What's in a Word?

For the week ending 26 January 2019 / 20 Shevat 5779

Cut it Out (Part 2 of 2)

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

In last week’s article, we discussed three forms of “cutting” Hebrew: bokea, korea, and several words derived from the biliteral root GIMMEL-ZAYIN (gozer, gazit, and more). In this installment we will continue that discussion, and sharpen the differences between another twelve words, which all refer to the concept of “cutting”. In lieu of an elaborate introduction, let’s cut right to the chase.

The most common word for “cutting” is chaticha. However, it should be noted that a chaticha-related word appears only once in the entire Bible (Dan. 9:24). Nevertheless, cognates of chaticha come up more often in later Hebrew writings. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) explains that chaticha primarily refers to the act of “cutting” something down the middle, thereby splitting it into two halves. Rabbinic Hebrew adopted the word chaticha and its cognate as the principle words for “cutting,” and expanded the word’s meaning to refer to all types of “cutting”.

Rabbi Pappenheim explains that like the word chaticha, batar also refers to cutting something in half. More specifically, it refers to cutting an animal in half for the purposes of using that cut animal as a sign for a covenant/treaty between two parties. He explains that the word batar is related to brit, as both words have the same three consonants. In fact, Genesis 15 describes the Covenant Between the Pieces (Brit Bein Ha’Betarim) — an agreement between G-d and Abraham, which Abraham endorsed by following G-d’s command to cut up certain animals and seal the deal. The prophet Jeremiah (in Jer. 34:18-19) also describes solidifying a treaty by cutting animals in half and walking through them. In all of these cases, the word batar is used.

With this in mind, Rabbi Pappenheim explains the meaning of the expression harei bater (“mountains of bater”), which appears in Song of Songs 2:17. That term refers to a pair of mountains which appear to have been originally formed as one, but were split from each other over time.

Another word for “cutting” is natach (or its verb form minateach). Rabbi Pappenheim explains that natach differs from batar in that it refers to cutting an animal into multiple pieces (not just two), and is not used for making a treaty, but for other purposes. For example, when a butcher sells different parts of an animal’s body, or a cook cuts up pieces of meat so they can fit in a pot, this is called natach. The Modern Hebrew word nituach (“surgery”) is derived from this Biblical root.

The term petitah (found, for example, in Lev. 2:6) refers to breaking up something with one’s bare hands. For instance, a baked good broken up into smaller parts is called pat/pita (one of several Hebrew words for “bread”). Rabbi Pappenheim explains that this term differs from natach not in the quality of the cutting, but in its focus. Petitah/pat focuses on the pieces which result from cutting, while natach refers to the whole body of that which was cut.

Interestingly, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the two-letter root PEH-TAV, which makes up the core of petitah, is also related to the words mefateh/pitui (“convincing” or “cajoling”). When one needs to “convince” somebody else to acquiesce to his propositions, he has essentially “torn up” that person’s feelings into different parts, with the person partially agreeing to him and partially disagreeing. On the other hand, when a person does something completely of his own volition, he is said to do it b’lev shaleim (“with a complete heart”), not with a “partial heart”. Rabbi Pappenheim also expands on this idea to explain the etymology of the word mofet (“wonder” or “sign”), which serves to “convince” somebody of a certain reality.

Another word for “cutting” is mohl/milah. Rabbi Pappenheim explains that this term is reserved for cutting off the top of something. It is famously applied to brit milah (“circumcision”), which is the commandment of cutting off the foreskin (on the top of the male organ). It is also applies to cutting off the tops of stalks (Job 18:16, 24:24) and of grass (Ps. 37:2), and dulling the tips of arrows (Ps. 58:8). One who engages in this sort of cutting is called a mohel. I seem to remember reading somewhere once that the terms mohel or milah refer specifically to cutting something round, but I am unable to recall where I saw this idea.

Nonetheless, Rabbi Pappenheim writes something similar about a different word. He explains that poleach means to cut something open (see Ps. 141:7, Prov. 7:23), while pelach is that which has been cut out (see Song of Songs 4:3, I Sam. 30:12). Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the hallmark of a pelach is that it refers specifically to something “cut off” from a greater circular parent, such that the shape of the pelach makes its obvious that it is cut from something circular or spherical. The shape of an orange segment or a slice of pizza can be described as a pelach (a “sector” in geometrical terms), and poleach refers specifically to cutting something in that fashion.

According to Rabbi Pappenheim, ketev refers to the type of cutting which does not penetrate the entire thickness of something to completely sever it. Rather, it is simply a cut that slices into the thickness, but not through-and-through. This is like a paper-cut, when one’s finger gets cut but is not completely severed. Rabbi Pappenheim explains that all four times that cognates of ketev appear in the Bible (Deut. 32:24, Isa. 28:2, Ps. 91:6, and Hos. 13:14), they refer to a type of illness that cuts one’s innards but does not sever them.

Another word for “cutting” is primah/porem (Lev. 13:45, 21:10). Rabbi Pappenheim sharpens the definition of primah by comparing it to kriyah/korea. Each act of kriyah makes another tear that separates one piece from the item-at-large. However, with primah, one act of tearing causes multiple pieces to come off of the item in question. When one rips something made up of many smaller parts (e.g., cheap fabrics), one simple act of ripping already begins to unravel the entire item. That type of “tearing” or “cutting” is called primah.

Other words for “cutting” include: 1) Gada (“truncating”), which specifically refers to cutting something as a means of destroying it or rendering it useless. 2) Ketzitzah (“chopping”), which refers to the act of cutting something with one strong blow. Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the root of ketzitzah is the two-letter string KUF-TZADI, which means “end,” because through chopping an object into two parts one creates two new ends of it. 3)Ketifah, which refers to severing something which was only flimsily connected. It is the word used to refer to plucking or detaching a flower or other flora. 4) Karet also refers to “cutting,” and is used to refer to the punishment of spiritual excision. In a future essay I hope to address the etymology of karet and how it differs from another punishment called ariri.

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