What's in a Word?

For the week ending 3 December 2016 / 3 Kislev 5777

Looking Four Directions

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

The Bible (Genesis 28:14) relates that when G-d blesses Jacob and tells him that his descendants’ population will “burst forth” in all four directions, He uses the following words to refer to those directions: yam (west), kedem (east), tzafon (north), and negev (south). However, in another context (Deuteronomy 3:27), when G-d tells Moses to gaze upon the Holy Land from which he was barred from entering, He tells Moses to look at all four directions: yam, tzafon, mizrach (east), and teiman (south). In essence, while the words for west and north remain the same, the Bible uses two different words to mean east (kedem and mizrach) and south (negev and teiman). What is the difference between these synonymous doublets? This matter actually becomes quite complicated upon the realization that the Hebrew language has three words for every one of the four directions!

As we shall see below, the different words for the four directions focus on different aspects of those directions and are generally based on either the movements of the sun or certain topographical characteristics of the Holy Land.

Rabbeinu Bachaya explains that the word yam literally means “sea”, and is also used to refer to the west because the Mediterranean Sea lies at the west side of the Holy Land. The west is also called ma’arav because as the sun sets, the shapes of shadows become mixed up (me’urav). Thirdly, the word acharon, which literally means “last”, also means west because it is the last place along the horizon where the sun is located before setting in evening.

There are three words for east: mizrach, kedem, and panim. Mizrach is related to the word zarach (shine) and refers to the direction from which the sun first shines in the morning, while kedem is related to the word kodem (early or forward) and refers to the fact that the rising-sun first shines from the east. The word panim (literally, “facewards”) also means east because when Adam was created the front of his bodyfaced eastward.

As mentioned above, the common Hebrew word for north is tzafon. The commentators offer several explanations for the etymology of this word: Some compare the word tzafon to tzafun which means “hidden” because in the northern parts of the world (i.e. the Arctic zone) the influence of the sun is “hidden”, as the cold temperatures there obscure the sun’s warmth. Alternatively, because the sun generally remains south of the celestial equator, the north side is considered “hidden” from the sun’s presence. Others claim that tzafon is related to the word tzifiya (gazing) and refers to the fact that one can determine north by gazing towards the Heavens and following the Northern Star. Another approach argues that the word tzafon refers to Mount Tzafon (identified by scholars as Jebel Aqra on the border between modern-day Turkey and Syria, a mountain mentioned in the Bible which lies due north of the Holy Land.

The Talmud sometimes uses the Aramaic word estan to mean north (e.g. Ketubot 23a). Rabbeinu Bachaya (1255-1340) proposes that the word estan may be related to the Aramaic word asuta, which means “health”, and alludes to the fact that the north-wind possesses certain healing properties (see Yevamot 72a). In fact, some people have a custom of exclaiming “Asuta!”(“Gesundheit!”in Yiddish) when hearing another sneeze, so as to bless him with good health.

The word darom means south, and the commentaries explain that darom is a portmanteau of the words derech yom (“the path of the day”), because the sun generally remains in the southern hemisphere of the celestial map during the day. The south is also called negev (literally, “dry”) because the southern part of the Holy Land is a dry and arid desert-land.

There are two more words for north and south which you might be familiar with from another context: teiman/yemin (right) and smol (left). The Bible uses the words right and left to refer to the south and north, respectively. This understanding presupposes that eastwards is one’s frame of reference, because, as we mentioned above, Adam was created facing eastwards. Therefore, because one facing eastwards encounters north to his left and south to his right, the very words for north and south can be left and right. In an interesting geographical anomaly, the Hebrew words for left and right are found in place-names near the Gulf of Aden between Africa and Arabia. One travelling northwards in the Gulf of Aden will approach Yemen (related to yemin) on his right, and Somalia (related to smol) on his left.

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