September 26, 2023
September 26, 2023

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The Origin of the Word ‘Brit’ (Covenant)

The word “brit” is a fundamental word in Tanach. But where does this word come from? Nouns do not just appear out of nowhere in Hebrew. Rather, they are normally derived from a three-letter verb. Of course, there is no verb B-R-T in Hebrew. But perhaps we can look at roots like B-R-H or B-R-R and find the origin of the word there.

There is a verb B-R-H in Hebrew that means “to eat.” (See, e.g., 2 Sam. 12:17.) Based on this, it has been suggested that the word “brit” has its origin in the festive meal that may have accompanied covenantal ceremonies. However, B-R-H is not the normal verb for eating in Tanach. Rather, it is typically used for someone who is not well and who is being brought food for recuperation. Therefore, it would not seem to be the appropriate word for a festive covenantal meal. (Moreover, we have no evidence that covenantal agreements were originally accompanied by the eating of food. Even in the paradigmatic brit ceremony of Gen. 15, animals are sacrificed but there is no mention of eating them.)

An alternative suggestion is based on the biblical root B-R-R. This root sometimes means “purify” and other times means “choose.” (These two meanings are related.) We all know the meaning “choose” from the Mishnah in the third chapter of Sanhedrin chapter “zeh borer.” A brit is an agreement with someone you choose. But more fundamentally, a brit is a pledge to someone else. The idea of “choosing” is not so related to the fundamental nature of a brit. (One commentary who suggests this “choosing” meaning as a possible origin for the word “brit” is Ibn Ezra. See his comm. to Gen. 6:18.)

Another approach looks at the “brit bein ha-betarim” as a model for the meaning of brit. There, animals were cut in half and God (in some form) walked between them. Based on this, the suggestion can be made that perhaps brit means separation. Ibn Ezra (comm. to Gen. 6:18) mentions this as a possibility. Rav S. R. Hirsch (comm. to Gen. 6:18) adopts this approach, suggesting a relation between B-R-T and P-R-D (separate). S. D. Luzzatto (comm. to Gen. 15:10) adopts this approach, suggesting that B-R-T is merely a metathesis of B-T-R (separate, divide). The root B-T-R is used three times in Gen. 15. The idea of “separation” can also be implied in the root B-R-R, since things that are chosen are separated.

But a brit seems more likely to be a word of unity than a word of separation. So intuitively it is hard to accept “separation” as its original meaning. The commentators who adopt this approach are probably overly influenced by the brit bein ha-betarim story (and by something similar at Jer. 34:18-19). They are also likely influenced by the expression “koret brit.”

(R. Hirsch does make an interesting attempt to justify the “separation” idea. He writes: “Brit” is an arrangement that is to be carried out, quite independently of all external circumstances, even in opposition to them. It literally corresponds to the conception of the “absolute,” something separated, cut off…something absolutely unconditional.”)

So far I have suggested explanations based on the concepts of “eating,” “choosing” and “separating.” But none have the “ring of truth” (pun intended, as you will see). Therefore many scholars adopt a very different approach. There is a word found in the Mishnah in Shabbat (Chapter 6) and in the Tosefta to Kelim (Chapter 5 of its middle section): “beirit” or “burit.” Jastrow defines it as a “ring,” “hoop,” “thing cut in circular form.” It turns out that this is a later version of a word found in Akkadian in the biblical period. The Akkadian word is “biritu” and it means “clasp, fetter.” I.e., it is something that binds things together. (Akkadian is the language of ancient Assyria and Babylonia. It is a Semitic language that is related to Hebrew.)

Since a “brit” is in its essence something that binds people together, this would be a very sensible approach to understanding the origin of the word. This approach is argued for in the “brit” essay in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (one of my favorite works; it has essays on the words, not just conclusory entries). It is also the approach taken long ago in the classic work Brown-Driver-Briggs. After finding this approach in these two sources, I found that it was already adopted by our own Marcus Jastrow! In his “brit” (covenant) entry, p. 194, Jastrow gives the fundamental meaning of the word “brit” as “circle, ring, chain,” and he refers you to his earlier “beirit” entry on p. 166. There he refers to the Akkadian word.

The most common expression for entering into a “brit” in Tanach” is “koret brit.” Can the term “koret brit” help us understand the original meaning of the word “brit”?

The “separation” understanding of the word “brit” fits with “koret brit,” even though it is a bit tautological (“cutting a separation”). But what about the “ring” interpretation? Jastrow’s entry for “brit” includes the following conjectural statement: “‘koret brit,’ to cut a ring out; to make a covenant.” I believe that Jastrow is suggesting that the way a “ring” was created involved cutting. That is how the term “koret brit” could have arisen with “brit” meaning “ring.”

By the way, how does one annul a “brit”? The word typically used is “hefer” which comes from the root P-R-R which means “break.” So the common words used with “brit,” namely “koret” and “hefer,” both go well with understanding “brit” as a “ring” that unites two parties.

Finally, “The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament” points out that the Akkadian and Hittite terms for “treaty” (terms not related to “brit”) both have the meaning “bond.”

For all of the above reasons, I believe that the “ring” meaning of brit was the original meaning.

(I am not ruling out other possible interpretations of “koret brit.” One possible interpretation is that “koret brit” refers to the ceremony of cutting of the animals that may have often accompanied the “brit.” But this does not mean that the word “brit” itself had a meaning of “cutting.” Another interpretation is that “koret/cut” is figurative for “decide, decree.” For example, in English, we “cut” deals. In Hebrew, there are expressions like “gzar din” and “chituch din.” There is much support for this interpretation.)

Regarding the ceremony of the cutting of the animals that may have often accompanied a brit (see Gen. 15 and Jer. 34: 18-20), most likely the ceremony symbolized the uniting of the parties through common blood. This is suggested in the Hertz Chumash, comm. to Gen. 15:10. Or perhaps this cutting ceremony makes palpable the punishment befalling the one who violates the pact. This is what Rashi suggests at Jer. 34:18. No one really knows.

As long as we are on the subject of “brit,” let us briefly discuss the term for the U.S. in modern Hebrew: artzot ha-brit. When and why was this term adopted? Artzot (or medinot) me’uchadot would have been more appropriate. The editor of the site balashon.com did some preliminary research in a post of April 23, 2010. Although he could not determine precisely when the term artzot ha-brit was first used in Hebrew to refer to the U.S., he found that this term was already used to refer to the U.S. in 1857. But more interestingly, he found that in 1859, the term was used to refer to Germany (=the German confederation). It is possible that it was used to refer to Germany before it was used to refer to the U.S.!

By Mitchell First

Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy.” He can be reached at  [email protected].

 

 

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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