Sunday, 24 September 2017

Some Interesting High Holiday Words

From RRW

Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                             Some Interesting High Holiday Words

        Many interesting words come up in the context of the high holidays. (Many of the paytannim enjoyed using rare words!) I will discuss a few of them.
   D-F-Y (Dibarnu Dofi, from the Ashamnu prayer). This word, dalet-peh-yod, appears only one time in Tanakh, at Psalms 50:20: “You sit and speak about your brother; regarding the son of your mother you give DFY.”  From the context, it seems to be a type of slander. But what is its root and what exactly does it mean? Some relate it to the root G-D-F (blaspheme, defame, scorn). But why would the gimmel drop? Some relate it to the root H-D-F (push). The meaning would be “words that push someone away.” Some relate it to the word D-B-H, which means “slander” (see Num. 14:36). (The origin of this word is itself an interesting issue!)
      Whatever its origin, we do see from its use in Aramaic in the Talmud that D-F-Y means some type of defect. See, e.g., Pesachim 60b and Jastrow, p. 287.
  S-K-R (Sikur Ayin, from the Al Chet prayer). Most siddurim today record the first letter as a “sin,” even though the line is in the position of the samech. But we have evidence that when the “Al Chet” was originally composed, this word was written with a samech. Nevertheless, it is clear that both the lines “netiyat garon” and “sikur ayin” were derived from Isaiah 3:16, where the haughty daughters of Zion are described as “netuyot garon” and “mesakrot einayim,” and “mesakrot” is spelled with a “sin.”
          So what did the root Sin-Kuf-Resh mean in the book of Isaiah? This is the only time this root appears in Tanakh, so no one knows for certain.  Rashi on Isaiah 3:16 offers two interpretations: “looking,” and “putting red make-up on their eyes.”  The basis for these interpretations is that in rabbinic times there was a root in Hebrew Samech-Kuf-Resh which had two different meanings: a “looking” meaning, and a “painting red” meaning. Probably, Rashi’s thinking was that one of these was the original meaning of Sin-Kuf-Resh, even though the spelling changed over the centuries to samech.
          When the “sikur ayin” line was composed for the Al Chet prayer, the word was spelled with a samech. We know what the root Samech-Kuf-Resh meant in Mishnaic-Talmudic times. It meant “looking” or “painting a red stripe.” Since the latter would be an unlikely meaning in the context of the Al Chet prayer, the sin of sikur ayin must have something to do with “looking.” Based on sources such as Bereshit Rabbah 18:2, it seems that the transgression referred to is looking around too much with one’s eyes, i.e., prying into the affairs of others.
         S-L-D  (“viysaledu ve-chilah panecha,” ArtScroll Rosh Ha-Shanah Mahzor, p. 496: “in your presence they will pray with trepidation”). The root Samech-Lamed-Dalet appears only one time in Tanakh, at Job 6:10. The Targum translates it with a word derived from the Aramaic root bet-ayin-yod, which means “request, pray.” Based on this, the word is used by the paytannim throughout the liturgy as if it is a synonym for  “pray.” But we know the root S-L-D from the Mishnah and the Talmud. It is found in the expression “yad soledet bo.” Most likely, it means “spring back,” both in this expression (springs back from the heat) and at Job. 6:10, and it does not mean “request, pray.”

         M-H-L (Mehilah): (I am using H here to represent the letter het.) I have discussed this root at length in an article in akirah vol. 18 (available at their site, and republished in my 2015 book). I will only make a few points here:
            -This root never appears as a verb in Tanakh. (Admittedly, there are several names in Tanakh that seem to derive from the letters M-H-L. One example is Mahlat, wife of Esav. But most likely these M-H-L names were given based on the “joy” meaning of the letters M-H-L, which ultimately derives from a different root: either Het-Lamed-Lamed or Het-Vav-Lamed.)
            -The word for “forgiveness” in Tanakh is S-L-H.  In Tanakh it is always God doing the forgiveness or being asked for forgiveness; S-L-H was not a word used to describe individuals granting forgiveness. In Biblical times, we do not know how an individual would have said: “Forgive me, I am sorry that my camel bumped into yours.”
             -The letters M-H-L with a meaning like “forgiveness” first appear in a Dead Sea text. Later, the word  is found in the Mishnah.
            - When we look at the letters M-H-L in the word mehilah, a main issue is whether that initial M is a root letter. Perhaps the root was really H-L-L, in one of its several meanings.
             -Alternatively, the Tanakh includes a root M-H-E with a meaning like “erase, remove.” Perhaps M-H-L was derived from this root.
             -That the verb MHL is not found in Tanakh explains many instances in our tefillot where a citation to a verse about mehilah might be expected and yet none is provided. A good example is the “zechor lanu” section of our selihot (The Complete ArtScroll Siddur, p. 830).
             -From the Cairo Genizah, we learn that the Palestinian version of the daily Amidah did not include the word M-H-L in the “selihah” blessing (in contrast to the prevalent version today). After the initial phrase beginning with S-L-H, the next phrase began with M-H-E.
             -With regard to the possible differences between selihah and mehilah, see my article in akirah.
                   I will now conclude with my favorite high holiday word:
    P-Sh-P-Sh    The Rama writes (Shulchan Aruch, OH 603) that during the ten days of repentance, everyone is supposed to “le-chapes u-le-fashpesh be-maasav.” We all know that those last two words  mean “examine his deeds.” But where exactly did this root P-Sh-P-Sh come from?
                   It turns out that P-Sh-P-Sh is the word for bedbug! See the entry in Jastrow for “pishpash.” It is found in Mishnah Terumut 8:2, and in both Talmuds.
                      Ernest Klein, in his A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English, writes that some connect the verb P-Sh-P-Sh with the word “mishmesh” (touch, feel), from the root M-Sh-Sh. But he concludes that it is more probable that the verb P-Sh-P-Sh comes from the noun for “bedbug,” and that the original meaning of the verb was “he searched himself for bedbugs.” From this arose the meaning “he searched in general.” Whoever would have imagined!
                       But I do admit that Jastrow does not seem to connect the “search/examine” and “bedbug” meanings. He lists them in separate entries.
                       I also have to point out that the term “P-Sh-P-Sh be-maasav” did not originate in the high holiday context. The Talmud, Berachot 5a, uses the term as the recommended course for someone who sees that troubles have come upon him. See similarly Tosefta Negaim, chapter 6. Nevertheless, since the Rama and his predecessors the Meiri and the Maharil have all used the term in the context of the high holiday period, this is justification for my including this term in this column!
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (2015). He can be reached at  He is still working on the meaning of the root Kaf-Peh-Resh.  He will hopefully address that one around Yom Kippur time next year.

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