The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 20 June 2020 / 28 Sivan 5780

All About Hair

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

The story of Korach and his rebellion against Moshe is all about hair. Korach — whose name literally means “bald” in Hebrew — was said to have resented the fact that he was left shaven without hair, while Aharon the Kohen Gadol was decked with clothes befitting a king (Zohar, Tazria 49a). Moreover, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 110a) relates that Korach’s wife egged him on by telling him that the requirement to shave all the Levites’ hair (Num. 8:7) was intended to humiliate him. In those two sources, two different words for “hair” appear: the Zohar uses the word saara, while the Talmud uses the word mazia. In this essay we will discuss four different words for “hair” in Aramaic (saara, mazia, binta, and nimah), exploring their etymology and trying to understand how those words might differ from each other.

When it comes to the Aramaic term mazia (whose first three letters are MEM-ZAYIN-YOD), Rabbi Dr. Jared Greenblatt argues that it is related to the Syriac/Aramaic word ma’azia (spelled MEM-AYIN-ZAYIN-YOD) which means “goat hair.” The latter word appears in multiple places in the Targumim (e.g., see Targum Onkelos to Ex. 25:4, 26:7, 35:6) and is clearly a cognate of the Hebrew word eiz (“goat”). Rabbi Greenblatt argues that in later permutations of the word ma’azia, there was a germination of the letter ZAYIN so that it morphed into mazia, as if the AYIN was dropped. Rabbi Dr. Alexander Kohut (1842-1894), on the other hand, contends that mazia is unrelated to ma’azia, but is rather derived from Old Persian, noting that it is related to the Old Persian word for “hair of the eyebrows.” Either way, Rashi (to Deut. 32:24) identifies the first word in the phrase mizei raav (Deut. 32:24) to be the sole appearance of this Aramaic word in the Bible (although others including Ibn Janach, Ibn Parchon, Ibn Ezra, and Radak explain mizei differently).

The word mazia appears in the Talmud in many places, including when Mordechai asked Haman to cut his “hair” (Megillah 16a), when Rabbi Akiva picked out the hay from his wife Rachel’s “hair” (Nedarim 50a), and when Rebbe allowed his “hair” to grow long as part of his repentance (Sanhedrin 25a). The translation known as Targum Yonason (to Deut. 21:12) also uses this word when saying that the beautiful captive woman must shave the mazia of her head before a Jewish soldier can legally marry her.

The word binta appears in a famous Talmudic passage that compares death by way of Divine Kiss to “lifting a hair (binta) out of milk” (Berachot 8a). The Talmud refers to a type of medicinal leech called a “Bini of the Water” (Gittin 68b), which Kohut explains is related to the Aramaic word binta, because such leeches are long and thin like strands of hair. Kohut also notes that elsewhere this type of leech is called a “Nimah of the Waters” (Avodah Zarah 12b), using another common term for “hair” (see below).

In another famous Talmudic passage, the Rabbis speak about taming the force of the evil inclination for idolatry, which took on the animified form of a lion made of fire. The Talmud relates that when the Rabbis captured this fiery lion, a “hair-strand” (binta)from its “hair” (mazia) slipped off (Yoma 69b), symbolizing that the fight against idolatry is not completely over. In this case, the words binta and mazia appear side-by-side. Those two words again appear in tandem when the Talmud (Bava Metzia 84b) relates that after Rabbi Elazar (son of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) died, his body was kept in an attic for many years and did not rot, such that if a single “hair” (binta) slipped away from his “hair” (mazia), his body would start bleeding.

One major player in the Korach saga was On ben Pelet. He was originally listed as part of Korach’s entourage (Num. 16:1), but later disappears from story’s continuation. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 109b-110a) accounts for On’s disappearance by explaining that his righteous wife saved him from joining in the rebellion by uncovering her hair (mazia). When Korach’s men came to bring On to the final showdown against Moshe, those “pious” people were deterred by the presence of a woman with uncovered hair — they turned back and never came to get On.

The Talmud lauds the actions of On ben Pelet’s righteous wife by applying to her the verse, “The wise among women builds her house”(Prov. 14:1). As Rabbi Avraham Meir Israel (1913-1995) explains in Yalkut HaMeiri, the Hebrew word for “builds”(bantah) is phonetically similar to the Aramaic word binta (“hair”), thus hinting to the role of “hair” in this story.

The Bible reports that Benjaminite sharpshooters were said to be able to sling a rock at a hair without missing (Judges 20:16). The Hebrew word for “hair” in that verse is saarah, but Targum (there) renders it binat saara in Aramaic. Other places in which cognates of binta appear in the Targumim include Ps. 40:13 and Iyov 9:17. However, Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469-1549) notes in Meturgaman that these three examples are the only instances of binta in the Targum. In all other cases the Targumim simply Aramaicize the Hebrew saar into the Aramaic saara without really translating it.

The Hebrew word saar/se’ar refers to both a single strand of hair (Lev. 13:37) and a collective of hairs (Lev. 14:9). Rabbi Greenblatt theorizes that the Hebrew and Aramaic words saar(a) appear to be cognates with words for “barley” (seora), and explains that barley is possibly called "hairy" because it has longer awns than wheat does. Indeed, the Mishna uses the word se’ar to refer to the fibers that protrude from various produce (see Shabbat 21:3 and Kilayim 3:5). Rabbi Greenblatt also notes that both sets of words may be related to seir (“goat”), just like ma’azia is. (Some Hebrew grammarians differentiate between the word se’ar, which denotes a “patch of hair,” and se’arah, which denotes a single strand of hair — see Tosefot Yom Tov for Negaim 4:1 and Niddah 3:2.)

The word nimah is the common word for “hair” in the Talmud. For example, the Talmud (Yoma 38b) reinforces the idea of Divine Oversight by saying: “A person can never touch that which is set aside for his friend — even a mere hair’s worth (nimah).” Nimah also refers to the hair on a person’s body in the context of immersing in the Mikveh (see Eruvin 4b and Succah 6a). Finally, the Talmud uses the word nimah in reference to “pubic hair” when discussing Tamar tying a “pubic hair” that castrated Amnon as he raped her (Sanhedrin 21a), and in explaining that the concubine in the story of Pilegesh B’Givah was rejected by her husband because she had failed to remove a “pubic hair” (Gittin 6b).

That said, it seems that nimah means “hair” only as a secondary, borrowed meaning. In other instances, nimah actually refers to a “string” or “cord.” It is the word typically used to refer to the cords of a stringed-instrument (Targum to Ps. 6:1, Tosefta Arachin 2:7, Eruvin 102b) or the string of a bow (Targum to Ps. 11:2, Iyov 30:11). Nimah is also used to refer to “threads” used for sowing (see Shabbat 64a, 74b) or that stick out of clothing (Menachot 42b, Succah 9a). In fact, several philologists and linguists note that the Aramaic word nimah is derived from the Ancient Greek word nema (“thread”). Nimah is also borrowed to mean “kernel” (Shabbat 79a).

I have not found any theories about why Talmudic Aramaic would have four different words that all mean “hair.” However, based on what we have written above, I would like to suggest the following. The term mazia refers specifically to a patch of hair, the term binta refers to a single strand of hair, and nimah refers to hair that is sticking out or is otherwise considered undesirable. That accounts for the first three words, and saara simply means “hair” in Hebrew and was adopted into Aramaic in that sense as well.

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