What's in a Word?

For the week ending 9 July 2022 / 10 Tammuz 5782

On Dry Land

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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The root CHET-REISH-BET appears over 500 times in the Bible and means various things, including “sword,” “destruction/desolation” and “dry.” This last meaning is the topic of our discussion, as we will discuss the very “dry topic” of three Hebrew terms for “dry”: chorev, yavesh and negev. In this essay we attempt to differentiate between these apparent synonyms, speculate about their etymologies and learn a little of Tanach.

The Vilna Gaon (to Isa. 8:23) differentiates between these two ostensible synonyms by explaining that the term chorev implies that there is still some moisture, even though most of the water or liquid has been dried out, while yavesh implies something that it totally dry. He adduces this distinction by citing the following passage regarding the end of the Great Flood in Noah’s time: “And it was in the year six-hundred and one, on the first [month] on the first of the month, the waters dried [charvu] from upon the land, and Noah removed the cover from the ark, and he saw that the surface of the ground has dried [charvu]. And in the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the land was dried [yavshah].” (Gen. 8:13-14) In this passage, the postdiluvial world dried up in two stages, the first denoted by a cognate of chorev, and the second, by a cognate of yavesh. The Vilna Gaon sees in this word-switch a process whereby at first the land was only partially “dried” (charev) and then subsequently became more completely “dry” (yavesh).

This understanding can already be gleaned from Rashi (to Gen. 8:13-14) who wrote that when the Torah says charvu it means that the land became “like mud whose upper surface crusted over,” and then when it says yavshah it became totally “dry land like it was supposed to be.” Similarly, Sefer HaChachmah, ascribed to the late 12th century Ashkenazi scholar Rabbi Elazar Rokeach of Worms, writes that in general yabashah means a place that is “truly dry,” while chareivah means “a muddy place dripping with moisture.”

The Malbim proffers an explanation similar to that of the Vilna Gaon in understanding the appearance of these two terms in the context of the Deluge. In a separate discussion, the Malbim bolsters this position by citing various proof-texts where the terms charev and yavesh appear side by side. In all such instances, the cognates of charev always precede the cognates of yavesh (e.g., Isa. 19:5, Iyov 14:11). To the Malbim this implies that yavesh connotes a more intense form of “drying up” than charev, hence his understanding that charev means something only partially dry, while yavesh means more completely dry.

Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) also follows the approach of the Vilna Gaon and the Malbim. He adds that this distinction can help us understand an otherwise difficult passage where the Torah refers to two sorts of meal-offerings: one that is “mixed with oil” and one that is chareivah. (Lev. 7:10) The word chareivah is seemingly a cognate of charev and presumably means “dry,” but there is no sort of meal-offering that is totally dry. Based on the above explanation, Rabbi Wertheimer resolves this by explaining that the term chareivah refers to an oil-free meal offering, as it is drier than a meal offering that has oil, but is not totally dry. Thus, the fact that it is called chareivah and not yeveishah tells us that even this meal-offering is not “totally dry” in the sense of it having no moisture whatsoever. (I must note, however, that Rabbi Tanchum HaYerushalmi’s lexicon of Rabbinic Hebrew equates the term chareivah in Proverbs 17:1 with the word yavesh, leaving open the possibility that the two terms are indeed synonymous.)

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) offers two ways of explaining the difference between yavesh and chorev. In one place in his work Yeriot Shlomo (as well as in his work Cheshek Shlomo), Rabbi Pappenheim follows the above-mentioned distinction that sees the difference between yavesh and chorev as quantitative, meaning that chorev denotes something “a little bit dry,” while yavesh denotes something “very dry.”

However, elsewhere in his Yeriot Shlomo, Rabbi Pappenheim offers a slightly different take on these two terms. He notes that in practice both yabashah and charavah refer to “dry land,” as opposed to bodies of water like seas, lakes and rivers. But when comparing yabashah and charavah to each other, each one refers to a qualitatively different type of “dryness.” He postulates that there are two different types of “moistness,” one refers to something wet on the outside but not necessarily moist on the inside, while the other refers to something saturated with liquid on the inside but dry on the outside. Rabbi Pappenheim also ties this distinction into the two Hebrew words for “moisture”: ratuv and lach.

Based on this, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the same sort of distinction may be drawn regarding the two words for “dryness”: chorev refers to superficial dryness, wherein the outer layer of something is dry (whether or not it was ever previously wet in the first place). In contrast, the term yavesh refers to something whose inside is bereft of liquid (again, whether or not it was initially soaked with liquid). To better illustrate this distinction, Rabbi Pappenheim notes that a marshland can justifiably be called a charavah because, after all, its surface is dry enough that one can walk on top of it, but it cannot be called yavesh because its interior is still saturated with water.

In the story of the Splitting of the Sea, the Torah reports: “…and Hashem directed a strong eastern wind the entire night, and He made the sea into dry land [charavah], and the waters split. And the Children Israel came into the sea on dry land [yabashah]…“ (Ex. 14:21-22) Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) in his commentary to this passage quotes Rabbi Pappenheim’s second explanation for the distinction between chorev and yavesh without offering any additional comments. To me, his intent is clear: the bank of the Red Sea dried out in stages; first it became superficially dry on the surface (so the word charavah, which implies a marshy land, is employed) and only after that did it become even more dry, such that it was not even muddy or otherwise moist on the inside (such that subsequently the word yabashah became appropriate).

Honing in on the word chorev specifically, the work Shoresh Yesha accounts for the alternate meanings of CHET-REISH-BET ("destruction, sword") by explaining the core meaning of this root is the concept of "destruction" as the opposite of something living and thriving. Accordingly, a "sword" fits in because it is the implement used for bringing about destruction, and "dryness" fits in because when something is totally dry and juiceless, it withers away as it fails to live and thrive. Rabbi Pappenheim put forth an explanation similar to this one.

In speculating about the etymology of chorev, I propose two ideas: First of all, Maimonides’ son Rabbi Avraham Maimuni (in his commentary to Gen. 31:40) seems to say that the term chorev implies “dryness” as the result of heat. Now, if we look at the root CHET-REISH-(HEY), the words derived from this root mean “anger/heat.” The Radak in his Sefer HaShorashim contends that the core meaning of that root is “heat,” with “anger” being the result of somebody getting “heated up” about a certain issue. Accordingly, we may speculate that the root CHET-REISH-BET — from which chorev/charev derives — may somehow be an offshoot of CHET-REISH-(HEY). The “destruction” meaning of CHET-REISH-BET may allude to the eventual consequence of uncontrolled “anger,” and the “sword” meaning would refer to the tool used to bring about such “destruction.” The downside of this theory is that most grammarians and lexicographers agree that the letter BET cannot serve as a radical added to a biliteral root to create a triliteral root.

Alternatively, I also suggest that perhaps the root CHET-REISH-BET can be best understood as a portmanteau of the roots CHET-REISH (“hole,” as in chor) and REISH-BET (“many,” as in rav/harbeh/rabbim). These two roots were compounded to mean chorev/charev because as something dries, the less moisture it has to hold it together, which would result in it possibly developing many holes or cracks. Once something develops many holes within it, it is much more susceptible to “destruction,” so it is cogent to argue that the words for “destruction” and “sword” are also derived from that compound root.

When it comes to the word yavesh, Rabbi Pappenheim sees its ultimate root as the biliteral BET-SHIN (“delay/withholding”), as in: “And the nation saw that Moshe delayed [boshesh]in descending from the mountain…” (Ex. 32:1) In that case, Moses’ return was “delayed” such that his presence was “withheld” from the nation. Another derivative of this root is the word bushah (“humiliation”) since one who is embarrassed might feel so much shame and disgrace that he “delays” or “withholds” from showing his face in public. In the same way, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that yavesh implies “delay” or “withholding” the sort of prosperous blossoming that could be expected of something. With plants and other flora, this is often the result of “dryness,” so the word yavesh came to refer to anything that has become “dry” and thus bereft of its life-giving juices. Case in point, when Jeroboam's hand miraculously became limp and lifeless as he offered illegal sacrifices in Beth El, the Bible uses the word vativash (I Kings 13:4) to denote his hand "drying up and shriveling" in a figurative way.

Interestingly, Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) writes that the core meaning of the biliteral BET-SHIN is “finishing” or “completing” a project. He claims that this original meaning of the root is still known to us through Akkadian and is manifest in two Hebrew roots: YOD-BET-SHIN and BET-SHIN-LAMMED. The former refers to “dryness” and seemingly denotes the “end/completion” of the drying process. This explanation dovetails with those of the Vilna Gaon, Malbim and others cited above who explain yavesh as “completely dry.” The root BET-SHIN-LAMMED gives us words like bishul as “cooking” and bishul as “ripening” (like in Gen. 40:10), which represent the “completion” of preparing a foodstuff for consumption. What is also interesting about Rabbi Marcus’ explanation is that he supposes that the SHIN of BET-SHIN stands for aish (“fire,” ALEPH-SHIN) and alludes to the importance of “heat” in “cooking,” “ripening” and “drying.”

Another word for “dry” in Hebrew is negev. This word actually has two seemingly distinct meanings: of the 110 times it appears in the Bible, in almost all of those instances it means “south,” while in a few cases it could mean “dry” (see Joshua 15:19, Judges 1:15, Isa. 21:1, Ps. 126:4). In Mishnaic Hebrew, cognates of negev are the standard word for the act of “drying” something that was once wet (see Chagigah 3:1, Avodah Zarah 2:11, 5:11, Menachot 8:4, 3:3, Keilim 25:6, Taharot 2:1, 3:8, 10:2, 10:8, Machshirin 3:5, 4:9, Mikvaot 10:4, Tvul Yom 3:6, Parah 5:2, 7:8, 9:1, 11:8).

Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469-1549) in Meturgaman points out an interesting thing when look at how the Targum treats the words for “dry.” Sometimes, the Targum leaves the word charev as charev (Isa. 19:5) and yavesh as yavesh (Gen. 8:14, Ex. 14:22, Isa. 19:5, Job 14:11, Ps. 102:12), but at other times the Targum translates charev as negev (Gen. 8:13, Ps. 106:9, Iyov 14:11) or charev as yavesh (Gen. 7:22, Ex. 14:21), but never yavesh as negev!

Rabbi Yaakov Zev Lev (1946-2018) inMe’at Tzari (to Gen. 8:13) offers a partial resolution to this, positing that negev cannot mean “completely dry” like yavesh implies, but can only refer to the sort of partial dryness implied by charev (in line with the explanations cited at the beginning of this essay).

Why does negev mean both “dry” and “south”? Rabbi Yehuda Leib Shapira-Frankfurter (1743-1826) writes that the southern part of the Holy Land is called the Negev (Gen. 12:9) because negev means “south.” He explicitly notes (probably based on Ibn Ezra there) that that area is not called negev because negev means “dry,” because only in Aramaic does negev mean dry, not in Hebrew. The way he sees it, negev only means “south” in Hebrew and only means “dry” in Aramaic.

His explanation notwithstanding, the most plausible way of understanding the word negev is that its core meaning is indeed “dry” and that the southern part of the Holy Land is called the Negev because it is an arid, waterless region. There are various explanations given why the word negev also means “south” (most of them assuming that the south always receives more light/heat from the sun, see Ibn Ezra to Gen. 12:9, Peirush HaRokeach there, and Rabbi Hirsch there). However, I think the most reasonable explanation is that once the south part of the Holy Land became called Negev (on account of its “dryness”), that word was borrowed to refer to the southern direction in all places.

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