April 13, 2024
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An Insight Into the Shabbat Shacharit

Every Shabbat morning before the prayer Yishtabach, we recite the phrase: le-hodot, le-hallel, le-shabeach, le-faer, le-romem, le-hader, le-varech, le-aleh, u-le-kales

Anyone who knows Tanach should immediately sense an issue here. The root KLS (kof, lamed, samech) appears in Tanach eight times. Seven of these times the root clearly means “to mock” and this is probably its meaning on the one other occasion it is used as well (Ez. 16:31; see Radak). Why are we utilizing KLS as a word of praise in the above prayer?

It turns out that KLS is often used to mean “praise” in rabbinic literature. See e.g., Gittin 9a, Baba Kama 176a, Berachot 36a, Shabbat 89b, and many more.

But how do we explain the use of KLS to mean something positive? Is this an example of a root that eventually came to mean its opposite? There is such a phenomena. The best example is the root BRCh/bless which sometimes means “curse.” See, e.g., Job 2:9 (barech Elokim va-mut.) Note that in English slang today, people often use “bad” to describe things that are great!

But much more likely, the explanation for the positive meaning of KLS found in rabbinic literature is that it is derived from the Greek word “kalos” which means “beautiful.” (This Greek word is the origin of the prefix “calli” in the word “calligraphy,” beautiful writing.)

Many other words from Greek entered Hebrew in early rabbinic times. Another example is “listim” (=thieves). It derives from the Greek lestes. (When this word first entered Hebrew, it was spelled with a samech at the end, paralleling the Greek. But the samech was then misread by copyists as a mem sofit.) Another common “Hebrew” word that comes from Greek is avir (=air). It already entered Hebrew in the time of the Mishnah. See Ohalot 4:1.

To reiterate, KLS in Tanach always means “mock.” But in rabbinic literature, while there is still some use of KLS as “mock,” more often it is used to mean “praise,” based on its Greek meaning. That the positive meaning of KLS came from Greek was realized long ago by Rabbeinu Chananel and the Aruch (both of the 11th century). See R. Chananel to Shabbat 108a, and the Aruch, entry: KLOS.

An interesting side point relates to the book of Ben Sira. This is a book composed in Hebrew in the 2nd century BCE (later than the other books of Tanach, but before the time of the Mishnah). KLS as “praise” is already found in this work. See verse 47:15. But at verse 11:4, KLS is used to mean “mock,” as in Biblical times.

More interesting, when we look at the history of the Kaddish prayer, we see that the root KLS with a positive meaning initially had a place there! For example, when R. Saadiah Gaon (10th cent.) provides the basic text for Kaddish, he records: yitbarach, yishtabach, yitpaer, yitromem, yitaleh, ve-yitnaseh, ve-yitkales. See also the text in Seder R. Amram Gaon, and at Tractate Soferim 14:6. But already in the Geonic period many objected to the use of yitkales in Kaddish due to the negative connotation that the root KLS had in Tanach; much ink was spilled in responsa of Geonim and Rishonim on this issue. The result was that yitkales slowly disappeared from the standard text of Kaddish.

In modern times, the author of the Torah Temimah has written that, if he had his way, he would remove le-kales from the Shacharit of Shabbat and from the Haggadah (where it has survived as well). See his Baruch She-Amar, p. 246. Nevertheless, as we know, KLS as a term of praise has survived in these two prayers.

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In a future column, I hope to address another similar conundrum: why does the root HSD, which means “kindness” numerous times in Tanach, mean “shame” or “reproach” at Lev. 20:17, Job 6:14 and Prov. 25:10?

Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. His recently published book, “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy” (Kodesh Press, 2015), is available at the Judaica House in Teaneck and at Amazon.com. He can be reached at [email protected].

By Mitchell First

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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