The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 12 November 2022 / 18 Cheshvan 5783

Chayei Sarah: Take a Drink

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

When Abraham’s servant travelled to the Land of Aram to find a suitable mate for Abraham’s son Isaac, the servant was determined to find the right girl by seeking somebody who engages in the sort of kindness that matches Abraham’s own comportment. He decided that if he asks a girl to drink water from her jug, and the girl in turn offers to let him and his camels drink, then this shows that she has mastered the trait of kindness and is a suitable match for Isaac. Of course, it was Rebecca who fit that exact description. In this pericope, the Bible uses three different words for the verb “to drink.”

In some cases, it uses cognates of l’shtot, whether to denote the servant himself drinking (Gen. 24:14, 24:18, 24:44, 24:46) or his camels drinking (Gen. 24:19, 24:22). In other cases, it uses cognates of l’hashkot, againwhether to denote the servant himself drinking (Gen. 24:18, 24:19, 24:43, 24:45) or his camels drinking (Gen. 24:14, 24:46). And in one case, the servant himself uses the word hagmi’ini to mean “allow me to drink” (Gen. 24:17). What, if anything, are the differences between these seemingly synonymous terms?

A close analysis of the terms in question and how they are used in the Bible actually shows that they do not quite mean the same thing. Inflections of the infinitive verb l’hashkot appear over 60 times in the Bible, and not only apply to humans and animals drinking, but to the watering of the land. Moreover, l’hashkot does not actually refer to the act of drinking itself, but to the act of “providing [water] for another to drink/be quenched.” It is thus almost always in the hifil form. By contrast, inflections of the infinitive verb l’shtot appear over 220 times in the Bible, referring exclusively to humans and animals drinking. Moreover, l’shtot always refers to the act of drinking itself, not the act of providing another with something to drink.

Nonetheless, these differences do not resolve the differences between the synonyms, they only compound the question. Why does the Hebrew language use two different roots for “drinking,” one as an active verb (“to drink”) and one as a causative verb (“to make someone else drink”)? To make the case stronger, the Hebrew words for “eating” and “feeding” are both derived from the same triliteral root, ALEPH-KAF-LAMMED, “eating” is l’echol and “feeding” is l’ha’achil. Yet, when it comes to “drinking” there are two different roots. Why is this so? Additionally, why does the active verb l’shtot apply only to human and animals, and the causative verb l’hashkot apply even to flora? I have wondered about these questions for years, but have not yet found a satisfactory answer.

Nonetheless, we can gain some insights into the words in question by examining their etymologies and visiting the core meanings of their ultimate roots.

The verb l’hashkot cognates with the noun mashkeh (“drink/beverage,” sometimes with the implication of an alcoholic drink). Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843–1916)explains that the terms l’hashkot/mashkeh are derived from the biliteral root SHIN-KUF, which refers to "movement/motivation" (incidentally, both of those English words are etymologically related to each other).

Rabbi Marcus uses this idea to elucidate the verse, "and a cloud arises from the land and is hishkah the land" (Gen. 2:6). In this particular case, l’hashkot refers to the current/flow of water as it waters the land. Rabbi Marcus similarly explains that teshukah (“desire”) refers to the motivation or inspiration that is the catalyst for movement, shok (“thigh”) is the body part that moves the leg, and shuk ("market") is the place to which all people strive to reach (in order to buy or sell goods).

In line with this, Rabbi Marcus sees the phrase meshek geviim (Isa. 33:4) as alluding to the orderly march of grasshoppers, whose almost-choreographed movement always remains in unison. He likewise sees the word shaked (“diligence” or “almond tree”) as referring to the consistent and diligent movement. Finally, he notes that Abraham’s trust servant Eliezer is called his meshek (Gen. 15:2) — “domestic manager” — which is a reference to the on-going need for movement in maintaining a lively household.

As Rabbi Marcus points out, the polar opposite of all this is found in another word derived from SHIN-KUF — sheket (“quiet/silence”), which connotes the stillness stemming from lack of movement.

Like Rabbi Marcus, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740–1814) also traces l’hashkot/mashkeh to the two-letter root SHIN-KUF, but he defines that root’s core meaning as "making consecutive sounds." The word shokek (“to roar”) derives from this core meaning because it denotes producing consistent sounds one after the other, like a metronome. The terms l’hashkot/mashkeh similarly denote a peculiar characteristic of liquids in that they tend to make noise when moved, especially when poured from one receptacle to another.

In a borrowed, secondary sense, the concept of teshukah is also related to this theme, because in the throes of desire, one's heartbeat becomes more noticeably consistent and consecutive, thus making a consecutive noise. A tertiary meaning derived from this root is the word neshikah (“kiss”) — so called either because it is the outward realization of one’s teshukah, or because kissing produces a distinct sound like shokek.

Curiously, Rabbi Pappenheim argues that the word neshek (“weapon”) also relates to this root, because two opposing combatants approaching each other on the battlefield resemble two lovers approaching each other for a kiss, or because the mechanics of the neshek create a certain type of consistent noise.

Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto (1800–1865), sometimes known as Shadal, also writes that the word meshek used to describe Abraham’s servant Eliezer (Gen. 15:2) derives from the root SHIN-KUF-(KUF), which denotes “movement and sound-making.” The way he understands it, meshek denotes the manager who directs all movement and logistics within a household. Shadal further notes that meshek only appears once in the Bible because in the place where it appears it is juxtaposed to the word Damesek (ostensibly “Damascus”), which is spelled similar to it (except for the initial DALET). Interestingly, Shadal cites the French historian Antoine-Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy (1755–1849) as explaining that meshek relates to the word mashkeh (“cup-bearer”), but rejects that explanation on the grounds that in the Bible only kings have cup-bearers, and Abraham was not a king.

In another essay on the topic, Shadal writes that the primary meaning of SHIN-(VAV)-KUF is “liquid,” and from that came the verb form l’hashkot (“to pour into one’s mouth,” “to water”), which is the action most associated with liquids. From that meaning, which is associated with man’s natural thirst and desire to drink, came about the term teshukah to denote desiring or lusting after anything. He explains that shokek refers to the sound made by a hungry and tired bear looking for something to devour. Because pouring liquid produces something that sounds like shok shok, this term also came to be associated with noise-making. Shadal points to two corollaries of that sense in the word shok ("thigh"), which is instrumental in ambulation and also produces a sound, as well as shuk (“marketplace”), which is a busy place where many people ambulate about and make noise.

Although the classical lexicographer (like Rabbi Yehuda Ibn Chayyuj, Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach, and Rabbi David Kimchi) see l’shtot as a derivative of the triliteral root SHIN-TAV-HEY, Menachem Ibn Saruk in his Machberet Menachem traces that term to the biliteral root SHIN-TAV. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim elaborates on the meanings of this two-letter root and explains its core meaning as “putting something in its proper place.” Other terms derived from this root include shatot ("foundation," e.g., like that of a building), which denotes what is deliberately placed underneath something to support the structure on top (Ps. 11:3); shet (“posterior” of a person’s body), which functions like the foundation of a person’s physique; and sheti (“warp” that runs along the length of a woven fabric, see Rabbi Hirsch to Lev. 13:48), which refers to the purposeful placement of threads within a greater structure. He also explains mashtin (“urinate”) and sheten (“urine”) as relating to shet because that is the body part from which they are expelled. [See my earlier essay, “Put in Place” (Jan. 2022) for more about the SHIN-TAV root and the word shat.]

Along these lines, Rabbi Pappenheim in Cheshek Shlomo explains that l’shtot (in the sense of “drinking”) helps the digestive system process foods and put them in their proper place in order to maximize their nutritional value. This explains why whenever juxtaposed in the Bible, the verb for “drinking” always proceeds the verb for “eating.” In his work Yeriot Shlomo, Rabbi Pappenheim takes a slightly different approach and explains that l’shtot reflects the mechanism by which one’s intestines and other innards that had been shriveled and constricted by thirst can be placed in order and return to their copacetic state. Based on this, Rabbi Pappenheim considers that sheten may actually be derived from l’shtot in the sense that urine is comprised of the liquid waste that is a byproduct of drinking.

Based on this, Rabbi Pappenheim accounts for the differences between l’shtot and l’hashkot by explaining that the former relates to the bodily effects of drinking, so it specifically relates to the act of drinking itself. The latter term, on the other hand, relates to the sound that undrunk liquids produce when poured. That term thus relates to what happens before the act of drinking, so it never refers to the act of drinking itself, but to the preparation and providing of something to drink or quench one’s need for liquid.

Interestingly, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 40:23, Num. 33:52) sees the root SHIN-KUF-HEY as related to "quenching/sating," which entails filling up something to the maximum. He connects this to SHIN-KAF-CHET ("forgetting," which involves one's mind becoming filled with so many other things, that it has no room for whatever is forgotten), SHIN-GIMMEL-HEY ("inadvertency," doing something without proper focus because one's mind is busy with other things), SHIN-GIMMEL-AYIN ("insanity," the delusional/mistaken conceptions of a crazed individual), and SHIN-GIMMEL-CHET ("watching/supervising," an intense and focused form of looking).

The word hagmi’ini means something along the lines of “let me drink.” All the early lexicographers, including the biliteralist Menachem Ibn Saruk, understand its root to be the triliteral GIMMEL-MEM-ALEPH. However, Rabbi Pappenheim traces this term to the biliteral root GIMMEL-MEM (“spongy or absorbent material”), which gives way to the word gome (“spongy reed”) that grows in marshy wetlands. Based on that, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that hagmi’ini refers to the request that one be able to drink and down the liquid in a way that is analogous to how a spongy reed soaks up water.

Rashi (to Gen. 24:17) takes another approach. He connects the root GIMMEL-MEM-ALEPH to the root GIMMEL-MEM-AYIN (possibly via the interchangeability of ALEPH and AYIN). The latter root does not appear in the Bible, but does appear in the Mishnah (Shabbat 8:1, 14:4) and elsewhere in rabbinic literature (see Targum to Job 39:30) to mean “swallow.” This comparison is based on the Talmud (Shabbat 77a), which discusses whether the word in the Mishnah should be spelled with an ALEPH or AYIN, and then cites the verse of hagmi’ini as proof that it should be spelled with an ALEPH.

I have two other possible etymologies for hagmi’ini: I was thinking that perhaps this Biblical term is related to the Mishnaic Hebrew word guma (“pit/hole,” which appears in Chullin 2:9 and Parah 2:5). According to this understanding, the act of drinking can be viewed as a way of pouring things down the hole of one’s mouth, like the English idiom “down the hatch” which is another way of saying “drinking.” Alternatively, my wife Shira Yael Klein (nee Deifik) suggests that the root of hagmi’ini is an onomatopoeic rendition of the sound made by, glugging, gulping or slurping down a drink.

One last point, it’s quite possible that the rabbinic words lugma (“cheekful”) and legima (“sip”) are related to the Biblical term hagmi’ini; although, Rabbi Ernest Klein writes that the origin of the LAMMED-GIMMEL-MEM root in Rabbinic Hebrew is unknown, and may actually be borrowed from the Greek lygmos ("swallowing").

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