July 14, 2024
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A biblical concordance is a book that is organized by roots in alphabetical order and lists the various words of the Bible. With a concordance, one can see how many times a word appears and where. The first biblical concordance in Hebrew dates to the 15th century.

Here are some interesting issues that arose over the centuries in their preparation:

1. Some parts of Tanach are in Aramaic. Do they deserve a separate section? The Aramaic sections of Tanach are: Daniel 2:4 to 7:28, Ezra 4:7 to 6:18, and 7:12 to 26; two Aramaic words at Genesis 31:47, and the verse at Jeremiah 10:11.

In the concordance of Solomon Mandelkern (1896), they were given a separate section. Mandelkern was following an earlier tradition in separating the sections.

Of course, dividing your concordance into one large Hebrew section and a separate thin Aramaic section has risks, since novices won’t realize there is a separate section for Aramaic.

2. In the concordance of Avraham Even-Shoshan (1977), the words in Hebrew and Aramaic were all integrated into one section.

Should “shin” and “sin” be combined into one entry? Scholars today are of the view that these are separate letters and that we should not normally equate roots in which one root has a “shin” and the other a “sin.” Mandelkern has separate entries for “shin” and “sin.” But Even-Shoshan has merged the two into one entry.

Jastrow (1903) had also merged his “shin” and “sin” words. Ernest Klein did this as well in his “A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English,” 1987. He was merely trying to make it easy for English readers.

3. What to do with nouns and their initial “mem,” e.g. “M-K-D-Sh (mikdash)?” The issue here is should the author of the concordance assume that his reader knows enough to ignore the initial “mem” and look for the word in its root, “K-D-Sh?” Or, is that making too much of an assumption, and the author should list the word in the “mem” entry? This is a big decision, since nouns of this form occur hundreds of times in Hebrew.

Mandelkern assumes that his readers know enough to chop off the initial “mem” and look for the noun in the root “K-D-Sh.” With this approach, he was able to gather all the words with the root “K-D-Sh” into one section, which is very useful. Even-Shoshan, on the other hand, normally lists the nouns with the initial “mem” in the “mem” section. The problem with this, is that one can easily go to a root like “K-D-Sh,” see the hundreds of words listed there, and not realize that you have overlooked all the nouns with this root, like “M-K-D-Sh.”

I had another issue recently with Even-Shoshan’s entry for “עמר.” This entry did not include its synonym“עמיר.”

4. What do you do with a word like “יפל” (yipol)? This is a simple word that means “he will fall.” The initial root “nun” dropped out, a common occurrence in Hebrew. The word should be understood as if it was written “ינפל.” There are hundreds of words with dropped initial “nuns” in Hebrew. Here, Even-Shoshan has no entry “יפל.” Just like Mandelkern, he is forcing his users to realize that an initial “nun” dropped and to look for the word in the נפל“” entry. It is surprising that Even-Shoshan does not think his readers know enough to drop initial “mems,” but he is relying on them to put back omitted “nuns,” and this is much harder! (But he had no choice … The alternative is unworkable.)

5. The biggest problem with using a concordance to look up a word is that many times the root of the word is unclear. We are not talking about merely chopping off an initial “mem,” or putting back an initial “nun.” Sometimes, more creativity than that is required. I have spent hours over the past decades attempting to look up words in Mandelkern, but not finding them easily, because I could not figure out with what root the word is categorized. Some of these problems are solved with the Even-Shoshan which  requires less ingenuity from the user.

6. In 1955, a professor added a special supplement to Mandelkern’s work that enables you to look up hard words the exact way they are spelled in Tanach, and points you to their location in the concordance.

7. Once in a while, Mandelkern has mercy on his users. For example, with regard to the word “mabul” (flood), he knows that the root is not “M-B-L.” He knows that it is either “N-B-L” (decay/fall), “B-L-L” (confuse/mix), or “Y-B-L” (flow). But he also realizes that it will be hard for his readers to find the word if he makes a determination and chooses one of these. So he is willing to place his entry in the position for “M-B-L,” so the word can be easily found, and there he explains that “M-B-L” is not the root.

8. What do you do with roots like “חרף” which mean two different things (reproach and a season)? If the meanings are completely different, like this example, you create two separate entries, I and II. But often there is a possible relation between the two roots, but one is not sure. For example, “ליץ” means both “mock” and “translate.” Mandelkern decided to merge them both into one entry based on his conjecture that translations mock the original, so the two meanings may have had a common origin. (In fact, a common origin for these words is unlikely.)

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Mandelkern’s concordance is much better than Even-Shoshan’s, if one is interested in word origins. At the beginning of each root entry — in very small print — he comments about the relation between the root and other similar Hebrew roots, and the relation of the root to roots in other languages and makes many interesting conjectures. Even-Shoshan, on the other hand, is much less interested in conjecturing about word origins. But Even-Shoshan’s concordance has other advantages over Mandelkern’s. (There is not enough space to elaborate here.) One will benefit by using both. (It is probably very hard to buy a Mandelkern these days. But it is on Otzar HaHochma. Also, there is a way to access it online from the National Library of Israel.)

The strangest thing about Mandelkern’s concordance is that, for each entry, his primary way of defining the word is with a Latin word! It is very odd to see all these Latin words in a Hebrew concordance. But the explanation is that he was creating his concordance for non-Jewish biblical scholars as well. In my shul’s beit midrash, we have a Latin-English dictionary placed right near the Mandelkern concordance! (Thank you to my chavruta, Josh Teplow, for donating it years ago!)

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A modern concordance story: In 1988, the chief editor of Dead Sea Scrolls research had sent out to limited individuals a secret concordance of the scrolls. But in 1991, using this concordance, a computer savvy graduate student named “Martin Abegg” was able to reconstruct the texts of the scrolls and decided to publish his reconstruction. (Abegg had access to the concordance through the professor he was working with.) Abegg’s actions were met with fury. The few who had the privilege of working with the scrolls were angry that their slow and secretive work was being undermined. However, Abegg’s publication broke a forty-year monopoly on the scrolls, and enabled everyone to have access to their texts.


If Mitchell First ever authors a concordance, he is not going to include entries for “את” and hopes you can forgive him for that. He can be reached at [email protected].

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