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The Origin of the Words ‘Midbar’ and ‘Devir’

It is very easy to intuit that the root of the word “midbar” (desert) is D-B-R, since a typical way that Hebrew forms its nouns is by taking a three-letter verbal root and adding an initial mem. But our next question is much harder: what meaning of D-B-R generated this noun?

Of course, we all know the verb D-B-R, “to speak.” Could a midbar fundamentally be a place where people went to speak (to themselves!)? Creative but unlikely. We also know the letters D-B-R as one of the ten plagues. Could a midbar fundamentally be a place of plague/disease/ pestilence? Again, creative but unlikely.

I am going to present what I think is the most reasonable explanation. (But admittedly not everyone agrees with this.) In Akkadian and Arabic, there is a root D-B-R, which means something like “to push from behind and drive away.” See, e.g., H. Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, p. 71, and E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, p. 113. With this in mind, when you look through Tanach, you see that this was probably the meaning of the root at II Chr. 22:10: va-tedaber et kol zera ha-mamlachah (=she drove away all the royal seed). (There is a parallel to the above verse at II Kings 11:1. There, a different verb is used, a verb that means “destroy.”)

Perhaps the root D-B-R has the “push from behind and drive away” meaning elsewhere in Tanach as well. See, e.g., Ps. 127:5 and the Daat Mikra commentary, n. 7.

Based on this meaning, a later meaning also developed: to subdue/rule over. See Ps. 18:48: va-yadber amim tachtai, and 47:4: yadber amim tachteinu.

When a shepherd was out with his animals, what he was doing was pushing them from behind and leading them in this manner. The explanation I am now offering is that a midbar was called this because it was fundamentally a place where one went to push and lead one’s animals. See, e.g., Klein, p. 317, and the Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon, pp. 209-210 and 546-547. Biblical verses that refer to sheep being led in the midbar are Ex. 3:1 and Ps. 78:52.

Radak, in his Sefer Ha-Shorashim (D-B-R), also understands midbar as a place where one leads animals. Although he does not mention anything about the Arabic root D-B-R (and Akkadian was not known to him), he does explain (citing Targum Onkelos) that in Aramaic, the root D-B-R is the equivalent of the Hebrew N-H-G (=lead). He concludes that a midbar is called this because this is where a shepherd is noheg his animals.

Even though we are used to thinking of a midbar as a dry area, it could have been any wide and open area that was used for pasturing animals. As S. D. Luzzatto writes in his comm. to Ex. 3:1: “Perhaps because the term midbar was used for places of pasturage with no houses or trees but only wide, open space, the term was retained for dry desert places that are likewise wide and open without houses or trees.”

We now have a reasonable explanation of the origin of the word midbar. We also see that the letters D-B-R have at least three different meanings in Tanach: speaking, pushing and pestilence.

An interesting issue is whether the word for bee, devorah, has some relation to the “speak” meaning. I have seen it suggested that the root D-B-R originally meant “to buzz or to hum” before it meant “to speak,” and that this is the relation to the word devorah! See, e.g., Klein, p. 113, and Koehler-Baumgartner, p. 210.

***

The above is essentially what I wrote in my article on the meaning of “midbar” in my book “Roots & Rituals” (2018). I surveyed the main words with the root D-B-R, but I did not discuss the word “devir” (=dalet-bet-yod-resh). I now see that I should have!

“Devir” is a word that we recite in every Amidah: “ve-hashev et ha-avodah li-devir beitecha…” It is in many other places in the liturgy as well (e.g., Maoz Tzur). What does it mean and where does it come from? It is nowhere in the Chumash. It is only one time in Psalms (28:2). Other than that, it appears only at I Kings chapters 6,7 and 8, and in the reiteration at II Chronicles.

It is evident from 1 Kings 8:6 that “devir” is just a synonym of “kodesh ha-kodoshim.” Moreover, when you look at any diagram of the Beit Hamikdash, you will see that the Kodesh Hakodashim is the room that is behind the Heichal. The Kodesh Hakodashim is also the room that has the Aron, which contains the luchot.

One possible explanation for “devir” is that it is the room that holds the Aseret Hadibrot. But the verses refer to it as the room of the Aron Ha-edut and the Aron Brit Hashem. See, e.g., Ex. 26. 33-34, and I Kings 6:6 and 19. They do not refer to it as the place of the “dibrot” or “devarim.” Therefore, this explanation is unlikely.

But there are two better explanations. One is that it is the room from which God speaks. See, e.g., Ex. 25:22: “ve-dibarti itcha me-al ha-kaporet…asher al aron ha-edut” and Num.7:89: “ha-kol mi-daber eylav me-al ha-kaporet asher al aron ha-edut.” See further, B.S. Jacobson, The Weekday Siddur, p. 252. The other is that it is the room that is “behind” the Heichal, related to the “push from behind” meaning that I mentioned above. Scholars prefer this latter explanation, perhaps because it is more concrete. See, e.g., Brown-Driver- Briggs (“hindmost chamber of temple”), Soncino and Daat Mikra to I Kings 6:5, E. Klein, p. 113, and the Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon.

***

P.S. There is a passage on the meaning of “devir” in the Jerusalem Talmud, Brachot chap. 4, end of section 5. Two explanations are offered, although both are unclear. One perhaps connects it to the Aseret Ha-dibrot. The other is very unclear: “mi-sham DBR yotze le-olam.” The ArtScroll edition gives two explanations here, neither of which is convincing (pestilence, and, based on Ps. 47:4, submission of the nations). See also Metzudat David to I Kings 6:5 who seems to allude to the passage but spells the word “dibur” (dalet-bet-vav-resh). Perhaps this was the original reading in the J. Talmud. See also Tosafot Yom Tov to M. Midot 4:1 for a completely different version of the passage in the J. Talmud!

(P.P.S. Perhaps “devir” is used loosely with another meaning in I Kings. See, e.g., Rashi and Daat Mikra to 1 Kings 6:16, and 19-20, and Metzudat Tzion to 6:5.)


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. When he wrote his article on “midbar” in his book, he was looking all through Tanach for verses that might have a “behind” meaning for D-B-R. But he overlooked “devir.” The answer was literally under his nose as he was reciting the Amidah!

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