May 25, 2024
Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.
May 25, 2024
Search
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The Connection Between ‘Malach’ and ‘Melacha’

This is an issue I have been thinking about for decades. We all know that word מלאך, which we usually translate as “angel.” What is its connection with the word מלאכה?

First we have to understand the root and fundamental meaning of the word מלאך. Based on its four-letter structure with an initial mem, our early Jewish grammarians (i.e., time of the early Rishonim) could suspect that the root of this word was לאך. But they were not sure. Also, there was no verb לאך in Tanach, so they could not know what the word fundamentally meant.

There was a verb in Arabic that sounded like לאך and meant “to send.” But our sources from Arabic are usually not earlier than the seventh century, long after the period of the Tanach.

In the early 20th century, writings in the language now known as Ugaritic were discovered in archaeological finds on the western coast of Syria. No one knew of this language before. Scholars were able to decipher it and it turned out to be an old Semitic language from the time of Biblical Hebrew (and even earlier). Many difficult words in Tanach were suddenly clarified by Ugaritic. In our case, this language had a verb similar to לאך, with the meaning “send.” See Encyclopaedia Judaica 2:957.

We can all understand that a מלאך is one who is “sent.” An appropriate English translation would usually be something like “messenger.”

But what about the word מלאכה? Surely there is a connection between this word and the word מלאך.

Ernest Klein, in his etymological work (p. 348), seems to imply that the original meaning of מלאכה was “mission,” from that “send” meaning. Presumably he meant that any person assigned to do any מלאכה was in some sense performing a mission. But I do not find this convincing.

Recently I realized that there is a better approach. My approach is based on what is suggested in the essay in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 8, on the word מלאכה, but I have modified it a bit. (See also the brief discussion at the post of balashon.com of Sept. 22, 2020.)

As background, the word מלאכה is used many times in connection with the work of the Mishkan, the Temple and sacred objects. Also, it often refers to work involving skills of the hands, e.g., working with stone, wood, metals, textiles and vessels. (It also usually refers to work involving skill, as opposed to work entailing physical labor, “avodah.”) A reasonable assumption, based on its occurrences, is that work with the hands was the original context of the word מלאכה.

There is a phrase “mishlach yadecha” that appears six times in Tanach. (All occurrences are in the book of Devarim.) The root of “mishlach” is שלח. We need to understand better what the literal meaning of this phrase is. Everyone understands that the idiomatic meaning is “your undertakings.” E.g., at Devarim 28:8, God blesses our undertakings. But what is the root שלח doing here and what is the literal meaning of this phrase? Probably the literal meaning is “activity of your hands” and the שלח aspect refers to your hands being sent out (=extended) from your body when you do this work. See, e.g., Daat Mikra to Deut. 12:7. So we see that the work of one’s hands is connected to a meaning related to “send” in this expression.

Probably this is the “send” aspect in the term “melachah” as well: your hands being sent out (=extended) from your body when you do this work. And perhaps just like “mishlach yad,” there was once a phrase “melechet yad,” which was then shortened to “melachah.”

***

Rav S.R. Hirsch is one who realized that there must be a connection between מלאך and מלאכה. I am no longer in agreement with what he wrote here, because I think the explanation I just presented is simpler. But here are his words on Gen. 2:2. “What מלאך is personally, מלאכה is factually. Just as מלאך, a messenger, is the bearer and executor of the thought and intention of another, so מלאכה is a thing which has become the bearer and executor of the thought and intention of the mind…” (He was writing before the discovery of Ugaritic, so he does not focus on a theme of “send,” but the idea of something being sent out is implied in what he wrote.)

***

A few other matters:

—Now that we understand our root melachah, we have a better understanding of verse 1:8 in the book of Yonah. Here Yonah is asked: “mah melachtechah?” They were not asking him his occupation. They were asking him what his mission was! (“Osei melachah” at Ps. 107:23 also likely refers to those on a business mission.)

—At Haggai 1:13, we have a reference to Haggai as a “malach Hashem be-malachut Hashem la-am” =a messenger of God on a mission of God to the nation.

—Certain early Rishonim authored etymology books organized by roots. When faced with the words מלאך and מלאכה, where should they put them? Radak, in his Sefer Ha-Shorashim, puts these words in the root לאך, even though he knew of no such root. Why? Because his predecessor Ibn Janach, in his Sefer Ha-Shorashim, had put them in this root. Ibn Janach, in a long discussion, decided that we could presume that their root was לאך until we have evidence to the contrary. At the end of his own entry, Radak writes that יתכן that these were roots with four letters. (But what does יתכן mean? Possibly? Probably? I need to see a facial expression to decipher what this word means!)

—Ibn Ezra is another who had trouble deciding what the root of our two words was. See his comm. to Hag. 1:13 where he gives both possibilities: a three-letter root and four-letter root. In contrast, at Ps. 73:28, he states that our words have four-letter roots. (I am not sure which commentary was written first.)

—Finally, here is a brief introduction to the discovery of Ugaritic: “ In the spring of 1928, a farm worker was ploughing some land on the Mediterranean coast of Syria… The tip of his plough ran into stone just beneath the surface of the soil; when he examined the obstruction, he found a large man-made flagstone. He cleared away the earth, raised the stone, and beneath it he saw a short subterranean passageway leading into an ancient tomb… Though he could not have known it at the time, the agricultural worker had opened up more than a tomb on that spring day; he had opened a door which was to lead to extraordinary discoveries concerning ancient history and civilization…” (From the book “Ugarit and the Old Testament,” 1983, p. 7, which Zvi Weissler was kind enough to give me when he made aliyah from Teaneck to Israel several years ago.)


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Although he cannot read Ugaritic (a Semitic language written in cuneiform), he used to be able to read Old Persian cuneiform (but he has forgotten much).

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles