Thursday, 17 September 2020

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.
      דפי: Dibarnu dofi. This word appears only one time in Tanach, at Psalms 50:20: “You sit and speak about your brother; regarding the son of your mother you give דפי.”  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  גדף  (blaspheme, defame, scorn). But why would the gimmel drop? Some relate it to the root הדף (push). The meaning would be “words that push someone away.” Some relate it to the word  דבה, which means “slander” (see Num. 14:36). (The origin of this word is itself an interesting issue!)
      Whatever its root, we do see from its use in Aramaic in the Talmud that דפי  means some type of defect.  (See, e.g., Pes. 60b, and Jastrow, p. 287). An important Biblical etymology work (The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament) defines the Biblical word דפי  as “blemish, fault.”
       סלד: This root appears many times in the high holiday liturgy. For example, we have the phrase: “viysaledu ve-chilah panekha.” This is translated in The Complete ArtScroll Machzor: Rosh Ha-Shanah: “in your presence they will pray with trepidation.”  But is this translation correct?
      The root סלד  appears only one time in Tanach, at Job 6:10. The Targum translates it with a word derived from the Aramaic root  בעי, 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  סלד from the Mishnah and the Talmud. It is found in the expression “yad soledet bo.” Most likely, it means something like “jump up,” both in this expression (the hand jumps up from the heat) and at Job. 6:10. (Some suggest a relation between סלד and סלל=“raise.” P.S. The word           סלה was likely an instruction to the singers or musicians to raise their voices or the music level and likely derives from סלל. See Daat Mikra to Tehillim 3:3, note 3.)
          כפר: Rashi (comm. Gen. 32:21) understands this root as having a fundamental meaning of “wiping away and removing.” In contrast, S. D. Luzzatto (commenting on the same verse) understands this word as having a fundamental meaning of “covering.” This same debate exists among modern scholars. A leading scholarly article on this topic concludes that the root is used in both ways in Tanach and that the only real issue is whether these different meanings of the root כפר are related and come from a common source. (This issue, he believes, can never be resolved.)
            Of course, whether our sins are “wiped away and removed” or are merely “covered” is a major difference theologically.

            On a related note, I would like to add that the English word “atonement,” however we understand it now, has an interesting origin. It meant to be “at one” with God. The implication was to be reconciled with God, and united with Him and at peace. See W. Funk, Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories, p. 268.
            תעתענו:  This is the last word in the Ashamnu prayer. Words with the four letters תעתע  appear four times in Tanach. The most famous is the statement of Jacob at Genesis 27:12: “ve-hayiti be-einav ke-metate’a.” From the four instances, we see that the root of the word is either תעע  or תעה, and that the meaning is either “deceive” or “mock.” (These roots are probably related.) Accordingly, תעתענו  means “we have mocked” or “we have deceived.”
              Yet The Complete ArtScroll  Machzor: Yom Kippur (1986) translated it: “You have led us go astray.” Why would they do this?  The explanation is that the sin specified before this one in the Ashamnu prayer is תעינו=“we have strayed.” The proximity of the  תעינוand  תעתענו sins in this prayer seems to have led ArtScroll astray (!) into interpreting  תעתענו in light of תעינו.
             (Admittedly, the truth is a bit more complex. The explanation that ArtScroll offered came from an earlier source, Etz Yosef. See this commentary in Siddur Otzar Ha-Tefillot, p. 1117. It was the second explanation offered there. In the first explanation, it was implied that the word meant “we have mocked.” But ArtScroll chose to present the second explanation.)

              Fortunately, years later, in their interlinear edition, ArtScroll corrected their translation and translated the word as: “we have scoffed.”
             I will now conclude with my favorite High Holiday word: 
             פשׁפשׁ:  The Rama writes (Orach Chayyim 603) that during the ten days of repentance “yesh le-khol adam 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 פשׁפשׁ  come from?
              It turns out that פשׁפשׁ  is the word for bedbug! It is found in Mishnah Terumot 8:2 and in both Talmuds. See M. Jastrow, p. 1248 (פשׁפשׁ).
              In his A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English (p. 535), Ernest Klein writes that the verb פשׁפשׁ  is usually connected with the word  משׁמשׁ  (touch, feel, examine, search), from the root  משש. But he concludes that it is more probable that the verb פשׁפשׁ  comes from the noun for “bedbug,” and that the original meaning of the verb was “he searched for bedbugs.” From this, arose the meaning “he searched in general.” Whoever would have imagined!  (Beth Aaron member Menachem Shapiro pointed out me that we have an analogous case of meaning expansion in English. The word “nitpicking” has expanded from its original meaning of picking and removing “nits”!)

               I also have to point out that the term “le-fashpesh be-maasav” did not originate in the High Holiday context. The Talmud, Berakhot 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 Holidays, there is justification for my including this term in this article.
In preparation for the high holidays, Mitchell First searches the machzor for interesting words.  He can be reached at For more of his articles, please visit his website

Monday, 14 September 2020

You Can Learn a Lot From A Fish

From RRW

Rabbi Eliyahu Safran


 You Can Learn a Lot From A Fish - Parsha from OU - OU Torah

Perfect Mis-Understandings #5 - Why no Blessing for Hodesh Tishre? [Reprint]

first posted September 26, 2008
Why is there no Hodesh Benching [blessing of the New Month] before Tishre? The oft-stated answer is: "in order to confuse the Satan" [k'dei l'arbeiv hasatan] Well, the Satan must be REALLY confused to not "get it" 'after all these years! As stated in the previous perfect mis-understanding, we often know what to do [or in this case what NOT to do] but do we know the REAL reason? I posit that there is likely to be a more rational rationale for this omission. Here is my hypothesis: The REAL underlying rationale for not blessing the new month for Tishrei is that it creates a Halachic dilemma!
  • OTOH If one ONE day is mentioned, it would lead to the erroneous assumption that only ONE day of Rosh Hashsana is to be observed!
  • OTOH If TWO days are mentioned, it would avoid the above problem, but it would lead people to believe that Day ONE is the 30th of Ellul and Day 2 is the FIRST of Tishre, when in fact day ONE is Tishre ONE and Day TWO is Tishre TWO. This is because every 2-day Rosh Hodesh is assumed to be day 30 of month 1 and Day 1 of month 2. Tishre breaks the mold!
Therefore the confusion has little to do with the Satan per se, rather with making a highly unconventional birkat/kiddush haHodesh. There is no way to do this w/o creating an ambiguity in the calendar - and so let's blame the Satan for OUR confusion! Years later, I confirmed this hypothetically more rational explanation in the Shulchan Aruch Harav who says something along the same lines. I guess that at some point of history the reason given was "in order to avoid confusion". And that later on this explanation morphed into "In order to confuse the Satan." So again the common practice is revealed as sensible, it's just its accompanying story that is re-examined and shifted to make more sense. 

Shana Tova 


Saturday, 12 September 2020

Mussar: Modeh Al Ho'Emet

From RRW
"The inability to admit that one is wrong is a terrible character flaw that prevents a person from arriving at the truth (Tiferes Yisrael)"

The Mishnah Elucidated
Volume 13
Nezikin III
Eduyos 1:4
P. 13 fn 3

Thursday, 10 September 2020

Is there a connection in Tanach between Hair Standing Up and Fear?

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                      Is There a Connection in Tanach Between Hair Standing Up and Fear?
          There is a famous Rashi at Devarim 32:17.  This verse describes the Israelites as sacrificing to gods that אבותכם  שׂערום לא. What does that middle word mean? The first opinion that Rashi offers is that their ancestors’ hair did not stand up out of fear of them. Rashi explains that it is the way of the hair of men to rise up when they are in fear. Rashi is getting this from Sifrei, sec. 318. (Rashi offers a second interpretation as well: their ancestors did not deify them; see below on the “demon” meaning of שׂער.)
         I wondered for decades about that first interpretation in Rashi.   Is there really a connection between “hair standing up” and “fear” on a plain sense level?  I decided recently to analyze the root שׂער in Tanach.
          Of course, a main meaning of the root שׂער is hair. Also, a goat is called a שׂעיר because of its unusual amount of hair. (The name of the animal literally means: “the hairy one.”) Then there is the word  שׂערה for “barley.” It is widely agreed that it is called this based on the “hair” meaning. (Whoever would have imagined!)  שׂערה is the equivalent of “bearded grain.”  I admit I did not know what barley looked like while it is being grown. Now I looked online and understand.
           Also, four times in Tanach we have  שׂעירin the singular or plural where the context supports (or perhaps supports) a “demon” meaning. See Lev. 17:7, Isa. 13:21, 34:14 and 2 Chr. 11:15. (Sometimes the word is translated as “demons” or “satyrs” in these verses.)  Most take the view that if a “demon” is intended, it is simply a demon in the shape of a goat. See e.g., E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, and Radak, Sefer Ha-Shorashim. According to Rabbi Dr. Hertz, p. 486, the worship of the goat was widespread in Lower Egypt (=northern Egypt).
             (At Isa. 34:14,  שׂעירwith the possible “demon” meaning is in the same verse as לילית. This is the only reference to Lilit in Tanach. For more on this demon in ancient extra-Biblical sources and later midrashic sources, see Encyclopaedia Judaica 11:245).
            The root שׂער also has a meaning like “be swept away” and “be whirled away.” See, e.g., Ps. 50:3, and 58:10, and Job 27:21. See also Dan. 11:40. This meaning is usually viewed as related to the root סער, with its “storm” meaning. At Isa. 28:2 and Nah 1:3, we have the root שׂער with a meaning like “storm.” See also perhaps Job 9:17.
            Now, going back to our original question, the root שׂער also has a meaning like “be afraid” or “tremble” in four verses. Let us analyze these verses.
           At both Ezek. 27:35 and 32:10, there is a double use of שׂער. The first verse has שׂער שׂערו ומלכיהם. The second verse has שׂער עליך ישׂערו ומלכיהם. The context in both verses is that the kings are afraid. (עליך  in the second verse probably means ‘because of you.”) The Jewish Publication Society translation of 1917 translates the phrase in both verses as “horribly afraid.”  (The translation uses the word “horribly” because of the double use of שׂער.) Most of the rabbinic commentaries and the Daat Mikra translate the expression as if the meaning is related to סער (storm, tempest). But several standard scholarly works, e.g., Brown-Driver-Briggs, HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, and Koehler-Baumgartner, translate both the phrases as if the meaning is something like “hair bristled with terror.” (According to my Random House Dictionary, “bristle” means “to stand or rise stiffly like bristles.”) These scholarly works do not postulate a separate “fear, tremble” meaning for שׂער. They subsume this meaning within the “hair” meaning. 
         There are two other verses with the “fear, tremble” meaning of שׂער: Jer. 2:12 and Job 18:20. They are also often subsumed within the “hair” meaning. (Interestingly, in all four of the verses, שׂער is parallel to שמם =astonished.) 
         Most interestingly, at Job 4:15, in a context of fear (see 4:14), we have “made the hair of my flesh stand up (תסמר).” As to this meaning for סמר, see also Ps. 119:120, and see Daat Mikra to both verses. A מסמר in Tanach is a nail.       
        So going back to our verse at Devarim 32:17, Rashi’s first understanding is a plain sense understanding. “Rising hair” and “fear” are connected in Tanach.
        But it turns out that most scholars today take a different approach to Devarim 32:17 than Rashi did. שׂערום in this verse is parallel to ידעום. In South Arabic, the root שׂער has the meaning “to know.” Therefore, scholars usually give it the “know” meaning here, and not the “fear, tremble, rising hair” meaning. (It is also a better fit grammatically.) See, e.g., Brown-Driver Briggs, p. 973, Koehler-Baumgartner, p. 1344 and E. Klein, p. 673.  (Brown-Driver-Briggs does mention an interpretation like Rashi’s, but prefers the interpretation related to “to know.”)
        When a word is found in Arabic, this normally means that the word is found starting around the 7th century. This is long after the Tanach. But South Arabic is a much older form of Arabic. It dates from the late Biblical period. (But we do not have too many words from it.)  
         On our verse 32:17, Rav S.R. Hirsch and Rabbi Dr. Hertz agree with Rashi’s first interpretation, while Rashbam prefers Rashi’s second interpretation and cites Lev. 17:7.      
       There is one unusual use of the root שׂער in Tanach. At Devarim 32:2, we have שׂעירם (sei’rim) with a rain-related meaning. It is parallel to רביבים in the same verse. The latter appears a few times and is usually translated as “copious showers,” from the root רבב, abundant. So perhaps שׂעירם should be translated as parallel to רביבים  and with a meaning like “heavy rains” (perhaps related to the root סער, see Rashi). Or perhaps it means something like light rain (thin like “hair”) or rain drops or mist. See, e.g., Ibn Ezra, Radak, Sefer Ha-Shorashim (הדק  גשם) and the JPS 1917 translation (“small rain”). Or perhaps it is related to “sei’rim” with a demon/deity meaning and refers to the heavy rain supposedly produced by those demons/deities. See, e.g., S. D. Luzzatto.   Finally, E. Klein suggests a very strange idea: the rain clouds looks like goats. In my view, the סער=”heavy rain” approach is the simplest and most likely explanation, as it provides a good parallel to רביבים.
Mitchell First can be reached at His father was involved in naming SAR Academy in the late 1960’s. It was an abbreviation of Salanter-Akiba-Riverdale (the three schools that merged). No connection to “demons,” “goats,” or “storms” was intended. His father wanted to name the school RASHI: Riverdale-Akiba-Salanter Hebrew Institute