The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 13 July 2024 / 7 Tamuz 5784

Chukas: Out in Public

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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In Parashat Chukat, the Torah records a very public affair wherein Moses spoke and/or acted improperly at the Waters of Merivah, leading Hashem to say, “Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this congregation to the land that I have given them” (Num. 20:12). This essay focuses on the different terms used in Hebrew to denote something occurring “publicly” by tracing the etymologies of these various synonyms and thereby highlighting the nuances between them. Those words include b’rabim, b’tzibbur, parhessya, pirsum, andb’pumbi.

The Mishnah (Avot 3:11) famously teaches that one who embarrasses another Jew “in public” loses his portion in the World to Come. The Hebrew term used by the Mishnah in that context to denote the concept of publicly humiliating somebody is b’rabim, which literally means “in [the presence of the] rabim.” Elsewhere, the term rabim in the Mishnah (Peah 2:1, Kilayim 4:7, Bechorot 1:1, Eruvin 5:6, Megillah 3:1, Parah 12:4) typically refers to something which is owned by the public at large and is often contrasted with yachid, which refers to an “individual/single person” who owns something. Such usage especially appears in the phrase reshut harabim, which occurs many times in the Mishnah in reference to a domain or area that is open to the public.

The word rabim already appears in the Hebrew Bible — two hundred times, to be exact — where it simply refers to “many.” It is not much of a stretch for the word’s meaning to also cover something “public,” which likewise relates to “many” people. An example of Biblical usage includes the passage in which King David said, “I thank Hashem very much with my mouth / and in the midst of the rabim, I will praise Him” (Ps. 109:30). Similar usage also appears in the Mishnah, for example when referring to a woman who made a promise that was well-known, yadua l’rabim (i.e., it was known to the masses), saying that if her husband divorces her because of said promise, he is not allowed to remarry her (Gittin 4:7).

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau in Cheshek Shlomo traces the word rabim to the biliteral root BET-REISH, which he defines as "quantitative increase." Other words that he relates to that very two-letter root include: rav/harbeh ("many/more"), arbeh ("grasshoppers," as locusts tend to swarm in multitudes), arubah ("sunroof," a skylight which allows in much light), rahav ("haughtiness," a conceited person who has more self-pride than normal), and ribo (“myriad,” an inflated number that sometimes equals 10,000). Rabbi Aharon Marcus adds that the word riv (“fight/dispute/argument”) — from whence the place name Waters of Merivah derives — also fits this idea because it denotes the plethora of multiple conflicting opinions on a given matter.

Another term that refers to “a mass of individual people” it tzibbur. Indeed, the term tzibbur in the Mishnah generally refers to the “general public” as a legal construct that can own things and appoint public servants. To that end, tzibbur is used in reference to “communal” sacrifices that were paid for by the Jewish People as a whole (Pesachim 6:5, 7:4, Shekalim 4:1, 7:5-6, Yoma 2:7, 3:7, 6:1, Sukkah 5:7, Zevachim 5:5, 14:10, Menachot 2:2, 4:5, 5:7, 9:4, 12:4, Temurah 1:6, 2:1-2, 3:4, Kritot 1:6) and to the concept of a cantor/chazzan who leads the prayers or otherwise discharges the masses of their Halachic obligations as the “messenger of the tzibbur” (Brachot 5:5, Rosh Hashanah 4:9).

Although the word tzibbur itself is never used in the Bible, its etymology can be traced to Biblical Hebrew, as the word clearly derives from the triliteral root TZADI-BET-REISH. That root occurs seven times in the Bible (Gen. 41:35, 41:49, Ex. 8:10, Hab. 1:10, Zech. 9:3, Ps. 39:7, and Job 27:16) and always refers to the act of “gathering/amassing” a collection. In it quite intuitive how an inflection of this term can be used in reference to the “public” at large which is — after all — an amassing of people.

Another two words in Rabbinic Hebrew that refer to something done in “public” are parhessya (sometimes pronounced farhessya) and pirsum. Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur in Sefer Tishbi writes that these two words mean the same thing, but that parhessya is a noun used to refer to “publicity,” while pirsum is a verb that refers to the act of “publicizing” something or someone. Both of these words do not appear in the Bible or in the Mishnah, but they do appear in the Talmud. In fact, these two terms are quite common in the Babylonian Talmud, although the word parhessya only appears in one teaching in the Jerusalemic Talmud (Peah 1:1, Sanhedrin 10:1).

The consensus of philologists, linguists, historians, and other scholars is that the Rabbinic Hebrew word parhessya is actually a loanword borrowed from the Greek parrhesia (“open,” “frank speech,” “outspokenness”). That Greek word has been parsed as a shortened form of panresia, which is derived of the prefix pan- (“total,” “all,” “encompassing”) and retos (“speech,” related to rhetoric). In this way, parrhesia refers to the notion of being able to speak one’s mind, which might entail saying any and all sorts of things.

The Greek term parrhesia itself also has a fascinating history. In Hellenistic culture, it refers to the idea of "freedom of speech," but more deeply, it implies a moral obligation to speak the truth, especially when it is crucial for the greater good, regardless of the risks involved. It was actually a fundamental aspect of Greek society, especially in the realm of philosophy and politics, and continues to influence Western culture to this day. One of the most famous examples of parrhesia is found in Socrates, who was said by Plato to engage in dialogues that questioned the status quo, whilst often challenging the moral and ethical foundations of Athenian society. His unwavering commitment to speaking the truth ultimately led to his trial and execution. He essentially gave up his life to be able to utter whatever he felt was true. That Greco-Roman concept also appears in early Christian texts when discussing the acts of the apostles, who boldly “preached the gospel” despite persecution.

While the Greek term parrhesia focuses on the moral obligation to speak the truth publicly, the Rabbinic term parhessya emphasizes the visibility and communal aspect of actions (whether good actions or evil actions), which is a similar, but slightly different, idea. For example, in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 74a-75a, Avodah zarah 27b), there is a discussion about the severity of committing a sin in private versus in public (b’farhessya). To that end, a public sin is seen as more grievous because it not only transgresses the eternal law, but also sets a negative example for the community, which is why there is more of a reason for one to give up one’s life to avoid sinning publicly. The converse is true of one who sanctifies Hashem’s name in public by acting properly, as the Talmud (Sotah 10b, 36b) states that because Judah sanctified Hashem’s name publicly(b’farhessya, by admitting fault in the episode with Tamar), his name includes all four letters of the Tetragrammaton, while Joseph who only sanctified Hashem’s name privately (b’tzina, by refusing to sin with Potiphar’s wife) only has three out of four letters of the Tetragrammaton in his name. [For more about Joseph’s names, see “The Amazing Multi-Named Joseph” (Dec. 2022).]

In fact, in many different Talmudic discussions, the term tzina (a cognate of the word tzniut)often appears as the antonym or foil to parhessya (Eruvin 69a, Sukkah 49b, Beitzah 16a, Ta’anit 16b, Ketubot 103b, Gittin 38a, Bava Metzia 46b, Bava Batra 42a, Sanhedrin 26b, Avodah Zarah 36b, 54a, Zevachim 88b, Arachin 16a-16b).

Interestingly, Rabbi David Golumb in HaTorah VeHaTalmud (vol. 1 p. 39) theorizes that the -hass (HEY-SAMECH) element of parhessya relates to the Biblical Hebrew verb hass (Num. 13:30, Jud. 3:19, Amos 6:10, Hab. 2:20, Zeph. 1:7, Zech. 2:17), which is an onomatopoeic rendering of the sound made by one “hushing” others (“shhh...”). Rabbi Golumb relates the act of “hushing” to parhessya because in order for one to announce or proclaim some information to be publicly disseminated amongst the masses, one must first quiet the masses so that they let him speak.

The Rabbinic Hebrew term pirsum also seems to be derived from the Greek parrhesia (per HaBachur’s assertion that pirsum is related to parhessya), although other theories have also been suggested. Rabbi Ernest Klein in his etymological dictionary of Hebrew relates that some scholars trace pirsum to the Syriac/Aramaic root PEH-REISH-SAMECH ("opening," "cutting open"), or to the Hebrew root PEH-SIN-HEY ("expanding," "spreading," "opening"). Although I have not been able to locate the works of the philologists to whom he refers, I did find that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ps. 80:14) sees pirsum as derived from PEH-REISH-SAMECH with the appendage of a radical MEM at the end.

Like the words parhessya and pirsum, the Rabbinic Hebrew word pumbi appears neither in the Bible nor in the Mishnah, but it does appear in the Talmud — twice in the Babylonian Talmud and twice in the Jerusalemic Talmud: The Babylonian Talmud (Avodah Zarah 54b), as understood by Sefer He’Aruch, talks about wicked people who sin in “public affairs” by engaging in illicit relations and thereby birthing illegitimate children. In that context, the Talmud laments that those evildoers also “trouble” Hashem by causing Him to grant souls to those illegitimate children (so as not to the deviate from the natural order, wherein women become pregnant and give birth to offspring that have souls). The word used by the Talmud to denote that the wicked commit these acts “publicly” is b’pumbi.

In the other case, the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Batra 145b) discusses the laws of shushbinin (often translated as a “best man”), which, in the rabbinic context, refers to a specific type of financial arrangement whereby A undertakes to defray the costs of B’s wedding, while B agrees to do the same for A’s future wedding. In discussing this arrangement, the Talmud states that if B’s wedding that A contributed towards was a “public affair” (b’pumbi), then B is only obligated to pay for A’s wedding if A’s wedding is likewise done in a “public fashion.” But if A opts for a more private wedding (tzanua), then B is not obligated to contribute.

As mentioned above, pumbi also appears twice in the Jerusalemic Talmud: The Mishnah (Yoma 4:1) states that the lots drawn on Yom Kippur in the Temple (to determine which goat will be sacrificed for Hashem and which, as the scapegoat for Azazel) were cast in a special box. The Jerusalemic Talmud (there) explains that they could have just as easily used a simple basket for that purpose, but in order to make the lottery a more “public affair” (b’pumbi) they used a special box. Likewise, the Mishnah (Shekalim 3:1) states that at three junctures during the year, the coins donated to the Holy Temple were emptied out into elaborate containers. The Jerusalemic Talmud (Shekalim 1:1) again explains that even though according to the letter of the law this only needed to be done once annually, it was done thrice a year in order to make it a more “public affair” (b’pumbi).

Midrash Tanchuma (Ki Tisa §31, Naso §17) teaches the virtue of doing things in a hushed, private way instead of in an ostentatious public way. It illustrates this lesson by noting that when Hashem gave the first set of Tablets to Moses on Mount Sinai, He did so in a very public spectacle (b’pumbi) and those Tablets ended up getting destroyed. The implication is that the second set of Tablets which were given under humbler, more modest circumstances were more likely to last squarely because they were not presented in a showy way.

In Targum, the word pumbi appears twice (Ps. 68:7, Job 5:23), and Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur in Meturgaman writes that pumbi means the same thing as pirsum.

That may be true from a semantic angle, but from an etymological perspective, pumbi is not quite the same thing as parhessya and pirsum. Rather, the Rabbinic Hebrew term pumbi derives from a different Greek word than do those other two terms; it derives from the Greek term pompe, which refers to the “pomp ceremony” of a public procession. Such ornate spectacles were public events performed out in the open, so it is easy to see how the Late Hebrew word pumbi came to likewise refer to things that transpired in the public eye.

In fact, the English word pomp (like in the phrase “pomp and circumstance”) also derives from the Greek word pompe (by way of the Latin pompa). Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur in Sefer Tishbi already noted that the rabbinic term pumbi is the same as the Latin pompa. As my readers may have already realized, this etymology is based on the interchangeably of the b-sound and the p-sound. Other related words in English include pompous (i.e., a type of person who commands a majestic or stately ambiance, making his presence a spectacle to be beheld) and pump (a showy type of shoe, worn by those trying to make a scene).

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