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Friday, December 03, 2021
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At the beginning of this week’s parshah, the word milchama is used. This gives me the opportunity to answer the question that has surely been bothering you since childhood: Is the noun lechem (bread) related to the verb LChM (fight) and its related noun milchama (war)? Undisputedly, all these words have the root LChM, making a relationship likely. But what precisely is the relationship?

Interestingly, English includes the term “food fight.” Was Biblical Hebrew modeled on some ancient kindergarten where children fought over morsels of bread? (Interestingly, the word “companionship” is derived from an original meaning of “sharing of bread,” so in English, “bread” ends up with a friendly connotation, not a military one!)

Going back to our original question, is it possible that bread is the fundamental meaning of LChM, and the other meanings arose because wars in ancient times were primarily fought over bread (economic/sustenance issues)? This is what I thought for decades, until I recently began to research this topic. Obviously, what I thought originally was not completely satisfying. (A friend pointed out to me his facetious solution: part of the process of bread-making was “beating” the dough!)

It turns out that Rav S.R. Hirsch takes an approach opposite to my initial assumption. In his view, the verb LChM means “to struggle,” and bread is called by this term to reflect that man has to struggle for his daily bread. As he interestingly observes, a man first has to struggle to wrest his daily bread from nature, and then has to struggle with his fellow man to keep it! See his commentary to Gen. 3:19 (“with the sweat of your countenance you shall eat bread”).

But I then discovered that the widespread view in scholarship today is completely different. Lechem (bread) and LChM/milchama (fight, war) are related, but in a different way. The suggestion is that the original meaning of the verb LChM was “to be pressed together,” and the original meaning of the noun was not “bread,” but “solid food.” Solid food is pressed together. Note that in Arabic, LChM means “meat.” In this widespread view, the “fight” meaning of LChM is just an expansion of the original meaning of “to be pressed together.”

Of course, one does not have to accept this approach. (Like bread and meat, it needs time to be digested!) Indeed, many scholars today remain unwilling to connect LChM (bread) with LChM/milchama (fight, war). After all, the noun BSR (basar—meat) does not seem to have any connection with the verb BSR (herald, announce). (Although Rav Hirsch makes an attempt to connect them: your body is the herald of your spirit to the world. See his comm. to Gen. 2:21.)

In sum, where there is a common three-letter root, there is usually a relationship. But “usually” is the critical term here; there is not “always” a relationship. As I suggest above, in the case of BSR, there is probably no relationship. Another “no relationship” example that I like to use is the case of ChRSh (chet, resh, shin). It is very hard to connect ChRSh=plough, with ChRSh=mute, deaf. (I can give many other “no relationship” examples, but will save them for another column.) So there is some flexibility; we do not always have to create connections where the roots seem unconnected. (Admittedly, Rav Hirsch and some others disagree and believe there must always be a connection.)

An additional word in this week’s parshah merits a homework assignment. Verse 2:22 uses the word nachriah, strange/foreign. The root of this word is NChR (nun, chaf, reish). Yet there is also a verb in Hebrew le-hakir, “to recognize.” The root of this word is also NCR (nun, kaf, reish); the original Hebrew root would have been le-haNCiR. (As I stated in an earlier column, the letter nun often drops out in conjugations; not only in Ashrei!) But why do the letters NCR (nun, kaf, reish) produce words that mean both “strange” and “recognize”? These seem to be opposites. (See the interesting wordplay at Ruth 2:10, where both terms are used!) I will leave the connection for you to solve at your Shabbat table. (Because I am still not sure of the answer myself, and “no relationship” is still a possibility!)

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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