Friday, 20 January 2017

The Plague of Arov: A New Understanding

From RRW
 Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                      The Plague of Arov: A New Understanding
              When I started the research for this article, I intended to survey the various traditional understandings of the plague. Along the way, I discovered a completely new and intriguing understanding which may be the plain sense. But I am going to hold you in suspense and not reveal it until the end.
               Most of us assume that this plague consisted of an attack by various wild animals (chayot). This is essentially the approach taken by Rashi. But a midrash records two different Amoraic understandings of this plague. According to R. Yehudah, the plague consisted of chayot me’uravevot (=a mixture of wild animals). According to R. Nehemiah, the plague consisted of minei tzirin ve-yitushin (=various species of hornets and mosquitoes/gnats). See Shemot Rabbah 11:3.  Both of these Sages are interpreting the word arov as mixture. Just that in the view of R. Yehudah, it is a mixture of large animals, and in the view of R. Nehemiah, it is a mixture of much smaller ones. In the view of both, the precise animals are not identified in the name of the plague.
                The reason for the disagreement about the identity of the specific animals involved is that the description of the plague at Exodus 8:17-27 does not give enough clues. The text does state that the arov will fill the houses of the Egyptians and be on their land, and va-tishachet ha-aretz mi-pnei he-arov. The text also records that after the plague was removed, “not one remained.” But these statements are  vague as to the precise nature of the arov.
               Descriptions of many of the plagues are also found in chapters 78 and 105 of Tehillim. With regard to the plague of arov, there is a reference to it at 105:31, but it is not helpful. However, at 78:45 the reference to the plague does provide some information. We are told: yeshalach ba-hem arov va-yochlem. The last word (“and it will eat them”) at first glance seems to support the view of R. Yehudah that large animals were involved that ate the Egyptians.              
              Do we have earlier sources for the meaning of arov prior to the Amoraim? Our earliest source is the translation of the Torah into Greek, composed in Egypt around 200 B.C.E. Here the translation is kunomuia, literally: “dog-fly,” a particularly unyielding type of fly. Perhaps this translation was based on an older tradition as to the nature of arov. But I would suggest another possibility. The authors of the Greek translation knew that arov meant mixture, and believed or had a tradition that arov was a very small animal, and then picked kunomuia because it was viewed as hybrid type of animal. In this way, they were able to interpret arov as a “mixture.”
            Another early translation we have is that of Josephus (Antiquities II, 303), writing around 100 C.E. He translates the plague as “wild beasts of every species and kind.” This translation seems to be based on an understanding of arov as “mixture.“
             So according to perhaps all of the views that I have described so far, the Torah is interpreted as having not described the actual animal involved, but having used a word that meant only “mixture.” At first glance, this seems unusual. But perhaps we are dealing with a common ancient idiom and in Biblical times everyone understood what particular mixture was implied by the word arov.
            I should also mention that the church father Jerome (c. 400 C.E.), who was aware of many of the teachings of the Palestinian Amoraim, translated the word with a Latin word that meant “insects.”              
           Many scholars believe that there are a few grounds to prefer the very small animal view and I agree with them. (I am referring here to S.D. Luzzatto and U. Cassuto and many others.) First, the verses in chapter 8 refer to the arov entering the houses of the Egyptians. If the animals involved were large ones, the houses could have been secured to prevent them from entering. Also, if the securing would have been to no avail, the text would have described the animals breaking down the premises upon entering. But no such large-scale destruction upon entering is described. Rather, it is simply stated that the arov would be sent out and fill the premises.
            A second reason to prefer the very small animals approach is that the root ayin-resh-bet with the meaning of “mixture” is more naturally applied to small objects. Large objects, each taking up its own  space, are inherently less of a mixture. A third reason to prefer the very small animals approach is based on a widespread view that the plagues came in pairs. (See, e.g., the commentary to Exodus of Cassuto, and the Daat Mikra commentary, p. 127 and p. 174, n. 77.) For example, the first and second plagues, blood and frogs, were both primarily addressed towards the Nile. The seventh and eighth plagues, hail and locusts, were both primarily addressed to the crops. If our fourth plague, arov, was meant as a pair to the third plague, kinim (=lice), obviously the very small animal interpretation fits bitter. The va-yochlem of Tehillim 78:45 can easily be interpreted metaphorically to include damage inflicted by very small animals.                                                                
                  An altogether different approach to the plague is adopted by Rav S.R. Hirsch. He suggests that the word arov derives from the word aravah (= wilderness), and that the plague alludes to “animals from the wilderness.” I would respond that, although there are verses that refer to animals in the context of an aravah, animals do not seem to be a primary characteristic of an aravah. It is therefore a leap to claim that the word arov alludes to animals from the aravah.
                   An even more speculative approach is adopted by Rashbam. He notes that the Tanakh refers to ze’evei  erev at Zefaniah 3:3, and to ze’ev aravot at Jeremiah 5:6. These could mean “wolves of the wilderness.” But Rashbam suggests that both mean “wolves of the evening” and that the plague arov is referring to such wolves, who typically go out and attack at night.
                 There is, however, an alternative approach to identifying the Biblical arov. It relies on looking at other ancient languages. For example, in Akkadian there was a word urbatu that meant “worm.” Some theorize that this was the arov of the Bible.  But there is a much better suggestion.
                Let us meet the beetles. A scarab is a type of beetle. It was called karabos in Greek. It was called kh-p-r in Egyptian. There was probably a variant pronunciation in Egyptian, kh-r-p, which would explain the way the name was recorded in Greek. Karabos and Kh-r-p would both be very close to the Hebrew ayin-resh-bet, due to the guttural sound that the ayin made. (The “os” in the Greek is likely just a Greek addition to a foreign word.)
                 What do we know about the scarab in ancient Egypt? As Isaac Mozeson phrased it, the ancient Egyptians had “beetlemania.” They worshipped this particular beetle! In ancient Egypt, the scarab was sculptured on monuments, painted on tombs, and worn around the neck as an amulet. Many (or perhaps all) of the plagues were attacks on the various deities of Egypt. This would be another such example! Here at the end of the plague Hashem took away all the arov (Ex. 8:27: “not one remained”). In contrast, a plague of “a mixture of animals” is not a clear judgment on an Egyptian deity. 
                 The “scarab” suggestion (originally made by a 19th century British scholar) was referred to by Rabbi J.H. Hertz in his note on Ex. 8:17, and seems to have been his preferred interpretation. But R. Hertz did not sufficiently explain it. The suggestion was also referred to without sufficient explanation by R. Aryeh Kaplan in The Living Torah. But the suggestion was explained well by Isaac Mozeson in his book The Word and in his site, entry “scarab.”  The source I have found that best describes the explanation is a blog entry of Mar. 13 2012 by Seth Ben-Mordecai, at the site (He is the author of a book: The Exodus Haggadah.)
                    To summarize, a widespread view is that the word arov represents some kind of mixture. Perhaps in Biblical times, everyone understood the idiom and knew what that mixture was. But if you believe that the Torah was likely referring to a specific animal, then the ancient scarab is a very good suggestion.  (Perhaps I should have titled this article: “John Lennon and the Plague of Arov”!)                     
            Additional notes: 1) Some sources that said the beetle was called a’ov in Egyptian. But I did not find this in the more reliable sources. 2)  I mentioned only one midrash above, a dispute in Shemot Rabbah between R.  Yehudah and R. Nehemiah. But there are many other midrashim that include an interpretation of arov. The views expressed in most of these midrashim are similar to that of R.  Yehudah (large animals).  Some further midrashic sources are Shemot Rabbah 11:2 and Midrash Tehillim 78:11.
Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at
His most recent book is Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy.
(Kodesh Press, 2015). He enjoys mixtures but is not fond of animals, small or large. He was fond of, but did not worship, The Beatles.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Words that appear only one time in Tanakh

From RRW
 Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                        Words that Appear Only One Time in Tanakh
               There is a special term for words that appear only one time in Tanakh.They are called “hapax legomena.” (This is Greek for “once said.”) There are about 1300 such words in Tanakh. Of course, a form of a word might appear only one time, but the root itself may appear many times.  An example is emdato (“standing place) of Michah 1:11. We all know the root ayin-mem-dalet, so there is no problem in understanding this one-time word. The more interesting words are words that appear only one time and do not share a related three-letter root with other known words.  There are about 400 such words. 
              Both the Encyclopaedia Judaica and the old Jewish Encyclopedia include an entry for “hapax legmonena.” But the Jewish Encyclopedia also includes an attempt at a list of such words. Many of the hapax legmonena are words for animals, plants and diseases. Others are loan words from foreign languages.
             Sometimes the meaning of these words can be guessed at from the context. If not, sometimes we can find help in one of the other Semitic languages. Other times we can find the word in Hebrew from a later period such as the Mishnah. We can also look to how the word was translated into Greek in the Septuagint around 200 BCE. Finally, sometimes we make a reasonable conjecture that the word is related to another Hebrew root that shares some of its root letters.
             The Jewish Encyclopedia lists 15 hapax legomena in the book of Genesis. I will now go through some of them. (For brevity, I will shorten the term to hapax.) You will see that for many of these words, there is a question as to whether or not the word is properly considered a hapax.
           Hal’iteini (25:30) (used by Esau when asking to be fed): Although the root lamed-ayin-tet appears nowhere else in Tanakh, it does appear in the Mishnah and Tosefta (e.g., Mishnah Shabbat 24:3). We can deduce from these sources that it means to put food into someone’s mouth. (It is in the hiph’il, so literally it means “to cause someone else to swallow.”)
            Batnim (43:11) (sent by Jacob to Joseph): From the context, these seem to be a type of nuts.  The word is usually translated as “pistachios.” Even though this word only appears once, the word for stomach, beten, appears many times. S. Mandelkern suggests that batnim are called this because they have the shape of a stomach. If this unlikely conjecture would be correct, then batnim should not be considered a hapax.
             Gofer (6:14) (a type of wood used to make Noah’s ark): A different word with the same root letters, gafrit, appears many times and means “sulphur.” If gofer and gafrit would be related, then gofer should not be considered a hapax. But admittedly a relationship between the two seems unlikely.
              Avrekh (41:43) (used regarding Joseph, after his important appointment: va-yikreu lefanav avrekh): Perhaps this is an Egyptian word, some kind of title that Joseph was given. But it is possible that it is a Hebrew word and is related to the word for knee (bet-resh-caf) and means “bend down, kneel” (as Joseph passes by). If so, it should not be considered a hapax.
         Meshek (15:2): u-ven meshek beiti hu Damesek Eliezer. It seems that the reason this unusual word was chosen was a play on words with Damesek (even though Damesek has a sin, and not a shin). From the context, it seems that meshek means something like “support” (Rashi, Targum) or “manage” (S.D. Luzzatto). Many suggest a relation with yishak of Gen. 41:40.  (Note that another difficult word, mimshak, appears at Zeph. 2:9. If it would be related to meshek, then meshek would not be a hapax.)
           Mishtaeh (24:21) (describing Eliezer looking at Rivkah): The root here is shin-aleph-he. This root does appear elsewhere in Tanakh. It has the meaning of “desolation” or “ruin.” The author of the Jewish Encyclopedia list included mishtaeh because he believed that the underlying shin-aleph-he root here is not related to the other shin-aleph-he root. But many disagree and do relate Eliezer’s action to the “desolation” meaning. They view the meaning of Eliezer’s mishtaeh as “astonished,” and believe its origin is “desolation/emptiness of the brain.”  I find this hard to accept.
        Looking outside of Genesis, here are some of my favorite hapax:
         Maakeh (Deut. 22:8): The Torah commands us to build a maakeh for our roofs, so people will not fall. But what is a maakeh? The root ayin- kuf-he appears nowhere else in Tanakh. But from the context, we understand that it must mean some kind of railing. (Many also suggest a connection with the root ayin-vav-kuf, which means “press.”)
         Mesakrot (Isaiah 3:16): This is described as something that haughty women do with their eyes. The root here is sin-kuf-resh. But wait a minute, the root shin-kuf-resh (to lie) appears 119 times.  Why was the dot put on the left here? Why was not the dot put on the right like all the other times? Obviously, those who were responsible for the nekudot must have had a strong tradition that the letter here was a sin and not a shin. As to the meaning of the Biblical root sin-kuf-resh, some attempt to deduce its meaning from the Mishnaic root samekh-kuf-resh, which itself has two different meanings: paint red, and look.
         Ha-Achashtranim Bnei Ha-Ramakhim (Esther 8:10): Here we have two such words. This is a well-known phrase because an amora in the Talmud (at Meg. 18a) seems to admit that even the amoraic Sages did not know the meaning of the phrase.  Ramakhim is found in Mishnah Kilaim 8:5, and is a kind of horse, so perhaps the amoraic statement is really focused on the first word. The solution to achashtranim was found in the mid-19th century, when ancient Persian cuneiform was deciphered. It likely means “governmental.” (For those curious, the phrase is discussed at length in an article by Rabbi Zvi Ron in the Jan.-Mar. 2008 issue of The Jewish Bible Quarterly.)
     There are words that appear twice in Tanakh but effectively appear only once. This occurs when an identical passage is repeated in two different books of the Tanakh. An example is shenhabim (ivory), found only at 1 Kings 10:22 and its repetition at II Chronicles 9:21. (Shenhav is a combination of shen/tooth and hav/elephant.) Another interesting word is amtachat (sack), repeated 14 times in Genesis chapters 42-44, but found nowhere else!
     Finally, there is a very unusual root, tet-aleph-tet-aleph, that appears only twice in Tanakh, both times at Is. 14:23. It means “sweep.” According to the Talmud (Rosh Ha-Shanah 26b), the Sages only learned the meaning of this word by overhearing it being used by the handmaid of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi!
Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (Kodesh Press, 2015). He can be reached at  He regrets not having used any hapax in his book title.