The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 19 January 2019 / 13 Shevat 5779

Cut it Out! (Part 1 of 2)

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Kaddish

In this week’s Torah portion, the Torah relates one of the most captivating stories in the entire Bible: the splitting of the sea. After the Egyptians finally let the Jews out of Egypt, they quickly changed their minds and followed in pursuit of their former slaves. The Jews traveled and traveled until they reached edge of the Yam Suf (Red Sea, or Reed Sea). With the Egyptians behind them and the sea in front of them, the Jews had nowhere to go but forward, so G-d miraculously split the sea open and allowed the Jews to cross the dry sea bed. Jewish tradition immortalizes this fantastic miracle as Kriyat Yam Suf — literally, “the tearing of the Yam Suf”. However, if one looks very closely, one will notice that Torah never uses the verb korea (“tearing”) to describe the sea opening up. Rather, the Torah uses the verb bokea (“splitting”) to refer to G-d’s breaking the sea open (Ex. 14:15, 14:21). What is the difference between bokea and korea? And why does the Torah use the former, but other traditional sources use the latter?

The Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchok Meir Alter (1799-1866), author of the Chiddishei HaRim, was once asked this question. He replied that he has much to say, but from Above he is stopped from giving a full answer. Instead, the Gerrer Rebbe said that he could reveal only a partial answer, one that is based on the halachic definition of the act of korea (“tearing,” which is forbidden on Shabbat). The Shulchan Aruch HaGraz (Orach Chaim §340:17) defines korea as the act of ripping apart two things that were joined together, but were once separate. The Midrash says that when G-d first created the world, He stipulated with the water that when the time comes, they will split in order to allow the Jews to cross the Yam Suf. Because of this prior stipulation, the water can be seen as having already been split from the time of Creation. Thus, when the Jews came to the Yam Suf and G-d split the sea for them, He was actually splitting something which had already once been split. For this reason, the Oral Torah uses the word korea when talking about splitting the sea. Nonetheless, the Gerrer Rebbe said that he cannot reveal why the Written Torah uses the word bokea.

Rabbi Shmuel Borenstein of Sochatchov (1855-1926) offers a different answer. In his work Shem Mi’Shmuel,he explains that the difference between bokea and korea lies in whose voice is speaking. He explains that the word bokea refers to something which was split from the inside out. For example, a hatchling which bursts out from inside an egg is described as bokea (Isa. 34:15), as is wine which busts open a flask (Gittin 26a). In contrast, the term korea applies to something which is cut by an outside force (like North Korea and South Korea, which were split by the Cold War).

Accordingly, Rabbi Borenstein explains that from G-d’s point of view the sea split from the inside out, because He commanded it to split and it listened to Him. For this reason, the Written Torah — in which G-d speaks to us—uses the term bokea when describing the sea’s splitting. However, the Oral Torah is written from the perspective of the Jewish People. From that vantage point the sea did not appear to split on its own. Rather, we look at the sea as having split due to an outside force acting upon it. In other words, we look at G-d as coming from the outside and splitting the sea on our behalf. For this reason the Oral Torah uses the term korea when describing the sea splitting.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) writes that korea refers specifically to “tearing” or “ripping” something which is soft and can be easily torn. The halachic requirement for one to rend one’s clothes when in mourning is called tearing kriyah. According to this we can explain that when speaking of the tradition of G-d’s “tearing” the sea open, we specifically use the term kriyat yam suf to note that vis-à-vis G-d, tearing the sea is no great feat, because He can do everything. When He tore open the sea, it was as though He tore or ripped something which can be easily torn.

Elsewhere, the Bible uses a third verb to denote the cutting open of the sea. In Psalms 136:13, the splitting of the sea is referred to as “cutting (gozer) the Yam Suf into cuts (l’gezarim)”. We also thank G-d in the daily Maariv prayers for being “the one who passes His children between the cuts (gizrei) of the Yam Suf”. How does this verb gozer differ from bokea and korea?

Rabbi Pappenheim explains that gozer refers to the act of precision-cutting with an instrument. Anything which is purposely “cut out” from being attached to something bigger can be described as nigzar or a gizrah. A decree, or judicial verdict, is also called a gezirah because the final ruling is “cut out” from the greater back-and-forth of the legal discussion, and is applied on its own. Interestingly, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ps. 136:13) writes that the Psalmist specifically chose the word gozer because that word refers not only to “cutting,” but also denotes “decreeing” and “deciding”. At the splitting of the sea G-d decided the fates of two nations: the Jewish nation who crossed the sea bed on dry land, and the Egyptians who ended up drowning.

In a separate discussion about the meaning of the root gozer, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that it denotes the type of cutting whereby one must continuously apply a blade, moving it backwards and forwards until it has cut through whatever one is cutting. This type of cutting is used for cutting something especially thick, such as people (I Kings 3:25), animals (Gen. 15:17), or wood (II Kings 6:4). Accordingly, cutting the Yam Suf is referred to by the verb gozer because the sea is considered something eminently thick.

Rabbi Pappenheim and others explain that the two-letter root GIMMEL-ZAYIN — from which gozer is derived — refers primarily to “shaving” or “trimming,” which is a type of cutting that leaves some parts attached and some parts detached. Some quick examples of words that are derived from this root: geiz (Ps. 72:6) refers to the grass remaining after trimming, gozez (Gen. 38:12, 31:19) is the act of shearing wool from sheep; gezel is the act of stealing or robbing somebody's possession (while leaving some of his other possessions intact); gazam is a type of grasshopper which meddles in produce by eating some of it (and leaving over the rest); geza is a tree whose top has been truncated, and gazit refers to a hewn stone (i.e. parts of the stone are shaved down, and the rest of the stone remains in place). In light of this we can easily understand the etymology of gozer (“cut”), and how it relates to the two-letter root GIMMEL-ZAYIN. [The Modern Hebrew word gezer (“carrot”) is not directly related to this discussion because it is actually derived from the Arabic word for that root-vegetable, jazar (which also means “cut” in Arabic).]

I had to cut this article into pieces, so next week we will have the opportunity to continue our discussion about different Hebrew word for “cutting”. To be continued…

For questions, comments, or to propose ideas for a future article, please contact the author at rcklein@ohr.edu

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