September 25, 2023
September 25, 2023

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Insights Into the Biblical Root ‘Ayin-Bet-Resh’

This is a very important root in Tanach. Its basic meaning is “cross over.” I cannot discuss every aspect of this root. I will limit myself to a few.

1. The word “evrah” appears many times in Tanach with a meaning like “anger.” For example, it is at Gen. 49:7, “ve-evratam,” regarding Jacob’s rebuke to Shimon and Levi. Also, we recite Psalms 78:49 at the Seder: God sent “charon apo evrah va-zaam…” What does “anger” have to do with “cross over”?

There are several possible explanations. One is that an angry person has “crossed the line” of acceptable behavior. This seems to be the meaning of the expression in English. Alternatively, in English we have an expression “to be carried away by anger.” Perhaps this is the explanation in Hebrew. See, e.g., E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, p. 462. Finally, another possible explanation is that the anger overflows out of the person. See, e.g., the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon. See also the comments of Rav S.R. Hirsch to Deut. 9:8: “Evrah is the highest degree of rage, formed from the point of view of coming out of oneself; passing beyond oneself.”

2. The word “avur” appears two times in the book of Yehoshua (5:11 and 5:12) in the expression “avur ha-aretz.” From the context it means the “produce of the land.” Can we find any underlying “cross over” here”? Perhaps it means “what flows from the land, or grows out of the land.” In English, we might use the word “yield.” A different approach is suggested by the Radak in his Sefer Ha-Shorashim and in his commentary to these verses. He suggests that the produce from the “shanah she-avrah” is called “avur,” while the produce from the “shanah ha-baah” is called “tevuah.” Finally, another view is that the word did not originate in Hebrew but in Akkadian. See, e.g., the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon, Daat Mikra to the above verses, and H. Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, pp. 269-270. According to Tawil, its meaning in Akkadian was “harvest.”

The Daat Mikra also suggests that the reason that the unusual word for produce was used in these verses was that Yehoshua 5:10 had used the words “erev” and “arvot.” The goal was to find a word for produce that sounded similar.

The Daat Mikra also points out that “ibur” is an Aramaic word for “dagan.” See, e.g., Onkelos to Gen. 27:28 and comm. of Metzudat Tzion (citing Onkelos to Deut. 28:51: “ibura”).

3. A big challenge is the word “ba-avur,” which appears 49 times in Tanach. It has meanings like “on account of,” “for the sake of,” “because of” and “in order that.”

The Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon suggests: “perhaps originally for the produce or gain of.” See similarly E. Klein, p. 461. But a better view is that the word reflects the movement from purpose to accomplishment or cause to result. See similarly Rav S.R. Hirsch, comm. to Ex. 20:17: “the transition to something in the intention to achieve something.”

4. What about the word “aveirah”? Where does this word come from? It is not found in Tanach. Rabbi David Bashevkin writes in his Sin-a-gogue (2019), pp. 8-9: “The word aveirah is clearly derived from the biblical word la-avor, to transgress… We frequently find the term la-avor as a verb indicating that a sin has been committed. The absence of the word aveirah in biblical literature may be part of a larger biblical trend that avoids abstract nouns in biblical writing. For instance, in the Bible we find the term shochein, a verb denoting God’s dwelling, but only in later rabbinic literature do we find the conceptualized noun Shechinah… According to [professor Steven] Fraade, Mishnaic terms marked a shift toward conceptualization of many biblical terms… Sin, with this new word [aveirah], was no longer an action; suddenly, sinning had become a concept.” Bashevkin then asks why the word aveirah, not mentioned in biblical literature, became such a common term for sin in rabbinic literature? One possible solution is that, as the legal boundaries between what was permitted and what was prohibited became clearer from Biblical times to Mishnaic times, it became fitting to use the term “aveirah,” since a sin is a transgression of a boundary.

(He adds, on a homiletical level, that calling sin an “aveirah” ties it to the past, while repentance is seizing control of the future.)

5. Eventually the root ayin-bet-resh ended up as a word for pregnancy. I always wondered how this occurred. Only now, at age 61, did I learn the answer! In Tanach, there is only one hint to a pregnancy meaning. At Job 21:10, the word “ibar” is used for a male animal making a female animal pregnant. The verb is in the “piel” form and means “to cause to be pregnant.” In rabbinic literature, we have “meuberet,” a word that describes the condition of the female. According to E. Klein, p. 364, “meuberet” is a pual form; the pual is the passive of the piel. It seems that the “crossing over” that occurred in the piel form is the transfer of the seed from the male to the female. See, e.g., M. Clark, Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, p. 178, entry A-B-R, item 8, and Brown-Driver-Briggs, p. 718b. Now I know why no one discusses this topic! (Of course, I am kidding. Surely very few people realize that this is the probable origin of “meuberet”=pregnant.)

Before I researched this, I had a completely wrong idea of how ayin-bet-resh came to mean “pregnant.” I thought the growth of the pregnant woman’s belly made her considered “over the line”!

6. From the “pregnancy” meaning came the next expansion, to the calendrical meaning. The word is used to describe a year that has an extra month.

Mitchell First crosses between being a personal injury attorney and a Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more of his articles, please visit his website

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