The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 6 February 2021 / 24 Shvat 5781

Yitro: Just Winging It

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

In the introduction to the story of the Sinaitic Revelation, G-d caringly promises the Jewish People: “And I will carry you on wings (kanaf) of eagles and I will bring you to Me” (Ex. 19:4). Yet, another verse describing G-d’s tender affection for the Jews reads: “Like an eagle… He will spread His wings (kanaf) and He will take them, He will carry them on His wings (ever)” (Deut. 32:11). This verse uses two different words to mean “wing” — kanaf and ever. A third word in Biblical Hebrew for “wing” is agaf, and this word only appears in the Book of Yechezkel (12:14, 17:21, 38:6, 38:22, 39:4). Dr. Chaim Tawil compares the Hebrew kanaf to the Akkadian word kappu; the Hebrew ever, to abru; and the Hebrew agaf, to aggapu. But knowing that these Semitic parallels exist does not quite help us understand the differences between the apparently synonymous Hebrew words. Therefore, in this essay we will delve deeper into the three Hebrew words for “wing” and some of their related forms and meanings.

The word kanaf refers primarily to the “wing” of flying animals, but it also became synonymous with “birds” themselves (e.g. Gen. 7:14). Rabbi Avraham Bedersi HaPenini (a 13th century Spanish sage) explains that because the wing is located at the edge of a bird’s body, kanaf also expanded to mean anything located on the “periphery” or “edge” of something (see Deut. 22:12, I Shmuel 24:5) or someplace (Isa. 11:12, 24:16, Yechezkel 7:2, Iyov 37:3, 38:13). Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) adds that the rays of light that emanate from the sun are also called kanaf (Malachi 3:20), because just as wings appear like tributaries that branch out from the bird’s body, so do rays of light serve as offshoots of the Great Fireball in the Heavens.

Rabbi Wertheimer further notes that in its anatomical sense, the word kanaf denotes the outermost part of a bird’s “wing” that protrudes the farthest away from the bird’s body. It is precisely that bodily appendage that creates shade and serves as a metaphor for offering protection. Thus, “taking somebody under one’s wings” in the idiomatic sense of offering them protection and support actually comes from the Biblical usage of the word kanaf (e.g., see Deut. 23:1, Ruth 2:12, 3:9).

To understand the core semantic meaning of kanaf, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 1:21, 7:14, Lev 19:11) invokes the interchangeability of KAF and GIMMEL, plus that of PEH and BET, to compare kanaf with ganav (“thief”). Rabbi Hirsch notes that both words involve “hiding” or “concealing,” explaining that a bird’s wing covers part of its body (and thus “hides” it), just as a thief steals from people in a clandestine, hidden way. Alternatively, a bird’s “wing” allows the bird to soar so high in the sky that it “hides” from plain sight, just like the thief steals when nobody is looking.

In Yerios Shlomo, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) claims that the word kanaf derives from the biliteral root KAF-PEH, but he fails to offer a thematic connection between the two. In Cheshek Shlomo, Rabbi Pappenheim offers a detailed exposition on the biliteral root KAF-PEH (“receptacle”) and the various words derived thereof (like kaf, “palm”), but neglects to mention that kanaf also comes from this root.

One of the other words derived from that root that Rabbi Pappenheim does discuss is kapayim (“Heavens”), which he explains refers to the sky draped over the horizon like a receptacle-shaped kippah (“dome”). In lieu of Rabbi Pappenheim explicitly explaining the connection between kanaf and the biliteral root KAF-PEH, we may surmise that the word kanaf refers to the bodily apparatus by which a bird can reach towards the kapayim.

Although we presented the word ever as though it means “wing,” many prefer to translate ever as a “pinion” — that is, the entire outer part of a bird's wing, including its flight feathers. The earliest Hebrew grammarians, like Menachem Ibn Saruk (920-970), Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach (990-1050), and the Radak (1160-1235), all trace ever to the triliteral root ALEPH-BET-REISH. These three grammarians also write that the Hebrew word avir (“strong”) also derives from that root. On the surface, this would suggest that two entirely different meanings stem from this one root.

That said, Rabbi Avraham Bedersi HaPenini explains that the word ever is actually related to avir. He explains that ever actually denotes any “limb” on a living creature, like one’s hands or legs. When it comes to birds, the word ever refers to their “wings” because that appendage musters the greatest amount of “strength” to function. Alternatively, Rabbi Hirsch (to Gen. 17:4) explains that avir refers to the “power” that can lift a person to a higher position (i.e. in a spiritual or moral sense), and thus it is on a par with a bird’s ever, which similarly lifts a bird to a higher place (i.e. in a physical sense).

The Hebrew word agaf seems to be a cognate of the Biblical Aramaic gapin (Dan. 7:4 7:6), which means “wings.” This suggests that the root of agaf is really bilateral, GIMMEL-PEH, and the ALEPH is not really essential to the root. As Rabbi Wertheimer explains it, agaf/gaf refers to the part of a bird’s wing that is closest to the bird’s body. In that sense, the agaf appears to branch off from the main part of the body, and so agaf came to mean “small city” or “suburb,” which, in the proverbial sense, “branches off” from the main city (for example, see Yechezkel 38:6).

This point was made earlier by Menachem Ibn Saruk, who notes that just as kanaf means a bird’s “wing” but can also mean the “periphery” of a given geographical place, so too does gaf in Proverbs 9:3 refer to the edges of a specific land. Menachem thus compares the triliteral KAF-NUN-PEH to the biliteral GIMMEL-PEH, explaining that they both carry the same two meanings. Perhaps we can suggest that these two roots are actually related etymologically by way of the interchangeability of KAF and GIMMEL, and the often-disappearing NUN. (In Modern Hebrew, agaf refers to a “branch” or “department” of the central government.)

Rabbi Pappenheim argues that the letter ALEPH in both the words ever and agaf is not actually part of the root. This allows him to trace those two words to their biliteral core roots, BET-REISH and GIMMEL-PEH, respectively. He explains that the two-letter root BET-REISH primarily refers to “choosing” or “separating.” In that sense, the ever is the choicest of all limbs on a bird because it is the strongest. In Rabbinic Hebrew, the meaning of ever expanded to refer to any “limb.” Hence, the Rabbis speak of “248 eivarim” (Maccot 23b) and eiver min hachai (Pesachim 22b).

Rabbi Pappenheim further explains that the core meaning of the biliteral root GIMMEL-PEH is “outward protrusion” — which is, of course, an apt description of a “wing.” Other words that Rabbi Pappenheim understands as derived from this root include gap/guf (“body” which is a person’s outward projection, as opposed to the soul which remains inwards), negef/mageifah (“disease” which spreads outwards as it infects more and more people), and gefen (“cluster of grapes” whose fruits grow in a wing-like formation as though they spread out from the stem). Rabbi Pappenheim also suggests that gap/guf relates to agaf in the sense that one’s “body” is the means by which one can move about, just as a bird’s “wings” are the bird’s means of flying.

Although we have spelled the word agaf as though it were vowelized with an undotted PEH (i.e. FEH) as the ultimate letter, whenever variations of this word appear in the Bible, the PEH is always dotted (agapav, agapecha, agapeha, gapin). Radak claims that the word is vowelized as agapim instead of agafim because the dot in the letter PEH stands for a missing letter. He explains that agap/gap really derives from the Aramaic word gadfin (“wings”), so the dot inside the PEH appears in lieu of the letter DALET. (The Hebrew root GIMMEL-DALET-PEH means “to curse” or “blaspheme,” and it would be intriguing to consider how this relates to “wings” — see Rabbi Hirsch’s comments to Yechezkel 34:27, Numbers 15:30).

Actually, the Aramaic word gadfa has multiple meanings. For example, the Talmud (Ketuvot 105b) relates that a gadfa (“feather,” see also Chullin 22b) once fell on the rabbinic judge Amimar, and one of the litigants arguing his case before Amimar took it off of him. This act of kindness prompted Amimar to recuse himself from the case at hand, because he felt gratitude to that particular litigant. (The Biblical Hebrew word for “feather” is notzah — Lev. 1:16, Yechezkel 17:3, 17:7, and Iyov 39:13.) Elsewhere, however, gadfa means the bone of the wing (Rashi to Yoma 84a) or even the wing itself (see Rashbam to Bava Batra 73b). Interestingly, the Targumim translate the Hebrew words misgeret and gvul (“frame, border, perimeter") as gadnaf (Ex. 25:25, Yechezkel 43:17, see also Rashi to Succah 20b), which also seems to be related to gadfa.)

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