I once read a book by someone very familiar with rabbinic Hebrew and modern Hebrew who ended up studying the King James Bible and writing a book about the inadequacies of its translations. When she got to Exodus 1:11, “sarei misim,” she was shocked at its translation: “taskmasters.” She wrote: “But ‘taskmasters’ is not what the literal Hebrew says. The Hebrew word means ‘tax masters.’… This tax, in Exodus 1:11, is a most unpleasant one. It is a tax so high, it cannot be paid in money; it must be paid in bodily labor.”
I thought her comments were clever and mentally filed them away for a future column. Now that I have researched the biblical word “mas,” I realize that she had erred. The word “mas” occurs 23 times in Tanach (in either its singular or plural form). If we focus on the earliest 22 of these references (and ignore the latest reference at Esther 10:1), all 22 times the word means something like “forced labor.” (See, e.g., the Brown-Driver-Briggs work which does a good job of showing this.) Even as late as Eichah 1:1, “forced labor” is probably the meaning. See, e.g., the Brown-Driver-Briggs, Anchor Bible and Daat Mikra. (This verse is probably using the term in a figurative way. Its import is that the former “princess of the provinces” was now as low and humiliated as a forced laborer.)
The “tax” meaning is a later meaning of the word. I think the word does mean “tax” at Esther 10:1, and most sources agree. (But Soncino suggests “imposed forced labor” even here.) But this is all beside the point. Fundamentally and originally, the word means something like “forced labor on public works without pay.” The sophisticated word usually used to convey this idea is “corvée.” See, e.g., the Hertz Pentateuch to Exodus 1:11. Similarly, the Daat Mikra on Exodus 1:11 defines “mas” as: “gius la-avodat kefiah.” See also Daat Mikra to Kings I, 4:6. See also Tosafot, Chagigah 8a, “va-yasem.”
The author I mentioned — in the first two paragraphs — is not the only source to make the above understandable error in translating מס. If you look at the Even-Shoshan concordance, the only definition it gives for מס is “tashlum chovah le-otzar ha-medinah” (obligatory payment to the government treasury). It seems that anyone overly influenced by modern Hebrew and rabbinic Hebrew will make this same translation error.
If one assumes that the word מס comes from Hebrew and tries to figure out its root, the theories abound. Some suggestions are: 1) מסס (4 נסס (3 מכס (2 נשׂא and 5) נסה.
But, the widespread scholarly view today is that it is a foreign word. The Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon had stated that it was, probably, a foreign word, but did not make a suggestion. Now, scholars usually connect it with the word “massu” found in texts from approximately the 17th or 16th centuries BCE at Alalakh, in southern Turkey, and, a few centuries later, in one of the many texts from El-Amarna, Egypt. All these texts are in the Akkadian language. (The language of all these texts is considered to be “peripheral Akkadian.” For further explanation, see EJ 15:933.) These texts describe workers who were conscripted to work at locations outside of their hometowns.
Fundamentally, מס means something like “forced labor on a governmental project at a location outside of one’s hometown.” Most likely, the word originated with forced labor of a nation’s own people and, then, expanded to forced labor of a conquered people. See, e.g., Yaakov Klein, Eichah: Im Mavo U’Peirush (2017, Mikra LeYisrael Series), pages 128-29, and Nadav Na’aman’s article, in Yitschak Sefati et al, eds., “An Experienced Scribe Who Neglects Nothing” (2005), pages 746-758.
On the subject of Exodus 1:11, I am now going to discuss another difficult term in the same verse: “arei miskenot” (מסכנות). This is the only time this term appears in the Chumash. But “miskenot” appears six other times in Nach, in various forms. (Usually, it appears with the word “arei — cities.”)
From the various contexts (see especially Chapter 2, 32:28), it seems like the meaning is “store cities.” But, what is its root? Samuel David Luzzatto is willing to postulate a switch of letters. He wants to understand the word as if the root was כנס (gather), instead of סכנ. But, this far reaching switch is far-fetched!
Let’s see what happens if we stick with the Hebrew root that we have... Salamon Mandelkern tells us that there are three different סכנ roots in Tanach. One is “S-C-N” with the “danger” meaning. But this meaning only appears one time in Tanach, in the book of Kohelet (10:9). (Based on the language of Kohelet, the scholarly consensus is that it is a late book.) Moreover, this “danger” meaning of “S-C-N” seems to come from Aramaic. In any event, it does not seem to explain our word “miskenot.”
Mandelkern lists a second root “S-C-N” with a meaning like “pauper.” This root appears a few times in Kohelet, and once at Deuteronomy 8:9. On the simplest level, this also does not seem to have anything to do with our word “miskenot.” But, Rav Hirsch (at Exodus 1:11) comes up with a very clever connection: “miskenot” means “years of need.” The cities were built for years of need (hunger years)!
The third “S-C-N” root is the main meaning of the root “S-C-N” in Tanach. It means something like: “useful, benefit, be accustomed to.” (E.g., the סכנת to David at Kings I, 1:2). Moreover, there is one place that this root seems to imply economic management. This is at Isaiah 22:15: “Go, get yourself to this סכן … asher al ha-bayit.” Therefore, Rashi and many others cite this verse as an explanation for our “miskenot.” Of course, I would feel better about this explanation if there were more occurrences of this root in Tanach, where it implied economic management.
But, there is an entirely different approach that one can take to “miskenot.” It relies on Akkadian, but only as a first step towards seeing the original Semitic and Hebrew root. Specifically, there is an Akkadian verb “shakanum” that means “to deposit, to lay an object down.” This verb led to certain nouns like “mashkantum — a storage place.” This is likely the same word as our “miskenot,” just that it utilizes “sh” instead of “s.” But we can recognize the Semitic and Hebrew root שׁכן in “shakanum.”
Accordingly, our looking at an Akkadian word that is probably related to “miskenot” makes us realize that, perhaps, the root of our word was really שׁכן. We all know this root. It means “dwell, lay down.” Now, we understand our word! A storehouse is where things are laid down! See further: Ernest Klein, “A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language,” page 361, and Menachem Zevi Kaddari, Milon Ha-Ivrit Ha-Mikrait, page 634. Of course, this relation to שׁכן is only a suggestion, but it is a very promising one. This approach to “miskenot” is also adopted in the Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon, page 606. (But, there is an embarrassing typographical error here. Instead of writing that “shakanum” meant “deposit,” the word erroneously printed is “defeat.”)
For a longer version of this entire column, see my article in Hakirah, volume 30 (2021).
Mitchell First is an attorney who pays his taxes. Also, the several books he has authored are not stored in a storehouse. He can be reached at [email protected]