I still might.
I do not have any tattoos. I am not against tattoos but never thought that I would find something that I felt strong enough to tattoo on my body. But Timshel did it. For the same reason, I gifted East of Eden by John Steinbeck to all my friends and family for any occasion an entire year after I read it. The book became more than a story for me. It wove a magic wand over my mind and put all the puzzle pieces together that I had been struggling to put in place.
For those of you who haven’t read East of Eden, it is a novel set in the farmland of Salinas, California. [This article may contain spoilers to the novel. I highly recommend reading it.] The Trask family, led by Adam Trask, moves out to California and joins the Hamilton family that has lived on the land without success. These two families become intertwined as they reproduce the fall of Adam and Eve and the fall of Cain and Abel within the story. Adam Trask’s twin sons, Cal and Aron, represent the biblical figures Cain and Abel. The Trask’s housekeeper, Lee, becomes the crutch keeping the family standing after the disappearance of their mother. Lee is the character who delivers the message of “Timshel” to Samuel Hamilton, Adam Trask, and the reader. His dedication to finding the meaning of the biblical passage almost outweighs what it means to us readers.
The well-known quotation explains different translations of a specific Bible passage in Genesis:
“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.” (Steinbeck pg. 303)
Samuel Hamilton, the neighbor who originally shared the Bible verses linking Cal and Aron to Cain and Abel’s legacy, interjects: “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 hands 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 is ‘Thou mayest’ — it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?’”
Here, Steinbeck uses the philosopher turned cook, Lee, explain in depth how much a word can mean. How a simple translation can change the meaning of a sentiment so concretely. Given Lee’s interpretation, we can choose whether to sin and repent, not sin, or sin and not repent. Lee’s interpretation gives realistic choice.
If you search up “Timshel” tattoos, many people have them. While tattoos are meant to be individual and meaningful, this simple word is just like life, individual and shared. It is a story to tell of the beautiful struggle of being human. This simple word is both an acknowledgment of the knack of screwing up and of the beauty of trying again, of making something better, of not giving up. Literary mantras have an additional layer of meaning. While I relish the story of this word, I also enjoy the experience I had learning about it and the knowledge that Steinbeck, and his many other readers, have also held this word in their mind and toyed with the beauty of its story — the story of being human.
There are some critics who say “Timshel” is not a real Hebrew word. And with all respect, I think Steinbeck spun together history, the old testament, and fiction into his own word to share with the readers. As an aspiring writer, that is a talent. He built more meaning, and choice, into a biblical idea in order to convey his theme.
A tattoo is a memento and a reminder. For me, looking down at a small reminder of this belief and story could push me through difficult days. “Timshel” would be a one-word pep-talk reminding me that I have the option to change, to do better, and to fall. If the message of “Timshel” ever dwindles in meaning, I can simply reread the novel, rediscover just how much I identify with the complex struggles of Adam and Cal, and acknowledge that my struggle is human in order to push on through.