What's in a Word?

For the week ending 24 November 2018 / 16 Kislev 5779

Like a Rock (Part 2)

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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Last week we discussed two words for stones. The first was the word even, which we understood was a general term for all types of rocks. The second word we dealt with was sela, which we understood was an especially hard rock. This week, we will study the words tzur and chalamish. Both Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim and the Malbim write that a tzur is a harder rock than a sela. We will explore exactly what type of rocks are considered a tzur, and in doing so will accrue a greater appreciation of why G-d is sometimes referred to as a Tzur (for example, Tzur Yisrael, “The Rock of Israel”).

As Rabbi Pappenheim explains, the hardest types of rocks are called tzur. The word tzur is related to tzarur (“cluster” or “bundle”) because its components are so tightly packed together that the resulting stone is quite hard. Rabbi Pappenheim explains that one type of tzur is called Hornstein (German for “horn stone”), or chert. Pieces of chert generally have very sharp edges, so they can be used for cutting in lieu of metal knives. In fact, Rabbi Yosef Kimchi (1105-1170), the father of the Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, 1160-1235), writes in Sefer Ha’Galui that tzor/tzur specifically refers to a sharp rock. When Moshe’s wife Zipporah took a stone to circumcise her son, the Bible uses the word tzur to describe that stone (Ex. 4:25). Similarly, when the Jews in Joshua’s time performed mass-circumcision (Josh. 5:2-3), their instrument of choice was described as charvot tzurim (literally, “stone swords”).

The word chalamish is commonly translated as “flint”, which is a glassy rock formed from silicate fossils. Like the tzur, flint stones are generally sharp because when they break, they form conchoidal fractures which always have sharp edges. Both chert and flint have historically been popular stones for making arrowheads. Interestingly, in Modern Hebrew the word tzur refers specifically to the “flint” stone.

Nonetheless, Rabbi Pappenheim argues for a different way of identifying chalamish. He explains that chalamish does not refer specifically to “flint”, but is rather a sub-category of tzur which refers to the hardest types of rocks within that category. To this effect, chalamish even includes diamonds (called yahalom in Modern Hebrew, after one of the precious gems mentioned in Ex. 39:11), which are generally considered the hardest natural mineral. By a small stretch of the imagination, Rabbi Pappenheim links the word chalamish to chelmon (“egg yolk”), explaining that both are round and smooth. The word chalamish sometimes appears attached to tzur as part of a construct phrase, such as tzur hachalamish or chalamish tzur (Deut. 8:15, 32:13); while other times it appears in the absolute as simply chalamish (Ps. 114:8, Job 28:9, Isa. 50:7).

In order to better appreciate the nuances that we are highlighting, I refer the reader to Moh’s Scale of Mineral Hardness. That scale rates minerals based on their hardness, with talc — the softest of minerals — rated at 1. In Moh’s scale, calcite-based rocks (what we defined as sela in last week’s essay) are rated at 3, while chert (a type of tzur) — which is much harder — is rated at 7. Diamonds, of course, take the cake at the hardness rating, at 10. If the conventional identification of chalamish as flint is accurate, then chalamish should be rated at 7. However, as Rabbi Pappenheim puts it, chalamish can reach up to a 10, because it includes such hard minerals as diamonds.

Malbim notes that a sela is the type of rock which is porous and can have water inside, while a tzur denotes the type of rock which is so hard that there is no possibility of water inside. This fits neatly with Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), who wrote that a tzur or a tzur ha’chalamish is the type of rock which produces fire. If a tzur had water in it, then certainly it cannot create a fire. Interestingly, Rabbi Yisrael Menachem Mendel Sacharov (d. 1966) points out that the word ha’tzur (“the tzur”) equals the same gematria as the word aish (fire).

Rabbi Chaim Friedlander (1923-1986) explains that a tzur refers to the bedrock upon which the foundation of a building rests. As any engineer knows, if the foundation is sturdy, the edifice has on what to stand. G-d is also called a tzur because He is likened to the sturdiest foundation. The implications of this empowering idea is that at all times we can rely on G-d to help us out, just as a building must constantly rely on its foundation in order to remain standing.

Maimonides in his famous Guide for the Perplexed (1:16) explains that the word tzur refers to a mountain and to a type of hard rock. He further writes that tzur also refers to the quarry from where rocks are hewn. To bolster this assertion he adduces the prophecy of Isaiah, who implores the Jewish People to look back at their history: “Look to the rock (tzur) from which you were hewn… look to Abraham, your forefather and to Sarah, who bore you…” (Isa. 51:1-2). In this context the word tzur refers to the genealogical root of the Jewish People. From that usage, explains Maimonides, the word tzur was borrowed to mean any type of “root” or “source”. It is in this spirit that G-d Himself is referred to as a tzur (see Deut. 32:4, 32:18, 32:30, I Sam. 2:2, Isa. 26:4) — for He is the Ultimate Source of everything. Based on Maimonides’ explanation, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum (1759-1841) explains that a tzur is the source of stones, while even or sela are the stones themselves.

Similarly, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that G-d is called a tzur because, as the Prime Force behind all of Creation, He "ties" (tzorer) together all aspects of creation under one common thread: everything requires Him in order to exist. As Hannah (the mother of Samuel the Prophet) famously exclaimed: “There is no Rock (tzur) like our G-d!” (I Sam. 2:2). The Talmud (Berachot 10a) expounds on this passage by taking the word tzur, and interpreting it as tzayir (“Fashioner” or “Creator”) — further cementing the connection between G-d’s rock-epithet and His role in Creation. The Rock is not only the peoples’ champion, but the champion of all of creation. Can you dig that?

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

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