The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 6 April 2024 / 27 Adar Bet 5784

Shemini: The Nosey Truth

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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When Nadab and Abihu offered a “foreign fire” that was not prescribed by the Torah, a fire came out from before Hashem and consumed them (Lev. 10:1–2). The Talmud (Sanhedrin 52a) describes that what happened was that two fiery livewires exited from the Holy of Holies and then split into four, before each fire entered one of the four “nostrils” of Nadab of Abihu and killed them. In that passage, the Talmud uses the word chotem to describe their respective “noses/nostrils.” This essay explores the Hebrew word chotem alongside its apparent synonyms af and nichirayim, which also refer to “noses/nostrils.”

Let’s start with the most common word in Biblical Hebrew for “nose”: af. The early grammarians disagreed about what the exact root of af might be, as Menachem Ibn Saruk (920–970)and Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach (990–1050)argued that its root is ALEPH-PEH, while Radak (1160–1235) saw its root as ALEPH-NUN-PEH. Either way, a whole slew of other terms might be etymologically-related to af, which include words that mean “anger,” “face,” “even/also,” “although,” and “baking,” in addition to the aforementioned meaning of “nose/nostril.”

In general, when the word af is used in its singular form, it refers to a single “nose,” but when it appears in dual form — i.e., apayim, which should literally mean “two noses” — it refers to the entire“face.” Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843–1916)writes that this because the “face” can divided on the left-right axis into two parts, corresponding to the two nostrils on each side of the nose.

In defining the word af (or at least in attempting to clarify which of that word’s versatile meanings is intended), Rashi sometimes uses the synonym nichirayaim (to Ex. 15:8, Jer. 17:4) and sometimes uses the synonym chotem (to Isa. 48:9, Ezek. 8:17, Brachot 61b). But when it comes to Targum, Rabbi Eliyahu Bachur (1469–1549) in his work Meturgaman points out a telling phenomenon: When inflections of af are used in the Bible in the sense of “face,” Targum typically renders those word into Aramaic as inflections of the word anaf (“face”), but when inflections of af appear in the Bible in the sense of “nose,” Targum uses inflection of the word n’char (related to nichirayim, discussed below).

It should be made clear that the Aramaic word anaf is itself likely a cognate of the Hebrew word af, with the additional NUN in the middle, as often happens (there is a similar word anf in Arabic, which means “nose”). In fact, there is a Biblical Hebrew root ALEPH-NUN-PEH which yields verbs that mean “becoming angry” in the Bible, and we have already seen that the word for “anger” is related to “nose.” Rashi (to Deut. 29:19, II Sam. 22:9, Isa. 48:9, Ps. 18:9, Brachot 56b) explains that the term charon-af refers to "anger," because a person's anger can be discerned on his nose as it fumes in fury. In fact, some have argued that since the nose is a person’s most distinguishing and outstanding facial feature, the words for “face” and “nose” are related to one another (see Rabbi Pappenheim’s Cheshek Shlomo on the word af). [See also Rashi (to Ezek. 23:25, Shabbat 151b), who explains the importance of the chotem lies in its place as one the centerpieces of a person’s facial countenance.]

Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Carpentras (in Aholei Yehuda) writes that the core meaning of af is actually “face,” but that the word also means “nose” because the nose serves as the symbol of a person’s overall mood in the sense that anger is physically discernable on a person’s nose. Either way, the meaning of the word af/apayim is sometimes ambiguous, such that it could be unclear whether it means "nose" or "face" (see Rashi to Song of Songs 7:5).

The way the remaining words related to af thematically connect back to the “nose” are fairly intuitive: Since the nose is something that noticeably juts out of one’s face, af (“even/also/although/”) in the rhetorical sense rejects an objection from an obvious counterpoint to a given thesis by stating “even though such-and-such objection may exist, said thesis still stands.” Additionally, once we know that af relates to “anger,” we can easily see how when a person gets heated up in anger, that “heat” could be linguistically repurposed to “bake” something. Hence, the word afah means “baking.”

Interestingly, the word af appears three times in the Aramaic parts of the Bible (Dan. 6:23, Ezra 5:10, 6:5), where it always means “even/also.” Based on this, Professor Edward Yechezkel Kutscher (1909–1971) conjectures that because in Aramaic the meaning of af seems unambiguous, the rabbis continued to use the word af exclusively in that sense in Rabbinic Hebrew. They did so to such an extent that this usage of the word af even replaced the highly-popular Biblical term gam (“also,” which, according to Even Shoshan’s concordance, appears 772 times in the Bible). In fact, the word gam never appears in the Mishnah, except for two cases when the Mishnah cites a Biblical verse that uses that word (Sotah 1:9 cites Gen 50:9, and Yadayim 4:4 cites Deut. 23:4) and one case wherein gam actually refers to the shape of the Greek letter Gamma (Keilim 14:8).

Now we can talk about the word chotem. Although that word does not appear in the Bible, it does appear several times in the Mishnah: Firstly, the Mishnah (Yevamot 16:3) states that in order to positively identify the body of a dead man (for the purposes of allowing his widow to remarry), one must see his chotem (“nose”). Moreover, the word chotem appears twice when the Mishnah (Negaim 6:7-8) discusses which body parts are or are not susceptible to tzaraat (roughly "leprosy"). Additionally, the Mishnah (Machshirin 6:5) uses the word chotem in discussing whether the liquid that comes from one’s nose renders a fruit or vegetable susceptible to ritual impurity.

Finally, the Mishnah (Middot 3:2) describes the southwestern corner of the altar in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem as having "two holes [for pipes], which are like sorts of two thin chotmin" meaning that these two holes resembled the two nostrils of a nose. The Talmud (Niddah 25a) similarly uses this term when detailing how a miscarried fetus might look if its limbs already began to develop, stating that its two chotmim might resembles the two eyes of a fly. In these last two cases, the word chotem is clearly being used in the sense of “nostril,” and not as “nose” (because people do not typically have two noses!).

In Talmudic parlance, the term chotem is also used to refer to any curvy/sloping feature that resembles a nose, like the exterior part of a citron that slopes from the wide middle of the fruit towards the skinny top, known in English as the "stem end" or "stylar end" (Sukkah 35b, see also Niddah 47a for another example).

Even though the word chotem does not appear in the Bible, the triliteral root CHET-TET-MEM from whence it is etymologically derived does occur once in Biblical Hebrew: “For the sake of My name, I am slow anger (a’arich api) / And My praise is that I shall hold back [echetam] for you” (Isa. 48:9). The early Spanish grammarian Rabbi Yehudah Ibn Balaam (1000–1070) wrote an entire work devoted to verbs in Hebrew that are etymologically derived from nouns, and in that work he argues that the Biblical Hebrew verb echetam actually derives from the Rabbinic Hebrew noun chotem (again, even though the latter word does not actually appear in the Bible). [Interestingly, Ibn Saruk in Machberet Menachem defines echetam as “I am forgiving,” without noting any connection between that word and chotem.]

A generation later, Rashi (1040–1105) wrote (in his comments to Ex. 15:8 and Isa. 48:9) that echetam denotes “holding back” from getting angry because anger is referred to as the flaring up of the nose, and the word echetam refers to the figurative “closing up” of the nose in such a way that anger is suppressed. Essentially, Rashi also reads echetam as related to chotem. Similar understandings can be gleaned from the comments of Rabbi Yosef Kara, Ibn Ezra, and Radak (to Isa. 48:9), as well as Radak in Sefer HaShorashim and the Zohar (Mishpatim 122b, Haazinu 289a, 294a). As an aside, the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah §5:6) explicates the word echetam as though the middle letter of that root were a TAV (via the interchangeability of TET and TAV), thus echetam to chatum (“closed/sealed”).

The upshot of this discussion so far is that we have two words for “nose” in Hebrew: In Biblical Hebrew, we have the word af; while in Rabbinic Hebrew, we have the word chotem.

Professor Kutscher asks what drove the rabbis to replace the Biblical Hebrew word with an entirely new word that does not really appear in the Bible. He also finds it significant that a basic common word like that used for an ordinary body part (“nose”) would be replaced, as those sorts of words usually have the strongest staying-power and are not easily displaced, even as languages continue to evolve over the generations. The usual answer to these sorts of question is that Rabbinic Hebrew is more heavily influence by Aramaic than Biblical Hebrew, but Kutscher rejects that line of reasoning in this case, because he is doubtful as to whether the word chotem is truly Aramaic. In expressing this doubt, Kutscher notes that that word chotem never appears in Targum Onkelos (as alluded to above), and is certainly not used in later dialects of Aramaic.

To resolve these difficulties, Kutscher proposes that the rabbis preferred the newly-coined term chotem for "nose" in order to displace the “archaic” Biblical word af which in any event had multiple meanings. In other words, because the meaning of af can sometimes be ambiguous — does it mean "nose," "anger," or "even/also/although"? — the rabbis developed a language policy that replaced that Biblical word with a new word in the form of chotem when talking about “noses,” so that the semantic ambiguity will disappear. As Kutscher points out, if one looked at a Biblical concordance (as I did, using the Even Shoshan concordance), one will realize that most times that the word af appears in the Bible it means either “anger” or “even/also/although,” and its use in the sense of “nose” is only a small minority of cases (according to Even Shoshan, it amounts to 22 times out of a total of 414 appearances of the word af), so it makes sense that the rabbis wanted to phase out that usage and adopt a new standard word for “nose.”

Yet, Kutscher finds it interesting that although chotem essentially replaced af in Rabbinic Hebrew, the word af was still retained in certain compound-phrases even in Rabbinic Hebrew. Examples include when the Mishnah (Keilim 11:8) uses the term nizmei ha’af (“nose-rings,” a phrase already found in Isa. 3:21), or when the Tosefta (Shabbat 8:28, Zavim 5:2) uses the term mei ha’af (literally, “water of the nose”). Similarly, Kutscher notes that af is twice used in compound-phrases in the Mishnah that are taken from Biblical terms like and charon af (Sanhedrin 10:6), which denotes Hashem’s anger at the continued existence of wicked people in This World (literally, “heating of the nose”) and erech apayim (Avot 4:1, 5:2), which denotes Hashem’s reticence to be angered (literally, “longness of face”).

Speaking of which, the Zohar (Naso 130b) relates that when Rav Hamnuna Sabba would want to pray, he would say "I am praying to the Baal HaChotem [literally, Master of the Nose]" in reference to Hashem's merciful trait of being slow to anger.

Along similar lines, the Talmud (Taanit 29a) relates that when Rabban Gamliel was taken to be martyred by the Romans, he was called the “Baal HaChotem,” but the Talmud does not explain the meaning of this obscure appellation. Rashi (there) explains that this eponym referred to the fact that just as the nose serves as the aesthetic centerpiece of one’s face, so did Rabban Gamliel — in his leadership position as the Nasi (“Patriarch”) — serve as the centerpiece of his generation. Maharsha (there) furthers adds that just as the nose is such an integral limb that a person cannot live without it, so too was Rabban Gamliel so important to the Jewish People in his times. Rabbi Avraham Nissan Orenstein (1898–1938) in his encyclopedia on Jewish honorifics cites some scholars who have argued that Rabban Gamliel’s nickname is a pun based on the similarity of his Hebrew title Nasi to the Latin word naso/nasus (“nose,” which is the historical etymon of such English words as nose, nasal, nostril, nozzle, and nuzzle, plus the Yiddishnoz).

Interestingly, the French Tosafist Rabbi Yitzchak of Cobreil (d. 1280), author of the Smak (Sefer Mitzvot Katan), is also known as Ri Baal HaChotem. In explaining the origins of that nickname, Rabbi David Conforte (1618-1685) tells that it was related to the fact that the author of the Smak grew hair on his nose. Interestingly, when asked about whether it is appropriate to give the nickname Baal HaChotem to somebody who has a big nose, Rabbi Yechezkel Kochali (usually understood as a penname for Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, author of the Ben Ish Chai) responded in Torah Lishmah (§421) that it depends on the context.

One of the Eight Types of Rodents whose dead bodies are ritually impure is the chomet (Lev. 11:30). Rabbi Moshe Yair Weinstock (1899–1982) suggests that chomet (often translated as “lizard”) refers to some sort of creature that uses it pointy nose to dig underground. Because of this, he argues that the very word chomet for that animal is actually just a metathesized form of the word chotem (with the consonants TET and MEM switching positions).

Finally, we discuss the word nichirayim (“nostrils”), which appears only once in the Bible, in the verse “And from His nostrils [nichirayim] goes out smoke” (Job 41:12). The classical lexicographers like Menachem Ibn Saruk, Yonah Ibn Janach, Shlomo Ibn Parchon (the 12th century author of Machberet HeAruch), and Radak trace the word nichirayim to the triliteral root NUN-CHET-REISH. That root also gives us various verbs related to the nose, like “snorting/snoring/braying” (see Job 39:20, Jer. 6:29, 8:16).

But Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) has a different way of looking at it. He traces nichirayim to the two-letter root CHET-REISH, whose core meaning he defines as “other than the one in front of us.” Based on this, Rabbi Pappenheim writes that the word acher (“other/another”) derives from this root, as does machar (“tomorrow,” i.e., another day that is not today), achar (“after,” i.e., a time other than the present), and achor (“back,” i.e., a side other than the one currently facing me). Taking this a step further, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that chor (“hole”) also derives from that root as a derivative of achor because all human beings have a chor on their “backside.” Taking this even further, Rabbi Pappenheim adds that nichirayim is a tributary of the word chor, as essentially a “nostril” is just a “hole” in one’s face. Rabbi Pappenheim further argues that two more words from this root derive from nichirayim: charon (“anger”) because the “nostrils” of an angry person flare up, and charum (Lev. 21:18) — in reference to the physical blemish of a “droopy nose” — because it directly relates to the nose.

Interestingly, Rabbi Binyamin Mussafia (1606–1675) adds that the term nechirah in Rabbinic Hebrew, which refers to "stabbing an animal in its neck" (the typical Noahide way of killing an animal, as opposed to properly slaughtering it) also relates to the word chor, because it too involves making a "hole."

As an aside, one of the warriors who served King David was named Nachrai (II Sam. 23:37, I Chron. 11:39), whose name seems to be derived from the same root as the word nichirayim. To me, it is intriguing to think about the onomastic meaning of his name.

By the way, I thought it would be fascinating to share with you that the Peirush HaRokeach (to Gen. 2:7) explains that the nose resembles an upside letter SHIN because the name of that letter relates to the concept of “changing” (shinui), thus alluding to the nose which constantly vacillates between bringing one’s main influx of oxygen from the right nostril and the left nostril in the same way that when exercising his freewill, man typically vacillates between choosing good (right) and choosing evil (left).

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