The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 25 March 2023 / 3 Nissan 5783

Vayikra: Turning the Corner (Part 2/2)

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

As we’ve already discussed, there’s a whole bevy of words in the Hebrew language that all mean “corner.” Because of the plethora of relevant words, I split this article into two parts, with Part 1 discussing the words peah, keren, and zavit. Now, in Part 2, we will discuss the words pinah, miktzoa, katzeh, atik, and demeshek. Let’s cut to the chase!

The word pinah appears only twice in the Pentateuch: Both instances are when the Torah lays out the schematic of the Altar in the Tabernacle. In those passages, the Torah calls for making “horns” (keren) at the four corners (pinah) of the Altar (Ex. 27:2, 38:2). In both of these verses, the word pinah is rendered by Targum Onkelos as zavit, a word with which you should already be familiar. The word pinah alsoappears another twenty-eight times throughout the rest of the Bible.

Mordechai Zer-Kavod (in Daat Mikra to Neh. 3:24) writes that the primary meaning of pinah in the Bible is not actually "corner," but rather "raised location." Hence, the terms rosh pinah (Ps. 118:22), pinot v’gevohot (Zaph. 1:16), migdalim hapinot (II Chron. 26:15). The even pinah (literally, “corner-stone”) is presented as the opposite of the even mossad (“foundation stone”) in Jer. 51:26, because the latter is underground, while the formeris all the way on top. Thus, the pinah refers to something which is prominently placed.

If I understood him correctly, Rabbi Pappenheim differentiates between zavit and pinah by explaining that a zavit refers to the inner part of corner, while a pinah refers to the outer part of a corner. For example, magine the corner of an exterior room in your house. When you look at that corner from inside your house, you might refer to it as a zavit. But if you were looking at that corner from the street, it would be called a pinah. Based on this, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that when building, a pinah must be stronger than the rest of the structure, because it is exposed to the outside and is more likely to be damaged than other parts of the edifice. Taking this a step further, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that important people who assumed leadership positions are called pinot (Jud. 20:2, I Sam. 14:38) because they too have to be higher quality than the rest of the people. [See responsa Rashba (vol. 4 §278) who presumes that the words pinah and zavit are synonyms.]

Rabbi Pappenheim further explains that the word pinah derives from the bilateral root PEH-NUN (“frontside/surface”), which also gives us the words panim/pnei (“face”). From that root derives the verb panah (“turning/facing”), whereby one positions oneself in such a way that a different side is facing frontwards. The term pinah as “corner” is an expansion of this meaning, because if one followed the perimeter of a given area and reached a pinah, one would have to “turn” the corner in order to continue following the perimeter.

Interestingly, Rabbi Pappenheim also suggests that the word peninim (often translated as “pearls,” but more accurately “precious stones”) refers to a multifaceted “gemstone” that has been polished in such a way that one looking at it can see its multiple faces and the “corners” formed at the intersections of those planes.

Rabbi David Chaim Chelouche (1920–2016), the late Chief Rabbi of Netanya, offers etymological connections between peah and pinah, tracing both to the monoliteral root PEH (with the extra letter ALEPH added to peah, and the extra NUN, to pinah). The core meaning of that root is “end/edge,” with peah referring more broadly to the edge of a specific area, and pinah referring to an edge of two sides of a specific area.

The word miktzoa derives from the triliteral root KUF-TZADI-AYIN. That root gives way to three different words: a verb (“cutting/removing/peeling”) and three nouns — maktzoa (the tool used for performing the verb form of this root, see Isa. 44:13 and Shabbat 123b), miktzoa (“corner”), and ketzia (a type of spice/incense). These four terms all appear in the Bible, and miktzoa as “corner” also appears in the Mishnah (Tamid 1:4, 3:3, Middot 2:5). Like some of the other terms we’ve already encountered, miktzoa is also rendered as zavit by Targum Onkelos (Ex. 26:23, see also Rashi to Neh. 3:19). The connection between the first three derivatives is probably that when cutting or scrapping something, one’s instrument should be position perpendicular to whatever is being cut or scrapped, thus forming an “angle” or “corner.” Perhaps ketzia is likewise derived from the verb meaning because it came from a plant that had to be “cut.”

Interestingly, the Mishnah (Bava Batra 10:8) uses the word miktzoa when stating that anyone who wishes to become wise should study monetary law, for there is no other “miktzoa b’torah and flowing spring” like that field of study. In this case, the meaning of miktzoa is somewhat obscured. In his commentary to Bava Batra (175b), Rabbi Yishmael ben Chachamon (a commentator who lived in Egypt at the same time as Maimonides) notes that the word miktzoa in this context means "corner," just like it does in the Bible. But this does not help clarify its usage. Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Yadler (1843–1917) explains that the Mishnah means that monetary law functions like the cornerstone of Torah Study, because it is rooted in logical structures. As he explains it, monetary law serves as a keystone and wellspring from which all other novella introduced into Torah Study may be derived. In Modern Hebrew, miktzoa refers to a “profession/occupation,” which seems to be totally unrelated to its original meaning.

Rabbi Pappenheim differentiates between pinah and miktzoa by explaining that each term has a very specific meaning. He postulates that pinah refers to a “corner” that forms any type of angle — a right angle, acute angle, or obtuse angle. On the other hand, he explains that miktzoa refers specifically to a “corner” that forms an acute angle (although he concedes that sometimes a miktzoa can also refer to a corner that forms a right angle). With this in mind, Rabbi Pappenheim adds that because miktzoa denotes an especially sharp corner, when the Mishnah stated that studying monetary law is a miktzoa for Torah Study, this means that the study of that discipline helps “sharpen” one’s mind and opens him up to higher levels of intellectuality. He also suggests that the ketziah spice is so called because it comes from a plant that has many sharp angles (thorns?).

Another word for “corner” is katzeh (plural: ketzot/ketzavot). It is clearly related to the root KUF-TZADI-(HEY), which means “edge/end.” This word is also translated by Onkelos as zavit (Ex. 38:5). Rabbi Pappenheim explains that it refers specifically to a corner that forms a “right angle.” Interestingly, just like Rabbi Pappenheim connects the word peat to peah (see above), so does he offer a similar explanation in relating the word katzin (“officer/general”) to the word katzeh. Other words derived from that root include miketz/keitz ("end" of a period of time), 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," that is, the last season before the end of the year at Rosh HaShanah), yekitzah ("waking up," because it is the end of one’s sleep cycle), andkotz (“thorn/thistle,” because it has multiple sharp ends/edges).

Rabbi Pappenheim differentiates between a katzeh/peah and miktzoa. He explains that katzeh/peah refer to spacious areas located in the corner, while miktzoa refers to a single point or angle where two sides converge, but not spread over a larger area. He further differentiates between katzeh and peah, by explaining the former as referring to a corner that is "above, below, frontward, or backward," while the latter refers to a corner that is on the "side" (I'm not sure exactly what this means.).

Another word for “corner” is atik (Ezek. 41:15, 42:3). There are three ways of understanding the etymology of this word: Menachem Ibn Saruk (920–970) categorizes this word as deriving from a root of its own, the quadriliteral ALEPH-TAV-YOD-KUF. Ibn Janach and Radak trace this word to the triliteral root NUN-TAV-KUF (“disengagement/disconnection/removing/uprooting”). Rabbi Pappenheim traces it to the biliteral TAV-KUF ("static/unchanging"), as atik refers to a panel that holds a wall in place and does not allow it to move from where it stands.

The word demeshek (Amos 3:12) appears only once in the Bible, making it a hapax legomenon. Based on the context in which it appears, Radak explains that it refers to a “corner” (of a bed). Interestingly, although demeshek is spelled the same as Damesek (the Hebrew name for the city “Damascus”), its penultimate letter is vocalized as SHIN, not SIN. Nonetheless, Rashi (to Amos 3:12) explains demeshek as though it meant the same thing as Damesek.

Another word in Biblical Hebrew for “corner” is pa’am (which is also rendered zavit by Targum Onkelos). For more about that word, see “Foot Festivals” (June 2018).

A final term for “corner” that appears in the Mishnah (Kilayim 2:7, 3:3, Keilim 18:2) is a rosh tor (literally, “head of an ox” in Aramaic). Shadal (to Ex. 25:31) clarifies that this is not a generic term for “corner,” but rather refers to a corner whose angle intersects with another line, something like this: . This formation is said to look like the head of an ox, hence the name. (It also resembles the letter ALEPH, as the word aleph literally means

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