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The Meaning of the Word ‘Eitan’

This word איתן appears 14 times in Tanach in various forms. (I am not counting its use as a name.) For example, at Jeremiah 5:15, we have “goy eitan” parallel to “goy meiolam.” The meaning of “eitan” here seems to be “enduring, permanent.” At Psalms 74:15, we have a reference to God who dries up “naharot eitan.” “Eitan” here seems to mean “strong” or “steadily flowing.” In one view, the root of איתן is אתן. See, e.g., Rav Hirsch to Exodus 14:27. But note that the “yod” is almost always present in the word איתן, the only exception being in Job 33:19.

Many drop the “aleph,” and see the root as יתן. This is where the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon places the word and Ernest Klein agrees. See his etymological dictionary, pages 26 and 267. Also agreeing is Samuel David Luzzatto, see his commentary to Exodus 14:27. (See also Mandelkern, page 525, leftmost column.) What motivates this view of the root is that there is an Arabic word “watana” that has a meaning like “permanent” or “flow constantly.”

A different view is taken by Radak in his sefer HaShorashim. He lists the word in an entry for אית. (Ibn Janach had done this prior to Radak.) Radak analogizes our word to ביתן (bitan) which appears three times in the book of Esther, and which is related to בית. (But ביתן is probably an Akkadian word.) Mandelkern also suggests אית as a possible root of “eitan,” suggesting a relation to the word יש. (אית is the Aramaic form of יש.) Later in his אית entry, Radak mentions the alternative possibility that the “nun” is a root letter here and the “yod” is not (the position later taken by Rav Hirsch).

Some view איתן as having originated with a meaning like “flowing continuously” or “strong.” But Luzzatto writes, “it seems to me that the basic meaning of this root refers to something permanent and unchanging, but it was later transferred to mean anything strong or hard that is also permanent and unchanging.”

Our word occurs in the important passage at Exodus 14:27, at the end of the story of the splitting of the sea. Moshe stretched forth his hand over the sea, “vayashav hayam lifnot boker leeitano.” Daat Mikra suggests two possibilities: the sea returned לחזקו (to its strength) or לזרמו (to its flow). But Luzzatto suggests: “to what its nature always was,” i.e., its prior permanent condition.

At Michah 6:2, “eitanim” is parallel to “harim.” Perhaps, it is a poetic way of referring to mountains here (see Daat Mikra). At Numbers 24:21, “eitan” is parallel to סלע (rock), but it may just mean “firm” or “ever-enduring.” We do not have to give it a “rock” meaning here.

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The names of the months that Judaism uses today were borrowed from the Babylonians. Thus, they did not come into use in Judaism until the period of the Babylonian exile. What were the names of the months in ancient Israel prior to that? From Tanach, we only know three (all from the book of Kings): בול, זיו and אתנים. The last is at Kings I 8:2: “yerach haeitanim.” We are told here that it is the seventh month. What does this name mean? (Yoni Rotenberg asked me this question a few months ago and that is what motivated this entire column, as I needed to understand איתן first!)

This month’s name is also found in ancient non-biblical sources, spelled אתנם. (See Brown-Driver-Briggs for the references. The month name בול is also found in such sources.)

The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 11a) mentions a view that it refers to the month when Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov were born. The suggestion is that “etanim” alludes to them as they are “eitanei olam” (the mighty ones of the world).

Other suggestions are found in the Radak on Kings I 8:2 and in his sefer HaShorashim. For example, the month name alludes to the holidays “hanichbadim vehachazakim” that are included in it. (This interpretation is found earlier, in Ibn Janach.) Also, this is the month in which grain and fruit are gathered, and they provide sustenance/strength to man. See also Metzudat David: this month and its holidays lead man to “sheleimut.”

In the scholarly world, they are trying to find an explanation that applies to all ancient Middle Eastern cultures. The conjecture is usually that it refers to the steadily flowing rivers in this month, i.e., the rains of this month fill the river channels that had been dry before. See, e.g., Brown-Driver-Briggs: “month of steady flowings.”

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There is an interesting dispute as to the meaning of איתן in the context of the eglah arufah ritual. At Deuteronomy 21:4, we are told that the heifer is taken to a “nachal eitan” which has neither been plowed nor sown and its neck is broken there. The word “nachal” means “valley” or “riverbed,” but sometimes—from the context—we can tell that it means the “valley” or “riverbed with its water.”

In one view, the “nachal eitan” at Deuteronomy  21:4 means a “valley” or “riverbed” that is always filled with running water (perennial water or strong water). Its water would carry away the blood of the heifer, and symbolize the removal of the defilement from the land.” See, e.g., Rabbi Dr. Hertz, Rambam (Hilchot Rotzeach 9:2) and many others.

One problem with this approach is that there is nothing explicit in the verses about the blood of the heifer. The verses only refer to the breaking of the neck of the heifer. There is no sacrifice of the heifer that was performed.

Rashi—in contrast (based on Sifrei Deuteronomy 207 and Sotah 45b and 46b)—understands “nachal eitan” as a valley or riverbed that was קשה (hard) and never worked. In this approach, there is nothing in the ritual about water carrying the blood of the heifer away. The phrase “nachal eitan” occurs once elsewhere in Tanach, at Amos 5:24. There “nachal” is parallel to “mayim.” So, “nachal eitan” would seem to mean a “perennial” or “strong” water source, and not a “hard valley/riverbed.”

Nevertheless, Luzzatto decides in favor of the “hard” interpretation at Deuteronomy 21:4, viewing the purpose of the ritual as to ensure that the blood is not washed away, so it remains visible for the moral lesson to the people.

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Although most of the Babylonian names for the months are included in the later books of Tanach, a few are not. תשרי is one that is not. According to Yemenite tradition, the name of the month is pronounced “Tishri.” Because the month is not in Tanach, we can have such a dispute, as there is no biblical word to point to that resolves the pronunciation issue. “Tishrei/Tishri” probably means “beginning.” See Ernest  Klein’s etymological dictionary, page 720. It falls in the beginning of the agricultural season.

P.S. “Choref”—as a biblical word for the season—also probably means “the beginning of the agricultural year.” See, e.g., Job 29:4 where the root means “early.” I will explain this in a future column.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. The biblical “choref” does not mean the “cold” season as we, Jewish Link readers, erroneously think in the NJ-NY-Connecticut area!

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