Friday, 15 December 2017

Interesting Words in Parshat Miketz

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First
                                       Some Interesting Words in Parshat Miketz

             This parshah includes many interesting words. I thought it would be interesting to discuss some of them.
            Achu:  grass or reed (as food for cattle). This word appears twice in our parshah. It only appears one other time in Tanach, at Job 8:11. It is a word of Egyptian origin.
            Amtachat: bag, sack. This word appears 15 times in Tanach (in various forms). But all of its appearances are in parshat Miketz!  There is a verb mem-tav-chet that appears one time in Tanach (at  Is. 40:22), and means “spread out.” Some relate “amtachat” to this verb. The suggestion is that it is a sack that spreads over two sides of the animal. But Hayyim Tawil, in his An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, relates “amtachat” to an Akkadian word that means “carry, pick up.”
              Avrekh: This word appears only at Gen. 41:43 (va-yikreu le-fanav avrekh).” Most of our commentators see the letters bet-resh-caf and translate it as something like: “bow the knee.” (Rashi takes a different approach.)  But perhaps the word is Egyptian. For example, Tawil mentions the suggestion that is a command to pay attention, and derives from Egyptian. He also mentions that in Akkadian there is a word “abarakku” that means “steward.”
             “Avrekh” eventually became a title for young rabbinic scholars. This is based on the statement of R. Yehudah quoted in Rashi: av be-chakhmah ve-rakh be-shanim.
            Chartumim: This word is found in Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel. It is always in the plural. Some relate it to the Hebrew root chet-resh-tet, which itself only appears four times, with perhaps a basic meaning of “engrave.” Tawil points out that in Akkadian it means “interpreter of dreams.” But he thinks that it originates from an Egyptian word with the meaning “the one on duty.” For some further insights into this word, see the entry in the concordance of S. Mandelkern, and the commentary of S. D. Luzzatto to Gen. 41:8 (ed. Daniel Klein), pp. 392-93.
               Melitz: translator. The root of this word is lamed-yod-tzade. But this root also means “scoff, mock.” In Italian, there is an expression “traduttore traditore”: every translator is a traitor! Does the Hebrew language include a similar assumption, that every translator is a mocker, someone who alters the truth? Mandelkern, in his concordance, takes this position and combines all the lamed-yod-tzade words into one entry. (People who author concordances, like Mandelkern, are constantly faced with a dilemma. Do they put words which have identical three-letter roots in the same entry? If the words seem to have a common origin, they do. If not, they set up two separate entries for the root. But often it is unclear whether the two words with the same three-letter root have a common origin.)
             Most scholars would probably take the position that the two lamed-yod-tzade roots do not have a common origin. One clue to this is that “melitz” does not only mean “translator.” It also means “intercessor, advocate.” See, e.g., Job 33:23: “im yesh alav malakh melitz…“(This verse should sound familiar. It is part of the kapparot ritual.)
              Sheol:  This is the Biblical word for the “underworld.” Interestingly, it is not found in other Semitic languages. What does it mean? Is it a reflection of the fact that dead people are sometimes asked for advice? See, e.g., the story of Saul and the witch of Ein-Dor. Or is the meaning entirely different? I hope to discuss this in a future column (when I figure it out!)  (P.S. I did read somewhere that the name of the character “Endora,” on the TV show “Bewitched,” was perhaps based on the Biblical place Ein-Dor!)
             Shever: This word, with root letters Sh-B-R, means “grain.” But where does this word come from? Is it related to Sh-B-R break?
              Some relate Sh-B-R (grain) to the similar word “bar.” Others relate it to “break” and think it means “threshed grain.”
               We can also speculate that food in general may have been called “Sh-B-R” because it breaks one’s hunger. (See similarly Ps. 104:11, referring to drink as “breaking” the thirst of animals.) Even in English we have the word “breakfast.” I.e., food breaks ones fast. Also, in modern Hebrew, to eat after a fast is “lishbor et ha-tzom”
               Nevertheless, Tawil concludes that most likely, the two Sh-B-R words “break” and “grain” are not related. He notes that “shibru” is a type of flour in Akkadian.
                 Taf: child. This word appears in our parshah and throughout Tanach. Its root is tet-peh-peh. (See Is. 3:16.) But what does that three-letter root mean? It means “to toddle” (= walk in an abnormal way.) So we see that it is not only in English that children are called “toddlers.” They are called this in Biblical Hebrew as well!
               Zimrat: At verse 43:11, Jacob tells his sons to take from “zimrat ha-aretz” as a present to Joseph. We all know that the root Z-M-R means “to sing.” There are also a few occasions in Tanach where the root Z-M-R means “to cut, to prune, trim.” (See Lev. 25:3-4 and Is.5:6.) But neither of those two meanings fit Gen. 43:11. (Ok, we could force the “cut” meaning into the term, but it is a stretch.) How do we solve this difficulty?
               We all know the verse in “az yashir” (Ex. 15:2) where God is described as “azi ve-zimrat.” (The last word should be understood as if it were written “zimrati,” as I will explain in a future column.) Now 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.” Now Ex. 15:2 makes much better sense! It is a poem with two parallel words for “strength”: azi and zimrat. We can use this “strength” meaning in Genesis 43:11 as well. Jacob is telling his sons to take from the strongest, i.e. best, produce of the land.
             I will now kiss this article goodbye with the following discussion:
           Yishak: “Ve-al pikha yishak kol ami” (Paroh to Joseph, Gen. 41:40). Most commentaries relate  “yishak” to the word “meshek” at Gen. 15:2.There Eliezer is described as the “ben meshek” of the house of Abraham. Of course, we do not know what “meshek” means. But from the context, it is evident that it means something like feed, support, or manage. (See, e.g., Onkelos, Rashi and Shadal.) It is possible that that word “meshek” is derived from the Biblical root N-Sh-K which means “equip, arm.” We can adapt most of these understandings to the “yishak” of Gen. 41:40.
             The Daat Mikra mentions the “meshek” approach to “yishak” approvingly but then argues alternatively that “yishak” may mean “kiss” here. It states that to kiss someone can sometimes be a “neshikah shel gedulah” and suggests an analogy to Samuel’s kissing Saul upon anointing him. (See 1 Sam. 10:1.) I did not find this analogy convincing, and I disagree with his suggestion that Paroh was  alluding to Joseph metaphorically kissing all the Egyptian people!
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at  Please forgive him that he did not address “Tzafnat Paneach.” He hopes to do so next year!       

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