June 18, 2024
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The Root ‘Caf-Shin-Resh’

That ubiquitous word “kosher” (כשר), where does it come from? We all should recognize this root from the Megillah. At verse 8:5, Esther asks the king to annul the previous letters sent by Haman: “If it pleases the king, and if I have found favor before him, ‘וכשר ha-davar lifnei ha-melech,’ and if I am good in his eyes, let it be written to annul the letters … ” From the context, it is easily seen that it means “appropriate, proper.”

At Kohelet 10:10 and 11:6, we also have forms of this word. In the latter, it clearly means something like “succeed, prosper.” The former verse is difficult. Nevertheless, the word probably means something like “proper” there. At Kohelet, 2:21, 4:4 and 5:10, we have a noun “kisharon.” It has meanings like “skill” and “advantage.”

There are two more biblical words which look like they have כשר as the root, one at Psalms 68:7 and the other at Proverbs 31:19. But, most likely, neither is related to our root. Psalms 68:7 has, “God returns the solitary to live in a home and takes out the prisoners “ba-kosharot,” and only the rebellious continue to dwell in a parched land.” Consistent with the main meaning of our root כשר, some suggest “prosperity” as the meaning here. But this does not seem to fit the fact that the word is in the plural. Radak and others suggest that we should read the first root letter as if it was a ק. The meaning would be “chains.” But the context implies a positive meaning for “kosharot.” (I have also seen the suggestion that “ba” should be translated as “from.” This is farfetched.)

Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, volume 7, page 369, mentions that in Ugaritic mythological texts “ktrt” refers to “goddesses who aid in childbirth,” and the suggestion has then be made that the reference is to these goddesses as “bringers of joy,” or that the general implication here is “songs of joy.” But the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament entry concludes that even if one of these were the meaning, this meaning would not be connected with the main meaning of the root.

(For further suggestions for our difficult word “ba-kosharot,” see Daat Mikra. See also Rashi’s interpretation. This interpretation is based on an interpretation in the Mechilta, Bo, end of chapter 16. This interpretation is far from the plain sense. See also Sanhedrin 22a.)

Proverbs 31:19 refers to the woman of valor using a כישור. The verse reads: “Yadeha shilcha va-kishor, ve-chapeha tamchu falech (her hands are placed on the kishor and her palms hold the falech).”

The word פלך is known from rabbinic literature to be a noun related to sewing. See, e.g., Jastrow who defines it as either the “distaff” or the “spindle.” This is surely its meaning at Proverbs 31:19. Most likely, this is its meaning at 2 Samuel 3:29 as well. See, e.g., Soncino and Daat Mikra.

Our word כישור only appears at Proverbs 31:19. But since it is parallel to פלך, it is likely a noun related to sewing as well. Most likely, it is not related to our main root כשר. (But Rashi and Radak disagree. Rashi thinks it functions as a “machshir” in some way and both Radak and Sefer HaShorashim thinks it puts the yarn in “proper” form.)

The precise sewing-related noun that is being referred to by “kishor” is unclear (Daat Mikra mentions a few possibilities.) H. Tawil writes that Akkadian has a common expression related to sewing that has both the nouns “pilakku” and “kirissu.” He suggests that our “kishor” may be a metathesis from the latter. See his “An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew,” page 296. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament views “kishor” as a loanword from an Akkadian-Sumerian word for a “spinning whorl—gish-sur.”

Scholars believe that our main root כשר comes from Aramaic, not Hebrew. That is why it is found only in the relatively late Biblical books Esther and Kohelet, and not in the earlier books. (Based on its language, it is very clear that Kohelet in its final form, even if initially authored much earlier, is a late biblical book. See Encyclopaedia Judaica 2:349. I am assuming that the Psalms and Proverbs occurrences are not related to our main root “C-Sh-R.”) Aramaic started to have a large influence on Tanach around the time of the Assyrian conquest in the late eighth century BCE. (Aramaic words in earlier parts of Nach and in the Torah are usually found only in the poetic sections. See the commentary of Samuel David Luzzatto to Exodus 15:1.)

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How did that English word “spinster” get the connotation of an elderly woman who never gets married? Spinning was commonly done by unmarried women, hence the word came to denote “an unmarried woman” in legal documents in England starting from the 1600s. By 1719, it was being used derogatorily for a woman still unmarried and beyond the usual age for it. For another sewing-related insult, see Yoma 66b: “there is no wisdom to women except at the pelech.” See also the insult at 2 Samuel 3:29.

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In their book, “Jews and Words (2012),” Amos Oz and his daughter Fania make the following observation (pages 174-75): “Some of our best and finest Hebrew words … were generously supplied by an assortment of goyim …” “Kosher” is Aramaic. The “piyut,” our liturgical poem … (is) Greek … Even “dat” (meaning “law” or “religion”) was imported from Persian … Last but not least, the self-congratulating title, “The People of the Book,” especially beloved by producers of literary festivals, comes straight from the Quran. Our Muslim brethren granted this elevated title—along with a suitable degree of political tolerance—to bible-based faiths including Jews and Christians.”

Similarly, Wikipedia has the following: “People of the Book” (… ′Ahl al-Kitāb) is an Islamic term … The Quran uses the term in reference to Jews, Christians, Sabians and Zoroastrians … in a variety of contexts, from religious polemics to passages emphasizing the community of faith between those who possess monotheistic scriptures. The term was later extended to other religious communities that fell under Muslim rule, including Sikhs and even Hindus (who, unlike most other religions identified as “People of the Book,” are polytheist). Historically, these communities were subject to the dhimma contract in an Islamic state.

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Going back to our main root, כשר, in Tannaitic Hebrew we have words like “machshir.” This means “prepare,” to make an object fit for ritual use, or alternatively, fit to receive “uncleanliness (tumah).” (There is even a tractate: “Machshirin.”) “Machshir” is in the hiphil stem, a causative one. When one is “machshir” something, one is “causing it to be fit.” Hence, the translation: “prepare.”

In modern Hebrew, the sense of “preparation” was eventually dropped and “machshir” itself became a word for “tool, instrument or device.” Now in Israel, we have Orthodox people looking for a “machshir kasher” (e.g., a smartphone with protections).

P.S. I never understood the name of that product “kosher salt” until I read the post on balashon.com from 2/1/16. It is salt used in the preparation of meat.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Please visit his website rootsandrituals.org for more articles. He tries to write “kosher” articles, although he admittedly gets close to the line sometimes.

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