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Thursday, February 20, 2020

I previously wrote about interesting words in Az Yashir and the Amidah. Now I will turn my attention to Hallel, which comprises Tehillim chapters 113-118. I will discuss these words in the order they appear. I will use ḥ (and Ḥ) for the letter “ḥet.”

Akeret: Here the meaning is “barren, without children.” Most of the time in Tanach the meaning is similar, as the root Ayin-K-R means “uproot.” But we know in Hebrew today that the “ikar” is “the main thing” (not “the missing thing”)! How could this root have these two almost opposite meanings?

The answer is that there are two different Ayin-K-R roots in Tanach. Yes, the Hebrew root means “uproot.” But there is also an Aramaic root Ayin-K-R. This root is found in Daniel, in the fourth chapter, in the Aramaic section of the book. Here the meaning is “the main part.” The Hebrew and Aramaic roots are not related.

The reason this is interesting is that people today sometimes refer to an important woman as an “akeret ha-bayit,” borrowing the expression from our Hebrew verse in Tehillim. They intend the Aramaic meaning “main.” But the verse they are citing is Hebrew, where “akeret” means “barren/uprooted”!

Loez: The root of this word is lamed-ayin-zayin. This is the only time this root appears in Tanach. Fortunately, the root appears in the Mishnah. Mishnah Megillah 2:1 tells us: “korin otah le-loazot be-laaz,” we may read [the Megillah] for those who speak a foreign language in a foreign language. So “am loez” means a nation that speaks a foreign language.

Ḥalamish: This word appears five times in Tanach. From all these verses, it is easy to determine that it is a kind of “rock.” I always found this word intriguing as it has all these different consonants. With investigation, I thought I would find that it was of foreign origin, or at least better understand why it has all these letters. But it does not seem to be of foreign origin and I still don’t understand why it has all these letters. But I did find out something else intriguing.

There is a word Ḥ-Sh-M-L that appears three times in Yechezkel (1:4, 1:27, and 8:2). Many scholars believe that this word is related to our Ḥ-L-M-Sh, even though the letters are in a different order! According to Hayim Tawil, the Akkadian version of Ḥ-L-M-Sh (“elmeshu”) refers to a “precious stone with the characteristic sparkle and brilliancy of fire.” That would fit the context in the verses in Yechezkel. (As is well known, the modern Hebrew word for “electricity” was derived from this difficult word in the book of Yechezkel.)

Atzabeihem: The root here is ayin-tzade-bet. This Hebrew root has two different meanings: 1) pain/grieve (many times) and 2) form/shape (see Job 10:8 and Jer. 44:19). “Atzabeihem” means “their idols.” This obviously comes from the “form/shape” meaning.

It is hard to believe that these two different ayin-tzade-bet meanings are somehow related.

Now I would like to mention some very creative (but very unlikely) approaches that have been suggested to connect “idols” to “pain/grieve” (instead of to “form/shape”): 1) Solomon Mandelkern theorizes that the root ayin-tzade-bet could fundamentally mean “avodah,” hard work, that makes you tired. The word was then transferred to idols because they too have “avodah” done for them! 2) Matityahu Clark, in his Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, suggests that the “idol” meaning really means “a rejecting God,” i.e., a God who causes pain. (See also Rav S. R. Hirsch, commentary to Gen. 3:16.)

Sheol (netherworld): Most likely, the root is shin-aleph-he=desolation, and the lamed is just a suffix and not part of the root.

Ḥilatza: The root here is Ḥ-L-Tz, which means “release.” The interesting question is what the root means in Birkat HaChodesh (based on Isa. 58:11): “ḥilutz atzamot.” I discussed this at length in a past column and also address it in my new book, “Roots and Rituals.” (I also discuss sheol there as well.)

Et’halech. The root here is the well-known root H-L-Ch=walk. But what is the role of the hitpael here? We are all taught that the typical hitpael meaning is to do something to yourself. So is the meaning here “I will walk myself”? The truth is that the hitpael has other functions as well. One of them is to do something continually. When H-L-Ch is in the hitpael, it means to “walk continually.”

Shaar: The noun “shaar” with the meaning “gate” appears many times in Tanach. But two times in Tanach we have the word “shaar” with the meaning “measure”: as a noun at Gen. 26:12 (“meah shearim”), and as a verb at Mishlei 23:7. (We all know later versions of this word, “shiur”=measure, and set measure of learning.) Are the “gate” and “measure” meanings related? After all, the price of merchandise may have typically been negotiated at the town gate. Standard measures may have been posted there as well.

With the discovery of Ugaritic in the early 20th century, we can finally answer this question. Ugaritic is a Semitic language that is earlier than Hebrew. Ugaritic has a word for “gate” that evolved into the Hebrew “sh-a-r” and it has a word for “measure” that evolved into the Hebrew “sh-a-r.” But the two Ugaritic roots are different and most likely do not derive from a common root. See the entry in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament for details.

Afafuni Ḥevlei Mavet: The Complete ArtScroll Siddur translates this as: “The pains of death encircled me.” Is this correct?

The root Ḥ-B-L has four different meanings in Tanach: 1) cord 2) take a pledge 3) cause damage and 4) the anxiousness and/or labor pains that the expectant mother feels approaching birth.

The Complete ArtScroll Siddur is adopting the fourth meaning. But this is a strange metaphor: a combination of a pre-birth image with a death image.

The full sentence of Psalms 116:3 reads: “afafuni ḥevlei mavet, u-metzarei Sheol metzauni...” The last three words mean “the confines of Sheol have found me.” This suggests that ḥevlei mavet is utilizing the “cord” meaning. Also, our phrase afafunei ḥevlei mavet is found at Psalms 18:5. There, in the next verse we find: ḥevlei Sheol sevavuni (encircled me), and a reference to mokshei mavet (snares of death). These phrases also suggest that ḥevlei mavet is utilizing the “cord” meaning.

One of the main functions of cords in biblical times was to trap and kill animals by tying them to a stake. That is the image that ḥevlei mavet of Psalms 18:5 and 116:3 is trying to conjure. The image is one of imminent mortal danger, of one entwined in the bonds of death.

The Complete ArtScroll Siddur chose the “pains” translation because many Rishonim chose this translation at Psalms 18:5 and 116:3.

But the Daat Mikra commentary realizes that all the contextual clues point to ḥevlei mavet meaning “cords of death” and that the image is one of the trapped animal. However, the Daat Mikra commentary is hesitant to give this as the primary interpretation, because usually the expression “cords of” is vocalized as ḥavlei (with a pataḥ), not ḥevlei (with a segol) as it is here. (This is also probably why the Rishonim avoid the “cords of death” interpretation.) Therefore, the Daat Mikra commentary concludes that the literal meaning of ḥevlei mavet must be “pains of death,” but that the underlying image of “cords of death” and a trapped animal is surely intended as well. (Their main discussion is on verse 18:5.)

My own review of Ḥ-B-LY in Tanach reveals that even with a segol the meaning is sometimes “cords of.” See Psalms 18:6 and II Samuel 22:6. So there is no bar to adopting the “cords of death” meaning as the primary meaning of ḥevlei mavet. Of course, even if the primary meaning is “cords of death,” perhaps the other meanings of “anxiousness/pain,” or “damage” were intended to be alluded to as well.

By Mitchell First


Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. Analyzing that root Ḥ-B-L caused him a lot of anxiousness and left him fit to be tied! Now that he has freed himself, he can be reached at [email protected]

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.