Friday, 4 August 2017

Meaning of Chatan and Kallah

From RRW

Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                               What is the Origin of the Words “Chatan” and “Kallah”?

              My daughter’s recent engagement led me to thinking about these words.
              The Biblical word “chatan” means both “son-in–law” and “bridegroom.” But most scholars believe that the initial meaning was only “son-in- law” and that “bridegroom” was a later development.
                There is also a related word, “choten,” which means “father- in- law.” It has been suggested that this word means “one who has a son-in law.”
                There is much speculation as to where the word ”chatan” came from. Possibly “chatan” originally meant something like “connected.” E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English, p. 237,mentions this possibility based on the Arabic word “chatana” which means “joined, connected.” Rav S.R. Hirsch, comm. to Gen 19:12, also takes the position that the word implies “connection.” (He then suggests a possible relationship to the similar sounding root  ayin-dalet-nun, and suggests that ch-t-n perhaps implies a “delightful connection”!)
            An alternative theory points to an Arabic word “chatana” which means “circumcised.” This suggests that there may have been an ancient custom to circumcise young men before their marriage! (An original “circumcision” meaning  for ch-t-n would also shed some light on the strange story at Exodus 4:24-26, where Tzipporah circumcises her infant and twice makes a comment about “chatan damim.”)
              What about the reflexive form “hitchaten”? I would like to suggest that this did not originally  mean “marry,”or “make yourself into a groom,” or “make yourself into a son-in-law.” If we take the (admittedly speculative) approach that “chatan” originally meant something like “connect,” then “hitchaten” would have meant “to put yourself in a relationship of connection.” See, e.g., Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, entry Ch,T,N, p. 274. I found some interesting supports for this. At I Kings 3:1, the text records:  va-yitchaten Shelomoh et Paroah melekh mitzrayim, va-yikach et bat Paroh….”  Let us look at those first six words. At first glance, they cry out for textual emendation! To obviate the male-male difficulty, a standard Jewish translation translated: “Solomon became allied to Pharaoh king of Egypt by marriage.” But perhaps we can translate more simply: “Solomon put himself in a relationship of connection with Pharaoh.” Another similar support is II Chr. 18:1, which uses hitchaten in the context of the males Yehoshafat and Achav.
               With regard to the word chatunah, it appears one time in Tanakh, at Shir Ha-Shirim 3:11 (be-yom chatunato).
               An interesting issue related to the word chatan is its use on Simchat Torah: Chatan Torah, Chatan Maftir, Chatan Bereshit. A scholar who did extensive work on the history of Simchat Torah, Abraham Yaari, asked the question of why the word “chatan” is used in connection with these reading rituals. (The earliest source we have that uses the term “chatan” in the context of these rituals is Machzor Vitry, 12th century France.) Yaari mentions a few explanations that do not satisfy him, and then theorizes that the word was probably originally “chatam.” “Chatam” means “completion,” an apt description for the one who completed the reading of the Torah and the reading of the Haftarah on Simchat Torah.  (The reading of Bereshit on Simchat Torah was a later development.) Yaari even finds some sources, the earliest from the 16h century, that use the phrase “chatam torah” to describe the Simchat Torah readers. He argues that these sources reflect a preservation of the original term (as opposed to being a later evolution from “chatan”). He suggests that “chatam” evolved into “chatan, since the completion was a “simcha yeteirah,” just like the simchah  of a chatan and kallah.
              Daniel Sperber (in his Minhagei Yisrael, vol. 1) provided a further argument  to support  Yaari’s theory. Sperber pointed out that there are many examples in the Talmudic period  and thereafter of words with a final mem that came to be spelled with a final nun in Palestine. Some examples are the words A-D-M (man) which evolved into A-D-N, and K-R-M (vineyard) which evolved into K-R-N. There are many more examples.  Sperber suggests that similarly an alternative Ch-T-N spelling arose for Ch-T-M. This Ch-T-N word was then misunderstood as “bridegroom” instead of what it really was: a variant spelling of Ch-T-M (“completion”).
               Moving now to the word “kallah,” we are also unsure as to its origin. As in the case of “chatan,” we are faced with two meanings, “bride” and “daughter-in- law,” and we are not sure which was primary.
                 Some point to an Akkadian verb K-L-L that meant “to conceal the face or head,” which could have developed into a word for “bride,” due to the bridal veil.  Others point to an Akkadian verb K-L-L that meant “to crown.” There was also a similar sounding noun in Akkadian for “crown.” Perhaps, it is argued, Hebrew once had such words.  (The Akkadian verb and noun for “crown” seems to be the source for the post-Biblical Hebrew word for crown: “kelil,” and its Aramaic equivalent: “kelila.”)  Alternatively, some speculate that “kallah” means “bride,” based on the Hebrew root Kaph-Lamed-Aleph, which meant something like “closed.” The kallah is one who is closed off to the world, except to her husband.
                     The best approach I have seen is the one taken by Rav S.R. Hirsch. He theorizes that “kallah” comes from the Hebrew root K-L-H which means “complete.” (We all know this root from Friday night Kiddush: va-yechulu.) The bride/ daughter- in-law is the one who completes the family of her father- in-law.” I.e., the family unit of father, mother, and son is not complete until the arrival of this new member. See the commentary of Rav Hirsch to Gen. 11:31 and 19:12.  (One can also suggest that the bride is what the husband needs to become “complete.” But this does not sound like a plain sense interpretation. )
                     I would like to close on a humorous note. A comedian once said: “Marry the right woman, you are complete. Marry the wrong one, you are finished. And if the right one catches you with the wrong one, you are completely finished!”
                   P.S. Periodically, I should acknowledge the people who regularly assist me with this column. Specifically, I would like to thank Rabbi Ezra Frazer, Rabbi Chaim Sunitsky, Sam Borodach, and Moshe Schapiro for their various assistance when I need it.
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at His latest book is: Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (Kodesh Press,2015). His daughter Rachel, the forthcoming kallah, is definitely a “right woman.”

No comments: