What's in a Word?

For the week ending 4 November 2017 / 15 Heshvan 5778

Seeing is Believing

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

The Hebrew language has quite a few root-words that refer to the concept of “seeing”. In this essay we will briefly try to get a handle on some of those words and their unique connotations. The verbs which we will discuss are: ra’ah, hibit, metzitz, mashgiach, mashkif, shur, tzofeh. As with many of the sets of synonyms which we have encountered, each of these words has its own special meaning and connotation, and they are not all truly interchangeable.

The Malbim (1809-1879) writes that ra’ah refers to the physiological function of the eye, the sense of sight. It also refers, in specific, to a sight which one may suddenly stumble upon without intent to behold. Similarly, the Vilna Gaon (to Isa. 5:12) explains that ra’ah refers to seeing something on the surface level, while hibit refers to seeing something which one would not otherwise notice with a quick glance.

Accordingly, the verb hibit (or its noun form habatah) refers to a more deliberate form of seeing in which the seer purposely engages in order to investigate or understand something better. The Midrash (Bereishet Rabbah 44:12) says that the verb hibit refers to one who is higher looking down towards something below him. Although this suggests that hibit too refers to the act of looking and not the idea of examination, Malbim accepts both approaches. He reconciles them by explaining that sometimes hibit refer to the act of examination — which is not necessarily done by somebody positioned above that at which he is looking — and sometimes hibit refers to actually seeing, in which case it refers specifically to one located above that which he sees.

Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) rejects the notion that hibit denotes a deliberate form of looking, and instead explains that the word hibit refers to the movement of one’s head in order to face whatever it is he wants to see. In essence, hibit is also related to deliberate looking, but more indirectly — it denotes the movement of the head, as opposed to the role of the eye. The actual word for a more deliberate form of looking, explains Rabbi Mecklenburg, is mashkif.

Interestingly, Rashi (to Gen. 18:16) writes that whenever mashkif/hashkafah appears in the Bible, it has a negative connotation, except for Deut. 26:15 which is a positive “looking”. Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) correctly explains that Rashi did not mean that all instances of this word in the entire Bible portend something bad, but rather he meant that instances of this word in the Torah do so.

Radak in Sefer HaShorashim writes that the word mashkif refers specifically to the act of one who sees, but cannot be seen. Rashi (to Berachot 29a) writes that hishkif refers to one who stares at something in the hopes of jogging his memory. The work Sefer Ha’Chochmah, ascribed to the late 12th century Asheknazic scholar Rabbi Elazar Rokeach of Worms, explains that mashkif refers to somebody who looks down from a high place, while tzofeh is somebody situated very high up (e.g., a tall mountain) and looks downwards.

The act of tzofeh, commonly translated as “gazing”, refers to the notion of seeing something which does not physically exist. It denotes the idea of seeing an abstract concept as opposed to a concrete, tangible item. The Malbim explains that the act of anticipating or awaiting that which does not yet exist is likewise called mitzapeh because the anticipator, too, sees something which is not existent (yet), but hopes it will soon materialize. For this reason, prophets are sometimes called tzofim (seers) because their prophetic visions are not physically existent, but are nonetheless very real. Rabbi Wertheimer notes that tzofeh also refers to somebody who stays in a specific location for an extended time in order to watch certain developments as they happen (e.g., a sentinel).

The Vilna Gaon (to Prov. 15:3) explains that tzofeh is the act of seeing something from afar. However, others associate the notion of looking from afar with other words: The Midrash (to Ecc. 5:1) says that the difference between ra’ah and hibit is seeing from close-up and seeing from far-away, but records a dispute between sages about which one is which. Moreover, the Malbim writes that the word shur refers to the act of seeing something far away, whether in time or space.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) writes that the word shur is related to the word yashar (straight) and denotes a certain feature of the sense of sight: Unlike the senses of smell, hearing, or tasting, the sense of sight can be directed and channeled to focus on a specific view by moving oneself so that his eyes are directly opposite it and cannot see anything else. The nose, ears, and taste-buds cannot be used in this way, but rather whatever stimuli reach them are all beheld at the same time. Those senses do not have the ability to focus or zero in on something specific.

The Malbim explains that the verb metzitz does not primarily refer to the act of seeing, but is a borrowed term which hyper-literally means “stretches”. One who is metzitz looks at the object in question by contorting his neck to allow himself a better view (see Song of Songs 2:9 which uses the word metzitz in reference to peering through a lattice). Similarly, Rabbi Wertheimer writes that this word refers to “looking” in a situation where one’s field of vision is somewhat constricted. In English, we call this “peeking”.

Rabbi Wertheimer writes that in contradistinction to mashkif, mashgiach always has a good connotation. Rabbi Moshe Shapiro (1935-2017) explains that the verb mashgiach does not refer to somebody who simply watches, but to somebody who actively watches. When he sees something that requires intervention, the mashgiach does not hesitate to take action and rectify the situation. This is comparable to word hashgachah which is used to describe G-d’s administrative role in creation. He does not simply watch creation as a passive deus otiosus (Latin for “god at rest”), but actively affects the world’s events according to His will.

  • L'Ilyu Nishmat my mother Bracha bat R' Dovid and my grandmother Shprintza bat R' Meir

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