What's in a Word?

For the week ending 6 November 2021 / 2 Kislev 5782

Disgraceful Disparagement

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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The word vayivez only appears twice in the entire Bible: After Esau sold his firstborn rights to Jacob, he then turned around and “disparaged” (vayizev) those birthrights (Gen. 25:34). Rashi explains this means that Esau mocked and repudiated the worship of G-d. Similarly, when Haman was incensed that Mordechai would not bow to him, he decided to kill all the Jews because he found it too “disgraceful” (vayivez) to just attack Mordechai (Esther 3:6). The word used in both cases is a cognate of bizayon — “disparagement.” Similarly, after introducing how G-d loves Jacob and hates Esau, the prophet Malachi lambasts certain Kohanim who act like Esau in disparaging (bozei) the worship of G-d by offering blemished animals as sacrifices (Mal. 1:1-8).The cycle is completed elsewhere in the Bible, when G-d Himself belittles Esau, saying via the prophet Obadiah (a prostyle who descended from Esau): “…you are very disgraceful(bazui)” (Ovadia 1:2) — again using a cognate of bizayon. This essay explores the word bizayon alongside three other Hebrew words for “disgrace”/“disparagement”— kalon, zilzul, and genut.

Let’s begin with the word kalon. This word appears many times in the Bible and variously refers to a “source of embarrassment/insult.” Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) understands that kalon derives from the biliteral root KUF-LAMMED, which he defines as “the opposite of heavy.” In other words, being kal means being “lightweight” in a physical sense (e.g., II Sam. 2:18, Isa. 19:1). It also refers to “lightening” a burden (e.g., Gen. 8:11, Ex. 18:22, and I Kings 12:4), which makes something “easier.” In Rabbinic Hebrew, the term kal appears in the phrase kal va’chomer to denote something more lenient or prosaic, as opposed to the chomer which denotes something more stringent.

Based on this, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that when one treats a person flippantly by besmirching them, one has essentially declared that person a “lightweight” and not worthy of honor. Verb cognates of this word appear when Hagar started to belittle Sarah after she became pregnant before her mistress (Gen. 16:4), when an officer of the court metes out too many lashes to a criminal (Deut. 25:3), and when a child slights his or her parents’ honor (Deut. 27:16). Kalon is thus the noun that describes the sort of disparagement and insult inherent in treating somebody as something less than they are.

Interestingly, Rabbi Pappenheim finds two more words that use the KUF-LAMMED string to be derivatives of this core meaning. Firstly, the word kelalah (“curse”) essentially refers to the act of dismissing another person as unimportant, thus taking him “lightly” — whether or not one actually utters a curse against them. To put it simply, when one hexes another person, he essentially declares that person as unimportant and undeserving of whatever good G-d has in store for him. Secondly, the word kilkul/klokel (“spoiled,” “rotten,” “damaged”) basically refers to the process by which something loses its value and is lowered in stature so much so that almost nothing is left.

When discussing the word bizayon, Rabbi Pappenheim traces the term to the two-letter root BET-ZAYIN, which refers to something “considered totally worthless.” He stresses that bizayon is a stronger form of disparagement than kalon. When one disparages or insults something in this way, one considers the object of his disdain as something totally unworthy or valueless. Another word derived from this biliteral root is bizah (“loot,” “booty”) which refers to plundered property that one took without paying for, such that it is cheapened and worthless in one’s eyes. What’s fascinating is that Rabbi David Chaim Chelouche (1920-2016), the late Chief Rabbi of Netanya, contends that because of the interchangeability of ZAYIN and SHIN, the bizayon can be understood as a cognate of bushah (“embarrassment”).

The term zilzul in the sense of “disparaging” or “insulting” does not appear in the Bible, but very similar words derived from the two-letter string ZAYIN-LAMMED do appear in the Bible. Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the core meaning of this root is “the inability of components to remain attached.” Based on this, he explains that the word zulat (“except for,” besides”) derives from this core meaning because it denotes something not attached to or included in a given set. In a similar vein, the word nozel (“downward flow”) refers to liquids’ inability to remain one solid mass, as its components tend to drift away from each other — mostly common downwards (because of gravity). Another word derived from this root is zal/zollel which refers to “unbridled monetary spending” (see Isa. 46:4), as if one is unable to remain attached to his financial assets that just flow away from him. This is similar to the English term liquidate, which refers to selling things cheaper than they are worth.

When one sells low or engages in wasteful spending, he shows that his assets are not as valuable and important to him, so zal/zollel came to also refer to something that has a lowered value (for example, see Lam. 1:8). In that sense, the word zalzal (Isa. 18:5) refers to the unimportant shoots of a tree/vine that are pruned so that they do not adversely affect the more valuable fruits. In the same sense, the word zol in Rabbinic Hebrew means “cheap” because the price of a product goes down when it is supplied in abundance and people therefore do not view it as especially important. Parallel to all this is the Hebrew term zilzul, which refers to “disparaging/disgracing” something by cheapening its value. Indeed, Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469-1549) explicitly connects the word zilzul with this root, and also notes it is sometimes used by the Targumim to translate cognates of kalon in Aramaic (see Iyov 40:4, Prov. 12:9).

The Hebrew term gnai/genut (“insult,” “disgrace”) also does not appear anywhere in the Bible, but it does appear in the Targumim and in the Mishnah. For example, the Mishna (Shabbat 6:4) reports that according to Rabbi Eliezer carrying a weapon is considered an adornment for a man, while the Sages maintain that carrying a weapon is considered a “disgrace” (gnai). Similarly, the Mishna (Yoma 3:11) applies the term gnai to insult the House of Garmu who refused to teach outsiders how to bake the Showbread, the House of Avtinas who refused to teach how to prepare the Temple’s ketoret (“incense”), and others who similarly refused to teach their special skills that could enhance the Temple’s services. Finally, the Mishna (Pesachim 10:4) teaches that in the Passover Haggadah one should “begin with genut and conclude with praise” — which refers to beginning the retelling of the Exodus story from a point in which the Jewish Nation were in utter disgrace (i.e., their pre-Abrahamic pagan origins or their enslavement in Egypt).

Maimonides (in his commentary to the Mishnah Shabbat 6:4 and Yoma 3:11) defines the word gnai as “the opposite of praise.” The word megunah (“disgraceful/disgusting”) is an adjective form of this word.

In his lexicon of Targumic Aramaic aptly titled Meturgaman, Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur lists the word gnai word under its own quadriliteral root (GIMMEL-NUN-ALEPH-YOD). Interestingly, Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein (1899-1983) traces the etymology of this word to the Aramaic root GIMMEL-NUN-YOD which means “to be within shade.” Perhaps this might be related to the English expression “to cast a shadow” over something which means to present it in a less-than-positive light, that is, to essentially defame or disgrace it. This Aramaic root evidently goes back to the biliteral Hebrew root GIMMEL-NUN (“protection”), which Rabbi Pappenheim explains yields words like gan (“garden,” a patch of land that is guarded and protected), niggun (“melody,” which includes a variety of musical sounds that mimics the variety of flora that grows in a garden), and magen (“shield”). Rabbi Dr. Klein also connects gnai/genut term to the Arabic word janyya (“crime”).

Although not of an etymological nature, Rabbi Yisroel Hopstein (1737-1814), also known as the Maggid of Kozhnitz, offers a Hassidic insight based on the connection between gnai and gan. He explains that in order for a garden to thrive and demonstrate fecundity, it requires large amounts of manure to fertilize its flora. In fact, the more one adds such “disgraceful” (gnai) things, the more it enhances the garden’s (gan’s) ability to grow. In light of this, Rabbi Hopstein explains that the same is true of a person: the more a person humbles himself before G-d and understands his own disgracefulness, the more a person has the potential to grow and reap the fruits of his efforts.

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