The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 15 May 2021 / 4 Sivan 5781

Shavuot: Brilliant Prohibitions

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

An ancient custom for the Holiday of Shavuot, dating back more than 1,000 years, calls for reading piyyutim which list the 613 commandments. These liturgical compositions comprise a category of poems known as azharot (literally, “warnings” or “prohibitions”). In this essay we will consider the etymological basis for the Rabbinic Hebrew word azharah. In doing so, we will explore how azharah differs from other seemingly synonymous terms like issur and lav.

When Jethro advises Moses on how to establish a judicial system, he tells his esteemed son-in-law, “And you shall warn (v’hizhartah) them about the statutes and the laws, and you shall notify them of the path that they shall walk in and the actions that they shall do" (Ex. 18:20). In this passage, Jethro uses a verb cognate of the word azharah, and, in fact, cognates of this root appear some twenty-two times throughout the Bible. The word azharah itself in the sense of a "prohibition" first appears in the Mishna, where it occurs a handful of times (Pesachim 3:1, 4:1, Sanhedrin 7:7, and Karetot 3:10). This particular word often denotes the “warning” aspect of a prohibition (i.e. “thou shall not…”), as opposed to the punishment aspect (for examples, see Yevamot 2b and Sifrei Naso 1).

All the early Hebrew lexicographers — including Menachem Ibn Saruk (920-970), Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach (990-1050), Rabbi David Kimchi (1160-1235), and Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Parchon (the 12th century author of Machberet He’Aruch) — understand the source of the word azharah to be the triliteral root ZAYIN-HEY-REISH. They understand this root to have two very distinct meanings: on the one hand, it means “warning” (hence, azharah is a “prohibition”), and on the other hand it means “light” (Hoshea 7:16, Ps. 132:12). None of these grammarians intimate a connection between the two distinct meanings of that root.

However, Maimonides’ son, Rabbi Avraham Maimuni (1186-1237), writes that the root of l’hazhir in the sense of “to warn” is the three-letter root ZAYIN-HEY-REISH, which means “light” or “brilliance” (zohar). He explains that one illuminates another’s intellectual perception by instructing that person as to his or her responsibilities. Therefore, “warning” a person can be said to be “shedding light” on that person’s expectations. Accordingly, the shared theme common to both meanings of this root is the concept of “enlightenment,” both in the literal sense of bringing “light” and in the figurative sense of “enlightening” a person through adding to their knowledge.

The late Rabbi Dr. Jose Faur (1934-2020) infers from this that at its core the word azharah does not just refer to what the Torah outlaws (“negative commandments”), but also to what the Torah prescribes (“positive commandments”). For this reason, the poetic liturgical compositions known as azharot list both types of mitzvahs— not just the negative commandments.

But not everybody agrees that the root of azharah is the triliteral root ZAYIN-HEY-REISH. Some trace the word to the two-letter root ZAYIN-REISH (“estrangement,” as in zar), while others even suggest that its source is the monoliteral ZAYIN. In fact, there is one case in which a cognate of azharah is spelled without the letter HEY, which we have assumed until now is part of its root: In Lev. 15:31, G-d tells Moses, “and you shall warn (v’hizartem) the Children of Israel from their impurities…” The word used here to denote the warning is v’hizartem, instead of the expected v’hizhartem. Rabbeinu Efrayim touches on this point by noting that "warning" (azharah) a person means telling a person he should "estrange" himself (i.e., make himself zar) from that which he has been warned against.

Similarly, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) traces the term azharah to the biliteral root ZAYIN-REISH. One group of derivatives of this root are headlined by the word zoreh, which means “to scatter” (see, for examples, Ex. 32:20, Lev. 26:33, Ruth 3:2, Ps. 106:27). A sub-derivative of that is the word zohar (“light”), which denotes the way light scatters/spreads out. In the same way that rays of light spread out in order to illuminate as much as possible, an enlightened person must spread out his intellectual purview across a wide body of knowledge in order to be cautious and not violate what is expected of him. Rabbi Pappenheim explicitly notes that azharah does not mean “a warning,” as many have understood it. Rather, he explains that the verb la’hazhir means “to enlighten.” For example: “You shall enlighten them and they shall not incur guilt” (II Chron. 19:10), "And you shall enlighten them from Me" (Yechezkel 3:17). Enlightening a person as to his obligations is tantamount to forewarning them about what they should be careful of. Thus, even as Rabbi Pappenheim traces azharah to the biliteral ZAYIN-REISH, he still offers the same basic explanation as Rabbi Avraham Maimuni, who traced that term to the triliteral ZAYIN-HEY-REISH.

Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) traces the word zohar to the monoliteral root represented by the letter ZAYIN. He explains that this letter stands for “visual revelation” of that which can be seen by the eye, as Hebrew words derived from this root are related to the realm of the ocular. Most notably, the Hebrew pronoun zeh (“this”) is derived from this root, and according to rabbinic tradition always refers to something perceivable by the sense of sight. Other words associated with this root include zach (“pure”), zahav (gold”, i.e. shiny and sparkling), ziv (“countenance,” dazzles one’s eyes), zikim/zekukin (“sparks of fire,” glitter and shimmer), zanav (“tail,” which protrudes from behind an animal and is quite visible), ozen (“ear,” which protrudes from a person’s head and is also quite visible), and chazah (which either refers to “vision” itself, or to chazeh, “chest,” i.e. a very visible part of the body). In the same sense, zohar refers to a “light/enlightenment” that illuminates the eye. Interestingly, Rabbi Marcus notes that the Germanic words for “seeing” (sehen in Modern German, zien in Dutch, zen in Yiddish, sien in Afrikaans, see in English) also seem to be phonetically related to the letter ZAYIN.

Elsewhere, Rabbi Marcus contends that the Hebrew word zohar with a ZAYIN is actually derived from the earlier Biblical Hebrew words tzohar (“light”) and tzoharayim (“noon,” when the sun’s light reaches its peak) with a TZADI. The way he explains it, the letter TZADI later morphed into a ZAYIN (as the two letters are often considered interchangeable), such that tzohar became zohar.

In Biblical Hebrew, the word assur means “tied up” with actual ropes or cables. However, in at least one particular instance, that term assumes more of an abstract meaning: “When a man vows a promise to G-d or he swears an oath to tie a tying (l'essor issar) on his soul, he shall not profane his words — in accordance with all that exits his mouth shall he do" (Num. 30:3). In this verse, “to tie a tying” is meant in the proverbial sense, namely, to create prohibition upon oneself by forbidding a certain action or item. This usage is akin to the English expression “my hands are tied,” which means I am prevented from taking certain actions, but does not literally mean that my hands are tied with ropes or cables. This abstract meaning of assur and various cognates thereof appear countless times through the Mishna, such that assur in post-Biblical Hebrew came to mean “forbidden” or “prohibited.” As a result, the word issur (“prohibition”) is a more abstract derivative of the Biblical assur (“tied”), and refers to the rule that renders something forbidden.

Rabbi Pappenheim ties the word assur to the biliteral root SAMECH-REISH (“removal”), explaining that when one is tied down, then one’s freedom of movement is “removed.” In fact, the notion that the ALEPH of assur is superfluous to the actual root has already been noted by the early grammarian Rabbi Yehuda Ibn Chayyuj (945-1000), who adduces that the phrase bet ha’surim (Ecc. 4:14) is the semantic equivalent to the phrase bet ha’assurim (see Gen. 39:20, 40:3).

Finally, the noun lav is an anthimeria derived from the Hebrew word lo ("no," "not," "do not"). This word does not appear in the Bible, but can be found quite often in later rabbinic writings. In most cases it simply denotes a prohibited act that the Bible has warned a person not to do, even if the punishment for the proscribed action is not as severe.

To quickly summarize our findings, we spoke about three words that refer to “prohibitions” that proscribe certain actions. The word azharah seems to focus on a prohibition as a way of “enlightening” a person of his duties and expectations. The word issur focuses on a prohibition as a way of “tying” a person’s hands, so to speak, and banning him from taking certain actions. And finally, the word lav denotes a prohibition as a “no-no” that people are enjoined from committing.

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