What's in a Word?

For the week ending 6 July 2024 / 30 Sivan 5784

Korach: Of Heretics and Apostates

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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The Hebrew language has no shortage of colorful insults and epithets that can be hurled at Jewish heretics and other disbelievers. In this essay, we explore some of those words used in reference to such people — like min, apikores, kofer, meshumad, and mumar — attempting to clarify their exact definitions and how they may differ from one another. In colloquial speech, many of these terms are used interchangeably or have overlapping definitions, but in more scholarly discourse (especially in Maimonidean codification) each carries a specific meaning, on which we will hone in. In this essay, we will also explore some of the possible etymological bases of these words.

As is his wont, Maimonides builds a taxonomy of terms to fashion clearly-defined categories when discussing the expressions for heresy and the like. In his way of codifying the boundaries of acceptable Jewish dogma and praxis, Maimonides (Laws of Teshuvah 3:6) writes that various categories of wicked people are excluded from the World to Come and, inter alia, he lists minim, apikorsim, kofrim, and meshumadim before proceeding to clearly define what each of those terms means.

Maimonides (Laws of Teshuvah 3:7) writes that the term min (often translated as “sectarian”) refers to five different types of people: one who says there is no god who administers the world, one who says that there are multiple gods who administer the world, one who says that God has a corporeal body, one who says that God is not the creator of all, and one who worships an intermediary deity between himself and God.

Maimonides (Laws of Teshuvah 3:8) writes that the term apikores refers to three different types of people: one who says that there is no such thing as prophecy (and therefore rejects the transfer of revelatory knowledge directly from Hashem to man), one who denies the prophecies of Moses, and one who denies that God knows man’s actions. In his commentary to the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:1), Maimonides writes that the term apikores has become synonymous for anyone who denigrates the Torah or those who study Torah. Indeed, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) defines an apikores as one who insults a Torah Scholar, or even insults another person in front of a Torah Scholar.

Maimonides (Laws of Teshuvah 3:6) writes that there are three types of kofrim: those who deny the Torah, those who deny the resurrection of the dead, and those who deny the future coming of the Messiah. He furthers writes (Laws of Teshuvah 3:8) that the type of kofer who denies the Torah can be broken up into three subcategories: one who denies that the Torah does not come from God, one who denies the Oral Torah’s tradition in explaining the Written Torah, and one who denies the immutability of the Torah Law.

Maimonides (Laws of Teshuvah 3:9) writes that meshumad refers to a person who has gained notoriety for purposely violating any one rule (or the entirety) of Torah Law. He is the type of person who has turned his back on the Jewish People and joined a different religion even without coercion because he feels it is better to cling to other nations than to stick to his Jewish heritage. In a similar vein, Rashba in his responsa (vol. 3 §352) disagrees with his interlocuter’s definition of meshumad as “renegade.” Instead, he prefers to follow the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 26b), which defines a meshumad as one who commits sins like eating forbidden foods for sheer material pleasure, as opposed in a min who does so in order to “anger” Hashem.

Now that we’ve offered a framework for understanding the semantic differences between these various terms and what they entail, we can take a closer at their respective etymologies, which will help us shed even more light on how these words differ from one another.

We begin with the word min. There arelots of theories as to how “sectarians” came to be called minim and what the origin of that term might be.

  • The Italian Medieval exegete Rabbi Yishaya of Trani associates the word min in this sense with the pagan deity Meni (Isa. 65:11). For more about that idolatrous god, see my bookGod versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry(Mosaica Press, 2018).
  • Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469–1549) in Sefer HaTishbi argues that Manes (also known Mani or Manicheaeus) and Apikores were Greek philosophers who rejected conventional religion and their followers came to be known respectively as minim and apikorsim.
  • The word min in Biblical Hebrew means “type/species.” This leads Shadal (to Ex. 20:4) to explain that min in the sense of “heretic” relates to the fact that each heretic has a slightly different belief system from the other, although in general they all fall into one broader category of heretic. [For more on the Biblical Hebrew word min, along with its various cognates and synonyms, see “Types of Species” (Apr. 2023). ]
  • Rabbi Binyamin Mussafia writes that the original sectarians called themselves ma’aminim (“believers”) in Hebrew to bolster their religious bona fides as though they were thoroughly devoted. Yet, the rabbis bowdlerized that word to become minim, which became the standard term for sectarians.
  • Similarly, Rabbi J. D. Eisenstein in his encyclopedia Otzar Yisroel (s.v., min, minut) cites some scholars as explaining that the rabbis sarcastically called sectarians ma’aminim, and then the word was eventually shortened to minim.
  • He also cites a view that the word min was originally an acronym for the Hebrew phrase ma'amin yeshu notzri ("believer in Jesus of Nazareth").
  • Rabbi Shlomo Tzvi Shick writes that the rabbis called the Sadducees minim because the Saducees denied the Halacha that water that had pooled in a vessel is disqualified from use in a mikvah. This means that they never used a proper mikvah to ritually purify themselves, so they were always ritually impure and the Greek word for an “impure person” is mijan.

Next, we look at the word apikores. While this word never appears in the Bible, it does appear twice in the Mishnah — once when relating that an apikores has no share in the World to Come (Sanhedrin 10:1) and once when stating that a Torah Scholar should know how to do respond to an apikores (Avot 2:14). Conventional wisdom ties this Rabbinic Hebrew term to the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BCE), who touted the hedonistic pursuit of physical pleasure as a way of life. As mentioned above, HaBachur also sees the term apikores as deriving from the name of a person, but adds that because the eponymous term refers to one who insults Torah Scholars, it makes sense to presume that the term’s antecedent in the historical Epicurus also engaging in insulting those who study Torah. Maimonides in his commentary to the Mishnah (Sanhedrin there) actually explains the word apikores as related to the word hefker (“ownerless”), which we discussed in an earlier essay “Defining Freedom” (Mar. 2028).

The tern kofer derives from the triliteral root KAF-PEH-REISH, which in Mishnaic Hebrew begets verbs related to the act of “denying” (for example, Shevuot 4:1, 4:3-4, 5:1-2, 6:3 in the context of a legal deposition in which a litigant denies the claims of the plaintiff). In the sense of a “heretic” or “denier,” the Hebrew kofer parallels the usage of its Arabic cognate kafir. In Biblical Hebrew, a whole slew of words derives from the selfsame triliteral root as kofer, including words for “redemption,” “atonement,” “covering,” “pitch,” “village,” “lion.” The ways that these various words connect to each other lie beyond the scope of this essay, but it is easy to see how when one “denies” something, one might “cover up” the facts by insisting on the veracity of something other than the truth. This seems to be the basis for the “denial” meaning of this root, and ultimately the term kofer in the context of one who denies certain theological or dogmatic truths.

Next up, we discuss the term meshumad. In the blessing that prays for the dissolution of heretics, we refer to those heretics as malshinim (“informers”). However, some argue that this is really just a censored version, while the original liturgy called those heretics meshumadim (and some have the custom to pray with the original version).

The simplest way of understanding the etymology of meshumad is seeing it was an inflection of the triliteral Hebrew root SHIN-MEM-DALET, which that refers to acts of “destroying.” According to Even Shoshan’s Biblical concordance, this root occurs ninety times in the Hebrew parts of the Bible and one time in the Aramaic parts of the Bible (Dan. 7:26). Interestingly, it also seems to appear in the personal name Shemed borne by a man from the Tribe of Benjamin (I Chron 8:12).

The word shmad is a noun form of this term which appears in the Talmud in the context of “destructive decrees” which the gentile authorities have imposed on the Jewish People from time to time (for example, see the uncensored version of Rosh Hashanah 19a). As Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur explains it in Sefer Tishbi, a meshumad refers to a Jew who converted to a different religion because most cases of that happening occur during times of shmad.

Rabbi Yair Chaim Bachrach (Mekor Chaim to Orach Chaim §118) offers a different way of connecting meshumad back to the three-letter root in question by explaining that meshumad refers to the fact that the apostate has been "cut off" and "destroyed" by detaching himself from the rest of the Jewish Nation.

Rabbi Ernest Klein’s etymological dictionary of Hebrew cites the German Bible scholar and philologist Fredrich Delitzsch as arguing that the Hebrew shmad is a metathesized form of the Akkadian mashadu ("striking"), with the consonants MEM and SHIN switching positions in the root. The meaning of that Akkadian word does not seem too far from the meaning of the Biblical root SHIN-MEM-DALET.

Another theory regarding the etymology of meshumad is proposed by none other than Nachmanides. Nachmanides (to Ex. 12:43) explains that meshumad derives from the root MEM-DALET-AYIN, which is used in Targum Onkelos (to Gen. 42:8) to express the notion that Jospeh “recognized” his brothers while they, in turn, did not “recognize” him. This root can seemingly also refer to the opposite situation of one who has “become estranged” from others, such that he does “not recognize” them. Thus, Nachmanides explains meshumad as a reference to one who has “estranged himself” from the rest of the Jewish People and from the God of the Jews by engaging in evil deeds. As Nachmanides explains it, with this explanation one must assume that the final AYIN of the root was simply dropped (and he provides other examples of such a phenomenon).

There is another theory as to the etymological basis of the term meshumad. This one requires some extra background information: In Biblical Hebrew, the triliteral root AYIN-MEM-DALET refers to “standing/stopping.” However, in the Syriac dialect of Aramaic, declensions of that root serve as verbs that refer to “immersing [in a body of water]”. For example, the Peshitta (a translation of the Bible into Syriac) renders the act of “immersing” something in a mikvah (in Num. 31:23) using a verb derived from AYIN-MEM-DALET. This usage is quite common in other Early Christian writings that were typically written in Syriac, especially in the context of baptism. A version of this verb also appears in the Babylonian Talmud (Gittin 67b) in the context of emerging oneself in water, but in that case, the initial AYIN is dropped.

In line with this, Rabbi Moshe Ibn Ezra in Sefer HaIyunim VeHaDiyunim and Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Parchon in Machberet He’Aruch write in the name of Rav Hai Gaon that the term meshumad is actually derived from the root AYIN-MEM-DALET. He explains that the word was originally meshuamad (with an AYIN), but the AYIN was dropped because it became too difficult to pronounce, so the word was shortened to meshumad (sans the AYIN). According to Rav Hai Gaon’s explanation, the SHIN of meshumad is radical to the core root, leading the great philologist Avraham Even-Shoshan to suggest that word as reflecting the shaphel/shiphal/shaphal inflection that uses an initial SHIN for a grammatic function.

According to Rav Hai Gaon, the term meshumad refers specifically to a “Christian” on account of their practice of baptism. Because of this, Rabbi Moshe Ibn Ezra writes that the Biblical character Rabshakeh (who aided the Assyrians in their conquests of the Jewish People) could not have been an actual meshumad because he pre-dated the advent of Christianity. Rabbi Shlomo Tzvi Shick similarly writes that meshumad literally refers to “he who had hitherto immersed in waters” and is a reference to Christians who baptized themselves by the sprinkling of water that had been in a vessel which cannot stand in for immersing an a mikvah.

Additionally, Rashbatz in Magen Avot differentiates between meshuamad which refers to “Christians” and meshumad which refers to “other idolators.” Yet, the Kuzari (§3:65) refers to Christians as meshuamadim for their adherence to ritual baptism.

Nonetheless, Rabbi Tanchum HaYerushalmi (in HaMadrich HaMaspik) explicitly rejects Rav Hai Gaon’s explanation and writes that meshumad does not necessarily refer to a Jew who became Christian, but can refer to any sort of apostate. He writes that this is why the rabbis (Sanhedrin 60a) called Rabshakeh a meshumad, despite him obviously pre-dating Christianity.

The derogatory meaning of the word meshumad was sometimes considered too offensive to Christian censors, so the word had to be switched out for the tamer expression, mumar. That word derives from the root MEM-REISH, which refers to “switching,” which makes it a more palatable term for the censor because it implies that a Jew can simply “switch” out his religion for another one, and does not have the implication of a person being “destroyed” when forsaking Judaism. In previous essays, I have pontificated about this root at great length, so for more information, please consult with “Razor’s Edge” (May 2018), “Revolting Revolutions” (June 2021), and “The Old Switcheroo” (May 2020).

In line with some of what we have already seen, Shadal (to Ex. 12:43) writes that meshumad comes from shmad which refers to a “destructive” decree imposed by outside forces on the Jewish People to forcibly convert them to another religion. When a person who converts out of the faith under such circumstances continues to practice his new religion even after the coercive element of the decree is no longer a factor, that person is called a meshumad. On the other hand, he explains that mumar refers to one who willingly changed religions (that is, without any element of coercion).

Rabbi Moshe Sofer in responsa Chasam Sofer (Kovetz Teshuvos §79) writes that the term mumar implies anyone who “switched out” the eternal world of the Torah for any sort of temporary or ephemeral consideration. This applies to one who rejects even one of the commandments. On the other hand, he argues that the term meshumad refers specifically to one who rejects the entire Torah. Nonetheless, Rabbi Sofer admits and even laments that the printers of Jewish books have caused much confusion by using these terms almost interchangeably, such that in practice the differences between them have become obfuscated.

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