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‘Mas’ and ‘Miskenot’ (Exodus 1:11)

Last year I read a book by someone very familiar with rabbinic Hebrew and modern Hebrew who ended up studying the King James Bible and writing a book about the inadequacies of its translations.

When she got to Exodus 1:11, “sarei misim,” she was shocked at its translation: “taskmasters.” She wrote: “But ‘taskmasters’ is not what the literal Hebrew says. The Hebrew word means ‘tax masters.’…This tax, in Exodus 1:11, is a most unpleasant one. It is a tax so high it cannot be paid in money; it must be paid in bodily labor.”

I thought her comments were clever, and mentally filed them away for a future column. Now that I have researched the biblical word “mas,” I realize that she erred. The word “mas” occurs 23 times in Tanach (in either its singular or plural form). If we focus on the earliest 22 of these references (and ignore the latest reference at Esther 10:1), all 22 times the word means something like “forced labor.” (See, e.g., the Brown-Driver-Briggs work, which does a good job of showing this.) Even as late as Eichah 1:1, “forced labor” is probably the meaning. See, e.g., Brown-Driver-Briggs, and the Anchor Bible.

In other words, the “tax” meaning is a later meaning of the word. I think the word does mean “tax” at Esther 10:1, and most sources agree. (But Soncino suggests “imposed forced labor” even here.) But this is all beside the point. Fundamentally and originally, the word means something like “forced labor on public works without pay.” The sophisticated word usually used to convey this idea is “corvée.” See, e.g., the Hertz Pentateuch to Ex. 1:11. Similarly, the Daat Mikra on Ex. 1:11 defines “mas” as: “gius la-avodat kefiah.” See also Daat Mikra to 1 Kings 4:6. See also Tosafot, Chagigah 8a, “va-yasem.”

The author I mentioned above is not the only source to make this understandable error in translating “mas.” If you look at the Even-Shoshan concordance, the only definition it gives for “mas” is “tashlum chovah le-otzar ha-medinah”(=obligatory payment to the government treasury). It seems that anyone overly influenced by modern Hebrew and rabbinic Hebrew will make this same translation error.

If one assumes that the word “mas” comes from Hebrew and tries to figure out its root, the theories abound. Very briefly, some suggestions are: 1) MSS, 2) MNS, 3) NSS, 4) nun-sin-aleph, and 4) shortened form of Meches. See, e.g., the suggestions made in the concordance of S. Mandelkern. But most likely, “mas” is just a foreign word and perhaps not even a Semitic one. E. Klein writes that the word is “of uncertain origin,” but then makes only one suggestion. He relates it to an Egyptian word that means “bear, carry.” (Egyptian is not a Semitic language.) See Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, p. 359.


 As long as we are on the subject of Exodus 1:11, I am going to discuss another difficult term in the same verse: “arei miskenot.” This is the only time this term appears in the Chumash. But “miskenot” appears six other times in Nach, in various forms. (Usually it appears with the word “arei”=cities.)

From the various contexts (see especially 2 Chr. 32:28), it seems like the meaning is “store cities.” But what is its root? S. D. Luzzatto is willing to postulate a switch of letters. He wants to understand the word as if the root was caf-nun-samech (=gather), instead of samech-caf-nun. But this far-reaching switch is farfetched!

Let’s see what happens if we stick with the Hebrew root that we have. S. Mandelkern tells us that there are three different samekh-caf-nun roots in Tanach. One is S-C-N with the “danger” meaning. But this meaning only appears one time in Tanach, in the book of Kohelet (10:9). (Based on the language of Kohelet, the scholarly consensus is that it is a late book.) Moreover, this “danger” meaning of S-C-N seems to come from Aramaic. In any event, it does not seem to explain our word “miskenot.”

Mandelkern lists a second root S-C-N with a meaning like “pauper.” This root appears a few times in Kohelet, and once at Deut. 8:9. On the simplest level, this also does not seem to have anything to do with our word “miskenot.” But Rav Hirsch (at Ex. 1:11) comes up with a very clever connection: “miskenot” means “years of need.” The cities were built for years of need (=hunger years)!

The third S-C-N root is the main meaning of the root S-C-N in Tanach. It means something like: “useful, benefit, be accustomed to.” (E.g.,the sochenet to David at I Kings 1:2.) Moreover, there is one place that this root seems to imply economic management. This is at Isaiah 22:15: “Go, get yourself to this ‘sochen’…asher al ha-bayit.” Therefore Rashi and many others cite this verse as an explanation for our “miskenot.” Of course, I would feel better about this explanation if there were more occurrences of this root in Tanach where it implied economic management.

But there is an entirely different approach that one can take to “miskenot.” It relies on Akkadian, but only as a first step toward seeing the original Semitic and Hebrew root.

Specifically, there is an Akkadian verb “shakanum” that means “to deposit, to lay an object down.” This verb led to certain nouns like “mashkantum,” a storage place. This is likely the same word as our “miskenot,” just that it utilizes “sh” instead of “s.” But we can recognize the Semitic and Hebrew root Sh-C-N in “shakanum.”

Accordingly, our looking at an Akkadian word that is probably related to “miskenot” makes us realize that perhaps the root of our word was really shin-caf-nun. We all know this root. It means “dwell, lay down.” Now we understand our word! A storehouse is where things are laid down! (Note also the Hebrew word “mashkon”=deposit.) See further E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, p. 361, and M.Z. Kaddari, Milon Ha-Ivrit Ha-Mikrait, p. 634. Of course, this relation to shin-caf-nun is only a suggestion, but it is a very promising one. This approach to “miskenot” is also adopted in the Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon, p. 606. (But there is an embarrassing typographical error here. Instead of writing that “shakanum” meant “deposit,” the word erroneously printed is “defeat.”)

Mitchell First is an attorney who pays his taxes. He can be reached at [email protected]. His new book “Roots and Rituals” (2018) is not stored in a storehouse. Rather, each book that is ordered is specially printed by Amazon: “Print on demand.”

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