Many of us know the term chevlei mashiach. Although this term is not found in Tanach and is a later expression, the word chevlei (root: chet, bet, lamed) is found in Tanach. It has the meaning of the anxiousness and/or labor pains that the expectant mother feels approaching birth. So chevlei mashiach means the period of anxiousness or pains before the coming of the mashiach.
Tehillim 116:3 (Hallel) refers to chevlei mavet. What is the meaning of this phrase? This would be a strange metaphor: a combination of a pre-birth image with a death image. Is this what chevlei means here?
In order to solve this problem, we have to look at the interesting root: chet, bet, lamed. Aside from the meaning we just discussed, it has three other meanings in Tanach: (1) cord, (2) to take a pledge and (3) to cause damage. (A reason the Hebrew letter chet is often found in roots with multiple meanings is that this letter seems to be a merger of two different earlier chet letters. The distinction between these two earlier chet letters is preserved in some of the other Semitic languages, such as Arabic.)
Going back to our original question, the sentence that interests us (Tehillim 116:3) reads: afafuni chevlei mavet, u-metzarei sheol metza’uni... The word afafuni means encircled, and the last three words mean “the confines of sheol have found me.” All of this suggests that chevlei mavet is utilizing the “cord” meaning of the root chet, bet, lamed.
Our phrase “afafunei chevlei mavet” is also found at Tehillim 18:5. There, in the next verse we find: chevlei sheol sevavuni (encircled me), and a reference to mokshei mavet (snares of death). These phrases also suggest that chevlei mavet is utilizing the “cord” meaning of the root chet, bet, lamed.
One of the main functions of cords in Biblical times was to trap and kill animals by tying them to a stake. That is the image that “chevlei mavet” of Tehillim 18:5 and 116:3 is trying to conjure. The image is one of imminent mortal danger, of one already entwined in the bonds of death.
The Rishonim on chevlei mavet of Tehillim 18:5 and 116:3 usually interpret it in one of two ways. Some give a “pains of death” meaning, based on the birth anxiousness/pain meaning of chet, bet, lamed. Others point to I Samuel, Chapter 10, where chevel seems to mean a “group/band” (probably deriving from a “cord/tied together” meaning); these Rishonim interpret chevlei mavet to mean a group of enemies who are trying to kill.
But the Daat Mikra commentary realizes that all the contextual clues point to chevlei mavet meaning “cords of death” and that the image is one of the trapped animal. However, the Daat Mikra commentary is hesitant to give this as the primary interpretation, because usually the expression “cords of” is punctuated as “chavlei” (with a patach), not “chevlei” (with a segol). (This may also be why the Rishonim avoid the “cords of death” interpretation.) Therefore, the Daat Mikra commentary concludes that the literal meaning of chevlei mavet must be “pains of death,” but that the underlying image of “cords of death” and a trapped animal is surely intended as well.
My own review of chevlei in Tanach revealed that even with a segol, the meaning is sometimes “cords of.” See “chevlei sheol sevavuni” at Tehillim 18:6 and II Sam. 22:6, and “chevlei resha’im” at Tehillim 119:61. So, there is no bar to adopting the “cords of death” meaning as the primary meaning of chevlei mavet. Of course, even if the primary meaning is “cords of death,” perhaps the other chet, bet, lamed meanings of anxiousness/pain, or damage, were intended to be alluded to as well.
For a classic example of a double meaning in Tanach, see Gen. 18:23: Ha-af tispeh tzaddik im rasha—Will you also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Af here certainly has a double meaning and alludes to the “anger” meaning of af as well.
Can we connect the “cords” meaning of chet, bet, lamed with the “anxiousness/pain of pregnancy” meaning? One attempt is made by a midrash that states that within the body of the pregnant woman are cords that hold the unborn infant, and that the undoing of their knots marks the onset of labor. Alternatively, S. Mandelkern suggests that the pregnant woman is writhing and twisting as if she was tied.
Now, I would like to tie up (!) a few loose ends: (1) The root chet, bet, lamed means “sailor” at Yonah 1:6 and four times in Yechezkel Chapter 27. This is because tying a rope was an integral part of ancient sailing. (2) Every day, shortly after Baruch She-Amar, we recite the following phrase from I Chronicles 16: Lecha eten Eretz Canaan, chevel nachalatchem. Here, chevel has the sense of a surveyed and allotted tract of land. Why? Because it was surveyed and measured with a cord!
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]
For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.