What's in a Word?

For the week ending 30 December 2017 / 12 Tevet 5778

Shouldering the Burden

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

Yosef brought his two sons to his father Yaakov so that Yaakov could bless them before he dies. After blessing Yosef’s two sons, Yaakov then turns to Yosef and says, “Behold, I will die and G-d will be with you and return you to the Land of your Forefathers. And I give to you one shechem over your brothers, which I had taken from the Emorites with my sword and my bow” (Gen. 48:21-22). The commentators (e.g., Targum, Rashi, and Ibn Ezra) “scramble” to explain what Yaakov means when he bequeaths to Yosef an extra shechem over his brothers. Some explain that shechem in this context refers to the Canaanite city of Shechem, which Yaakov’s sons had already conquered from the Emorites who lived there. Indeed, the Book of Joshua ends with the Jewish People burying the bones of Yosef in the City of Shechem. (Joshua 24:32) However, others explain that shechem here refers not to the city Shechem, but to an extra “allotment”. The word shechem can mean “parcel” or “package,” and in his parting words Yaakov meant to give Yosef an extra portion of the Holy Land (each of Yaakov’s sons received one lot of territory, while Yosef received two, one for each of his sons).

Truth be told, the word shechem in this sense is actually a borrowed meaning. As we shall see below, the word shechem literally refers to a body part upon which packages were generally carried. Shechem as a “parcel” or “package” is only a secondary, or even tertiary, meaning of the word. In fact, on Yaakov’s deathbed, he blesses his son Yissachar by saying, “Yissachar is [like] a boney donkey, crouching between the borders. And he saw rest that is good, and the land that it is pleasant. And he lowered his shechem to carry the burden….” (Gen. 49:14-15) In this context, the word shechem refers to the donkey’s shoulder — the part of his body upon which he carries his yoke.

But doesn’t the word katef mean “shoulder”? So how can shechem also mean “shoulder”?

Rabbi Shlomo of Urbino (a 16th century Italian scholar) writes in Ohel Moed (a lexicon of Hebrew synonyms) that some explain that both words mean the exact same thing. Then, he cites others who explain that the part of the shoulder which is directly opposite the neck is called shechem,while the entire shoulder is called katef. Indeed, Rabbi Dovid Kimchi (1160-1235), also known as Radak, writes that shechem does not simply mean “shoulder,” but rather it is the part of the shoulder which lies closest to the neck. When Job tries to assert his innocence and question why he deserves such horrible calamities to befall him, he says, inter alia, “If my hand tricked an orphan… my katef shall fall from my shechem.” (Job 31:21-22) Job was so sure that he never cheated anybody that he was even willing to accept a curse upon himself on condition that he had cheated another. In his proclamation, Job clearly uses the word katef to refer to a body part which sits atop the shechem. From this passage, it seems that the katef is the upper shoulder and the shechem is actually the back. According to this understanding, it makes sense that Job would curse himself that should he have swindled an orphan his shoulder should become dislocated from his back and fall down. However, the commentators point out that this is at odds with Radak’s explanation that the shechem is the higher part of the shoulder.

Rabbi Yonah ibn Janach (990-1050) writes in his Sefer HaShorashim that the word shechem primarily means “corner” or “side” and, as a borrowed meaning, also refers to the “shoulder” that is on the corner/side of one’s body. Radak cites the same explanation in his work with the same name (Sefer HaShorashim). According to this view, the meaning of the word shechem evolved in three stages: it primarily means “side,” secondarily means “shoulder,” and its tertiary meaning is “package” or “portion”. This understanding does not account for the difference between shechem and katef, both of which mean “shoulder” and “side.”

Rabbi Ezra Reuven Dangoor (1848-1930), the Chief Rabbi of Baghdad, argues that shechem is the backside of the shoulder, while katef is the front-side of the shoulder. The Munkatcher Rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapiro (1871-1937), writes that the word shechem is a more inclusive term than katef because shechem includes both shoulders, while the word katef refers to a single shoulder.

Interestingly, the verb le’hashkim means “to wake up early,” and its root is comprised of the same letters as the word shechem. Rabbi Dovid Zvi Hoffmann (1843-1921) explains the connection between the two by noting that waking up involves raising one’s shoulder as one switches from a horizontal position to a vertical position. Similarly, some linguists argue that the connection between rising early and shoulders is that loading parcels on the back of one’s animal was usually done early in the morning, immediately before starting one's journey for the day. From that, the term shechem came to refer to doing anything early in the morning, and even waking up early. And remember the words of the inimitable Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790): “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

  • L'Ilyu Nishmat my mother Bracha bat R' Dovid and my grandmother Shprintza bat R' Meir

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