What's in a Word?

For the week ending 10 February 2024 / 1 Adar Alef 5784

Mishpatim: Bruisers and Bleeders

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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When one person injures another, the Bible states that the damager must pay “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…” (Ex. 21:24). Of course, the rabbis teach (Bava Kamma 83b-84a) that this does not refer to any sort of actual bodily payment, but rather to monetary compensation. That Biblical verse continues to list further examples of payments which are assessed as commensurate with the bodily damage done, “…a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot, a burn for a burn, a wound for a wound [petza], and a wound for a wound [chaburah]” (Ex. 21:24–25). In this passage, two different words for “wound” are used — petza and chaburah. Similarly, after Lemech accidently murdered his ancestor Cain and his son Tubal-Cain, he said to his wives, “For a man I have killed by my wound [petza] / And a child, with my wound [chaburah]” (Gen. 4:23). In that passage as well, the two words for “wound” — petza and chaburah — appear side-by-side, as they do in several other cases (Isa. 1:6, Prov. 20:30). This essay explores these two Hebrew synonyms, as well as the Hebrew verb chovel in the sense of “wounding/injury” another person.

Rashi (to Ex. 21:25) clarifies the difference between petza and chaburah by explaining that petza refers to a wound that bleeds due to an opening in one’s epidermis, while chaburah refers to a wound by which blood collects underneath the surface of one’s skin, but does not come out (thus leaving a red mark on one’s exterior). The Vilna Gaon (to Isa. 1:6, Prov. 20:30) similarly explains that petza refers to an “open wound” or “bleeding laceration,” while chaburah refers to a “bruise.”

In light of Rashi’s explanation, Malbim (to Isa. 1:6) and Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866–1935) write that the word chaburah is related to the term chibbur (“connection/attachment”) in reference to the pooling of blood beneath the skin. When the prophet Jeremiah rhetorically asks whether a leopard/tiger change its "spots" (Jer. 13:23), the word used to denote those “spots” is chavarburot. Ibn Saruk, Ibn Janach, and Radak explain that this word is a declension of the word chaburah, as it too denotes a discoloration of the skin’s surface.

This explanation can also help us situate the word chaburah within the greater context of words derived from the triliteral root CHET-BET-REISH, which include chibbur (“connection/attachment,” borrowed to also mean “book/compilation”), chaver (“friend”), and chover (“charmer”). The common denominator among all these various derivatives is the concept of “connection/attachment,” as chaverim are “connected” to each through their shared affinity, and a chover has the ability to use charm groups of animals to “gather and join together” at his beck and call. In a similar way, chaburah in the sense of “bruise” specifically denotes the “gathering together” of blood underneath the surface of a wound.

Alternatively, we may understand the meaning of chaburah in light of the well-documented phenomenon in Hebrew that the same lexical roots can sometimes refer to both an idea and its polar opposite. In other words, the root CHET-BET-REISH can refer to both the concept of “joining/connecting” (as per the above) and its polar opposite “unjoining/splitting,” and it is in the latter sense that the word chaburah refers to a “wound” whereby a person’s exterior is split open and no longer held closed. This etymology does not fit with Rashi’s explanation of chaburah, but we will see below that there are other commentators with whom this can fit.

Although in his commentary to Exodus, Rashi draws a distinction between the terms petza and chaburah, Rashi elsewhere (to I Kgs. 20:37) seems to equate petza with chaburah. In other places, Rashi’s comments on the word petza are slightly inconsistent: In one place, Rashi defines petza as a wound by sword or arrow (Rashi to Gen. 4:23), while in another place, he defines petza as a wound by sword or knife (Rashi to Yevamot 75a). In a third location, Rashi (to Song of Songs 5:7) comments that petza refers to a wound by way of any weapon, while in his comments to the Talmud, Rashi defines petza as a wound from a sword (to Sanhedrin 37b, Avodah Zarah 28a). All in all, it seems pretty clear that Rashi associates a petza with the sort of wound resulting from an encounter with something sharp or piercing, hence Rashi’s definition of petza asan “open wound.”

The term petza (spelled with a final AYIN), whose root is technically PEH-TZADI-AYIN, is often understood to be derived from three-letter root PEH-TZADI-HEY (potzeh), which means “to open.” For example, when the ground was “opened up” to allow for Cain’s burial (Gen. 4:11) or to swallow Korach’s men (Deut. 11:6), the word potzeh is used. The connection between petza and potzeh is based on the interchangeability of the letters AYIN and HEY. If we follow this approach, we can easily understand why Rashi explains petza as referring specially to “open wounds,” rather than to mere “bruises.” This etymology of petza is adopted by Malbim and Rabbi Wertheimer, in addition to Rabbi Moshe Ashkenazi-Tedeschi (Otzar Nirdafim §27) and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 4:11, Ex. 21:25). Interestingly, Rabbi Hirsch notes that petza and potzeh both refer to a forced “opening,” as the ground in the cases of Cain and Korach had no choice in allowing itself to be opened, just like the victim who is left with a petza did not choose to receive such an injury.

Alternatively, the Maskillic scholar Yitzchak Ber Levinsohn (1788–1860) in Shorashei Levanon explains that petza relates to botzea (“cut open”), via the interchangeability of the letters PEH and BET, which are both pronounced by the lips. The word botzea is used in Rabbinic Hebrew to refer to the act of “cutting open” a loaf of bread (somewhat akin to the English expression “to break bread”). Similarly, Ibn Janach and Radak in their respective Sefer HaShorashim use the word bokea (“breaking open,” see my earlier essay “Cut it Out Part 1/2", Jan. 2019) in defining the word petza. Although they do not explicitly state this, it is possible that they viewed bokea as etymologically related to potzea based on the interchangeability of PEH and BET (per the above), plus the interchangeability of the consecutive letters TZADI and KUF. Additionally, Rabbi David Chaim Chelouche (1920–2016), the late Chief Rabbi of Netanya, connects petza to the triliteral root BET-ZAYIN-AYIN (baza) in Aramaic and Arabic, which means “to cut.” Either way, all of these explanations account for the etymological basis for Rashi’s explanation of petza as referring to an “open wound.”

After citing Rashi’s way of differentiating between petza and chaburah, Ibn Ezra (long commentary to Ex. 21:25) cites Rabbi Saadia Gaon (882–942) as explaining that petza refers to a “broken bone,” while chaburah refer to a “bleeding wound.” Elsewhere, Ibn Ezra (short commentary to Ex. 21:25 and in his commentary to Isa. 1:6) repeats this understanding, but adds that chaburah relates to “attachment” because in this context it refers specifically to a “wound” that has an accumulation of liquid “attached” to it that appear in the form of puss (discarded white blood cells) and other signs of infection (see Rashi to Job 9:17 who also seems to explain petza in this way). Interestingly, Dr. Yoel Florsheim argues that Rashi’s repeated, inconsistent comments on the word petza (collated above) were meant to forestall Rabbi Saadia Gaon’s interpretation by clarifying that petza does not refer specifically to a “broken bone,” but to some sort of “cut.”

Rashi’s grandson Rashbam (to Ex. 21:25) seems to take another approach to explaining the difference between petza and chaburah. He seems to understand that both words refer to “open wounds,” but that petza refers to a more serious laceration (in Rashbam’s words “the strike of a sword”), while chaburah refers to a less serious cut (in Rashbam’s words “with his finger [or] something unsubstantial,” like a common scratch or scrape).

Fascinatingly, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ex. 18:21) connects the Biblical Hebrew word petza to Biblical Hebrew word betza, "bribe" (see Ex. 18:21, Jud. 5;19, Jer. 6:13, 8:10, Ezek. 22:27, Hab. 2:9, Ps. 119:36, Prov. 1:19, 15:27, 28:16, Job 22:3), again invoking the interchangeability of PEH and BET. He explains both of these words as referring to the means of acquiring an advantageous position in a zero-sum encounter. In other words, just as when two people are litigating against one another in a legal dispute, illegally giving a “bribe” (betza) to the judge can help one party have an advantage over the other, so too when two people are fighting against each other in a combat sense, giving the other party a “wound” (petza) can help to one’s advantage.

The verb chovel in the sense of one who “injures” another person does not appear in the Bible, but does appear in later Rabbinic Hebrew. For example, when the Mishnah (Bava Kamma 8:1) states that one who injures/wounds another person is obligated to pay five forms of monetary compensation, the verb used to denote the damager’s action is chovel. Similarly, when the Mishnah (Shabbos 14:1) states that “wounding” any living creature that has skin is forbidden on Shabbos, it uses the word chovel to denote that action. In codifying this law, Maimonides (Laws of Shabbos 8:7) actually uses the words chovel to and chaburah side-by-side, as though the latter were the product of the former.

Despite not appearing in the Bible, the verb chovel can clearly be traced back to the triliteral root CHET-BET-LAMMED, from which a whole bevy of meanings are derived in Biblical Hebrew and Biblical Aramaic: "trick/plot," “string/rope,” "lot," "security deposit,” "group of people," "pain," and "damage/destruction." It is unclear exactly which of these meanings is the direct antecedent to the “inure/wound” meaning of chovel, but it appears safe to say that the two last meanings listed (“pain” and “damage/destruction”) are the most viable candidates. Parenthetically, the Rabbinic Hebrew word chaval (“a waste/a pity”) and the Modern Hebrew word michabel (“terrorist”) are probably also related to this usage. [For more about the various words derived from this three-letter root and how they relate to each other, see my earlier essay “Learning the Ropes” (June 2023).]

Alternatively, we may argue that chovel relates to the “group of people” meaning of this root in the same way that chaburah refers to a “grouping” of blood, as one who wounds another and causes him to bruise, is causing a “grouping” of blood to form beneath the surface of his victim’s skin.

In fact, Rabbi Yaakov Berger of Kiryat Sefer (in his unpublished Milon Leshon Mikra) makes the point that the respective roots of chovel and chaburah are one and the same, because of the interchangeability of the letters LAMMED and REISH (as part of the LMNR set of liquid letters). This is also implied by Rashi (to Isa. 1:7, Song of Songs 5:7) who uses a cognate of chovel to explain the word chaburah. However, Rabbi Berger cautiously notes that he is unaware of any earlier authority who makes such a connection between CHET-BET-LAMMED and CHET-BET-REISH. After some searching, I found that in a note printed in Bikkurei Ittim (vol. 9, pp. 70-71), the Hungarian scholar Rabbi Baruch Schönfeld (1778–1852) actually suggests this very connection between those two three-letter roots.

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