What's in a Word?

For the week ending 17 November 2018 / 9 Kislev 5779

Like a Rock (Part 1)

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

I’m not a geologist, nor do I pretend to be one. But I do think that we can draw some fascinating insights into the Holy Language by studying a bit about rocks. Yaakov Avinu is especially associated with rocks because he slept on rocks when he had his famous dream of the ladder (Gen. 28:11), he used a rock as an altar to pour oil in honor of G-d (Gen. 28:18), and he single-handedly lifted a heavy boulder from on top of a well (Gen. 29:10). He even coined the phrase “The Rock of Israel” (Even Yisrael, pronounced ehven) which first appears in Gen. 49:24. In all of these cases, the word for “rock” which appears in the Bible is even.

The Malbim defines an even as a naturally-occurring stone (while contrasting it with leveinah, a “brick”, that is man-made through mixing mortar), but there are other words in Hebrew which also refer to a rock.

The Mishnah (Zevachim 13:3) teaches that besides slaughtering a sacrifice outside of the Temple, there is a separate prohibition of offering a sacrifice outside of the Temple. According to Rabbi Yosi, this only applies to somebody who erected an altar especially for such use, and offered a sacrifice upon on it. However, Rabbi Shimon disagrees and maintains that even if one offered a sacrifice on an even or a sela (types of rocks) he has violated this prohibition — even though he did not offer the sacrifice on an actual altar. What is the difference between an even and a sela?

Rabbi Immanuel Chai Ricci (1688-1743) explains that a sela is a rock which is attached to the ground, while an even is a rock which is detached from the ground, such that one can simply pick it up.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) explains that even is an umbrella term which includes sela and other words. It is the most general way of referring to a rock, without being more specific. Rabbi Pappenheim notes that even sometimes appears in the construct form to refer to specific types of rocks: avnei ha’sadeh (rocks of the field), avnei yakar (precious stones), avnei shayish (usually said to be marble stone, but in the Judean Formation, limestone is a more likely candidate). He argues that the root of the word even is the two-letter combination BET-NUN, which refers to the notion of “building”. This is because most rocks are usable for construction, and indeed the most common use of rocks is for the purposes of building. Because rocks are hard, the word even was borrowed to refer to any matter which is in a solid state. For this reason, Joshua 10:11 refers to avnei barad (“rocks of hail”) because even though hail is not actually a rock, it is hard like a rock, although my geologist friend Aaron Kahn tells me that from a scientific point of view, ice is technically considered a rock.

Rabbi Pappenheim explains that rocks are commonly comprised of sand, dirt, and many other mineral deposits, tightly compressed together. Those rocks can easily be broken if shattered by a hammer. However, other rocks are harder, and cannot be as easily broken. Those rocks are typically made up of different minerals glued together with calcium carbonate (calcite), and generally have a whitish complexion. This type of rock is known in Hebrew as a sela. In order to smash a sela, one must apply intense pressure, so that when the stone is finally smashed its pieces will fly outwards and disperse (see Jer. 23:29).

In most instances in which the Bible speaks of a sela, it refers to a hard rock which protrudes from the ground, or even a rocky mountain. Because a sela is quite hard and cannot be easily chipped, it became accepted as the recognized standard in determining weights and currencies. Therefore, in the time of the Mishna a sela was the name of a specific currency. (Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865), in HaKsav VeHaKabbalah, on Ex. 4:25, Deut. 9:9 cites Rabbi Pappenheim’s explanation, and adds to it a layer of exegetical interpretation related to the Stone Tablets of the Ten Commandments.)

Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) makes a fascinating suggestion. He proposes that in all Hebrew words whose essential root is the two letter combination SAMECH-LAMMED, the SAMECH is actually a placeholder for the letter AYIN which follows in the aleph-bet. In other words, he says that when a word’s root seems to be SAMECH-LAMMED, it should really be understood as AYIN-LAMMED. The letters AYIN-LAMMED refer to something “on top” (al/l’malah) of something else, and to something which is “raised” or “ascends upward” (oleh/aliyah). To that effect, he suggests that the word sela should be understood using this paradigm, and that it too refers to something which “comes up” — in this case, the type of rock which “comes up” from underground.

Next week, we will meet the flint stone (chalamish) and other types of rocks and pebbles. To be continued…

  • For questions, comments, or to propose ideas for a future article, please contact the author at rcklein@ohr.edu

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