What's in a Word?

For the week ending 25 June 2016 / 19 Sivan 5776

Introduction - Synonyms in the Hebrew Language

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

In the Hebrew language words always express the essence of what they portend to describe. While the words of other languages simply represent a consensus shared by several individuals that those words should have those meanings, the meaning of words of Hebrew is Divinely inherent. In Hebrew, the word for a “word” and the word for a “thing” is the same — “davar” — because all elements of Creation are simply Divine words crystallized into material existence. Therefore, a close study of words and their true meanings is not only justified, but is fully warranted. This, however, creates a problem: There are many Hebrew words in the Torah and in traditional rabbinic writings which seem to have the same meaning. If the meanings of words are Divine and intrinsic, then why would multiple words be needed for conveying the same concept? Multiple words for the same concept are not only superfluous, but also redundant!

The solutions to these sorts of dilemmas usually follow certain “templated” answers. In some instances the words in question only seemingly mean the same thing, but, in truth, there is a slight, barely-discernable difference between them. In other cases a given set of words may actually refer to the exact same concept, but recall or focus on different aspects/properties of it. Similarly, when dealing with verbs, multiple words can sometimes be used for the same action, but the different words can represent that action taken to different degrees or with different intentions. Sometimes, different words actually complement each other in a taxonomical way, as one might be a general way of referring to something (hypernym), while the other is a more specific element (hyponym), collapsible into the category defined by the first word. Finally, the Torah sometimes borrows words from different languages in order to illustrate a point, and those words might bear the same meaning as others words in Hebrew.

Let’s go through three quick examples:

  • The common words vayomer (“he said”) and vayidaber (“he spoke”) seem to mean more-or-less the same. However, the Malbim explains that vayomer denotes a brief, short verbal expression, while vayidaber denotes a lengthy, drawn-out monologue.
  • In a passage quoted multiple times in the daily prayers, the Psalmist says, “For to G-d is sovereignty (melcuha), and He rules (moshel) the nations” (Ps. 22:29). What is the difference between melucha and moshel? Ibn Ezra explains that while both words refer to sovereignty, melucha denotes a popular sovereign whose dominion was willingly accepted upon by his constituents, while a moshel is a dictator who continues to rule whether or not his people object to him.
  • When describing G-d appearing to the Jewish People at Mount Sinai, Moshe says, “G-d came (ba) from Sinai, He shone forth from Seir, manifested from Mount Paran, and came (atah) from the holy multitudes” (Deut. 33:2). In this setting, the Torah uses two words which mean “came”, ba and atah. The commentators explain that these two words, although synonymous, are from two different languages, as the former is Hebrew while the latter is Aramaic. The Torah uses an Aramaic word in this context to allude to the notion that G-d had first offered the Torah to the other nations of the world before eventually giving it to the Jews.

Besides the early Medieval commentators who engaged in the in-depth study of the Hebrew language, many of the later rabbinic commentators, such as the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), the Malbim (1809-1879), and Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865), have engaged in this field of study, and have written prolifically on it, as have some lesser-known figures like Rabbi Yehuda Leib Edel (1760-1828), Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916), and Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935). In the coming weeks we will give the reader a small taste of the nuances between various words in the Hebrew language that appear to be synonymous, culled from various sources.

Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein, a published author, spent over a decade studying at premier Yeshivas, and is currently a fellow with the Ohr LaGolah Hertz Leadership Institute at Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem, preparing for a promising career in rabbinic leadership.

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