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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).


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.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.