What's in a Word?

For the week ending 16 September 2023 / 1 Tishrei 5784

An Article About Nothing (Part 2 of 2)

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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In part one of this series, we explored the Hebrew words hevel, rik, and efes, which all mean “nothing.” In this installation, we will deal with the terms tohuand bohuused to describe the state of “nothingness” before the Six Days of Creation, and other words for “nothing” like blimah, meumahand klum.

Even though the Mishnah (Chagigah 2:1) writes that asking what came before the Creation of the World and what will be after its expiration is not a worthwhile course of study, the fact remains that the Torah (Gen. 1:2) itself teaches that before the Six Days of Creation, the world consisted of tohu and bohu (or, vohu). Both of these words are commonly translated as “nothingness,” but understanding the nuances expressed by these ostensible synonyms will help us better understand what exactly the Torah means to teach us about the state of the world before Creation. In addition, in this essay, we will also visit another group of three words that mean “nothing” — blimah, meumah and klum — all of which are etymologically related.

The word tohu occurs exactly twenty times in the Bible. Besides its appearance in the second verse of the Torah, the only other time it occurs in the Torah is when Moses praises the Jews’ devotion to Hashem by noting that their trust/belief in Him can even be found in a place of tohu, like the wilderness, into which they trustingly entered while relying wholly on Hashem (Deut. 32:10 as explained by Rashi). Most of the other instances of tohu in the Bible — in fact, eleven of those — are in the Book of Isaiah. For example, Isaiah teaches that Hashem did not create the world for tohu, but rather created it so that it will be populated (Isa. 45:18), and he also uses the word tohu to describe idolatry as “nothing/worthless/impotent” (Isa. 41:29, 44:9, 59:4). On the other hand, the word bohu only appears two more times in the Bible (Isa. 34:11, Jer. 4:23) beside its occurrence in the Creation narrative.

In the context of the Creation story, Targum pseudo-Jonathan and Targum Neofiti (to Gen. 1:2) translate the words tohu and bohu as tahiya and bahiya (respectively), which are simply Aramaicizations of the original Hebrew words. However, Rashi (to Gen. 1:2) and Sefer HaBahir (§2) explain that tohu refers to the idea of “astonishment” and “wonderment,” in the sense that if somebody saw the sheer nothingness of the pre-Creation world, that would induce a person to wonder and be astonished. This usage is found in the term toheh al harishonot (Kiddushin 40b) in reference to a person who regretted his good deeds and was “astonished” at what he had nobly done. tahi bah is also a phrase used in the Talmud to introduce a question of bewilderment (Brachot 38b, Eruvin 66a, Ketubot 107b, Kiddushin 55b, Bava Kamma 76b, 112b, Bava Batra 39b, Zevachim 13b, and Bechorot 42b).

Targum Onkelos (to Gen. 1:2) translates the word bohu as reikanya, which is an Aramaicization of the Hebrew word reik (a cognate of rik, discussed in the previous installment of this essay). Rashi (there) also sees the word as related to reik in the sense of “emptiness,” while Sefer HaBahir (there) explains that bohu refers to something that has some minimal amount of tangibility to it and is not completely abstract.

The Talmud (Yoma 54b) records a dispute about whether Hashem created the word starting from the middle, expanding outwards; or He created the world from its edges, and continuously filled in until reaching the middle. The 14th century Provencal scholar Rabbi Nissim of Marseilles (to Gen 1:2) seemingly follows the first approach when offering his definitions of tohu and bohu. He understands both terms to allude to the moment before Creation, when the entirety of the world was concentrated in the middle, from which everything was supposed to expand outward (similar to how scientists nowadays understand the Big Bang). Accordingly, he explains tohu by likening it to a person who is stuck "wondering" (toheh/tamah) and thus remains immobile in place, without moving to the right or left because of his indecision. Essentially, tohu refers to that moment in time before Hashem had catalyzed the world to expand outwardly. Similarly, he explains bohu as a contraction of bo (“inside”) and hu (“it is”), meaning that the entirety of the world was still “in the inside” (i.e., middle) and had not yet begun to spread out. [In his book The Six Days of Creation: The Garden of Eden, Dinosaurs, and the Missing Billions(Mosaica Press, 2022), Rabbi Alexander Hool argues that whereas modern science believes that the universe is still expanding, Judaism understands that it has actually stopped expanding.]

Nachmanides (to Gen. 1:1) famously takes a more philosophical approach, explaining that tohu and bohu refer to the philosophical notions of “matter” (chomer) and “form” (tzurah). In doing so, Nachmanides explains that tohu refers what Greek natural philosophers called “hyle” (hiyuli), a primordial first matter, which was shaped and formed to fashion everything in creation. As Nachmanides explains, the concept of a name can only apply to something that has both matter and form. Anything missing one of those two components is effectively “nothing.” As such, Nachmanides connects the word tohu to toheh (like Rashi), explaining that since tohu refers to matter without form, it eludes naming because one cannot pin down exactly what it is. Therefore, if one would theoretically encounter tohu one can only contemplate and wonder what it should be called, but cannot actually name it. Nachmanides’ explanation echoes that of the Zohar (Bereishit 16a) and his predecessor Rabbi Avraham bar Chiyya HaNasi (1070–1136), who wrote the same thing in Higgayon HaNefesh. Interestingly, Gersonides (to Gen. 1:2) takes the exact opposite position — namely that tohu is "form" and bohu is "matter," although Abarbanel (there) rejects Gersonides' explanation.

Rabbi Moshe Botarel (1390–1440) cites an otherwise unknown scholar named Rabbi Levi ben Shlomo of Lunel as likewise explaining that tohu refers to matter that has no shape but is destined to later receive a shape, while bohu refers to the concept of shape. Rabbi Levi ben Shlomo of Lunel is also cited as explaining that existence hinges on polar opposites, leading him to explain that tohu refers to “absence” and bohu refers to “presence.” Somehow, Hashem tempering the balance between these two poles brings the world into existence. Indeed, the world is a playground in which opposites are expected to coexist, both in concrete terms (protons and electrons, light and dark, animate and inanimate, old and young, male and female, introvert and extrovert) and in abstract terms (physical and spiritual, body and soul, good and evil, true and false, pure and impure, existence and non-existence, universal and particular, immanence and transcendence) — and Hashem is the One who makes peace between them. [Although, it should be noted that Rabbi Botarel has been known to fabricate sources, so his citation might not be the most reliable.]

Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Luzzatto (1800–1865), also known as Shadal, explains that tohu refers to something pointless which brings no benefit, while bohu implies something that not only has no advantage, it is actually bad. [Elsewhere, Sefer HaBahir (§11–12) connects tohu with evil and bohu with peace. Later on, Sefer HaBahir (§135, §163) elaborates on this point by connecting tohu’ s association with evil with the notion that it causes people to wonder and second-guess themselves which leads them to sinning).]

As an aside, Rabbi Avraham bar Chiyya HaNasi writes that the word tehom (“depths of the sea”) — inflections of which appear 36 times throughout the Bible — derives from tohu, because it denotes an unorder area which has no shape. He explains that the final MEM at the end of the word tehom is akin to the letter MEM at the end of the words chinam (“free”) and reikam (“empty”), which are simply declensions of the Hebrew words chein (“granting/gracious”) and reik (“vacant/empty”), respectively.

In the cases of the words tohu and bohu, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) sees the letters HEY and VAV as radicals added to the core root. He explains the root of bohu as the monoliteral root BET, which means “inside.” Although Rabbi Pappenheim does not mention this point, the very name of the letter BET itself relates to bayit (“house”) and refers to a place into which a person might enter. Either way, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that bohu refers to something’s external structure, whose interior still needs to be filled in.

Similarly, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the word tohu derives from the monoliteral TAV, and denotes the formation of an outlines or silhouette that shapes something’s outer contours of, but whose core inner essence has not yet been filled in. This fits with an esoteric passage in the Talmud (Chagigah 12a) that explains tohu based on Isa. 34:11 as “a green line that circumscribes the entire world” (i.e., something that establishes the boundaries of the physical universe) and bohu as “the wet stones embedded in the mantle from which water goes out” (i.e., the external source of the essential ingredient of all life — water). [The monoliteral roots BET and TAV are discussed in earlier essays: "Come to Pharaoh" (Jan. 2021), "Family Matters" (Nov. 2021), and "Enter the Gate" (Dec. 2022).]

Another Hebrew word for “nothing” is meumah. This word is a tricky term because not only does it mean “nothing,” but it can also mean “anything/something/whatever/whatsoever.” The same word bears these seemingly opposite meanings because Hebrew allows for double negatives. This means that in Hebrew, a person can say he has nothing by saying, “I do not have nothing,” while in English saying the same thing is an awkward way of implying that one does have something. In English, to say that he has nothing, one would say “I do not have anything” or “I have nothing.” According to Even-Shoshan’s concordance, the word meumah appears 32 times in the Bible, plus another two times without the final HEY as meum (Job 31:7, Dan. 1:4).

The most popular etymology of meumah traces the word to the biliteral root MEM-HEY, from whence mah (“what”) is derived. This approach is adopted by Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Carpentras in his work Ohalei Yehuda, who writes thatmeumah is a contraction of mah u’mah (“what and what”). In his lexicon of Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic, the German philologistWilhelm Gesenius (1786–1842) also offers this etymology of meumah, and compares its construction to that of the Latin word quidquid, which basically means the same thing. Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein (1899–1983) also cites this explanation, but rejects it on technical grounds.

Rabbi Pappenheimexplains that the etymological source for meumah is the two-letter root MEM-MEM which denotes the “smallest amount.” According to Rabbi Pappenheim, when meumah means “nothing” it really means “not even something” (for example, Gen. 30:31; 39:23, I Kgs. 10:21). For Rabbi Pappenheim, the Biblical Hebrew term meumah is on par with the Rabbinic Hebrew terms mah’she’hu and kol’she’hu. The former of these terms is a portmanteau of mah (“what”) and she’hu (“that it is”), meaning “what[ever amount] that it is;” while the latter is a portmanteau of kol (“all/any”) and she’hu (“that it is”), meaning “any [amount] that it is.” [For a discussion of how meumah relates to mum, see “Blemished Imperfections” (May 2020).]

Once we have seen how the word meumah relates to the word mah, we can better appreciate how our last two terms for “nothing” also relate back to the word mah. The first of those words is blimah. This word appears only once in the Bible, when Job described Hashem as the One who “hangs the land on blimah” (Job 26:7). On a simple level, this means that Hashem actively suspends the earth in space (“nothing”), without it needing to lean on any other cosmic body.

This understanding is followed by Rabbi Saadia Gaon, Ibn Ezra, Rabbi Moshe Kimchi (to Job there) and Radak (Sefer HaShorashim) who all explain the word blimah as a portmanteau of bli ("without/there is not") and mah ("anything," literally “what”). As we mentioned in Part 1, the word bli alsorelates to the concept of “nothingness.” Indeed, the word blimah is sometimes written as two words. In this spirit, Rabbi Avraham bar Chiyya HaNasi in Higgayon HaNefesh writes that blimah is actually synonymous with tohu.

However, it should be stated that on an exegetical plane, the rabbis (Chullin 89a) explain blimah as a single word derived from the triliteral root BET-LAMMED-MEM ("withhold/hold back"), a cognate of which appears only once in the Bible (Ps. 32:9) — making it otherwise a hapax legomenon. They explain that when Job says that Hashem hangs the world on blimah, this means that the continued existence of the world hinges on the merit of those people who respond to personal insults by "holding back" and not retorting (see Rabbeinu Bachya to Deut. 33:27).

Interestingly, Sefer Yetzirah refers to the concept of the Ten Sefirot as blimah, which either means that those Sefirot are not independent realities that exist outside of Hashem, but are rather “nothing” on their own; or, refers to the notion that one ought to “hold back” from speaking on esoteric matters and sharing them with the uninitiated (see Ramban to Sefer Yetzirah). In his commentary to Sefer Yetzirah, Rabbi Shabsai Donnolo (913–982) writes that the word blimah is actually a portmanteau of bli and meumah, explaining that it refers to the fact that unlike other artisans and craftspeople, Hashem was able to create the world without any tools or materials!

By the way, the Biblical Hebrew word blimah has nothing to do with the Yiddish girls’ name Blima. That name, which is also pronounced Blume (see responsa Maharsham vol. 4 §50, vol. 8 §242) derives from Germanic cognates of the English words bloom/blossom/blow (and the German/Yiddish blatt). According to linguists, these Germanic words derive from the Proto-Indo-European root bhel (“thriving/blossoming”). In Greek and Latin, the first consonant of that root morphed into an f-sound (just like in Hebrew, BET and PEH can be interchangeable), yielding the etymological ancestors of the English words flower, flour, foliage, folio, flora, flourish, and more. It is also the basis of the name of the Roman goddess Flora (also called Fluusai in the Ancient Oscan culture) Needless to say, none of this has anything to do with the British English interjection blimey.

Finally, the Rabbinic Hebrew word klum appears countless times in the Mishnah and also means “nothing.” Like its Biblical counterpart meumah, it too usually appears in the context of a double negative, so in English it might be translated as “anything” in connection with a term of negation. Rabbi Binyamin Mussafia (1606-1675) writes in Mussaf Ha’Aruch that the Rabbinic term klum is actually a contraction of the phrase kol meum (“nothing at all”), which appears in the Hebrew part of Daniel (Dan. 1:4). This etymology is cited approvingly by Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein.

However, Rabbi Yair Chaim Bachrach (1639–1702), the author of the famous Halachic responsa Chavot Yair, writes in his work Mar Kashisha that he disagrees with Rabbi Mussafia’s explanation, but does not offer an alternate etymology. [Before I actually studied the etymologies of the word klum, I used to think that klum is related to kol (“all/every”) and kulam (“all of them”), via the well-documented phenomenon that Hebrew roots can sometimes refer to an idea and its polar opposite. For example, the noun shoresh means “root,” but its verb form misharesh means “to uproot.” Thus, to me it made sense that “everything” and “nothing” would be related words.]

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