The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 13 June 2020 / 21 Sivan 5780

Kneading the Dough

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

The mitzvah of Challah mandates that one give to a kohen a special tithe from his or her dough. The Bible always uses the Hebrew word arisah (Num. 15:20-21, Neh. 10:38, Yechezk. 44:30) for “dough” when referring to this special mitzvah. Another word for “dough” appears five separate times in the Bible: batzek (Ex. 12:34; 12:39, Jer. 7:18, Hos. 7:4, II Sam. 13:8). In the Mishna (e.g., in Challah 1:5, 2:2), the standard word for “dough” is actually issah. In this article we will consider the differences between the three Hebrew words arisah, batzek, and issah, looking into their etymologies for possible insights as to their exact meanings and connotations.

Although Ibn Janach and Radak explain that arisah is synonymous with batzek, other commentators take a different approach. For example, Rabbeinu Meyuchas bar Eliyahu (who lived in Byzantine Greece, circa. 12th-13th century) writes that arisah is another word for areivah (“kneading trough”), which served as the surface on which dough was typically kneaded. According to this, batzek means “dough,” while arisah literally means “the place on which dough was kneaded.” As we shall write below, others explain that arisah and batzek refer to two separate stages of preparing dough for baking.

Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) explains that the term batzek refers specifically to dough that has already been kneaded and worked into one batch — whether it has already begun to “rise” or is on the cusp of “rising.” In a similar sense, he notes, the BET-TZADI-KUF root also refers to something “swollen.” This sense of the word appears in the Bible when relating that throughout their travels in the wilderness, Jews did not suffer from “swollen” (batzek) feet (Deut. 8:4, Neh. 15:21).

Interestingly, Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) theorizes that all three-letter roots which contain the letters BET and KUF are related to the concept of “breaking through,” regardless of what the third letter is and where it is placed. For example, the word boker (“morning”) refers to the initial sunlight that breaks through the night’s darkness; bezek (“flash”), barak (“lightning” or “luster”), and bohak (“glare”) all refer to light which is emitted or “breaks out” of a certain object; bakesh (“request”) is a demand that penetrates somebody’s will; badek (“check,” “investigate”) breaks into a matter to better clarify it, bokea/batek refer to “cutting” or “breaking” something open, and bakar (“cattle”) refer to “cowbeasts” whose horns appear to “break through” their head. In that spirit, Rabbi Marcus assumes that batzek is also related to this set of words, as the BET-KUF element refers to the cracks that appear in leavening dough that make it look like it is “broken.”

Rabbi Nosson of Rome (1035-1106) writes in Sefer HaAruch that the rootAYIN-REISH-SIN/SAMECH (from whence arisah is ostensibly derived) is an expression of “mixing” or “joining.” Based on that meaning, Rabbi Mecklenburg and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) explain that arisah refers to “dough” as simply a mixture of ingredients that are kneaded together (see Rashi to Berachot 37b). Rabbi Mecklenberg adds that arisah is related to the word eres (“bed”), because just as dough consists of a mixture of flour and water, so does a bed’s mattress rest on a mixture of interlaced beams or planks. The same idea is offered by Rabbi Mecklenberg’s Yemenite contemporary, Rabbi Yachya ben Shalom Kohen of Sanaa (1787-1867).

Rabbi Yitzchak Ratzabi (a prominent Yemenite rabbi in the Neve Achiezer neighborhood of Bnei Barak) suggests that perhaps it is for this reason that a “betrothed” woman (i.e. one who accepted Kiddushin) is called an arusah, i.e. becauseshe is now “tied” or “joined” to the man who is going to marry her. He notes that even though the Hebrew word arusah is spelled with an ALEPH, not with an AYIN, those two letters can sometimes be interchanged, as seen from the fact that the Arabic cognate of arus (“groom”) and arusah (“bride”) is spelled with the Arabic equivalent to the Hebrew letter AYIN.

Furthermore, Rabbi Ratzabi suggests that while arisah denotes dough whose ingredients had simply been mixed together, batzek might refer specifically to dough that had already been kneaded and is now beginning to “rise” or “swell” (as per above). He then proposes that if this is true, then the halacha should be that one ought to take off Challah from dough immediately after one finishes kneading it — while it can still be called arisah — before it becomes batzek.

The Mishnaic word issah does not appear anywhere in the Bible in the sense of “dough.” Nevertheless, commentators like Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814), Rabbi Mecklenberg, and Rabbi Marcus understand issah to be a cognate of the AYIN-SIN/SAMECH root from which words like “squeeze” (Yechezk. 23:3) and “trample” (Mal. 3:21) in the Bible are derived. By virtue of the fact that it needs to be kneaded, “dough” is also something which is sort of “squeezed” and “trampled.” The Modern Hebrew word issui refers to a “massage,” whereby the masseuse “squeezes” and “kneads” her client’s skin. Another derivative of this root is the word assis (Joel 4:18, Isa. 49:26, and Song of Songs 8:2) which means “juice” — a substance also associated with “squeezing.” Rabbi Pappenheim and Rabbi Marcus further connect this root to the term asiyah (“making,” “creating,” “doing”). In short, these scholars maintain that the word issah slightly differs from arisah in that it serves as a cognate of the verb of “kneading,” while arisah is derived from words related to “mixing” or “joining.”

Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein (1860-1941) offers a controversial theory to account for the difference between the Biblical arisah and the Mishnaic issa. He suggests that the two words are actually one and the same except that the Biblical word has an extra REISH added to it. The addition of a superfluous REISH within a word serves to enhance the flowery beauty of the language. He explains that this beautification of the language happens in ways that we can no longer understand because, due to our long exiles, we are no longer sensitive to many of the nuances of the Ancient Hebrew Language.

Rabbi Epstein cites Pseudo-Rashi (to I Chron. 18:5) who writes that Darmesek and Damesek mean the same thing (“Damascus”), just like Sharvit and Shevet mean the same thing (“stick,” “scepter”). Rabbi Epstein understands that this means that the addition of an extra REISH does not change the meaning of the word, but somehow beautifies the writing style. He adds to these examples a bevy of other instances in which an extra REISH is added to a word that maintains its original meaning. Of significance is his point that this rule applies to Aramaic words like kursa/kiseh (“chair”), markolet/makolet (“grocery”), and zutra/zuta (“small”), as well as to names of people, like the King of Judah Uzziah, who was also called Azariah (see also Hagahos Rashash to Rosh Hashanah 26a). In short, Rabbi Epstein proposes that arisah and issah are both derived from the same root, just that the former has an extra REISH added to it.

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