What's in a Word?

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In the lead-up to the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, G-d had smitten the Egyptians with the Ten Plagues, forever immortalized in Jewish lore as the Eser Makkot. In general, the word makkah in Hebrew means “hit,” so Eser Makkot literally means “ten hittings.” There is also a tractate of the Mishna called Makkot that deals with the halachot of judicial floggings. Nonetheless, elsewhere in rabbinic literature those flogging are usually referred to as malkut (or in plural malkuyot), instead of makkot. In this essay we will seek to understand the difference between the word makkot and malkut by examining the etymology of both words, and carefully deducing what they truly mean.

Turning to the etymology of the words in question, Menachem Ibn Saruk (920-970) and Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) understand that the word makkah can be traced to the single letter root KAF, which means “hitting.” However, many Hebrew grammarians (like Ibn Chayyuj, Ibn Janach, and Radak) reject the notion of monoliteral roots, instead arguing that the root that means “hitting” is NUN-KAF-HEY, but that the letter NUN is often dropped in conjugations of this root. From the primary meaning of “hitting” or “striking” another, the word makkah also came to mean “a wound” (the product of such physical contact), and from there it was further expanded to also mean “plague.”

The word malkut or its cognates (like lakah) do not appear anywhere in the Bible, but do appear in Mishnaic Hebrew. The prominent linguist Avraham Even-Shoshan (1906-1984) writes in his dictionary that this word (commonly mispronounced as malkot) is actually derived from the Aramaic root LAMMED-KUF-HEY, which means “hit” or “damage”. He compares it to the Akkadian word laku, which means “weakened.” According to Even-Shoshan, malkut and makkot essentially mean the same thing, just in different languages.

[The English word lick in the expression “to lick one’s enemies” (based on Num. 22:4) means to smite or defeat, and to “lick the whip” means to taste punishment. Thus, the Germanic word lick refers to both smiting another, and to the act of passing one’s tongue over something to taste it, moisten it, or clean it. Nonetheless, linguists would say that it is simply by chance that this word resembles the Semitic roots LAMMED-KUF-HEY (“hitting”) and LAMED-KUF-KUF (“licking”).]

Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1468-1549) writes in his works Meturgaman and Sefer HaTishbi that whenever the Torah uses an expression of makkah in the sense of “hitting” somebody as a means of punishing him or chastising him, then the Targum there translates that makkah- based word into a lakah-based word. However, when somebody “hits” another simply to hurt him or even to kill him, then the makkah-based word is translated into Aramaic words unrelated to lakah. HaBachur also notes that the verb lakah is not a perfect translation of makkeh because the latter refers to one who “hits” another, whereas lakah refers to one who “was hit” by another.

The great Kabbalist Rabbi Naftali HaKohen Katz of Frankfurt (1649-1718) in his work Smichas Chachamim asks why the aforementioned tractate is called Makkot and not Malkut, and offers two answers. Firstly, he proposes that the tractate’s name is derived from the verb used in the Torah to refer to flogging the sinner (Deut.25:2-3). In that passage, cognates of makkah are used five times, so the name of the tractate understandably becomes Makkot (and, as mentioned above, the word malkut never appears anywhere in the Bible). Secondly, Rabbi Katz explains that the name Makkot has the same letters as the word ka’mavet (“like death”), which alludes to the halachic principle that in some ways the punishment of flogging is like a mini-death (Sanhedrin 10a). In order to create this allusion, the tractate is named Makkot instead of Malkut.

Rabbi Shmuel Taieb (d. 1956) in Shemen Tov explains Rabbi Katz’s opening question by noting that in many instances the Talmud uses the term malkut to refer to lashes ordained by the Torah, and the term makkot (as in makkot mardut, “lashes of rebellion”) to refer to flogging ordained by rabbinic decree. Accordingly, he explains that since the Mishna elaborates on the rules of Biblically-ordained lashes, then one would expect that the tractate devoted to those laws should be called Malkut, not Makkot. Because of this, Rabbi Katz sought to explain why the tractate is actually called makkot as opposed to malkut, and offered the explanations cited above.

In light of HaBachur’s and Even-Shoshan’s understanding, we may posit that the name of the tractate in question is Makkot in Hebrew and Malkut in Aramaic. In fact, many Hungarian/Hassidic Jews actually have a custom to refer to the Tractate Makkot as Tractate Malkut. This is similar to another tractate which also has two names: Beitzah. Beitzah means “egg” or “testicle” in Hebrew, and the tractate that bears that name is sometimes also called Beiyah, which means the same thing in Aramaic. Like Makkot-Malkut, some people have a custom of calling this tractate by its Aramaic name instead of its Hebrew name.

Rabbi Yisrael Lipshutz (1782-1860) wrote in Tiferes Yisrael that lakah does not exclusively mean “hit” but can serve as a general expression of “breaking,” “damaging,” or “rendering defective.” “Hitting” is just one way of achieving those effects. Indeed, in rabbinic literature a solar eclipse or lunar eclipse is described as those luminaries being lakah (Sukkah 29a), and several pages later the Talmud (Sukkah 33b) describes black blood as really red that was lakah. Inboth of these cases, and many more like them, the word lakah does not literally mean “hitting,” but rather it refers to some other sort of defect or imperfection. According to his understanding, the term Makkot is more appropriate than Malkut because it is more specific and directly refers to “flogging.”

Rabbi Elazar Rokeach of Amsterdam (1665-1742) in his Kabbalistic commentary to the Mishna Maase Rokeach actually takes the exact opposite approach. He understands that malkut only refers to physical “hitting,” while makkot refers to any sort of painful ordeal through which one might have to suffer. Accordingly, he explains that since the tractate in question not only discusses the laws of flogging, but also goes into the details of the laws of exile (i.e., if somebody kills another Jew by mistake, he must be exiled to a City of Refuge), then the tractate was named Makkot as a way of including that punishment in its name.

In Modern Hebrew, to “hit” somebody, “spank” him, or “beat him up” is leharbitz or marbitz. The root of this word is REISH-BET-TZADI, which actually means “crouching,” “stretching out” and “lying down” in Biblical Hebrew. This meaning was later expanded to beating somebody down such that he is left “spread out” or “lying” on the floor.

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

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