What's in a Word?

For the week ending 14 November 2020 / 27 Heshvan 5781

Chayei Sarah: Boys and Girls (Part 1)

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

The Torah uses three different words to refer to Rebecca as a “girl”: naarah (Gen. 24:14; 24:16; 24:28; 24:55; 24:57), betulah (Gen. 24:16), and almah (Gen. 24:43). Of course, the most common Hebrew word for “girl” is yaldah. Each of these four words also has a masculine counterpart that means “boy” (naar, bachur, elem, and yeled). In this essay we will seek to understand the possible nuances expressed by these four sets of words, and show how they are not true synonyms.

Let’s begin with the terms naar/naarah. The Talmud (Kesuvos 39a) defines naarah as a girl from the age of twelve until six months after she has reached physical maturity. This would suggest that the term naar for a “boy” likewise refers specifically to a boy at the age of thirteen. Indeed, Rashi (to Gen. 25:27) explains that when the Torah refers to Jacob and Esau as ne’arim, this means that they were thirteen. This also explains why Ishmael was called a naar when the angels visited Abraham (see Rashi to Gen. 18:7) — at that time he was thirteen years old (see Gen. 17:25).

Nonetheless, it is quite difficult to define naar/naarah as belonging to a certain age bracket because we find those words used in the Bible multiple times to refer to girls who were not twelve years old and boys who were not thirteen. Case in point: the Torah refers to Rebecca as a naarah when Eliezer chose her as Isaac’s wife, yet none of the commentators explain that she was twelve years old. According to Seder Olam (ch. 1), she was three years old when she married Isaac, which is too young to fit our definition of naarah; and according to Sifrei (to Deut. 33:21), she was fourteen years old, which is too old.

This problem is compounded when we survey the various males referred to as a naar in the Bible, We find baby Moses called a naar when he was three-months old (Ex. 2:6). Furthermore, Ishmael was called a naar when he was thirteen years old, but he is also called a naar three years later when he was already 16 years old (see Gen. 21:12; 21:17-20). Similarly, Joseph is called a naar when he was seventeen years old (Gen. 37:2), and was still called a naar when he was thirty years old (Gen. 41:12). We similarly find Joseph’s younger brother, Benjamin, called a naar at the age of thirty-one (Gen. 44:22, 44:33); King David’s son Absalom, at the age of twenty-one (II Sam. 18:32); King Solomon’s son Rehoboam, at the age of forty-one (II Chron. 13:7); and Moses’ attendant Joshua, at the age of fifty-seven (Ex. 33:11).

Possibly, because of these questions, Midrash Mishlei (to Prov. 1:4) expands the age limit of the term naar to twenty, twenty-five, and even thirty years old. This resolves most of the difficulties we raised, but does not account for the cases of baby Moses, Rehoboam, and Joshua. Taken altogether, these passages suggest that the terms naar/naarah do not refer to a specific age group, but to something else.

When the Torah calls the seventeen-year old Joseph a naar, Rashi (to Gen. 37:2) comments that Joseph used to engage in seemingly immature childlike activities, like fixing his hair and tending to his eyes. Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi (1455-1526) explains that the Torah did not mean to brand Joseph a naar, but to describe his behavior as naar-like. He doubles down on our assumption that naar refers to a boy specifically between the ages of thirteen, and thirteen-and-a-half, but adds that, depending on the context, the term naar can sometimes apply to a male outside of that age bracket if that person somehow resembles an actual naar.*

For example, when baby Moses was called a naar, this either refers to the fact that Moses’ voice sounded like the voice of an actual naar, or that his mother had enclosed him in the basket with a sort of mini-wedding canopy expected of an actual naar because she anticipated missing him getting married (see Sotah 12b).

In the case of Joseph, his immature behavior was enough of a reason for the Torah to brand him a naar, even as he was older than the age usually denoted by that term. Furthermore, Mizrachi explains that Rehoboam was called a naar as a forty-one year old because he was immature and had weak leadership skills, as if he were a young boy. When Joseph was again called a naar at the age of thirty (Gen. 41:12), this did not actually reflect anything immature about Joseph’s behavior. Rather, as Rashi explains, the Pharaoh’s butler called Joseph a naar in order to disparage him and imply that Joseph was not worthy of the greatness that awaited him.

Turning to the cases of Benjamin and Absalom, Rabbi Mizrachi explains why they were called naar at more advanced ages than that term suggests. Vis-à-vis their fathers, they are always going to be considered a “boy,” even when they are in their twenties and thirties.

Finally, Rabbi Mizrachi explains that Joshua was called a naar in his late fifties because that verse was said in the context of his serving Moses, and anybody who functions as a servant in the service of others can be called a naar, regardless of their actual age (see also Radak to Joshua 6:23, who makes this point). Although Rabbi Mizrachi does not mention this, the Torah also calls Isaac a naar at the age of thirty-seven (Gen. 22:5) and Ishmael a naar (Gen. 22:3) at the age of fifty-one. We can account for both examples by explaining that they were both attending to Abraham, and essentially just following his lead, as a child might follow his father.

With this information in hand, we can now begin to consider why the Torah might refer to Rebecca as both a naarah and an almah. Ibn Ezra (to Song of Songs 1:3) explains that the word almah denotes a girl who is younger than a naarah. Accordingly, we may explain that Rebecca’s physical age was that of an almah — younger than a naarah — but her emotional/intellectual maturity and/or her spiritual stature was on par with that of an older naarah. For this reason, both of those terms are appropriate in describing Rebecca. (This understanding works best if Rebecca was three years old when she was chosen as Isaac’s mate.)

According to many commentators, the words elem andalmah are related to the Hebrew words eilum and ne’elam, which mean “hidden.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 13:15) explains the connection by noting that elem refers to a “young naar” who has not matured/developed yet, such that his potential remains “hidden” and “unrealized.” Peirush HaRokeach points out that throughout the story of David and Jonathan’s secret pact, the lad who served as their go-between is called a naar (see I Sam. 20:1-42), but in one instance he is referred to as an elem (I Sam. 20:22), in allusion to their need to keep the agreement “hidden” from Jonathan’s father, King Saul.

Based on this link, the commentators offer various ways of understanding the word almah as differing from the word naarah. For example, Peirush HaRokeach explains that the term almah refers to a girl who is less “outgoing” than the term naarah wouldindicate. Accordingly, Rebecca may have already reached the age of naarah and perhaps even advanced beyond that technical stage of development (if she was fourteen), yet she was still an almah because she was “hidden” from other people. Peirush HaRokeach adds that the term almah teaches us that Rebecca was such an innocent and sheltered damsel that she had never even been propositioned before, something apparently uncommon for a girl of her age at that time and place.

Rabbeinu Efrayim ben Shimshon (to Gen. 24:43) explains that the term almah said about Rebecca, and the word elem said about King David (I Sam. 17:56), imply a person who “hides” their words, which is typically a sign of someone wise. Thus, naarah might describe Rebecca’s physical age, while almah speaks more about her intelligence.

Rabbi Shimon Dov Ber Analak of Siedlce (1848-1907) explains that the two terms in question refer to two qualities characteristic of people in the age of adolescence. The word naar relates to the young adult’s tenacious industriousness, which gives them the resolve to “shake off” (l’na’er) anything that might get in their way and impede their ambitions. The term elem, on the other hand, does not refer to the adolescent’s tenacity, but to their sheer power and strength. This meaning of elem in the sense of “energetic” is related to the word alim (with an ALEPH), which is the standard Targum rendering of ometz/amitz (“strong” or “resilient”).

Chizkuni (to Gen. 24:44) contends that the words naarah and almah mean the exact same thing, but that naarah is a Hebrew word while almah is Aramaic. He explains that in the story at hand, the narrator first refers to the young lass as a naarah (in Genesis 24:16) because the Torah is written in Hebrew. Afterwards, in Eliezer’s dialogue with the girl’s family, Eliezer refers to her as an almah (to Gen. 24:43) because he thought that Rebecca’s family understood only Aramaic (because they lived in Harran, which is in Aram, where Aramaic was spoken). Nonetheless, Chizkuni points out that Rebecca’s family did actually speak Hebrew, because when the question of her leaving with Eliezer arose, her brother and mother referred to her as a naarah (Gen. 24:57).

Another female in the Bible referred to as an almah was Moses’ sister Miriam, who watched over her younger brother as he was put into the Nile and was saved by the Pharaoh’s daughter (Ex. 2:8). In this case, she was six years old at the time (Shemot Rabbah 1:13). It seems that this age is too young to fit the technical definition of almah (yaldah is more appropriate), as the Talmud (Sotah 12b) felt the need to seek out exegetical explanations for the use of this appellation. The Talmud explains that Miriam was called an almah in this context because she “hid” the fact that she was Moses’ sister, or because she acted with the “strength” and “vigor” expected of an older young lady.

In next week’s essay we will expand on the idea that the term naar/naarah is related to the concept of “revealing,” which contrasts very nicely with what we wrote above that elem/almah is connected to the idea of “hiding.” We will also discuss the words yeled/yaldah and betulah/bachur.

To be continued…

*NOTE: See also Rashi (to Ketuvot 44b), who explains that when the word naarah is spelled deficiently (i.e. sans the letter HEY as the ultimate letter), it could also include a girl younger than the age of twelve. However, when naarah appears in the plene form with the letter HEY at the end, it serves to exclude a girl younger than twelve.

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