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What Is the Meaning of Hachalitzeinu in the Birkat Hamazon of Shabbat?

In order to understand this word in the Birkat Hamazon of Shabbat, we must first survey the root Ch-L-Tz.

We are all familiar with this root from the procedure of chalitzah (shoe removal). The root also appears many other times in Tanach. For example, lema’an yechaltzun yedidecha appears at Tehillim 60:7 and 108:7, and is incorporated into the prayer Elokai Netzor. Ki chilatzta nafshi mi-mavet appears at Tehillim 116:8. Also, the root Ch-L-Tz also appears many times in Tanach in a military context, e.g., chalutzei tzava.

Most likely, the root initially meant something like “remove” or “pull out.” It then expanded into a more general meaning of “be rescued,” “released” or “saved.” This rescued/released/saved meaning is its meaning in the verses in Tehillim cited above and in many of its other occurrences in Tanach.

With regard to Ch-L-Tz in the military context, some see this as evidence of Ch-L-Tz having a connotation of “strength.” But more likely, the military meaning is merely a reflection of the original “remove/pull out” meaning. The military men were “pulled out” from the main part of the nation. See, for example, Bamidbar 31:3: Heichaltzu me-itchem anashim la-tzava. Thus, we see that the “remove/pull out/rescue/release/save” meaning can explain almost all of the occurrences of the verb Ch-L-Tz in Tanach.

The main difficulty is the phrase “ve-atzmotecha yachalitz” at Isaiah 58:11, which we see from its context is meant positively. (This phrase in Isaiah is the source for the request for chilutz atzamot in Birkat Hachodesh.) What could the positive aspect be of the pulling out or removing of one’s bones? Because of this difficulty, some scholars see this verse as evidence of a “strength” meaning in the root Ch-L-Tz; they think the meaning here is “he will strengthen your bones.”

But Mosad Harav Kook’s Daat Mikra commentary to Isaiah, in a footnote, suggests an alternative approach to verse 58:11.The meaning can be that one’s bones will be made loose/released. This is a blessing. A symptom of bad health is bones being stuck to one’s flesh or stuck together. See, for example, Tehillim 102:6 and Job 19:20. This happens, for example, to one who is starved due to a famine.

There is also an article, authored by the scholar Hayim Tawil with his son Arye Tawil, that interprets verse 58:11 like the Daat Mikra footnote and suggests that the verse was an allusion by Isaiah to the practice of chiropractry! (Arye Tawil is a chiropractor. Perhaps the unstated purpose of the Tawils’ article was to remind people monthly, during Birkat Hachodesh, that they should visit their chiropractor!) Based on the Daat Mikra footnote and the Tawils’ article, we can conclude that the root Ch-L-Tz does not mean “strengthen” at Is. 58:11 or anywhere in Tanach.

(Note that the meaning of yachalitz at Isaiah 58:11 is also discussed in the Talmud, at Yevamot 102b. The Talmud gives the interpretation: zaruzei of the bones, which means “quickening the bones.” Presumably, the author of the Birkat Hachodesh prayer understood the verse like the Talmud. But exactly what the Talmud meant remains unclear.)

Let us now return to our original question: the meaning of hachalitzeinu in the Birkat Hamazon of Shabbat. (All can agree that the “ha” at the beginning means “cause us to.”) R. Baruch Epstein, author of the Torah Temimah, takes the position that hachalitzeinu means “cause us to be strong,” so that we can keep the commandments. See his work, Baruch She’amar, p. 212. He bases his view on the supposed “strength” meaning at Is. 58:11. Alternatively, Vayikra Rabbah 34:15 takes the position that hachalitzeinu in the Birkat Hamazon of Shabbat means “cause us to rest” (from the root: nun, vav, chet). But this source is a puzzling one. Its evidence for the “cause us to rest” meaning seems to be only that hachalitzeinu is recited on Shabbat. Moreover, from Mishnah Eruvin 3:9 we see that hachalitzeinu was seen as a request that could be made on Rosh Hashanah and Rosh Chodesh. This implies that there is no connection between hachalitzeinu and the root nun, vav, chet; the latter is not a main theme of Rosh Hashanah or Rosh Chodesh.

Thus, most likely, the hachalitzeinu that we recite in the Birkat Hamazon of Shabbat (and that was included in Mishnah Eruvin 3:9 in the Rosh Hashanah and Rosh Chodesh contexts) means something like “cause us to be released [from our troubles].” Supporting this is the later phrase in the same paragraph: shelo tehei tzara veyagon va’anacha b’yom menuchateinu.

The ArtScroll Siddur (p. 189) makes the poor choice of translating hachalitzeinu as “give us rest,” following the strange interpretation found at Vayikra Rabbah 34:15. But in the notes, the commentary points out that hachalitzeinu has multiple connotations and gives examples such as “save us [from troubles that have engulfed us].” Fortunately, the ArtScroll commentary to Psalms 60:7 (yeichaltzun) mentions the hachalitzeinu of the Birkat Hamazon of Shabbat and translates it as “release us” from our weekday worries, just like I am advocating.

What remains to be explained is the noun chalatzayim which appears 10 times in Tanach (in various forms) with the meaning “loins.” The explanation may be that the loins were viewed as the source of the power to produce offspring. See, for example, Gen. 35:11: u-melachim me-chalatzecha yetzei’u. (See similarly 1 Kings 8:19 and 2 Chr. 6:9.) Thus, the loins were viewed as the area in the body where the male seed was stored and then “sent out.” (See the commentary of S. D. Luzzatto to Gen. 35:11.) Alternatively, perhaps the body part chalatzayim initially acquired its name in connection with the body of women, and this is the area from where the newborn is released. Finally, in Aramaic, the word for loins has the root Ch-R-Tz. Therefore, it is at least possible that Ch-R-Tz, and not Ch-L-Tz, was the original word for “loins” in the Semitic languages.

By Mitchell First

 Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at [email protected]. His most recent book is “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy.” He has not yet started a monthly chiropractic regimen.

 

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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