June 23, 2024
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The Original Meaning of ‘Samech-Peh-Dalet’ (as in Hesped)

In Genesis 23:2, we are told that Sarah died and that Avraham came “lispod le-Sarah ve-livkotah.”

“Livkotah” means “to cry.” But what does “lispod” mean? Does it mean “to eulogize?” Many translate it this way. See, e.g., The ArtScroll Stone Chumash and The Living Torah.

It turns out that the “eulogize” meaning is only a later mishnaic meaning. So, what did Avraham do here? The 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation (at the top in the Chumash of Rabbi Dr. Hertz) translates “to mourn.”

Then, Rabbi Hertz makes his own comment: “The Hebrew word ( ‘lispod’) indicates the loud wailing still usual in the East, as a manifestation of grief.”

Okay, so far we have two different interpretations: the vague “mourn,” and “loud wailing.”

Daat Mikra writes that the root ספד refers to a type of טקס (ceremony) of expressing one’s “eivel ve-tzaar” involving moving one’s body and trembling, to show how great one’s grief was. (See also their commentary to Psalms 30:12.)

The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, volume 10, page 301 writes that the word means a ceremony that “characteristically included the beating of one’s breasts and the articulation of short cries like ‘ho, ho’ (Amos 5:16) and ‘hoy’… ” There would be both the traditional cries and spontaneous ones.

Amos 5:16 reads: “In every broad place, there shall be מספד, in all streets cries of: ‘ho, ho!’ The farmhand shall be called to mourn (אבל), and those skilled in wailing to lament (מספד).” See also Jeremiah 22:18 for sample cries involving הוי.

The “ceremony” explanations suggested by Daat Mikra and Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (TDOT) sound reasonable. (We also now better understand the contrast between “misped” and “machol” at Psalms 30:12.)

I have also seen the suggestion that ספד can imply the hiring of professional mourners. (Many centuries later, Jeremiah 9:16 refers to the practice of hiring professional mourners: “Summon the mekonenot, that they may come; send for the skilled women, that they may come.”)

But, what did the root ספד mean originally? In Akkadian, it has the meaning “mourn,” but it also has the meaning “beat the breasts.” See Hayim ben Yosef Tawil, “An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew,” page 265. A widespread view is that the latter was probably its original meaning. See “Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament,” volume 10, page 299, and the etymological work of Ernest Klein, page 453. Klein also cites this meaning as existing in Syriac (a type of Aramaic). Jastrow, as well (page 1011), seems to believe that “strike” or “beat” was the original meaning of the root.

Can we see any evidence for the “beats the breasts” meaning in Tanach? There is one verse that provides the evidence: Isaiah 32:12.

The background — as explained in the Soncino commentary — is that the prophet “sees the approaching calamities so vividly that he calls upon the women to go at once into mourning.”

Verse 32:12 reads: “Al shadayim sofedim —  for the pleasant fields, for the fruitful vine.”

What do those first three words mean? Now that we know that the Akkadian cognate has the meaning “beat the breasts,” it is evident that this is its meaning here.

(Okay, it should have said that the women are “sofedot,” but “shadayim” are masculine (!), so the male ending was used to parallel that.)

How was the above phrase understood before the evidence from Akkadian came to light in recent times? It gave everyone difficulty. For example, at the end of the 19th century, Mandelkern suggested that it referred to an ancient mourning practice of bowing one’s head, so it reached one’s chest.

A widespread approach was to give a different translation of that first word, על. Instead of it meaning “on,” it could mean “about.” Then, as to the next step:

Many scholars believed that the vocalization on the ש of “shadayim” was wrong. The dot needed to be on the left and the meaning was “fields,” similar to the fourth word in the verse: “sedei.” (But the plural of fields in Hebrew is “sadot.”)

Alternatively, in a verse that ends with a description of fields and vineyards that are implicitly going to be destroyed, one interprets the beginning of the verse as implying “shadayim” that are too dry to function. See, e.g., Radak. (I also saw an interpretation that, perhaps, it is the deprived infants doing the wailing!)

Since it says “sofedim — men are wailing,” because they see that breasts are revealed as a sign of mourning, or because they see that the breasts are too dry to function. (But this interpretation is unlikely, because we see from verse 9 that the prophet is addressing women.)

Metzudat David and Abravanel understand the verse correctly as referring to the striking of “shadayim,” in the manner of mourners. Rashi understands it similarly, adding that the symbolism here is that the “lev” is being struck. (See below: I assume he is using “lev” to mean “heart.” Otherwise, he would have written “shadayim.”)


There is a passage at Moed Katan 27b on our topic: The Amora Ulah says that “hesped” is “al lev” and cites Isaiah 32:12. Ulah is basing himself on a passage at Tosefta Moed Katan 2:9. Let us look at that passage …

The passage is distinguishing between different forms of mourning: “hesped,” “tipuach” and “kilus,” each of which involves a different body part. The passage begins: “What is hesped?” It answers that it is “al ha-lev” and cites our verse. It then defines “tipuach” as “with the hands,” and קילוס as the extension of one’s זרועות (arms).

Both the Tosefta and the Talmud understand “hesped” as involving the “lev.” “Lev” could mean “heart” or “chest.” But looking at the three-part statement, it is evident that the statement was not meant as an etymological one. But the purpose of the statement is unclear … Perhaps, it is merely describing what people commonly did in that time.

When the Tosefta states, “Eizehu hesped? Zeh she-al ha-lev,” the Minchat Bikkurim’s commentary on “Eizehu hesped?” inserts: “She-ne’emar be-chol makom.” He seems to be implying that every biblical passage where a word related to “hesped” is used, it means “beating on the chest/heart.” This is how the ArtScroll Talmud understands Ulah’s statement, citing the Minchat Bikkurim. Even though the Minchat Bikkurim, perhaps, meant this, I am not convinced that the Tosefta or Ulah did.


A few more thoughts:

  • There is one major difference between the passage in the Tosefta and the one in the Talmud. In the Talmud, the body part involved in “kilus” is the legs (stamping the ground). The etymology of “eulogy” is an easy one. “Eu” means “well” in Greek, and “logos” means “word” or “speech.”
  • Genesis 50:10 has: “Va-yispedu sham misped gadol ve-chaved meod, va-yaas le-aviv eivel shivat yamim.” We see from here that “misped” refers to the ritual lamentation on the first day, while “eivel” refers to matters being done over seven days (e.g., clothing being rent).
  • The Soncino commentary on Jeremiah 9:16 (the verse about calling professional mourners) has an interesting comment. They cite the church father, Jerome, who lived in Eretz Yisrael around 400 CE. He writes: “This custom continues to the present day in Judea, that women with disheveled locks and bared breasts in musical utterance invite all to weeping.”

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He hopes that he will be eulogized well and hopes to receive קילוס in the Rabbinic meaning of the word (based on Greek), and not the Biblical meaning. See his Roots and Rituals, pages 137-140.

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