When words have the same three-root letters, our initial assumption should be that the words are related and our task should be discover the relationship. A straightforward example is shin-caf-mem. This word means “shoulder” (e.g., Gen. 9:23).These three letters are also the root of the word “va-yashkem.” “Va-yashkem” means something like “he got up early in the morning.” The context is usually someone going on a journey. But where did this word come from? Can we relate it to Sh-C-M/shoulder? This is an easy one. When a person gets up early in the morning to go on a journey, the first thing he does is put the items he is traveling with in a sack on his own shoulder, or on the shoulder of his animal. So the word that originally meant he shouldered himself or shouldered his animal evolved into having the meaning “he got up early.” I am sure that those who attend “hashkama” minyan have not been thinking of the “shoulder” meaning of the word!
In this column, I am going to give some examples of words that have the same three root letters that are very hard to relate to one another. All these words and their different meanings are coming from Tanach.
1. Chet-resh-shin: This root means “plough.” But it also means “silent” and “deaf.”
2. Ayin-resh-mem: This root means “cunning.” But it also means “pile.”
3. Tzade-lamed-chet: This root means “succeed.” But it also means “plate.” Also, one time it has a third meaning: “break through.” (II Sam. 19:18.)
4. Ayin-tzde-bet: This root means “grieve, pain.” But it also means “shape, form.”
5. Shin-chet-resh: This root has three meanings: “black,” “dawn” and “seek.” (Perhaps the “seek” meaning derived from the “dawn” meaning and the original meaning was “to go at dawn and seek.”)
6. Ayin-resh-peh: This root means “neck.” But it also means “flow” (see Deut. 32:2 and 33:28.)
7. Tzade-resh-resh: This root means “bind” but it also means “show hostility to.” (There also may be a verb with the meaning “be sharp.” See, e.g. Ex. 4:25, Josh 5:2-3 and Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, p. 558.)
8. Chet-resh-peh: This root means “reproach.” But it also means “winter.”
9. Chet-Mem-Shin: This root means “five.” But it also means “abdomen.” (It also means “equipped/armed.” This last meaning probably came from the “abdomen” meaning. The weapons were worn in the area of the abdomen. Look at that English word “armed.” Where do you think that word comes from!)
10. Sin-resh-dalet: This root means “remnant.” But in the book of Exodus, three times we have “bigdei serad” or “bigdei ha-serad”; the word is describing a kind of clothing.
11. Nun-tav-resh: This root means “spring up.” But it also means “free, loose.” (As to the latter, we recite this word thrice daily in the Amidah: “matir,” which really derives from “mantir.” The initial nun drops. “Matir Asurim” means “he frees the tied ones.”)
12. Bet-sin-resh: This root means “meat” but it also means “announce.”
13. Nun-shin-heh: This root means “to be a creditor” but it also means “to forget.” (There is also the “gid ha-nasheh” at Gen. 32:33. This likely has a separate meaning.)
Of course, people can always come up with suggestions for a relationship. For example, regarding number 2, a cunning person has a detailed plan that is the equivalent of a pile of steps. Regarding number 3, a successful husband “brings home the bacon.” But obviously these suggestions are farfetched.
There is one factor that explains why Hebrew often has words with the same three-letter roots that are not related. I admit that I did not know this until a few years ago. It turns out that some of our Hebrew letters are actually the result of a merger of two different earlier letters. For example, in an earlier stage, there were two different letters for chet, ayin, zayin, and tzade. Arabic has these extra letters, but they did not survive in Hebrew. But the basic assumption of scholars today is that Proto-Semitic, the language that was the basis for Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic and the other Semitic languages, had these additional letters. So we are often spinning our wheels needlessly when we attempt to equate words that include the letters chet, ayin, zayin, and tzade. (I admit that the idea that some of our Hebrew letters are mergers of two different earlier letters is something that requires time to digest!)
Of course, if you look at items 10-13 above, you will see that Hebrew has this same problem even in words that do not include the letters chet, ayin, zayin, and tzade. Unfortunately, we are just going to have to live with this.
In any event, most of the time, when the three-letter roots are the same, there is a relationship and we are acting properly in making an effort to discern it!
By Mitchell First
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He spends much of his time trying to relate three-letter roots and deciding which attempted relationships are futile. When not doing that, 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.