The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 10 July 2021 / 1 Av 5781

Welcome to Rooster City

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

One of the stops that the Jews made in their forty-year sojourn through the wilderness was at a place called Etzion Gever(Num. 33:35-36, Deut. 2:8). This city is later mentioned in the Bible when King Solomon stationed his navy there (I Kings 9:26, II Chon. 8:17), and when King Jehoshaphat’s ships broke down there (I Kings 22:49, II Chron. 20:26). Targum Yonatan (to Num. 33:35) translates the name Etzion Geveras “The City of the Rooster,” thus assuming that the word gever means “rooster.” Similarly, the Mishna (Yoma 1:8, Sukkah 5:4, Tamid 1:2) thrice uses the term “the call of the gever” to refer to daybreak, with the word gever understood as referring to a “rooster” (see Yoma 20b). In this essay we will explore the etymologies and implications of four Hebrew terms that refer to “chickens”: gever, sechvi, ziz sadai, and tarnegol.

While the word gever sometimes means “rooster,” it more often means “man/male” and seems to be a cognate of the word gevurah (“power” or “strength”). Interestingly, Rabbeinu Efrayim writes that a “rooster” is called a gever because its voice differs from that of other birds, as a man's voice differs from a woman's.

The Talmud (Berachot 7a) teaches that every morning there is one fleeting moment when G-d is especially angry, and a person who knows exactly when that happens can harness G-d’s wrath to curse other people. The way the Talmud puts it, this moment can be determined by “seeing when the rooster’s red crest turns white.” In light of this, Rabbeinu Efrayim writes that Balaam called himself a gever (Num. 24:3, 24:15) because just like a rooster (gever) knows when G-d is angry, so too was he able to figure out the exact moment when G-d would be angry enough that a curse would prove effective. (Interestingly, a 2021 paper by Dr. Jessica L. Lamont of Yale University demonstrates that chickens were particularly associated with curse rituals in Ancient Greece.)

Peirush HaRokeach offers another reason why Balaam called himself a gever: Just as roosters engage in frequent copulation (see Berachot 22a), Balaam was likewise “one-track minded.” Siddur HaRokeach adds that just as the rooster closes one eye when G-d is angry, so too was Balaam blind in one eye, and just as the rooster stands on one foot when G-d is angry, so too was Balaam lame in one foot. Rabbeinu Bachaya (to Num. 24:3) adds that just as the rooster crows seven times (see Perek Shirah ch. 4, which attributes seven songs to the rooster), so did Balaam receive seven prophetic oracles.

Peirush HaRokeach explains that Etzion Gever was so-called because in that city lived people who were especially good at giving advice and had certain intuitions that resemble the rooster’s ability to intuit the time of day. Rabbi Menachem Tziyyoni (1340-1410) similarly writes in the name of “the Kabbalists,” that some of Etzion Gever’s inhabitants were fluent in a certain form of esoteric wisdom called “The Knowledge of the Chicken” — which is alluded to in the name of the city.

The Hebrew word sechvi appears only once in the Bible, making it a hapax legomenon and a word whose actual meaning is quite unclear. The verse in which it appears reads: "Who places wisdom in the kidneys and who gives understanding to the sechvi?" (Iyov 38:36). But what is a sechvi? The Rabbis report that in some foreign place(s), people used the word sechvi for “roosters.” The Babylonian Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 26a) identifies that place as Kennesrin (in North Syria), the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 9:1) identifies it as Rome, and the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 25:5), as Arabia. Be that as it may the rabbinic assumption is that the word sechvi means “rooster.” Indeed, the Talmud (Berachot 60b) rules that when one hears the rooster’s crow in the morning, one should recite the blessing, “Blessed are You… Who gave the sechvi the understanding to discern between day and night.”

Nonetheless, most commentators understand that the word sechvi means "heart" — or, at least, also means “heart.” These commentators include Ibn Janach in Sefer HaShorashim, Rabbeinu Chananel (to Rosh Hashanah 26a), Rashi (to Iyov 38:37), Ibn Ezra (there), Radak (Sefer HaShorashim andtoPs. 73:7), Rosh (Berachot 9:23), Tur (Orach Chaim 46), and others. Siddur HaRokeach similarly explains that sechvi refers to a neshama (“soul”). Daat Mikra (to Iyov 38:36) cites other scholars as explaining the passage in Iyov as referring to different types of clouds, accordingly explaining that sechvi means “cloud.”

The way Rashi explains it, sechvi is related to the word socheh (“seeing” / “gazing,” see Targum to I Shmuel 17:42 and Isa. 21:8), referring to the “heart” as the machine that tries to “see” the future results and repercussions of a given action, or to the “rooster,” which has a special ability to “see” (things that are far away – Abudraham). Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) clarifies that the “seeing” in question refers to an intellectual sort of seeing, but not a physical seeing. He connects the word sechvi to the words hasket (which means to “listen” in an intellectual way, as opposed to the simple act of “hearing”) and maskit (attention-grabbing pictures engraved on a stone).

In a slight departure from these sources, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) understands sechvi to mean “skull.” He traces sechvi to the two-letter root SAMECH-CHET (“covering” or “barrier”). This root gives us words such as sukkah (“hut”), a covered enclosure; nesech (“pouring,” “libations”), covering a given spot with liquid, and sichah (“smearing,” “anointing”), layering something with oil. In that sense, sechvi refers to the “skull” which covers over the brain and serves as a protective barrier to shield that important organ.

The Bible relates that after the Assyrians conquered the Kingdom of Israel, they populated the area with Mesopotamian foreigners, each of whom imported their own native deities and idols to the Holy Land. More specifically, the people of Babylon brought their god Succoth Benoth, while the people of Cutha made images of their god Nergal (II Kings 17:30). The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 63b) relates that Succoth Benoth was an idol in the shape of a hen, while Nergal was a rooster-shaped idol. Based on this, Rabbi Chaim Futernik surmises that the term sechvi as “rooster” actually relates to the name of the Babylonian god Succoth Benoth.

Before we turn to the popular post-Biblical word tarnegol, there is another possible Biblical Hebrew term for “chicken/rooster”: ziz sadai. This term appears twice in Psalms (Ps. 50:11, 80:14), where it clearly refers to some sort of bird. The Targum (there) always translates this term as tarnegol bara (“wild chicken”). Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Felix (1921-2004) points out that tarnegol bara also refers to the duchifat bird (Lev. 11:19), commonly identified as the hoopoe bird (see Gittin 68b).

The word tarnegol does not appear in the Bible, but appears many times in the Mishna (Terumot 11:9, Maasrot 3:7, Shabbat 5:4, 18:2, 24:3, Pesachim 2:7, 5:7, Nedarim 5:1, Bava Kama 2:1, 7:7, 10:9, Bava Metzia 5:4, Bava Batra 3:5, Eduyot 6:1, Avodah Zarah 1:5, Chullin 3:5, 12:1, Meilah 3:5, Keilim 8:5, Parah 5:6, Taharot 3:8). In fact, this word is also used in the Dead Sea Scrolls (11QTc) when speaking about the prohibition of raising chickens in Jerusalem, a prohibition also codified in the Mishna (Bava Kama 7:7).

Esteemed etymologist Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein (1899-1983) reveals that the word tarnegol is borrowed from the Akkadian tar-lugallu ("cock"), assuming the interchangeability of NUN and LAMMED. This Akkadian term is itself a portmanteau of the Sumerian words tar ("bird", similar to the Hebrew tor, “pigeon”) and lugal ("king"), perhaps an allusion to the rooster’s crest, which resembles a king’s crown. What’s fascinating is that Bilaam's patron, the Moabite king Balak, was the son of somebody named Tzippor (whose name literally means "bird"), thus connecting Bilaam, who called himself a “rooster,” with somebody who is associated with "bird" and "king."

As mentioned above, the Cuthean deity Nergal was an idol in the shape of a rooster, which Rabbeinu Chananel specifies looked like a wild rooster. Rabbi Meir HaLevi Abulafia (1170-1244) explains that the name Nergal alludes to a “rooster” because the word tarnegol contains the same letters as nergal. Alternatively, he explains that the name Nergal is related to the Hebrew word ragil (“frequent”), an allusion to the rooster, which is, as mentioned above, the animal understood to copulate the most frequently. Interestingly, the Jerusalem Talmud (Avodah Zarah 3:2) understands that Nergal was a foot-shaped idol, thus associating this god’s name with the Hebrew word regel (“foot”), and assuming the letter NUN of nergal is not integral to its core meaning.

For more about the Babylonian deities Nergal and Succoth Benoth, check out the encyclopedia section of my book God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry (Mosaica Press, 2018).

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