The word מופת or its plural appears 36 times in Tanach. Sometimes it refers to supernatural events/wonders like the ten plagues. See, e.g., Ex. 11:9-10. Or see Joel 3:3 about the future day of judgment: “dam, va-esh, ve-timrot ashan” and the next verse about the sun turning to darkness. Other times מופת refers to a sign that is a prediction. For example, at Isaiah. 20:3, the מופת = the prophet’s walking naked and barefoot predicts and symbolizes a future shameful event. When a sign comes true, it serves as a verification of a previous prediction.
What is the root of מופת? (With regard to the parallel word אות, many believe it is related to the root אתא, which means “come.” See, e.g., Deut. 33:2. So we easily see that the root can imply something that will come true in the future.)
The מ letters at the beginning of a noun are almost always not root letters. The initial מ is typically added to the root letters to turn the verb into a noun. Also, vav is almost never the first root letter in a Hebrew word. When one sees a vav as a first root letter in a form of a word, this means that the first root letter was really a yod. For example, in the root ידע, that yod turns to a vav in the various forms of the word, e.g., הודיע (=make known).
With that background, let us look at the various approaches to the root of מופת:
1. יפה: As a verb, this means “to be beautiful.” S. Mandelkern categorizes our word in this root and (writing in 1896) claims that most scholars agree.
2. יפת: Rav S.R. Hirsch is one who takes this approach to our word. He suggests that this root is related to the root פתה. פתה means “open” in Aramaic and most likely it has this meaning at Prov. 20:19. R. Hirsch also reads the “open” meaning into the word יפתה at Deut. 11:16 (part of Shema). R. Hirsch believes מופת is in the hiphil, and literally means “to cause to be open.” Accordingly, מופת is a sign that forces one to be open to (=take notice of) a teaching. See his commentary to Gen. 1:14 and Ex. 4:21.
Radak, in his Sefer Ha-Shorashim, is another who believes that the root is יפת. He writes that a מופת is a sign whose purpose is to cause one to believe in something that is to occur in the future.
(Most scholars would not agree that there is a root יפת in Biblical Hebrew. There is no other evidence for it. Of course, the response would be that our word is evidence for it, 36 times.)
3. אפת: This approach is taken in the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon. The suggestion is that מופת is a shortened form of מאפת. This work cites an Arabic word “ifutun” that means both “wonder, portent” and “calamity.” Mandelkern also mentions this view. He writes that the Arabic word means נפלא and “yotzei min ha-kelal.”
4. יפע: One who makes this suggestion is S.D. Luzzatto (comm. to Ex. 7:9). We all know the Biblical word הופיע with its meaning “shine forth,” which comes from this root. Luzzatto believes that our word is a shortened form of a related word מופעת. The meaning is “mofia ve-galui la-kol” so that, after it, there is no uncertainty. When he translates the word מופת in Italian, the word he uses means “proof.” In his Hebrew commentary he uses the word ראיה (=proof).
5. פלא: This is the view of Nachmanides (comm. to Deut. 13:2). He believes our word is a shortened form of מופלאת (from the root פלא= wonder). He believes that מופת is used when something is done that involves a change of the natural forces of the world. (Without discussing the root, Malbim says something similar. A מופת is something that involves a change of nature and is מפליא for all to see. See his comm. to Ex. 7:3.)
A few other comments:
1. It has been observed that מופת is often used as a description of the events of the Exodus (19 out of the 36 times).
2. At least one time the same event is described as an אות in one verse and as a מופת in a different verse. At Exodus 4:2 Moses’ rod is turned to a נחש and this is described as an אות (see 4:30). Yet at 7:9-10, when Moses does a similar thing in front of Pharaoh (turning his rod into a תנין), the term used is מופת. One suggestion (see Seforno Ex. 7:9) is that if the purpose of the sign is to convey a message about the messenger, as in Exodus chapter four (=the reliability of Moses), אות is used. But if the purpose of the sign is to convey a message about the sender, the term מופת is used. This way the same event can be described with a different term. (Malbim gives a different explanation. See his commentary to Ex. 7:3.)
3. According to many, there is some overlap between אות and מופת. Every מופת is an אות, but not vica versa.
4. Midrash Lekach Tov suggests that an אות is a sign about something in the distant future, but a מופת is a sign for something that is imminent.
5. אות and מופת often appear together. The phrase “ot u-mofet” appears three times, and “otot u-moftim” appears 12 times.
6. There is a statement in Sifrei, Naso 23, that the two words have the same meaning. On the other hand, Sifrei, Re’eh 83 (on Deut. 13:2) makes the distinction that an אות is “ba-shamayim” (citing Gen. 1:14), while a מופת is “ba-aretz.” (But this is not consistent with Joel 3:3.)
7. I doubt any explanation for מופת is going to work for all the instances. But the proponent of the explanation can always argue that his explanation was its original meaning and then the meaning of the word expanded. (This is why I prefer an explanation for the original meaning that at least connects it to a known root.)
8. My own intuition is that the word started out as referring to a supernatural event/wonder. When a sign/prediction is made that comes true, that too is a “wonder” on some level. Perhaps the sign/prediction thus came to be called a מופת even at the time it was made.
9. Finally, a leading modern scholarly lexicon is The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (edited by Koehler and Baumgartner). It is generally filled with hypothetical suggestions. But it is not willing to make any suggestion about the origin of our word, merely writing:
“? etym.” [=Uncertain etymology].
I would like to acknowledge the post of Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein of Jan. 8 2019, “The Sign is Coming,” which provided many of the above sources.
Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected] It is somewhat of a “wonder” that he is able to continually write this column without going to the library. He would like to thank Rabbi Moshe Schapiro who, in his role as Y.U. librarian, continues to scan for him what he needs from their library.