May 19, 2024
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The Multiple Meanings of Chet-Resh-Peh

1. We all know the verb חרף with its meanings like “reproach” and “taunt,” and the related noun חרפה: disgrace, shame.

2. But what about the season חרף? What meaning underlies this word?

Whenever I hear the word חרף, living here in the northeast USA, I think “cold.” (P.S. The word “winter” derives from the meaning “wet.”) Of course, our impressions from the USA about the meaning of חרף in Biblical Israel are irrelevant!

Brown-Driver-Briggs (1906) had pointed to an Arabic cognate and stated that it had the meaning “gather fruit, pluck.” In this view, חרף meant the season that these gathering and plucking activities were done.

But the more recent sources give the Arabic cognate only the “pluck” meaning. In this scenario, we would have to limit the fundamental meaning to activities involving “plucking.” But “plucking” is broad enough to imply gathering/harvesting.

But there is a better approach to the “season” meaning. In Akkadian and in Aramaic, חרף has the meaning “early.” (See, e.g., Jastrow, p. 505.) In Tanach, it seems to have this meaning at Job 29:4: “in the days of חרפי.” The context suggests a positive period for Job; the reproach-related meanings do not fit. Therefore most scholars interpret the word as meaning “early” here: my early days. Rashi and many other commentaries had given this interpretation.

Based on this evidence for “early” as a meaning of חרף, the essay in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament concludes that חרף means “the early season of the year (that is, of the agricultural year, which begins in the fall).” I.e., when the seeding/planting takes place. See similarly Koehler-Baumgartner: “time for seed and early growth.” In disagreeing with the “harvesting” approach, TDOT cites verses that suggest that “harvesting” was part of the קיץ. See Prov. 6:8 and 10:5 and Jer. 8:20.

(Ramban, in his comm. on Lev. 19:20, had long ago intuited that חרף was the beginning of the year in an agricultural sense. But he does not state that this is what the word meant.)

I find this “early season” meaning convincing. But many other suggestions have been offered. (For example, some suggest a relation with the root ערף, which has a meaning “flow” or “flow like rain.” See, e.g., Rav S.R. Hirsch on Deut. 32:2. It is accepted that ע and ח sometimes interchange.)

In considering the original season-related meaning, we have to remind ourselves that at Gen. 8:22 and a few other verses, חרף is mentioned with קיץ and the implication is that the two span the entire year. But this does not mean that we have to find a meaning that spans half the year or anything close to that.

The etymology of קיץ is another interesting and unresolved issue. For some thoughts, see the concordance of Mandelkern and the post at of 6/5/06.

3. In Aramaic and Arabic, there is a word חריף that means “sharp.” This word does not appear in Tanach (except as a name). But a widespread view is that the Biblical “reproach” meaning is an expansion from an original, more ancient, “sharp” meaning: “to say sharp things against.”

4. I have seen many attempts to connect the reproach-related meanings with the “season” meaning. They are creative but farfetched. For example, the “season” meaning is the time of year where sharp tools are used. (The reproach-related meanings probably derive from the “sharp” meaning.) Or M. Clark: חרף fundamentally means “make vulnerable, taunt” and winter is the “period of vulnerability.” See similarly Rav S.R. Hirsch in his comments to Lev. 19:20. See also Rashi on Gen. 8:22.

As I have written in other columns, our letter ח is a merger of two different ח letters, so it is not surprising that Hebrew has roots with ח that have two different meanings. Arabic preserves the two original ח letters.

5. At Lev. 19:20 we have the case of a female slave who is נחרפת to one man, but has relations with a different man. (The precise details of the case are unclear and subject to dispute.) In this unusual case, both are not punishable by death.

Based on the context, Rashi gives the word the meaning “designated” (מיועדת and מיוחדת). He adds: “I do not know a דמיון to this in Scripture” (=he cannot find another instance of this root in Tanach with such a meaning). Ibn Ezra suggests a connection to the word חרפה =embarrassment. Ramban suggests the meaning is נערה, based on Job 29:4. R. Hirsch suggests a חרב-related meaning. Brown-Driver-Briggs suggests the meaning “acquired” based on a cognate in Arabic. Another scholar suggests “plucked” with an implication of betrothed (!).

But there is a better approach. As mentioned above, our root means “to be early” in Aramaic and Akkadian and at Job 29:4 (and probably in חרף as a season). Based on this, the meaning “assigned in advance” (of redemption or emancipation) has been suggested. See H. Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew. Similarly, the essay in TDOT suggests “given early to a man.” In both of these suggestions, the implication is “betrothed.” (See also, centuries earlier, the Tosafist commentary רזא פענח קיצור at the alhatorah site on Lev. 19:20.)

Koehler-Baumgartner cites an Akkadian cognate, “harupu,” that means “betrothed.” But Tawil’s work, which came out much later, does not mention such a cognate.

There is much discussion of our word and this case in both Talmuds. See, e.g., Kidd. 6a, Gittin 43a, Keritot 9a and 11a, and J. Talmud Kidd. 1:1. Interestingly, one statement in the Talmud is that, in the region of Judea, an ארוסה is called חרופה.

6. The prayer for U.S. soldiers that is commonly recited in synagogues in recent years includes the phrase “mecharfim nafsham” as it praises U.S. soldiers for protecting the wellbeing of God’s creations. In modern Hebrew, this phrase means “risking one’s life.”

(This prayer was composed in 2001, after Sept. 11, by Milton Moshe Markovitz, husband of Jewish Link columnist Pearl Markovitz. It was composed at the request of Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld. See the fascinating work “Contending with Catastrophe: Jewish Perspectives on September 11th” (2011), published by the Beth Din of America, and edited by Rabbi Michael Broyde.)

It is clear that the modern Hebrew idiom is based on Judges 5:18, where the tribe of Zevulun is praised as a people who are: “cheref nafsho la-mut.” But how do we understand this phrase consistent with our known meanings of the root חרף? One can translate this phrase as “taunts death.” Alternatively, when one risks one’s life, one can be said to be undervaluing it. In this way חרף can be related to the “reproach, shame” meaning. (See, e.g., Metzudat David). But now we can suggest another approach, based on the “early” meaning: A tribe that goes out early (=eagerly) in the direction of death [=being willing to risk its life]. See Tawil, p. 120.

7. The season סתו only appears once in Tanach, at Shir HaShirim 2:11. It is parallel to גשם here, so it seems to mean “rainy season.” Many believe that it originally was spelled שׂתו. It is probably related to an Akkadian word “shatu” that means “to be watered” and “drink.”

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. I would like to thank Mike Alweis for asking about item 6 and getting me interested in this root. I had been postponing analyzing this root for decades because of that difficult word נחרפת!

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