The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 5 September 2020 / 16 Elul 5780

A Basket Case

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

When the Torah speaks about bringing the first fruits to Jerusalem in baskets, it uses a non-standard word for “basket”: tene. The standard Hebrew word for “basket” is sal — which appears fifteen times throughout the Bible. By contrast, the word tene appears only four times in the entire Bible, all of them in Ki Tavo (Deut. 26:2, 26:4, 28:5, and 28:17). In this essay we will seek to better understand the differences between the words tene and sal, and how those words relate to another handful of synonyms for “basket.”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Num. 19:20, Ps. 3:3) writes that the word sal literally means “to lift,” because a basket’s main purpose is to help a person lift and carry various items. Rabbi Hirsch compares this word to sulam (“ladder” up which one climbs), solelah (high mound used for circumventing city walls), and mesilah (road that goes up a mountain), which all have the two-letter string SAMECH-LAMMED.

Rabbi Hirsch’s explanation fits with Rabbi Aharon Marcus’ (1843-1916) theory to explain the etymology of the word sela (“rock”). Rabbi Marcus proposed that in all Hebrew words whose root is comprised of the biliteral string SAMECH-LAMMED, the SAMECH is actually a placeholder for the letter AYIN that follows it. In other words, when a word’s root seems to be SAMECH-LAMMED, it should really be understood as AYIN-LAMMED. The letters AYIN-LAMMED refer to something “on top” (al/lemalah) of something else, or something which is “elevated” or “ascends upward” (oleh/aliyah). Based on this, Rabbi Marcus suggested that the word sela refers to something which “comes up”— i.e. a rock which “comes up” from underground. According to Rabbi Hirsch, the word sal also refers to “elevation,” as it is the vessel used to “lift up” various items and carry them elsewhere.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) offers a different take on the SAMECH-LAMMED root. He explains that this two-letter root refers to things related to repeated actions. For example, the word mesilah (“road”) is derived from this root because it is a well-travelled path upon which many have trodden. Similarly, one who constantly twists and twirls one’s hair is said to be misalsel (Rosh Hashanah 26b) because he repeatedly does the same action. In that spirit, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that sal refers specifically to a “bread basket” (see Gen. 40:16, Lev. 8:2), because it is an item in constant, daily use. This notwithstanding, Rabbi Pappenheim admits that the term sal can refer to any sort of basket in a borrowed sense, even a basket of meat (Jud. 6:19) or grapes (Jer. 6:9).

That said, Dr. Chaim Tawil points out that the Hebrew word sal actually seems to derive from the Akkadian word sallu, which also means “basket.”

In all four places that the word tene appears in the Bible, the Targum translates it into the Aramaic sala, an Aramaicized version of the Hebrew word sal. In Talmudic parlance the word teni means the same as tene. But where does the word tene come from?

Unlike sal, which he maintains refers to a basket used for “bread,” Rabbi Pappenheim explains that tene refers to a basket used specifically for fruits. Such baskets were typically woven with extra space to allow air to waft through, thus ensuring that the fruits will not spoil. Rabbi Pappenheim argues that the letter ALEPH of tene is a radical, while its actual root is just TET-NUN. He explains that the word eitun (Prov. 7:16) also derives from this root, and it refers to clothing woven in such a way that more air is allowed through. Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) adds that the TET-NUN element in the word shaatnez refers to “weaving,” as well.

Like Rabbi Pappenheim, Rabbi Aharon Marcus also connects tene to eitun. But he argues that both words are actually of Egyptian origin. Indeed, master etymologist Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein (1899-1983) confirms tene’s status as an Egyptian loanword.

Interestingly, Rabbi David Chaim Chelouche (1920-2016), the late Chief Rabbi of Netanya, connects the word tene to beten (“stomach”), as a basket has an open “cavity” into which people can put things, just like a stomach has.

There are two more words in Biblical Hebrew for “basket”: keluv and dud. In one instance, the word keluv (Amos 8:1) refers to a basket into which one puts undeveloped figs, while in the other instance, keluv (Jer. 5:27) refers to a basket into which one placed birds in order to fatten them up. Based on this second usage, Modern Hebrew redefines keluv as a “bird cage” or even “animal cage” in general. The word dud sometimes means “basket” (see Jer. 24:1-2), but sometimes means “pot” (I Sam. 2:14, II Chron. 35:13), both of which are fashioned in practically the same shape.

The word kalkalah in the sense of “basket” appears multiple times in the Mishnah (see Peah 7:3, Dema 7:6, Terumot 4:6, Maasrot 1:5, 4:2, Shabbos 20:3, 21:1, Eruvin 3:8, Kiddushin 2:7, Keilim 16:2, 22:9). Rabbi Tanchum HaYerushalmi (a 13th century exegete who lived in the Holy Land) writes that a kalkalah is an especially big sal that people would typically use to store all sorts of foods. Because its contents generally provide sustenance and nourishment, the word for this type of basket is a cognate of the verb kalkal (see, for example, Gen. 47:12) which means “to sustain.” Another word for “basket” in Mishnaic Hebrew is kefifah (sometimes spelled with a KUF and sometimes with a KAF). This terms seems to refer specifically to a “wicker basket” (see Shabbos 2:2, Sotah 2:1, 3:1, Keilim 26:1).

In the Talmudic vernacular there are another eight Hebrew/Aramaic words for “basket.” How they differ from one another is not readily apparent or addressed by the commentators, but from context clues we can hone in on their exact meanings:

  • Dikula (Chullin 32b) seems to refer specifically to a basket made from the bast of a dekel, the Hebrew word for “palm tree” (see Rashi to Shabbos 90b).
  • Gridia means “vegetable basket” (see Rashi to Sotah 10a).
  • Traskal refers to a wide “basket” that is typically filled with barley and hung around an animal’s neck so that it can eat more easily (see Rashi to Shabbos 5a, 53a and Eruvin 33b).
  • Tzana (see Rashi to Chullin 57a and Rashbam to Bava Basra 126b) also means “basket,” and Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein explains that it refers to a basket made out of thorns (related to the Biblical Hebrew word tzan, see Num. 33:55, Prov. 22:5, Amos 4:2).
  • Kelet refers to a vase-shaped basket that women used to wear on their heads (Kesubos 72b, 82b, Gittin 77a, Bava Basra 85b, and Bava Meztia 9b).
  • Sharkafa seems to be a basket in which one placed birds (see Chullin 53b, with Rashi and Tosafos there).
  • Tuvila was apparently a basket used for harvesting dates (see Rashi and Rabbeinu Gershon to Bava Basra 33b).
  • Tirina (Pesachim 88a) seems to have been a special basket for date fruits.

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

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