April 13, 2024
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April 13, 2024
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The Meaning of ‘Chamushim’ (Ex. 13:18)

At the beginning of Parshat Beshalach we are told that the Israelites were חמשים when they went out of Egypt.

This word is often translated as “armed.” What other choices are there for the translation? “Chamushim” appears three other times in Tanach: at Josh. 1:14 and 4:12 and Judges 7:11. Presumably, it has the same meaning each time. We need a meaning that works for all these passages.

Aside from meanings related to “five,” the root חמש also has a meaning like “belly.” See the passages in 2 Sam. at 2:23, 3:27, 4:6, and 20:10, where individuals are stabbed there and killed. The Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon interprets the word as “belly,” as does the Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon. “Belly” is the meaning of the cognate to חמש in Akkadian. See H. Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew.

At Sanhed. 49a, חמש is interpreted as “fifth rib.” This is stated to be a very dangerous place because it is the location of the liver and the gallbladder. But it is unlikely that those four people stabbed in Tanach were stabbed precisely there. The general term “belly” fits better.

So how are we going to translate our word at Ex. 13:18? Does it have a meaning related to “five” or to “belly,” or perhaps an entirely different meaning?

A Tannaitic source, the Mechilta, gives the following interpretations: 1) “mezuyanim” (=armed), citing Josh. 1:14, and explains further: armed with five different types of arms, 2) “mezurazim,” citing Josh. 4:12-13, 3) one in five, 4) one in fifty, and 5) one in five hundred.

Interpretations #3, 4, and 5 do not fit the context of “chamushim” in the other verses. They can easily be ruled out.

As to interpretation #1, it is not translating “chamushim” as “armed.” Rather, it is deriving the “armed” meaning from the “five” root and the context. (Interpretation #1 is also found at J. Talmud Shab. 6:4, with an erroneous text.)

As to interpretation #2, “mezurazim” could mean a few things: e.g., strong, quick, or enthusiastic. Verses 4:12 and 4:13 are both cited. It seems that the statement is interpreting “chamushim” of Josh. 4:12 in light of the “chalutzei tzava” of 4:13. But how did this source understand “chalutzei”? We do not know, as this itself is a word with many possible interpretations.

Targum Onkelos has “u-mezarzin.“ This word could have a few meanings, similar to “mezurazim.” (Onkelos lived around the early second century. His statement does not have to be interpreted in light of the Mechilta. On the other hand, material was added to the text of Onkelos over the next few centuries. If so, we should perhaps read this “u-mezarzin” in light of the “mezurazim” of the Mechilta.)

Rashi translates our word as “mezuyanim” (=armed). He does not explain how “chamushim” came to have this meaning.

Ibn Ezra also takes the “armed” approach, writing: “chagurei chomesh la-milchamah.” Probably he means they wore their swords on this “chomesh” area. See similarly Radak, Sefer Ha-Shorashim, and S.D. Luzzatto. (Similarly, in English we have the word “armed,” based on the assumption that weapons were carried with one’s arms.)

But if “chamushim” meant “armed,” where did Bnei Yisrael get their weapons? The Egyptian army (a possible arms source) had not drowned yet. Also, no mention is made of weapons at the parting of the sea and the impression given there is that only miraculous intervention could rescue Bnei Yisrael.

Other suggestions I have seen include: traveling in groups of 50 or five, or with five different leaders assigned to them. Also, some interpret “chamushim” as “equipped” (perhaps the “armed” meaning expanded to “all necessary equipment”), or “ready for battle” or “dressed for battle.” Others interpret “chamushim” in light of the “chimesh” of Gen. 41:34, e.g., provided with food. But the meaning of this word at Gen. 41:34 is itself unclear. Many other suggestions have been offered.

Rabbi J.H. Hertz quotes a suggestion that “chamushim” comes from an Egyptian word: “chams”=lance. But this suggestion does not seem to be accepted by scholars today.


The reason I wrote this column is to offer a different approach, one that does not seem to be mentioned in Jewish sources until modern times. In Arabic, there is a word similar to חמש that means “army.” Usually, references to Arabic are from the time of the Quran (seventh century). But this word is found in South Arabic. South Arabic dates from the (late) Biblical period.

The suggestion is that “chamushim” in our verse means something like “in military formation.” I am not sure who first suggested this, but here are some who have:

—Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon (1906): “in battle array.” The lexicon mentions that there was a similar Arabic word that meant “army” and that an army may have been composed of five parts.

—U. Cassuto: “On the basis of the Arabic, in proper military formation. They went not like a mob of slaves escaping from their masters, in confusion and disorder, but well organized…” In further support of this interpretation, he cites Ex. 12:51 where it is stated that God took us out “al tzivotam.”

—E. Klein: “armed, equipped….possibly…refers to the division of the army into five parts: van, body, rear and two wings. Hence related to Arab. “hamis” (=army; properly ‘army divided into five parts.’… ” See his A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language. “Van” is short for “vanguard” and means the front part of the army (and is related to the word “advance”).

—Daat Mikra: This source first translates “chamushim” as “mezuyanim.” But it also briefly mentions our interpretation: “aruchim be-seder ke-machanot tzava.” Their comm. to Josh 1:14 explains further: “aruchim be-seder tzeva’i le-fi chamishah chalakim,” and then enumerates the sections: front, two wings, center and rearguard. See similarly Soncino to Judges 7:11, and the Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon. (This lexicon uses the phrases: “army in five parts,” “van, rear, body, two wings,” and “lined up for war.” It also mentions the suggestion “groups of fifty” with approval.)

—Many contemporary non-Jewish translations translate “chamushim” as “in battle formation,” “in battle array,” “in marching formation” and “in orderly ranks.”

Even assuming that the word “chamushim” was originally derived from the five sections of a standard ancient army, it is reasonable to suppose that, by the time of Ex. 13:18, the meaning had already expanded and included “marching in an organized way like an army.” There was no longer any requirement of five sections.

(Another example of a word losing its numerical connotation is the word “quarantine.” It originally referred to a period of 40 days that a ship suspected of carrying contagious diseases was isolated in port in 14th-century Italy!)

Regarding the other occasions “chamushim” is used in Tanach, we can interpret it with the related meanings “as an army” and “army.” See Josh. 1:14, 4:12 and Judges 7:11.

When language issues arise, Mitchell First is arrayed with his linguistic resources in proper formation, ready to solve them. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more of his articles, please visit his website: www.rootsandrituals.org.

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