Of Thorns and Thistles
Believe it or not, Rabbi Shlomo of Urbino (a 16th century Italian scholar and student of Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenuro) writes in Ohel Moed (his lexicon of Hebrew synonyms) that there are seventeen different words for “thorns / thistles” in Biblical Hebrew. He goes on to list these seventeen words and cites the various Biblical verses wherein each of these words appears. Obviously, he makes a generalization about the different sorts of thorny flora without differentiating between the various species and gena, but ultimately he sees all these different terms as somewhat synonymous. In this essay we will follow Rabbi Shlomo of Urbino’s list of words and comment on them. We will especially consider alternate meanings for some of these words and explore the various roots from which these words are derived.
1. Kotz– This word appears twelve times in the Bible in the sense of “thorn,” and at least one more time as the name of a person (I Chron. 4:8). The classical triliteralist lexicographers (like Ibn Janach and Radak) trace the word kotz to the triliteral root KUF-VAV-TZADI. However, Menachem Ibn Saruk, being the biliteralist that he was, traces kotz to the biliteral root KUF-TZADI. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim, another biliteralist, explains that the core meaning of the root KUF-TZADI is "the end/conclusion of something." Based on this, he sees the following words are derivatives of that root: miketz/keitz ("end" of a period of time), ketzeh/ketzot ("end" or "edge" of an object"), katz ("being disgusted," because when one is disgusted with something, one feels like it will cause one to die and bring about the end of his life), ketzitzah ("cutting off the edge of something"), kayitz ("summer," i.e., the end of the year, as it is the last season before Rosh HaShanah), yekitzah ("waking up," because it is the end of the sleep cycle), katzin (“military officer,” who is positioned at the end of a military formation), and more. In line with this, he understands the word kotz (“thorn/thistle”) to likewise derive from KUF-TZADI on account of the fact that it has multiple sharp ends/edges.
2. Cho’ach – In Song of Songs, the Jewish People are famously compared to “a rose among thorns (chochim)” (Song of Songs 2:2). Lexicographers like Radak and Rabbi Pappenheim see the word cho’ach as related to the word chach, with both terms derived from the biliteral root CHET-CHET (or possibly even the monoliteral root CHET). The word chach refers to a sort of jewelry that was affixed by use of a pin, so it makes sense that the sharp edge of the pin would somehow be reminiscent of the sharp edge of the “thorn.”
3. Salon/Silon– When Hashem tells Ezekiel that the Jewish People will not heed his warnings to repent, He calls the Jewish People “saravim and salonim” (Ezek. 2:6). The commentators (like Rashi and Mahari Kara) explain that salonim are “thorns,” and Radak clarifies that Hashem meant to tell Ezekiel that even though the Jewish People are thorn-like, he should not fear them nor their jabs. Said commentators also compare the word salonim to the word silon (Ezek. 28:24), which they likewise interpret as “thorn.” Interestingly, though, Rabbi Pappenheim actually differentiates between silon and salon. He traces both words to the biliteral root SAMECH-LAMMED, whose core meaning he defines as “repeated action.” When it comes the term salonim applied to the Jewish People, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that this refers to people who repeatedly bother and trigger others; while when it comes to silon, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that this refers to a thistle/thorn with its many prickly spikes, such that one who holds a silon will be repeatedly stabbed by its multiple sharp points.
4. Sneh– The famous Burning Bush where Hashem introduced Himself to Moses was called a sneh, and that word appears a total of six times in the Bible (Ex. 3:2-4, Deut. 33:16). Rashi (to Sukkah 13a and Bava Kamma 119b) uses the word sneh to define Aramaic terms that he elsewhere explains as “thorns” (see Rashi to Avodah Zarah 47b and Eruvin 34b), thus demonstrating his view that sneh refers to a “thorn bush.” This understanding of sneh is also explicitly found in Rabbi Saadia Gaon’s Tafsir (to Ex. 3:2) and is cited by Ibn Ezra’s long commentary (there). Rabbi Pappenheim traces the word sneh to the biliteral root SAMECH-NUN, which he explains primarily means “chaos/disorder.” Consequently, he explains that sneh refers to a messy and disordered bush in which all sorts of thorns grow. Another word he explains as derived from this root is ason (“accident/failure”), which results from things not being placed in proper order. Rabbi David Chaim Chelouche (1920–2016), the late Chief Rabbi of Netanya, sees SAMECH-NUN as related to SHIN-NUN (“tooth”), because the various thorns on a branch look like sharp teeth.
5. Tzinim/tzninim– The Torah famously warns that if the Canaanites were allowed to remain in the Holy Land after the Jews conquered the land, they will be “like… and tzninim (“thorns”) in your side” (Num. 33:55). Ohalei Yehuda sees this term as related to the word sneh, most likely based on the interchangeability of the letters TZADI and SAMECH. Rabbi Hirsch (to Ps. 91:4) argues that TZADI-NUN-(NUN) is related to SHIN-NUN-(NUN) (via the interchangeability to TZADI and SHIN), noting that just as the latter root refers to “sharpness” (like v’shinantam which means that one ought to review his Torah learning over and over until he has sharpened himself through it, or like the word shen, “tooth”), so does the former. Rabbi Pappenheim actually sees the core meaning of TZADI-NUN as “thorn,” and explains that various other words that use that two-letter string derive from than meaning, including tzinah (“a spikey weapon that resembles thorns”), tzinah (“sharp coldness”), and tznumah (“grain damaged by harsh cold”).
6. Sirim– This word appears four times in the Bible in the sense of “thorns” (Isa. 34:13, Nah. 1:10, Ecc. 7:6, Hos. 2:8). Rashi (to Nah. 1:10) writes that some explain sirim as related to hasarah (“removal”), but does not explain the connection. Perhaps he refers to the painful ordeal of removing thorns that had become stuck in one’s person, or the need to make sure one removes the “thorns” from a given place before one can safely enter. Rabbi Pappenheim offers a more creative way of explaining how sirim in the sense of “thorns” relates to “removal” by tracing the word to the biliteral root SAMECH-REISH (“removing something from its prior location”). He explains that yissurin/mussar refers to afflicting somebody with intent of causing him to repent and thus “removing” them from their previous sinful state. In a borrowed sense, the word sirim as “thorns” materialized because such implements are used to “torture” or “afflict” a person.
7. Dardar– The word dardar appears twice in the Bible, both times in the phrase kotz v’dardar in reference to two different types of thorns. The first time this phrase appears is in Genesis, when Hashem punishes man for eating from the Tree of Knowledge by saying that thorns will begin to grow in the land and confound man’s agricultural endeavors (Gen. 3:18). The second instance is in the Book of the Twelve Prophets, when the prophet Hosea foretells that the Jews’ idolatrous shrines will be abandoned and destroyed, and instead thorns will grow in their place (Hos. 10:8). Rabbi Pappenheim traces the word dardar to the biliteral root DALET-REISH, defined primarily as “movement without hindrance or duress.” He sees a whole litany of words as derived from this root, but for our purposes, the main derivative is dror (“freedom”), which refers to freedom of movement (like that granted to an emancipated slave), an ownerless bird that is free to fly wherever it wants, and an open field where myrrh was free to grow. The word dardar came from this as a type of “edible thorn” that grows in open, ownerless areas (like deserts). Without talking about the etymology of the word dardar or what exactly it means, the Yemenite scholar Rabbi Avraham ben Shlomo (to Jud. 8:7) simply relates that people would peel the exterior of the dardar and eat its fruit. To me, all of this sounds like a cactus or sabra.
8. Atad– This word appears in the Bible four times in the sense of “thorn” (Ps. 58:10, Jud. 9:15-15). It is also the Aramaic word used by the Targum to render the Hebrew word dardar (item #7, see Targum to Gen. 3:18 and Hos. 10:8). The word atad also appears as part of a proper noun in the name of the site where Jacob was eulogized after his death: Goren Ha’Atad (Gen. 50:10-11), which literally means “The Granary of the Atad.” The Talmud (Sotah 13a) finds this name a bit funny to take a face value, because there’s no such thing as a granary for thorns! Instead, the Talmud expounds on this place name as a reference to the prevailing custom of erecting thorn fences around the perimeter of one’s granary, explaining that a similar thing happened when the kings of Canaan encountered Jacob’s coffin, as the royals placed their jagged crowns around its perimeter to honor him.
9. Chedek– This word refers to a “thorn” (known as a “brier” or “stacheldorn”), and appears only twice in the Bible (Prov. 15:19, Mic. 7:4). Outside of Biblical Hebrew, for example in Mishnaic Hebrew and in the Talmud, the root CHET-DALET-KUF refers to such things as “cutting," "pricking," "injuring," "squeezing/wedging in." All of these are likely derived from the original Biblical meaning of “thorn.” Ohalei Yehuda writes that the word chedek may be a portmanteau of chad (“sharp” or “single”) and dak (“thin”), or a metathesis of the word dochak (“force/pressure”). Nachmanides (to Chullin 59a) seems to follow this last understanding that connects chedek to dochak. There was a Tannaic sage named Rabbi Chidka, who is famous for his position that one is obligated to eat four meals on the Sabbath (Shabbat 117b). It would be interesting to consider whether his name is somehow related to the chedek thorn.
10. Shamir– The prophet Isaiah compares the Jewish People to a vineyard, warning that if they continue to stray away from Hashem, then He will no longer tend to the vineyard and will instead allow shamir and shayit to grow there instead of grapes (Isa. 5:6, see also Isa. 10:17). Although the word shamir appears in the Bible eight times in the sense of “thorn” (all in the book of Isaiah!), it also appears thrice in the sense of something used to cut rocks (Jer. 17:1, Zech. 7:12, Ezek. 3:9). This latter meaning either refers to some sort of very hard diamond that can be used for cutting less hard rocks, or to the legendary shamir worm used for cutting hard rocks (see Gittin 68a). Either way, it relates back to the idea of “thorns” because thorns are sharp and can cut. The three early lexicographers Menachem Ibn Saruk, Yonah Ibn Janach, and the Radak all connect shamir to the triliteral root SHIN-MEM-REISH, which often means “protecting/guarding,” but they do not intimate how this meaning of the root relates to that more common meaning. Shoresh Yesha (and to some extent Rabbi Hirsch to Gen. 24:6) avers that because one must “watch oneself” when dealing with thorns (i.e., one has to be careful in order to not get hurt by them), and also thorns are used to build fences around fields/gardens to “guard” them, this word for “thorns” is related to the very term for “guarding.” [By the way, the English words guard, yard, andgarden are all etymologically related.]
11. Shayit– Ibn Janach writes that shayit has a cognate word in Arabic that also means “thorn.” Rabbi Pappenheim traces shayit to the root SHIN-ALEPH-(HEY), which means “uniformity/equivalence.” As he explains it, the word shoah (“holocaust”) also derives from this root, as it implies total uniform “destruction” across the board. Consequently, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that shayit refers to those thorns and thistles which tend to grow in the ruins of destroyed and desolate places (a cactus, perhaps?).
12. Barkan– The term barkan appears twice in the Bible, both times alongside the word kotz (Jud. 8:7, 8:16). The early lexicographers (Menachem Ibn Saruk, Yonah Ibn Janach, and Radak) all categorize this word as an offshoot of the root BET-REISH-KUF. The other words derived from that root are barak (“lightning”), barak (“the shiny luster of a sword”) and bareket (a yellowish gemstone, possibly “emerald”). Radak explains the connection between these three words by explaining that the luster of a polished sword and the glow of a bareket gemstone both resemble the glow of lightning. But neither Radak nor the other grammarians mentioned above indicate a connection between barkan as “thorn” and the meaning of the other words derived from this root. In lieu of such an explanation, Rabbi Yehoshua Steinberg of the Veromemanu Foundation offers the following insight: even though a shiny sword might look nice, its real power as a formidable weapon is in the sharpness of its blade. Accordingly, Rabbi Steinberg suggests that the word barkan which denotes a “sharp thorn” was derived from barak in the sense of a sword’s glow.
13. Charul– This word appears thrice in the Bible (Zeph. 2:9, Prov. 24:31, and Job 30:7). Radak explains it as a sort of grass-like thorn. Others define it as “nettle” or “thistle.” In his work Kesset HaSofer, Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843–1916) writes how at its core, the biliteral root CHET-REISH means “strong and obstinate movement” (in his work Barzilai, he renders it as “anger and destruction”) and proceeds to show how that letter combination combines with every other letter of the Hebrew Alphabet to create triliteral roots related to that concept. Many of those triliteral roots relate to using powerful movements to bore a hole, and that’s exactly how Rabbi Marcus understands the core meaning of the word charul. Ohalei Yehuda offers two more ways of explaining the etymology of charul. First, he understands that the biliteral root CHET-REISH primarily refers to “heat/dryness,” and thus argues that charul is a portmanteau of that root plus the word lo (“for him”), in allusion to the dry and “fiery” nature of this type of thorn. Alternatively, Ohalei Yehuda argues that the root CHET-REISH-LAMMED may be interpreted in light of the root AYIN-REISH-LAMMED (“blockage/stoppage,” like the term urel which refers to man whose foreskin is intact and refers to fruits from a new tree which are “blocked” by Halacha from consumption) due to the interchangeability of CHET and AYIN. He understands the core meaning of AYIN-REISH-LAMMED to be “covering,” thus explaining that charul refers to a sort of thorn or thistle that tends to “cover” the face of one’s field.
14. Akrav– In two places in the Bible (Deut. 8:15, Ezek. 2:6), the word akrav clearly refers to the deadly insect known as a “scorpion.” In another four places, King Rehoboam portends to act more harshly with his subjects than did his father King Solomon, and especially threatens to torture His people with akravim (I Kings 12:11, 12:14, II Chron. 10:11, 10:14). In the latter context, the commentators explain that Rehoboam did not mean to use actual scorpions on his people, but rather meant to threaten the use of flogging sticks with thorn-like spikes that resemble scorpions. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ps. 140:2-4) writes that four-letter animals names in Hebrew that begin with an AYIN are not actually derived from quadriliteral roots, but rather derive from triliteral roots with the letter AYIN added to those roots. Examples of this phenomenon include atalef (“bat”), achsuv (“venom-spitting snake”), akabish (“spider”), achbar (“mouse”), and, of course, akrav. Rabbi Hirsch thus explains that the root of akrav is KUF-REISH-BET (“approaching”) and refers to its perpetual readiness to engage in “warfare” (krav) and attack those who threaten it. Akrav seems to refer to “thorns” in a borrowed sense, as something whose pokey protrusions are scorpion-like. Interestingly, a place named Maale Akrabaim is mentioned three times in the Bible (Num. 34:4, Josh. 15:3, and Jud. 1:36), but it’s not clear if or how that city in the southern part of the Holy Land is related to “thorns” or “scorpions.”
15. Kimosh– The Vilna Gaon (to Prov. 24:31) differentiates between kimosh and charul (item #13) by noting that kimosh refers to thorns that grow along the perimeter of a field, while charul refers to any ordinary thorn that one might could touch and get "burnt" (i.e., pierced/poked). Perhaps we may somehow connect the word kimosh (spelled with a KUF) to the name of the Moabite deity Chemosh (spelled with a KAF).
16. Bashah– This word only appears once in the Bible, when Job tries to assert his innocence by saying that if he had not given to the poor the tithes required of him, then "instead of wheat shall come out cho’ach [item #2], and instead of barley, bashah" (Iyov 31:40). From its juxtaposition to cho’ach, the commentaries understand that bashah is also a type of “thorn” weed that grows in one’s field. Rabbi Pappenheim traces this word to the biliteral root BET-SHIN (“cessation of movement”), whose main derivative is the word bushah (“embarrassment”) and from that gave way to various words that bear negative connotations such that people would be embarrassed to be associated with them, like ba’ash (“putrid/spoiled/disgusting”), be’ushim (“bad quality grapes”), and, I would add, possibly the Aramaic word bisha (“evil/bad”).
17. Sirpad– This word appears only once in the Bible, when Isaiah offers an encouraging message that reads: “Instead of the na'atzutz will arise a cypress-tree, [and] instead of the sirpad will arise a myrtle-tree" (Isa. 55:13). The commentators explains that a sirpad is a type of thorn that represents the wicked, and the myrtle is a type of tree that represents the righteous (see Megillah 10b), with Isaiah’s message relating that in the future the wicked will be taken down from their high pedestal and be replaced with the righteous. [Rashi (there) and Radak (there and in Sefer HaShorashim) also understand that na'atzutz means “thorn,” but not all commentaries agree to this. But we’re not done yet, there are at least another three possible words in Biblical Hebrew that refer to “thorns” thatOhel Moed does not mention:
18. Sikim– The Torah warns that if after the Jews conquer the Holy Land, they leave its Canaanite inhabitants intact, those pagan idolaters will be “as sikim (“thorns”) in your eyes” (Num. 33:55). Radak in Sefer HaShorashim points out that because people typically made the fences around their field out of thorns (the ancient form of barbed wire), the word mesuchah (“fence,” Mic. 7:4, Ezek. 28:13, Prov. 15:19, Isa. 5:5) derives from the same root as sikim, SIN-VAV-KAF. Radak adds in his father’s name that the word sakin (“knife,” which only appears once in the Bible in Prov. 23:2) is also derived from sikim. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Num. 33:55) connects the “fence” meaning of SIN-VAV-KAF to the word sugah/siyag (whose root is SAMECH-VAV-GIMMEL), via the interchangeability of KAF and GIMMEL. Finally, Rabbi Pappenheim understands sikim as derived from the biliteral root SAMECH-KAF (“spread/cover/protect”), because thorn-fence are used to protect the contents of one’s field or garden from intruders. In Modern Hebrew, the word sikah refers to a “pin.”
19. Sansan– This word appears only once in the Bible, in the verse “I will ascend the palm tree, [and] I will grasp its sansan” (Song of Songs 7:9). Ibn Ezra comments that the word sansan has not a counterpart in the Bible, but Rabbi David Golumb (1861-1935) has already pointed out that sansan seems to be related to the word sneh (above, item #4), because palm tree branches are thorny, a point also made by Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim, the Malbim (to Yech. 17:4), and Rabbi Yaakov Yehudah (Zilberberg) de Kassif (1914-2003).
20. Saravim – As mentioned above (item #3), the Jewish People are described as “saravim and salonim” (Ezek. 2:6). While many commentators explain saravim as related to the word siruv (“refusal/rebellion”), Donash Ibn Labrat (920–990) proffers that this term refers to a type of “thorn,” just like salonim does.
Now that we’ve seen the entire list, we can better appreciate a comment that Rashi made off the cuff. After Rashi (to Yech. 2:6) cited Donash’s explanation of the word saravim as referring to “thorns,” Rashi very nonchalantly added that there are twenty words for this noun. The same statement is found in Rabbi Saadia Gaon’s commentary to Proverbs (15:19) after he defines the word chadek as “thorn.” With our entire list in mind, we can now understand exactly what Rashi and Rasag meant when they claimed that there are twenty words for “thorn” in Hebrew. Although, if you’ve really been keeping track, you can see that we actually have 21 words, including na’atzuz.
When explaining this passage in Rashi, Yaakov Reifman (1818-1894) and Rabbi Yechiel Michel Stern (Rav of the Ezras Torah neighborhood in Jerusalem) offer lists of twenty words, but they do not include the word sansan. Instead, they include the word nahalol (Isa. 7:19). That word is defined by Ibn Saruk’s Machberet Menachem and Mahari Kara (to Isa. 7:19) as a “thorn,” although other commentators understand it differently. Some see nahlol as a reference to lowly, unimportant trees that do not bear fruit (see Radak to Isa. 7:19 and in Sefer HaShorashim, and Metzudat Zion to Isa. 7:19), while Rabbi Pappenheim sees nahlol as related to nohel/menahel (“leading/guiding”) as referring to the place to where a shepherd would “lead” his young animals.
Interestingly, the Yemenite scholar Rabbi Avraham ben Shlomo (to Judges 8:7) cites Chazal as stating that there are seventeen words for “thorns,” but his list differs from the Ohel Moed’s list by omitting the words tzinim (#5), akrav (#14), bashah (#16), and sirpad (#17) and including the words maluach, masuchah (a cognate of sikim, as explained in item #18), pirchach, and arar. While Rabbi Avraham ben Shlomo actually provides Arabic names for some of the different types of thorns mentioned in this essay, his explanations lie beyond the scope of this study.