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Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Tanach has several words for stick: shevet, mateh, mishenet, and makel. What is the difference between them?

Let us analyze the easiest one first, “mishenet.” The root here is shin-ayin-nun. This verb means “lean, support.” So a “mishenet” was originally a stick used for assistance in walking or when one needs a temporary rest from walking, i.e., a cane. This word appears several times in Tanach. One of them is in the well-known verse at Psalms 23:4: “shivtecha u-mishantecha heimah yenachamuni.”

What about “mateh” (mem-tet-heh)? What is the root of this word? You may be surprised to learn that the root is nun-tet-heh. A mateh really should be analyzed as if it were written M-N-T-H. The initial “nun” root letter dropped. This is a common phenomenon in Hebrew. (I wrote a column about it long ago. For example, here is another common word: “matanah”=gift. This should be read as if it were “mantanah,” from the root N-tav-N= give.)

The root N-tet-H has several meanings: “stretch out/extend,” “incline” and “bend down.” (Surely these are related but that is another discussion.) So a “mateh” was originally a rod that was used to “extend” one’s reach.

(By the way, what is the root of the word “mitah,” a bed in modern Hebrew? That would also be N-tet-H, from the “stretch out” meaning. I have seen it suggested that the word originated as a blanket that was spread on the floor. It was not a “bed” as we conceive it today. Another related word is “le-matah,” downward, from the “bend down” meaning.)

What about “makel”? This is a difficult one. Postulating an initial “nun” that dropped does not help us, as there is no Hebrew root N-kof-lamed! S. Mandelkern, in his concordance, makes several speculative suggestions. Ernest Klein, in his A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of Hebrew, p. 379, writes that this word is “of uncertain etymology.” But then he suggests a relation to an Egyptian word for such an object: “ma-qi-ra.”(Switches of the L sound and the R sound between different languages and even within the same languages are common.)

The word “makel” appears 18 times in Tanach (in its various forms). Malbim (on Jeremiah’s early vision of a “makel shoked”) notes that the word is often used to describe an object used to hit an animal. (See, e.g., the story of Bilam and his donkey, at Num. 22:27). Accordingly, Malbim believes that the primary function of a “makel” was a hitting one.

Now let us get to the ubiquitous word “shevet.” There is no verb Sh-B-T in Hebrew. In Akkadian, there is a verb like this that means “to strike, beat.” So it is possible that our noun came from this verb! This seems to be the view of Klein. But it is also possible that this verb in Akkadian came after the noun.

The noun “shevet” appears 191 times in Tanach (in its various forms). It has two main meanings: “stick” and “tribe.” This same phenomenon occurs with the word “mateh.” Most likely, the explanation is that these words first referred to the “mateh” and “shevet” of the tribal leader, and then expanded to mean the tribe itself, i.e., to everyone under the command of the one who holds the “mateh” or “shevet.”

Did the noun “shevet” have a particular connotation originally? Many suggest this. But it is hard to maintain, given that the noun appears in many different contexts. It may simply have meant a wooden stick that could be used for a number of purposes.

One context where “shevet” was used is that of shepherds. It was an important weapon in holding off wild animals and thieves from the flock. It was also an aide in guiding the flock. It was also used for counting the flock or for separating out certain animals from it, e.g., for tithing purposes (see Lev. 27:32).

The Tanach also uses the word “shevet” outside the context of shepherds. It is an instrument of education, punishment and discipline, both for individuals and for nations. See, e.g., Isa. 14:29 (the “shevet” that struck the Philistines).

Eventually it developed into a symbol of leadership, power and dominion. See, e.g., Gen. 49:10: “lo yasur shevet mi-Yehudah.” I.e., from its basic meaning, it expanded to mean the one who holds the “shevet.”

Finally, there is one more word in Tanach for a “stick.” The word is “sharvit.” It appears only in the book of Esther (four times). A widespread view is that it is an Aramaism of the word “shevet.” There are other occasions when the Aramaic style of a word adds an “R.” See, e.g., the word caf-resh-samekh-aleph (=throne) at Dan. 5:20, which is an Aramaic variant of the Hebrew “kisei”: caf-samech-aleph. (The Hebrew “kisei” may have its origin in Sumerian.) Others view “sharvit” as an Aramaism of the Akkadian word “shabbitu” (which has the same meaning as the Hebrew “shevet”). See, e.g., Klein, p. 680.

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Now let us try to provide some insight into the phrase at Ps. 23:4: “shivtecha u-mishantecha heimah yenachamuni.” This chapter begins with a statement by David that God is my shepherd (23:1). Then, at verse 4, the statement is made that God’s “shevet” and “mishenet” will comfort him.

Rav Hirsch suggests: “I take comfort in the knowledge that whatever I receive from Thee, be it chastisement or support, is indeed Thine and comes solely from Thee.” Rashi too views the “shevet” here in a similar manner, as inflicting “yisurim.”

But the Daat Mikra interprets the verse as follows: The speaker (who is speaking as a sheep) is saying: I can relax and feel secure knowing that the shepherd has a “shevet” to strike the wild animals and help lead the way for me, and that he has a “mishenet” to lean on when he navigates the hills and rocks. If we follow the Daat Mikra’s interpretation of the verse, its import is that we all should be comforted due to the protection that God provides us.

To close with a few more interpretations: Radak interprets “shivtecha” as “yesurin,” and “mishantecha” as the Torah (since we lean/rely on it). Malbim views “shivtecha” as the adversity that David encountered in his life. It comforted him because he knew its purpose was to steer him in the path of righteousness. Finally, in the view of Metzudat David: “shivtecha” refers to being hit with the “shevet” of “yisurin,” but immediately God brings us back/provides us support (“mishantecha”). This way we know right away that God does not abandon us. -

By Mitchell First


Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney. He needs to carry around a stick to help protect himself from difficult clients. 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.