June 23, 2024
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The Root Z-H-R: Is There a Connection Between ‘Light’ and ‘Warn’?

I am always fascinated by words that have disparate meanings but share a common root. For example, the root לחם means both “bread” and “fight,” the root נכר means both “strange” and “recognize,” and the root שכם means both “arise early” and “shoulder.” All of these are probably related (as I will explain at the end of the column).

I was reading an article by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein (see below) and he mentioned a root with disparate meanings that I had not noticed before: זהר means “light” but it is also the root of “warn” (e.g., Ezekiel 33:3, הזהיר). (In the “warn” meaning, the word is always in the hiphil or niphal, causative or passive.)

Among traditional sources, the early Jewish lexicographers (e.g., Ibn Janach and Radak) do not make a connection between these two זהר meanings. But in the 13th century, Avraham son of Rambam does. See his commentary on the הזהרתה at Ex. 18:20: “limud ha-sechli she-nimshal le-or.” In modern times, one of those who connects the two meanings is Rav S.R. Hirsch. See his comments on Ex. 18:20: “הזהיר must mean to light up an object for somebody that otherwise he would not have seen.” His translation of הזהרתה in this verse is “make clear.”

R. Saadiah Gaon probably relates the two זהר meanings as well. This is implied in his commentary to Kohelet 12:12 where he writes that the essential meaning of the root זהר is “ha-biur ve-ha-giluy.” (See Torat Chayyim to Ex. 18:20.)

Many scholars argue for the relationship as well. For example, E. Klein, in his etymological work, p. 195, writes that the “warn” meaning is probably derived from the “shine” meaning but he does not discuss it further. The essay in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament mentions the possibility of the development from “make shine, enlighten” to “teach.” But it does not evaluate its merit.

In English, aside from the word “enlighten,” we also use “illuminate” and “shed light on” as synonyms for “teaching.”

At first I was suspicious of the connection between the two זהר meanings. After all, we all know the word אזהרה, which typically implies a warning and a negative instruction. But it turns out that this word is not in Tanach.

It is true that most of the instances of the verb זהר in Tanach occur in the context of warnings not to do something. But the Tanach has at least one example of a positive instruction, the statement at Exodus 18:20: “ve-hizhartah et’hem et ha-chukim ve-et ha-torot, ve-hodata lahem et a ha-derech yeilchu bah ve-et ha-maaseh asher yaasun” (= you shall teach them the statutes and the laws, and you shall inform them the path that they must walk in and the deeds that they must do”). There is nothing negative in this sentence. So perhaps “warn” is just a later spin from an earlier “teach.” “Teach” is the way the verb is often translated in this verse.

Psalms 19:12 (“gam avdecha nizhar bahem”) is another verse that might reflect the “be enlightened” meaning, as opposed to the “warn” meaning. (Please look at the full context, starting from verse 8.)

There is one weakness to our attempt to relate the two meanings.The “light” meaning only appears two times in Tanach, in relatively late books: at Ezekiel 8:2 and at Daniel 12:3. But this is not a fatal weakness. The “light” meaning could have existed earlier orally. Also, the language of Ugaritic, a Semitic language older than Biblical Hebrew, perhaps has our root with a meaning “vision.”

Also, the root זהר with the meaning “light” may be related to the root צהר. This root appears many times in Tanach. See, e.g., Gen. 6:16 (tzohar for the ark), and צהרים (midday, when the sun’s light reaches its peak). This root also probably underlies the common word יצהר, fresh oil, either because such oil shines, or because it is something that just appeared.

In modern Hebrew, the Balfour Declaration is referred to as “hatzharat Balfour.” That first word הצהרת was invented by Eliezer Ben Yehuda (d. 1922), as he invented the verb הצהיר with the meaning “to declare, to put something out there for all to see.” (At Job 24:11, we have יצהירו, with its original meaning “to make yitzhar”!) Without Ben Yehuda’s word, the declaration would likely have been called “hachrazat Balfour,” based on that older word הכריז. (I learned all of this from the post at balashon.com on the word צהר of 10/27/06.)

***

To answer the questions I raised at the beginning of the column:

נכר: See the commentary of R. Hirsch on Gen. 42:7. Here Yosef recognizes his brothers and then makes himself strange to them. R. Hirsch points out that when you recognize something, what you are doing initially is understanding its strangeness and uniqueness. He writes: “The more signs of difference we see in an object, the more specially do we recognize it. With every such sign, we ‘estrange’ it from all other spheres…”

I suspect that the reason הכיר is in the hiphil is that when you are recognizing something you are causing the object to stand out in your mind. (הכיר is is a shortened version of הנכיר).

שכם: When one goes out on a journey in the morning, the first thing one does is load the shoulder of the animal, or load one’s own shoulder. “Va-yashkem” originally meant: he shouldered himself or his animal.

לחם: Of course one suggestion is that people have always fought wars for economic reasons. In ancient times, this would mean fighting over food supply. But the widespread scholarly view today is that the root לחם fundamentally means “pressed together.” Solid food such as bread is pressed together. When people were “lochem” one another in ancient times, they were often engaged in hand-to-hand combat, pressing themselves against one another. (A different view is that the word לחם for bread symbolizes that man has always had to struggle for his food. First he has to struggle to wrest his daily bread from nature, and then he has to struggle against his fellow men to keep it. See Rav S.R. Hirsch to Gen. 3:19.)

***

I would like to thank Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein, whose May 12, 2021, article “Brilliant Prohibitions” taught me about the interesting root זהר and inspired this column.


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He needs someone to enlighten him about the mysteries of the Zohar.

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