What's in a Word?

For the week ending 22 July 2017 / 28 Tammuz 5777

Tribesmen Stick Together

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
The Color of Heaven Artscroll

This week’s installment features two words which are not only synonyms, but also homonyms. The word mateh sometimes means “tribe” (almost exclusively in Numbers and Joshua) and its plural form serves as the namesake for Parshat Matot. However, another word for “tribe” in Hebrew is shevet (or shevatim in plural). Moreover, both mateh and shevet share an alternate meaning: they both mean “stick”. Other words for sticks are mishenet, makel, sharvit, and choter. In this essay, we will discuss the different words for sticks in Hebrew and highlight their differences in connotation. Then, using some of that data we will be able to understand the connection between sticks and tribes, which will help us discern the difference between the two synonyms for “tribe”.

Malbim (to Jeremiah 1:11) says that the word mateh denotes a stick held by a dignitary, which demonstrates the honor due to him by showing his exalted status. Mishenet is a walking stick upon which an elderly person can lean (mishan means “lean” or “rely”); in other words, a cane. Makel is a rod used for hitting. In the Bible it generally appears in the context of a shepherd who hits the animals in his charge. (The word makel is probably related to the Hebrew word malkot/makkot, which means “lashes”).

Rashi (to Sanhedrin 5a) writes that the word shevet denotes the authority and the associated responsibility. In the context of law, the shevet or shotim is the instrument used for flogging those whose offenses deserve such punishment. Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) explains that these terms originally referred to a stick used for hitting animals, and only refer to hitting people as a borrowed usage. The Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) writes that both a mateh and shevet are using for hitting, but differ slightly: to hit with a mateh one only needs to raise one’s hand a bit in order for the impact to be felt, while to hit with a shevet one must wind up one’s hit with energy for the impact to be felt. The word sharvit appears in the Scroll of Esther as the royal scepter held by the Persian king Ahasuerus. Some explain that shevet and sharvit refer to the same object, but that sometimes the Bible adds extra r-sounds to words (just as the Bible generally calls the ancient Syrian city Damascus Damesek, but sometimes calls it Darmesek).

Similarly, Rabbi Wertheimer explains that mateh denotes a stick held by a person in a position of authority. Of all the characters in the Bible who carried a stick, only Moshe’s stick is called a mateh because he held a certain degree of authority unparalleled by any other Jewish leader on account of his dual role as a prophet and a king. Moreover, Rabbi Wertheimer argues that the word mateh is related to the Hebrew word mateh (“inclined”) and refers to the curvature at the top of the stick used for gripping the object. He also explains that mateh and makel are only made from wood, while shevet can be made from wood or metal (see Psalms 2:9 which refers to an iron shevet). Indeed, Rabbi Yehuda ibn Kuraish (a ninth century Spanish grammarian) writes that the word mateh is specifically a stick made out of dry wood (although rabbinic tradition teaches that Moshe’s mateh was made of blue rock — either sapphire or lapis lazuli). According to Rabbi Wertheimer, a mishenet is also made of wood, but must be an especially thick branch because a mere twig cannot support a walker.

The word choter is probably a Hebraized form of the Aramaic word chutra (which the Targumim use for translating mateh and shevet into Aramaic).

Rabbi Wertheimer explains in the name of Rabbi Yaakov Lorberbaum of Lissa (1760-1832) that the three words have different connotations. The word makel has a bad connotation (as it is generally associated with the meting out of punishment), the word mishenet has a good connotation (as it helps support an elderly person in walking), and the word mateh has a neutral connotation. With this, Rabbi Wertheimer explains why the staff with which Moshe performed miracles in Egypt and on the Red Sea is called a mateh: because the effects of his staff were positive for the Jews, but negative for the Egyptians, the Bible uses the word mateh which neither implies something positive nor negative.

Citing an explanation from Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Luzzatto (1800-1865), Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) writes that the words shevet and mateh actually have different meanings, but because they are conceptually related they became interchangeable. He explains that the word shevet originally referred to the leader of a tribe, while mateh originally referred to the other members of a tribe. The leader of a tribe is similar to a mast upon which a flag is mounted because all of the members of the tribe rally around the leader. In this way the word for a leader of a tribe is homonymous with the word for stick. Since all the members of a tribe are united behind their leader, references to them can be subsumed under the word used for the leader. Thus, the word shevet also came to mean members of a tribe because the leader of the tribe embodies the entire tribe itself. In terms of sticks, he argues that shevet and mateh can both refer to the exact same type of stick, but they refer to different parts of the stick. The word shevet refers to the top of the stick (just as the leader sits atop the hierarchal structure of a tribe), while the word mateh — seemingly related to the Hebrew word lematah (underneath) — refers to its bottom (just as the other members of the tribe live under the leadership of their clan chief).

Malbim (to Gen. 49:28) writes that the word shevet does not literally mean “stick”, rather it means “branch,” which was the most common item used as a stick. Based on this, he explains that shevet means branch and tribe because each of the Tribes of Israel is simply a branch of the greater family tree of Jacob’s descendants.

Using the synonyms in question as a springboard for discussion, Rabbi Zev HaKohen Hoberman (1930-2012) sums up the dual role assumed by the Tribes of Israel. On the one hand, they are called shevatim because G-d has granted them certain forms of authority and responsibility over the nations of the world. Yet, paradoxically, they are also called matot (which he equates with the words mishenet and chutra) becausetheyserve as Jacob’s “cane” in death, upon whom he “leans” to carry on his legacy. In that way they are not autonomous, but simply follow the tradition of their illustrious forefather. Now you can re-read the title of this article and appreciate the pun.

  • Author’s note: Le’Zechut Refuah Shleimah for Bracha bat Chaya Rachel

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