What's in a Word?

For the week ending 7 December 2019 / 9 Kislev 5780

The Ovine and Caprine Families

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

The Bible uses fifteen or so different words to refer to sheep (ovines) and goats (caprines). Some are used exclusively for sheep, others for goats, and yet others for both species indiscriminately or collectively (known as “ovacaprines”). Some words denote specific genders or ages, while others are more general. In this essay we will clarify the differences in usage between all these words.

The word seh is a gender-neutral term that refers a young goat or sheep. The Torah often uses the word seh in conjunction with a more specific word that denotes whether the animal is a sheep or a goat(see Ex. 12:5 Num. 15:11, Deut. 14:4).

Like seh, the word tzon is also a general term which refers to both goats and sheep, most commonly to an entire flock or herd. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) traces the root of tzon to the letter TZADI, which means “goes out.” This refers to the fact that, in contrast to other domesticated animals, the dainty ovacaprines tend to always “go out” of the barn even in the winter (while the heavier bovines tend to stay inside when it is cold).

An adult female goat — sometimes known in English as a nanny goat or she-goat — is called an eiz (or izzim in plural). The Hebrew word eiz is related to the Arabic word for goat, enzu (with the NUN dropped in Hebrew, as often happens). Rabbi David Ibn Zimra (1479-1589) writes that unless an exact age is specified, the term eiz can refer to any female goat from the age of eight days until two years.

Rabbi Pappenheim traces the word eiz to the two-letter root AYIN-ZAYIN, which refers to something “stable, unchanging, unwavering.” Derivatives of this root include azut (“brazenness,” i.e. unwilling to compromise) and oz (“strength,” which allows something to withstand all opposition). In that spirit, he explains that goats are called izzim because their unbendable legs provide stable footing, enabling them to jump and climb with ease.

A tayish is an adult male goat, sometimes called a billy goat or buck in English. Rabbi Pappenheim traces the root of the word tayish to TAV-SHIN, which means “weakening.” For example, the word netishah (“abandonment”) refers to the weakening of a bond, tash/tashash refers to the “weakening” of energy, and a yatush (“fly”) is the weakest of all creatures. Accordingly, a he-goat is called a tayish because it is so strong that it is the polar opposite of “weakness.”

There are two words used for young goats: The word gedi/gediya refers to a kid until the age of one, while seir/seirah refers to young goats of all ages. Abarbanel (Lev. 16:5) writes that seir is related to tzair (“young”), while Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Deut. 32:2) connects seir to se’ar (“hair”) because young goats are hairy. The word tzfir (Dan. 8:8, 8:21) is Aramaic for seir.

[One version of Maimonides (Laws of Maaseh HaKorbanot 1:14) maintains that seir specifically refers to a young goat in its second year (see Rashi to Menachot 91b), and is the only term for such a beast, while the other version maintains that the only term is seir izzim (see Aruch HaShulchan HeAsid for more about this point)].

Segueing to the ovine (sheep) family, the word rachel refers to an adult female sheep — known in English as a ewe. The Hebrew word rachel is related to the Akkadian lahru by metathesis (i.e. the Akkadian word uses the same consonants as the Hebrew word but in reverse order). Rashi (Menachot 107b) explains that a rachel refers to a ewe in its second year of life or older.

According to the Mishna (Menachot 13:7), the rachel’s male counterpart is the ayil (“ram,” eilim in plural). Another Mishna (Parah 1:3) explains that the term ayil refers to a male sheep that is more than a month into its second year. Rabbi Pappeneim traces the word ayil to the biliteral root ALEPH-LAMMED which means “powerful,” because the ram is the strongest, most powerful type of sheep (which otherwise tend to be weak and flimsy livestock).

Sometimes, Rabbinic literature refers to the “ram” as a zachar shel rechalim, literally “a male of the ewes” (Parah 3:3, Bechorot 5:3, Bava Kama 50a, Yevamot 121b). The difference between this term and the term ayil is not readily apparent. Rabbi Yisrael David Miller of Grodno (1839-1913) suggests that the Rabbis sometimes use this term instead of ayil when the reader might otherwise confuse the word ayil with ayal (“deer” or “hart”). Others have suggested differentiating between a castrated and an uncastrated ram.

The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 26a) points out that the word yovel also means “ram,” and was borrowed to also mean a ram’s horn (Josh. 6:4-5), as well the fiftieth year — the jubilee, an English word derived from the Hebrew yovel — when such a horn is blown.

A young sheep within its first year is called a keves/kivsah (Parah 1:3). The Pesikta Rabbasi expounds on the word keves as though it were related to kevisah (“washing,” “laundering”), alluding to the sacrificial lamb’s ability to wash away one’s sins.

However, in fourteen places the Torah uses the word kesev/kisbah instead of keves/kivsah. Ibn Parchon, Rabbi Yishaya of Trani, Radak, Ibn Ezra, and other authorities cite the case of keves-kesev as a quintessential example of metathesis, in which consonants switch their order in a word without changing the word’s meaning. In other words, they understand that keves and kesev mean the exact same thing. Nevertheless, the Turei Zahav (Orach Chaim §143:2) rules that if a Torah Scroll has kesev written in it instead of keves ( or vice versa) — it is unfit.

Other commentators explain that there are subtle differences between kesev and keves. Some Tosafists (Panaech Raza and Baal HaTurim to Lev. 3:7; Peirush HaRokeach to Lev. 4:32) explain that kesev implies a bigger or older sheep than keves. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893) in HaEmek Davar (to Lev 1:10) also follows this approach. Others, including Rabbi Shmuel Strashun (1794-1872), the Malbim (1809-1879), and Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843-1926), take the slightly different approach that keves always implies a young ovine, while kesev is a more general term that can refer to sheep of all ages.

Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) writes that keves is related to the word for “washing” (like the Midrash cited above), while kesev is related to the word kisah/mechusah (“covered”), because sheep are covered in wool.

Another word for a young sheep is tle/tleh.Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 30:32) writes that it does not only refer to a young lamb but can also refer to a young human (see Rashi to Megillah 5b), just as the English word kid means both “young goat” and “young child.”

Rabbi Pappenheim traces the root of tleh to TET-LAMMED, the same root as the word tal (“dew”). Dew is essentially water vapor accumulated in the air that became so heavy that gravity pulled it down. Similarly, explains Rabbi Pappenheim, a tleh is an animal/person who had recently been born, and whose weight when pulled by gravity helped open the cervix and facilitate the birthing process.

Rabbi Meir Mazuz derives from Scripture that the words tleh (young sheep) and gedi (young goat) refer specifically to young animals still nursing from their mother (see Ex. 23:19 and I Sam. 7:9).

Our last word to cover in this essay is the one whose meaning is most obscured: atud. As some commentators have it, the word atud denotes a he-goat that is bigger and stronger than usual (see Ibn Ezra to Num. 15:25 and Isa. 1:11). This word is especially used in reference to the male goat which leads the flock (Jer. 50:8). Interestingly, Targum Onkelos translates atud both as tayish, “adult male goat” (Gen. 31:10), and as gedi, “young goat” (Num 7:17). The Peirush HaTur HaAruch (Gen. 31:10) and Rabbi Yosef Chiyyun (Ps. 50:13) explain that atudim are fattened kevasim (young sheep). Alternatively, Nachmanides (Gen. 31:10) argues that atudim are any adult male ovacaprines.

[Other words for fattened animals includekarim (Deut. 32:14, Ezek 27:21, Jer. 51:40) which might refer specifically to male sheep, and meri/meriim, which Rashi (to Isa. 1:11) explains are fattened ovacaprines, while Ibn Ezra (there) claims are fattened bovines. Rabbi Pappenheim traces the root of meri to REISH-VAV, which means “quenching/satisfying,” while he traces the root of karim to KAF-REISH which denotes “digging,” as the borders of luscious pasture lands on which karim grazewere demarcated with ditches.]

Quick Summary: Ovacaprine: seh = young ovacaprine; tzon = herd of ovacaprines; atud might be any goat, or extra-large adult goat, or fat young sheep, or any male ovacaprine. Caprine (goat): eiz (pl. izzim) = female, possibly only adult; tayish = adult male; gedi, seir, and seir izzim = young goats. Ovine (sheep/ram): rachel = adult female; ayil (pl. eilim), zachar shel rechalim, and yovel = adult male; keves, kivsah, and tleh = young sheep; kesev and kisbah = alternate terms for keves and kivsah, or imply older sheep, or might be general terms for sheep that do not imply any age.

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

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