What's in a Word?

For the week ending 1 June 2024 / 24 Iyar 5784

Bechukosai: All About Money

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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Even though back in ancient times, they may not have had all the complex financial instruments that we use nowadays, people were certainly well-aware of the concept of “money,” and its use as legal tender. In this essay, we look at several terms in Mishnaic Hebrew that refer to the idea of “money,” and try to differentiate between these apparent synonyms. Those words include mammon, damim, maot, zuzim, and more. In doing so, we will touch on issues of etymology, history, and much more.

We begin the discussion with the word mammon. This word does not appear even once in the Bible, but already appears with much frequency in the Mishnah. For example, the Mishnah (Brachot 9:5) interprets Deut. 6:5 as saying that one ought to love Hashem “with all of your money [mammon].” Similarly, mammon appears when giving a possible reason as to why somebody would be kidnapped (Ketubot 2:9), and when relating the Halachic rule of doble jeopardy whereby a person liable for the death penalty is exempt from "monetary" payment (Ketubot 3:2). In one particularly fascinating passage in the Mishnah (Bava Batra 10:8), Rabbi Yishmael states that one who wishes to become wise should engage in the laws of mammonot ("monetary/financial law").

Besides appearing in the Mishnah, the word mammon also appears in the Targumim (that is, the Aramaic translations of the Bible). To that end, Rabbi Natan of Rome in Sefer HeAruch and Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (in Sefer Tishbi and Meturgaman) write that the Biblical Hebrew words hon (“wealth”) and rechush (“property”) are typically translated by Targum into Aramaic as mammon. [From more about the word rechush and its counterpart nechasim, see my earlier essay “Prime Property” (Nov. 2022).]

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah §22:8) expounds on the word mammon as an allusion to the phrase mah atah moneh — eino kelum (“what are you counting? It is nothing”). This exegesis partially suggests that the root of the word mammon lies in the Hebrew root MEM-NUN-(HEY), which refers to “counting” (see below). However, Rabbi Ernest Klein in his etymological dictionary of Hebrew (and also in his etymological dictionary of English) writes that the word mammon most probably derives from the word ma’amon (“trust” or “deposit”), which is, in turn, derived from the triliteral root ALEPH-MEM-NUN (“true/trustworthy”), with the initial MEM being radical to the core root.

The word mammon also appears in the Christian Bible as the personification/deification of the greedy pursuit of money/wealth. The way Rabbi Yitzchok Schmelkes of Lvov (1827–1905) explains it in responsa Beis Yitzchak (Yoreh Deah vol. 1 §152), Mammon was originally the name of the pagan god of silver/money, but then eventually came to be a regular word for “money.”

On a more esoteric plane, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (known as the Chida) points out that the name of each letter in the word mammon (MEM, VAV, NUN) is spelled by doubling that letter. This alludes to the fact that “those who love money are never satisfied with money” (Ecc. 5:9), so when they have one MEM they want another MEM, and when they have one VAV, they want another VAV, and so forth. (For a similar explanation, see Hafla’ah to Ketubot 66b).

It is generally understood that the Hebrew term damim in the sense of “money” does not occur in Biblical Hebrew, but is nonetheless a mainstay of Rabbinic Hebrew. In other words, even if this usage of damim does not occur in the Bible, it certainly occurs in the Mishnah. To that end, we find the plural form damim in the Mishnah in multiple places (Maaser Sheini 1:5, Pesachim 7:3, Kiddushin 1:6, Bava Metzia 5:3, Bava Batra 2:7, Arachin 5:2, Temurah 5:5), plus we encounter the construct form dmei in even more cases (Terumot 5:1, 6:3–4, 9:2–3, Maaser Sheini 1:4, 2:1, Pesachim 9:8, Ketubot 12:1–2, Nazir 4:4, Bava Kamma 5:4, 8:1–2, 9:1, 9:4, 10:4, Bava Metzia 3:5, 3:12, Zevachim 8:1–2, Bechorot 5:6, Arachin 5:2–3, Meilah 3:2, Kinnim 1:4). Interestingly, HaBachur (in Sefer Tishbi and Meturgaman) points out that the word damim in the sense of “money” always appears in plural form and never as the singular dam. As such it, it sometimes makes this difficult for a novice to differentiate between damim/dmei (“money”) and its homonym damim/dmei (“blood”), which appears both in the Bible and the Mishnah.

HaBachur also points out that damim appears in the Targumim as the standard Aramaic translation for the Biblical Hebrew word mechir, usually translated as “price” (for examples, see II Sam. 24:24 and Isa. 45:13) and mecher (“sale [price]” in Num. 20:19). Interestingly, in one particular verse, the words kesef (literally “silver,” but also more generically as “money”) and mechir appear in tandem (Isa. 55:1), with Targum Jonathan (there) translating kesef as damim and mechir as mammon.

In offering translations of damim into the European vernaculars, HaBachur writes in Sefer Tishbi that this Rabbinic Hebrew term means gelt (in Yiddish/German) and dinero (in Spanish). By the way, the word dinero is derived from the name of the Spanish Dinero, which was a Medieval currency used in Spain that was modelled after two earlier coins — the Arabic Dinar and the Roman Denarius. As my learned readers probably already know, dinarim are also mentioned by the rabbis many times in the Mishnah.

Although I wrote earlier that it is generally understood that damim is not used in the sense of “money” in the Bible, there are two possible examples of precisely such usage: The Torah states that if a homeowner finds a robber in an underground tunnel and kills him, "he has no damim" (Ex. 22:1). Rashi understands that damim in this context literally means "blood," as in this case since the homeowner was standing his own ground and defending himself from a potentially deadly robbery, he is not considered to have spilled the robber's blood like an ordinary murderer. On the other hand, Rashi's grandson Rashbam (there) sees the word damim in this case as referring to "money," explaining that the Torah means that the homeowner is exempt from paying any monetary compensation to the estate of the robber whom he killed. A similar dispute amongst Medieval exegetes comes up with the word dam in Ps. 72:14, which Ibn Ezra explain as “blood,” while Ibn Janach and Radak (in their respective Sefer HaShorashim) interpret as “[monetary] worth/value.”

Rabbi Ernest Klein in his etymological dictionary of Hebrew writes that damim in the sense of “money” probably derives from the Biblical Hebrew root DALET-MEM-(HEY), which refers to the state of “being like/equal” to something else. In elaborating on that particular root, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim explains that its core meaning refers to the concept of “similarity/resemblance.” Other words he explains as derived from this root include domeh (“resembles”), demut (“likeness”), and dimyon (“imagination,” which may be similar to reality, but does not truly reflect it). Moreover, he explains that man is called adam since man was created “in the image of Hashem” (Gen. 1:27) in the sense that he resembles Hashem in some ways. Additionally, Rabbi Pappenheim writes that “similarity” implies “incongruency” because if two things are said to be only similar, then this precludes them from being exactly equal. Because of this, he relates the word dom/domem (“quiet/inactive”) to this root, as stopping activity creates an “incongruency” between the goings-on that continue to be active in one’s mind and one’s outer activity which one has paused. Taking this a step further, Rabbi Pappenheim writes that adamah (“ground”) also derives from this root because it is a space where plants are active and grow, while the adamah itself remains passive and sedentary. Although Rabbi Pappenheim does not explicitly link any of this to the term damim as in “money” (because his work focuses exclusively on Biblical Hebrew, and not Rabbinic Hebrew), we can easily understand how “money” likewise resembles commodities as its monetary value can stand in for the commodity itself.

Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Ehrenreich offers another way of understanding the term damim, seeing it as related to the Biblical Hebrew dom (“silent/quiet”) in one of two ways: Firstly, he explains that when a person commits a sin, one has “acquired” a prosecting angel which will argue against oneself in the Heavenly Court (Avot 4:11). One of the ways of atoning for sin and “quieting” the accusation of a prosecutor angel is by sacrificing one’s own money (damim) by giving to the poor and/or to Torah Scholars. Secondly, he explains that its well-known that conspicuous opulence on the part of Jews is one of the factors that leads to anti-Semitism, as when the nations of the world see Jewish wealth, they seethe in jealousy. For this reason, it is most advisable for a Jew to keep his wealth hidden and be “silent” about it, rather than to flaunt it for the world to see. [For more about the Hebrew words for “silence” see “To Remain Silent” (March 2020).]

Other commentators explain the word damim in the sense of “money” as related to its homonym damim in the sense of “blood.” In that spirit, Rabbi Chaim of Friedberg (a brother of the Maharal) in Iggeret HaTiyul writes that “money” is called damim — which also means “blood” — because a person “lives off” of their money. Indeed, the Talmud states (Nedarim 64b) that a pauper is tantamount to a dead person. Similarly, Rabbi Yaakov Emden in Ezer Ohr (glosses to Sefer Tishbi) explains that the word for "money" is related to the word for "blood" because just as a person's physical life depends on his blood, so does a person's livelihood depend on his finances. Indeed, the rabbis alluded to such a connection when they said (Bava Kamma 119a) one who illegal takes even a perutah from another person is as if he has taken his soul. [Rabbi Azaria Figo finds it incredulous to believe that the rabbis used the word damim to refer to “money” simply because the ignorant masses see “money” as important as one’s actual blood, see his Binah L’Itim (drush #69).]

Rabbi Chaim of Friedberg adds a moralistic teaching that argues that just as if one’s blood becomes partially infected or otherwise corrupt, it ruins a person’s entire body, so too if a person accrued some money illicitly, this will not only cause that money to disappear from his wealth, but will actually bring his total financial ruin. He additionally writes that just as sometimes a person needs to lose some blood for their overall health (in earlier times this referred to bloodletting, although nowadays we can understand this as undergoing a blood test), so does one need to let go of some of his money by giving charity and alms for the sake of one’s overall fiscal success.

If mammon means “money” and damim also means “money,” that makes the two words synonymous. Nevertheless, as we will see, several writers have already explained how these two terms actually differ from one another.

Rabbi Eliezer Herstik wrote in Ragli Mevaser (his glosses to Sefer HaTishbi) that damim denotes the value or price of something, while mammon refers in a more general way to any property or money that may comprise one's assets.

Along these lines, Rabbi Yosef Teomim-Frankel (1727–1792), author of the Pri Megadim, writes in one of his letters that mammon refers to “cash” or mobilia (whose value is already known,) while damim refers to moveable property whose value is unknown and therefore must be evaluated in order to be used as currency.

Alternatively, Rabbi Teomim-Frankel argues that the word damim must be Hebrew (explicitly pointing to Rashbam’s aforementioned comment that explained damim in Ex. 22:1 as referring to “money”), while its semantic counterpart mammon is Aramaic. Building on this, he relates the word damim to the Hebrew term dimyon/demot, which refers to something which only appears to resemble something else. This ostensibly refers fits with his understanding of damim as property whose value must be evaluated, as in the meantime it only “appears” or “resembles” capital, but cannot yet be actualized as such until a estimation has been carried out.

In a similar way, Rabbi Shimon Yehuda Leib Goldblit in Leshon Chachamim writes that damim relates to the word dimyon ("imagination"), as a person “imagines” that the value of money equals that of all possible commodities. This reflects the popular conception that "money answers everything" (Ecc. 10:19).

Another generic term for “money” used in Rabbinic Hebrew is maot. For example, think of the phrase maot chitim (literally, “money of wheat”), the name of the traditional alms given to the poor before Passover. This word for money is the plural form of the coin maah, which is the equivalent to the Biblical geirah (see Targum to Ex. 30:13), and was then borrowed as a general term for “money.”

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah §22:8) expounds on the term maot as a portmanteau comprised of mah (“what”) and l’eit (“for a time”), alluding to the ephemeral nature of material wealth as something that could easily pass with time. A student of Ritva (cited by Midrash Shmuel to Avot 2:8) cites this Midrash slightly differently, as saying that maot is related to the word ivut ("crookedness"), as money can cause man to become “corrupt” and ultimately be purged from This World before his time. The Tosafists (Da’at Zekanim to Num. 32:1) cite yet another version of this Midrash, which states that money (or at least the avaricious pursuit of it) causes justice to become “corrupt/perverted.”

Another general term for “money” in rabbinic parlance is zuz, which originally referred to a specific coin, but then expanded to refer to “money” in general. The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah §22:8) explains that zuzim are called so because — as liquid assets — they can "move" (zaz) from their owner's hand to somebody else’s very quickly.

A similar thing probably happened to the word kesef, which originally referred to the metal that we call “silver,” but then actually became another word for “money.” I used to think that the word gold in German/English was related to the German/Yiddish word gelt (via Grimm’s Law about the interchangeability of the d and t sounds) in a way that parallels how “silver” in Hebrew became a general word for “money.” However, upon further research, it seems that the consensus amongst linguists trace gold to the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root ghelh (which is the more direct ancestor of the English word yellow and the German/Yiddish word gelb), while they trace gelt to the PIE root gheldh ("to pay/award," an ancestor of the English word yield).

Before we conclude, I want to discuss the etymology of the English word money. Again, when I was younger, I used to think that this word somehow derived from the Mishnaic Hebrew term mammon. However, aa cursory look at the Oxford English Dictionary reveals that the English words money and mint both derive from the Latin moneta. Moneta, in turn, was the name of a Roman goddess in whose temple money was coined in classical times. It is also often stated that Moneta was actually just an epitaph for the Roman goddess Juno.

But my original connection between money and mammon might not be that far off: One of the currencies mentioned often mentioned in the Mishnah is the maneh (“mina”), which is a coin valued at 100 zuz. The word maneh ostensibly derives from the same Hebrew root as the words moneh (“counting/appointing”), manah (“portion/lot”), minyan (“number/quorum”), and — as I wrote earlier — mammon. They also seem related to the name of the idolatrous deity Meni (Isa. 65:11), who was said to “allot” to man his destiny. Professor Theo Vennemann Nierfeld actually proposes that the Latin term moneta is a cognate of the name of the god Meni, which means that the English words money and mint do have a Hebrew (or at least a Canaanite/Phoenician/Punic) origin. [For more about the pagan deity Meni, see my book God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry(Mosaica Press, 2018).]

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