What's in a Word?

For the week ending 24 February 2024 / 15 Adar Alef 5784

Titzaveh: Wet Words

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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In this essay, we discuss six different words that mean “wet” in Hebrew: lach, ratuv, ra’anan, rutfash, tofeach, and mefulam. While on the surface, all of these words seem to mean the same thing — which would make them synonyms — we will delve into how these words were used and consider how each of these words has its own unique implications. Along the way, we will encounter some interesting etymological insights which will help us better appreciate the nuances expressed by these discrete terms.

The first term which we will discuss is lach, which refers to something wet as being “moist/liquidy.” It appears three time in the Torah, and four times in the rest of the Bible. This term is first used when relating that Jacob would take the branches of a Libnah tree while they were still “wet” (lach), and peel white strips from them to place before his animals, so that they will give birth to offspring with white spots (Gen. 30:37). In a different context, the Bible (Num. 6:3) forbids a Nazirite from eating grapes, whether they are “wet” (lachim) or “dry.” Finally, when describing Moses’ vigor on the day he died (at the ripe age of 120), the Bible says “his eye had not weakened and his wetness [leicho] had not fled” (Deut. 34:7). The term lach is also used elsewhere in the Bible to refer to flora that had not dried up, but rather retained its moisture/wetness (Jud. 16:8-7, Ezek. 17:24, 21:3, 30:37). The word lach also appears numerous times in the Mishnah (Demai 2:3, Nedarim 7:1, Eduyot 5:4, Menachot 9:2, Bechorot 6:3, Mikvaot 9:2, Niddah 4:3, 7:2).

The etymology of lach is a great case study for the differences between the various opinions about how Hebrew roots work. Menachem Ibn Saruk (920–970), the consummate biliteralist, writes in Machberet Menachem that the root of lach is the biliteral root LAMMED-CHET. This makes sense because the word lach itself is a two-letter word. However, the triliteralists are at a loss as to the etymological root of lach, with Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach (990–1050) in his Sefer HaShorashim writing that its root is either LAMMED-VAV-CHET or LAMMED-YOD-CHET, while Rabbi David Kimchi (1160–1235) in his Sefer HaShorashim more definitively writes that its root is LAMMED-VAV-CHET (as does Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Parchon in Machberet He’Aruch).

Fascinatingly, Rabbi Moshe Tedeschi Ashkenazi (1821–1898) suggests that lach is actually related to the Hebrew word rach (“soft”), via the interchangeability of REISH and LAMMED, as well as the interchangeability of KAF and CHET.

Another Hebrew word for “wet” is ratuv. In this case, all the classical lexicographer agree that its etymological root is the triliteral REISH-TET-BET. Words derived from that root only appear twice in the entire Bible — both in the Book of Job. In one case, it is said about a fertile plant, “it is wet [ratov] before the sun [comes to dry it out]” (Job 8:16). In the other case, it is said about a victim of theft whose clothing was taken away, “from the flow [of water that descends from the] mountains, he will become wet [because he has no clothes]” (Job 24:8), with the word for “he will become wet” being yirtavu. Besides for appearing twice in the Book of Job, ratuv is also the standard word in the Targumim for rendering the Hebrew lach into Aramaic. And, in fact, Rashi (to Job 8:16, 24:8, Sukkah 10b), Ibn Ezra (to Job 8:16), and Radak (Sefer HaShorashim) define ratuv as lach.

In Mishnaic Hebrew, the word ratuv also means “wet” (Tevol Yom 3:6, see also Uktzin 2:2). But the Mishnah more commonly uses a cognate of ratuv used in the form of the word rotev (“juices, fluids, sauce”). This word appears numerous times in the Mishnah (Pesachim 7:2, Nedarim 7:6, Zevachim 3:4, Chullin 7:5, 9:1, Taharot 1:4, Taharot 3:1) and also appears elsewhere in rabbinic literature.

Rashi (to Job 24:8) and Ibn Ezra (to Job 8:16) note that the Targumim typically translate the Hebrew lach into ratuv. This suggests that perhaps the words lach and ratuv are not technically synonymous because lach is a native Hebrew word, while ratuv is borrowed from Aramaic (or another Semitic language).

But Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) takes another approach to differentiating between lach and ratuv. He discusses these two words twice in his work Yeriot shlomo. In one place, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the difference between lach and ratuv lies in the quantity of liquid. Something that is only a bit wet and is certainly not wet enough to make something else that touches it wet is called lach. In this sense, the term lach often refers to something which has begun to get dried out, but is still "a bit wet," like the Libnah branches that Jacob used. Similarly, fresh grapes that had already been harvested that are still moist inside are called "wet" grapes (Num. 6:3), as opposed to raisins which are “dried” grapes.

On the other hand, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that ratuv refers to something which is "very wet" — i.e., it has a quantitatively higher amount of moisture or liquid. Something ratuv is characterized by the fact that one can visibly see the wetness on its surface and it is certainly wet enough to wet things that touch it. As Rabbi Pappenheim explains its, an accumulation of a liquid derivative is called rotev in Rabbinic Hebrew, because it is thematically similar to ratuv which denotes an overwhelming amount wetness that cannot be absorbed, such that it remains on the surface. Interestingly, Rabbi Pappenheim sees rotev as synonymous with the Biblical Hebrew term marak (Jud. 6:19–20), a connection already made by pseudo-Rashi (to Nedarim 52a). As an aside, marak has been re-defined in Modern Hebrew as "soup," which is quite similar to its original meaning.

In a different discussion of the words lach and ratuv, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that there is a qualitative difference in the type of "wetness" denoted by each word. He explains that lach refers to “internal moisture/wetness” like that found in all living creatures and plants, without which the body would just wither and crumple away. On the other hand, ratuv refers not to the inner moisture essential to keeping living things alive, but to an external moisture that comes from the outside and can be seen on something's surface.

In the context of this discussion, Rabbi Pappenheim elaborates on the biliteral root LAMMED-CHET, which he — like Ibn Saruk — sees as the ultimate root of the word lach. He sees the root’s core as referring to “wetness/moistness,” and explains a whole slew of other Hebrew words as deriving from this root: For example, one’s lechi refers to one’s "cheek" or the side of one's face, which is typified by an especially concentrated collection of inner moisture. Because lechi is conceptually similar to a flat board, it became the etymon of the Hebrew word luach, which refers precisely to such a thing. In Rabbinic Hebrew, the term lechi also refers to a vertical structure used in the make-up of an eruv. [Lechi also refers to the Zionist paramilitary organization that broke off from the Irgun in 1940 because its members wanted to continue to fight the British occupation of the Holy Land during World War II. The more moderate Irgun instead preferred diplomacy. However, the name of that group has nothing to do with the Hebrew word lechi, but is rather formed from the acronym of its full Hebrew name lochamei cheirut Yisrael (“fighters for the freedom of Israel”).]

Other words that Rabbi Pappenheim list as derivatives of LAMMED-CHET include lechem ("bread" or "meat," which sustains and rejuvenates a person's inner moisture) and melach ("salt," which has the ability to draw out the liquid from within something, as used to extract blood when salting meat).

The sorts of differences that Rabbi Pappenheim touches on in trying to define what is called lach orratuv can have practical Halachic ramifications. For example, it is relevant in terms of what fabrics are considered to have been so saturated with liquid such that squeezing them even lightly on Shabbat constitutes a violation of sechita (“squeezing”); or, what wet foodstuffs are considered to have the Halachic status of liquids, such that heating them up on Shabbat could constitutes a violation of bishul (“cooking”) even if they had once been cooked already.

Another Biblical Hebrew term for “wetness/freshness” is ra’anan. Permutations of this word appears twenty times in the Bible, although it only appears once in the Pentateuch (Deut. 12:2). Ibn Ezra (to Deut. 12:2) notes that ra’anan means the same thing as ratuv. Although the Targumim do not generally translate ra’anan as ratuv, in at least one place, they do (Ps. 92:15, see also 92:11). In terms of etymology, since ra’anan is always spelled with a double NUN ending, Radak traces ra’anan to the triliteral REISH-AYIN-NUN, while Ibn Saruk actually traces it to the quadriliteral REISH-AYIN-NUN-NUN.

Rabbi Avraham Bedersi (13th century) in Chotam Tochnit (the first lexicon of Hebrew synonyms) defines the term ratuv as referring to “moisture/wetness that comes from external water.” In doing so, he differentiates between ratuv andits ostensible synonym ra’anan, by explaining the latter as referring to internal, moist freshness retained to allow something to continue growing (as opposed to something dry and withered).

Interestingly, Rabbi Tedeschi parses the word raanan as a portmanteau of re’iah (“friend”) and anan (“cloud”) to denote a plant that is still “moist,” and thus continues to grow until it becomes so tall that is like “a friend of the clouds.”

Another word for “wet” in the Hebrew Bible is the four-letter word rutfash. It only appears once in the entire Bible — in the Book of Job (just like ratuv only appears in that book) — thus making it a hapax legomenon. Job’s interlocutor Elihu illustrates how doing a little bit of good can help a person, by stating that when an ill person’s good deeds intercede on his behalf, they can lead Hashem to heal him such that “his flesh will be revivified [rutfash] more than in adolescence, and he will return to his days of vigor” (Job 33:25).

On the surface, the root of rutfash (defined as “rejuvenation/re-moisturization”) seems to be the four-letter root REISH-TET-PEH-SHIN, but four-letter roots are rare in Biblical Hebrew and more often occur in foreign loanwords. Instead, the commentators offer various approaches to etymologically relate the word rutfash to a word with which we are already familiar, ratuv.

  • Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 25:6) sees the SHIN at the end of rutfash as an extraneous paragogic letter, thus tracing it to the root REISH-TET-PEH, which he sees as equal to ratuv’s root REISH-TET-BET (via the interchangeability of PEH and BET).
  • Others explain rutfash as a portmanteau of ratuv and pash (“expansion”). Commentators who implicitly or explicitly follow this approach include Rabbi Yosef Kara, Rabbi Yosef Kimchi, Sforno, Metzudat Zion (to Job 33:25), Radak (to Ps. 103:5) and pseudo-Rashi (to Nedarim 41a).
  • Malbim (to Job 33:25) also offers a similar explanation, seeing rutfash as a portmanteau of ratuv and tafash (“smeared”).
  • Rabbi Yosef Kimchi (to Job 33:25) and Radak (Sefer HaShorashim) understand rutfash as a cognate of ratuv, explaining that the first two letters of rutfash are the same as the first two letters of ratuv, while the last two letters of rutfash equal the last two letters of ratuv in the at-bash cipher (which interchanges letters at the beginning of the Hebrew Alphabet with letters at the end, such that ALEPH becomes TAV, BET becomes SHIN, etc…).

Another term that means “wet” that is used exclusively in Rabbinic Hebrew, but not in Biblical Hebrew, is tofeach. This word appears numerous times in the Mishnah (Eduyot 4:6, Keilim 8:3-4, 10:8, Taharot 1:9, 3:1, 8:8-9, Machshirin 3:5). Some readers might be familiar with the rabbinic expression tofeach al m'nat lehat'fiach (Brachot 25b, Yoma 78a), which refers to something that is so “wet” that it can make other things wet. The interesting thing about this particular word is that its three-letter root TET-PEH-CHET has a totally different meaning in Biblical Hebrew, as the etymon of the word tefach (“cubit”) and words related to measuring length and elongation. This meaning also carries over in Rabbinic Hebrew, but it is unclear how it jibes with the “wet” meaning of this root. Perhaps we may argue that because the physical dimensions of an item that has become dripping wet expand, the word for “wet” is related to the word for measuring or causing an increase in such physical dimensions.

Another adjective for “wet” is mefulam. Although mefulam appears three times in the Babylonian Talmud, there are no known words derived from its ostensible root PEH-LAMMED-MEM in Biblical Hebrew or Mishnaic Hebrew (with one possible exception in the Mishnah, see below).

Where is mefulam used? Firstly, the Talmud (Beitzah 24b) records a teaching that states that a Jew may accept from a gentile on Yom Tov a gift of fish that are mefulamot. Rashi explains that mefulamot means that the fish are “wet,” with the assumption that this would imply that the non-Jew caught those fish on Yom Tov. Secondly, the Talmud (Chagigah 12a) explains that when the Bible reports that before Hashem created the world, there was tohu and bohu, the word bohu refers to stones that are mefulamot which were embedded in the depths and from which water flowed. Rashi explains that the adjective mefulamot means that these stones were “wet.” Thirdly, in order to avoid using stones that were cut (which are disqualified from use in the altar), the Talmud (Zevachim 54a) states that stones that are mefulamot ought to be used. Rashi again explains that this refers to “wet” stones that were quarried from the deep sea, such that there is no reason to think that human hands had ever cut them (see Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky’s Derech Chochmah to Maimonides’ Laws of Beit HaBechirah 1:92).

Contra Rashi, Rabbi Nosson of Rome (1035–1106) in Sefer HeAruch defines the word mefulam as meaning “hearty/plump/fat.”

Either way, the question remains as to the etymology of this Rabbinic Hebrew word. Dr. Marcus Jastrow (1829–1903) sees this word as a cognate of the Arabic word tafailam, whose meaning is comparable with Sefer HeAruch’s definition of mefulam. In his work HeAruch HaShaleim, Dr. Alexander Kohut (1842–1894) suggests that the triliteral root PEH-LAMMED-MEM is either derived from the Persian word for "clump of dirt," or is denominated from the Greek word piloma/píloga/pílós ("clay/mud/pile") and treated as though it were a Hebrew term. In fact, the Greek word piloma actually appears in some versions of the Mishnah (Shabbat 22:6) — like those in the Kaufmann MS and in the Alfasi — in the sense of a “muddy river” into which it forbidden to emerge on Shabbos.

How does all of this this work with Rashi’s understanding that mefulam means “wet”? I think that Rashi might have understood this word along the lines of how we explained tofeach. In other words, mefulam refers to something that has become so saturated with liquid (i.e., extremely wet) that it becomes bloated, distended, and plump.

Interestingly, Gersonides (to Gen. 1:2) explains the word mefulamot (whenused to define bohu) as a cognate of the word palmoni (Dan. 8:13). As he explains it, palmoni is, in turn, derived from ploni and almoni, both of which are terms related to the anonymous and unknown. In his reading of the Talmud, bohu thus refers to “mysterious stones.” [Gersonides’ understanding is also cited by Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1520–1572) in Mechir Yayin (to Est. 2:1) and Toras HaOlah (3:73). See also Ben Yehoyada (to Chagigah 12a).]

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