This week’s parsha has a very interesting word: M-Sh-T-A-H. The entire phrase is: “ve-ha-ish mishtaeh lah.” The man is Eliezer and the “lah” refers to Rivkah. So what exactly is Eliezer doing? We will learn a lot about biblical Hebrew by attempting to decipher this word.
The first step is to realize that the word should be understood as if it was written M-T-Sh-A-H. M-T is a standard hitpael prefix, but sometimes the T of the hitpael and the first root letter have ended up in switched positions (for reasons related to ease of pronunciation). This is what happened here. Therefore, we have to reverse the order of the second and third letters to properly decipher the word, and pretend we are looking at the word M-T-Sh-A-H.
As to the meaning of the hitpael stem, many of us are taught in our youth that the hitpael stem means “to do something to yourself.” But it has other functions as well. For example, sometimes it means “to do something continually.” (An example: hit-halech = to walk continually.)
We have now gotten over the preliminaries in our attempt to decipher M-Sh-T-A-H. We see that our word has a root Sh-A (aleph)-H and is in the hitpael stem (and that the hitpael can serve a few different functions).
Do you know this root Sh-A-H? Of course you do, it is the same root as the word shoah. This word was chosen to describe the destruction of European Jewry because the root Sh-A(aleph)-H appears many times in Tanach and often means “to ruin, lay waste, make desolate.” See, e.g., Is. 6:11. (This root has other related meanings as well, e.g., a noisy, roaring tumult. This probably preceded the “ruin-lay waste-make desolate” meaning.)
The reason we are not so familiar with the biblical root Sh-A(aleph)-H is that all the occurrences of this root are found in Nach. The only time this root appears in the Chumash is here at Gen. 24:21, and it is hard to fit the “ruin, waste, desolate” meaning into this verse.
- Saadiah Gaon saw the root of M-Sh-T-A-H as Sh-T-H. The phrase would then mean that Eliezer was waiting for or accepting a drink from Rivkah. But this approach does not account for the aleph, so most authorities reject his approach. The widespread understanding of the structure of the word is that the M-T is there to indicate that the word is in the hitpael, and the root of the word is Sh-A-H.
Rashi provides a lengthy attempt at explaining our word. He takes the position that the root of the word is Sh-A-H, which had an original meaning of “ruin, desolation.” How does that fit into the context? Rashi notes that there was another root Sh-M-M which meant “ruin, desolation,” and that root developed a secondary meaning of “confused, silent and deep in thought.” See, e.g., Job 18:20, Jer. 2:12 and Dan. 4:16. Rashi believes that the same thing happened in the case of our Sh-A-H root.
“Ruin and desolation” evolving into “confusion/silence/astonishment”? Initially, I disliked this approach. But then my dentist, Richard Gertler, reminded me of the modern English expression “blew my brains away.” So we see that in English a term of ruin can be a metaphor for “astonishment.” (Due to their familiarity with teeth and tongues, my experience is that dentists have very good linguistic abilities!)
Rashi’s view is followed by many, such as Rashbam and Ibn Ezra. Rav S.R. Hirsch writes something similar. He takes the position that the fundamental meaning of Sh-A-H is “bleak, dull, desert,” and from that we get “unclearness of mind.”
If you are not satisfied with Rashi’s approach (and I am not completely satisfied), there are alternatives. The Daat Mikra mentions that R. David Tzvi Hoffman suggested that the root was Sh-H-H, which means “delay.” But there is no such root in Tanach. This root entered Hebrew later, from Aramaic.
The best alternative is to understand the aleph of M-Sh-T-A-H as if it were an ayin. The biblical root shin-ayin-heh means to look. See e.g., Gen.4:4 and Is. 31:1. Many scholars advocate this approach. See, e.g., Ernest Klein (“A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English,” p. 633). This approach is also mentioned in the Daat Mikra. It is significant that Targum Onkelos uses the word mistakel (look), but we do not know what led the Targum to this conclusion.
Although we do not ordinarily want to understand words by postulating switches of alephs and ayins, such switches are not uncommon. For example, many times in Tanach, the root gimel-aleph-lamed appears with a negative meaning and clearly does not mean “redemption.” Biblical Hebrew has a root gimel-ayin-lamed that means “loath, reject.” A widespread view today understands all those gimel-aleph-lamed occurrences with a negative meaning as if they were spelled gimel-ayin-lamed. For some examples (there are 12 such occurrences), see Malachi 1:7 and 1:12. Aleph and ayin must have originally been very close in pronunciation. Also, spelling in ancient times was probably much more fluid than it is today.
If we understand the aleph of M-Sh-T-A-H as if it were an ayin, and if we adopt the meaning “look,” we have a simple understanding of the role of the hitpael as well. M-Sh-T-A-H would mean “continually looking” toward her. This fits the context well.
We all know that shin-ayin-heh (=sha’ah) is also as a measure of time. But this meaning is only found in the Aramaic portions of the book of Daniel. It is nowhere else in Tanach. It originally meant “a short period.” Most likely it has no relation to shin-ayin-heh=look. S. Mandelkern, in his concordance, attempts to connect the two shin-ayin-heh meanings, but most scholars would not accept his suggestion.
Earlier, we mentioned the root Sh-T-H=drink. I would like to mention an interesting phenomenon related to this root. The root Sh-K-H is another verb that means “to drink.” But there is an important difference between Sh-T-H and Sh-K-H. When you drink yourself, the root is Sh-T-H. But when you give a drink to someone else, the root is Sh-K-H. In other words, in the hiphil (=causative), the tav becomes a kof: H-Sh-K-H. (There are other examples of verbs that have similar meanings with tav and kof. An example is peh-tav-chet and peh-kof-chet. Both mean “open.”)
One day, when I understand this exchange of T and K better, I will write a column on it. I even recall that my dentist, Dr. Gertler, had some insight on this one as well! Meanwhile, I have to stop writing now. I am having too many ruinous and astonishing thoughts and am also getting thirsty.
By Mitchell First
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy.” 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.