June 6, 2024
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Interesting Words in Hallel

Hallel comprises Tehillim chapters 113-118. I will discuss these words in the order they appear.

עקרת: Here the meaning is “barren, without children.” Most of the time in Tanach the meaning is similar, as the root עקר means “to uproot,” and the adjective means “uprooted.”

But we know in Hebrew today that the עקר (ikar) is “the main thing” (not: “the missing thing”!) This is the case already in Mishnaic Hebrew. See, e.g., Avot 1:17. How could this root have these two almost opposite meanings?

The explanation is that in the Hebrew part of Tanach (=most of Tanach, the older part of Tanach), the verb עקר means “to uproot.” But there are also Aramaic parts of Tanach (parts of Daniel and Ezra, and Jer. 10:11). Here, in the fourth chapter of Daniel, three times we have the root with a meaning like “the root of a tree.” The root of a tree is the basis of a tree. (See Daat Mikra to Dan. 4:12.) Very likely, from the “uproot” meaning the word developed a meaning of “root, basis.” See E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, p. 483.

(Daniel 7:8, a verse in the Aramaic section, has the “uproot” meaning. So we cannot simply say that Hebrew had the “uproot” meaning and Aramaic had the “root” meaning. Rather, an expansion from “uproot” to “root” is likely what happened.)

People today sometimes refer to an important woman as an “akeret ha-bayit,” borrowing the expression from our verse in Tehillim. They intend the later meaning “basis.” But in the verse they are citing, “akeret” means “barren/uprooted”!

לועז: The root of this word is לעז. This is the only time this root appears in Tanach. Fortunately, the root appears in the Mishnah and Tosefta. For example, M. Megillah 2:1 tells us: “korin otah le-loazot be-laaz”=we may read [the Megillah] for those who speak a foreign language in a foreign language. So “am loez” means a nation that speaks a foreign language.

חלמיש: This word appears five times in Tanach. From all these verses, it is easy to determine that it has a meaning like “hard rock.” But the word always bothered me because it has what seems like four root letters. Scholars are very good at finding parallels in Akkadian and Arabic, but the sources I have seen typically avoid suggesting what the original three-letter Semitic root was.

Fortunately, I found a good suggestion in the commentary of Rav S.R. Hirsch to Gen. 25:6, the concordance of S. Mandelkern, and E. Horowitz, How the Hebrew Language Grew, p. 189. There is a root in Hebrew חלם that means “strong.” It appears in only two places in Tanach: Job 39:4, and Isa. 38:16. (But it appears in the liturgy in the prayer for the sick: להחלימו.) That is likely the root of חלמיש. The “shin” added at the end is merely a suffix, as in the words חרמש, רטפש (from רטב), and עכביש.

עצביהם: The root here is עצב. This root has two different meanings: 1) pain/grieve (many times) and 2) form/shape (see Job 10:8 and Jer. 44:19). From the context, עצביהם in Tehillim ch. 115 means “their idols.” This obviously comes from the “form/shape” meaning.

It is hard to believe that the two Hebrew עצב meanings, “pain/grieve” and “form/shape,” have a common origin. Arabic has two different “ayin” letters, written and pronounced differently. (Arabic has preserved what was in the original, hypothesized language, Proto-Semitic.) The “pain/grieve” meaning has one such “ayin” letter and the “form/shape” meaning has the other such “ayin” letter. This strongly suggests that the two Hebrew עצב roots do not have a common origin but only look similar due to the merger of the two different “ayin” letters.

Now I would like to mention some very creative (but very unlikely) approaches that have been suggested to connect “idols” to “pain/grieve” (instead of to “form/shape”): 1) S. Mandelkern theorizes that the root עצב could fundamentally mean “avodah”=hard work that makes you tired. The word was then transferred to idols because they too have “avodah” done for them! 2) Another source suggests that the “idol” meaning really means “a rejecting God,” i.e., a God who causes pain.

שאול (=netherworld): Most likely, the root is שאה=desolation, and the lamed is just a suffix, and not part of the root. (Another example of a lamed that is merely a suffix is the lamed in the word כרמל.)

חלצת (“chilatzta nafshi mi-mavet”): The root here is חלץ, which means “release.” The root has this meaning often in Tanach.

The interesting question is what the root means in Birkat Ha-Chodesh (based on Isa. 58:11): “chilutz atzamot.” I discussed this at length in my book “Roots and Rituals.” (I also discussed the meaning of שאול at length there.)

אתהלך: The root here is הלך=walk. But what is the role of the hitpael here? We are all taught that the hitpael means to do something to yourself. So is the meaning here “I will walk myself”? The answer is that the hitpael has other functions as well. One of them is to do something continually. Throughout Tanach, when הלך is in the hitpael, it means to “walk continually.”

שער: The noun “shaar” with the meaning “gate” appears many times in Tanach. But two times we have the word “shaar” with the meaning “measure”: at Gen. 26:12 (“meah shearim”), and at Mishlei 23:7. (We all know the medieval version of this word, “shiur”= a set measure of learning.”) Are the “gate” and “measure” meanings related? After all, the price of merchandise may have typically been determined at the town gate. See, e.g., II Kings 7:1.

The fact that the original Semitic language had an alphabet of 29 letters helps us understand what happened here. 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. Just like Hebrew has a 22-letter alphabet, Aramaic also has a 22-letter alphabet. The Proto-Semitic letter that was pronounced “th” usually became a “shin” in Hebrew, but it usually became a “tav” in Aramaic. Since some dialects of Aramaic have the word תרעא for gate, this suggests that this word had an original “th” letter, unlike the original word for “measure.” See Horowitz, p. 107. (There is also evidence from Ugaritic that the words do not derive from a common root. See the essay in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament.)

That our Hebrew “shin” is the result of a merger of two different root letters also explains why we do not have to search for relations between words like: “shemen” and “shemonah,” “cheresh” (=deaf) and “cheresh”(=cut, plow), and “shelach” (send) and “shulchan.” In all of these pairs, the latter most likely had an original “th.” (Ugaritic and Aramaic help us guess what the original Proto-Semitic letter was.)


Mitchell First feels a great release in finally getting to the root of the word “chalamish.” It had been grieving him over the years and he had erroneously suspected that it was a לועז word. He can be reached at [email protected]. Please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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