July 18, 2024
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Parshat Vayishlach: Insights Into the Hebrew Language

At the beginning of this week’s parshah, the word malachim is used. The singular is malach (mem, lamed, aleph, caf). But how precisely should we translate this word? Anyone with a basic knowledge of Hebrew can intuit that the root of this noun is lamed, aleph, caf. (The initial mem is what turns the verb into a noun.) But what does the Hebrew verb L-A-C mean? Throughout Tanach, these letters are never used as a verb! How do we solve this problem?

Fortunately, there are other languages that are related to Hebrew that can provide us with clues. Aside from Aramaic, other languages that are related to Hebrew include: Arabic, Akkadian (the language of Assyria and Babylonia) and Ugaritic. Ugaritic is a language that was not discovered until the second quarter of the 20th century, when archaeology unearthed an ancient civilization in Syria that once spoke this language. After studying Ugaritic, scholars realized that it is very close to Hebrew.

It turns out that in Ugaritic, L-A-C was used as a verb. It meant “to send.” So a M-L-A-C is simply “one who is sent.”

Our analysis gets more interesting when we realize that the word melachah (“work) is related. But what is the precise relationship between “send” and “work”? And what is the difference between melachah and avodah? Based on our analysis, it seems that melachah is called this because it reflects the result of efforts that are sent out into the world. Avodah, on the other hand, comes from the root ayin, bet, dalet. It has more of a connotation of toil and obedient work, rather than creative work. We now understand why melachah is used in the context of the creation chapters in Genesis. In creating the world, God was not toiling in the manner of a slave. Rather, He was creating and sending His creative efforts out.

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, writing in the late 19th century, before the discovery of Ugaritic, sensed all of this. He writes (comm. to Gen. 2:2) “Melachah is not work looked on as labor or toil… Melachah is a thing which has become the bearer and executor of the thought and intention of a mind.”

If it were up to me, I would change the name of Israel’s Misrad Ha-Avodah (Dept. of Labor) to Misrad Ha-Melachah. (This all reminds me of the interesting phenomenon of the U.S. changing the name of its “Department of War” to “Department of Defense.” After World War II, the U.S. and other nations made such a change so as not to appear aggressive anymore.)

The end of the parsha tells us that Yaakov built a matzevah (mem, tzade, bet, heh) by the burial place of Rachel. A matzevah is a pillar or monument. What is the root of this word?

Here, the trick is to realize that the root of matzevah is nun-tzade-bet. In Hebrew, the letter nun often drops out when the initial mem is added to the verb. The root nun-tzade-bet means “stand” (like parashat Nitzavim).

Why is this root interesting and relevant? In Israel today, people always talk about the “matzav.” This word, too, should be understood as if it once had a nun in it. It should be understood as if was mantzav. What the word really means is: “the situation as it now stands.” (The “standing” image is present in English as well. For we might say in responding a situation: “How do we stand?”)

The moral of both of my discussions is the same. There is a lot of profundity in the Hebrew language. But sometimes one has to think creatively, e.g., go to a different Semitic language, or restore an invisible lost letter, to discover it.

Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. His recently published book, “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy” (Kodesh Press, 2015) is available at the Judaica House in Teaneck and at amazon.com. He can be reached at [email protected].

By Mitchell First

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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