In the Middle
In Hebrew, there are several different words that can be translated to mean "middle." Each word has its own distinct definition and usage, often based on the historical context in which it appears. From a writer’s perspective, this can make choosing the right word for a particular situation somewhat tricky. However, once you understand the different nuances of each word, you will be able to select the best option for your needs. The main two words we will discuss in this essay are emtza (the standard word for “middle” in the Mishna) and merkaz, but — oddly enough — we will talk about the words lev and tabur as well.
Even though the word emtza (“center/middle”) appears countless times in the Mishnah, it does not appear in the Bible. Nonetheless, Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469–1549) in Sefer Tishbi (his lexicon of Rabbinic Hebrew) traces the root to the triliteral root MEM-TZADI-AYIN.
According to the classical lexicographers like Menachem Ibn Saruk (920-70), Yonah Ibn Janach (990-050), Shlomo Ibn Parchon (the 12th century author of Machberet HeAruch), and Radak (1160-1235), there is no such thing as the root (ALEPH)-MEM-TZADI-AYIN in Biblical Hebrew at all. They all seethe word matza, “mat”(Isa. 28:20) — which is the only possible word in the Bible derived from the root HaBachur listed — as derived from the root (YOD)-TZADI-AYIN, which refers to the act of “spreading/presenting” (as in “spreading out” a cloth, or bedding, or mats). Perhaps HaBachur understood that emtza relates to the verb of "spreading out" a mat/bedding because when once unfurl such sheets of fabric, one essentially reveals the inside or "middle" of the folded/rolled-up material.
As an aside, Avraham Even-Shoshan (1906-1984) in his concordance of Biblical Hebrew does trace matza to the root MEM-TZADI-AYIN, even though he has a different way of understanding the etymology of emtza (see below).
In Talmudic and Targumic Aramaic, the letter ALEPH of the word emtza is dropped, so that the word for “middle” is actually metzia or metziyata (for examples, see Targum to Gen. 1:6, 2:9, Ex. 26:28, Judges 16:29, Iyov 20:13, Ps. 45:10, 135:9). The most famous example of this occurrence is in the name of the Mishnaic tractate Bava Metzia, which means “the Middle Gate” (as opposed to Bava Kamma, “ the First Gate” and Bava Batra, “the Last Gate”), which is not called Bava Emtzai.
Avraham Even Shoshan, in his famous “new dictionary” of Hebrew, argues that the post-Biblical word emtza derives from the Greek word mesos ("middle"). This Greek word is also used in the English term Mesopotamia, the area between ("in the middle") of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. It also appears in the scientific term meson, a subatomic particle found in the "middle" of a nucleus. Linguists maintain that the Greek mesos is derived from the Proto-Indo-European root medhyo, which also gives us the Germanic midja and the Latin medius. These terms, of course, are the ultimate etyma of such English words as middle, medium, mediocre, mediate, midwife, medieval, Mediterranean, and meridian.
The Hebrew word merkaz (“center”) seemingly derives from the triliteral root REISH-KAF-ZAYIN (“to concentrate”). In Modern Hebrew, the words for both “juice concentrate” and the neurological ability to “concentrate” on one’s studies are derived from the root REISH-KAF-ZAYIN (rikuz). Like in English, where the word central (derived from center) came to mean anything that is “especially important,” the Hebrew merkaz also refers to something that is important. For example, the “central bus station” is called Tachanah HaMerkazit, not because it is in the geographic “middle” of the city, per se, but because it is the “main” bus terminal. Similarly, the Modern Hebrew phrase Merkaz Ha’Ir (“Center of the City”) refers to the center of town where all the happenings are concentrated, whether or not it is geometrically in the exact “middle.”
Nonetheless, neither the word merkaz nor any other cognate of REISH-KAF-ZAYIN appear in Biblical Hebrew or Mishnaic Hebrew. In fact, the word merkaz first appears in Medieval Hebrew in works that were translated from Judeo-Arabic by the Ibn Tibbon family. Rabbi Shmuel Ibn Tibbon (1150-1230), who translated Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed into Hebrew, writes in his Peirush HaMilot HaZarot (“Explanation of Bizarre Words”) that he borrowed the word merkaz from Arabic in order to denote “the point inside a circle from which all lines to the circle are congruent.” Of course, that’s just a fancy way of saying the “middle” of the circle (because that point is equidistant to all points along the circle). Indeed, the great etymologist Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein (1899-1983) agrees that the Hebrew merkaz derives from the Arabic markaz (“foothold, center, station”), which, in turn, is borrowed from the Akkadian markasu (“a spot for tying”), which is ultimately derived from the Akkadian rakasu (“to fasten”).
Despite Ibn Tibbon’s admission that merkaz comes from Arabic, there is still room to see this word as having something of a Hebraic origin. Rabbi Dovid Golumb (1861-1935) in Targumna conjectures that the Late Hebrew root REISH-KAF-ZAYIN actually comes from the earlier Hebrew root REISH-KAF-SAMECH (via the interchangeability of ZAYIN and SAMECH). Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein in his A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English similarly insinuates a connection between REISH-KAF-ZAYIN and REISH-KAF-SAMECH, and Rabbi Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg of the Veromemanu Foundation independently arrived at the same conclusion. In order to better appreciate this supposition, we must first discuss the root REISH-KAF-SAMECH.
The root REISH-KAF-SAMECH appears four times in the Bible. It appears twice as a verb in the context of “fastening” the choshen to the ephod (Ex. 28:28, 39:21), and appears twice as a noun: once in the word rachasim, “mountain-range(s)” (Isa. 40:4) and once in a word that describes man’s “difficulties” (Ps. 31:21). Most commentators see the core meaning of REISH-KAF-SAMECH as something “strong” or “hard,” but have slightly different ways of explaining how these examples fit that idea. Ibn Janach (in Sefer HaShorashim) and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 12:5) see the “fastening” meaning of this root to refer to creating a “strong” and “unbreakable” bond by means of tying. Ibn Janach further explains that this root refers to a “mountain-rage” because of the tough and difficult terrain. Ibn Parchon (in Machberet HaAruch) similarly writes that a “mountain-rage” is called rachasim because one must exert much strength and effort in order to traverse it. Finally, the “difficulties” and “hardships” that a person endures are “strong” obstacles that stand in the way of life.
Rabbi Aharon Marcus (Keset HaSofer to Gen. 12:5) similarly writes that the core meaning of REISH-KAF-SAMECH is “gathering, attaching.” The connection to “fastening” is obvious, because by tying two items together, one “attaches” and thereby “gathers” them into a single entity. He further explains that “mountain-range” can be viewed as a series of mountains that are “attached” geographically. Interestingly, Rabbi Marcus avers that several other Hebrew roots are derived from REISH-KAF-SAMECH through a series of interchangeable letters: rechush (“property,” the total accrual of one’s belongings), through the interchangeability of SIN/SAMECH and SHIN; neches/nechasim (“property,” again the accumulation of possessions and wealth), through the interchangeability of REISH and NUN, and rochel (“merchant,” who gathers up various commodities to sell), through the interchangeability of SIN/SAMECH and LAMMED (attested to in various ancient languages, most notably Egyptian).
In light of all this, it seems that the principle meaning of the root REISH-KAF-SAMECH is “to tie together.” Consequently, when things are tied together, the nexus of the knot is the point where their connection is strongest and most-highly concentrated. In general, the “middle” of something is also usually the place with the highest concentration (as opposed to the extremities, which are typically thinner). Thus, the semantic jump from “tying” (REISH-KAF-SAMECH) to “middle” (REISH-KAF-ZAYIN) is not so far, and there is ample reason to argue for a connection between these roots.
If emtza is only an Aramaic or Mishnaic Hebrew word, and merkaz is essentially a Late Hebrew or Modern Hebrew word, then how do you say “middle” in Biblical Hebrew? There are two words that primarily have anatomical meanings that were borrowed in Biblical Hebrew to mean “middle:” lev and tabur. In the remainder of this essay, we will explore these two words.
The word lev (“heart”) primarily refers to that life-giving organ that pumps blood, but the heart’s location as roughly in the middle of one’s body allowed this word to be borrowed to refer to the “middle” of anything. As a result, the Bible speaks of the “lev of the elm tree” (II Shmuel 18:14), “the lev of the seas” (Ex. 15:8, Yechezkel 27:4, 27:25-27, 28:2, 28:8, Ps. 46:3), and “the lev of the Heavens” (Deut. 4:10) — even though trees, waters, and Heavens do not have literal “hearts.”
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) sees the word lev as reflective of the core meaning of the biliteral root LAMMED-BET (“heart”). In line with what we wrote above, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that in a borrowed sense, lev can refer to anything that is located in the “center” or otherwise plays a “central” role in some process.
He sees the word lavi (”lion”) as related to lev, explaining that fear stems from the amassing of blood within one’s heart, but because lions apparently have small hearts, they are less prone to fear. Rabbi Pappenheim also writes that a levivah (“wafer,” although in Modern Hebrew this word refers to a fried potato patty known in Yiddish as a latke) is called such either because it is a foodstuff that sustains the “heart” of a person, or because it was a heart-shaped delicacy.
Other words that Rabbi Pappenheim explains as derived from this root include: lahav/lehavah (“flame,” which comes from the middle of a fire), leveinah (“brick,” made by being placed in a kiln fire), lavan (“white,” the color that things put into a fire often turn), levanah (“moon,” because it is white, as opposed to the reddish sun), livneh (“Populus alba,” a white tree), Levanon (“Lebanon,” a region where the livneh commonly grows), and levonah (“frankincense,” a whitish resin).
In rabbinic parlance, the word aliba (“according to”) is also derived from the Hebrew word lev. This Aramaic term literally means “on the heart of.” If you are still reading this far, you will definitely appreciate this amazing discovery that I recently made: the Rabbinic Aramaic term aliba actually parallels the etymological origins of the English word according!
Let me explain what I mean: The English word heart and its Germanic cognates (like herz) are related to the Latin word cord and Greek kardia. For reasons too complicated to explain here, some Indo-European languages use the letter h where other Indo-European languages would use the letters c or k (examples of this can be seen in the first letters of the words cent/hundred and cap/head). Thus, the English words core (“the middle of something”), crux (“the gist or most important point of an idea”), cardinal (“the principle item within a group”), and cardiology (“the study of the heart”) are all related to the English word heart. If you’ve ever been to the Old City of Jerusalem and seen the so-called Cardo, the name of that ancient thoroughfare comes from the fact that it runs through the ”heart/middle” of the Holy City. With all of this in mind, it’s no surprise that the English word according derives from the French word accord, which colloquially means “agree,” but literally means “to be of one heart.” Thus, the rabbinic term aliba and the English word according share this etymological association with the word for “heart” in their respective languages.
Finally, the word tabur appears multiple times in the Mishna (Shabbat 18:3, Sotah 9:4, and Bechorot 7:5) in the sense of “navel, belly-button, umbilicus.” In addition to this anatomical meaning (which seems to be the original sense of tabur), the word tabur appearstwice and only twice in the Bible, both times in the phrase “the tabur of the land” (Judges 9:37, Yechezkel 38:12). In these cases, the word tabur refers to the “center/middle” of the land. Just like the lev is roughly situated in the “middle” of the body and came to mean the “middle,” the same seems to be true of the word tabur. Moreover, just as the lev is an essential organ for life, so does tabur refer to that which is essential for sustaining a fetus in its mother’s womb. Although I have not yet seen any examples of this, if lev can be expanded to also refer to the essential or chief principal within a greater range of discourse, then perhaps tabur can also mean the same. (For more about the connection between the name Tiberias and the Hebrew word tabur, see my essay “The Shining Sea of Galilee” from Aug. 2019.)
Postscript: The monoliteral prefix BET, as well as the words b’toch/tichon, b’kerev/kerev, and gav/go can all mean “middle,” as well. However, the more accurate meaning of those terms is actually “inside.” It’s easy to confuse the two meanings because the “middle” is just the “innermost point” of a circle or regular polygon. Thus, for example, despite Targum and Rashi (to Gen. 2:9) translating the word b’toch as emtza, the word b’toch does not typically mean the exact middle, but just somewhere that is not necessarily along the edge (see Nachmanides to Gen. 2:9 and responsa Maharit vol. 2 Even HaEzer 8). So, we’ll leave discussion of those terms for a future essay.