What's in a Word?

For the week ending 8 June 2024 / 2 Sivan 5784

Shavuos: Getting Dirty

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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The Talmud (Shabbat 146a, Yevamot 103b, Avodah Zarah 26b) relates that when the Jews stood upon Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, something miraculous and extraordinary happened: All the Jews were cured of the zuhamah that had infected mankind ever since the primordial snake injected Eve with its zuhamah. In general, the word zuhamah refers to “dirtiness,” although in this specific context, it may refer to physical or spiritual deformities and/or the susceptibility to death, both of which temporarily disappeared from the Jewish People at Mount Sinai. This essay discusses the word zuhamah alongside other words for “dirtiness” in Hebrew, like lichluch, elach, go’al, tinuf, and more. In doing so, we explore the various etymologies of these words and their cognates to hone in on their precise connotations and show how they are not quite synonyms.

We begin the discussion with the relatively obscure Biblical Hebrew term elach (Job 15:16, Ps. 14:6, 53:4), which appears thrice in the Bible. The way Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim defines it, that verb refers to becoming “soiled” by something that is not inherently disgusting; rather with that term, the point is more that something of another species/type has been mixed into to an otherwise homogenous concoction. For example, if you mixed grape juice into your milk, the results would be some sort of disgusting liquid that people would not be interested in drinking, simply because it is a strange combination of incompatible types.

The classical lexicographers (like Menachem Ibn Saruk, Yonah Ibn Janach, and Radak) trace this term to the triliteral root ALEPH-LAMMED-CHET. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ps. 14:3) sees that as related to ALEPH-LAMMED-HEY (which begets the word allah, “ curse”), via the interchangeability of HEY and CHET. He explains that the latter root refers to a conflicting dynamic whereby one person wishes ill upon another, which is similar to the sort of dynamic described by elach, whereby the introduction of one element into another creates a similar sort of conflict or incompatibility.

However, Rabbi Pappenheim sees the initial ALEPH as extraneous to the core root, explaining the etymological root of elach as simply the two-letter root LAMMED-CHET, which he defines as “liquid” (like in the phrase davar lach). In the specific case of elach, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that it refers to the presence of an unwanted “liquid” sullying something else. [For more about the word lach and the two-letter root LAMMED-CHET, see “Wet Words” ().]

In light of this, we can better understand the post-Biblical Hebrew term lichluch, which also refers to “dirtiness.” That word does not appear anywhere in the Bible, and only occurs once in the Mishnah, but in the Talmud and later rabbinic writings, it becomes the standard word for “dirtiness.” Dr. Alexander Kohut in HeAruch HaShaleim sees the word lichluch (spelled with a KAF) as synonymous with its near-homonym lichluach (spelled with a CHET). The latter, of course, means “wet/liquid,” and derives from the two-letter Biblical Hebrew root LAMMED-CHET that we have just encountered, so that Biblical Hebrew root might just be the root of lichluch as well.

In fact, the one time that the word lichluch appears in the Mishnah, it specifically refers to “wet” dirtiness, as the Mishnah (Mikvaot 9:4) rules that lichluch of wet feces on one’s skin is not considered a “disruption” between the body of one immersing in a mikvah and the waters of the mikvah. This is because the liquid lichluch becomes one with the liquid of the water, and the immersion is therefore impeccable. Of course, this rule only applies to “wet” lichluch, but if the dirtiness (in this case, feces) were dry, then that dirty spot would indeed disqualify the immersion in the mikvah, as it interrupts between the mikvah waters and the immerser’s skin.

Believe it or not, a form of the word lichluch actually appears as a personal name in a humorous anecdote related by the Talmud (Nedarim 66b): A man once vowed that his wife may not derive benefit from him until she showed Rabbi Yishmael ben Rabbi Yose her most beautiful feature. They went to the rabbi, and he examined her, asking the onlookers about her features. "Maybe her head is beautiful?" he asked. "No, it is round like a ball," they replied. "Maybe her hair is beautiful?" "No, it looks like flax fibers." "Maybe her eyes are beautiful?" "No, they are bleary." "Maybe her ears are beautiful?" "No, they are misshapen." "Maybe her nose beautiful?" "No, it is flat." "Maybe her lips are beautiful?" "No, they are thick." "Maybe her neck is beautiful?" "No, it is short." "Maybe her stomach beautiful?" "No, it is distended." "Maybe her feet are beautiful?" "No, they are wide like those of a goose." "Maybe her name is beautiful?" "No, her name is Lichluchit (literally, "Dirty”)." Finally, Rabbi Yishmael concluded, "Her name befits her well, as she is indeed ‘dirtied’ by her blemishes.”

Another related term is the verb go'al, which occurs thirteen times throughout the Bible (according to Even Shoshan’s concordance). Rabbi Pappenheim defines it as referring to something becoming "dirtied" or "soiled" with a pollutant that is inherently disgusting (e.g., feces as in Zeph. 3:1, or blood as in Isa. 59:3 and Lam. 4:14). For example, when Daniel was taken to the court of the Babylonian king, he made a point of not “defiling” (yitga’el) himself by partaking of the king’s non-kosher delicacies (Dan. 1:8). In explaining the meaning of that term, Rashi actually employs the word lichluch to describe the spiritual “pollution” or “dirtiness” of one who eats forbidden foods. Similarly, when foretelling of a time when Hashem will smite Edom, Isaiah speaks as though Hashem's clothes will be "dirtied/soiled" (Isa. 63:3) by the blood of that perennial enemy, using a declension of go’al (ega’alti). In these two cases, the defiling/dirty character of the pollutant is unquestionable.

Rabbi Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg of the Veromemanu Foundation sees go’al as related to the terms geulah (“redemption”) and go’el (“redeemer,” i.e., very often a cousin or relative), being that both sets of words are derivatives of the root GIMMEL-(ALEPH)-LAMMED. He explains the connection by noting that both terms refer to the paradigm of closeness and distance, with go’al in the sense of “becoming dirty” referring to that from which people typically distance themselves, while geulah and go’el refer to acts of coming closer to the downtrodden and bringing them back home. Rabbi Steinberg also connects this root to GIMMEL-AYIN-LAMMED (“disgusting/repugnant/abominable”) through ALEPH and AYIN’s interchangeability.

Rabbi Pappenheim takes a slightly different approach, tying go’al to the biliteral GIMMEL-LAMMED (defined as “roundness/circular”) by way of the word galal — which refers to pellets of animal droppings that are typically round-shaped. Just as galal is universally considered dirty, so does go’al refer to what which is unmistakably “dirty.” [For more about words for “excrement,” see my earlier essay “Output Understood” (Aug. 2021).]

Our next term for “dirtiness” is tinuf, whose triliteral root TET-NUN-PEH only appears once in the entire Bible. In that passage, one lover gives a lame excuse for not rendezvousing with her beloved by saying, " I have [already] removed my tunic, how can I dress in it? / I have [already] washed my feet, how can I dirty [tinuf] them?" (Song of Songs 5:3).

Although cognates of tinuf only appear once in the Bible — making it a hapax legomenon (i.e., a word that appears only once in a given text) — such terms appear thrice in the Mishnah: In one case, the Mishnah (Bava Batra 6:2) rules that when purchasing wholesale fruit from another, the buyer is presumed to agree that up to one twenty-fourth of the produce might be tinofet — in this case, “dirty” or, more precisely, “rotten.” Another Mishnah (Bechorot 3:1) states that one can determine whether a female animal had already once given birth (with ramifications in terms of its next live birth being a bechor) by seeing if the blood from its uterus has tinuf. Finally, another Mishnah (Machshirin 4:5) discusses a complicated case of ritual purity and impurity that involves a person entering a cave that has a pool of water and his feet getting dirty (nitanfu) from that water.

The term tinuf also appears in the Targumim as the Aramaic rendering of the Biblical Hebrew tinuf (Song of Songs 5:3), as well as the Biblical Hebrew go’al (Lam. 4:14) and elach (to Ps. 14:3,53:4, although some versions of Targum to Ps. 14:3 use a different word).

Shadal (to Num. 35:33) points out that both Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Parchon and Wilhelm Gesenius explained the word chonef (often translated as “flattery/hypocrisy”) as related to tinuf, as both refer to something polluting or defiling, one in a moral sense (as divergent from genuine, ethical behavior) and one in a physical sense. Presumably, the philologically basis for this connection is the interchangeability of the letters CHET and TET (which are consecutive in the Hebrew Alphabet).

Rabbi Pappenheim writes that all of the words in discussion refer to when something unwanted becomes attached to some object in such a way that the object now becomes "disgusting" or "disgraced" making a person is disinclined to use said object. To that end, he specifically explains that lichluch and tinuf refer to “dirtying” an object by way of something which in itself is not necessarily disgusting or soiling, yet when attached to the object in question renders the object unusable. For example, ketchup might be desirable as a food, but if it falls on one’s shirt, it makes the shirt “dirty” such that one would no longer want to wear it. The same is true about food on a tablecloth or the like. Accordingly, when the lover in Song of Songs spoke about “dirtying” her feet, she meant to say that whatever dirt on the floor would stick to her clean feet may not be undesirable in and of itself, but should it cling to her newly-cleaned feet, it would make her feel like her feet became “dirty.”

Although Rabbi Pappenheim seems to equate lichluch with tinuf (as do Ibn Janach and Radak in their respective Sefer HaShorashim), the difference between them may not be not semantic, but etymological. We could argue that tinuf seems to be actual Biblical Hebrew, whereas lichlich seems to be a later Aramaic borrowing. Alternatively, we can argue that lichluch may be derived from Biblical Hebrew (the root LAMMED-CHET, as argued above), while tinuf is Biblical Hebrew loanword that comes Aramaic (evidenced by the Targumim favoring that term).

In a different discussion, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that tinuf derives from the Biblical Hebrew biliteral root TET-PEH. Machberet Menachem lists four categories of words as deriving from that two-letter root: "children" (taf), "dripping" (notef/tipah), “adornments and niceties” (netifot), and "speech/preach" (matif). Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the core meaning of this root is "secondary/subordinate." Accordingly, he explains that "children" are secondary to the master and mistress of a household, a "drop" of liquid is a secondary, insignificant droplet that falls from a larger body of liquid, and “speech” refers specifically to prophetic or hortatory sermonizing, which is typically spoken in a controlled, slow way that resembles liquid drips slowly falling. In line with all of this, Rabbi Pappenheim adds that the word tinuf likewise refers to that which soils an object, as the dirtying element in that relationship is secondary to the object itself.

Going back to the word zuhamah with which this essay started: That word derives from the triliteral root ZAYIN-HEY-MEM, of which there is only one derivative in the entire Bible: Job’s friend Elihu describes a sick or depressed person’s lack of appetite by saying that in his eyes, food has become like zuhamah (Job 33:20).

Even though derivatives of this root only come up once in the Bible (again, making it a hapax legomenon), they do appear three times in the Mishnah: In one instance, the Mishnah (Bechorot 6:12) lists various types of blemishes that disqualify an animal from being brought as a ritual sacrifice, but still do not render a bechor no longer holy. One of those blemishes is mezuham, i.e., if the animal is “dirty” or “smelly.”Another Mishnah (Terumot 10:1) discusses whether one may use an onion of terumah to remove the offensive odor (zuhamah) of a smelly fish. In a third context, the Mishnah (Sheviit 2:4) states that one may be m’zaham saplings before the Sabbatical Year all the way up until Rosh HaShanah of the Sabbatical Year. This last term either refers to placing manure as a fertilizer to help rejuvenate parts of the plant that got peeled (Rabbi Shimon of Shantz there), or it refers to smearing a plant with a bad-smelling oil to ward off insects (Maimonides there, see also Rabbi Tzemach Duran’s responsa Yachin U’Boaz vol. 1 §114).

The term zuhamah also appears many times in the Talmud. For example, the Talmud (Chullin 105a) says that one should use cold water for mayim achronim because hot water is not as effective in removing the zuhamah from upon the hands. The Talmud (Brachot 53b) also rules that just as a Kohen who is mezuham (“dirty”) is unfit to perform the rites in the Holy Temple, so too a person who is mezuham is unfit for reciting a blessing. By the way, the rabbi who related this rule was named Rabbi Zuhamai. Rabbi Yaakov Emden (in his glosses to Brachot 53b) writes that he was called so because he is famous for relaying this Halachah which relates to zuhamah. Interestingly, Rabbi Emden also notes that the name Zaham (II Chron. 11:19) appears as a proper name for one of the sons of the King Rehoboam, and that name also seems to be related to this root. [Mezuham in Modern Hebrew means “infected” in the bacterial sense.]

Rabbi Hirsch (to Ps. 7:12) sees the root of zuhamah, ZAYIN-HEY-MEM, as related to the root ZAYIN-AYIN-MEM (via the interchangeability of HEY and AYIN), explaining that the latter root (which begets the word za’am, “ anger/curse”) refers to a rejection of the other in the eyes of the beholder, just like zuhamah is also something to be rejected.

Interestingly, Pseudo-Rashbam (to Ps. 26:10) defines zimah (usually translated as “promiscuity”) as tinuf, leading Rabbi Steinberg to suggest that he saw the root of zimah (ZAYIN-MEM-HEY) as a metathesized form of the root of zuhamah (ZAYIN-HEY-MEM).

In line with some of the Talmudic sources mentioned above, Donash Ibn Labrat (author of Dror Yikra and Divay Haser) writes that zuhamah refers specifically to the “bad smell” of something dirty, while tinuf refers to simply soiling something. Indeed, an Arabic cognate of this word, zahuma, also refers to something “dirty/smelly.”

On the other hand, in at least two places in his work HaMadrich HaMaspik, Rabbi Tanchum HaYerushalmi (a 13th century exegete who lived in the Holy Land) fairly clearly writes that tinuf, lichluch, and zuhamah are all synonymous.

Radak in Sefer HaShorashim explains that zuhamah refers to the "disgusting sweat" that comes from a person's body or is the byproduct of preparing certain foods. Rabbi Pappenheim contends that the core root of the word zuhamah is the monoliteral root ZAYIN which refers to “movement.” He explains explaining that zuhamah primarily refers to the liquid that oozes from a body after an unhealthy build-up of excess liquid (puss?). From that core meaning, zuhamah came to refer to anything that is likewise excess or unwanted, and is thus viewed disgusting. (In Rabbi Pappenheim’s etymological system, the letters HEY and MEM can be extraneous to a core root, which is why he ignores those letters and focuses just on the initial ZAYIN.)

Rabbi Shaul Goldman sums up what he sees as the differences between these terms in rabbinic usage: tinuf usually refers to contamination by bodily fluids or contact with animals, lichluch usually implies unwanted wetness/moisture, while zuhamah points to some sort of unwanted element, usually contaminant.

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