May 27, 2024
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Some Interesting High Holiday Words

Many interesting words come up in the context of the High Holidays. (Many of the paytannim enjoyed using rare words!) I will discuss a few of them.

דפי: Dibarnu dofi. This word appears only one time in Tanach, at Psalms 50:20: “You sit and speak about your brother; regarding the son of your mother you give דפי.” From the context, it seems to be a type of slander. But what is its root and what exactly does it mean? Some relate it to the root גדף (blaspheme, defame, scorn). But why would the gimmel drop? Some relate it to the root הדף (push). The meaning would be “words that push someone away.” Some relate it to the word דבה, which means “slander” (see Num. 14:36). (The origin of this word is itself an interesting issue!)

Whatever its root, we do see from its use in Aramaic in the Talmud that דפי means some type of defect. (See, e.g., Pes. 60b, and Jastrow, p. 287). An important Biblical etymology work (The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament) defines the Biblical word דפי as “blemish, fault.”

סלד: This root appears many times in the High Holiday liturgy. For example, we have the phrase: “viysaledu ve-chilah panecha.” This is translated in The Complete ArtScroll Machzor: Rosh Hashanah: “In your presence they will pray with trepidation.” But is this translation correct?

The root סלד appears only one time in Tanach, at Job 6:10. The Targum translates it with a word derived from the Aramaic root בעי, which means “request, pray.” Based on this, the word is used by the paytannim throughout the liturgy as if it is a synonym for “pray.” But we know the root סלד from the Mishnah and the Talmud. It is found in the expression “yad soledet bo.” Most likely, it means something like “jump up,” both in this expression (the hand jumps up from the heat) and at Job. 6:10. (Some suggest a relation between סלד and סלל=“raise.” P.S. The word סלה was likely an instruction to the singers or musicians to raise their voices or the music level and likely derives from סלל. See Daat Mikra to Tehillim 3:3, note 3.)

כפר: Rashi (comm. Gen. 32:21) understands this root as having a fundamental meaning of “wiping away and removing.” In contrast, S. D. Luzzatto (commenting on the same verse) understands this word as having a fundamental meaning of “covering.” This same debate exists among modern scholars. A leading scholarly article on this topic concludes that the root is used in both ways in Tanach and that the only real issue is whether these different meanings of the root כפר are related and come from a common source. (This issue, he believes, can never be resolved.)

Of course, whether our sins are “wiped away and removed” or are merely “covered” is a major difference theologically.

On a related note, I would like to add that the English word “atonement,” however we understand it now, has an interesting origin. It meant to be “at one” with God. The implication was to be reconciled with God, and united with Him and at peace. See W. Funk, Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories, p. 268.

תעתענו: This is the last word in the Ashamnu prayer. Words with the four letters תעתע appear four times in Tanach. The most famous is the statement of Jacob at Genesis 27:12: “ve-hayiti be-einav ke-metate’a.” From the four instances, we see that the root of the word is either תעע or תעה, and that the meaning is either “deceive” or “mock.” (These roots are probably related.) Accordingly, תעתענו means “we have mocked” or “we have deceived.”

Yet The Complete ArtScroll Machzor: Yom Kippur (1986) translated it: “You have led us go astray.” Why would they do this? The explanation is that the sin specified before this one in the Ashamnu prayer is תעינו=“we have strayed.” The proximity of the תעינו and תעתענו sins in this prayer seems to have led ArtScroll astray (!) into interpreting תעתענו in light of תעינו.

(Admittedly, the truth is a bit more complex. The explanation that ArtScroll offered came from an earlier source, Etz Yosef. See this commentary in Siddur Otzar Ha-Tefillot, p. 1117. It was the second explanation offered there. In the first explanation, it was implied that the word meant “we have mocked.” But ArtScroll chose to present the second explanation.)

Fortunately, years later, in their interlinear edition, ArtScroll corrected their translation and translated the word as: “we have scoffed.”

I will now conclude with my favorite High Holiday word:

פשׁפשׁ: The Rama writes (Orach Chayim 603) that during the ten days of repentance “yesh le-chol adam le-chapes u-le-fashpesh be-maasav.” We all know that those last two words mean “examine his deeds.” But where exactly did this root פשׁפשׁ come from?

It turns out that פשׁפשׁ is the word for bedbug! It is found in Mishnah Terumot 8:2 and in both Talmuds. See M. Jastrow, p. 1248 (פשׁפשׁ).

In his A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English (p. 535), Ernest Klein writes that the verb פשׁפשׁ is usually connected with the word משׁמשׁ (touch, feel, examine, search), from the root משש. But he concludes that it is more probable that the verb פשׁפשׁ comes from the noun for “bedbug,” and that the original meaning of the verb was “he searched for bedbugs.” From this, arose the meaning “he searched in general.” Whoever would have imagined! (Beth Aaron member Menachem Shapiro pointed out to me that we have an analogous case of meaning expansion in English. The word “nitpicking” has expanded from its original meaning of picking and removing “nits”!)

I also have to point out that the term “le-fashpesh be-maasav” did not originate in the High Holiday context. The Talmud, Berachot 5a, uses the term as the recommended course for someone who sees that troubles have come upon him. See similarly Tosefta Negaim, chapter 6. Nevertheless, since the Rama and his predecessors the Meiri and the Maharil have all used the term in the context of the High Holidays, there is justification for my including this term in this article.

In preparation for the High Holidays, Mitchell First searches the machzor for interesting words. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more of his articles, please visit his website www.rootsandrituals.org.

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