July 17, 2024
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The Meaning of the Hitpael and Our Relations With Christians

Students of Hebrew are taught early on that the hitpael functions as a “reflexive” stem, i.e., that the actor is doing some action on himself. But the truth is more complicated.

One source I saw counted 984 instances of the hitpael form in Tanach. (The exact number varies from study to study.) It is true that a large percentage of the time — perhaps even a majority — the hitpael in Tanakh is “reflexive.” Some examples:

“strengthen oneself;” the verb חזק is in the hitpael 27 times in Tanach (e.g., hitchazek).

“sanctify oneself;” the verb קדש is in the hitpael 24 times in Tanach (e.g., hitkadesh).

“cleanse oneself;” the verb טהר is in the hitpael 20 times in Tanach (e.g., hitaher).

But, it is also clear that the hitpael transforms meanings in other ways. For example:

At Genesis 42:1 (“lamah titrau”), the form of “titrau” is hitpael, but the meaning is likely: “Why are you looking at one another?” This is called the “reciprocal” meaning of hitpael. See also Chronicles 2, 24:25: “hitkashru — conspired with one another.”

The root הלך appears in the hitpael 46 times in Tanach, e.g., hithalech. The meaning is not “walk with oneself,” but “walk continuously  or repeatedly.” This is called the “durative” meaning of the hitpael. There are many more durative hitpaels in Tanach. (For example, with regard to התמם — the hitpael of תמם — the implication may be “to be continually upright.” See Samuel 1, 22:26.)

What about התחנן? The root here is חנן which means “to be gracious” or “to show favor.” חנן appears in the hitpael form many times in Tanach (התחנן , אתחנן etc.). The root חנן is an example, where the hitpael has a slightly different meaning: to make yourself the object of another’s action. (This variant of hitpael has been called “voluntary passive” or “indirect reflexive.”) Every time the root חנן is used in the hitpael, the actor is asking another to show favor to him.

(I have written an article in my book: “Root and Rituals,” that this is almost certainly the meaning of the hitpael in the word: התפלל. The meaning of התפלל is to make oneself the object of God’s פלל: assessment, intervention or judging. This is a much simpler understanding of התפלל, than the ones that look for a reflexive action on the part of the petitioner.)


But there is another unusual aspect to the hitpael in Tanach. There are words that have the form of the hitpael, but the meaning is really the true passive — as if the words were written in the niphal. Some examples:

Leviticus 13:33: “ve-hitgalach — let himself be shaved by others.”

Psalms 92:10: “yitpardu kol poalei aven  —the evildoers are not scattering themselves, but are being scattered.”

Proverbs 31:30 (Eshet Chayil): “ishah yirat Hashem hi tithalal — will be praised by others”

Jonah 3:8: “ve-yitkasu sakim ha-adam ve-ha-behemah … — animals cannot dress themselves!)

Now, we are ready to discuss Genesis 22:18, which describes the relationship of the other nations with the seed of Abraham. The relevant phrase is: “ve-hitbarchu ve-zaracha kol goyey ha-aretz.” This exact phrase is found again at Genesis 26:4. Does this phrase mean that “the other nations will utter blessings to themselves using the name of the seed of Abraham?” (E.g., perhaps: wish for themselves the same blessings that Abraham and his seed are seen to enjoy.) Or, is the hitpael used here in the passive and the passage means that “the nations will be blessed through the seed of Abraham?”

In the first approach, the phrase is merely descriptive and is not saying anything about whether the blessings will come true. (Also, the import of “utter blessings to themselves,” is a bit unclear.) But in the second approach, the phrase is much more profound. It is teaching us that the nations will be blessed through us. It serves — in a much more direct way — as an encouragement for the other nations to support us. In fact, we derive much of our support from the Christians today, based on these two verses (and the three other similar verses that I will mention below). Christians need the Jews to be doing well, in order for the Christians to be blessed through Jews. (But yes, it is also true that we need to be doing well in order to be considered a blessing, as in the first approach.)

Much ink has been spilled on the meaning of the hitpael in the above two passages. A leading article is by Oswald Thompson Allis, “The Blessing of Abraham,” The Princeton Theological Review (1927). More recently, see Chee-Chiew Lee, “Once Again: The Niphal and the Hithpael of ברך in the Abrahamic Blessing for the Nations,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 36 (2012), and Benjamin J. Noonan, “Abraham, Blessing and the Nations: A Reexamination of the Niphal and Hitpael of ברך in the Patriarchal Narratives,” Hebrew Studies 51 (2010).

As further background, there are three other verses in Genesis regarding such a blessing. In those three other verses, the form used is clearly in the niphal, in the passive tense. See Genesis 12:3, 18:18 and 28:14. Should we interpret the two hitpaels, in light of the three niphals? Or, should we interpret the three niphals, in light of the two hitpaels? Or, perhaps, both the hitpael and niphal verses retain their independent meanings?

(It seems that the niphal originally had a “reflexive” meaning  Samuel 1, 20:5 is one example of a verse where it retains its original niphal meaning.)

It is of interest that when the passages are paraphrased in the New Testament, they are treated as if they had the passive meaning.You probably never suspected that grammar could have such profound ramifications! (And, as mentioned earlier, understanding the precise role of the hitpael also affects how we understand the word התפלל.)

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. “Chazak, chazak ve-nitchazek!” Does the last word mean: “let us strengthen ourselves” (reflexive), “let us continually be strengthened” (durative) or “let us be strengthened” (passive)? I will leave it to you to decide!

P.S. I have a new book: “Words for the Wise: Sixty-Two Insights on Hebrew, Holidays, History and Liturgy.” It is available at kodeshpress.com and at Jewish bookstores.

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