What's in a Word?

For the week ending 26 November 2022 / 2 Kislev 5783

Vayetzei: Gad Luck to You

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

Upon the birth of Jacob and Zilpah’s first son, Zilpah’s mistress Leah exclaimed “gad has come,” so she named the boy Gad (Gen. 30:11). Rashi (there) explicates the word gad as meaning “mazal tov,” which is loosely translated as “good luck.” In this essay, we explore the deeper meanings of the words gad, mazal, and mazar. In doing so, we trace them to their etymological roots and try to tease out how the core meanings of those respective roots shed light on the words in question. After doing so, we will realize that gad, mazal, and mazar are not necessarily true synonyms, but rather each of these words conveys a slightly different idea.

Since we are most familiar with the word mazal, we will begin with that word. The term mazal appears only once in the Bible, in the context of King Josiah’s anti-idolatry campaign by which the king put a stop to those who were burning incense "to the Baal, to the sun, to the moon, to the mazalot, and to all the legions of the heavens" (II Kgs. 23:5). In this context, the term mazalot seems to refer to some sort of astronomical phenomenon (usually understood as the twelve constellations of the Zodiac, see Brachot 32b), which idolaters deified and to which they offered sacrifices.

The anonymous commentator to Maimonides’ Laws of Yesodei HaTorah explains that mazal is related to the Aramaic word azal, “going/walking” (used by the Targumim to translate Hebrew words related to halichah), arguing that mazalot are called so because the sun and the moon “go/travel” through them or near them. He also relates the Hebrew term mazal to the Arabic terms al-manazil (“house,” or “lunar/celestial station”) and means the same as the Arabic burj (“tower/constellation”).

Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein (1899–1983) writes that the Hebrew mazal derives from the Akkadian mazaztu/mazaltu (“the static position of the stars/constellations”), which, in turn, he sees as a derivative of the Akkadian nazazu (“to stand”). He also sees that last word as the ultimate etymon of the Hebrew word mezuzah (“doorpost”), by way of the Akkadian manzazu (“doorpost”). Nevertheless, Dr. Chaim Tawil only agrees with Klein's etymology of mezuzah, but sees mazal as related to the Akkadian manzaltu (a clear cognate of the Arabic manazil).

The classical Hebrew lexicographers offer an alternate explanation: Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach (990–1050) and Rabbi David Kimchi (1160–1235) write that the triliteral root NUN-ZAYIN-LAMMED refers to the movement of liquid, like “dripping” and “flowing.” For example, the verb nozel means “downward flow.” Based on this, they explain mazal as deriving from that triliteral root, with the disappearing NUN replaced by the dot in the letter ZAYIN. Rabbi Kimchi adds that the movements of the mazalot flow with consistency, so the very word for them is related to “flowing.”

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740–1814) takes a slightly different approach by tracing the word mazal to the biliteral root ZAYIN-LAMMED (“instability of related components”). One corollary of this core root are the words related to NUN-ZAYIN-LAMMED because they conjure liquids’ inability to remain one solid mass, as its requisite parts tend to drift away from one another — mostly commonly in a downwards flow (because of gravity). Of course, the quintessential downward-flowing liquid is rainwater. Because of this, Rabbi Pappenheim explains, the term mazal came to refer to those heavenly forces which seem to regulate rainfall. In a borrowed sense, the beneficent heavenly forces that grant any sort of weal or blessing are likewise called mazalot.

Other Hebrew words that Rabbi Pappenheim sees as related to the biliteral ZAYIN-LAMMED include zal/zollel (“unbridled monetary spending,” as if one is simply unable to remain firmly attached to one’s financial assets that end up flowing away from him), zol (“cheap”), and zulat (“except for,” or “besides,” that is, something not attached to or included in a given set).

In addition to referring to astronomical phenomena which people understood to have astrological implications, the word mazal is also used in reference to Hashem’s way of channeling His ever-good influx of shefa into the This World. For example, when the Zohar (Naso 134a) asserts "Everything depends on mazal — even a Torah Scroll in the Sanctuary," this does not refer to any sort of perceived astrological force. Rather, Rabbi Yosef Gikitallia (1248–1305) explains that in this context, the term mazal refers to the Kabbalistic concept of Keter, which is the highest of the Ten Sefirot by which Hashem’s influence percolates into This World and which supplies the lifeforce for all of Creation. He explains that this sefirah is called mazal because all the energies Hashem supplies Creation with “flow” from Keter into the various lower sefirot all the way down until their reach This World.

Rabbi Yisrael Lipschitz (1782–1860) explains that mazal refers to all occurrences and circumstances that are beyond a human being’s control and are not the results of one’s exercising freewill. Accordingly, he explains that the word mazal relates to the idea of a “flow” in the sense that just like a river has a strong current driving the movement of its waters, so too is there a strong current from Above that pushes things in certain directions (i.e., providential destiny). The aggregate result of this current are reflected in the realities of This World, for better or for worse.

It is somewhat confusing that the term mazal has multiple, very different meanings. But Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707–1746), also known as Ramchal, clarifies that in essence there are two types of mazal: one refers to Hashem’s way of influencing the world through astral forces and one refers to other ways by which Hashem controls the circumstances of life. It is the former of these two concepts that idolaters and other pagans mistakenly understood as meaning that astral forces have independent powers that are separate from G-d; this led them to worshipping those forces as gods in their own right. There is much discussion about whether Hashem administers the Jewish People using the first type of mazal, or only the second type of mazal. The up-shot is that many traditional sources point to the notion that the astral forces do not affect the Jews in the same way that they might affect other nations.

Interestingly, Rabbi Eliyahu Katz (1916–2004), the former Chief Rabbi of Slovakia (and later the Chief Rabbi of Beer Sheva) writes that because of the ambiguous meaning of the term mazal, it is better not to wish people “mazal tov” on happy occasions, lest one be suspected of supporting the idea that astral forces have independent decision-making powers and/or can affect the Jewish People. In practice, the prevailing custom is to use the term “mazal tov,” but one should realize that it refers to Hashem’s benevolent bestowal of good, and not to some capricious “luck” determined by one’s horoscope or the stars.

The word gad in the sense of mazal appears only twice in the Bible, once when explaining the origin behind Gad’s name (mentioned above), and once when the prophet Isaiah castigates “those who set a table for gad” (Isa. 65:11).

A similar Aramaic term appears several times in the Talmud. For example, the Talmud (Chullin 40a) differentiates between an idolater who worships “the mountain” and one who worships “the gada of the mountain” (i.e., the spiritual or angelic force behind the mountain). Similarly, the Talmud (Nedarim 56a) mentions something called “the bed of the gada,” which the commentaries explain refers to a bed that nobody uses set up in honor of the mazal of the house (see Peirush HaRan there and Sefer HaAruch, s.v. gad). In these contexts, the term gad/gada refers to the spiritual forces behind physical objects, like a “guardian angel” (so to speak). The Talmud actually sometimes uses the word mazal in that sense, as well (see Rashi to TBMegillah 3aandShabbos 53b, 61b). [The word gad also appears twice in the Bible in the sense of “coriander seed.” See my earlier essay, “A Coriander Conundrum” (June 2020).]

Interestingly, Shoresh Yesha connects the word gad to haggadah (“telling”), based on the pagan belief that the stars and constellations can "tell" a person about their future.

Rabbi Pappenheim sees gad as derived from the two-letter root GIMMEL-DALET, whose core meaning he defines as “attaching/connecting.” In that way, he understands gad as a sort of “spiritual force” that is attached — in a metaphysical sense — to a specific physical entity. Other words that Rabbi Pappenheim traces to this biliteral root include aggudah/egged/iggud (“gathering/uniting”), gid (“sinew” which holds together different parts of the body), gedud (“squad,” a unit of soldiers joined together), meged (“delicacies,” i.e., sweet-tasting foods to which one’s palate desires to connect) and haggadah (the act of presenting new information by integrating it into a broader narrative).

[Another bevy of words that use the GIMMEL-DALET string refer to “cutting/separating” — the polar opposite of “attaching/connecting.” When discussing the Canaanite deity Gad (worshipped as a god of luck) in my book God versus Gods:Judaism in the Age of Idolatry(Mosaica Press, 2018), I discussed those other words and how the contradictory meanings of gad can be reconciled. See also Rabbi Hirsch’s comments to Gen. 30:11 on this point.]

In the context of Zilpah’s son Gad, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that Leah exclaimed, “gad has come” as an acknowledgment that the heavenly force charged with granted pregnancy has visited her and allowed her maidservant to bear issue. On the other hand, Rabbi Yosef Grayever of Ostrow (1808–1898) understands gad in this case as an alternate form of meged, explaining that when Leah said, “gad has come,” she referred to the birth of Gad as something lucky, akin to the arrival of yummy delicacies and other goodies.

As an aside, the word gadish (“a pile brimming with produce”) appears four times in the Bible (Ex. 22:5, Job 5:26, 21:32, Jud. 15:5) and multiple times in the Mishnah (Peah 5:1-2, 5:8, 6:2, 6:6, Sukkah 1:8, Bava Kamma 2:3, 3:10, 6:3-5, Bava Metzia 5:7, Shevuot 4:6-7, Eduyot 4:4, and Yadayim 4:7). Most lexicographers trace its etymology to the triliteral root GIMMEL-DALET-SHIN, but Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Carpentras (an 18th century grammarian and dayan) suggests in his work Ohalei Yehudah that gadish actually derives from a combination of gad ("luck/mazal") and yesh ("is/has") — an allusion to the source of overflowing abundance.

Like the word mazal, t he term mazar appears only once in the entire Bible, making each of those terms a hapax legomenon. When Hashem criticized Job for thinking that he was meant to understand all the innerworkings of the world, He rhetorically asked Job, “Do you cause the mazarot to go out in their time?” (Job 38:32).

Most commentators — including Rabbi Saadia Gaon (there), Menachem Ibn Saruk (Machberet Menachem on ZAYIN-REISH), Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach (in his Sefer HaShorashim), Rashi (there), and Rabbi Moshe Kimchi (there) — explain that mazar means the same thing as mazal (in the astronomical/astrological sense), based on the interchangeability of the letters REISH and LAMMED (see also Nachmanides to Ex. 22:15).

However, Ibn Ezra (to Job 38:32) deems this explanation too farfetched. Instead, he sees mazarot as a name for a specific star or group of stars (also cited by Nachmanides and Gersonides to Job). Dunash Ibn Librat (925–990) writes that mazar actually refers to the “blowing wind” and has nothing to do with stars. Rabbi Yitzchak the Blind (1160–1235), in his commentary to Sefer Yetzirah (ch. 5) explains mazar as related to astrology, but somehow different from mazal; his explanation lies beyond my level of understanding.

Rabbi Pappenheim sees mazar as a derivative of the biliteral root ZAYIN-REISH, whose core meaning he posits is “estrangement” or “disconnection.” Rabbi Pappenheim sees a bevy of Hebrew words wherein that two-letter string appears as deriving from this particular root. For example, zar (“stranger/alien/foreigner”) refers to one who is somehow estranged from the society within which he now moves. Other words derived from this biliteral root according to Rabbi Pappenheim's system include mamzer (loosely "bastard," i.e., someone born from an illicit sexual union whose parties are supposed to be estranged from each other), nazir ("Nazirite," a person whose stature is elevated from among the rest, thus estranging him from his brethren), nezer ("crown," a head ornament worn by those dignitaries who are separate from the masses).

Another group of words derived from ZAYIN-REISH are headlined by the word zoreh (“to scatter/throw,” the act which disconnects particles from their original place). Sub-derivatives included in this group include zorer (“sneeze,” that is, a forceful reflex that flings liquid from one’s nose), zohar (“light,” because light scatters/spreads out), azharah (“warning,” which enlightens people as to what is expected of them), mazor (“remedy,” a sort of medicinal powder spread/smeared onto a wound), and zerem (“current/flow,” the mechanism by which water moves and spreads out). As Rabbi Pappenheim explains it, the term mazar in reference to a mazal shares an etymological affinity with the word zerem, because mazar connotes the heavenly forces charged with controlling/regulating the flows of water. Alternatively, we may offer an etymological justification for Dunash’s understanding of mazar (i.e., “powerful wind”) by seeing it as related to zorer (“sneezing,” which causes a wind-like gust).[1]

For a lengthy lecture I once gave that discusses the name Gad, the Semitic words gad/gada, and the English words god and good, please visit: https://tinyurl.com/godgada



[1]חשק שלמה (ערך זל), ספרי השרשים (ערך נזל, ערך מזר), שערי אורה שער ג-ד (עמ' 152 במהדורת ירושלים תשס"ה), פירוש על יסודי התורה (פ"ג ה"ה-ה"ו), שערי אורה (מהדו' ירושלים תשסה, עמ' 151-153), תפארת ישראל (קידושין פ"ד יכין סו, בועז א), דעת הרמח"ל מובא בשפתי חיים (פרקי אמונה והשגחה ח"א, עמ' רעג-רעח), גלילי כסף (אדני כסף עמ' כט), תשובות דונש הלוי לרס"ג (עמ' 23).

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