In Biblical Hebrew, most nouns are derived from verbs. So when you see a noun and want to know what it originally meant, the first step is to determine what verb (=root) underlies it.
Let us look at the word “matanah.” When you stare at this word and if you have experience with roots, you realize that there was once an initial “nun” here. We have to analyze this word as if it was “mantanah.” “Mantanah” is constructed around the consonants M-N-T-N-H. The root is obviously N-T-N. (Hebrew often adds an initial M to create the noun.) N-T-N is the verb “to give.” A “mantanah” is something that was given.
But what about our word “minchah?” Here the root should be N-Ch-H. This root means “to lead.” If a “matanah” is an object that is given, then a “minchah” should be an object that was led or that leads. Obviously this does not sound correct.
Years ago I had read S.D. Luzzatto who wrote (comm. to Gen. 4:3) that a “minchah” is something “which an inferior gives to a superior to appease him and set his mind at rest (le-haniach da’ato) if there is a possibility that the inferior has offended him.” (Trans. from D. Klein’s edition.) Luzzatto states that the root is nun-chet.
Luzzatto’s understanding of the philosophy behind the word “minchah” sounded very reasonable. I am merely going to pretend that he wrote that the root was nun-vav-chet. This is the conventional root that people use today when they refer to the Hebrew root for the verb “to rest.”
But there is a problem with Luzzatto’s approach. The traditional vocalization of the plural is “minachot” (as opposed to “minchot”). This points to the root being M-N-Ch.
But there is no root M-N-Ch in Hebrew. There is a root M-N-Ch in Arabic and this root does mean “to give.” But generally our sources for Arabic are much later, i.e., from the time of the Koran and later. We cannot just assume from an Arabic root in post-Talmudic times that there was once a Biblical root in Hebrew of the same form.
Scholars today analyze ancient languages from Biblical times to see if they can find such a root. It is possible that there was such a root with a meaning “to give” in Ugaritic. See The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 8, p. 408.
But it would still be very surprising if there was a root M-N-Ch in Biblical Hebrew and that it never appeared as a verb in Tanach.
Moreover, even if there was a verb/root M-N-Ch at the time of Biblical Hebrew and that it meant “to give,” typically a noun that is derived from this root would have an initial “mem” or “tav” added.
When scholars see a noun and cannot figure out its underlying verb, their “solution” is to call the noun a “primary noun.” Many suggest that this is the explanation of our word “minchah.” (Or perhaps it is a loanword from a non-Semitic language. We do have a similar noun in some of the other Semitic languages, such as Akkadian: “manchati.”)
Let us look at how some of our traditional interpreters have dealt with the word “minchah.”
(Most of the over 200 occurrences of the word in Tanach are in a sacrificial setting. I am not interested in that word “minchah.” That reflects a later development of the word.)
Rashbam writes that the meaning of minchah is “doron” (= gift). (This word derives from the Greek word for gift, as in the name “Theodore,” gift of God.). Rashbam then explains that the root is N-Ch-H but he cites to the N-Ch-H of Ex. 32:34, where the meaning is “lead”! Perhaps he meant that in this verse God tells Moshe to lead the people to the land of Israel, and the land of Israel is a gift. (See Rashbam, Torat Chayyim, comm. to Gen. 4:3 and Lev. 2:1.)
Radak discusses the word in his entry for M-N-Ch. His intuition tells him that the root is N-Ch- H, with the meaning of “nachah.” (He probably means “rest.”) But the plural form “menachot” forces him to conclude that the root is M-N-Ch.
R. Hirsch discusses the root in several places. For example, in his comm. to Lev. 2:1, he first suggests that if the root is N-Ch-H, the meaning is an object that reflects “a recognition of the leadership of the receiver.” But he admits that the plural form points to the root being M-N-Ch. Since there is no such Hebrew root, he is forced to conjecture what such a root might mean. He theorizes that it would be a root that reflects “homage” and “allegiance” to the receiver.
At Gen. 4:3, he opines that a minchah is “a gift given as a sign of the recognition, the allegiance of a subordinate to a superior.” He admits that how to derive this from the actual letters is difficult.
Rav Matityahu Clark, in his work based on the commentaries of R. Hirsch, includes the word in his entry M-N-Ch. (So too do Brown-Driver-Briggs, Mandelkern, and Koehler-Baumgartner.)
Now let us try to draw some conclusions. Luzzatto’s approach that relates “minchah” to the verb N-Vav-Ch (=rest) is intuitively very satisfying. Perhaps the word “minchah” did originate as something that helped put the receiver’s mind at rest. Luzzatto has a response to the grammatical problem raised. Even though the initial root did not include a mem, over time the mem became treated as if it was part of the root. This occurred by the time of the Mishnah. That is why the plural in the Mishnah and thereafter became “menachot.” There are other examples of this. Luzzatto cites the example of the verb T-R-M, to give terumah. The original verb was R-Vav-M (=raised). This generated the noun “terumah.” Then the tav became treated as if it was part of the root and a new verb developed:“li-trom.”
There are about 37 times in Tanach that the term “minchah” is used in settings not connected to sacrifices. It seems that a minchah is given for many different reasons, e.g., respect, thanks, homage and friendship. Although one can perhaps argue any meaning from these many occurrences, Yaakov’s minchah to Esav at Gen. 32:21 (achaprah fanav ba-minchah) and Yaakov’s instruction to his sons to offer a minchah to Yosef when they return for a second visit (Gen. 43:11), seem to particularly support Luzzatto’s approach. A minchah is something that is meant to set the receiver’s mind at rest, especially if there is a possibility that the giver has offended him.
I do not find convincing the approach that “minchah” derived from a verb/root M-N-Ch, with the meaning “give.” It is unlikely that there was a verb/root M-N-Ch with the meaning “give” at the time of Tanach. It never appears in Tanach.
(P.S. Admittedly, this rare situation did occur in connection with the word M-L-A-C, messenger. The root/verb is L-A-C. It means “to send.” It never appeared in Tanach. We only learned about it from the 20th century when Ugaritic came to light.)
Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. His mind is at rest now that he has completed this article.
For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.