The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 25 November 2023 / 12 Kislev 5784

Vayeitzei: Testify!

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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After Jacob and his family secretly fled the house of Jacob’s father-in-law Laban, Laban and his entourage chased after Jacob with ill intent, but eventually agreed to make peace with him. To mark the cementing of their peace treaty, Laban and Jacob erected a monument which would commemorate their agreement. As the Bible reports it, Laban named the site Yegar Sahaduta, Aramaic for "witness mound," while Jacob named the site Gal-Eid, Hebrew for "witness mound” (Gen. 31:47). In this essay we focus on the synonyms eid and sahad, which both refer to “witness” and the act of “giving testimony.” In doing so, we examine their respective and shared etymologies, while also discussing other words related to them. At the end of this essay, we will consider what these terms might teach us about Judaism’s perspective on martyrdom.

The earliest Hebrew lexicographers, like Menachem Ibn Saruk (920–970), Yonah Ibn Janach (990–1050), and the Radak (1160–1235), trace the Hebrew words eid (“witness”) and eidut (“testimony”) to the biliteral root AYIN-DALET. That particular root is the etymon for a whole bevy of Hebrew words, but none of the classical lexicographers offer a systematic way of connecting those different words, nor do they even insinuate the existence of such a connection.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) in both Yeriot Shlomo and Cheshek Shlomo offers a lengthy discussion of this two-letter root and many of its tributaries. He sees the core meaning of AYIN-DALET as "connecting one thing to another," with the common Hebrew proposition ad ("until") serving as an archetypical reflection of this idea. The word ad can be used to forge connections in time (e.g., “I will walk until nightfall”), space (e.g., “I will walk until the red house”), or a whole slew of other conditions (e.g., “I will walk until my foot hurts”).

Some of the other terms that Rabbi Pappenheim sees as related to this root include moed (“meeting,” where two or more parties encounter one another), eidah (“congregation,” where individuals join up at a certain place or for a certain goal), adi (“adornment,” which connects that which is decorated with the decorations that cause beautification), and eden (“enjoyment,” because pleasure creates agreement between one who enjoins something with the thing itself).

Following this line of inquiry, Rabbi Pappenheim also connects eid/eidut to this biliteral root. He explains that the primary function of a “witness” is to give “testimony” that establishes a connection between an action or event that happened with the preparator or the one respirable for that occurrence. In this way, eidut too is a form of “connection.” He notes that although this concept applies primarily to human witnesses, it can also be extended to physical monuments or objects, which similarly serve as reminders of a certain message to which they "testify." A certain subset of the Torah's commandments is called eidot (Deut. 4:45, 6:17, Ps. 93:5, Ps. 119:2, 119:32) because their purpose is to "testify" about specific historical events that happened to the Jewish People.

Rabbi Pappenheim continues to explain that one of the primary roles of a witness in a judicial context is to warn a potential sinner about the ramifications and punishments resulting from his intended actions. Because of this, the word eid itself came to be associated with the act of "warning" another, even outside of the context of witnesses and testimony (for example, see Gen. 43:3, Ex. 19:21, 21:29). As a result, the Torah itself gained the appellation eidut (Ex. 31:18, 26:33, Num. 18:2), as most of the Torah's injunctions are negative commandments that "warn" against performing certain actions. In a similar sense, an ox that has already gored three times is called a muad (see Mishnah Bava Kamma 1:4, 2:4, 2:6, 3:8, 4:2, 4:5 4:9) because its owner has already been “warned” that his beast is a dangerous one and needs to be watched (see Ex. 21:29).

Interestingly, Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Parchon (12th century) in his Machberet HaAruch traces the term eid/eidut to the word adi mentioned above, explaining that that just as ornamental trappings mark something as special and important, so is eidut outstanding from all other sorts of verbal utterances in that it relays important, pertinent information.

Besides for the case of Yegar Sahaduta, the word sahad — whose root seems to be SIN-HEY-DALET — appears only one more time in the Bible. When the suffering Job protests his innocence and declares how he is undeserving of the punishments that had become his lot, he says, among other things, “Now also, behold my witnesses (eid) are in the Heavens, and my witnesses (sahad) are in High Places” (Job 16:19). In this verse, Job poetically uses the word sahad as the counterpart to eid. Outside of the Bible, cognates of sahad do not appear in the Mishnah, but the standard word for “witnesses” in Talmudic Aramaic is sahadei — spelled with an initial SAMECH — as in the Talmudic expression, anan sahadi (“we [in the proverbial sense] testify”).

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to ps. 20:3) writes that sahad (whether spelled with an initial SIN or SAMECH) is phonetically related to the root of sa'ad ("support/sustain"), SAMECH-AYIN-DALET, based on the interchangeability of HEY and AYIN. This connection is justified because the role of a “witness” is to provide testimony that could “support” one side of the litigation or the other. Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Carpentras (an 18th century grammarian and dayan) also offers a similar connection between sahad and sa’ad in his work Ohalei Yehuda. Interestingly, in the edition of Ibn Saruk’s Machberet Menachem published by Herschell Filipowsky (1816–1872), Ibn Saruk defines the word eid as sa’ad, which fits Rabbi Hirsch’s understanding. However, in the hitherto-unpublished edition of Machberet Menachem prepared by Professor Ángel Sáenz-Badillo (1940–2013), Ibn Saruk defines the word eid as sahad, which is less novel.

Truth be told, strictly-speaking eid and sahad are not quite synonyms because even though they broadly mean the exact same thing, they are sourced in different languages. Both the Jerusalemic Talmud (Sotah 7:2, Sanhedrin 10:1) and the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 115b, Megillah 9a) already recognize that the word sahaduta in the placename Yegar Sahaduta is not Hebrew, but is actually Aramaic (or, more precisely, Syriac, which is a dialect of Aramaic). This means that although the semantic range of eid and sahad line up, they cannot be said to be synonymous because they come from two distinct Semitic languages.

Nonetheless, in positing a difference between the apparent synonyms eid and sahad, Malbim (to Job 16:19) suggests that eid refers to a witness who can attest to Job’s upstanding character in interpersonal matters, while sahad refers to a witness who can testify to his piety in matters between man and Hashem.

Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866–1935) offers a different approach: He explains that the core meaning of eid relates to vaad ("meeting/council") —spelled VAV-AYIN-DALET — as the eid represents a person who happened to have been at the right place at the right time. Such a person "meets" or "encounters" certain information to which he is privy (similar to Rabbi Pappenheim’s approach cited above). In this way, the term eid focuses on how the witness knows the content of his testimony. Similarly, Rabbi Avraham Kobernick in Hipuch Otiyot writes that the root AYIN-DALET (“witness”) can be viewed as a metathesized form of the root DALET-AYIN (“knowledge”), thus characterizing the eid as the person who is “in the know.”

On the other hand, the term sahad does not refer to the witness’ special knowledge, but to his role in relaying the information which he has beheld. Based on this, Rabbi Wertheimer surmises that sahad is etymologically-related to heid (Ezek. 7:7, Amos 4:13), which means “thunderclap” or “echo,” thus denoting a sound that is heard by others. In this way, sahad focuses on the witness serving as the foghorn that purveys relevant information and blows the whistle — so to speak.

Rabbi Wertheimer’s explanation echoes earlier ideas expressed by Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto (1800–1865), also known as Shadal. Shadal (to Gen. 31:50, Deut. 32:21, and Bikkurei Ittim 1829, pp.194-196) argues that word eid derives from the triliteral root AYIN-HEY-DALET, attested to in the Syriac dialect of Aramaic (but not in the Hebrew Bible). That root primarily means "remembering,” “mentioning, “warning" and invokes what Shadal considers the eid’s primary role: warning a sinner against committing a misdeed. Taking this a step further, he too considers that the core of that triliteral root is the two-letter string HEY-DALET, to which Hebrew added an initial AYIN and Aramaic added an initial SIN/SAMECH.

In addition to the above-cited explanation proposed by Ohalei Yehuda, that work also suggests parsing sahad as a portmanteau of zeh (“this,” via the interchangeability of SIN/SAMECH with ZAYIN) and eid. In some ways, this is similar to Shadal’s understanding because it posits that the words sahad and eid are etymologically related.

Fascinatingly, in a Ketubah document from Damascus found in the Cairo Genizah (dated to the year 933 ce), the word eid, and the two spelling of sahad — with an initial SIN and with an initial SAMECH — are all used interchangeability in the very same document!


A cognate of sahad is used in Syriac Christian sources to refer to a “martyr.” That term was later appropriated by Islam to coin the Arabic word shahid/shaheed ("martyr"). Both the Syriac and Arabic words literally mean “witness,” but also assume the theological connotation of referring to one died for his religion. This actually parallels the English word martyr, which is borrowed from the Ancient Greek word martur, that literally means "witness."

While the Christian and Muslim words for “martyr” are etymologically related to the concept of "witness/testimony," the Jewish term for one who dies for his religion is kadosh (plural: kedoshim), which relates to the Hebrew word kadosh ("holy/sanctified"). This difference in phraseology is quite telling about how Christianity and Islam differ from Judaism regarding the subject of martyrdom. Christianity and Islam are much more obsessed with proving the truth of their beliefs than Judaism is. Because of this, people who practice those religions see the death of their co-religionists as bearing “testimony” about the veracity of the truth-claims that the religions are based on. In other words, somebody dying in the name of their faith somehow serves as “proof” of that religion.

Judaism does not accept the idea that a person’s willingness to sacrifice his life for his religion proves its truth because it makes no sense; many people fanatically believe in all sorts of false ideas. Instead, Judaism views its truisms as axiomatic and self-evident, with no need for somebody to give up his life in order to provide outside “proof” to the veracity of the religion. For this reason, Judaism does not use a term related to “testimony” for martyrs, but instead refers to them as simply “holy” without trying to derive any proofs from their demise. The Jewish perspective instead focuses on how a person giving up his life demonstrates that for that person, Hashem and Hashem's Word rises as above everything else — even his own life.

The core idea behind kedushah is “separation,” and Hashem is the ultimate Kadosh because He is totally different in kind from anything else in existence, so in that sense He is separated from everything else. By allowing oneself to be killed for the sake of Hashem, the Jewish martyr shows how he understands that even human life (which is otherwise the most important thing) takes a backseat to Hashem's Will. When a person is killed while sanctifying the name of Hashem (kiddush Hashem), this is the ultimate declaration (but not proof) of Hashem's kedushah, and a person who is dedicated to making such a declaration is therefore himself called a kadosh. Moreover, the Jewish emphasis on holiness and sanctification reflects a broader spiritual and ethical framework, rather than a specific focus of merely dying for one's faith.

Obviously, language and terminology alone cannot fully capture the theological and historical nuances of these religious traditions, but this phraseological difference still remains an important heuristic for doing just that.

[In general, Arabic turns a Hebrew SHIN into its equivalent of SAMECH, but in the case of the Hebrew/Aramaic sahad becoming shahid, Arabic turns the Hebrew SIN into a SHIN. Rabbi Yosef Kerman clarifies that the Aramaic word sahad really begins with a SIN (like the two cases in the Hebrew Bible which are spelled with an initial SIN), even though its cognates are often written with an initial SAMECH (like in the Talmud).]

Special thanks to Rabbi Shaul Goldman and Rabbi Yosef Kerman for helping me develop and formulate some of these ideas about martyrdom.

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