • It's not precisely what I expected, but it's a well-sourced answer! +1 Jan 10 at 9:54

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