June 13, 2024
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The Three Meanings of the Root ‘Bet-Resh-Caf’

I have always wondered about the root ברך and its multiple meanings. Aside from the meaning “bless,” the root also means “kneel/knee.” Then there is the noun “breichah” that means “pool” or “pond.” Could these meanings all be related? The scholars are divided on these issues.

A widespread view is that these meanings are not related. For example, this is the approach taken by Ernest Klein who divides the ברך roots into three separate entries and does not even mention the possibility of relationships.

Long before this, the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon had merged “kneel” and “bless” into the same entry. It also seemed to believe that the “pool, pond” meaning was related as well, although it did not give its underlying reasoning. (Its entry for “pool, pond” was within the same large ברך section.)

As to “bless” and “knee, kneel,” perhaps “bless” came first and then “knee, kneel” arose because when one blesses, the one receiving the blessing is often submissive and on his knees. Or more likely the body part meaning came first, and being on one’s knees evolved into a meaning for “bless.” Mandelkern adopts this suggestion and writes that it is a widely accepted one. (This work was published in 1896.)

As to the “pool, pond” meaning, animals often kneel when using a pond. People often do as well, either when drinking or washing. Alternatively, a “pool, pond” may have been viewed as a “blessed” place in the ancient, water-scarce world. Mandelkern mentions both of these suggestions.

In more modern times, I mentioned Ernest Klein’s view above. Also, the Koehler-Baumgartner lexicon has one entry for the “bless” meaning and a different entry for the “kneel” meaning. But it inserts a question mark at the beginning of the “kneel” entry to imply a possible relation to the “bless” entry. But it does not discuss the issue any further. Regarding the “pool, pond” word, this word is placed in a separate entry with a notation that its etymology is uncertain, without any discussion.

The essay in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament does not rule out any of the above relationships but it does not advocate for them either. It looks at other Semitic languages as well, and finds they do not help resolve our word-relationship issues. Note that the early Semitic language of Ugaritic has all three meanings, just like Hebrew.

***

Klein mentions a suggestion, based on Ugaritic, that ברך originally meant “to strengthen” before it evolved into the “bless” meaning. It is often found in Ugaritic as a parallel to a different root that meant “to strengthen.”

Consistent with Rav Hirsch’s general approach, Rav Hirsch unites all the meanings (bless, knee, and water source). He offers the unifying idea of “the power and forces for moving forward.” See, e.g., his comm. to Gen. 24:11 and Deut. 11:26.

There is an interesting phenomenon in Akkadian. This language has B-R-C as a word for “knee.” But its word for “bless” has the root C-R-B. Perhaps this was a metathesis from an original B-R-C, or perhaps both B-R-C and C-R-B had meanings related to “bless” at some early stage in the Semitic languages. Either way, we now have an underlying meaning for the Biblical words כרוב and כרובים. We can now understand these figures as symbolizing blessing and protection.

Without the evidence from Akkadian, the Talmud had to treat the initial caf as only a prefix (since there is no root כרב in Hebrew) and had suggested that the root was רב, as in the Aramaic word for “boy,” רביא. See Sukkah 5b. (Perhaps the literal meaning of רביא is “growing boy,” from רב.) Our traditional commentaries followed the Talmud’s approach. See, e.g., Rashi on “keruvim” at Ex. 25:18: “They each had the image of the face of a tinok.”

H. Tawil writes that the Akkadian “karibu…as well as kuribu, is a protective genus/a spirit of composite figures—human-headed bulls with eagles’ wings—carved and stationed at the entrance to Mesopotamian temples…” See his An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, p. 173. See similarly, N. Sarna, “Exploring Exodus,” p. 212. Sarna adds: “Similar symbolic, hybrid creatures, which bear close resemblance to those described by Ezekiel, have turned up over a wide area of the Near East, including Canaan.”

(Tawil suggests that the Hebrew B-R-C for “bless” is a metathesis from an original C-R-B. But because the older language of Ugaritic has B-R-C with the “bless” meaning, this suggestion is unlikely.)

***

Every blessing that we recite begins with “Baruch Atah,” Blessed are You. I saw a suggestion that perhaps the other meanings of the root ברך were also intended and should be kept in mind in this phrase: God as the one to Whom we bow our knee, and God as the source, the well-spring of everything (=the continuous provider). I saw this in a recent column of Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, but I am sure it has been suggested by others before him.

I have also heard the idea that in order to draw upon God as the source of blessings one must be in a humble state, which kneeling engenders. In other words, the way to draw down God’s blessings is through humility. This idea comes from Chabad chasidus and was conveyed to me by Rivky Bergstein, who was proofreading my article for this paper!

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What about Gen. 41:43? “They called before him (Joseph) אברך.” (The context is that Joseph has just been appointed by Pharaoh and is riding in the special chariot.) It is possible that this word “avrech” is an Egyptian one. A widespread suggestion based on Egyptian is that it is an imperative with the meaning “Attention!” But most of our commentators (not knowing Egyptian) translated it as if it were a Hebrew word and meant something like “bend the knee.” (But Rashi took a different approach.) Tawil writes that the etymology of the word is still uncertain. He mentions the possibility that it is a loanword from Egyptian and means “attention.” But he seems to prefer an explanation based on Akkadian, pointing to the Akkadian word “abarakku”=steward.

***

Of course the name “Barack,” as in Barack Obama, comes from our root. The name “Mubarak,” as in the late Hosni Mubarak, comes from our root as well. I am sure both names derive from the “bless” meaning and not the “knee” or “pond” meanings! (Surely the last name of Ben Mevorach, director of news and programming at 1010 WINS, derives from our root as well.)


Mitchell First can be “blessed” by contacting him at [email protected]. Please visit his website rootsandrituals.org for more articles.

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