Tile? Shazam!

וְאַתָּ֤ה בֶן־אָדָם֙ קַח־לְךָ֣ לְבֵנָ֔ה וְנָתַתָּ֥ה אוֹתָ֖הּ לְפָנֶ֑יךָ וְחַקּוֹתָ֥ עָלֶ֛יהָ עִ֖יר אֶת־יְרוּשָׁלִָֽם׃
And you, O mortal, take a brick and put it in front of you, and incise on it a city, Jerusalem. (Ezekiel 4:1, translation from Sefaria)

The Hebrew for “brick” is לבנה. That’s how I would have translated it, and that’s how it’s used in modern Hebrew as well. As I said, that’s how I would have translated it, until I looked at Rashi:

“In the heathen tongue (French), טויל”ה. And there are those that are large.”

What is טויל”ה?

As it turns out, this is the word tuile, meaning “tile” in French.

Indeed, this is how JPS translates it:

“Thou also, son of man, take thee a tile, and lay it before thee, and trace upon it a city, even Jerusalem.”

Why does Rashi translate לבנה as “tile” rather than the more standard “brick”? After all, “brick” appears to be the preferred understanding of the commentators.

Targum translates אבנא (stone). Radak cites Targum and also appears to understand לבנה as “brick” or “building block.” He specifically says this is not a clay tablet. Metzudah explicitly defines this as a brick.

So back to Rashi. Why “tile”?

Perhaps it is context. Since Ezekiel is told to etch a depiction of Jerusalem in it, it makes more sense to imagine a flat, wide surface rather than a thick block. Like a canvas. In fact, the French word for canvas is toile, which would also match Rashi’s spelling.

On the other hand, perhaps Rashi is not arguing here with other commentaries, and also means a brick. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, “tile” was “used in Old English and early Middle English for ‘brick,’ before that word came into use.” Perhaps the same was true in French.

What do you think?

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