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Some Interesting Words in the Amidah

Compared to some of our other prayers, the Hebrew in the daily Amidah is fairly straightforward. Nevertheless, there are some interesting words. I will now present a selection (in the order the words appear in the Amidah):

Gomel: In Tanach, the root G-M-L has several meanings. Sometimes it means “to ripen.” Other times, it means something similar: to “wean a child from its mother’s milk.” (Both of these meanings are probably related to the root G-M-R.)

However, other times G-M-L means something completely different: “to give/pay back” (e.g., giving someone back what they deserve).

The interesting issue relates to this “giving/paying back” meaning. For years I had discussions with friends based on the assumption that this meaning was related to the word “gamal” (=camel). For example, did it mean giving something you had stored up, like camels store water? Or does the fact that it often connoted a “payback” come from the fact that camels go back and forth?

Now that I have gotten older (and hopefully wiser), I am less willing to make the camel connection. I see that most scholars do not make it and believe it is just coincidence that the verb G-M-L for “giving/paying back” has the same letters as the word for camel. I vividly remember a friend of mine giving a shiur that began: “What does it mean to be camel chesed?” But I do not think that this is a relevant inquiry anymore. (Of course, I may be wrong. There are no clear answers here.)

I will also add that the giving and actions that are done via G-M-L in Tanach sometimes affect people favorably and other times affect them unfavorably.

Mashiv: 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.” This root only appears three times in Tanach, and at two of these times, Gen. 15:11 and Ps. 147:18, the nun is not even there. The one time the nun is there is at Is. 40:7. The root does appear in the Rosh HaShana service, “ruach noshavet.” “Mashiv” (to be understood as “manshiv”) is in the hiph’il form. It means “causes to blow.” I.e., God causes the wind to blow.

Mechalcel (M-C-L-C-L): The word C-L-C-L appears in Tanach a few times in various forms. I have seen two different approaches to it. Jastrow sees it as derived from the root C-L-L= “complete” (and its derivative “kol”= all), and sees the meaning as “to provide with everything.” This is what I had always thought. Similar is the view of Rav S.R. Hirsch. See his comm. to Gen. 45:11.

But I have seen other scholars take a different approach. There is a Biblical root C-Vav-L, which means something like “contain.” It is used, for example, in the case of vessels that contain things. These scholars suggest that C-L-C-L derives from this. Since the original meaning “contain” is the equivalent of “holding something within,” this evolved into a “sustain, support” meaning. (The doubling of letters, going from C-L to C-L-C-L, usually reflects some form of intensification.)

Matir Asurim: God does not permit the forbidden! Rather, the explanation is as follows. The root A-S-R means “bind,” so “asurim” here means “bound individuals.” (Related to this is the word “issur”= a binding obligation.)

But what does “matir” mean? It turns out that its root is N-T-R, which means “release.“ The nun dropped out from the initial position, as often happens in biblical Hebrew. The word is in the hiph’il form and should be understood as “mantir”= causes to be released. The two words together mean that God releases bound individuals.

Selach, Mechal: (I am using “H” and “h” in this discussion to represent the letter chet.)

– M-H-L never appears as a verb in Tanach. (Admittedly, there are several names in Tanach that seem to derive from the letters M-H-L. But most likely, these M-H-L names were given based on the “joy” meaning of the letters M-H-L, which ultimately derives from a different root: either chet-lamed-lamed or chet-vav-lamed.) The letters M-H-L with a meaning like “forgive” first appear in a Dead Sea text. Later the word is found in the Mishnah.

– S-L-H is the word for “forgive” in Tanach. But in Tanach it is always God doing the forgiveness or being asked for forgiveness. How did individuals ask other individuals for forgiveness in the time of Tanach? We do not know! Unless, of course, the verb M-H-L was used but never made its way into Tanach. When we look at the letters M-H-L in the word mechilah, a main issue is whether that initial M is a root letter. Perhaps the root was H-L-L, in one of its several meanings, like “open space, emptiness.” Alternatively, the Tanach includes a root M-H-E, with a meaning like “erase, remove.” Perhaps M-H-L was derived from this root.

H-M-H (yehemu): Regarding various types of righteous people (and ourselves!), we ask “yehemu rachamecha.” It is evident from the context that it means “may your mercy be aroused.” But what precisely does the root H-M-H mean? This root is found various times in Tanach, including in the well-known verse of Jer. 31:19, “Is Ephraim a darling son to me?…Therefore ‘hamu meiai’ to him. I will have rachamim on him…”

To answer the question, I would first like to quote Mandelkern’s definition at the beginning of his concordance entry for the root H-M-H: “The essence of this word is a natural noise that living things emit at a time of activity and feeling.” Then forgive me, but I will rely on Homer Simpson. I have not had a TV in my house for over 10 years but I still have vivid memories of Homer enjoying the smell of his anticipated dinner and murmuring joyously: “HMMM, rump roast!” This “HMMM” sound is undoubtedly the meaning of H-M-H. It surely is an onomatopoeia (a word that sounds like what it is). So asking for “yehemu rachamecha” is asking for an arousal of God’s mercy with some accompanying sound signifying the arousal. (Of course, admittedly by the time the Amidah was composed, the word could have developed into “arouse” without any accompanying sound.)

M-G-R (temager). This root means “cast down.” The root appears in Tanach at Ps. 89:45 and at Ezra 6:12 (in a section of Tanach that is in Aramaic). There is one other instance in Tanach where we find a word that might have the root M-G-R. This is at Ez. 21:17. But some view the root there as G-Vav-R. (See, e.g., Rashi.)

Ve-Arvah: pleasant, sweet. The root A-R-B means “mix.” E.g., erev rav is a mixed multitude and the plague of arov is a mixture of animals. (The root A-R-B has other meanings as well.) Many have suggested that A-R-B with the meaning “pleasant, sweet” comes from the A-R-B “mix” meaning and originally meant “mixed well.”

According to most scholars, the daily Amidah was composed and instituted around the late first century C.E. (See the article by Allen Friedman in Tradition 45:3, 2012.) Much of the Mishnah dates from this same period. Yet the Mishnah includes hundreds of words derived from Greek and Latin, while all such foreign words are lacking in the Amidah. Evidently, as observed by the Israeli scholar Moshe Bar-Asher, there was a desire to compose the prayer in pure Hebrew, drawing virtually exclusively on words with roots in Tanach. (I learned from Allen Friedman that the only foreign word in the Amidah is the word “ligyonot” (legions). This word derives from Latin and is part of the “Nachem“ insertion for Tisha B’Aav. But the “Nachem” insertion may be Amoraic in origin. See J. Talmud Berachot 4:3.)

By Mitchell First

Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at [email protected]. He tries not to get too distracted by interesting words when reciting the Amidah.

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

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