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The Torah lists a number of actions which the leper must perform as part of his cleansing process:

 

Leviticus 14:9 – And it shall be, on the seventh day, that he shall shave off all his hair: [that of] his head, his beard, his eyebrows. The word ‘זָקָן’ (beard) is clearly derived from the word ‘זָקֵן’ (older person). Our sages (Kid. 32b) interpreted the word זקן homiletically as an abbreviation of זה קנה חכמה (one who has acquired wisdom). Since there is no letter ח’ in זקן, the abbreviation is simply of the words זה קנה –the object being acquired subject to change (as is indeed proven by a similar drasha: זקן – One who has acquired both worlds [Gen. Rabba 59:6] – no mention being made of wisdom).

 

Another word is also homiletically treated in the Talmud (Brach. 56b) as a reference to wisdom: One who dreams of a reed should anticipate [acquiring] wisdom. The common denominator between זקן and קנה rests only in the two lettersקן  –which the sages see as a hidden reference to קנין: acquisition.

 

These two letters first appear in Scripture in the naming of Cain, for which a reason is proffered by the Torah itself: She conceived and bore Cain, and she said, “I have acquired a man with the Lord” (Gen. 4:1). The Hebrew words קניתי איש את ה’ are interpreted in various ways by the commentators; Nahmanides explains that she meant that he would be “acquired as an ‘acquisition’” (קנין) to serve G-d once she and Adam passed on. Haketav Vehakabbalah however cites a Kabalistic interpretation apparently equating קנין (from the root קנה) with קנאה – jealousness/zealousness– (from the root קנא). He explains that קנה and קנא are linked because jealousy is essentially a belief that a given “acquisition” or attribute currently residing to another actually should belong to the jealous party. Rabbi S. R. Hirsch (Ex. 20:5) also equates קנה to קנא, and explains Divine zealousness as a demand to rectify unjust ownership or actions.

 

In addition to the connection between קנה and קנא, Ricanati (Gen. 1:1) hints to a linkage between קנה and “קן צפור” –a bird’s nest. The background for his comments apparently rests in the words of the Zohar (2:8b) – Once the Messiah has been “rectified” (נתתקן)… he returns to a place called “the bird’s nest”, where he observes a vision of the destroyed Temple along with the many righteous people murdered there. He then takes ten garments known as “garments of zealousness.” Notice that he enters the ‘קן‘ already ‘מתוקן‘, and there acquires the garments of ‘קנאה’ garments. Perhaps the interpretation of Ricanati is that jealousness begins with the concept of קן – the proverbial “home.” In this case, the קן is embodied in the Temple, but on an elementary level, just as a mother bird protects her eggs and young with every tool at her disposal, so too must humans jealously guard what is theirs lest they be forfeited to another’s “nest”[1].

 

In truth, Ricanati’s comments echo the centuries-earlier words of Rashi. In Deut. 32:6 we find G-d referred to as “אביך קנך” – Your Father קנך. Rashi comments: [The word קָּנֶךָ means:] Who created/acquired (קָנָה) you; [alternatively it means:] Who nested you (קִנְנֶךָ) in a nest (קַן) of rocks and in a strong land; [alternatively it means:] Who has rectified you (תִּקְּנֶךָ) with every type of reparation (תַּקָּנָה). Notice that Rashi in one sentence interpreted the word קנך variously as: 1) Creation/acquisition 2) Nesting 3) Rectification. This, in contrast to almost all the other commentators on the verse (e.g. Ramban who renders the word simply as “creation”). Indeed, Rashi himself on the words describing G-d as “קֹנֵה heavens and earth” (Gen. 14:19) explains the word as “Maker,” without further embellishment[2].

 

We cited above in passing the drasha found in Brach. 56b: One who dreams of a reed should anticipate [acquiring] wisdom. Now, while the interpretation of זקן –an older person– as tied to acquisition of wisdom– bears a logical connection in that presumably some wisdom comes with age; what possible connection is there between wisdom and bamboo sticks? A hint may be found in one general property of reeds, namely: hollowness (the basis for e.g. the branches of the Menorah being referred to as קנים [see Ibn Ezra Ex. 25:32]). The structure of the reed is thus similar to a pipe, generally used for transmitting water from place to place. On the abstract level, water is the symbol of Torah wisdom (BK 17a). Thus, the logic of the proof-text brought by Rabbi Yossi Hagelili (ibid.) becomes apparent: The Lord קנני me at the beginning of His way (Prov. 8:22). The choice of the word קנני as a synonym for creation –as opposed to ברא or עשה– may be interpreted by way of its connection to קָנֶה (all the words cited in this article [save זקן] derive from the bi-literal root קן according to Machberet Menachem) in the sense of reeds. G-d did not merely create the world and leave it to slowly deteriorate – the default condition of all physical matter. Rather, He created a world ironically built of proverbial straw, the hollow quality of which allows for constant renewal through a connection to the Lord’s rejuvenating life-giving “fluids” [this interpretation is strengthened in the verses following this one:  I was חוללתי when there were yet no deeps (ibid. 24). The word חוללתי is another synonym for creation, but one which implicitly connotes again: hollowness]. In other words, G-d was מקונן the world with hollow קנים of which each individual קן is constructed, in order that a system of renewal and תקון will always be accessible to those who choose to partake of the life-giving waters they bear.

 

May we acquire eternal renewal through the קנים our קונה has been מקונן for us. And may the Messiah soon leave his קן and redeem us!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]  See also Haketav Vehakabbalah Gen. 14:19.

[2] The reason for the difference in Rashi’s interpretations could be that he was speaking from the perspective of the pronouncer of those words -the righteous gentile Malkizedek. In Deuteronomy however, the Speaker is none other than G-d Himself, Who intended to convey in the one word קנך every nuance and hidden meaning that Rashi lists.

 

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Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg

Founding Director, Editor-In-Chief at Veromemanu
Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg is the Founding Director and Editor-in-chief of Veromemanu and it' website BiblicalHebrewEtymology.com.

Yehoshua is a retired U.S. Army Chaplain and currently lives in Israel with his wife and children.

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Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg