June 8, 2024
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What Is the Meaning of ‘Miklat’ in the Phrase ‘Arei Miklat’?

We all know the term “arei miklat.” The word “miklat” in various forms (miklat, ha-miklat, le-miklat, and miklato) appears 20 times in the Tanach, always in the context of the “arei miklat.” The root of course is kof-lamed-tet. But K-L-T never appears as verb. What does K-L-T mean? The typical English translation of “arei miklat” today is cities of “refuge.” But is this translation the most accurate one? Perhaps they should be translated as cities of “gathering”? (Or the closely related concepts of “collecting,” “receiving” and “accepting?”)

There are really two distinct ideas here. One is the idea of “refuge/asylum/rescue.” The other is the idea of “gathering/collecting/receiving/accepting.”

Joshua 21:13 and several other verses include the phrase “ir miklat ha-rotzeach.” This phrase seems to support a “gathering-collecting-receiving-accepting” meaning. Would not a “refuge” meaning require “la-rotzeach”?

Do we have any other clues?

A word with the letters kof-lamed-tet does appear in a context of blemished sacrifices. At Lev. 22:23 we are told that a “shor” or “seh” that is “sarua” (sin-resh-vav-ayin) or “kalut” cannot be brought as a vow offering.

Ibn Ezra makes an interesting observation here. He thinks that the two words must reflect opposite blemishes. (One does not have to learn this way.) Regarding “sarua,” this root only appears three times in Tanach, but its meaning is easily seen from Isa. 28:20. It means “stretch.” The verse talks about a bed that is too short for a person to “histarea,” stretch himself. So the “sarua” blemish in the sacrifice would seem to be that the animal has an overgrown limb. According to Ibn Ezra’s logic, “kalut” would have to be the opposite of this. Ibn Ezra does not explain what the opposite is but he does cite the phrase “ir miklat.” Although Ibn Ezra’s comment here is unclear, I have seen it interpreted as the limb is too short, as if it was gathered into itself. If so, Ibn Ezra seems to interpret the city as a “gathering city.”

Of course, there is no proof that the K-L-T of Lev. 22:23 has the same meaning as the K-L-T in the context of the “arei miklat,”and no proof that the two blemishes in Lev. 22:23 are opposite ones.

The root K-L-T has been used in modern Hebrew in many contexts (e.g., video cassettes, records, floppy disks, and compact disks). Also, for those (unfortunately) ubiquitous “shelters.” But we have to realize not to transport the meanings from modern Hebrew into the Biblical meaning.

What about the references to K-L-T found in early rabbinic literature such as the Mishnah? This is the Hebrew of several hundred years after the Tanach. In general, there is an issue of how useful this is to understanding Biblical Hebrew. Think how much English has evolved over several centuries.

What happens if we look in the Mishnah? Here, aside from the “refuge” meaning and the “gathering” meaning, a new meaning of the root K-L-T is found. It has a meaning of “closed.” I.e., a kosher animal has hooves that are split. But the opposite of this are hooves that are “kalut.” (This is how Rashi understands the verse at Lev. 22:23.) Accordingly, based on early Rabbinic Hebrew, one could suggest that an “ir miklat” be translated as a “closed” city. But this meaning does not fit with Josh. 21:13 and other Biblical verses.

After reviewing all the Biblical verses on “arei miklat,” I note that both Numbers 35:12 and Joshua 20:3 use the phrase “le-miklat mi-goel ha-dam” (=from the goel ha-dam). This points to the “refuge” meaning. But as I mentioned earlier, Josh. 21:13 and several other verses include the phrase “ir miklat ha-rotzeach,” which supports a “gathering-collecting-receiving-accepting” meaning.

The conclusion must be that one of these fundamentally different meanings was the original meaning, and the other developed later. But it is hard to pick which was original.

How does the scholarly world deal with the root K-L-T? The older work Brown-Driver-Briggs has two entries for the root. The first entry defines the root as “take up, in, harbor.” Within this entry, they have an entry for MKLT, which they define as “refuge, asylum.” The second entry, the one covering Lev. 22:23, uses the word “stunted” and suggests (with a question mark) a relation to the first meaning, “be drawn in.”

The more modern scholarly work, Koehler-Baumgartner, also has two different entries for the root K-L-T. One entry is for the word at Lev. 22:23, where they write that the meaning is uncertain and suggest a few possibilities. They do not suggest any connection to “arei miklat” here. They have a second entry for the root in the context of “arei miklat.” Here they define the root as “to take in, accept, esp. into a MKLT refuge.” They also have a separate entry, in the mem section, for “miklat,” which they define as “refuge, asylum.” So they seem torn between the “take in, accept” meaning and the “refuge” meaning.

P.S. I looked for an essay on the root K-L-T in The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. But there was none. As I have mentioned previously, this work only has essays on “theological” words. The root K-L-T was not deemed “theological” enough! (The essays in this work are useful because they discuss all the Semitic languages. Perhaps those would provide helpful clues to the original meaning here. But I suspect that there is little use in these other languages because the Koehler-Baumgartner work, which looks at other languages, cannot point to the original meaning here.)


Last week I wrote about words for “stick” such as “makel.” In response I received an email from Abby Leichman, formerly of Teaneck, now living in Maaleh Adumim. She wrote that my article reminded her of the first time she saw “makalonei pasta” in a supermarket in Israel. She was sure that “makalonei” was a poor transliteration of “macaroni.” But then someone explained to her that it meant “sticks of pasta” (=from “makel”)!

By Mitchell First

As a Jewish history scholar, Mitchell First gathers up his etymological books and takes refuge in them. While eating his “makalonei pasta” he can be reached at [email protected].

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

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