April 16, 2024
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April 16, 2024
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No, this is not an article about Ashrei. (I have written about that before.) I am now going to write about nuns that are root letters that have dropped out and that need to be “restored” in order to understand the words.

Let me start with something I discovered only recently (at age 59!). What is the meaning of the word “mashiv” in “mashiv ha-ruach”? In order to know the meaning, you must first know the root. But what is the root of this word? The root of this word is not mem-shin-bet (there is no such root), yod-shin-bet (sit), or shin-vav-bet (return). Rather, the root of this word is N-Sh-B! This root means “blow.” We are supposed to understand “mashiv” as if it was written “manshiv.”

It is not your fault that you did not know N-Sh-B as a root in Tanach. It only appears three times, and at two of these times, Gen. 15:11 and Ps. 147:18, the nun has dropped. The one time the nun is there is at Is. 40:7. (The root does appear in the Rosh Hashanah service: “ruach noshavet.”)

As I mentioned, N-Sh-B means “blow.” “Mashiv” (to be understood as “manshiv”) is in the hiph’il form. Therefore it means “causes to blow.” I.e., God causes the wind to blow. Most likely this is how you understood the phrase anyway, even though you did not understand how you got to this understanding!

Just like N-Sh-B means “blow,” so does N-Sh-P (e.g., nashafta be-ruchacha, Ex. 15:10). Also, N-Sh-M means “breathe.” Surely, these roots are all related.

Every day in Pesukei d’Zimra (Ps. 147:18) we say: yashev rucho, yizlu mayim (=He blows His wind, the waters flow). Not only does the nun need to be restored in “yashev,” it also needs to be restored in “yizlu.” “Yizlu” should be understood as “yinzlu.” Its root is N-Z-L, “flow.”

OK, so I have now given you several examples of nun root letters that have dropped from the first position. This is a very common occurrence in biblical and modern Hebrew. The nun drops from the first position for reasons related to ease of pronunciation.

As long as we are talking about the Amidah, let me introduce you to another example there: “matir asurim.” “Asurim” here means “bound individuals.” (Related to this is the word “isur”= a binding obligation.) But what does “matir” mean? Its root is N-T-R, which means “release.“ It should be understood as “mantir,” causes to be released.

Now I am going to give you many more examples:

Hibit: This he-bet-tet word appears many times in Tanach, in various forms. But only once, at Is. 5:30, does that nun actually appear. We have to pretend it is there all the time! Every “hibit” should be understood as “hinbit.” The root is N-B-T. The meaning of “hinbit”: to cause oneself to see. (God left that nun in one place to help us see the light here!)

Higid: The root here is N-G-D=next to. “Higid” should be understood as “hingid.” It means to cause an idea to be next to someone else. The closest synonym in English would be “to present.” Similarly, “ve-higadeta le-vincha” (Ex. 13:8) does not mean “tell your son a long story.” It too comes from N-G-D, and implies only the presentation of an idea to your son.

Higia: arrive. This should be read as “hingia.” The root is N-G-A, “touch.” The meaning is “caused to touch.” When you are caused to touch, that is when you have “arrived.”

Hicah: hit. H-C-H appears many times in Tanach. The root is N-C-H, which means “damage.” Hicah should be read as “hincah.” The meaning is: “to cause damage.”

Mabul: flood. Many sources (e.g., Radak, Seforno, Shadal) believe that this word should be understood as “manbul.” They believe that the root is N-B-L, with its meaning “destroy, decay, fall.” (But Cassuto, Daat Mikra and others, including myself, believe that the root is actually Y-B-L, which means “flow.”)

Magefah: plague. This should be understood as “mangefah,” from N-G-P=strike.

Matanah: gift. This should be understood as “mantanah,” from N-T-N= give.

Mateh: rod. This comes from N-T-H, which means “extend.” It should be understood as “manteh.” A “manteh” is a rod that is used to extend one’s reach. This is as opposed to a “mishan,” which is a rod that is leaned on (from shin-ayin-nun.) (Other words for rod are “shevet” and “makel.” All of this deserves its own column. The etymology of “makel” is very puzzling.)

Mitah: bed. This should be understood as “mintah.” It comes from N-T-H and its meaning “incline.” (Both the “extend” and the “incline” meanings of N-T-H are related.)

Matzevah: pillar. This word should be read as if it was “mantzevah.” It comes from the root N-Tz-B, which means “stand.” Similarly, in modern Hebrew people always ask about the “matzav.” This really comes from “mantzav.” The meaning of “mah hamatzav” is: “how do we stand?”

In modern Hebrew, an example of a word with an omitted first-position nun is the word magevet (=towel). This was coined by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda from the root N-G-B, which means “dry” (like the Negev!).

I once saw a very interesting edition of Tanach. The author printed the accepted text and added in all the root letters that had dropped out. But he added them in a different font, so you would realize that they were not in the accepted text. Hundreds of nuns and yuds (and other letters) were added! (Admittedly, a lot of conjecture went into this work.) When I looked at this work, it was extremely enlightening. Unfortunately, this work has not been widely circulated.

I have been thinking that if Judaism ever put me in charge, just like the ArtScroll Chumash replaced the Hertz Chumash, I would consider replacing the ArtScroll Chumash with this edition. (OK, only temporarily!) (Also, on Simchat Torah, I would add an alternative dancing circle that sings “…rav le-hoshia. manshiv ha-ruach” 100 times.)

I would also like to explain how one can develop the skill of finding dropped initial nuns. The skill can be developed by using the Mandelkern concordance (originally published in 1896). Mandelkern organized his concordance by roots and was very strict about it. So what happens when you look up a word like “matir” (=release)? There is no entry M-T-R. You must then speculate what the missing root letter is! When you engage in this frustrating task time after time you begin to realize how often there was a nun in the first position that dropped! Once in a while, Mandelkern has mercy on his users. For example, he includes an entry “Mabul,” even though he knows that M-B-L is not the root. My friend Rabbi Moshe Yasgur once gave me some very important advice regarding the Mandelkern concordance: You must use the editions published in 1955 or later. These usually include an added appendix authored by a professor in 1955 that tells you where to find the difficult words!

I will close with one of my favorite missing nuns. Makevet (mem-kof-bet-tav) is a hammer. This comes from N-K-B, which means “to pierce/make a hole.” So “makevet” should be understood as “mankevet.” As I have written elsewhere, “Maccabee” was initially a nickname for Judah only, and then, in the second century C.E., came to be used by the church fathers as a nickname for the entire family. Almost certainly, Judah’s nickname “Maccabee” was originally spelled with a kof and comes from the word “makevet.” So perhaps we should be calling the group the “Mankabees”!

By the way, everything I wrote above is aleph-mem-tav (emet=true). This word comes from the root A-M-N. Here, the nun must be restored to the third position!

By Mitchell First

 Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at [email protected]. This may be an appropriate time to disclose that his real first name is “Mintchell.”


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

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