What's in a Word?

For the week ending 15 February 2020 / 20 Shevat 5780

Heat with the In-Laws

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library Kaddish

In Biblical Hebrew, there are two sets of words for one’s parents-in-law: in one set of words, cham is “father-in-law” and chamot is “mother-in-law,” while in the other set of words, choten means “father-in-law” and chotenet means “mother-in-law.” For example, in Exodus 18:1-27, Moshe’s father-in-law Yitro is called his choten (thirteen times!), and the curse against a man who commits incest with his mother-in-law states “lying with his chotenet” (Deut. 27:23). Yet, on the other hand, in the story of Yehuda and his daughter-in-law Tamar, Yehuda is called her cham (Gen. 38:13, 38:25), and Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi is called her chamot (Ruth 2:11-3:17). In short, this essay will address how the meanings of these two terms differ from one another, and when one term would be used over the other.

Rabbi David Kimchi (1160-1235), also known as Radak, writes in his Sefer HaShorashim that there is a major difference between cham/chamot and choten/chotenet: cham always refer to a woman’s parents-in-law, while choten always refer to a man’s parents-in-law. In other words, the Hebrew language uses different words depending on whose parents-in-law are being discussed. This distinction is indeed borne out and well-supported if one analyzes all instances of cham/chamot and choten/chotenet in the Bible.

In traditional patriarchal societies, marriage is viewed as a woman leaving her parents’ family and joining her husband’s. Based on this, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) explains that when a woman enters this new family, her husband’s relatives surround her like a “wall” (chomah), so she calls her parents-in-law cham and chamot. By contrast, from the husband’s perspective, he does not join a new family. Rather, his family creates a matrimonial connection with another family, but he remains as part of his parents’ family. For this reason in Biblical Hebrew a husband does not call his in-laws cham/chamot. He calls them choten/chotenet, which, like chatan (“groom”), are words related to “connection.” (Interestingly, in Hebrew/Yiddish, two people whose children have married each other are called mechutanim, but in English there is no word to convey such a relationship.)

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740–1814) traces the Hebrew wordscham/chamot to the Hebrew biliteral root CHET-MEM, which means “hot.” He explains that when a woman joins her husband’s family she must stress the warm love that she receives from her newfound relatives in order to honor her husband. Given that the Bible metaphorically refers to “love” as though it were a fire (see Song of Songs 8:7), it makes sense that a bride’s warm love for her new family would be expressed by a cognate of the Hebrew root for “heat,” so she calls her husband’s parents cham andchamot, respectively. In contrast to the bride’s experience, the groom does not join a new family, but rather branches off from his own family to create a new subdivision. Because of this, Rabbi Pappenheim explains, a groom is called a chatan — a word derived from the two-letter root CHET-TAV that means “descending” or “putting down” — an allusion to his setting up a new branch of the family. A husband’s parents-in-law are called choten/chotenet because by allowing him to marry their daughter they afforded him the opportunity to open this new branch of his family. (Radak writes that the core meaning of the word chatan is “he who experiences a new happiness,” which is why it applies to a baby undergoing circumcision, just like it applies to a groom getting married.)

The great Kabbalist Rabbi Menachem Azariah of Fano (1548-1620) offers another way of explaining the difference between these terms. When soul-mates get married, their souls’ spiritual lineage are on par and level with one another, such that a “husband and wife” can also be called “brother and sister.” Based on this, he writes that choten is a portmanteau of the phrase achot noten (“a sister, he gives”), and refers specifically to a man’s father-in-law, who, by virtue of his giving his daughter to this man, has given this man his “sister.” For this reason, choten/chotenet always refer to a man’s parents-in-law. On the other hand, when a woman marries her husband, she calls his parents cham/chamot,which is derived from yechematni (“birth”, see Ps. 51:7). This is because the husband’s parents do not “give” their son in the same way that the wife’s parents “give” their daughter, so their contribution to this union is simply that they gave birth to this man who married her.

However, as Radak points out, in Mishnaic Hebrew the word cham is used to describe a husband’s “father-in-law” (Kesuvos 1:5), not just a wife’s father-in-law, and chamot is used to describe a husband’s “mother-in-law” (Yevamos 1:1), not just a wife’s mother-in-law. Meaning, while in Biblical Hebrew the termscham/chamot refer exclusively to a woman’s parents-in-law, in Mishnaic Hebrew the meanings of those terms were expanded to also include a man’s parents-in-law.

Nonetheless, Rabbi Yosef Teomim-Frankel (1727-1792), author of the Pri Megadim, writes in one of his letters on Hebrew grammar that the converse is not true: the terms choten/chotenet which refer to a man’s parents-in-law in the Bible were not later expanded in Mishanic Hebrew to also apply to a woman’s parents-in-law. Rabbi Teomim suggests accounting for this difference in usage by appealing to a hyper-literal meaning of the terms in question. He explains that the etymological basis for chamot is the Aramaic root CHET-MEM, which means “to see.” Indeed, the Targumim on the Bible always translate the Hebrew termschoten/chotenet into Aramaic cognates of cham/chamot. The word chamot recalls the fact that a woman’s mother-in-law is always “looking” at her daughter-in-law — whether for beneficial or malevolent purposes (see Yevamos 15:4 which says that a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law are always presumed to hate each other). Accordingly, since a woman’s mother-in-law is called chamot, a cognate of that word was also adopted to refer to a woman’s father-in-law (cham), and then eventually to a husband’s parents-in-law as well.

On the other hand, choten is related to the word chatan (“groom”), and refers to a man’s father-in-law as the person who made him into a chatan (because he married off his daughter to the groom), and a cognate of choten (chotenet) was adopted to also refer to a man’s mother-in-law. Since the term chatan exclusively refers to the husband’s point of view as the bridegroom, it could not be re-appropriated to refer to the wife’s point of view. For this reason, the term choten/chotenet refers only to a man’s parents-in-law, even in Mishnaic Hebrew.

In responsa Shem MiShimon, Rabbi Shimon Pollack (1858-1930) was asked why one traditionally refers to his father as avi mori (“my father, my teacher”), mentioning “teacher” after “father,” but refers to his father-in-law as mori v’chami (“my teacher, my father-in-law”), mentioning “teacher” before “father-in-law.” In one of his brilliant suggestions, Rabbi Pollack argues that since the word chami in the sense of a man’s father-in-law is only a Mishanic Hebrew usage based on Aramaic, then the word chami is preceded by the Hebrew word mori in order to honor the Hebrew language before Aramaic. However, when it comes to the traditional term for father, since both words are Hebrew, one should say avi before mori. Rabbi Pollack supports this understanding by mentioning that even in the traditional nomenclature, if a man uses the term chotni to refer to his father-in-law, then he will usually say chotni mori (“my father-in-law, my teacher”), mentioning mori after chotni because both words are Hebrew.

For questions, comments, or to propose ideas for a future article, please contact the author at rcklein@ohr.edu

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