Before you can understand what ‘timshel’ means, it’s important to recognize one essential fact: words have power.
Words are the closest thing humans will ever experience to actual magic. Words have the power to transport us to Hogwarts, Narnia, and Westeros. Words can not only break a heart, but more importantly heal it. Words allow us to cultivate and spread both new and old ideas. In short, words allow us an endless opportunity to practice magic in our every day lives.
Because of this everyday type of magic, I find myself captivated by all things words and literature. Lately, I’ve found myself fascinated with literary tattoos (yes that’s a thing). It may seem like a bizarre fascination, but it’s really more popular than you may think. This new hobby of mine, searching the internet for literary tattoos, lends itself to my rarely spoken desire to get a tattoo someday.
Those who know me may be surprised by that statement. A few years ago I would have been too. But things change, people change, and old ways of thinking give way to new (we hope). People know the arguments both for and against tattoos so I won’t bore you with those. It’s a choice that each person has to make for themselves and do what’s right for their body and beliefs.. Who am I to judge what someone else decides to put on their body and vice versa.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized, getting a tattoo is a two-fold problem. Firstly, you have to decide where on your body you are going to put it. Secondly, you have to decide what you want on your body forever. This last point is where my fascination began. What could be so important to someone or have such significant to them they wanted a reminder for eternity?
I began to think then about myself and what would I want on my body forever. Part of the answer seemed obvious, I love reading- books, quotes, poems, anything and everything words related. Therefore, the next logical step would be a literary tattoo.
Yeah, it could be conceived as nerdy, but fuck it, I am nerdy.
One thing led to another and thanks to the black-hole called the internet I ended up on Tattoo Lit. This site has pages upon pages on people sharing their literary tattoos with the world. A lot of those authors and famous quotes you’d expect can be found there (Rowling, Tolkien, Whitman, Cummings, etc) but there are also phrases, poems, books, and quotes that I had never heard of. I couldn’t help myself, I spent hours and hours researching the context for a lot of the tattoos I didn’t understand.
One of the ones I kept coming across was the word “timshel” usually on a wrist or forearm where it would be easily visible. When I read the word, for the first time, it meant nothing to me. Only after I saw it over and over again did my curiosity get the better of me.
Timshel. What does it mean? How do you pronounce it? Why did so many people have it tattooed on their bodies? In the end, I did exactly what you did, I googled “What does Timshel mean”. I’m thankful I did, because as it turns out, it may be the most important word in the world.
The word Timshel was brought to most people’s attention by John Steinbeck in his novel East of Eden.
Timshel is a Hebrew word that translates to “Thou Mayest.” Which at first doesn’t seem all that important. I mean why does that matter? Why should you care about “thou mayest?” Why have I decided to dedicate the entire blog post to this concept and gone on record that it is the most powerful concept there is?
Let me first put timshel into its proper context. Below I have taken the relevant part from East of Eden applying to Timshel — to help explain the concept and give you content.
In his book, Steinbeck writes:
Do you remember when you read us the sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis and we argued about them?” “I do indeed. And that’s a long time ago.” “Ten years nearly,” said Lee. “Well, the story bit deeply into me and I went into it word for word.
The more I thought about the story, the more profound it became to me. Then I compared the translations we have-and they were fairly close. There was only one place that bothered me. The King James version says this- it is when Jehovah has asked Cain why he is angry. Jehovah says, ‘If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.’ It was the ‘thou shalt’ that struck me, because it was a promise that Cain would conquer sin.”
Samuel nodded. “And his children didn’t do it entirely,” he said. Lee sipped his coffee. “Then I got a copy of the American Standard Bible. It was very new then. And it was different in this passage. It says, ‘Do thou rule over him.’ Now, this is very different. This is not a promise, it is an order. And I began to stew about it. I wondered what the original word of the original writer had been that these very different translations could be made.”
“After two years we felt that we could approach your sixteen verses of the fourth chapter of Genesis. My old gentlemen felt that these words were very important too-’Thou shalt’ and ‘Do thou.’ And this was the gold from our mining: ‘Thou mayest.’ ‘Thou mayest rule over sin.’ The old gentlemen smiled and nodded and felt the years were well spent. It brought them out of their Chinese shells too, and right now they are studying Greek.” Samuel said, “It’s a fantastic story.
And I’ve tried to follow and maybe I’ve missed somewhere. Why is this word so important?”
Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin.
But the Hebrew word, the word timshel-’Thou mayest’- that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man.
For if ‘Thou mayest’-it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”
“Yes, I see. I do see. But you do not believe this is divine law. Why do you feel its importance?”
“Ah!” said Lee. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time. I even anticipated your questions and I am well prepared. Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.
Adam said, “Do you believe that, Lee?”
“Yes, I do. Yes, I do. It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there. And do you know, those old gentlemen who were sliding gently down to death are too interested to die now?”
Adam said, “Do you mean these Chinese men believe the Old Testament?”
Lee said, “These old men believe a true story, and they know a true story when they hear it. They are critics of truth. They know that these sixteen verses are a history of humankind in any age or culture or race. They do not believe a man writes fifteen and three-quarter verses of truth and tells a lie with one verb. Confucius tells men how they should live to have good and successful lives. But this-this is a ladder to climb to the stars.” Lee’s eyes shone. “You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.”
Adam said, “I don’t see how you could cook and raise the boys and take care of me and still do all this.”
“Neither do I,” said Lee. “But I take my two pipes in the afternoon, no more and no less, like the elders.And I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing-maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed- because “Thou mayest.’”
So what does TImshel mean? In short, Timshel gives each of us a choice on how to live our lives and that choice is what gives each of our lives value. Those thatbelieve in predetermination or destiny may find this concept disconcerting maybe even absurd. They relish in the fact that things are already decided, regardless of their actions. But for those who believe that our choices actually matter – this idea is imperative.
If the way is open then you can both succeed or fail. That option is what makes life special.
The ability to triumph or fail on your own. Not because something has to be one way or the other, but because in the end, you made a choice for better (or worse) and saw it through.
I love the line “But I have a new love for the glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed- because “thou mayest.” I love the idea that we are never truly broken or fully defeated. There is no such thing as a ‘life-ending mistake’ because as it turns out life is a pretty resilient thing – if we let it be.
Regardless of what we experience throughout our lifetime we are only as broke and damaged as we choose to be. Yes, we can be overwhelmed. Yes, we can give into the darkness for a time. But we always have another chance. We always have another choice. We, and we alone, get to decide whether to stay defeated by the problem or to overcome it.
There is no master plan to our lives. Our successes and failures are on us.
Not some god. Not our parents. Not our spouse.
Honestly, I don’t know if that’s beautiful or terrifying. But even more important to understand is neither our success nor our failures are forever. Each day, each hour, each minute, we are blessed with new opportunities to chase our dreams and why could be more beautiful than that.
I can see why people choose to tattoo the word Timshel on their bodies. What better way to for a daily reminded about the power of choice? Learning what Timshel means is a powerful reminder,the way is open for each of us. Despite the choices made in the past, or our current circumstances, we always have the power of choice. Some people will shy away from fully taking charge of their own life. After all, it’s easier to blame others or believe in destiny than accept responsibility for what is happening to them. It’s a shame, but, in the end, that’s their choice to make. But if we embrace the power of choice and use it to enhance our lives, knowing it’s up to us, there’s no telling how far we can go, because thou mayest.
About Todd Smidt
Todd is a man of simple tastes: traveling, words, whiskey, & dad jokes. He enjoys first-rate banter, long walks along the coast, High West, and Vonnegut. He spends his free time traveling the world, drinking whiskey, and writing about it.
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