April 9, 2024
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Do Hebrew Words Sometimes Have Two Opposite Meanings?

Some scholars have suggested that Hebrew words sometimes have two opposite meanings. I would like to closely examine this claim in the context of Biblical Hebrew.

An example often given is barech. In Job 9:2, it is used to mean “curse” (“curse God and die”). But this is not a true example of a word meaning its opposite. Barech unquestionably means “bless.” But sometimes barech was used euphemistically to mean “curse” because of a desire to avoid using the actual word for curse.

What about the root KLS? In Tanach it means “to mock.” See, e.g., Psalms 44:14 (laag va-keles). Yet in Rabbinic literature and in our prayers, it often has the meaning “to praise.” An example is the le-kales recited immediately before the Yishtabach prayer on Shabbat. Did the meaning of the word somehow evolve into its opposite? Here the explanation is that the later meaning “to praise,” found in Rabbinic literature, is not based on the Biblical KLS. Rather, the Rabbinic KLS is derived from the Greek word “kalos,” which means “beautiful.” (I am told that someone in Teaneck once asked: Why does KLS mean “mock” on Monday and Thursday, i.e., days of tachanun when we recite: hayinu laag va-keles ba-goyim, while it means “praise” on Shabbat? I hope he is reading my explanation here!)

Another root relevant to our question is chet, tet, aleph. We all know that this root means “to sin.” (It originally may have had a more concrete meaning: “to miss the mark.” See Judges 20:16 and Prov. 8:35-36.) But in the context of the laws of parah adumah, the meaning is “to purify oneself.” See, e.g., Numbers 19:12 (hu yit’chata) and 19:19 (ve-chito). It has the “purify” meaning elsewhere as well. See, e.g., Lev. 14:49 and 52, and Psalms 51:9 (techateni ve-ezov ve-et’har). The explanation in the case of chet, tet, aleph is that it is not the root that has two different meanings. Rather, the “purify” meaning only occurs when the root is used in the hitpael or the piel constructs. These constructs are the cause of the altered meaning.

Now it is time to discuss chesed (kindness). At Lev. 20:17 the Torah describes the prohibition of a man having relations with his sister and then calls this a “chesed.” How can this be? The solution here is that there are two different CHSD roots, one in Hebrew and the other in Aramaic. CHSD indeed means “kindness” in Hebrew. But in Aramaic it means “shame, reproach.” As pointed out by Rashi to Lev. 20:17, it is the Aramaic meaning that is being used in Lev. 20:17. Chesed with the meaning “shame, reproach” is also found several other places in Tanach: at Prov. 14:34 and 25:10 and Job 6:14.

Another possible case of an opposite meaning is ayin, kof, resh. In Biblical Hebrew it means “empty, barren.” Yet we all know the word ikar, which means “main part.” What is going on here? The answer here is similar to the answer regarding CHSD. There are two AKR roots. The Hebrew root means “empty, barren.” But the Aramaic root means “main part.” The Aramaic meaning is found only three times in Tanach, all in Chapter 4 of the book of Daniel, a chapter composed in Aramaic. The reason the opposite meanings of AKR are of special interest is that it has become a practice today to praise a woman who is the mainstay of a home by calling her “akeret ha-bayit,” following the language of Psalm 113:9. Yet, since this verse is Hebrew, akeret here means “barren one.” Perhaps if all understood the subtle humor and intentional misuse of akeret here, then using this expression could be justified. But more likely the misuse of akeret here just leads to confusion about the meaning of the Hebrew root AKR.

In sum, it is very unlikely that there are any words in Biblical Hebrew whose root meaning has two opposite meanings. All the examples above do not fit the bill.

By Mitchell First

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.

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