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Kivrat Ha-Aretz (Gen. 36:15)

This phrase appears three times in Tanach. Outside of our parsha it appears at Gen. 48:7 and 2 Kings 5:19. (These other times, the second word is “aretz.”) The first word is spelled כברת. At first impression, it would seem that the root is כבר.

The root כבר has several meanings in Tanach. The simplest fit would seem to be its meaning of “many.” See, e.g., Job. 35:16. (It also has the related meaning: “mighty.” See Isa. 17:12.)

With the meaning “many” we can understand “kivrat ha-aretz” as implying a large distance. Rashbam and many others understand the phrase this way.

The problem with the “large distance” approach is that the context of the phrase at 2 Kings 5:19 suggests a short distance. (The contexts at Gen. 35:16 and its repetition at 48:7 do not clearly point to either a short or long distance.)

Since the “large distance” approach is problematic, many take a different approach to the word. Radak sees the initial כ not as a root letter, but as the כ of comparison. He views the root as ברה with a meaning related to eating. (See, e.g., 2 Sam. 12:17.) Accordingly, Radak views the phrase as meaning the length of time a traveler travels until his first meal, and the implication is a considerable distance. See his Sefer Ha-Shorashim, entry ברה.

Now I will summarize the famous comments of Nachmanides (d. 1270) on our phrase. When he first wrote his commentary he was in Christian Spain and he wrote that he agreed with Radak. But near the end of his life he was banished from Spain after a debate that he was involved in defending Judaism. Accordingly, the last three years of his life were spent in Israel. His commentary continues that after he was in Israel he saw that the distance between the burial site of Rachel and the city of Beit Lechem was short. He wrote that he now retracted what he wrote earlier, and offered the interpretation that ברת here means daughter. (ברת is an Aramaic word for daughter.) Nahmanides wrote that the implication of the phrase “daughter of [a distance of] land” is “a short distance.” (The traditional site of the tomb of Rachel is only one mile north of Bethlehem.)

A different approach is taken by Ralbag. He realizes that there is one time in Tanach (Amos 9:9) where the word כברה means a “sieve” (= something used for sifting). Based on this, Ralbag believes that the reference to “kivrat ha-aretz” refers to the ploughed area around the city, i.e., its fields and vineyards. The implication of the phrase at Gen. 35:16 would be that only a small stretch of cultivated land separated them from Bethlehem.

Taking an entirely different approach, scholars today understand the phrase “kivrat ha-aretz” in light of a phrase in Akkadian, the language of ancient Assyria and Babylonia. (Akkadian is a Semitic language, but it is written in cuneiform, unlike the other Semitic languages.) The Akkadian parallel is “bēr qaqqari.” (That second word is the equivalent to the word קרקע.) Accordingly, “ki-brat ha-aretz” should be translated as “approximately one land-mile.” The כ is “approximately,” and the land-mile was equivalent to a distance of around ten kilometers (=six miles.) Bēr is the construct form of “bēru,” the Akkadian term for the ancient “mile.” See H. Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, p. 56 and N. Tur-Sinai, Peshuto Shel Mikra, vol. 1, pp. 58-60. Interestingly, Daat Mikra is willing to adopt this approach and explains that the Torah here was using an international measure of distance.

(The Akkadian language had the term “land-mile” to distinguish it from another term in their language: “heaven-mile,” a different measure, used for distances in the sky, also with the prefix “bēru.” That is why that second word הארץ was used in our verse. It is otherwise unnecessary. Or a word like דרך would have fit better.)

***

In case you are wondering why Akkadian, a Semitic language, was written in cuneiform, here is the explanation. The Akkadians settled in Mesopotamia in the third millennium BCE in the area of the Sumerians. The Sumerian language was not a Semitic one and was written in cuneiform. The Akkadians took over the Sumerian writing system, as the Semitic alphabet had not yet been invented. But even after the Semitic alphabet was invented (around 1700 BCE, in the areas of Egypt and Sinai), the Akkadians continued to use only the cuneiform writing system. (A contemporary analogy is that I still use AOL as my email address.)

***

Going back to our root כבר, I have already mentioned two different meanings to the root: “many/mighty” and “sieve.” The root also has a meaning of “intertwining, netting.” See, e.g., 1 Sam. 19:13 and 2 Kings 8:15.

There is much debate on whether all or some of these meanings can be related. But it is very hard to connect “many/mighty” and “sieve.” (But Rav S.R. Hirsch makes a clever attempt in his commentary to Ex. 27:4: sieving is “a real mastering of the material that is to be cleaned through it.”)

There are many who try to connect the “intertwining” and “mighty” meanings. For example, perhaps the word started with an “intertwining” meaning and then expanded since intertwined items tend to be strong. A similar phenomenon occurs with the root גדל. At Deut. 22:12 and 1 Kings 7:17, it has the meaning of “twisted threads,” and it has been suggested that here too the “strength” meaning is an expansion. I do not find any of this convincing. I think we have to live with two different unrelated meanings of גדל. (Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 2, pp. 391-92 agrees.) Nor do we have to accept a connection between the “intertwining” and “mighty” meanings of כבר. But many do connect the “sieve” meaning of כבר with its “intertwining” meaning.

What about that word כבר? Interestingly, it is only found in Kohelet. Probably it originally meant “for a long time” and derives from the “many /mighty” meaning of כבר. (See the view of Gordis cited in the balashon.com post below.) “Already” would therefore be a later meaning of the word.

Finally, we have the word עכבר. It appears six times in Tanach. A few of these times it clearly means a small rodent. The balashon.com post of June 5, 2007, tells the story of a woman in Israel who thought that “Allahu Akbar” meant “God is a mouse.” Her Arab worker corrected her and explained that “Akbar” with a hard “k” means “great, big.” The above post continues that the language scholar Chaim Rabin believed that the word עכבר for a small rodent did come from a “mighty, big” meaning, i.e., the small rodent was called this as a euphemism. But I find this hard to accept.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He limits his travel to riding the 167 bus to Manhattan. So far he has not seen any rodents there (unlike in the subway!).

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