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Monday, March 30, 2020

I have always been fascinated by this root. G-Z-R in Tanach has a meaning like “cut” or “separate.” But at Esther 2:1 it has the meaning “decree”: Achashverosh remembers Vashti and what was “nigzar aleha” (decreed against her). The verb also has the meaning “decree” at Job 22:28. Of course, it has meanings like “decree” and “decide” in Hebrew thereafter. But what is going on here? How did a verb that originally meant “cut” develop meanings like “decree” and “decide”?

Maybe we can explain all the biblical meanings of G-Z-R with an idea related to “carrots”? Please cut that thought out. “Gezer” as “carrot” is a later medieval development, entering Hebrew from another language, perhaps Arabic.

An early decree in Tanach was one by Shlomo when he ordered that a baby be divided (“gizru et hayeled,” I Kings 3:25). It has been suggested that, based on this paradigm, G-Z-R became a word for a decree in general! This is obviously farfetched. Moreover, there is a connection between “cut” and words like “decree,” “decide” and “determine” in many languages. (See, e.g., Guy Deutscher, The Unfolding of Language, p. 126, cited in Daniel Klein’s edition of S. D. Luzzatto on Exodus, p. 209.) Moreover, in Tanach itself, the root chet-resh-tzade also means both “cut” and “decide.” So there must be something deeper going on.

I will suggest a few ideas. The answer is probably a combination of all of them: 1) A decree separates the past from the present and separates what is permitted from what is forbidden. 2) Both cutting and a decree have a sense of finality. 3) A cut is a form of a stroke, and a decree is a decision that resolves a difficulty at a single stroke.

I saw some of the above ideas in the Radak, Sefer HaShorashim, entry G-Z-R. When he discusses Esther 2:1, he explains that the meaning of “nigzar” is: “nechtach hadavar shelo yashuv od achor”—the matter is decided so it will not go back to the previous way. (Regarding the word “nechtach,” see my discussion at the end.)

In English, when we make a decision, we often say that “we are drawing a line,” i.e., making a separation.

To finish up our discussion of G-Z-R in Tanach, let us talk about the nouns:

“Gezarim” means “parts” in two famous passages. At Genesis 15:17, a symbolic representation of God walks through the parts of cut animals (“bein hagezarim”). At Psalms 136:13, we are reminded of God’s dividing the sea into parts: “le-gozer Yam Suf legezarim.”

At Leviticus 16:22, as part of the Yom Kippur ritual, the goat that bears all of Israel’s sins goes to “eretz gezerah,” a far off, separated area so that it cannot return.

The book of Ezekiel (Chapters 41 and 42) uses the word “gizrah” several times. Many interpret the meaning to be a “separate section” of the Temple. “Gazrin” and “gazraya” are mentioned four times in the book of Daniel. These words are usually translated as “astrologers.” The words derive from our root and mean people who determine the future based on looking at the stars.

A “magzerah” is a cutting instrument. This word is found at II Sam 12:31 (in the plural).

At Eichah 4:7, the word “gizratam” means “their form.” “Form” is related to cutting.

The Tanach also refers to city in Israel named “Gezer.” It has been suggested that its name reflects that it was separated off in some way. But this is only conjecture. (This city is very old. It was first settled in the fourth millennium B.C.E. We are not sure when it began to be called “Gezer.” In 1908, an important inscription in old Hebrew from the 10th century B.C.E was found there, describing an annual cycle of agricultural activities. It is referred to today as the “Gezer Calendar.” It deserves a separate column!)

Moving on to Arabic, in this language “jazira” means “island.” It is called this because it is cut off from the land. The country Algeria gets its name from this word. The country is known in Arabic as “Al Djazair.” There are a number of small islands nearby, which gave this name to the city Algiers. Later, the country got its name from the city. The Arabic television network “Al Jazeera” also means “the island.” Here it means the peninsula of Qatar, which is surrounded by water on three sides. (I learned all of this Arabic trivia from the site balashon.com.)

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There is one more important aspect of the root G-Z-R. In modern Hebrew, “gizron” means “etymology,” the study of the derivation of a word. It seems that in medieval Hebrew, the root G-Z-R was used by some to mean “derived a word.” Then it was decided in modern times to use “gizron” to mean “etymology” in general. I need to do a full etymological study of the word “gizron.” (That would be like writing a coffee table book about coffee tables! I assume that many of you will understand my reference! On a related note, did you know that the last name of R. Elijah Gaon of Vilna was “Kramer”?)

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Additional Notes:

-You can look online and see that the English words “decide” and “decree” derive from a word that meant “cut.” Also, the English word “determine” is derived from the word “terminate,” which also has a sense of separation.

-In Tanach, both G-Z-R and Ch-R-Tz mean “cut” and “decide, decree.” Also, I quoted the Radak earlier and he used the root chet-tav-caf. This root appears only one time in Tanach, at Daniel 9:24, where it means “decree.” But we know this root well from post-biblical Hebrew with the meaning “cut.”

-Finally, what is perhaps the most important Hebrew or Aramaic word that we know today for “decide”? That would be “psak.” What is the origin of this word? We all know this word from the phrase “pesik reisha”—cut off its head. So P-S-K initially meant “cut” and then expanded to mean “decision, decree.” See M. Jastrow, p. 1201. (P-Samech-K is not in Tanach, but it is related to P-Sin-K, which is in Tanach, at Mishlei 13:3 and Ez. 16:25.)

By Mitchell First


Mitchell First is now sitting at a coffee table (without any carrots), separating out his source sheets and deciding what etymological article to write next week. He can be reached at [email protected]