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Thursday, February 20, 2020

Part II

Medinah (1:1 and elsewhere): province, region. This word does not appear in the Torah but it appears in Nach, starting with I Kings and in some of the books that date after that.

If you were inventing a word for “region,” perhaps you might invent some word with a root like “neighbor” or “family.” Alternatively, to mention a more pessimistic approach, the French philosopher Ernest Renan once wrote that “a nation is a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbors.” After that brief introduction, what exactly is the origin of this word “medinah”? The answer is easily seen. That initial mem is not a part of the root. The root of the word is din: law and jurisdiction. Fundamentally, what creates a region? The fact that people are united by a legal system that has authority and jurisdiction over them.

Karpas: (1:6): This is the only time this word appears in the Tanach. It is a loanword from Persian and means “fine fabric, linen.” In the Mishna, Tosefta and Talmud, we find our well-known word “karpas” that has the meaning of a plant, or celery/parsley. That word may also ultimately derive from Persian but it derives from a completely different Persian word. See Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English, p. 287.

(Note that the Mishnah, Tosefta and Talmud never mention “karpas” in connection with the seder. “Karpas” is not mentioned in connection with the seder until the Geonic period.)

Nigzar (2:1): The root G-Z-R in Tanach typically has a meaning like “cut” or “separate.” But here it has the meaning “decree”: Achashverosh remembers Vashti and what was “nigzar aleha” (=decreed upon her). The verb also has the meaning “decree” at Job 22:28. How did a verb that originally meant “cut” develop meanings like “decree” and “decide”? Interestingly, there is a connection between “cut” and words like “decree,” “decide” and “determine” in many languages. For example, in English, when we make a decision, we often say “we are drawing a line,” i.e., making a separation. The explanation is probably that a decree separates the past from the present and separates what is permitted from what is forbidden.

I saw something like this in the Radak, Sefer Ha-Shorashim, entry G-Z-R. When he discusses Esther 2:1, he explains that the meaning of “nigzar” is: “nechtach ha-davar she-lo yashuv od achor,” the matter is decided so it will not go back to the previous way.

Omein (2:7): We are told that Mordechai was “omein” to Esther. How should we translate this word?

Of course, we all know this root aleph-mem-nun. Usually it means something like “trust” or “believe.” But one time in Tanach, at Shir HaShirim 7:2, it means “craftsman.” The “trust/believe” meaning and the “craftsman” meaning are not related, as the latter comes from Akkadian. (But I did see one non-scholarly source that did not realize this and translated the A-M-N of Shir HaShirim 7:2 as a “dependable worker”!) (This reminds me that I once saw a TeaneckShuls moderator post an instruction that one is not allowed to ask for “reliable contractors,” as this implicitly maligns the rest of the contractors!)

Okay, so what did Mordechai do for Esther? And what did Naomi do for Ruth’s baby? (She is described as an “omenet” at Ruth 4:16.) Were they teaching their children crafts?

Many translate the word at Ruth 4:16 and elsewhere (e.g., Num. 11:12) as “nurse.” But the application of this word to Mordechai (and other men, see, e.g., II Kings 10:1,5) is difficult! And how would this “nurse” meaning have arisen from the root A-M-N?

I prefer a different approach. A common translation of our word at Esther 2:7 is “brought up.” But can we relate this to the root A-M-N? A reasonable explanation is provided by the article on our root in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. This article takes the position that the “bring up a child” (omein and omenet) meaning comes from the “trust” meaning, since the verb is used of men and women who are entrusted with (and trusted with) the care of dependent children. This article denies the existence of the “nurse” meaning altogether.

Because “omein” has been commonly thought to mean “nurse,” yet the word is male (unlike “omenet”), the Hertz Chumash was forced into the following translation at Num. 11:12: “as a nursing-father carries the suckling child”! (Note that this Chumash was merely reprinting the 1917 translation of the Jewish Publication Society at the top. Only the comments in the lower part of the page are by Rabbi Dr. Hertz. I only realized this two years ago, at age 58!)

Igeret (9:26,29): This word only appears in Esther, Nechemiah and II Chronicles. (A related word also appears two times in Ezra.) Everyone realizes from the context that the word means a letter. But why? There is a root in Hebrew, aleph-gimel-resh, that means “gather.” See, e.g., Deut: 28:39. Therefore, many of the traditional commentaries believed that an “igeret” was a collection of thoughts. But scholars now realize that the word “igeret” is likely derived from the Akkadian word “egirtu” that meant “letter.”

P.S. If you need a review on identifying Achashverosh and Esther in secular sources, please read the long article in my “Esther Unmasked” (2015), pp. 129-167. (If you only want a three-page version, please read my new book, “Roots and Rituals,” pp. 214-17.)

P.P.S. As I explain in these articles, Achashverosh’s name in its original Persian form was “Khshayarsha.” Almost no one realizes this, but 2,500 years later there are still people in Iran (and the U.S.) with the first or last name “Khshayarsha,” or a name derived from it, like “Khashayarsha,” or “Khashayar.” One of them is Iranian-born Khashayar Khatiri, now living in America, who was involved in raising over $1 million for the Pittsburgh synagogue!

By Mitchell First


Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. While he collects his thoughts and formulates his columns, he can be reached via email at [email protected]

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