The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 6 March 2021 / 22 Adar 5781

Ki Tisa: Remember Forever

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

Six commandments mandate that a Jew remember certain things. These six things are the Sabbath (Ex. 20:7), the Exodus from Egypt (Deut. 16:3), that Amalek attacked after the Exodus (Deut. 25:17), the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai (Deut. 4:9), how the Jews angered G-d in the desert (Deut. 9:7), and what G-d did to Miriam when she spoke slander (Deut. 24:9). In all but one of those commandments, the Torah uses the Hebrew word zachor to mean “remember.” This essay seeks to more clearly define the term zachor and explain how it differs from another Hebrew word that means “remember” — pakad. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 32b) essentially recognizes pakad as a synonym of zachor, such that it asserts that pikdonot equals zichronot, meaning Biblical verses which mention G-d “remembering” with a cognate of pakad can also be included in the zichronyiot prayer on Mussaf of Rosh Hashanah.

The most basic definition of zachor is offered by Rabbi Moshe Ibn Ezra (1055-1138), who writes that it means to remember something that one once knew but forgot (while shamor means to “keep in mind” something that one currently knows). But what is the definition of pakad?

The Hebrew word pakad is used in so many different ways that it is quite difficult to pin down its core meaning. In addition to meaning “to remember,” the verb pakad and its cognates also mean “to count” (Num. 1:21, 2:32, I Shmuel 15:4), “to be absent” (Num. 31:49, Isa. 38:10), “to command” (Ps. 19:9, 119:56, Ezra 1:2), “to appoint” (Num. 1:50, 31:14, Esther 2:3, Ps. 109:6), “to punish” (Ex. 20:5, Hos. 2:15), “to bring about death” (Num. 16:29, Jer. 46:21), “to visit” (see Rashi to Nedarim 39b and Kli Yakar to Num. 16:29), and “to deposit” (Lev. 5:23).

The Malbim points to two differences between the sort of “remembering” that zachor denotes and that which pakad denotes. First, Malbim explains that zachor simply refers to “remembering” in one’s mind, i.e., mentally recalling a certain fact or idea, but not doing anything else other than just remembering it. Pakad, on the other hand, denotes “remembering” something in order to take some sort of action — for better or for worse. Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) capsulizes this stance by writing “zechirah is in thought, while pekidah is in action.”

This understanding of pakad accounts for the broad semantic spectrum denoted by that term. In other words, pakad primarily means “remembering” something or someone in order to “attend to it,” “deal with it,” or otherwise “pay attention to it.” The most basic way of paying attention to something is to determine whether it is actually present or not; hence the term pakad means “to count” and “to be absent.” Another way of dealing with somebody or something is to give him or it instructions about what to do (“command” or “appoint”). A third way of dealing with somebody is to give him what he deserves (whether that means to “punish” him, or even, in some cases, to “bring about his death,” or simply to “visit” him). Finally, a way to deal with an item is by “depositing” it in somebody else’s hands to take care of. Thus, the Malbim teaches us that pakad means more than just the mental exercise denoted by zachor. It means “remembering” something in a practical sense that leads to action. (Rabbi Dr. Asher Weiser writes that kapdanut - which means “meticulousness/strictness” — relates to padak by way of metathesis, in the sense that one who is makpid pays attention to something to the utmost degree and is “particular” about all the details.)

Alternatively, Malbim explains that zachor denotes constantly “remembering” something over a long span of time, while pakad simply denotes one fleeting act of “remembering,” whereby one remembers something just enough that he can take certain actions related to that memory. After that, he can forget about it.

The Italian scholar Rabbi Shlomo of Urbino points out in Ohel Moed that the word zecher sometimes refers to the "scent" of something (Lev. 6:8, Hos. 14:8, Ps. 20:4), in the same sense that a “memory” of something is a whiff of that idea, but is not it itself.

Rabbi Saadia ben David Al-Dhamari (a 15th century Yemenite scholar) explains that pakad refers to remembering something after a long time, while zachor refers to remembering something after a shorter amount of time. For example, when G-d says He “remembered” the Jews and will redeem them from Egypt (Ex. 3:16), this “remembering” came after they had already been in exile for centuries! Or, when the Bible reports that G-d “remembered” Sarah and allowed her to become pregnant (Gen. 21:1), this happened after she had already been barren for several decades. In both of those cases, the word pakad is used to denote G-d “remembering.” In both cases He “remembered” after a long time.

By contrast, when the Bible reports G-d “remembering” Noah hiding from the deluge in his ark, Noah had been there only for about a year (Gen. 8:1). Similarly, when G-d “remembered” Rachel before granting her pregnancy, she had only been barren for a few years (Gen. 30:22). In those two cases the word used to denote His “remembering” is a cognate of zachor, because only a short amount of time elapsed.

Now we can address the elephant in the room: the word zachor seems to be related to zachar (“male”), but what is the thematic connection between the two? The interplay between these two words is found in a Talmudic anecdote (Bava Batra 21b) in which King David’s general Yoav explains that he did not kill female Amalekites, because his teacher vowelized the word zecher in the commandment “erase the remembrance (zecher) of Amalek” (Deut. 25:19) as zachar. But, what is the deeper connection between these two words that are spelled exactly the same?

Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran (1361-1444), also known as Rashbatz or Tashbatz, writes in his commentary to Avot (5:12) that men have better memory (or potential for memory) than women. He buttresses this claim with the insight that the Hebrew words zachar (“male”) and zachor (“remember”) seem related. On the flip side, the Hebrew word for “women” (nashim) is related to the word for “forgetfulness” (see nashani in Gen. 41:51 and teshi in Deut. 32:18).

Indeed, Rabbi Moshe de Leon (1240-1305) — the Kabbalist who first published the Zohar — writes in Sefer HaRimmon that the term zachor is indeed related to the word zachar. In the relationship between a man and woman, man serves as the initiator who provides the nourishing kernel that woman receives and develops into something greater.

With this in mind, Rabbi de Leon accounts for a curious phraseology in the Yaaleh V’Yavo prayer. In that prayer, we ask G-d to remember us using both forms of “remembering” —v’yizacher/zichronenu and v’yipaked/fikdonenu — and then we specifically beseech Him to bestow upon us from His benevolent efflux in two ways — zachrenu, fukdenu. Yet, there are two terms for His benevolent efflux, tovah (literally “good”) and berachah (literally “blessing”). The word tovah implies His direct bestowal of good in a way that parallels the male’s role in bestowing the female with the germinate kernel, so it is no wonder that when we ask G-d to remember us with His tovah, we use the word zachrenu. On the other hand, the word berachah implies Him blessing what we already have by allowing it to grow and multiple, in a way that mirrors the female’s role in incubating and gestating the seeds which the male has provided her. Accordingly, it makes sense that when we ask G-d to remember us with a berachah, we use the term fukdenu, which is the Hebrew synonym for “remembering” associated with the female.

As mentioned previously, when G-d “remembered” Noah in his ark (Gen. 8:1), the Torah uses the verb zachor. Rashi enigmatically explains that this means that G-d switched His trait of strict judgment for His trait of mercy, but there is no textual basis for this explanation, especially because that very verse uses His name Elokim (which implies strict judgment) instead of the Tetragrammaton (which implies mercy). To resolve this difficulty, Rabbi Naftali Hertz Treves of Frankfurt (1493-1540) postulates in his work Sefer HaGur that the term zachor itself implies “remembering” as an act of mercy, while pakad does not (as it sometimes refers to “remembering” in order to punish).

This explanation dovetails nicely with the Kabbalistic terminology used above: G-d’s trait of mercy reflects unfettered Divine influence with a focus on the Giver, thus associating zachor/mercy with the male (giver) paradigm. On the other hand, G-d’s trait of judgment reflects a limited Divine influence that focuses on the recipient and whether or not said recipient deserves to receive from Him. As a result, pakad/judgment more closely follows the female (receiver) model.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchiv (1740-1810) in Kedushas Levi (to Gen. 21:1) explains that pakad alludes to the female element because it implies that the person who is “remembered” already received his or her due. When G-d promises to give something, that “gift” is already considered to have come into existence the moment the promise was made because vis-à-vis G-d, there is no difference between past, present and future — it is all one continuum. Any difference in time is only according to our perception. Therefore, if in the present it looks like G-d had not yet granted His promise, this only means that the fulfillment of said promise, which already came into existence the moment He made the promise, is simply “hidden” from us until such time that He decides to reveal it. With this in mind, we can understand why the Torah uses the word pakad regarding Isaac’s birth. From Hashem’s timeless, omnitemporal position, Isaac already existed before he was born, but from the viewpoint of the receiver (in this case, Sarah), it had been hidden away, until G-d “remembered” to reveal to her the gift’s existence.

Finally, Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) explains that zachar is related to zachor in the sense that one’s male descendants are typically his legacy by which he is “remembered” in This World. This is because daughters generally marry into other families and become part of their husband’s extended household, while sons carry on the name of their father’s family.

Postscript: In case you’ve forgotten, we previously ran an article about different Hebrew words for “forgetting” entitled “Forget About It” (Sept. 2019), and another article about different Hebrew words for “counting” entitled “When Just Counting Doesn’t Count” (May 2017).

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