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Insights Into Psalm 23: God Is My Shepherd

רעי: This word means “my shepherd.” This noun derives from the root רעה which means: “to pasture/tend to animals.” But wait a minute, doesn’t this root also mean “to be a friend to, be close to”? I wondered for decades whether these two meanings had a common origin, i.e., perhaps the verb originally meant “tending to animals” and then expanded to “befriending humans,” or vica versa. Over the centuries, many believed one or the other of these scenarios. But nowadays I believe that the majority view rejects any common origin. (One reason is that Arabic lacks the “friendship, closeness” meaning.)

ינהלני: The root of this word is נהל. The root appears ten times in Tanach. The meaning of the verb is “to lead.” In our psalm, the author is being led to still waters.

We all know this root from Exodus 15:13 (“Oz Yashir”): “neihalta be-azecha…” (=you lead them with your strength to your holy habitation).

(At Gen. 47:17, the root seems to mean something like “support,” an expansion from its original meaning. See, e.g., S.D. Luzzatto and Daat Mikra.)

In modern Hebrew, the מנהל is the school principal. This word appears in Tanach as well, at Isa. 51:18: “ein menahel lah” (=there is none to guide her).

מעגלי: This word means “paths” in Tanach. The root of this word is עגל, which means “round.” But isn’t a path supposed to be straight? How can a path be both round and straight? Round things and straight things are fundamentally inconsistent. The explanation is that מעגל refers to a straight path, made by the wheels of a wagon! See, e.g., Brown-Driver-Briggs and the Soncino comm. to Prov. 2:9.

(But I cannot resist quoting the explanation of Rav S.R. Hirsch. “צדק מעגלי are those ways of life circumscribed by law… Anything outside that ‘circle’ is [an] עברה, wrong, transgressing the bounds of righteousness.”)

צלמות: his word appears many times in the Nach. It is vocalized as “tzalmavet” and traditionally translated as “shadow of death” as if it is a combination of צל and מות. However, in Akkadian it means “blackness.” (See Hayim Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, p. 323 and Ernest Klein’s etymological work, p. 549.) This must be its meaning in Nach as well. Accordingly, it should be vocalized as “tzalmut.” It is used as a parallel to חשך in many verses. See, e.g., Ps. 107:10: “yoshvei choshech ve-tzalmavet,“ Ps. 107:14: “yotzieim mei-choshech ve-tzalmavet,” and Job 34:22: “ein choshech ve-ein tzalmavet.”

שבטך, משענתך: Rav S.R. Hirsch suggests: “I take comfort in the knowledge that whatever I receive from Thee, be it chastisement or support, is indeed Thine and comes solely from Thee.” Rashi too views the shevet here in a similar manner, as inflicting yisurim.

But Daat Mikra interprets the verse as follows: The speaker, who is speaking as a sheep, is saying: “I can relax and feel secure knowing that the shepherd has a ‘shevet’ to strike the wild animals and help lead the way for me, and that he has a ‘mishenet’ to lean on when he navigates the hills and rocks.” If we follow the Daat Mikra’s interpretation of the verse, its import is that we all should be comforted due to the protection that God provides us.

Here are a few more interpretations: Radak interprets “shivtecha” as yesurin, and “mishantecha” as the Torah (since we lean/rely on it). Malbim views “shivtecha” as the adversity that David encountered in his life. It comforted him because he knew its purpose was to steer him in the path of righteousness. Finally, in the view of Metzudat David: “shivtecha” refers to being hit with the shevet of yisurin, but immediately God brings us back/provides us support (=”mishantecha”). This way we know right away that God does not abandon us.

שלחן: I was sure that this word was connected to the root שלח, and that a table was something “sent out” in some way. But it turns out that this is not the case.

The original Semitic language had an alphabet of more than 22 letters. Our present letter “shin” is the result of a merger of two older letters. One of the original letters was pronounced “sh” like our “shin.” But another was pronounced with a “th” sound. From the Semitic language of Ugaritic, discovered in the early 20th century, we see that their word for “table” was “tlhn.”That first letter likely came from the original Semitic “th” letter. Thus, we do not have to stretch to come up with a connection between our two Hebrew שלח words, “send” and “table.” Even though in Hebrew they look like they have the same root, they did not originate with the same root.

For the same reason, we do not have to stretch to find a connection between words such as: “shemen” and “shemonah.” (As we all know, the latter is תמניא in Aramaic, suggesting that the original Semitic letter made the “th” sound.)

(As a side matter, I do have some interesting thoughts related to “send” in connection with a different word, מלאך. Based on its four-letter structure with an initial “mem,” we could suspect that the root of this word is לאך. But there was no such verb in Tanach, so we did not know what the verb meant. But when Ugaritic was discovered, scholars learned that this language had a verb לאך, with the meaning “send.” See Encyclopaedia Judaica 2:957. We can all understand that a מלאך is one who is “sent.” But what about that word מלאכה? How do we understand this word with a “send” meaning? (I will address this in a separate column.)

דשנת: A common translation is “anoint,” but this is not what the word means. It means “to put a lot of something on,” related to the word “fat,” which is the meaning of דשן in Tanach. “Fattened my head with oil” would be a rough translation. (There was a custom in Biblical times to put oil on the head as a sign of happiness. We see this from Kohelet 9:8: “At all times your garments should be white, and ‘shemen al roshcha’ should not be lacking.”)

In the context of sacrifices, דשן is usually translated as “ashes. “ But it really means “the burnt remains from the fat.” It does not mean “ashes” and does not have the mournful connotation that the standard word for ashes (אפר) has.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He mentioned above that round things and straight things are fundamentally inconsistent. He believes that is why π (=3.14159….) is an irrational number!

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