July 15, 2024
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The Meaning of Death (=Mavet)

I would not normally write an article on this topic. But Parshat “Acharei Mot” appears once per year and gives me this opportunity.

We all know the verb מות=“to die.”

But what about the word מתי? At the Seder, we all recite the following phrase from Deut. 26:5: “va-yagar sham bi-metei me’at.” See also Gen 34:30 (Yaakov’s complaining to Shimon and Levi about their endangering him): “va-ani metei mispar.” This word “metei” appears 22 times in Tanach, in various forms (e.g., metim, bi-metei). It always has a meaning like “men” or “people.” (Or perhaps “warrior.” See Isa. 3:25.) In both of the above verses, the meaning of the phrase is “few people.”

The word “metei” in Tanach in its various forms is always in the plural. (“Metei” is the construct form for the plural “metim.”) Scholars have to guess what the singular would have been. Usually they guess: “mat.”

Isn’t this surprising, a word with root letters מת refers to individuals who are alive, despite the fact that מות means “to die”?

Of course, I am tricking you, because this is a common phenomenon in the Indo-European languages. For example in English, we have the word “mortal,” which is derived from “mort”=death. (I thank Avi-Gil Chaitovsky who pointed this out to me.) These English words are derived from Latin, where “mori”=die, “mors”=death, and “mortalis”=mortal. The idea here is that man has always been viewed as a frail creature who will die eventually. (This is in contrast to the ancient gods, who were believed to live forever.) Another Indo-European language reflecting this same relationship is Greek. Here, “thanatos” is the word for death, and “thnitos” is the word for mortal.

At Deut. 33:6, in the blessing of Moshe to Reuven, we even have both of our מת words in the same sentence: yechi Reuven ve-al yamot, vi-yehi metav mispar.”

But the truth is that the use of both words in Deut. 33:6 may just be wordplay (as in the wordplay involving ערמ at Gen. 2:25 and 3:1: The two ערמ words there are not related; the first comes from ערה.) Even though the connection between individuals/mortals and death is clear in the Indo-European languages, it may just be a coincidence in Hebrew that both use the root letters מת. On the other hand, perhaps there is a connection here and one day it will be understood.

***

Now let us talk about מות=“die.” Scholars typically search for concrete meanings of words to try to figure out what they originally meant. Here “die” seems pretty concrete. Nevertheless, some suggestions I have seen for an origin are: 1) a relation to מוש: depart; and 2) a relation to מוט: totter, and 3) a relation to an Arabic word with root מת that means “spread out on the ground.” See, e.g., the concordance of S. Mandelkern for all three suggestions. Regarding the third, the Tanach has a root מתח that means “spread out.” See Isa. 40:22. (This root also probably underlies the word “amtachat”=sack, which only appears in Genesis chaps. 42-44.)

***

Now let us return to Deut. 33:6: “yechi Reuven ve-al yamot, vi-yehi metav mispar.” The expression “metei mispar” appears five times in Tanach. It is evident in each case that the meaning is “few,” i.e., “few individuals,” as they are countable. (When the Tanach wants to refer to something as numerous, it refers to them as “not being able to be counted.” See, e.g., Gen. 16:10.) At Deut. 33:6 I have seen the translation: “Let Reuben live and not die, but let him be few in number.” What kind of blessing is this?

I will discuss the wide variety of interpretations of Deut. 33:6 in a future column. But most interesting is Ibn Ezra who suggests that the negative אל applies to both parts of the sentence. The import of the second phrase is “al yehi metav mispar.“ (Ibn Ezra suggests something similar at Mishlei 30:3.) Regarding Deut. 33:6, see similarly the 1917 JPS translation printed on the top in the Hertz Chumash: “Let Reuven live, and not die in that his men become few.” Rabbi Hertz’ own comment is very interesting as well: “Living in Transjordania, he was exposed to constant attacks from numerous enemies.”

***

We all know that “mot tamut” means “he will surely die.” This is known as the “emphatic” case. But how would you say “he will surely not die”? That would be: “mot lo tamut.” This is relevant for the proper understanding of the phrase “ve-nakeh lo yenakeh” at Ex. 34:7. This deserves a separate column, but see the “peshuto” interpretation that Rashi brings there before he brings the derash interpretation of the Sages.

***

As this week’s column comes to its demise, here are a few final thoughts:

1. It is widely agreed that the “metu” in the Biblical names Metushael and Metushelach comes from “mat” with the meaning: “man.”

2. The “mate” in the word “checkmate” may be related to our word. It depends on whether “checkmate” derives from Arabic (a Semitic language) or from Persian.

3. The modern Hebrew word for “chess” is שחמט. This spelling was at the suggestion of C.N. Bialik (early 20th century). He wanted to avoid the use of מת=death in the name of the game!

4. Finally, the “mort” in the word “mortgage” is also related to a death meaning. I have seen different interpretations of precisely why. (I thank my son Daniel for pointing this out to me.) “Gage” means pledge.


While still alive, Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. After that, he hopes his address will be something like [email protected] and hopefully not: [email protected]. (For more of his articles, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.)

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