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‘Shevet’ and ‘Mateh’: Words for ‘Stick’ in Tanach

The Tanach has several words for sticks: shevet, mateh, mishenet and makel. What is the difference between them?

Let us analyze the easiest one first, משענת The root here is שען. This verb means “lean, support.” So, a “mishenet” was originally a stick used for assistance in walking or when one needs a temporary rest from walking, i.e., a cane. This word appears several times in Tanach. One of them is in the well-known verse at Psalms 23:4: “Shivtecha u-mishantecha heimah yenachamuni.”

What about מטה The root here is נטה. This word needs to be analyzed as if it were written מנטה. The initial “nun” root letter dropped. This is a common phenomenon in Hebrew. (I wrote a column about it long ago. For example, here is another common word: “matanah — gift.” This should be read as if it were מנתנה, from the root נתן — “give.”) The root נטה has several meanings: “stretch out/extend,” “incline” and “bend down.” (Surely these are related, but that is another discussion.) So, a מטה was originally a rod that was used to “extend” one’s reach.

(By the way, what is the root of the word “mitah,” which is both a “bed” and a “couch” in biblical Hebrew? That would also be נטה, from the “stretch out” or “incline” meanings. Another related word is למטה, “le-matah — downwards,” from the “bend down” meaning.)

What about מקל? This is a difficult one. Postulating an initial “nun” that has dropped does not help us, as there is no Hebrew root נקל. Ernest Klein, in his “A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of Hebrew,” page 379, writes that this word is “of uncertain etymology.” But then, he suggests a relation to an Egyptian word for such an object: “ma-qi-ra.” (Switches of the “l” sound and the “r” sound between different languages and even within the same languages are common.)

A way to give the word a Hebrew origin is to postulate that the root was קלל. We are used to this root as meaning “curse.” But, it really originated with a meaning like “lightweight.” (Just like כבד originally meant “heavy,” before it meant “respect.”) קלל as “curse” started with a meaning “make light of.”

So, it is possible that the root of our word was originally מקלל from the root קלל. Then, perhaps, the reference was to a rod that was lightweight, or to some other meaning related to this root (e.g., a swift rod?). The final ל is dropped. This happens a lot with doubled letters. Mandelkern is one source that mentions a possible connection with the root קלל.

Also, Matityahu Clark — in his etymological work — puts מקל in the קלל entries, but he does not explain how he connects them. (But, note that the dagesh in the ק of מקל suggests that the missing root letter — in the mind of the post-Talmudic Masoretes — was not the “lamed” at the end, but a letter between the first and second letters.)

Some scholarly works note the word קלקל with the meaning “shake,” as Ezekiel 21:26. This might be another angle into understanding our word. (For example, a מקל could be a rod that is shook at others.)

Now, let us get to the ubiquitous word “shevet.” There is no verb שבט in Hebrew. In Akkadian, there is a verb like this which means “to strike, beat.” So, it is possible that our noun came from this verb! This seems to be the view of Klein. But, it is also possible that this verb in Akkadian came after the noun.

The noun “shevet” appears 191 times in Tanach (in its various forms). It has two main meanings: “stick” and “tribe.” This same phenomenon occurs with the word “mateh.” Most likely, the explanation is that these words first referred to the “mateh” and “shevet” of the tribal leader, and then expanded to mean the tribe itself, i.e., to everyone under the command of the one who holds the “mateh” or “shevet.”

Did the noun “shevet” have a particular connotation originally? Many suggest this… But it is hard to maintain, given that the noun appears in many different contexts. It may simply have meant a wooden stick that could be used for a number of purposes.

One context where “shevet” was used is that of shepherds. It was an important weapon in holding off wild animals and thieves from the flock. It was also an aide in guiding the flock. It was also used for counting the flock, or for separating out certain animals from it, e.g., for tithing purposes (see Leviticus 27:32).

The Tanach also uses the word “shevet” outside the context of shepherds. It is an instrument of education — punishment and discipline — for both individuals and for nations. See, e.g., Isaiah 14:29 (the “shevet” that struck the Philistines).

Eventually, it developed into a symbol of leadership, power and dominion. See, e.g., Genesis 49:10: “Lo yasur shevet mi-Yehudah.” i.e., from its basic meaning, it expanded to mean “the one who holds the ‘shevet.’”

Finally, there is one more word in Tanach for a “stick.” The word is שרביט. It appears only in the book of Esther (four times). A widespread view is that it is an Aramaism of the word “shevet.” There are other occasions when the Aramaic style of a word adds an “r.” See, e.g., the word כרסא (throne) at Daniel 5:20, which is an Aramaic variant of the Hebrew כסא. (This Hebrew word may have its origin in Sumerian.)


Now, let us try to provide some insight into the phrase at Psalm 23:4: “Shivtecha u-mishantecha heimah yenachamuni.” This chapter begins with a statement by David that “God is my shepherd,” (23:1). Then at verse 4, the statement is made that God’s “shevet” and “mishenet” will comfort him.

Rav Hirsch suggests: “I take comfort in the knowledge that whatever I receive from Thee, be it chastisement or support, is indeed Thine and comes solely from Thee.” Rashi, too, views the “shevet” here in a similar manner, as in inflicting “yissurim.”

But the Daat Mikra interprets the verse as follows: The speaker (who is speaking as a sheep) is saying: “I can relax and feel secure knowing that the shepherd has a ‘shevet’ to strike the wild animals and help lead the way for me, and that he has a ‘mishenet’ to lean on when he navigates the hills and rocks.” If we follow the Daat Mikra’s interpretation of the verse, its import is that we all should be comforted due to the protection that God provides us.

To close with a few more interpretations: Radak interprets “shivtecha” as “yissurim,” and “mishantecha” as the Torah (since we lean/rely on it). Malbim views “shivtecha,” as the adversity that David encountered in his life. It comforted him, because he knew its purpose was to steer him in the path of righteousness.

Finally, in the view of Metzudat David: “shivtecha” refers to being hit with the “shevet” of “yissurim,” but — immediately — God brings us back/provides us support (“mishantecha”). This way, we know right away that God does not abandon us.

Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney. He needs to carry around a stick to help protect himself from difficult clients. He can be reached at [email protected].

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