What's in a Word?

For the week ending 9 December 2023 / 26 Kislev 5784

Vayeshev: Mercantile Man

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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The Bible reports that around the same time that Joseph was sold as a slave in Egypt, his older brother Judah met the daughter of a man named Shua and married her. Shua is described as an ish c’naani (Gen. 38:1), which typically would mean “a Canaanite man.” However, rabbinic tradition teaches that Judah’s father-in-law was not actually a Canaanite, but rather the word c’naani used to describe him means “merchant.” In this essay, we explore the three Biblical Hebrew words for “merchant” — socher, rochel, and c’naani — as well as the standard Aramaic word tagar. In doing so, we seek to clearly understand the various etymological bases of these words, and show in what ways these various synonyms differ from each other.

The Biblical Hebrew term socher in the sense of “merchant” appears approximately sixteen times in the Bible. For example, when Joseph’s brothers threw him into a pit, the Bible relates that Midianite “merchants” later passed by, implying that they bought Joseph as a slave and sold him to the Ishmaelites (Gen. 37:28). In that context, the term used for “merchant” is socher. Other Biblical Hebrew declensions of the triliteral root SAMECH-CHET-REISH from which socher derives include verbs for “engaging in trade” and nouns that refer to “merchandise.”

Another meaning found in words root derived from SAMECH-CHET-REISH is “around.” This meaning is seen in the Biblical word scharchar (Prov. 38:11), which refers to round-going moving (in Modern Hebrew, scharchoret means “dizziness” “vertigo”). In fact, the common word in Targum for the Hebrew saviv is s’chor (“around”). The Talmud similarly uses an expression that refers to what a person might tell a Nazirite (who is forbidden from drinking wine) who comes close to a vineyard: “"Go go (lech lech), turn around, turn around (sechor sechor), do not approach the vineyard" (Shabbat 13a, Pesachim 40b, Yevamot 46a, Bava Metzia 92a, Avodah Zarah 17a, 58b, 59a). [For more about the Hebrew word saviv and its various synonyms, see “Around in Concentric Circles” (Dec. 2017).]

While Ibn Saruk and Ibn Janach seem to understand the “merchant” and “around” meanings of this root as two unrelated concepts expressed by the same root, Radak bridges the gap by explaining that a “merchant” typically travels “around,” so it makes sense why the same root would mean both “merchant” and “around.”

Rabbi Moshe Tedeschi-Ashkenazi (1821–1898) suggests that perhaps the term socher originally derives from the word sahar (“moon”) — via the interchangeability of CHET and HEY — because just as the full moon is a seen as a complete circle, so does the socher go around in a circuit trying to sell his wares.

Another word in Biblical Hebrew that means “merchant” is the masculine noun rochel (and feminine noun rochelet), which appears seventeen times in the Bible, mostly in the Book of Ezekiel. Rashi (to Arachin 23b) actually defines rochel as socher, thus showing that he saw those two terms as more or less synonymous. Interestingly, an adjacent term derived from the same root REISH-KAF-LAMMED, rachil, refers to “slander” (rechilut) and famously appears in Lev. 19:16 (as well as in five other passages, Jer. 6:28, 9:3, Ezek. 22:9, Prov. 11:13, 20:19). This is because merchants who travelled from place to place were often seen as tale-mongers, because they would bring all sorts of news and rumors from one place to the next.

Interestingly, Rashi in many places (to Lev. 19:16, I Kgs. 10:15, Shabbat 90a, 91b, Yevamot 24b, 63b, Kiddushin 82a, Bava Kamma 82a, Bava Batra 22a, Sanhedrin 100b) consistently defines rochel as specifically a merchant who sells perfumes/fragrances for women, although in some contexts the word seems to refer more broadly to a merchant with any sort of goods (see pseudo-Rashi to Nazir 21a). Rashi’s grandson Rashbam (to Bava Batra 29b) further sharpens our definition of rochel by explaining that this term refers to a merchant goes around to various towns, and only comes back to his home city after a while.

Rashi (to Lev. 19:16) comments that the CHET of the word rochel is interchangeable with the letter GIMMEL, thus associating the word rochel with regel (“foot”) and meragel (“spy”). As Rabbi Avraham Bedersi (in his work Chotam Tochnit) explains it, a merchant in some ways has to function like a spy, going from place to place to scout out the best merchandise to buy and sell. We may add that perhaps a rochel would typically travel by foot to panhandle his goods, hence its associated with the word regel. This understanding bears similarities to the aforementioned explanation regarding socher, whose etymology hints to the idea of a merchant needing to go "around" to buy and sell his products. [For more on the word meragel, see “Spy versus Spy” (June 2017).]

Returning to the word c’naani used to describe Shua, it should be clarified that the Talmud (Pesachim 50a) explains that Judah’s father-in-law could not have possibly been a literal Canaanite because if Abraham was so particular that Isaac not marry a Canaanite woman (Gen. 24:3, 24:37) and Jacob’s parents were likewise so meticulous about him not marrying a Canaanite woman (Gen. 27:46, 28:1, 28:6), it is highly implausible that Jacob’s son Judah would go against this norm and marry a Canaanite woman. Because of this, the rabbis felt forced to interpret the term c’naani as referring not to Shua’s nationality, but to his occupation as a “merchant.” Nachmanides (to Gen. 38:2) clarifies that even if c’naani refers to Shua being a “merchant,” he also incidentally lived in the Land of Canaan (see also Radak to Gen. 38:2).

The notion that c’naani can mean “merchant” is not as farfetched as one might think. In fact, there are numerous other examples of the term c’naani in the Hebrew Bible referring to a “merchant,” rather than a “Canaanite.” For example, the prophet Isaiah refers to the City of Tyre (in modern-day Lebanon) as “the magnificent, whose merchants [socher] are princes [and] whose c’naanim are the esteemed ones of the earth” (Isa. 23:8). Rashi and Radak explain that thec’naanim in this verse refer to “merchants,” with Metzudat Zion adding that socher and c’naan are synonyms used in tandem for poetic effect.

Indeed, Tyre is associated with the Canaanite sub-group known as Phoenician/Punic, a community largely comprised of traders who gained a reputation in the ancient world for their success in overseas commerce. Echoing these historical facts, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Shapira-Frankfurter (1743–1826) writes in HaRechasim LaVikah (to Lev. 16:21) that while the term c’naani may have originally served as a gentilic reference to the Canaanite people, once the Canaanites gained fame as traders and merchants, the very word for “Canaanite” expanded to refer to anybody who engaged in such trade. There is even an inscription attributed to Pharaoh Rameses III, which seemingly uses the term c’naani in this latter sense.

Furthermore, the prophet Zecharia foretells of the Messianic Era — which will occur long after the Canaanites had ceased to exist as a nation — when there will no longer be any c’naani in the Holy Temple (Zech. 14:21). The commentators have different ways of explaining this enigmatic predication, with most commentators explaining in various ways that it means that there will no longer be any need for “merchants” to offer their goods. This explanation is cited by Rashi (there). Alternatively, Rashi explains that c’naani in that passage could also be read as a contraction of the phrase ein ka’an ani (“there is no poor-man here”), in reference to the future prosperity to be enjoyed by the Jewish People in the times of the Messiah.

Another example of the term c’naani in the sense of “merchant” is found in the Biblical description of the Eishet Chayil (“the Woman of Valor”). When singing the praises of that immaculate heroine, the Bible says, “linens did she make and she sold [them] / and a belt [of her handiwork] did she give [i.e., sell] to a c'naani” (Prov. 31:24). In that context, the commentators unanimously explain the word c’naani as referring to a “merchant,” with Rashi using the Aramaic term tagar (see below) to express this idea, while Ibn Ezra and Gersonides used the Hebrew word socher. [For more examples of c’naani in the sense of “merchant,” see Rashi to Ezek. 16:29, Hos. 12:8, and Job 41:30).]

Rabbi Shimon Yehuda Leib Goldblit (who lived in the early 20th century) writes in Leshon Chachamim writes that the root of the term c’naani in the sense of “merchant” is KAF-NUN-AYIN (e.g., hachna’ah refers to “submissiveness” or “subservience”). He accounts for this etymology by explaining that the merchant typically speaks to his potential customers in a subdued, servile fashion, so the very word for “merchant” is a declension of the root that refers to servility. A similar explanation was given earlier by Rabbi Yosef Nechemias (to Prov. 31:24).

Rabbi David Chaim Chelouche (1920–2016) suggests that the word c'naani means "merchant" for the same reason that socher means "merchant." In other words, he explains that the core root of c'naani is the two-letter string NUN-AYIN ("movement," like in tenuah) and refers to the merchant's habit of constantly being on the road (moving from place to place) to buy and sell his wares.

Despite the ample precedent for interpreting the word c’naani as “merchant,” Rabbi Chelouche notes a major difficulty with that understanding: Shua’s daughter herself is referred to as a c’naanit, which should literally mean “Canaanitess” (I Chron. 2:3). This suggests that when the Torah refers to her father as c’naani, it too literally means that he was of the Canaanite nation, and did not refer to his occupation, because it does not make sense that the Bible would later refer to his daughter by an appellation that applies to her father’s occupation — That is unless, perhaps, Shua’s daughter was herself also a trader. Indeed, Targum Rav Yosef to Chronicles (there) actually translates the term c’naanit as pragmatita, which is a Greek term that essentially means “[female] merchant.” This supports the rabbinic reading of the word c’naani said about her father in the sense of “merchant” as well.

By the way, the terms pragmatia and prakmatia in Rabbinic Hebrew are actually Greek loanwords that refer to “merchandise.” As such, they are etymologically-related to the English words pragmatic and practical. Indeed, Rashi (to Moed Katan 10b) defines pragmatia as sechorah, coming full circle with our words for “merchant/merchandise.” Another related word melay (“merchandise,” “inventory,” “stock”) seems to be a cognate of the Hebrew word maleh (“full”), yet Rashi defines melay as meaning the same thing as sechorah (Pesachim 53b), pragmatia (Shabbos 56a), or both of those terms (Sotah 47b).

Fascinatingly, the Zohar (Lech Lecha 80a) asserts that the Evil Inclination is called c’naani because it serves as sort of “merchant” that provides its “customers” with (evil) sustenance, like a sleazy salesman who hawks poor merchandise, but convinces his buyers that they cannot live without it. In line with this idea — but without explicitly citing it! — Meiri (to Prov. 31:24) explains that when the Woman of Valor is praised for selling a belt to a c’naani, this refers to her erecting boundaries around the Evil Inclination to reign it in, which is indeed a valorous and praiseworthy pursuit!

Equally fascinating, the Midrash Tanchuma (Parashat Masei §9) explains that the Holy Land is called Eretz C’naan because it is the “Land of Merchandise.” Rabbi Shlomo Fischer (1932–2021) clarifies that this does not refer to any sort of physical commodity or natural resource. Rather, the Midrash refers to Torah, which is more precious than any other article of trade (Prov. 3:14). This conjures the idea that the Holy Land is especially conducive for the study of Torah. Either way, the term c’naan in this context is clearly being expounded upon as referring to “merchants” and “merchandise,” rather than genealogical Canaanites.

In tackling these three terms together, Malbim (to Ezek. 17:4, 27:3) offers a way differentiating between them: he explains that rochel refers to a small-time merchant who buys his wares from a socher, and goes around from place to place to sell them. The socher, in turn, is a wholesaler who buys in bulk and supplies the rochel. The socher himself purchases these goods from super-wholesalers who travel abroad in large ships to import from elsewhere. Following this model, Malbim sees the term c’naani as referring to some sort of middle-man who serves as the go-between that mediates between the rochel and the socher. In other words, the c’naani sells on a smaller-scale than the socher, but is a bigger deal than the rochel. A similar understanding is implied by Rabbi Tedeschi-Ashkenazi, who writes that rochel denotes a trader who does not travel far distances like a socher does. [If you would have asked me, I would have explained c’naani as referring to the super-wholesalers who supply the socher, because as mentioned above, the Canaanites were known for their overseas trading ventures, which fits Malbim’s description of those mega-suppliers.]

As mentioned above, rabbinic tradition explains that when Judah’s father-in-law Shua is described as a c’naani, this means that he was a “merchant.” The exact word that these rabbinic sources use to convey the notion of “merchant” is tagar/tagara. That is the verbiage used by Targum Onkelos (to Gen. 38:2), Targum pseudo-Jonathan (there), Bereishit Rabbah (§85:4), the Talmud (Pesachim 50a), Rashi (to Gen. 38:2), and others. The Aramaic tagar is also used by Targum to render the Hebrew words socher (e.g., I Kgs. 10:28, Isa. 23:8) and rochel (e.g., I Kgs. 10:15).

Rabbi Eliyahu Bachur (1469–1549), in his lexicon of Rabbinic Hebrew entitled Sefer HaTishbi has two separate entries for the word TAV-GIMMEL-REISH: tagar ("merchant") and teigar ("dispute," "controversy,” "fight"). The fact that he divided these into two entries shows that that he understood the two terms to be unrelated. Indeed, Dr. Alexander Kohut (1842–1894) writes in Aruch HaShaleim that tagar derives from the triliteral Aramaic root TAV-GIMMEL-REISH, while teigar actually derives from the Biblical Hebrew root GIMMEL-REISH-(HEY), which means “instigate” or “incite.”

In light of this, I would argue that while tagar is semantically synonymous with socher, they cannot strictly-speaking be called “synonyms” simply because they are sourced in two different languages (socher from Hebrew and tagar from Aramaic).

However, the Talmud (Eruvin 55a) asserts that the Torah cannot be found by those who are socharim or tagarim, who are always looking somewhere else for the goods. This wording implies that socher and tagar do not quite mean the same thing. To that end, Rashi (to Eruvin 55a) explains that a socher refers to a merchant who goes around various towns, while tagar refers to local seller who stays locally within his town to sell his goods. According to Rashi, there is a semantic difference between tagar and socher, not just an etymological difference.

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