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Monday, April 06, 2020

This column will address the root “amar.” Am I so desperate for topics that I picked such a seemingly boring one? Please read the entire column before you jump to this conclusion!

1. The root A-M-R is a common root in the Semitic languages. In Ugaritic, it has meanings like “to be visible, “to see,” and “to make visible.” In Akkadian too, the root means “to see.” In one of the other Semitic languages, it means “to inform.” Almost certainly, there was a development from “see, make visible” to “inform” to “say.” (See the Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon, p. 65.)

2. In Arabic, the root has the related meaning “to command.”

3. That well-known word “emir”(ruler) derives from the above Arabic root. See, e.g., E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, p. 35 and the concordance of S. Mandelkern, entry “amar.” Even more interestingly, the English word “admiral” (naval commander) ultimately derives from this root! See the post at balashon.com of June 8, 2006.

4. The Hebrew root A-M-R appears over 5,300 times in Tanach. Almost always, our root appears only in the kal and the niphal. But it appears once in the hitpael, and twice in the hiphil. I would like to address these unusual occurrences.

5. Let us address the hitpael first. It is at Psalms 94:4, which we recite this psalm every Wednesday. Here is the second part of verse 94:3: “How long will the wicked exult?” Then comes verse 4: “yabiu yedabru atak, yitamru kol poalei aven.”

The first three words mean: They gush out (speak) and speak arrogance. “Poalei aven” means “workers of iniquity.” But what does “yitamru” mean?

From the context, it seems to mean something like to speak with arrogance, since it is parallel to those first three words. (Regarding “atak,” see Psalms 31:19.) Is “arrogance” a meaning of the root A-M-R? We will see below that many read a meaning like “raised” into the two hiphil instances of A-M-R at Deuteronomy 26. There is also a word Aleph-Mem-Yod-Resh which appears two times in Tanach (Isaiah 17:6 and 17:9) and may mean something like a high place, or the top of a tree.

Accordingly, many translate “yitamru” with a “raise” meaning here. The “raise” meaning can mean “glorify themselves/boast” or “raise themselves against God.” For the former, see, e.g., Ibn Ezra, Metzudat Tzion, and the ArtScroll siddur. For the latter, see Radak.

But there is a simpler approach which does not have to read a new meaning into the root A-M-R. “Yitamru” is in the hitpael. While the hitpael often connotes doing something to yourself, sometimes it means doing something to one another. See, e.g., Genesis. 42:1: titrau (looking at one another) and II Chronicles 24:25: hitkashru (conspiring with one another). The meaning at Psalms 94:4 would be “speaking to one another.” This is one of the interpretations suggested in a note at Da’at Mikra to 94:4. Perhaps the implication here of “speaking to one another” is “making connections with one another” or “conspiring with one another.”

I also think it is possible to read the word “atak” in as the implied next word: They are speaking “atak” to one another. (If you look at verse 3, you will see that something similar occurs there: “ad matai reshaim Ado-nai, ad matai reshaim yaalozu.” “Yaalozu” is eventually read in to the previous phrase.)

I do admit that “amar” with the meaning “say” is almost always followed (or sometimes preceded) by the specific words said. (For the latter, see, e.g., Exodus 19:25.) One notable exception is Genesis 4:8: ”va-yomer Kayin el Hevel achiv, va-yehi bihiyotam be-sadeh….” (Interestingly, both the Greek version and Targum Yonatan have an additional phrase here before “va-yehi”: “Let us go into the field.”)

6. With regard to the hiphil, the two cases are at Deuteronomy 26, verses 17 and 18. Verse 17: “et Hashem he-emarta hayom lihiyot lecha l’eilokim ve-lalechet be-derachav ve-lishmor mitzvotav…..” Verse 18: “Va-Hashem he-emircha hayom lihiyot lo le-am segulah….”

Rashi suggests a meaning of “hafrashah ve-havdalah,” separation. An additional view found in Rashi cites Psalms 94:4 and uses the word “tiferet.” (This seems to be a later addition, not by Rashi himself. See the ArtScroll Rashi.) Ramban says “gidaltem Hashem ve-romamtem oto.”

All these views can be justified from the context. But when you look at the two words themselves, they literally mean “cause to say.” As stated by Rabbi J.H. Hertz: it is “probably a technical legal term by which either of the two parties to a covenant made the other utter a declaration of his obligation under it.” Hence it is from the root A-M-R, “to say.”

The problem with this view is that, while it fits the first seven words of verse 17, it does not fit the words thereafter starting with “ve-lalechet.” There is a similar but lesser problem with the flow of verse 18 into verse 19. But I can live with these difficulties. For an attempt to get around them, while still seeing the root as the causative of A-M-R, to say, see the commentary of Rav S.R. Hirsch. Rav Hirsch writes clearly that the words “can mean nothing else than to cause somebody else to say something.” See also the view of R. Yehuda Ha-Levi quoted in Ibn Ezra.

In modern scholarship, the Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon first gives the meaning “induced to say,” calling it a “covenant formula.” But then it makes the alternative suggestion of “raise.”

7. Finally, in the blessing to Naphtali at Genesis 49:21, we have “ha-noten imrei shefer.” I will explore this in a separate column, but it deserves a brief note here. The ArtScroll Stone Chumash translates: “who delivers beautiful sayings.” But now that we know that A-M-R (in the form A-M-Y-R) also has a tree-related meaning, as some suggest that the land of Naphtali had “beautiful branches.” (See Daat Zekenim, and Malbim.) But I do not agree with this interpretation.

8. What I have been trying to show in this column is that there is insufficient reason to postulate a separate verb A-M-R with a meaning like “raised.” All the usages of A-M-R as a verb can be explained without it. (The fact that the noun “aleph-mem-yod-resh “appears two times in Tanach with a meaning like “high place,” or “top of a tree” is a problem with my approach, but not a severe problem.)

9. If there really is a verb A-M-R with a meaning like “raise” in Biblical Hebrew, I have seen the suggestion that both the “say” and “raise” meanings could have derived from an original A-M-R root that meant “making a statement with raised voice.”


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected] He used to enjoy being a speaker but now he enjoys raising questions and talking to himself and beautifully writing out the answers.

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