What's in a Word?

For the week ending 2 July 2022 / 3 Tamuz 5782

Empty Exaggerations

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

Moses said that when the Ten Spies reported back to the Jewish People about the Land of Canaan, they claimed to have seen "great and fortified cities in the Heavens" (Deut. 1:28). The Talmud (Tamid 29a, Chullin 90b) says that in this verse the Torah speaks hyperbolically, because the Spies did not literally see the Canaanite cities reaching the Heavens. As Rabbi Ami put it, in this case the Torah speaks in “words of havai.” Rabbi Ami further explains that the prophets of the Bible, and even the rabbis, are also wont to speak in hyperbolic exaggerations. The Talmud (there) uses two different terms to refer to such “exaggerations” — havai and guzma. Because the Talmud ostensibly uses these two terms interchangeability, they seem to be synonymous. But when we explore the etymologies of these two different terms, we will see that their origins differ from one another.

As mentioned above, the Talmud states that the not only does the Bible sometimes speak in hyperbole, but so do the rabbis. They offer various examples of this in the Mishna: The Mishna (Tamid 3:4) states that the animal sacrificed in the Daily Offering would drink from a golden cup. The Mishna (Tamid 2:2) also states that sometimes the pile of ashes upon the Temple’s altar would be 300 kor. Another Mishna (Middot 3:8) describes a Golden Vine in the Temple, upon which people who wanted to donate gold could affix an additional golden grape or cluster. The Mishna concludes by noting that this golden vine was so enormous that it took three-hundred Kohanim to move it. A fourth Mishna (Shekalim 8:5) states that the parochet in the Temple was so heavy that it took it required three-hundred Kohanim to lift it to immerse it into a mikveh. The Talmud says about some or all of these cases that the rabbis spoke “words of havai,”or offered a guzma. As Rabbi Yissachar Ber Eilenberg (1550-1623) clarifies, these examples are just a sampling of the instances in which the rabbis exaggerated in the Mishna, but not an exhaustive list of all rabbinic hyperboles.

Going back to the passage about the “cities in the Heavens,” Rabbi Meir Pozna of London posits that the exaggeration in that passage was not the spies exaggerating about the enormity of the Canaanite cities, but was rather Moses exaggerating the spies’ rhetoric. He notes that when the Bible speaks about what the spies themselves actually said, it quotes them as saying: "And the cities are great and fortified" (Num. 13:28). It was Moses who exaggerated the spies’ report as though they said that the cities were “in the Heavens” (a phrase Moses himself repeats later in Deut. 9:1).

In explaining what a guzma is, Rashi (to Bava Metzia 38a, Chullin 90b) writes that it is merely extraneous words, or “simply words” that do not reflect the actual reality (see also Rashi to Erachin 11a). Similarly, Rashi (to Chullin 90b) explains that "words of havai" refers to speech spoken by common people who often speak in vulgar ways that exaggerate the matter at hand. He notes that even though such people are not trying to lie, per se, they are not careful to speak the exact truth.

The Talmud (Beitzah 4a) asks why there was a Baraita that explicitly taught that one is allowed to do two things that are obviously permitted, and it answers that this Baraita is simply a guzma. Rashi (there) explains that guzma refers to a sort of rhetorical device whereby one attempts to stress a specific idea by adding to it. In this case, neither rulings taught in the Baraita were untrue, yet they are still branded a guzma because the way these rulings were presented implied that they were novel even though in truth they were utterly obvious.

After citing the above Talmudic sources that talk about guzma and havai in the Bible and in Rabbinic works, Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469-1549) in Sefer HaTishbi declares that guzma and havai mean the exact same thing — i.e., the act of overstating something in a way that it is not literally true. HaBachur claims that guzma is actually a Greek loanword, an assertion also made by Rabbi Binyamin Mussafia (1606-1675) in Mussaf HaAruch. Nevertheless, after some searching, I have been unable to pin down a specific Greek word from which guzma may have been borrowed or even derived. Because of that, I prefer to assume that guzma is of Semitic origin.

In Biblical Hebrew, the root GIMMEL-ZAYIN-MEM appears only five times: Three times in the word gazam, which is a type of grasshopper (Yoel 1:4, 2:25, and Amos 4:9) and twice in the proper name Gazam, whose family were among the Netinim who came to the Holy Land with Zerubbabel (Ezra 2:48, Nech. 7:51). In Rabbinic Aramaic, this root took on the additional meaning of "threatening" (see Targum to Ps. 8:3, Prov. 15:30, Iyov 30:21, and Shavuot 46a).

Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1697-1776) posits that guzma in the sense of “exaggeration” is based on this last meaning of the root. He explains that just as most threats are simply “empty threats” aimed at intimidating somebody, even though, in truth, the threatener has no intention of actually carrying out his threat, so too is a guzma a hyperbole that does not line up with the actual truth.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 11:6, Lev. 26:4, and Deut. 18:10) connects the Rabbinic Hebrew term guzma to the Biblical term gazam by explaining that just as locusts tend to travel in swarms — with an inordinate amount of grasshoppers joining together — so too does a guzma imply a hyperbolic rendition of something true, yet whose numbers are likewise inflated.

Fascinatingly, Rabbi Hirsch also connects this root to the words yazam (“planning/enterprising”) and kasam (“magic”) via the interchangeability of GIMMEL, YOD, and KUF: yazam denotes the ability to create something more out of something less, and kasam denotes the ability to circumvent the limitations of nature to yield something more than usual (or because the magician purports to have access to more knowledge than the average person). Rabbi Hirsch also connects gazam to geshem via the interchangeability of ZAYIN and SHIN, explaining that a geshem is a solid mass comprised of a hyperbolic amount of parts.

Because guzma is not a Biblical Hebrew word, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) does not discuss its etymology, yet his explanation of the root GIMMEL-ZAYIN may prove helpful for understanding the word guzma. Rabbi Pappenheim understands the core meaning of the biliteral root GIMMEL-ZAYIN to be: “shaving/trimming something in a way that leaves some parts attached and some parts detached.” Other words derived from this root include: geiz (Ps. 72:6), grass that remains after trimming; gozez (Gen. 38:12, 31:19), shearing wool from sheep; gazam, a type of grasshopper that eats some produce and leaves the rest; geza, a tree whose top is truncated; and gazit, shaven/hewn stone.

Moreover, the root GIMMEL-ZAYIN-MEM (gozem) in Rabbinic Hebrew has another meaning that is similar to that of GIMMEL-ZAYIN — “to clip, prune” (see Avodah Zarah 50b). This is done when one trims a plant for the benefit of the plant itself, i.e., so that it will continue growing properly. In light of this, I would like to suggest that guzma is conceptually similar to this idea, because it denotes an exaggeration that is not completely detached from reality, but is rooted in some sort of truth (albeit in an overstated and excessive fashion).

Interestingly, Rabbi Shmuel Jaffa-Ashkenazi of Istanbul (1525-1595) writes in his commentary Yefeh Mareh (end of Jerusalem Talmud Shekalim) that the word guzma is a portmanteau of egoz (“nut”) and meah (“one hundred”), as the term denotes the sort of exaggerating whereby when speaking about a single nut, one would refer to it as though there were one hundred nuts. Unfortunately, he does not explain why egozim in particular were chosen to illustrate this idea (see also Eruvin 2b regarding guzma and the number one-hundred).

While the word guzma appears neither in the Bible nor in the Mishna, the term havai already appears in the Mishna. The Mishna (Nedarim 3:1-2) rules that if one takes a vow in the style of havai, then the vow does not come into effect. For example, if a person vows to forbid something to himself on condition that “I did not see [as many people] on this road as [the number of people] who exited Egypt” or “I did not see a snake [that was as long] as the beam of an olive press,” then even if he did not literally see 600,000 people on the road or did not literally see a snake that was as long as a beam used for pressing olives, the vow does not come into effect. This is because the fellow who undertook the vow simply intended to accentuate — by way of exaggeration — the large amount of people that he saw on the road, or the length of the snake that he saw — but he never really intended to undertake a serious vow that was tied to the literal meaning of his own words. The Mishna brands such invalid vows “nidrei havai.”

The word havai can be spelled in two different ways: HEY-VAV-ALEPH -YOD and HEY-BET-ALEPH-YOD. If we follow the first spelling, it seems that havai is a form of the verb “is/to be.” In that sense, havai refers to an exaggeration as something that “just is,” i.e., it simply reflects the way that people talk, but otherwise there is not much to it.

If we follow the second spelling, havai seems to derive from the biliteral root HEY-BET. Rabbi Aryeh Leib Feinstein of Brisk (1821-1903) understands the core meaning of that root to be “raising one’s voice” (see Prov. 30:15), with havai as “exaggeration” being a way of figuratively raising one’s voice to make oneself heard. Rabbi Pappenheim similar sees HEY-BET as referring to “calling/commanding others to prepare something,” although he does not explicitly deal with the post-Biblical word havai.

Putting a different spin on it, HaBachur suggests that the word havai is derived from the Aramaic term hovai (“thorn”), found in Targum (to Isa. 7:25, 32:13, Iyov 30:4). He understands the connection by explaining that just as thorns are considered unimportant vis-à-vis the rest of a plant, so too are words of havai considered unimportant and untrue when compared to other rhetorical or literary devices. This explanation is actually first cited by Rabbeinu Nissim (to Nedarim 20b) when explaining the Mishnaic term nidrei havai. It also bears some thematic resemblance to Dr. Alexander Kohut’s explanation that compares the word havai to a similar Persian word meaning “breath/air/nothingness/futile.”

Rabbeinu Tam (1100-1171) and Rabbi Eliezer of Metz (1115-1198) are quoted as explaining that the word havai relates to the Biblical word habaim — “engaging in stupidities” (see Targum to Yechezkel 20:29), presumably because if a hyperbole does not fully reflect the reality that it purports to describe, then it is nothing but mere stupidity (see also Tosafot Yeshanim to Nedarim 20b).

Earlier, we cited the Talmudic passage saying the Mishna’s report about the massiveness of the GoldenVine in the Temple was merely hyperbolic. Rabbi Yaakov Emden explains that this does not mean that the Mishna was lying about how many Kohanim it took to move the Golden Vine. Rather, it means that what the Mishna says should not be literally taken as true exactly the way it sounds, but that it is still true if properly interpreted.

In other words, Rabbi Emden explains that the Golden Vine really did require 300 Kohanim in order to move it, but the Mishna exaggerated in implying that all 300 Kohanim were needed at one time to carry the golden ornament. In truth, Rabbi Emden assumes, it took 300 Kohanim to carry the vine because it was so heavy that when some Kohanim became tired from carrying it, others hadto take their place. Thus, the Mishna means that in all there were 300 Kohanim involved in moving the Golden Vine, but not that all of them were needed at the same time, as the Mishna’s wording implies.

Thus, Rabbi Emden maintains that even when the rabbis state that something is a guzma or reflects “words of havai,” this does not mean that what is stated is not literally true, but rather that only the prima facia implications of what is stated is inaccurate, but what is actually stated is still literally true.

In the same vein, Rabbi Eliyahu HaKohen of Izmir (1659-1729) explains that the Canaanite cities were said to reach the Heavens because when one looks upon something that is very tall, it appears as though it reaches the Heavens. Therefore, the literal meaning of that verse is not totally false, even though it is not “factually true.”

A similar sentiment is expressed by the Italian Kabbalist Rabbi Menachem Azariah of Fano (1548-1620), who writes that the word havai does not imply that something is totally null and void. Rather, it implies something that still needs to be understood and studied. He finds an allusion to this in the fact that havai can be understood as an acronym for the verse hinei barchu et Hashem, “behold they are blessing Hashem” (Ps. 134:1). In this way, he intimates that “words of havai” should be taken seriously but not necessarily literally.

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