Shelach: Learning the Ropes
Before the Jewish People entered the Holy Land under the leadership of Joshua, Joshua sent two spies to scout out the city of Jericho and find out more information. Those spies lodged at the house of a woman named Rahab, who then proceeded to protect them when the King of Jericho found out about their presence and sought to kill them. After the two spied escaped through Rahab’s window and descended to the ground on a rope (chevel), they promised Rahab that if she ties a red string (tikvah or chut) to her window, then when the Jews conquer Jericho, they will spare her and her family (Josh. 2:1–22). In this passage, three different words are used for “rope/string”: chevel, tikvah, and chut. This essay attempts to trace the etymology those and other words for “rope/string,” seeking to clarify whether all of these words are truly synonyms; and if not, how exactly they relate to one another.
The Hebrew word chut refers to a single “thread/string” from which a larger fabric may be weaved or sown. It appears only once in the Pentateuch, when Abraham swore to the King of Sodom that he will not even take “from a chut to a shoe string” (Gen. 14:23) from the spoils of war. But it also appears another six times in the Bible. For example, in the allegorical love story of Song of Songs, one partner said that his lover’s lips “are like a crimson red chut” (Song 4:3), and when Samson was tied down by avot (which are especially thick ropes, see below), he easily released those bonds from upon his arms “like a chut” (Jud. 16:12). Another famous verse about a chut states: “the three-pronged chut will not be quickly undone” (Prov. 4:12), which the rabbis interpret as referring to a three-generation family of Torah Scholars, for whom Torah Study will become thoroughly engrained (Bava Batra 59a).
Although Ibn Janach (990–1050) and Radak (1160–1234) in their respective Sefer HaShorashim trace the word chut to the triliteral root CHET-VAV-TET, Menachem Ibn Saruk (920–970) in his Machberet Menachem sees the middle VAV as extraneous to the core root, thus tracing the term to the biliteral root CHET-TET.
Expanding on Menachem’s etymology, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) explains the core meaning of CHET-TET as "blemish/deficiency" — both in a physical and spiritual sense. Accordingly, he explains that the word chet ("sin") refers to a spiritual blemish or deficiency, but when King David's wife Batsheba said that if her son Solomon does not ascend the throne after King David's death, then "I and my son Solomon will be chataim" (I Kgs. 1:21), this means that they will be deficient and lacking something that should really belong to them. Taking this a step further, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the intensive verb form of this root l'chateh means "to clean up/to fix a deficiency or blemish" (in Modern Hebrew, it refers to "disinfecting" something). Accordingly, the Korban Chatat (so-called “sin-offering”) is called such because it has the power to “clean up” a person who has sinned. In line with all this, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the word chut also relates to this core meaning, as a “thread” is something used to “fix up” or otherwise “prepare” a broken garment.
There are two words in Mishnaic Hebrew that are etymologically derived from the Biblical Hebrew word chut: chayat ("tailor") refers to an artisan proficient in working with “threads” and appears multiple times in the Mishnah (Shabbat 1:3, Pesachim 4:6, Bava Kamma 10:10, see also Ezra 4:12), and machat (“needle”) refers to the tool used for working with “threads” and also appears in the Mishnah (Orlah 1:4, Shabbat 1:3, 6:1, 6:3, 17:2, Eruvin 10:3, Eduyot 2:3, Keilim 9:1, 9:3, 13:5, Parah 12:2, Taharot 3:5, Mikvot 7:7).
As mentioned above, when Rahab helped the two spies escape by exiting through her window on a rope, the Bible (Josh. 3:15) uses the word chevel to denote that “rope.” Interestingly, Abarbanel argues that the chevel that the spies used to descend the window was the same chut that Rahab tied as a sign — even though the Bible uses two different words.
All the Hebrew lexicographers agree that the word chevel in the sense of “rope/string” derives from the triliteral root CHET-BET-LAMMED. However, if one looks carefully in the Bible, one will notice that there is a whole slew of words derived from that very same root which bear seemingly unrelated meanings: "trick/plot," "lot," "group of people," "pain," "damage/destruction," and "security deposit."
Rabbi Pappenheim argues that the principle meaning of this triliteral root is “rope,” and all the other meanings are actually derived from that. He explains that one of the main uses of a rope is for “measuring,” hence the meaning “trick” which refers to a person who has “measured” his courses of action and deliberately settled on employing a trick to achieve his goals. Similarly, a chevel was typically used to survey and measure a plot of land, hence the term chevel can also mean “lot.” Just as a single chevel (“lot”) only exists within the context of a greater area of land, so does a chevel as “group of people” connote a smaller group within the context of a greater group. In the same vein, just as chevel as “lot” or “group” refers to a localized phenomenon, so does chevel as “pain” refer to a localized pain (like chevlei leidah, “birth-pangs”) and limited “damage/destruction” that connotes something other than overall annihilation. Finally, this triliteral root gives way to a "security deposit," which is one way that a lender might end up partially destroying his borrower's livelihood (e.g., if he takes an essential item as collateral).
Another word that seems closely related to chevel is kevel. We utter an inflection of this word every morning in Pesukei D’Zimra, when we recite theverse, "To detain their kings with fetters, and their honorable ones with ropes [kevel] of iron" (Ps. 149:8). The only other time this word appears in the Bible is Ps. 105:18. I have not seen this stated explicitly, but to me it seems that chevel and kevel are related to each other via the interchangeability of CHET and KAF.
Rabbi Amitai Ben-David notes that in Modern Hebrew, the word kevel/kabel took on a different meaning is used specifically in reference to “electric cables” and/or “cable cars.” Some have argued that the English word cable ultimately derives from the Hebrew words chevel and kevel (by way of French, Portuguese, and Arabic), while others argue that the English cable is more likely derived from the Latin word capulum ("rope/lasso"), which comes from the Latin capere ("to seize/grab") that linguists trace to the proto-Indo-European root kap ("to grasp"). Both of these opinions are cited by Rabbi Ernest David Klein (1899–1983) in his work A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language.
The word chevel leads us to another Hebrew word for “rope.” Targum Jonathan (to Josh. 3:15) renders the word chevel in the story of Rahab as atuna. That Aramaic has a Hebrew counterpart in word eitun — which appears once in the Bible (Prov. 7:16). That word is used in reference to a bed decked with all sorts of decorations, including Egyptian eitun, which Radak explains as referring to “ropes” made from high-equality Egyptian linen. As an aside, Rabbi Pappenheim does not interpret eitun as “rope,” but rather connects the word to the same biliteral root as tene (“wicker basket”), explaining that eitun refers to clothing that was sewn in a way that is has many holes in it, like a wicker basket. [For more about the word tene and how it relates to other Hebrew words for “basket,” see “Basket Case” (Sep. 2022).]
The word eitun, in turn, leads us to another Hebrew word for “rope.” Targum (to Prov. 7:16) renders the word eitun as meitar. Rabbi Pappenehim explains the etymology of meitar as deriving from the biliteral root TAV-REISH, which he sees as referring to “elasticity,” both in terms of stretching a rope/string to create a pressurized situation and its exact opposite, i.e., releasing the pressure of a pressurized situation. In the former sense, the word meitar refers to a string that is used in a pressurized setting, like the ropes used to hold down a tent (Ex. 35:18, 39:40, Num. 3:37, 3:26, 4:26, 4:32, Jer. 10:20, Isa. 54:2) or the strings of a bow (Ps. 21:13). In the later sense, words like mattir (“untie”) and heter/muttar (“permission/allowed”) refer to a release or lack of “pressure” in a situation where one might otherwise have expected its presence.
On the other hand, Rabbi David Chaim Chelouche (1920–2016) writes that the ultimate root of meitar is the biliteral TAV-REISH (“seeing”), and refers to the fact that meitar originally referred to a strong string that was used for a crossbow that was stretched to hold the arrow, such that when an archer “sees” his enemy within range, he releases the string. In a borrowed sense, meitar came to refer to any especially strong string or rope. The famous String Bridge in Jerusalem is called the Gesher HaMeitarim in Hebrew, using this word for “string.”
Another word for “rope” is moseirah. For example, in the Thanksgiving Psalm that tells the story of a person who was captured and incarcerated, it says that the prisoner would pray to Hashem in his time of distress, and Hashem will take him out of his darkness and untie his moseirah (Ps. 107:14). Similar verbiage is used in several other places in the Bible (see Isa. 54:2, Ps. 2:3, 116:16, Jer. 5:5, Job 39:5, Jer. 30:8, Nah. 1:13). Rabbi Pappenheim ties this word to the biliteral root SAMECH-REISH (“removal”), explaining that when one is tied down with moseirah ropes and one’s freedom of movement has been curtailed, that freedom can be said to have been “removed.”
When it comes to the word avot, most lexicographers trace it to the root AYIN-BET (“thick”). Indeed, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that avot relates to the Hebrew word av (“thick”), as it refers specifically to a rope that is “thicker” than usual (because it is made up of more strings or fibers than a regular rope). The Malbim similarly explains how avot relates to some of the other words we have discussed by noting that avot are comprised of three chevel or moseirah strings braided together. He derives from Rashi (to Sukkah 33a) who explains that because the “branch of avot tree” (Lev. 23:40) refers to the myrtle branch (hadas), the branch must have groups of three leaves, thus suggesting that avot implies a merger of at least three.
The word gadil used in connection with tzitzit (Deut. 22:12) also refers to a type of “string.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1880) writes that the word gadil is related to the word gadol (“big/large”) because the gadil was a single string that was comprised of many different fibers such that the string was big and thick.
Another word used in connection with tzitzit is petil, as the Torah commands that one should place a petil made of techeilet on the corner of one’s tzitzit (Num. 15:38). Targum Onkelos (there) translates the word petil as chut, which brings us full circle to the beginning of this essay which started with the word chut. All in all, the word petil appears ten times in the Bible and its close variant patil (which refers to something “closely tied”) appears once (Num. 19:15). A later derivative of this word is petilah (“wick”), which appears several times in the Mishnah (Shabbat 2:1, 2:3-5, Beitzah 4:4, Sanhedrin 7:2, Meilah 6:3, Keilim 3:2), and essentially refers to a “string” used for lighting a candle.
Other words that refer to “string/ropes” that we did not have enough space to discuss include tikvah (“string”) — which the commentators connect with kav (“straight,” “plumb line”), chartzubah (Isa. 58:6, Ps. 73:4), ratok (Ezek. 7:23, I Kgs. 6:21, Isa. 40:19, Ecc. 12:6, Nah. 3:10), kislo (see Ibn Ezra to Job 8:14), seruch (Gen. 14:23, Isa. 5:27), and koshar (Ps. 68:7).