What's in a Word?

For the week ending 21 November 2020 / 5 Kislev 5781

Toldot: Boys and Girls (Part 2)

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

Last week, we began our discussion of different Hebrew words for “boys” and “girls” with a discourse on the meaning of the term naar/naarah, as well as why the Torah referred to Rebecca as both a naarah and an almah. In this week’s essay we continue that discussion to explore the etymology of those words, tracing them back to their two-letter roots to help shed light on their core meanings. Then, we will discuss other words for “boy” and “girl” like yeled/yaldah, plus some Aramaic counterparts to the words we’ve been talking about.

As is his way, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Brelsau (1740-1814) traces the words in question to their two-letter etymological roots and uses that information to shed light on their primary meaning. This approach is quite useful in showing us how apparent synonyms actually differ from each other because it digs into the core meanings of those words.

Rabbi Pappenheim traces naar/naarah to its biliteral root AYIN-REISH, “revealing.” For example, when Rebecca “poured (vate’ar) her jug” (Gen. 24:20), the act of pouring out liquid from a container essentially serves to reveal the bottom of said container; thus that verb is derived from this two-letter root. Other words derived from this root include ohr (“skin”, the part of one’s body which is revealed to the outside), ervah (“nakedness”, when a person’s body is revealed), taar (“razor”, a blade used for cutting hair and revealing the skin underneath), and ar (an “enemy” who reveals his enmity outwardly). The word eir (“awake”) is also derived from this root because when one sleeps, his or her abilities are not readily apparent, but when they awaken, those abilities are suddenly revealed. Building on this last example, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that naar/naarah denotes a stage in an adolescent’s maturation when their potential suddenly reveals itself, as if they just woke up from the slumber of childhood. (Rabbi Pappenheim also writes that sometimes this worddenotes the youthful irresponsibility of one who “shakes off” (l’na’er) his or her obligations.)

When it comes to the word elem/almah, Rabbi Pappenheim finds that its etymological root is the biliteral AYIN-LAMMED, which means “on top.” The most common word derived from this root is al (“on”) — conjugations of which appear in the Bible close to some 6000 times! A whole slew of other words also come from AYIN-LAMMED, including elyon ("high"), l’maaleh (“up”), oleh ("elevate"), aleh ("leaf" which grows on a branch), ohl ("yoke" which is placed on an animal), meil ("tunic" which is worn on top of other clothing), na'al ("shoe" which is worn on top of the foot), and more. For our purposes, the most relevant words are olel and elem. The word olel (“toddler”) denotes the age at which a child has already been weaned from his mother’s milk and now “gets up” on his own to find/ask for food. The olel experiences a growth spurt throughout his childhood years, until he becomes an elem, at which stage he has grown “up” to nearly his maximum.

On the surface, Rabbi Pappenheim’s explanations of naar and elem seem to refer to the exact same stage in life. In fact, Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach and Radak (in their respective works entitled Sefer HaShorashim) explicitly write that naarah and almah mean the same thing. Nevertheless, Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) offers a synopsis of Rabbi Pappenheim’s explanations, which accentuates the difference between naar and elem. He admits that according to Rabbi Pappenheim both terms refer to the same stage of life, but that elem focuses on the manifestation of physical maturity, while naar focuses on the development of intellectual/spiritual maturity.

Segueing to the word yeled/yaldah, Rabbi Pappenheim writes that this is a general term for “child,” and does not necessarily denote a specific age. In fact, Yishmael is still called a yeled at the age of sixteen (Gen. 21:15-16), and when the Mishna (Erachin 4:4) uses the term yeled, Rashi (to Erachin 18b) explains that it refers to anybody between the ages of twenty and sixty (as opposed to zaken, who is someone over sixty).

Midrash Tadshe(ch. 6) lists six stages in a person’s life: yeled, naar, roveh, elem, ish, sav, and zaken. Unlike what we have seen earlier, this source places elem after naar, and adds the stage of roveh between the two. In terms of our discussion, we see from this Midrash that yeled connotes the earliest stage of a person’s life. (Interestingly, Rabbi Eliyahu HaKohen of Izmir (1659-1729) cites anonymous “sages of astrology” who explain that yeled refers to a boy between the ages of 2-5, naar isbetween 5–8, and bachur is between 8-18.)

When Reuben tried to convince his brothers not to harm Joseph, he called Joseph a yeled (Gen. 44:22). Rabbi Meir Simcha of Divnsk (1843-1926) explains that Reuben specifically used that term, as descriptive of a seventeen-year old Joseph, in order to highlight the fact that Joseph had not yet reached the age of twenty and was thus not yet liable to be punished in the Divine Court.

As simple as it seems, Rabbi Pappenheim traces the word yeled to the two-letter root LAMMED-DALET, which refers to “birth.” Hence, yalad/yaldah is the verb for the act of “giving birth,” toldot refer to the “results” of birth, valad is the “womb” from whence birth begins, and yeled/yaldah is any “child” who is born.

In Aramaic, there are another two sets of words that refer to “boys and girls.” It is a complicated discussion as to exactly how they correspond to the various Hebrew words we have encountered so far, and so I will just point out some of the difficulties. Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky (1891-1986) already noted some of the Targumic inconsistencies we will raise, but his resolution lies beyond the scope of this essay.

The word roveh/reva/ravya (“boy”) is the standard Aramaic translation of yeled in Targum Onkelos (e.g., see Gen. 21:8, 21:16, Ex. 2:6, see also Succah 5b). The feminine counterpart to this word is rivah/riviysa, which means “girl” (see Rashi to Sanhedrin 58b). Interestingly enough, in the one place that the Hebrew word yaldah appears in the Pentateuch (Gen. 34:4), Targum Onkelos translates that word as ulemta (the Aramaic form of almah), rather than rivah.

To make things even more complicated, ulemta and its masculine counterpart, ulema, are the words Onkelos typically uses as translations for naarah and naar, respectively (although there are exceptions like Gen. 37:2, Num. 30:17, Ruth 2:5-6, when Onkelos translates naar as ravya). Rashi (to Shabbat 127b, Kesuvot 62b, and Sanhedrin 109b) also translates rivah/riviysa as naarah.

Finally, Targum also uses cognates of revi/ravya as Aramaic renderings of the Hebrew bachur (Ruth 3:10, Lam. 5:13), but also uses the word ulema for bachur (Ecc. 11:9). Rashi (to Sotah 26a)throws a wrench into this discussion by defining roveh as bachur and yeled!

In some places, Targum gives the Aramaic word for yeled and naar as tali/talya (its femine counterpart is talya/talyasa, see Megillah 5b and Dikdukei Sofrim to Yevamot 114a). Indeed, Rashi (to Megillah 5b) also defines tali as naar. Interestingly, the Rashbatz and Bartenura (to Avot 1:10) write that the name of the early Sage Avtalyon alludes to that Sage’s role as the head of the Sanhedrin, as the Talmud (Gittin 36a) says that the court functions as the “father of orphans,” and the name Avtalyon can be read as a portmanteau of av (“father of”) and talyon (“children”).

Although I have not found any sources that explicitly deal with the origins of these Aramaic pairs of words for “boy” and “girl,” I think that their etymologies are straightforward. Firstly, the words ravya, reva, and their various cognates, are clearly derived from the two-letter root REISH-BET, which means “to grow” in Aramaic (e.g., see Targum to Gen. 25:27). This refers to “boys” and “girls” as people who are still “growing.” Secondly, the words talya, talyasa, and their various cognates seem to be related to the Biblical Hebrew word tleh (“young goat”). Just like the English word kid refers to both “young goats” and “young children” (ostensibly because they both run around wildly), so does the Aramaic term carry both of those meanings.

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