What's in a Word?

For the week ending 18 November 2023 / 5 Kislev 5784

True Love (Part 2/2)

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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In Part I of this essay, we looked the Hebrew word ahavah and its various forms, offering various etymological theories as to the core root of that word and its underlying conceptual idea. In Part II of this essay, we continue our exploration of the concept of “love” by focusing on additional Hebrew words that convey the same idea or similar ideas — r’chim, chibah, and agav. We will look at the respective etymologies of these terms and their related cognates while trying to better understand how they may differ from ahavah, both conceptually and etymologically.

In general, the root REISH-CHET-MEM in Biblical Hebrew usually refers to “pity/mercy” (racheim/rachamim), “womb” (rechem/racham), or a type of bird (racham, see Lev. 11:18 and Deut. 14:17). However, in one particular case, it actually means “love.” Let me illustrate this explanation by noting that whenever the verb form of “pitying,” appears in the first person, the vowel under the REISH is always a patach (for example, aracheim in Ex. 33:19, Jer. 13:14, 30:18, Hos. 1:6–7, 2:6 and arachamenu in Jer. 31:20). However, there is once instance of a verb form of this root in which the vowel under the REISH is not a patach: King David composed a hymn that celebrated Hashem saving him from his enemies, which begins with the words: "I will <verb erchamcha> You — O Hashem — strengthen me!" (Ps. 18:2). The word erchamcha is clearly a derivative of the root REISH-CHET-MEM, but in this case it obviously does not refer to King David pitying Hashem. Instead, the commentators (including Ibn Janach, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Radak, Ibn Ramoch, and others) all explain that in this case, the verb in question means “I [King David] will love You [Hashem].”

Although this is the only case of the term r’chim in the Bible that clearly refers to “love,” the Targumim are replete with such usages. In fact, the standard Aramaic term in the Targumim for rendering the Hebrew ahavah is r’chim. Some readers may be familiar with the term r’chim from the L’Shem Yichud prayer (a formulaic Kabbalistic declaration recited before performing mitzvot), whereby one refers to dechilu u’rechimu, which means the “fear” (dachal) and “love” (r’chim) of Hashem.

Although the concepts of “love” and “pity/mercy” are not quite the same idea, Rabbi Yitzchak Avineri (1900-1977) writes that it is not too astonishing that both meanings could be expressed by the same root — REISH-CHET-MEM — because love is the root of mercy in the sense that one only has mercy on those whom he loves.This jibes with the explanation of ahavah we offered in Part I that sees true love as an altruistic desire to give or help out one’s beloved. [I also touched on this in an earlier essay, “Mercy or Pity” (March 2018).]

Similarly, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ex. 13:2) bridges the gaps between the various meanings of this triliteral root by defining its primary semantic denotation as "motherliness protection." He uses this to explain the connection between rechem (the place in her body, wherein a mother protects her unborn fetus) and rachamim (i.e., the dominant trait of a protective mother), which also fits with our conception of "love." We may add that the bird racham (often understood to mean "carrion-vulture" or "osprey") relates to these ideas because it serves as the harbinger of “rain,” which is closely related to mercy (see Chullin 63a), and because this mother bird is understood to act especially merciful to its young (see Peirush HaRokach and Moshav Zekanim to Lev. 11:18).

Interestingly, there is one person in the Bible named Racham (I Chron. 2:44), as well as various people in the Talmud named Rav Rechumi or Ben-Rechumi (Pesachim 39a, Ketubot 62b, Nazir 13a, Zevachim 77a). It remains unclear whether these given name refer to “love,” “mercy,” “rain,” or something else entirely.

Let’s move on to our next word for “love” — chibah/chaviv. It should be noted that when translating the word erchamcha that we discussed above, Targum (to Ps. 18:2) actually uses a cognate of chibah. Cognates of chibah already appear in the Bible, for example when Hashem refers to the Jews as the chovev amim, “beloved of the nations” (Deut. 33:3). The word chubi (Job 31:33) means “bosom” (like in the body part and the term “bosom buddies”), which Shadal (to Deut. 33:3) explains is an expression of close intimacy, like something that one carries in one’s bosom. In doing so, Shadal argues that this word is also related to chibah. Similarly, one of the names borne by Moses’ father-in-law Jethro was Chovav, which is likewise related to chibah. [For more about Jethro’s name Chovav and his other names, see “G-d’s Best Friend” (Feb. 2018). For a discussion of the word chaviv as “uncle,” see my earlier essay "Say Uncle" (April 2021).]]

In both Yeriot Shlomo and Cheshek Shlomo, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) writes that the term chibah (“love/endearment”) derives from the biliteral root CHET-BET, whose core meaning he identifies as “hidden” (like in the word mitchabeh). He explains that when somebody is chaviv ("dear") to another, the endeared person is always embedded in his memory and in the depths of his heart, as though he were “hidden” inside the one who dotes on him. Other words that Rabbi Pappenheim sees as derived from this concept include chov ("debt," because the debtor might try to "hide" himself from the creditor who is trying to collect his due, or because the lender could said to be "hiding" his assets by temporarily giving them over to the borrower), machavat ("frying pan," because that deep pan causes its content to be "hidden" from the eye), and chavit ("barrel," who contents are closed up on all sides and thus "hidden" from view).

Rabbi Benzion Chaim Lubetzky (d. 1945) in his work Midrash Safah Echat likewise explains that chibah implies a form of love/adoration of another that is kept inside, but is not necessarily expressed in any outward way (like a secret crush that one dare not explicitly reveal). This seems to differ from ahavah, which is a type of “love” that is conducive to outward expressions.

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon-Fishman (1875–1962) relates a fascinating explanation from Rabbi Yosef Zechariah Stern (1831–1903), which also differentiates between chibah and ahavah. Rabbi Stern explained that chibah refers to "loving" certain positive aspects of an individual, but cannot refer to "loving" the entire individual as a whole, because every person inevitably contains negative elements and those are excluded from one’s chibah. However, when it comes to ahavah, this terms refer to a more holistic form of "love" that even includes appreciating and loving another's shortcomings and the negative parts of that person.

Rabbi Stern notes that this idea is seen in the Mishnah (Brachot 9:5), which derives from the commandment to "love" (ve’ahavtah) Hashem (Deut. 6:5) that one must bless Him over the bad, just as one blesses Him over the good. This reflects the idea that ahavah is all-encompassing in the sense that it even includes that which is perceived as bad and unpleasant. Similarly, Rabbi Stern explains that the same is true of the commandment to love fellow Jews (ve’ahavtah) like one loves oneself (Lev. 19:18). This commandment means that a person most love each and every Jew even with all their shortcomings, just like a person would continue to "love" himself despite his own shortcomings.

In light of this, Rabbi Stern explained why does not consider himself a chovev tzion (using a cognate of chibah, but also a reference to the proto-Zionist Chovevei Zion movement): That term would imply that he only loves the positive aspects of the Holy Land, but excluded whatever criticisms he has against the land from the scope of his love. Instead, he called himself an ohev tzion (using a cognate of ahavah), which means that his love for the Land is all-encompassing and is not deterred by any criticism. This explanation illustrates another way of differentiating between chibah and ahavah.

On the other hand, we may argue that the term chibah is actually no different from ahavah, and may, in fact, be etymologically-related to ahavah. This is because the letters ALEPH, HEY, CHET, and AYIN are often understood to be interchangeable, so if we switch out the initial CHET of chibah for an ALEPH or HEY and reorder the consonants, the root CHET-BET-HEY of chibah becomes the same thing as the root ALEPH-HEY-BET of ahavah.

Our fourth term related to “love” is agav. This word appears ten times in the Bible, with all instances occurring in the Book of Ezekiel (chps. 23 and 33), except for on in Jeremiah (Jer. 4:30). The truth is that agav does not refer to the same type of positive love that ahavah, r’chim, and chibah refer to. Rather, agav refers to a negative form of love — “lust,” if you will — that focuses on the voluptuous and licentious aspects of love. The prophet Ezekiel uses this term metaphorically as a way of referring to the Jews’ lusting after idolatry. Just like we saw that the word ahavim in plural refers to “expressions of love,” so does agavim in the masculine plural form refer to “expressions of lust,” as in lecherous love songs (Ezek. 33:31–32). In fact, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Edel (1760–1828) writes that agav is cancerized by engaging in outward acts that profess one's love, like making lewd gestures or singing lascivious songs (making it the opposite of chibah according to Rabbi Lubetzky).

The root of agav, AYIN-GIMMEL-BET, also appears in the Bible in reference to the ugav — an unknown musical instrument (although, in Modern Hebrew it means “organ”). That instrument is mentioned four times in the Bible (Gen. 4:21, Job 21:21, 30:31, Ps. 150:4). In discussing this musical instrument, Shadal (to Gen. 4:21) surmises that it is a portmanteau of al (“on”) and gav (“back”), but does not connect it to agav in the sense of “love/lust.” Rabbi Yitzchak of Zeldin, on the other hand, explains in Shoresh Yesha that the ugav produced sensuous or romantically-appealing tones, so it relates back to the idea of agav that we have been discussing. Interestingly, the same idea is cited by linguists in The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (BDB).

Interestingly, in the Talmud (Brachot 24a, Sanhedrin 38b, Niddah 30b), the feminine plural form of agav, agavot, means "buttocks." Rabbi Yitzchak of Zeldin relates this to the discussion as hand by noting that movement of the thigh can awaken the desires of those who watch, thus connecting agavot to the concept of “lust.”

Rabbi David Chaim Chelouche (1920–2016), the late Chief Rabbi of Netanya, takes a more prosaic approach in establishing the connection between agav, ugav, and agavot. He explains that the root AYIN-GIMMEL-BET primarily refers to a certain shape, essentially a “half-oval.” Accordingly, he explains that ugav refers to a musical instrument in that particular shape, and agavot refer to the buttocks which protrude from the body in a half-oval shape. He explains that the term agav in the sense of “licentious love” derives from agavot, but does not quite explain how. Perhaps the connection is that this form of “love” is really just a smokescreen for a libidinous desire that may have been aroused by wrongly focusing on a person’s physical qualities. [In Modern Hebrew, the disease “syphilis” is known as agevet, which refers to the primary means of its transmission through unbridled intimate contact.]

In Modern Hebrew, the word agvaniyah which also derives from this root refers to a “tomato.” But how did that happen? The tomato was first discovered in the Americas and brought to Europe in the sixteenth century. In Nahuatl (an Aztec language), the vegetable was called xitomatl, so when Spanish conquerors first encountered the vegetable (in what is known as Mexico), they adapted its aboriginal name to in Spanish as tomate. From there, it was not much of a stretch to the English tomato.

However, in other European languages there was a different word used for that vegetable: Because people originally thought the tomato was an aphrodisiac, it became associated with “love,” so it came to be called a “love apple,” or in French pomme d‘amour. Based on that, Yechiel Michel Pines (1824–1913), one of the early fashioners of Modern Hebrew, decided to name the vegetable in the nascent language after agav in the sense of “lust,” thus christening the word agvaniyah (his interlocutor, the famous Eliezer Ben-Yehuda wanted to name the vegetable badura based on the Arabic word bandura, but it never stuck). I heard from Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Lerner, author of Shemirat HaGuf VaNefesh, thatthe story behind the word agvaniyah was even more crude, as whoever coined that Modern Hebrew neologism simply looked at the shape of the agvaniyah as resembling agavot. Interestingly, it is related that Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook (1891–1982) was careful to never use the word agvaniyah for “tomato” squarely because it derives from this inappropriate concept of agav. Instead, he was particular to always use the English word tomato to refer to that vegetable.

Allow me to conclude this fascinating exploration with another interesting point: Professor Saul Levin (1921–2021), in his seminal work Semitic and Indo-European: The Principal Etymologies with Observations on Afro-Asiatic (pp. 222–226; 281; 292), entertains the possibility that the Greek word agape (used in Homer’s epic poems) actually derives from the Hebrew root ALEPH-HEY-BET. He makes this suggestion because agape has no other known cognates in any other Indo-European language. Although he does not explicitly mention this, Levin’s idea is based on the interchangeability of the letters v/b/p/f (VAV, BET, PEH).

Ultimately, Levin rejects this supposition on the grounds that there is no evidence that the Semitic HEY was ever pronounced like a g-sound in Greek. Instead, he suggests that agav would be a more credible source for the Greek agape, but concludes that it is more likely that the two Hebrew terms (ahavah and agav) and the Greek term (agape) are all derived from some earlier, unidentifiable language. On the other hand, the Hungarian linguist Dr. Oswald Szemerényi (1913-1996) asserts that the Greek term is indeed borrowed from Hebrew (or another Semitic language). Rabbi Shaul Goldman adds that it is also possible that agape might be related to chibah/chaviv (again considering the interchangeability of the v/b/p/f sounds, as well as CHET and ALEPH).

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