Monday, September 27, 2021

Aside from that common verb ראה, there are many other verbs for seeing or looking in Tanach. I am going to discuss three of them: הביט,שקף and שגח. (I will leave ציץ, שור, צופה and חזה for another column.)

הביט: The underlying verb here is נבט, just like the root of הגיע =arrive is נגע (touch). (The one dot under that ה tells us that a letter dropped here. If there were no dropped letter, there would be a “tzeirei” under the ה, as in the word הביא.)

God did give us one clue that verifies our intuition as to the root. There is one time, out of the 69 times that this verb appears in Tanach, that the initial “nun” is there. This is at Isaiah 5:30 (נבט).

The Akkadian cognate to our root נבט means “shine brightly.”

There are a few times where we have both הבט and ראה in the same phrase. Sometimes, the former is first. Other times the latter is first. (I am not concerned here with verses such as Num. 23:21, where the two verbs are found spaced far apart in different parts of the verse.)

Two fundamental questions are raised by our root: 1) what is the distinction between the verbs? and 2) why is the former almost always in the hiphil (=causative)? Every הבט and הביט literally means: “cause to see.”

Here is an approach. When the הבט verb precedes the ראה verb in the same phrase, the import can be that the person must first change his position to the area to be seen. See, e.g., Psalms 142:5: “habit yamin u-reeh” (shift to the right). See similarly Psalms 80:15 and Isa. 63:15: “habet mi-shamayim u-reeh” (shift down). See similarly Ps. 33:13. A contrast is Job 35:5, where Job is told to shift his view to the heavens.

If the context does not imply a change in position, a הבט that precedes a ראה implies concentration before the seeing. See Daat Mikra to 1 Sam. 17:42. See also Lam. 5:1 and Isa. 42:18.

When ראה precedes הבט, the import of the הבט is to look with concentration, or to think about. ראה precedes הבט at Lam. 1:11 and 2:20, and at Hab. 1:5. (הבט can mean “ think about” even when not preceded by ראה.)

ראה is a verb that merely describes what the eyes see, but הבט seems to be similar to the English word “focus,” either in its macro meaning, a shift in direction, or its micro meaning: extra concentration.

ראה often implies a wider view than הבט because the latter is often more focused. On the other hand, ראה can also be accidental or spontaneous. This is not the case with הבט.

On all of this, see Rashi to Num. 21:8, Malbim to Isa. 5:12, Daat Mikra to Psalms 80:15, and the work by Wertheimer cited below.

שקף: This verb appears 22 times in Tanach. But it is never in the kal construct. Ten times it is in the niphal (e.g., נשקפה), and 12 times it is in the hiphil (e.g., השקיף). Because it is never in the kal, we do not know what the simple verb means. In any event, in the hiphil it refers to a person actively going to “look out and down.” In the niphal, it refers to the passive act of “looking out and down.” It is often used, both in the hiphil and in the niphal, in connection with looking out a window. See, e.g., Judges 5:28 (mother of Sisera), and 2 Sam. 6:16 (Michal looking at David). All kohanim know Deut. 26:15: “hashkifah…min ha-shamayim…” It is recited by the kohanim at the end of birkat kohanim.

שגח: This root only appears three times in Tanach, always in the hiphil. From the reference at Psalms 33:14, we see that it is parallel to the הבט and ראה of the prior verse. But what kind of seeing does the verb imply? At Song of Songs 2:9 we have “mashgiach min ha-chalonot, meitzitz min ha-characim.” In this verse, the context is looking through an opening (the narrow window of an ancient house). At Isaiah 14:16, the context is looking at someone in a pit in she’ol. The implication here too may be a narrow area that one has to strain to see. Therefore, a reasonable approach to our verb is that it applies to looking through a narrow area. This is the view of Rashi and Radak. Also, the King James Version on Isaiah 14:16 has “narrowly look.” This is followed by the Jewish Publication Society translation of 1917 (included in the Soncino). But many others just view the verb שגח as indicating an intense viewing.

Probably, the extra effort necessary to see due to narrowness would explain why the verb is in the hiphil.

At Psalms 33:14, the verb refers to God looking “mi-mechon shivto” over all the “yoshvei ha-aretz.” Perhaps “mechon shivto” implies a bit of narrowness in the looking. (After all, the verse is not saying that God is looking from “shamayim.”) If no narrowness is implied, the verse would be using a later expansion of the verb’s meaning according to those who adopt the “look through a narrow area” approach.


Many of the words that I discuss in this column have different meanings in modern Hebrew. In this connection, I would like to share the following story that I read in HaMizrachi magazine (April 2021 issue). Nehama Leibowitz and her husband made aliyah from Europe in the pre-state period. Neither was very familiar with modern Hebrew. On their first visit approaching Yerushalayim, she saw a road sign on a hilly road that said in Hebrew: “low gear.” The story did not say but probably the Hebrew phrase on the sign was “hiluch namuch.” She was very impressed with the sign. She said to her husband: “How beautiful it is in Eretz Yisrael that there are road signs that remind those making the pilgrimage to the Holy City to enter it with humility!” (She thought the sign was instructing: “Walk humbly.”)


I would like to acknowledge the post of Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein of Nov. 2, 2017, “Seeing Is Believing,” which provided the idea for this column. Also, a useful source on biblical synonyms is S. Wertheimer: “Be’ur Shemot Nirdafim She-Ba-Tanach” (1924) (available on www.hebrewbooks.org).

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected] He pleads guilty to lack of knowledge of much of modern Hebrew. (But he finds that this lack helps him with Biblical Hebrew as he is not misled by modern terms.)

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