What's in a Word?

For the week ending 28 January 2023 / 6 Shevat 5783

Please Stand Up

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

Although the word amidah (“standing”) and its variants appear over 500 times in the Bible, the word nitzav (and its various inflections) also means “standing” and makes quite a few appearances in the Exodus narrative and the Book of Exodus in general. For example, when baby Moses is placed in a basket on the Nile River, his sister Miriam “stood (v’titatzav) from afar” (Ex. 2:4) to follow her little brother’s fate. Similarly, after Moses and Aaron’s first audience with Pharaoh, the Bible relates that certain men — identified by the Talmud (Nedarim 64b) as Dathan and Abiram — were “standing” (nitzavim) to greet the future saviors and criticize their noble efforts (Ex. 5:20). Later on, in the lead-up to the Plague of Blood, Hashem tells Moses, “Go to Pharaoh in the morning, behold he goes out to the waters, and you shall stand (nitzavta) to greet him at the edge of the river” (Ex. 7:15). What is the difference between the type of “standing” meant by the term amidah, and how does it differ from the type of “standing” denoted by nitzav?

Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Shapiro of Dinov (1783-1841) explains that nitzav implies a new act of “standing” (for example, if one was first sitting and then stood up), while amidah can apply to somebody or something that had already been “standing” until now. As proof-texts to this distinction, Rabbi Shapiro cites two verses. In one verse, Moses tells the Jewish People at the edge of the Reed Sea to brace themselves in anticipation of a great miracle, “And Moses said to the nation: ‘Do not fear, stand up (hityatzvu), and you will see the salvation of Hashem…’” (Ex. 14:13). In this passage, a cognate of nitzav is employed because Moses essentially told the People to recalibrate their stance as though standing anew, in order for them be behold the miraculous spectacle that was about to happen. He basically asked them to “switch positions” from something akin to sitting into something akin to standing. In another verse, the Bible describes that Abraham was “already standing (omed) before Hashem” (Gen. 18:22) when he began to plead for Hashem to save Sodom. In this case, a variation of amidah is used because it denotes Abraham having already been standing from before, not standing anew.

Although Rabbi Shapiro concedes that there are multiple counter-proofs to the distinction he drew between these terms, that did not stop him from using his distinction to explicate another verse. He uses his distinction between nitzav and amidah to explain a passage where both words appear in tandem when telling of Hashem’s role as the Ultimate Judge: “Hashem stands (nitzav) for litigation, and He stands (omed) for the judgment of nations” (Isa. 3:13). As Rashi explains, the first part of this verse discusses Him judging the Jewish People, which is done in a “hasty and less-thorough way” because He has mercy on His nation. The second part of the verse discusses Hashem judging the other nations through more thorough and meticulous proceedings. Rashi adds that the word omed implies something that is delayed or stalled, as though it was just “standing” there for an extended time.

Rabbi Shapiro reflects on the same idea by explaining that when it comes to describing the judgment against the Jewish People, Isaiah uses a cognate of nitzav because Hashem standing for judgment against them is a “new development” that goes against His “default” approach of mercy. On the other hand, when it comes to describing His judgment against the other nations, a cognate of amidah appears because Hashem is “already standing” in judgment against those nations by default, ready to hear any grievances against them.

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