Guest Blogger: Mitchell First
A Column About Nothing: What is the Root of the Word Hefker?
The title of this column alludes to a famous TV show. (For the handful of you who don’t understand it, it is not worth explaining.) In any event, my intent here is to write a serious column about the root of the word “hefker” (=ownerless property). I got interested in this topic when Mollie Fisch pointed out to me that in the edition of Mishnah Peah that she had been using, at Mishnah 6:1, the word hefker was spelled two different ways: once as HBKR and then as HFKR. Why would there be such an inconsistency, she asked, and what was the root of this word?Since the prevalent term today is HFKR, our first thought should be that the root is PKR. But there is no root PKR in Biblical Hebrew.The first source I typically go to for questions like this is Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English. This source is very useful because it covers words from all periods of Jewish history, not just words from Tanakh. This source had an entry for PKR and it related to HFKR to this root in two possible ways. First it suggested that the root PKR was a metathesis from the well-known root PRK, which meant things like “break” and “throw off the yoke.” Then it suggested that the root PKR was derived from the philosophy of the ancient Greek thinker Epicurus (3rd century BCE). Neither of these ideas sounded like good explanations for the word HFKR, so I began to research further. (But the Epicurus explanation is almost certainly the explanation for the Mishnaic term apikoros.)My research led me to the Ramban on Lev. 19:20. Here the Ramban states that the Mishnah consistently spells the word with a bet, HBKR, and that the spelling HFKR is a later variant that arose in Babylonia.Of course, today we don’t have Mishnah manuscripts from the time of R. Judah Ha-Nasi (200 C.E.) or anything close to that. The earliest Mishnah manuscript extant today is the “Kaufmann“ manuscript. It dates to the 10th or 11h century. But yes, it does spell the word with a bet. From everything I have read, I suspect that the Ramban is correct that this was the original Hebrew spelling in the Mishnah. (Over time, the HFKR spelling in the Babylonian Talmud influenced the copyists and printers of the Mishnah and led to some HFKR spellings in Mishnah manuscripts and printed editions.)It is still possible that HBKR has a relation to Epicurus or apikoros (one who abandons his religion), but the HBKR spelling opens up new possibilities. For example we can connect HBKR to the fact that bakar often graze on abandoned, ownerless land. But scholars today usually take a different approach to understanding the origin of the word HBKR with its bet spelling, as I will now explain.A verse in Leviticus 19:20 refers to a case of a man who has relations with a female slave who is already designated in some way (=necherefet) to another man. The term “necherefet” is very unclear and many facts of the case are unclear as well. In any event, in discussing the conclusion, the verse uses the phrase: bikoret tihiyeh (=it shall be a bikoret). Rashi and many others have understood the term has implying an investigation. But when you see the phrase in context, it seems to be more of a conclusion or an explanation, and not just a call for an investigation. Therefore, Ramban took the position that the meaning here was related to the meaning of HBKR and that the meaning was that the female slave was to be treated as if she was free of marital commitments (so that the usual death penalty for adultery would not apply).Today scholars continue to adopt the general approach of the Ramban and view the meaning of HBKR as tied to the meaning of “bikoret tihiyeh” in the above verse, even though they may disagree with the Ramban on the details of the interpretation. For example, a detailed article on this root was published by Shamma Friedman in volume 12 of Sidra (1996). Based on Akkadian, he believes that the meaning of the root BKR is freedom (shichrur), and movement from one reshut to another, and he understands both “bikoret tihiyeh” (freedom from a death punishment) and the root HBKR in this light.(Note that the Talmud, at Keritot 11a, understood “bikoret tihiyeh” as implying a punishment of lashes. But the two reasons offered there to justify this interpretation are not plain sense ones.)A general lesson we see from all of the above is that when you see an obvious problem as Mollie did, two different spellings of the same word found very near one another, it cries out for investigation (bikoret!) And then you can learn much from the answer and get a completely new perspective. Something similar happened to me many years ago. I was bothered by a severe inconsistency within the book of Eikhah. In the acrostics in chapters 2, 3 and 4, the pe verse preceded the ayin verse (an unusual phenomenon in itself). But there was a further problem that the acrostic in the first book was in the regular order of ayin preceding pe. I suspected that Eikhah was too small a book to have two different acrostic patterns. After many sleepless nights, I finally did the research and discovered that in the Dead Sea text of Eikhah chapter one, the pe verse preceded the ayin verse. Now at least there was consistency within the book of Eikhah (assuming the Dead Sea text reflected the original text). This discovery, along with some other archaeological discoveries made in the 1970’s, made me realize that pe preceding ayin was in fact the original order in ancient Israel. I ended up publishing an article in Biblical Archaeology Review in 2012 on this topic.Does our different spelling of hefker have any consequences for halakha? Today most of us include the term “hefker” in our bitul of chametz. (This was not always the case. Whether the bitul of chametz is connected to a hefker process is a major dispute. See M. Kasher, Haggadah Shelemah, p. 54. ) Since we are typically more strict when it comes to Pesach observance, perhaps someone will eventually suggest that we recite both the terms HFKR and HBKR!PS Anyone interested further in the meaning of HBKR, can go to the site balashon.com and find his discussion of “apikoros and hefker” (Mar. 2 2016). There, the article by Friedman can be accessed along with some other sources. Anyone interested in Hebrew words in general should subscribe to the balashon.com site.----------------------------------------------------Mitchell First is a personal attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at MFirstAtty@aol.com. His latest book is: Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy. You can read more about the pe ayin order in ancient Israel there. He hopes you learned something from this column about nothing.