We all know the expression "the writing is on the wall," and in Hebrew it's said exactly the same – "Ha-ktovet al ha-kir." What fewer may know is that the expression originates in the ancient tongue of Aramaic, brought to us by the biblical book of Daniel.
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The time: 6th-century BC Babylon. The event: a banquet being given by Belshazzar, a high-ranking official and possibly the king of Babylon – heir and possibly son of the fabled Nebuchadnezzar. The genealogy is far from clear, let alone official rankings in the kingdom of Babylon.
Anyway, as the assembly caroused, they evidently aroused heavenly ire.
Daniel 5:1: "Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand." And then the king ordered that sacred vessels captured from the Temple in Jerusalem be brought so his mistresses and minions could drink from them. This was done, and while drinking from the vessels, the Babylonians praised their own gods.
"At which a mysterious hand appeared and wrote in Hebrew on the palace wall, terrifying the king," Daniel 5:5-5:7 tells us. The hand wrote: Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin; but none could interpret it.
Urged by his queen, King Belshazzar, apparently no great admirer of the Jews, ordered the imprisoned Jew Daniel to be brought before him to read the message.
Rejecting the king's cajoling with finery, Daniel agrees to read the writing (5:18 onward). In his greatness Nebuchadnezzar had become arrogant and cruel, and God brought him low, Daniel explained:
"And he was driven from the sons of men; and his heart was made like the beasts, and his dwelling was with the wild asses: they fed him with grass like oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven; till he knew that the most high God ruled in the kingdom of men, and that he appointeth over it whomsoever he will."
Yet Belshazzar failed to learn a lesson from that treatment, Daniel said, and he actually challenged the Lord by raiding his temple and abasing the sacred vessels.
And thus the hand of the Lord appeared and wrote those four words, which Daniel then explained:
Mene: God numbered the days of Belshazzar's reign.
Tekel: God weighed Belshazzar and found him wanting.
Pharsin: His kingdom would be divided among his enemies, the Medes and Persians.
Chastened, Belshazzar made much of Daniel and to this day, "the writing on the wall" has meant something blindingly obvious that the observer doesn't understand until somebody comes along and points it out.
Shoshana Kordova is on leave. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.