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‘Ishon’: The Little Man in the Eye

The word ”אישון appears five times in Tanach. Let us look at one of these occasions: Deuteronomy 32:10 reads: “He found him (the Israelites) in a desert land, in a waste, a howling wilderness. He encompassed him. He gave him understanding. He guarded him like ‘ishon eino.’”

From the context here, and in two of the other times “אישון” appears, it seems to mean the “pupil of the eye.” The pupil of the eye is something that must be guarded carefully, as one’s sense of sight depends on it. But why does “ishon” have this meaning? Most likely, it is because if one looks at an eyeball, one sees one’s own reflection in a small image. There is in effect “a little man” (“איש”) in the pupil. One can find this explanation in works by several early Rishonim: the Sefer Ha-Shorashim of Ibn Janach and the work with the identical title by Radak. See also Radak to Psalms 17:8. Radak explains further that the “ ”ון suffix likely reflects the smallness of the image seen. See also Daat Mikra to Psalms 17:8.

(Rashi and Ibn Ezra have a different approach to “ishon.” They note that it means “darkness” in two verses. They both agree that it means “pupil” in the other three verses, but believe that the “pupil” meaning derived from the “darkness” meaning. As to Rashbam, he believes that “ishon” refers to “the eyelids,” because they cover the eyes and make things look dark.)

Another verse which stresses the importance of the “ishon” of the eye is Proverbs 7:2: “shomer mitzvotai ve-cheieh, ve-torati ke-ishon einecha — keep my commandments and live, and my teaching as the pupil of the eye.”

Arabic has the image of the “man in the eye” as well. The Arabic word for pupil is: “insaan-al-ayn” (man of the eye). See Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, page 26.

What about our word in English, “pupil?” Same thing! It derives from a Latin word “pupilla” which originally meant “little girl” (from “pupa” meaning “girl.”) “Pupilla” expanded to its “pupil” meaning, because of the tiny image one sees when looking in the eye. (I thank balashon.com for this tidbit.)

At Zechariah 2:12, we have the phrase: “nogea be-vavat eino.” The root of that middle word is “בבה.” (The “ת” at the end just reflects the construct state.) This seems to be another word for “pupil” in Tanach, but it only appears here. However, it appears prominently at the beginning of the zemer “Dror Yikra:” “God will guard you like ‘be-vavat.’”

(“בבה” might mean “eyeball” instead of “pupil.” Either way, it possibly derives from the root “נבב” which means “hole” or “hollow.” See, e.g., Exodus 27:8 and 38:7. But “בבה” could instead mean “eyelid.” See below.)

At Psalms 17:8, we have “shamreini ke-ishon bat ayin.” (The last three words are recited in the bedtime Shema with a miniscule change.) This is one of the five places that “ishon” appears. A simple translation is: “Guard me as the pupil that belongs to the eye.” But the Daat Mikra suggests a few other ways to look at this verse. In one of them, they suggest that “bat ayin” is the equivalent of “be-vavat ayin” and that the verse should be translated as if “shamreni ke-” (guard me like) applies to both “ishon” and “bat ayin.” (Daat Mikra then suggests that “בבת” should be translated as “eyelid,” on the hypothesis that its root is “בבא” which means“gate.”)

What about that phrase “apple of the eye?” It comes from Tanach, but it is not in the Hebrew of the Tanach. Rather, it is how the King James version of 1611 and earlier English versions translated three of the references to “אישון” and the “בבת” of Zechariah 2:12. We might think it is a mistranslation — but it turns out that as early as the 9th century, and continuing through the 17th century, the word “apple” was used — for whatever reason — to mean “pupil.”

Now, let us discuss the word “mei-ein.” This word originates in rabbinic literature. For example, “al ha-michyah” was originally referred to as “bracha achat mei’ein shalosh,” because it is a single blessing that summarizes the three Torah-level blessings. There is also an expression “mei-ein olam ha-ba.” So what does “mei-ein” mean? It derives from “ayin” (eye). Probably, it started off meaning “reflection of” or a “resemblance of” and then expanded to mean “a shortened form of.”

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Finally, what about the word for a “spring of water?” The word often used is עין“” (ayin). See, e.g., Jacob’s blessing to Joseph at Genesis 49:22: “ben porat alei ayin —a fruitful son by the spring of water.” See also Genesis 16:7 (story of Hagar). (Sometimes in Tanach, a different form of this word is used for a spring of water: “ma’ayan.”)

Is there a connection between “spring of water” and “eye?”

Some sources (e.g., Brown-Driver-Briggs) think that any connection is dubious and that we just have two different “עין” roots. But the root has both meanings in Aramaic as well. The Akkadian and Arabic cognates also have both meanings. All of this suggests that we are dealing with only one root. We just have to figure out what the connection is between the two uses. (Admittedly, the plural differs: “einayim” versus “ayanot.”)

I saw a suggestion that both an eye and a spring of water produce water, but this seems far fetched. Another suggestion is that “ayin” with the “spring of water” means “eye of the water.” See, Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, page 470.

The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (volume 11, pages 44-45) mentions the suggestion that springs were thought of as eyes on the face of the earth. It also mentions an alternative suggestion that springs were thought of as the eyes of a monster dwelling in the waters under the earth! But the suggestion that the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament prefers is that the use of “ayin” in conjunction with water “refers to the bright play of light on a spring … Especially in bright sunlight, a spring bubbling out of the earth gleams like an eye.” The Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon writes something similar: “The use of ‘ayin’ in connection with a spring refers to the ‘sparkle of the water.’”

If none of these suggestions work for you, the language expert, Meylekh Viswanath, reminds me that it is not that simple for us to understand the minds of ancient peoples. He points out that a common metaphor for a graceful woman in ancient Sanskrit was, “she has the gait of an elephant!”

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I have written much elsewhere about the letter “ayin,” which originally had the form of an eyeball. In the acrostics in chapters two, three and four of the book of Eichah, “pe” precedes “ayin.” For the explanation and insights into the history of the alphabet, see my “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (2015),” pages 207-230 and my earlier article in the Biblical Archaeological Review, July-Aug., 2012.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. As an attorney, he knows that he should “look” (ayin) before he “speaks” (pe). But as a scholar, he has argued that “pe” preceded “ayin” in the original order of the Hebrew alphabet (despite what you have thought since nursery school).

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