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The Multiple Meanings of the Root ‘HLL’

The root H-L-L in Hebrew has three different meanings. We all know the meaning “to praise.” There is another meaning “to shine.” This meaning only appears a handful of times, in both Job and Isaiah. See, e.g., Isa. 13:10. Finally, there is another meaning: “to act foolishly.” This meaning appears in various books of Nach.

Are these three distinct roots? Or was there a common origin? This has been much debated. For example:

—S. Mandelkern, in his concordance, believes in a common origin. He divides the root into categories I, II and III, but he does not have a dividing line between each entry. I have learned over the years that the lack of a dividing line is a big clue to his thinking. Then you look at his comments preceding each category. He calls the “praise” meaning (meaning II) a “brother” to the “shine” meaning (meaning I). He writes that when you praise something you are giving it “hod” and “tiferet.” As to the “act foolishly” meaning (meaning III), he also uses the “tiferet” word but suggests something like excess glorification, which ends up in “shetut” and “bilbul ha-daat.” This suggestion is obviously difficult.

Another source I saw tried to unite all the meanings in the following way: “[H-L-L] denotes an exuberance, for whatever reason. It takes no great poetic leap to see symmetry between the shining of a star and the praising of a worshiper… [H-L-L] denotes a letting go of restraints and inhibitions, and, entirely depending on the heart behind it, can result in either a complete surrender to God’s control, or a detrimental flight without anyone at the helm. [H-L-L] can turn to either a most holy expression of devotion or else a blasphemous display of derangement.” This source then cited evidence from brain scans to support its theory of similarity!

—A. Even-Shoshan, in his concordance, combines meanings I and II, but lists meaning III separately.

—E. Klein, in his A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, lists the three H-L-L meanings separately and does not make any attempt to connect them. (Often he lists meanings separately but makes suggestions to connect them. It is significant that he makes no such suggestions here.)

I am in agreement with Klein. I am not convinced that meanings I and II are connected. Nor do I think that the “act foolishly” meaning has anything to do with the other two meanings. The Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon and Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament also view the three roots as not connected.

I also saw a suggestion that the third meaning of H-L-L was related to aleph-lamed-lamed, worthlessness, which may be the underlying meaning of “elil”=idol. It also may be the root of the word “aleph-lamed” with its meaning of “not.” (Whoever imagined that this two-letter word had a root!)

What about the words “holelut” and “holalim”? “Holelut” appears five times in Tanach, always in Kohelet and always with the “foolishness” meaning. In contrast, “holalim” appears only in the book of Psalms. It appears three times: at 5:6, 73:3 and 75:5. Daat Mikra to 5:6 suggests two possibilities in this verse, either foolish ones (meaning III), or ones who have too much pride and are arrogant (meaning II). But a plain-sense reading of all three verses in Psalms leads me to believe that “arrogant” is the meaning throughout.

Rav S. R. Hirsch, who gives it an arrogant-type meaning at 5:6, comments: “Holalim is derived from HLL in the kal form; i.e., to cast a “show” of radiance without an actual source of light being present. Had it been used in the piel form it would have indicated a radiation that can actually be traced to a shining source of light.”

R. Hirsch also makes the following comment at Psalms 33:1: “ ‘Tehilah’ derived from HLL, literally “reflect,” portrays the acts and works of God as “emanations” or “rays” that call to mind the existence and Sovereignty of the Lord even as the rays of the sun proclaim the existence and efficacy of that heavenly body.”

He also comments on Psalms 73:3: “HLL in the kal form is “to shine,” “to have sheen and glitter without any inner substance.” In the piel it means “to reflect,” “to emit rays” that indicate the presence of an inner radiant core; therefore: HLL, “to recognize someone’s greatness through his acts and to proclaim it.”

Elsewhere I saw the suggestion that meaning II (praise) was an onomatopoeic word, like our English “la, la, la.”


On a related subject, let us now deal with the various names for the book of Psalms. The English name “Psalms” is derived via Latin from a Greek word that means “a song sung to a stringed instrument.” This is how the word “mizmor” is translated in the Greek translation of Nach. (I.e., this is what the Greek-speaking Egyptian Jews thought it meant.) Since the Greek name for the entire book is “Psalmoi,” there is perhaps an implication that the book was referred to in Hebrew as “Mizmorot.” Although not exactly a proof, there is evidence of a Palestinian practice to refer to each of the chapters as “mizmorot.” See, e.g., J. Talmud Shab. 16:1, and Taanit 2:2. This is the case even though the term “mizmor” is only found in 57 of the captions. The Syriac title of the book is “Kethaba de-mazmure.” (Syriac is a type of Aramaic.)

The accepted name for the book in rabbinic and subsequent literature is “Sefer Tehilim” This is how it is listed at Bava Batra 14b. But the second word is sometimes spelled without the “heh.” See, e.g., Avodah Zarah 19a: תילים

The word “Tehilim,” with its male plural ending, is surprising. The word “tehilah” is feminine; in the Tanach, its plural is “tehilot.” See, e.g., Ex. 15:11: “nora tehilot,” and Ps. 22:4 “yoshev tehilot.” Similarly, a masculine plural form also occurs in the case of tefilim/n, which is the plural of tefilah in the sense of “phylactery.” (The singular for phylactery is “tefilah.” See M. Mikvaot 10:3 and M. Menachot 4:1.)

Interestingly, Ibn Ezra and some others refer to the book of Psalms as “Sefer Tehilot.”

The word “tehilah” appears seven times in the book but only in one caption (145:1).

Book two ends with the phrase: “kalu tefilot David ben Yishai” (72:20). From here we might have expected a title: “Sefer Tefilot.”

For further thoughts on the title of the book, see the introduction to the Daat Mikra edition, p. 1.

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Each week he tries to write shining articles (with only a bit of foolishness) that receive praise. For more such articles, please visit his website at

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