What's in a Word?

For the week ending 26 May 2018 / 12 Sivan 5778

Razor's Edge

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

When detailing the laws of the Nazirite, the Torah forbids him from cutting his hair by stating, “A razor (taar) shall not pass over his head” (Num. 6:5). Later in the Bible, two famous people became Nazirites: Samson and Samuel. When the angel told Samson’s mother that her unborn son should be a Nazirite, the angel said, inter alia, “A razor (morah) shall not pass over his head” (Judges 13:5). Indeed, when Samson later unwisely revealed the source of his super-human strength, he said, “A razor (morah) did not pass over my head” (Judges 16:17). Regarding Samuel, his mother Chana vowed that should she produce a son, the child will become a Nazir, and that “A razor (morah) shall not pass over his head” (I Sam. 1:11). In these different passages we encounter two different words for razor in Hebrew: taar and morah. Are they synonyms? How do they differ from each other? Why does the Bible sometimes use one, and sometimes the other?

The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah §10:5) touches on this issue in an interesting way: "Why is the razor (taar) called a morah? Because hair is only scared (morah) of the razor, because it shaves it with a shaving of destruction, as it says, 'Do not destroy the corner of your beard' (Lev. 19:27)”. The deeper meaning of this Midrash seems obscured, but it is definitely an opening for our discussion.

The truth is that we find that morah is associated with fear. In the context of Samson, Targum (to Judges 13:5, 16:17) translates morah as scissors, while in the context of Samuel, Targum (to I Sam. 1:11) translates morah as “fear of men”. The same is found in Rashi’s commentary to those respective stories. Radak, on the other hand, favors translating morah as “razor” across the board. Radak then explains that the approach of Targum and Rashi is based on the opinion of the Tanaaic sage Rabbi Yossi, who opined (Nazir 66a) that while Samson was a Nazirite, Samuel was not. According to this, when the Bible says a morah shall not pass over his head, this cannot refer to a razor since Samuel was not a Nazirite, but rather refers to the fear of other men. However, Radak himself favors the the opinion of Rabbi Nehorai who said that Samuel actually was a Nazirite.

What is the root of the word taar? Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) in his commentary to Num. 6:5 contends that taar is related to the root AYIN-REISH-HEY, which denotes “laying bare” or “exposing” something. This etymology also explains the connection between a mitaar,which is asword’s sheath (scabbard), and the razor: Just as the razor is instrumental in removing hair, which reveals one’s epidermis, so does the sword suddenly appear when drawn from its sheath.

Linguists admit that they are unaware of the etymological source of the word morah. However, some suggest that its original root is also AYIN-REISH-HEY, with the initial AYIN dropped. Rashi (to Judges 13:5) explains that the word morah is related to the root YUD-REISH-HEY, which means “shoots” or “throws away”, because the razor “throws away” the hair, so to speak. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) says that the root of morah is MEM-REISH, which refers to “transferring” or “switching” (like temurah which attempts to transfer holiness from one animal to another, or a mumar who rejects Judaism and switches to another religion) because by shaving away one’s hair, one paves the way for a new batch of hair to replace those hairs that were cut.

While these two words for “razor” essentially mean the same thing, I have not found any sources that clearly explain the difference between the two. I have also been unable to figure out why the Torah uses the word taar and the Prophets use the word morah when discussing the Nazirite’s prohibition of shaving his hair.

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

© 1995-2022 Ohr Somayach International - All rights reserved.

Articles may be distributed to another person intact without prior permission. We also encourage you to include this material in other publications, such as synagogue or school newsletters. Hardcopy or electronic. However, we ask that you contact us beforehand for permission in advance at ohr@ohr.edu and credit for the source as Ohr Somayach Institutions www.ohr.edu

« Back to What's in a Word?

Ohr Somayach International is a 501c3 not-for-profit corporation (letter on file) EIN 13-3503155 and your donation is tax deductable.