Guest Blogger: Mitchell First
Some Interesting Words in “Az Yashir”
There is much to discuss in this Biblical poem. I am limiting myself to a brief selection.
Azi ve-Zimrat: God is described as “azi ve-zimrat.” The last word should be understood as if it were written “zimrati.” I will explain this in a future column. Next, we would ordinarily translate this phrase as “The Lord is my strength and song.” But in the early 20th century the ancient language of Ugaritic was discovered (based on excavations in Syria). Then we realized that in this Semitic language, Z-M-R meant “strength.” That is certainly its meaning here, since we would then have a typical poetic phrase with parallelism: two similar words for “strength.”
This “strength” meaning is also the meaning of the root Z-M-R at Genesis 43:11, in the phrase “zimrat ha-aretz.”Jacob is telling his sons to take Joseph a present from the strongest, i.e., best, produce of the land.
Yarah: “The chariots of Pharoh and his army, God cast (“yarah”) into the sea.” The root of this word is Y-R-H. There is another very important word that has this same root. What is that? The word “Torah.”
This root Y-R-H seems two have two entirely different meanings: 1) to throw, cast or shoot, and 2) to instruct. Could both Y-R-H meanings be related? Perhaps, since both are a form of guiding. But an alternative and very creative relationship is suggested in the concordance of S. Mandelkern: A teacher casts the stone of wisdom towards his student!
(The explanation for the root Y-R-H being the root of the word Torah is that when the yod is in the first position in the root, it usually changes to a vav when the verb becomes a noun and has a tav or mem in front.)
Shalishav: This word “shalish” appears 17 times in Tanach in various forms. But what does it mean?
Ibn Ezra points out that the word “mishneh” in Tanach sometimes means “second in rank.” Therefore, he suggests that “shalish” may mean “third in rank.” Abravanel suggests that each “shalish” was in charge of thirty men. The Greek translation of the Torah translated: “soldiers fighting from chariots.” This was probably based on a belief that each chariot had one driver and two warriors. Another view is that “shalish” means “strong fighting man.” The number three sometimes symbolizes the superlative. A classic example is the threefold repetition of “kadosh” at Isaiah 6:3, which implies the highest level of holiness. Based on this idea, “shalish” could mean the highest level (=strongest) fighter. (See further the commentary of S. D. Luzzatto on Ex. 14:7.)
A similar interpretive issue arises at Gen. 15:9. God tells Abraham to take an “aglah meshuleshet,” an “ez meshuleshet,” and an “ayil meshulash.” Was Abraham being told to take animals that were three years old? third-born? part of a triplet? three of each type? Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in The Living Torah translates these word here as “prime” (=highest quality) This may be the correct approach. See further Hizzekuni and Luzzatto on Gen. 15:9. (A similar issue arises at Isaiah 15:5.)
Tub’u: (Tet, Bet, Ayin): “U-mivchar shalishav tub’u ve-yam suf” (=the best of his shalish were thrust down into the yam suf). I always knew that the root Tet-Bet-Ayin meant “thrust down.” That is the meaning here. But what about the word “taba’at”=signet ring, seal? I always thought that this word came from this root, because a signet ring/seal was used to press down on something. But when I wrote a column about Egyptian words in Tanach, I learned that “taba’at”=signet ring/seal may instead be an Egyptian word. The Egyptian word is something like “gbt.” This is not an exact match, but scholars believe it is close enough.
Yechasyumu: Tehomut Yechasyumu=The depths covered them. The question I will address is why is there an added “u” at the end of “yechasyumu.” Later on in the poem we have the words “yochleimo,” “timlaeimo,” “torishemo,” “tivlaeimo,” “yochazeimo,” “tivieimo,” and “titaeimo.“ These words were written with vavs at the end and dotted with a cholam (“o.”). So why not: “yechasyumo”? Here is the answer of S. D. Luzzatto (taken from the translation of Daniel Klein):
“Hebrew grammarians…as well as Rashbam say that the [letter mem here] is vocalized with a shuruk in order to match the pronunciation of the preceding yod, which is also vocalized with a shuruk…I say that the reason for the shuruk [in yechasyumu] is to portray to the listener’s ear the sinking into the depths and the submerging under the water, for the function of the “u” sound seems to be to arouse in us an impression of darkness and depth. Anyone who is familiar with the value of the poetic device known as onomatopoeia will not scoff at this… Only with another shuruk preceding it does the final shuruk have the power to arouse such an impression.”
(In a footnote, Klein suggests an analogous example of onomatopoeia in English: “doom and gloom.”)
Ne’ermu Mayim: “With a breath from Your face, the waters piled up.” The root here is ayin-resh-mem which means “pile.” But wait a minute. Don’t we know this root A-R-M elsewhere as meaning “cunning/smart”? For example, at Genesis 3:1, the “nachash” is described as “A-R-M.”
It is hard for me to believe that the words “cunning/smart” and “pile” are connected. Nevertheless I always found the following attempt by Rav S. R. Hirsch at Gen. 2:25 to be exceptionally clever and worth mentioning: “The root A-R-M… [has] two meanings: cunning, subtle…and as A-R-M-H, a heap of grain. The connection between these two is easily found…Every subtle plan is a joining up of single arrangements to achieve an ultimate purpose….The subtle one does various things which are unnoticed, the single little grains have no importance, but together they make the heap.”
(In the methodology of Rav Hirsch, identical roots are always connected. Therefore, he must always attempt to find a connection. This is a rare approach. The conventional view is that identical roots are often or usually connected, but not “always.”)
Very interestingly, Onkelos translates “ne-ermu mayim” as “chakimu maya”=the waters became intelligent. He is using the “smart” meaning of A-R-M here, instead of the “pile” meaning! In his view, the meaning is something like: the water used its intelligence and figured out how to defeat the Egyptians.
Shamu Amim Yirgazun: The word “yirgazun” here means “tremble,” from the root R-G-Z. (It is parallel to “chil” in this verse, which also means “tremble.” But don’t we know the root R-G-Z elsewhere as meaning “anger”? Luzzatto explains the process. The root R-G-Z originally meant “shaking” or “trembling,” as it does here. The term was then transferred to denote any emotional tumult/agitation. For example, it means the excitation of “fear” at Deut. 2:25, the excitation of “sorrow” at 2 Sam. 19:1, and the excitation of “anger” at Hab. 3:2 (be-rogez rachem tizkor). See the commentary of Luzzatto to Gen. 45:24 and Ex. 15:14 (In contrast, in Aramaic it exclusively means “anger.”)
This all reminds me of one of my favorite translations in The Living Torah of R. Aryeh Kaplan. At Gen. 45:24, after Joseph has disclosed his identity to his brothers, he bids goodbye to them with the phrase “al tirgezu ba-derech” (=do not be agitated while you are traveling). In the introduction to The Living Torah, R. Kaplan writes that he was trying to produce a translation that was among other things “modern” and ”readable “ Here he decided on: “Have a pleasant journey!”
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at MFirstAtty@aol.com His most recent book is Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (2015).