Thursday, 6 June 2019

What is the Root of the Word “Torah”?

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                       What is the Root of the Word “Torah”?

                Hebrew has a root Y-R-H. It means to “proclaim/instruct.” This is the root of the word TORaH.  (In the noun form of Y-R-H, the “yod” changes to a “vav.” This is common.)

               The root Y-R-H is interesting because it also has another meaning: “throw/cast/shoot.” This meaning is found, for example, in  Oz Yashir: “The chariots of Pharaoh and his army, God cast (yarah) into the sea.”

                 Could these two Y-R-H meanings have a common origin? It seems unlikely. But it is interesting to mention some of the creative attempts that have been made to connect them. One suggestion is that both are a form of guiding. Another suggestion is that a teacher casts the stone of wisdom into the hearts of his students!  (This suggestion was made by Solomon Mandelkern in his concordance.)
                 I also cannot resist mentioning some other very unusual suggestions for the root of the word Torah. Rav S.R. Hirsch (comm. to Genesis 16:5) suggests that the root is H-R-H, since teaching means “to plant a spiritual seed in someone.” Also, a scholarly work Brown-Driver-Briggs suggests that the root of the word Torah was perhaps Y-R-H with the meaning “casting lots”!                      

                   The root Y-R-H also has a third meaning, “to water.” But according to many scholars, this meaning is just a by-form of the root R-Vav-H= “to drink/be saturated.” This third meaning is the basis for the Biblical words “yoreh” and “moreh,” which refer to the “early rain” (=rain in the fall season). (See Koehler-Baumgartner, pp. 404 and 436 and Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 6, p. 336. Such an explanation is also alluded to at Taanit 6a, second explanation, and in Rashi to Deut. 11:14.)

               Of course, one can alternatively view the early rain as moisture that is “thrown” to the earth. 
                 It has also been suggested that the early rain provides “instruction” on some level. (See, e.g., Taanit 6a, first explanation.) But this explanation seems farfetched.

               With regard to the later rain, “Malkosh” is the word for the “later (spring) rain.” As seen from Amos 7:1, “lekesh” is the word for the “later (=spring) crops.” See, e.g., the Soncino commentary.
               Now I would like to talk about a separate word “histakel” (H-S-T-K-L, He-Samekh-Tav-Kaf-Lamed). People generally assume that this word means “look.” But what is the origin of this word?
              H-S-T-K-L is in the hitpael form, although a switching of the order of the second and third letters has occurred. (This is a common phenomenon.) We must pretend that the word is H-T-S-K-L in order to analyze it.  Now, I will raise two questions:  1) Is there really a root Samekh-Kaf-Lamed that means “look”? 2) Why would the word be in the hitpael form? Hitpael is usually (but not always) reflexive. Does the word mean “to look at yourself?”
             If you use your “sekhel” (root: Sin-Kaf-Lamed), you can figure out where I am heading here. Really the root of the word is Sin-Kaf-Lamed, which means something like “acted intelligently.”  This root Sin-Kaf-Lamed appears many times in Tanach. Over the centuries, the Biblical “Sin” became a “Samekh” in many different words. (A classic example is the word “erusin”:betrothal. In the Tanach, it is spelled with a Sin.)  So H-T-S-K-L originally meant “thought to himself.” Of course, I am not denying that it took on the meaning “look” over time.    
              A reason that people are not aware of the origin of this word is that there is no word H-Sin-T-K-L in Tanach.  If there were, when people saw the word H-Samekh-T-K-L in rabbinic Hebrew, they would have immediately realized that the “Samekh” is an evolution from the original “Sin.”
               A while ago, I wrote about sneezing and coughing. I pointed out that there is no word for cough in Tanach and that the root for sneeze, Ayin-Tet-Shin, appears one time in Tanach, at Job 41:10. I suggested that this was the same word as “achoo,” and that both were words that sounded like what they were. (This is called an “onomatopoeia.”) An alert reader, Alan Schwartz, pointed out to me that there is a different root for sneeze that also appears one time in Tanach. The root is Z-R-R. In the dramatic story of Elisha reviving the Shunamite woman's son, the child sneezed ("va-yizorer") seven times and awoke. See 2 Kings, 4:35. So I stand corrected. It has been suggested that this root, Z-R-R=sneeze, is also an onomatopoeia!
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at He enjoys casting stones of wisdom into the hearts of his readers.

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