What's in a Word?

For the week ending 16 December 2023 / 4 Tevet 5784

Miketz: Say it Clear (Part 1/2)

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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Throughout the stories of Joseph interpreting the dreams of the Pharaoh’s butler and baker, and then of the Pharaoh himself, the Bible uses the verb poter (“interpreting”) and the noun pitaron (“interpretation,” “meaning,” or “solution”) exactly fourteen times (Gen. 40–41). These terms are inflections of the triliteral root PEH-TAV-REISH, but beyond this pericope, no others words derived from that root appear anywhere else in the Bible! Instead, the Bible and later Hebrew typically use a whole slew of other terms for “interpretation,” like pesher, beiur, peirush, and hesber — but not pitaron. This essay attempts to define the various Hebrew terms for “interpretation” with more nuance, and use that understanding to show in what ways they resemble and differ from one another.

Radak in Sefer HaShorashim looks only at the cases in which inflections of pitaron appear in the Bible as his evidence, and based on that evidence concludes that pitaron refers specifically to the “interpretation of a dream,” and not to all others sorts of interpretations. Rabbi Meir Leibush Weiser (1809–1879), better known as the Malbim, in his work Yair Ohr makes the same point, and explicitly uses that to differentiate between pitaron (which refers to interpreting dreams) and its near-synonyms peirush and beiur (which refer to interpreting other things, like enigmatic texts).

This usage of pitaron is also found in the Talmud (Brachot 55b), which teaches that at one point in history, there were twenty-four potrei chalomot (“dream interpreters”) in Jerusalem, using an agent noun (that is, a noun derived from a verb) based on this Biblical Hebrew term for dream interpretation.

In fact, the rabbis even take the place-name Petor in the Bible and interpret it as a reference to “dream interpretation.” When the Moabite king Balak contracted Balaam to curse the Jews, the Torah relates that he sent messengers to Petor (Num. 22:5). The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah §20:7, Tanchuma Balak §4, see Rashi there) offers two explanations of what Petor means: either Petor (or Petorah) was the name of Balaam’s hometown in the Aram region, or it refers to Balaam’s original occupation as a professional dream interpreter (poter), before he turned to sorcery. The Maharal of Prague (1525-1609) in Gur Aryeh (to Num. 22:5) synthesizes these two explanations by explaining that Balaam’s place of residence came to be called Petor on account of the fame it achieved due to its very own denizen Balaam becoming a world-renowned dream interpreter. [Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ferber of London (1879–1966) identifies this city as the ancient city of Patru, an archeological site which lies on the west bank of the Euphrates River, just south of Carchemish. In the Talmud (Chullin 54b), there is an Amoraic sage named Rav Chana of Petor.]

Perhaps the appearance of the Hebrew root PEH-TAV-REISH specifically in stories that occurred with Joseph in Egypt somehow relates to the word Patros — which consists of those three letters, plus a final SAMECH — that actually serves as a reference to “Egypt” itself. [For more on the Hebrew words that refer to Egypt, see “Escape from Patros” (April 2023).]

Although until now we’ve only encountered inflections of poter that refer specifically to “dream interpretation,” the Talmud (for example, see Eruvin 32b and Ketubot 107b) sometimes uses inflections of poter as if to say about a certain teaching “it should be (re)interpreted [as referring to…]“ — even if that teaching has nothing to do with dreams.

Interestingly, Menachem Ibn Saruk (920–970), the author of Machberet Menachem (an early lexicon of Biblical Hebrew) often refers to “explanations” or “definitions” of words in the Bible as their pitaron, a nomenclature also adopted by his interlocutor Donash Ibn Labrat (920–990), as well as later by Rashi and his grandsons (Rashbam and Rabbeinu Tam). In fact, in Modern Hebrew the term pitaron takes on such a broad meaning that it can refer to a “solution/explanation/interpretation” to anything, and has nothing to do with dreams, per se.

Although the classical lexicographers see the root of poter as the triliteral PEH-TAV-REISH, Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Luzzatto (1800–1865), known as Shadal, offers an alternate, novel explanation. He explains poter as a contraction of the phrase poteach ohr (“he opens light”), as a way of referring to one who sheds light on matters (via interpreting them) by which others are perplexed.

Along similar lines, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ex. 13:2) connects the word poter (spelled with a TAV) to the word peter (spelled with a TET), seeing both terms as expressions of "opening" and "revealing." The term peter rechem (Ex. 13:2, 13:12, 13:13, 13:15, 34:19, Num. 3:12 18:15, Ezek. 20:26) refers to a “firstborn” person or animal, who essentially “opens” their mother’s womb by being the first offspring to exit it and thus “reveal” the mother’s actualization of her potential motherhood. In a similar way, a pitaron takes an enigmatic dream whose message is obscured and “opens” up the closed communique to “reveal” the inner meaning of what the dreamer saw by offering an interpretation.

In line with his, Rabbi Hirsch (to Ex. 25:39) conjectures that the word kaftor (“button”) — the only other cases of words that include the letters PEH-TAV-REISH in that order besides the ones discussed earlier in this essay — may be a portmanteau of the word kafut (“tied up”) and pitaron/poter (“opened”), as buttons are made to “open” and “close.” [For more about kafut and other words for “tying,” see “All Tied Up” (June 2023). It should also be noted that Kaftorim refers to a nation that are said to descend from “Egyptians,” so it might be related to what we speculated about earlier regarding Patros.]

For some reason, Rabbi Avraham Bedersi in Chotam Tochnit felt the need to clarify how poter is not a synonym of the Aramaic/Persian word patshegen, which appears thrice in the Bible (Est. 3:14, 4:8, 8:13). He clarifies that while poter refers to the “explanation/interpretation” of a text, patshegen refers to the “copy/wording/template” of a text, which is a totally different concept. Yet, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Carpentras (an 18th century grammarian and dayan) writes in Ohalei Yehuda that the word patshegen is actually derived from poter. He explains patshegen as a portmanteau of poter and ken (“so/such”), with the letter KAF of ken morphing into a GIMMEL (as those two letters are interchangeable, although he does not quite justify how the REISH of poter turned into a SHIN).

The term pitaron/poter has a very close relative in Biblical Hebrew in the word pesher. That word only appears once in the Hebrew parts of the Bible, when King Solomon famously exclaimed "Who is like the wiseman? And who knows the interpretation [peisher] of a matter?" (Ecc. 8:1).

Among the famous Dead Sea Scrolls are various scrolls that includes interpretations of different parts of the Bible in line with the ideas of the Dead Sea Scrolls cult. These works are referred to as pesharim (“interpretations,” similar to the way that the rabbis used the term midrash), with various scrolls containing a pesher to Isaiah, Psalms, Hosea, Micah, Zephaniah, Nahum and Habakuk, respectively. In a similar way, the Judeo-Arabic term tafsir refers to a work written by Rabbi Saadia Gaon that “elucidates” and “translates” the Torah into Judeo-Arabic. That term is seemingly derived from the Hebrew word pesher (with the SHIN morphing into a SIN/SAMECH, as often happens when switching from Hebrew to Arabic).

The word p'shar is an Aramaic cognate to the Hebrew word pesher, and is used in the Aramaic parts of the Bible, specifically in connection with dream interpretation. That usage appears in thirty-three cases in the Book of Daniel. Ironically, in the context of the Joseph Cycle, Targum consistently translates the seemingly-Aramaic words poter/pitaron into inflections of the seemingly-Hebrew word pesher (see below).

The interconnectivity between poter and pesher is also reflected in Ibn Saruk’s Machberet Menachem who defines pesher as pitaron, and conversely defines pitaron as pesher. Other lexicographers define the Hebrew term pitaron slightly differently, as Ibn Janach in his Sefer HaShorashim defines pitaron as peirush, and Radak in his Sefer HaShorashim likewise defines it as peirush and beiur. But they both follow Ibn Saruk in defining pesher as pitaron.

Although there are no other declensions of the triliteral root PEH-SHIN-REISH in the Bible besides pesher/peisher, in Rabbinic Hebrew there seem to be several other words derived from that root. One of those words is psharah (“compromise”), which is a conflict-resolution technique by which neither side in a conflict totally wins, but rather each side gives in something in order to achieve a happy medium (see Maimonides’ commentary to the Mishnah Ketubot 10:6). Interestingly, Rashi (to Ecc. 8:1) explains that whenKing Solomon praised the wiseman who knows the peisher, this refers to none other than Moses, who knew how to mediate between Hashem and the Jewish People, and thus achieve a psharah that stopped Him from destroying the Jewish Nation after the sin of the Golden Calf.

Ohalei Yehuda argues that pesher is a portmanteau of peh (“mouth”) and yashar (“straight”), perhaps alluding to the role of verbal mediation in arriving at correct interpretations and in arriving at compromises.

Another possibly word derived from the same triliteral root as pesher is the Rabbinic Hebrew word efshar (“possible”), assuming that its initial ALEPH is extraneous to its core root. Although that word does not appear anywhere in the Bible, it does occur countless times in the Mishnah and the Targumim. The Vilna Gaon’s son R. Avraham Vilner (1765–1808) writes in Tirgem Avraham (to Gen 4:14) that the word efshar is connected to pesher, arguing that a pesher is a solution to a conundrum, while something described as “possible” is also somewhat of a conundrum because it lies between being necessary (i.e., certainly true) and being impossible (i.e., certainly not true). [Dr. Alexander Kohut (1842–1894) in Aruch HaShaleim also sees efshar as derived from either pitaron or pesher, as does Rabbi Chaim Gelernter of Kitov (1857–1929) in his glosses to Raglei Mivaser on Sefer HaTishbi. However, it should be noted that Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein (1899–1983)rejects this etymology of efshar.]

An additional word in Mishnaic Hebrew that uses this three-letter root is poshrim (Shabbat 20:3, Menachot 5:2, Parah 8:9, Niddah 7:1), which refers to “lukewarm” water. In Targum Onkelos (to Ex. 16:21) the verb posher refers to “dissolving/melting.” Rabbi Vilner connects these to the themes of pesher and efshar by explaining that poshrim reflects a middle state which is neither hot nor cold, while posher reflects a middle state which is neither totally solid nor wholly liquid.

Finally, Targum Onkelos (to Lev. 11:3) uses the Aramaic term pashra in reference to an animal’s “cud,” by which it digests its food in various stages. Rabbi Vilner again connects this to the aforementioned words by explaining that the pashra represents a middle stage between food being eaten and being fully digested. Although, Rashi (there) connects it more directly to posher by explaining that it refers to the cud “dissolving” and “melting” the food.

Going back to the etymology of pesher, until this point we have followed the classical lexicographers — like Ibn Saruk, Ibn Janach, and Radak — who trace the word to the triliteral root PEH-SHIN-REISH. However, other philologists and grammarians have offered alternate ways of explaining the core etymological basis of pesher.

Rabbi Moshe Tedeschi-Ashkenazi (1821–1898) writes in Otzar Nirdafim that pesher derives from the biliteral root SHIN-REISH (“untie”, “open”), which appears in the Aramaic phrase um’shareh kitrin - “and untying a knot” (Dan. 5:12, see also Dan. 5:6, 3:25). It is related to the Talmudic term sharei (“permitted,” “allowed”), and thus parallels the Hebrew matir (which also refers to “untying/opening,” as well as “permitting/allowing”). He explains that the act of interpreting a dream (or any other enigmatic text or statement) can be viewed as akin to untying a tied knot, by which one unravels its contents.

As Rabbi Tedeschi-Ashkenazi explains it, the relationship between pesher and pitaron is that both words are cognates of each other, with pesher (which he considers an Aramaic word) being the etymon of pitaron (which he considers a later Hebrew word).

Rabbi Elias Levita (1469–1549), also known as Rabbi Eliyahu Bachur, writes in Sefer HaTishbi and in his glosses to Radak’s Sefer HaShorashim that pesher is related to poter based on the interchangeability of the letters SHIN and TAV. Indeed, when switching from Hebrew to Aramaic, it often happens that the Hebrew SHIN morphs into an Aramaic TAV. For example, the Hebrew shemonah (“eight”) becomes the Aramaic tamnei, the Hebrew shor (“ox”) becomes tor, and the Hebrew yeshivah (“dwelling”) becomes the Aramaic metivta. [This understanding seems to support the contention that pesher is Hebrew and pitaron is Aramaic.]

Alternatively, Levita suggests that pesher (PEH-SHIN-REISH) is related to peirush (PEH-REISH-SHIN) with a metathesizing of the consonants (meaning, the letters SHIN and REISH switch positions in the root). This explanation is also offered by Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Melech (1480–1559) in Michlal Yofi (to Ecc. 8:1) and by Rabbi Avraham Bedersi in Chotam Tochnit.

In Part 2 of this essay, we will explore the word peirush, alongside its apparent synonyms beiur and hesber. To be continued…

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