This week’s parshah uses the term navi. (See Ex. 7:1). This gives me the opportunity to explore the meaning of this unusual word. In English, the word is usually translated as “prophet,” which has a connotation of someone who is able to predict the future. But what is the root of the Hebrew word navi? And is ability to predict the future implied in the Hebrew?
Rashi (commenting on Ex. 7:1) connects navi with the word niv (nun, yod, bet), relying on Is. 57:19 (niv sefatayim). The word niv in this verse in Isaiah means something like the “outgrowth of” or “something that flows from.” From his further comments, we see that Rashi views a navi as one who expresses words of reproach to the people. Rashbam (comm. to Gen 20:7) also connects navi with niv. He writes that a navi is someone who is ragil with God (i.e., spends time with Him in some way) and speaks God’s words.
But Ibn Ezra argues strongly that the root is nun, bet, aleph. Despite the eminence of Rashi and Rashbam, it is hard to disagree with Ibn Ezra here. The alephs are always present in the word, so it seems very likely that the aleph is a root letter. With regard to the meaning of nun, bet, aleph, Ibn Ezra tries to infer its meaning from the context at Amos 3:7. There it is stated that God will not do anything unless He is galah sodo el avadav ha-neviim. Therefore, Ibn Ezra concludes, a navi is fundamentally someone to whom God reveals his secrets.
Rav S. R. Hirsch (comm. to Gen 20:7) also accepts nun, bet, aleph as the root. He tries to deduce its meaning by extrapolating from a similar root: nun, bet, ayin. The latter root means “to flow” or “to be the source of.” Rav Hirsch concludes that the navi is “the source from which the word of God issues, the organ through which the spirit of God speaks to men….Navi is not prophet, prediction, not one who foretells, but essentially the organ of God.”
Most scholars today view the root as nun, bet, aleph, and based on related Semitic languages, they view its meaning as “to call.” But there is still an issue. Is the term used because the navi is the one who calls out to the people or because he is the who is called upon by God? (The former is the view of Ernest Klein. See his “A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English.” The latter is the view of the Encyclopedia Judaica entry: “Prophets and Prophecy,” and of Hayyim Tawil. See his “An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew.”)
One thing we can learn from all this is that it is a mistake to rely on English translations. We must ignore the common translation “prophet” and whatever that may imply. We first have to determine the Hebrew root. But sometimes, like here, that is only half the battle. Figuring out what the root means can be another battle. Ibn Ezra tried to learn it from context. Rav Hirsch tried to learn it from a different but similar root. Scholars try to learn it from related Semitic languages.
An additional word in this week’s parsha that merits a brief discussion is the word machar (=tomorrow). Where does this word come from? We can only guess. According to Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto, comm. to Ex. 15:11), it is a contraction of yom achar, the following day. On the other hand, Rav S.R. Hirsch (comm. to Ex. 13:14) notes the word mechir, which means something like exchange, and then speculates that machar is the day that gets exchanged for today!
P.S. Shadal’s commentary on Exodus just came out in English translation: “Shadal on Exodus,” translated by Daniel Klein (Kodesh Press). I highly recommend it. Shadal was a unique 19th-century Italian Biblical commentator, who cited a wide variety of Jewish and gentile sources.
By Mitchell First
For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.