What's in a Word?

For the week ending 22 December 2018 / 14 Tevet 5779

Crouching Lion, Hidden Blessing

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

You may have noticed an interesting parallel between Yaakov’s blessing to Yehuda and Bilaam’s blessing to the Jewish People. When Yaakov blesses his son Yehuda, he says, “Yehuda is [like] a lion cub (gur aryeh)… he bends and crouches like a lion (aryeh), and like a lion (lavi). Who can lift him up?” (Gen. 49:9). In a similar way, Bilaam blesses the Jewish People saying, “…he bends and reclines like a lion (ari), and like a lion (lavi). Who can lift him up?” (Num. 24:9). In just these two passages, we have encountered four Hebrew words that refer to a lion: ari, aryeh, gur, and lavi. As we shall soon see, there are several more Hebrew words which mean “lion”.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 95a) relates that Rabbi Yochanan said that there are six words for “lions” in the Bible: ari, kfir, lavi, layish, shachal, and shachatz. Rabbi Levi (in Yalkut Shimoni to Prov. 20) adds a seventh term, gur aryeh, and explains how each of these names is related to “lions” (a similar tradition is found in Avot d’Rabbi Natan, version 2, ch. 43):

1. Ari because everyone fears lions, and the root of the word fear (yirah) is comprised of the same letters as the word ari. Tikkunei Zohar (122a) explains that lions correspond to the sense of sight (the letters of the word aryeh rearranged spell out the word reiyah, “sight”).

2. Kfir because anybody sees a lion will deny (kofer) his life. Others argue that kfir is related to the root KAF-PEH-REISH, which means to "cover" (like the kapporet which covered the Holy Ark), and refers to the lion's mane which covers him in hair.

3. Lavi because lions “grab” the hearts (levavot) of men by scaring them (when they roar). Rabbi Menachem Azariah of Fano (1548-1620) writes that a lion is called a lavi because when feasting on its prey it begins by eating the heart (lev).

4. Layish because the lion’s teeth “knead” (lash) the skin of man like dough.

5. Shachal because people become “sick” (choleh) from fear when confronted by a lion.

6. Shachatz because the lion’s teeth are very sharp like “arrows” (cheitz).

7. Rabbi Chaim Palagi (1788-1868) adds that gur is also an expression of “fear” (see, for example, Deut. 1:17 and Job 19:29).

The sources we have cited seem to understand that the seven words in question refer to the exact same “lion”, but recall seven different attributes of the animal or human reactions to it. However, other sources assume that the different words for “lions” refer to different stages in a lion’s life.

Rashi (to Ezek. 19:5 and Job 4:10) explains that a kfir is a young, but strong lion; a shachal is a medium-sized lion; and an ari is a big lion. The Vilna Gaon disagrees with this approach. He explains that there are three stages in the life of a lion, and at each stage it is scary for a different reason. When young, a lion’s teeth are scary — at that point a lion is called a kfir. When it is older, its roar is scary — then it is called an aryeh. When it is even older, even its regular voice (i.e. when it is not roaring) is scary — then it is called a shachal. According to the Vilna Gaon, a kfir is a lion cub, a shachal is an old lion, and anari is a middle-aged lion.

Rabbi Yaakov Baal HaTurim (to Num. 24:9) writes that a lavi is a younger lion than an ari, but does not explain where it fits in vis-à-vis shachal and kfir.

Similarly, Radak (to Judges 14:5) tracks the progression of a lion’s life by saying that first it is a gur (a young cub who still nurses from its mother, see Lam. 4:3), then it becomes a kfir, then an aryeh, then a lavi, and finally a layish. Radak stresses that as long as a lion keeps growing older, it keeps getting stronger and stronger. He, too, does not explain where shachal fits in.

Abarbanel (to Judges 14:5) disagrees with Radak's position, and rejects the supposition that a lion’s life goes through so many different stages. Instead, he explains that gur and kfir are synonyms for a young lion, and aryeh, layish, and lavi are all synonyms which mean an older lion.

Abarbanel in Mashmia Yeshua cites Rabbi Yosef Ibn Kaspi as explaining that the word gur for “lion cub” is related to the word ger (“sojourner” or “stranger”) because the lion cub’s agility allows it to always be on the move. In a similar vein, the Rashbam (to Gen. 49:9) notes that Yaakov compared Yehuda to a gur aryeh because it is faster and stronger than an older lion.

That a kfir is a relatively young lion is discernable from several sources. Avot d’Rabbi Natan explains that a kfir is an adolescent lion who is called so because he “denies” (kofer) his parents. Rabbi Yechiel Michel Stern (Rav of the Ezras Torah neighborhood of Jerusalem) explains that a kfir is not as fierce as an aryeh, which is why Micah (5:3) says that a kfir will attack sheep, which are domesticated and vulnerable, while an aryeh will attack the wild animals of the forest. Moreover, Psalms 104:21 says that a kfir roars to ask for its food, implying that it is too young to go out hunting for food on its own. See also Zohar (Terumah 143a) which says that a kfir is a weak, small lion.

While Radak explains that an older lion is first called a lavi, and afterwards a layish, the Vilna Gaon explains the difference between these two words differently. He explains that a layish is a female lioness that has not yet borne children, while a lavi is female lioness that already has children.

Interestingly, the Italian scholar Rabbi Yishaya of Trani (to Hoshea 13:8) writes that lavi/laviyah is a separate species than lions. Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu Horowitz of Vilna (1765-1802) similarly writes in his scientific almanac Sefer HaBrit that a shachal is a panther and a layish is a leopard. He understood that they are not alternate words for “lion”. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) similarly writes that namer, lavi, andshachal are all words for a spotted leopard (or perhaps “tiger”). Nonetheless, Rabbi Yishaya himself admits thatshachal and shachatz are different words for lion.

We also have to discuss the difference between the words aryeh and ari, but this article has to end at some point, so we’ll save that discussion for another time. Please email me if you want to hear more about the information I gathered on that front.

  • For questions, comments, or to propose ideas for a future article, please contact the author at rcklein@ohr.edu

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