June 14, 2024
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June 14, 2024
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Guide to Writing a Biblical Concordance

How did I choose this topic to write about? Am I that desperate for topics? Shouldn’t I be writing about the yeshiva tuition crisis? Well, I will say at the outset that if one devotes one’s time to writing a concordance, I suspect that one will have difficulty paying yeshiva tuition.

With that out of the way, let us begin. I am writing this article because I think we will all learn a lot about Tanach and the Hebrew language from it.

1. Some parts of Tanach are in Aramaic. Do they deserve a separate section? In the concordance of S. Mandelkern, they were given a separate section toward the end of the concordance. I.e., the sections of Dan. 2:4 to 7:28, Ezra 4:7 to 6:18, and Ezra 7:12 to 26 were given their own section. Also included in this section are the two Aramaic words of Gen. 31:47 (“yegar sahaduta”), and the Aramaic verse at Jer. 10:11.

Of course, dividing your concordance into one large Hebrew section and one barely noticeable Aramaic section has risks, since people don’t read introductions. I will never forget the time when I was in YU’s Revel graduate school and Dr. Leiman asked us if a certain word was in Tanach. We all checked the body of the Mandelkern concordance (the Hebrew section), and we responded that the word was not in Tanach. Well, of course the word was in Tanach. It was in the smaller Aramaic section. None of us realized that there was such a separate section that had to be checked. I always make sure to check both sections now.

In the concordance of Even-Shoshan, the words in the Hebrew and Aramaic sections are all integrated. But when a word comes from one of the above special sections, the concordance has a note telling you that the word is Aramaic.

2. What about “shin” and “sin”? Should they be combined into one entry? A few generations ago scholars believed that “sin” was merely a later development from “shin.” Now scholars realize that the letters were originally separate. They were able to make this determination based on a review of the other Semitic languages. Since “shin” and “sin” originated as separate letters, we should not normally attempt to equate roots in which one root has a “shin” and the other a “sin,” and they deserve separate entries. Mandelkern has separate entries for “shin” and “sin.” But it is surprising to me that in the Even-Shoshan the two are merged into one entry. (I can only guess that because some of the earlier concordances combined them, perhaps to make it easy for non-Jewish scholars, Even-Shoshan chose to continue doing so.)

3. What to do with nouns with initial “mem,” e.g. M-K-D-Sh (mikdash)? The root of this word is K-D-Sh. As a general rule, concordances are organized by roots. The issue here is should the author of the concordance assume that his reader knows enough to ignore the initial “mem” and look for the word in the root K-D-Sh? Or is that making too much of an assumption, and the author should list the word in the “mem” entries? This is a big decision since nouns of this form occur hundreds of times in Hebrew.

Mandelkern assumes that his readers know enough to chop off the initial “mem” and look for the word in the root K-D-Sh. By doing this, he is able to gather all the words with the root K-D-Sh into one section, which is very useful. Even-Shoshan, on the other hand, lists the nouns with the initial “mem” in the “mem” section so they can be found easier. The problem with this is that one can easily go to the root K-D-Sh, see all the words there, and not realize that you have overlooked all the nouns with this root, like M-K-D-Sh.

4. What do you do with a word like “yipol”? This is a simple word that means “he will fall.” The initial root “nun” dropped out, a common occurrence in Hebrew. The word should be understood as if it was written “yinpol” (YNPL). There are hundreds of words with dropped initial “nuns” in Hebrew. Here, however, even Even-Shoshan has no entry Y-P-L. Just like Mandelkern, Even-Shoshan is forcing his users to realize that an initial “nun” dropped and to look for the word in the N-P-L entry. It is surprising that Even-Shoshan does not think his readers know enough to drop initial “mems,” but he is relying on them to put back omitted “nuns,” and this is much harder! (But I do realize that he had no choice. The alternative is unworkable.)

5. The biggest problem with using a concordance to look up a word is that many times the root of the word is unclear. We are not talking about merely chopping off an initial “mem,” or putting back an initial “nun.” Some times more creativity than that is required. I have spent hours over the past decades attempting to look up words in Mandelkern but not finding them easily because I could not figure out with what root the word is categorized. Some of these problems are solved with the Even-Shoshan, which requires less ingenuity from the user.

Mandelkern’s concordance was first published in 1896. In 1955 a professor added a special supplement, a few pages in length, that enables you to look up hard words the exact way they are spelled in Tanach, and it points you to their location in the concordance. (Presumably, concordances online solve some of these problems. I am not familiar with them.)

Once in a while Mandelkern has mercy on his users. For example, with regard to the word mabul (flood), he knows that the root is not M-B-L. He knows that it is either N-B-L (decay/fall), B-L-L (confuse/mix) or Y-B-L (flow). But he also realizes that it will be hard for his readers to find the word if he makes a determination and chooses one of these. So he is willing to place his entry in the position for M-B-L so the word can be easily found, and there he explains that M-B-L is not the root.

6. What do you do with roots like chet-resh-peh, which mean two different things (reproach vs. harvest time)? If the meanings are completely different, like this example, you create two separate entries, I and II. But often there is a possible relation between the two roots, but one is not sure. For example, the root lamed-yod-tzade means both “mock” and “translate.” Mandelkern decided to merge them both into one entry based on his conjecture that translations mock the original, so the two meanings may have had a common origin. (In fact, a common origin for these words is very unlikely.)


Mandelkern’s concordance is much better than Even-Shoshan’s if one is interested in word origins. At the beginning of each root entry, in very small print, he comments about the relation between the root and other similar Hebrew roots, and the relation of the root to roots in other languages, and makes many interesting conjectures. Even-Shoshan, on the other hand, is much less interested in conjecturing about word origins. But Even-Shoshan’s concordance has many other advantages over Mandelkern’s. One will benefit by having both in one’s home.

The strangest thing about Mandelkern’s concordance is that, for each entry, his primary way of defining the word was with a Latin word! It is very odd to see all these Latin words in a Hebrew concordance. Probably, he was creating his concordance for non-Jewish biblical scholars as well. In my role as one of the librarians of the Congregation Beth Aaron beit midrash, I have made sure that we have a Latin-English dictionary placed right near the Mandelkern concordance! (Thank you to my chavruta Josh Teplow for donating it years ago!)

By Mitchell First

Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. If he ever authors a concordance, he is not going to include entries for “et” and hopes you can forgive him for that. He can be reached at [email protected].

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