parsha of the week

In Vayechi, an introduction to Biblical kissing


The act of a kiss appears twice in our parsha, Vayechi. The first time is when Yosef presents his sons to Yaakov for a blessing. The second time is immediately after Yaakov dies, when Yosef “falls on his father’s face and kisses him.” (50:1)

The way that kisses are described in the Torah is either with the word vayishak or vayinashek. The difference in the Hebrew spelling is the presence or lack of the letter nun. Is there a difference between these two kinds of kisses?

To try to get to the bottom of this conundrum, I took the liberty of finding all examples of both in the Torah (plus one in the books of prophets). It is worth noting that with only two exceptions, the kisses are always between men (who are usually very close relatives). Also, the only times a woman initiates a kiss in the Bible are in the Book of Ruth, first when Naomi kisses her daughters-in-law, and then when Orpah kisses her mother-in-law before returning to Moab.

The two exceptions, when a man kisses a woman, is when Yaakov kisses Rachel when he first meets her in Parshat Vayetze and, at the end of the same parsha, when Lavan kisses his daughters and grandchildren before he departs from them.

One striking note is that in a bunch of the Torah-kisses, it is unclear who kissed whom. This leads Netziv to suggest that perhaps in some cases, they kissed each other. Another striking note is when a hug accompanies the kiss.

Under vayishak, we have these kisses:

•Bereshit 27:27: Yaakov is pretending to be Eisav when Yitzchak asks him to give him a kiss. Yaakov comes close, but it is unclear who kisses whom. There is no hug exchanged.

•Yaakov kisses Rachel in 29:11, and he does not hug her.

•Eisav hugs Yaakov at their reunion in 33:4, and then he kisses him.

•It seems that Yaakov kisses his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe (though the verse could be read that Yosef is kissing his sons) before Yaakov hugs them in 48:10.

•Yosef kisses his father’s dead face immediately after his father’s passing (50:1). There is no hug.

•Moshe and Aharon exchange a kiss, though it is not clear who kisses whom, in Shmot 4:27. There is no hug.

•There is a kiss exchanged between Moshe and his father-in-law in Shmot 18:7. No hug.

•Shmuel kisses Shaul as he anoints him king in Shmuel I 10:1.

Under vayinashek:

•We have Lavan hugging then kissing Yaakov on his arrival in Charan (29:3), a kiss which Netziv says was returned.

•Lavan kisses his daughters and grandchildren before departing from them in 32:1, but he does not hug them.

•After revealing himself, Yosef cries on Binyamin, kisses all his brothers, then cries on each of them (45:14-15) before speaking to them once again.

In that there are all of three hugs in these exchanges, Netziv explains the difference between the order of how Lavan kisses Yaakov at first (and how Eisav kisses him at their reunion) versus how Yaakov kisses his grandsons.  He says that when people are running towards each other, the first instinct is to catch each other in an embrace, and then to kiss. That accounts for Lavan and Eisav hugging first, then kissing. In the case of Yaakov with Ephraim and Menashe, on the other hand, since they were already right next to each other, the kiss came first, followed by the embrace.

Looking at the hug, however, is not helpful as an indicator, because it accompanies both kinds of kiss.

Using a verse from Mishlei 24:26, the claim is made in Mesechet Kallah Rabati (3) that vayinashek is a kind of kiss which is done with the whole body (or perhaps that the kiss could be planted anywhere on the body, such as the forehead, cheek, arm, shoulder, etc), while vayishak is done with the mouth (presumably the kiss is planted on or very close to the mouth), though it is a light kiss.

In his Alei Tamar (Brachot 1), Rabbi Yissachar Tamar notes that there are different kinds of kisses. Most kisses are silly/meaningless, but there are exceptions. One of greatness — the kind Shmuel gives to Shaul. One of separation/departure – the kind that takes place in the Book of Ruth. One that is periodical — such as when Moshe and Aharon reunite. Some say there is also a kiss of closeness — the kind that took place between Yaakov and Rachel.

He then goes on to describe how people kiss in different cultures (Rabbi Tamar lived from 1896 to 1982). Lithuanian rabbis might engage in the kiss of departure, or the kiss of greatness, in the quick manner we might see today at some weddings. The custom to kiss the hands of rabbis was more Middle Eastern and Hungarian, where they would specifically not kiss the face. In Poland, kissing someone else’s hand was “strange,” so much so that once when someone tried to kiss the hand of the Sfas Emes (following the Sephardic custom), the Rebbe pulled his hand back and did not allow for it to be kissed.

In the end, I conclude that I am not sure. Lavan utilizes vayinashek twice, and while I might therefore put that word in one category, the fact that Yosef also utilizes that form with his brothers indicates that the Torah’s choice of words in each context remains unclear to me.

However, there is one thing that I am sure about. With the exception of Yaakov kissing Rachel, and of Shmuel and Shaul, all of these kisses took place between close relatives (with Shmuel and Shaul being close as teacher/protégé) and between people of the same sex.

Public kisses between spouses are not present. And certainly they’re not present between people who are not spouses to one another.

I know it is old-school, and meaningless to many people, but I still cannot fathom how any man can justify even a social cordial kiss to any woman who is not his wife. And vice versa.

The kiss might sometimes be meaningless, either to the giver or the receiver, but as perceived by others it is never meaningless. May we use the kiss with discretion, appropriately, and when intimate, in a modest, private fashion.