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.


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