What's in a Word?

For the week ending 23 October 2021 / 17 Cheshvan 5782

Words for Words

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

Over the years we have discussed many different words in these essays, but we have yet to discuss the words for “word.” In Hebrew there are at least two words for “word”: milah and teivah. Rabbi Shlomo Pappeheim (1740-1814) seems to understand that milah is an original Hebrew term for "word," while teivah is a later neologism coined by grammarians to refer to the more specific grammatical concept of a "word." Indeed, the word milah in the sense of “word” appears in the Bible many times (Ps. 19:5, 139:4, II Shmuel 23:2, Prov. 23:9, and more than 30 times in Iyov, plus in the Aramaic sections of Daniel), while teivah in that sense first appears only in later rabbinic writings. This essay closely examines these two words and their respective etymologies to shed more light on how the terms for “word” might actually not be complete synonyms.

Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469-1549), also known as Elias Levita, writes that many people think that there is no difference between the words in question. However, in his works Mesorat HaMesoret and Sefer Tishbi, HaBachurdisagrees with this assumption, instead arguing that milah refers to a “spoken word,” while teivah refers to a “written word.” Interestingly, Rabbi Yosef Teomim (1727-1792) slightly differs with HaBachur, maintaining that milah can refer to either a written or verbalized word, while teivah refers exclusively to a written word.

Rabbi Shlomo Zalman of Hanau (1687-1746) cites HaBachur’s way of differentiating between milah and teivah, and adds that the word milah is derived from the triliteral root MEM-LAMMED-LAMMED ("speech"). This root appears in Sarah's poetic response to the birth of Isaac: "Who had spoken (millel) to Abraham, ‘Sarah will nurse children’? Because I have given birth for his old age” (Gen. 21:7). King David uses a similar word when discussing G-d's superlative greatness: "Who will say (yimallel) G-d’s feats? Who will make all His praises be heard?" (Ps. 106:2)

Indeed, millel is the typical Targumic rendering of the Hebrew amirah (“saying”) and its cognates. Moreover, the Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 18a) cites a popular aphorism from the Holy Land: “A milah is worth a sela (a form of currency), and silence is worth two sela.” This also implies that milah refers to speech, because in this aphorism its antonym is shtika (“silence”).

Thus, if milah is derived from a root that is related to “speaking,” it makes sense that itwould refer specifically to a word that is “said.” In other words, milah refers to the smallest unit of speech that can have its own meaning. Phonemes or syllables, of which words are typically comprised, do not necessarily have any meaning on their own. By the way, this is similar to the Greek term lego (“to speak”), which serves as the etymon of the words lexis and logos (“word”).

If milah/millel is just another term for “saying/speaking,” then how does it differ from such words as amirah, dibbur, sichah, ne’um, yichaveh, and yabia, which also refer to that concept?

Peirush HaRokeach and Siddur HaRokeach explain that millel specifically denotes speaking in an elaborate and verbose fashion. To back this position, they point to the opening words of Bildad’s response to Job that reflects such usage, “Until when will you speak (timallel) these [words]?” (Job 8:2). Fascinatingly, Rabbeinu Efrayaim (to Gen. 21:7) writes that unlike other terms for “speech,” millel refers specifically to speaking the truth. Rabbi Yehuda Leib Shapira-Frankfurter (1743–1826) makes a similar point, noting that millel refers to “speaking” as a means of explaining something in the most clear and accurate way possible. They adduce the following verse to support this understanding: “The knowledge of my lips—clarity, do they speak (millelu)” (Iyov 33:3).

Rabbi Pappenheim actually takes a slightly different approach to understanding milah. He traces the word to the biliteral root MEM-LAMMED, whose core meaning is “edge” or “extremity.” The word milah as in brit milah (“covenant of circumcision”) refers to “cutting off” the edge or extremity of a male member’s foreskin. In a similar vein, milah as “word” actually refers to a word as an independent unit divorced, or “cut off,” from the rest of a sentence.

HaBachur adduces support for his assertion that teivah refers specifically to a “written word” from the Talmud (Yevamot 13b), which says: “Any word (teivah) that needs a LAMMED at its beginning [as a prefix that denotes “to”[, the Scripture [can instead] places a HEY at its end [as a suffix that denotes “to”].” HaBachur understands that this mainly refers to how the word is written. He also mentions the expression roshei teivos (literally, “the heads of the words”) used for written acronyms/abbreviations.

On the other hand, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman of Hanau writes that the word teivah means "box, chest" and refers to the written word because books that contain written words are stored in a teivah.

In Biblical Hebrew, teivah means “ark” or “closet.” For example, Noah’s Ark is called a teivah (Gen. 6–9), as was the basket wherein baby Moses was placed (Ex. 2:3). In Mishnaic Hebrew, teivah refers to the Holy Ark of a synagogue which houses the Torah Scrolls, or to the table (also known as bimah) upon which the Torah Scrolls are placed while being read. In a previous article (“A Tale of Two Arks,” 2016), I cited Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) who argues that the word teivah is related to the word bayit (“house”) by way of metathesis (both words contain the same letters). This implies that a teivah, in some ways, is like a person’s home. Based on this, I would say that teivah denotes a "word" as a sort of house for all the letters to come together in that house or box.

When discussing the Biblical Hebrew word teivah (“ark/box/chest”), Ibn Janach writes in his Sefer HaShorashim that the root of this word is TAV-BET-HEY. Radak, in his Sefer HaShorashim, mentions a possible alternative root, TAV-YOD-BET. Following this latter approach, Rabbi Yosef Teomim suggests that the root of teivah is derived from the Aramaic TAV-(YOD)-BET, which equivalent to the Hebrew SHIN-(VAV)-BET, that means “return.” This connection may be justified by the common phenomenon of the letter SHIN in Hebrew morphing into a TAV in Aramaic. Rabbi Teomim explains that when a person stores something in a teivah, he intends to later “return” to that container and retrieve whatever it is he had stored there. By contrast, when a person leaves an item on the floor, he does not show that he intends to “return” to retrieve it.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 6:14) similarly suggests that teivah is derived from the Aramaic root YOD-TAV-BET, equivalent to the Hebrew root YOD-SHIN-BET ("sitting, dwelling, settling"), and refers to the teivah's place as one's temporary domicile. Perhaps teivah in the sense of “word” refers to a place in which letters are nestled.

Rabbi Shimon Yehuda Leib Goldblit (an early 20th century exegete) parses the word teivah as a portmanteau of ta (“come/enter,” the Aramaic TAV-ALEPH which equals the Hebrew BET-ALEPH) and bah (“into it” in Hebrew).

Dr. Alexander Kohut (1842-1894) reports that some claim that the word teivah in the sense of "word" comes from an Arabic root that means "to cut." Thus, he explains that teivah is related to “cutting,” just like milah might also be related to the verb for cutting. Alternatively, Kohut notes that others explain the word teivah as “word” to be derived from teivah as “box” in the way that a “word” is like a sort of box that contains all the letters therein (like I suggested above).

Rabbi Moshe Shapiro (1935-2017) points out that another word for “word” in Hebrew is davar. He finds it especially telling that DALET-BET-REISHmeans both “word/speak” and “thing” in Hebrew, alluding to the metaphysical reality described by Sefer Yetzirah that G-d created the world by combining letters from the Hebrew alphabet to form Divine words. As Rabbi Akiva Tatz eloquently puts it, “All things in the world are in fact none other than divine words crystallized into material existence.” Interestingly, Rabbi Shapiro even points to a Talmudic passage (Shabbat 58b) that explicitly links the word davar (“thing”) to the concept of “speech” in saying that sound-producing implements (that “speak,” so to speak) have the Halachic status of “things” (i.e., keilim, “vessels”) vis-à-vis the laws of ritual impurity. (A similar phenomenon exists in Aramaic, wherein the word milta means both “word,” as a cognate of milah, and “thing”.)

Interestingly, Rabbi Matityahu Glazerson proposes that the English word word is actually derived from the Hebrew word davar by way of metathesis and the interchangeability of the w-sound and the b/v-sound). If he is right, then the same could be said of the English word’s Germanic siblings wort in German and vort in Yiddish (with the d- sound and the t-sound interchanging), as well as the English word’s Latin cousin verb (via labialization, whereby the d-consonant after the r-consonant in Proto-Indo-European morphs into a b-consonant in Latin).

I will conclude with a well-worded musing by Mrs. Faigy Peritzman (Mishpacha Magazine, April 1, 2020) about how words are used to box in abstract thoughts and ideas to make them more specific and finite: “We see this concept in the alternate definitions of the various Hebrew words that mean ‘word’: davar, milah, and teivah. Davar also means a thing, because a word concretizes abstract thoughts into things. Milah also means to cut, to incise, because a word cuts down your limitless thoughts into something tangible and real. Teivah also means a box, because a word is our attempt to squeeze our infinite thoughts into a finite casing.”

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