What's in a Word?

For the week ending 2 September 2017 / 11 Elul 5777

Elul 1: Trends in Time

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
The Color of Heaven Artscroll

“Enjoy life!”, “Just do it!”, and “Live it up!” are all catch-phrases and slogans of Western culture. That culture calls for people to do whatever they please in order to enjoy life without thinking of the future consequences. Western culture lives for the present. On the other hand, the Jewish approach is to always look towards the future. Before a person performs any given action he is expected to thoroughly contemplate whether its outcome will bring about something positive or not, and then act accordingly. In this essay and over the next few weeks, we will explore synonyms related to the Jewish concept of time and explain their deeper meanings.

The late Rabbi Moshe Shapiro (1935-2017) explains that the very word for time in Hebrew (zman) reflects on the Jewish view of time. Zman is related to the root-word mizuman, which means “ready” or “prepared”, and is used colloquially to refer to somebody who has been “invited”. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) writes that the root of the word zman is zamem (to “plot” or “think ahead”). In essence, time is a means of preparation. For what? For the future! Thus, the very word for “time” reflects the Jewish weltanschauung,as it tells us to look to the future and not get stuck in the present or the past. (In Modern Hebrew “cash” is known as mizuman because, as opposed to checks or credit cards, it provides for a fast and easy monetary transaction and can readily be used to purchase a variety of commodities.)

There are, however, three more words in Hebrew for time — eit, shaah and moed.

Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469-1549) writes that some people say that the word zman is a synonym of the word eit. However, he disagrees with those people and instead writes that there is a nuanced difference between the two words. HaBachur cites anonymous sages who mention a minute, philosophy-based distinction. However, he avoids offering an elaborate explication by writing that he does not have the energy to go into details. This sort of distinction is offered by HaBachur’s younger contemporary, Maharal of Prague (1525-1609), who wrote in Netzach Yisrael (ch. 26) that zman refers to the flow of time as an existing element of creation, while eit refers to time as an abstract concept.

Malbim explains that moed and zman refer to a pre-determined time set by man (or by G-d in the case of the moadim,“holidays”), while eit is a natural unit of time whose existence is evidenced through nature (e.g., geshamim b’ittam “rain in its eit”). This explanation does not seem to account for the difference between moed and zman, although one could argue that moed is Hebrew, while zman is Aramaic. Indeed, the Targumim commonly translate instances of moed in the Bible as zman, although HaBachur points out that the word zman itself appears in some of the post-Exilic books of the Bible and in Ecclesiastes. Moreover, Rabbi Pappenheim points out that the word eit shares some common meaning with zman,because eit also refers to preparation and designation (e.g., in Leviticus 16:21 the man who is charged with sending the goat to Azazel on Yom Kippur is described as an ish itti, “designated man”). In fact, the Hebrew word atid (“future”) is derived from the word eit and is also a conjugation of a verb that means “to prepare”.

Others explain that zman is a span of time, while eit is a point of time within a larger span of time. In fact, Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) writes that of the three words for time, zman is the most general, eit is somewhat more specific, and moed refers to the most specific preset point of time (like a meeting which is scheduled down to the hour and minute). Similarly, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) writes that the word zman denotes time in general, while eit means a portion of time (it is related to eeteit or ettim, which is a spade that breaks up soil into smaller units).

Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1520-1572) writes that he heard that some people view the phrase bechol eit u’vechol shaah (“every eit and every shaah” which appears in the second blessing of the Grace after Meals and the last blessing of the Shemonah Esreh) as redundant, choosing instead to only say bechol eit. However, Rabbi Isserles rejects this opinion and argues that eit and shaah are not synonymous, but refer to two different measures of time: eit refers to the annual seasons, and shaah refers to the hours of the day. Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1697-1776), in turn, takes issue with Rabbi Isserles’ assertion that eit refers to the seasons of the year by citing examples wherein the word eit refers to other (natural) phenomena, as well.

In his own discussion of the words in question, Rabbi Yaakov Emden explains that moed is the beginning of an appointed time, while zman is the entire duration of an appointed time and eit is any given point during that span of time. He concedes that these are only the technical differences between the terms, but in practical usage all of these words may be used interchangeably.

  • Author’s note: Le’Zechut Refuah Shleimah for Bracha bat Chaya Rachel

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