Pinchas: An Expansive Lesson on Constriction – The Wonders of the Holy Tongue



Numbers 25:17-18 – Torment (צרור) the Midianites and smite them; for they tormented you through their conspiracy that they conspired against you.


R’ Samson Rafael Hirsch interprets the root  ‘צרר’ to mean contraction, compression or restriction of power  (this is also implied by Onkelos, who renders צָרוֹר as אָעֵיק, an Aramaic cognate of the Hebrew word “מעקה” –  a rooftop enclosure/fence). R’ Hirsch’s definition would also appear to fit many other words that contain the letters “צר”. However, let us first broaden the definition somewhat, in order to include the following related meanings: pressure/constriction/compressing, tension, overcrowding/congestion, sucking/drawing, thrust/impulsion, apprehension/detention/prohibit, incision, closure/lockdown, watching/guarding, trapping, surrounding/encirclement, collection/combination. In light of these meanings, let us now consider the following words containing the letters “צר”:

  1. Otzarאצר (treasure)– collection/lockdown/guarding (of valuable items). An אוצר  is a store of valuable items which are concealed and locked up in a guarded place. In the view of Yeriot Shlomo (2:53a) and R’ Hirsch (Deut. 28:8), the “א” is superfluous and the primary root is simply ‘צר’/’צרר’. This also seems to be implied by the Sages’ teaching in the Midrash (Kohelet Rabbah 3:25): “Both the souls of the righteous and the souls of the wicked ascend Above. However, the souls of the righteous are entered into the ‘אוצר’, as Abigail stated to David through the Holy Spirit (Ruach HaKodesh): May my lord’s soul be bound up (צרורה)  in the bond of life  (I Samuel 25:29).” Thus, by inferring from the word צרורה  that his soul will be placed in the אוצר, we see a hinted association between the wordsאוצר  and צרורה. Rashi also seems to linkצרר  and אצר  in a different context inTaanit  23a, where the Gemara states that during an era when grains of barley grew to historically large sizes, “צררו”  some of them as a sample for later generations, and Rashi defines צררו  as “they tied them (in a bundle) and stored (אצרו)  them.”
  2. Batzarבצר – collection/enclosure/guarding (of grapes). The root’בצר’   has three primary definitions: a) collection of grapes (i.e., the vintage – see Lev. 26:5; Deut. 24:21); b) strength/reinforcement (i.e., fortified walls or cities – see Num. 13:19, 28; Jer. 15:20); c) prevent/withhold  (seeיִבָּצֵר  [withhold] in Gen. 11:6 and Job 42:2; בַּצֹּרֶת  (shortage/hunger) in Jer. 17:8)]. However (as suggested by Yeriot Shlomo 2:61b), all three definitions have in common the aspect of gathering  and   enclosing, as a) the grapes of the vintage are gathered and preserved, b) the fortified cities are built for the purpose of allowing masses of people to gather therein, and c) an entity restrained from movement and access is akin to one confined in a fortress.
  3. Chatzar חצר (courtyard)– gathering/collection (in a guarded site). Shoresh Yesha (entry חצר) states that ‘חצר’  is like [1]‘עצר’  (halt/hold) in that it holds and shelters the object that is held and enclosed in it. Similarly, he suggests that a trumpet is called a “חצוצרה”  because it is an instrument that is used to muster people on the day of a battle[2].
  4. Atzar עצרdetain/enclose/gather (both for positive and negative purposes).
  5. a) We find this root used in the sense of’אסר’ (imprisonment) in Avoda Zara (71a), where Rashi interprets לעוצר  as לאצור  (to collect) [see also  RSR Hirsch (Gen. 16:1-2), who equates עצר  with ‘אסר’ and other phonetically related words][3].
  6. b) The root ‘עצר’ also appears in the Aramaic terms for collecting grapes of a vineyard and storing their extracts in a vat – with the wordתֶאֱגֹר (“gather” grapes) translated as תְעַצְרוּן  (see Targum Yonatan to 28:39), and the word גַּת  (“winepress”) translated as ‘מַעֲצַרְתָּא’  (see ibid to Judges 6:11).
  7. c) In Daniel 10:8, the phrase עָצַרְתִּי כֹּחַ is rendered by Rashi as “I gathered strength.”
  8. Tzor/Tzarar ‘צור’/’צרר’ According to Radak, the many definitions that are derived from these similar roots (some of which are enumerated below), are all related in some way to one or more of the following: gathering/enclosing/watching/restricting/compressing. [According to Machberet Menachem, the root in all these words is ‘צר’.]
  9. a) hard rock (צּוּר) so called because it comprised of highly compressed (an extreme form of gathering) material (see Exodus 17:6).
  10. b) fortification used both for a fortified city (מִבְצָר Numbers 32:36), and the siege of a fortified city (תָצוּר 17:6; בְּמָצוֹר 28:53). This usage involves enclosure and guarding.
  11. c) pressure/distress (צַר) [Psalms 119:143] – physical and/or spiritual enclosure and
  12. d) trouble/distress (צָּרָה) [Psalms 10:1] – enclosure and pressure of a primarily emotional nature.
  13. e) messenger/agent (צִיר) [Isaiah 18:2; 49:14, Josh. 9:4] –restricted to follow the straight and narrow path.
  14. f) door hinge (צִיר) [ 26:14] – restricted to its precise and narrow point of connection.
  15. g) harass (צרר) [ 25:17, 33:55] – pressure and restrict  someone’s freedom[4].
  16. h) trouble/distress (צָּרָה) [Psalms 118:5; 1:3] – enclosure and pressure of a primarily emotional nature..
  17. i) bundle of money (צרור) [ 42:35] – a bound package that is closed and guarded.
  18. j) boundary/border (מיצר) [Talmudic term – see M. 107a]  – limits and restricts  freedom.
  19. Patzar ‘פצר’ (badger/urge) – The Biblical commentators define it simply as a multitude, and indeed, Rashi to I Samuel 13:21 explains that הַפְּצִירָה פִים means a multi-grooved file, so called because of its many grooves. However, most of the Scriptural occurrences of the root פצר  relate particularly to incessant pleas/requests  [e.g., Gen. 19:3, 9; I Sam. 15:23; I Kings 2:17, 5:16]. Radak (entry פצר) concludes that they all refer to an effort to persuade or even force someone to act in a given way; thus it involves heavy verbal pressure to change someone’s mind. Likewise, Rabbeinu Yeshaya, in his commentary to I Samuel, explains that the term הַפְּצִירָה פִים  derives from the fact that the file is pressed hard onto the utensil and rubbed hard against it in order to sharpen it.
  20. Yatzar ‘יצר’ (forming) – involves pressure/compress/force together/fasten together (physical and abstract).

The root ‘יצר’  denotes the combination of various existing bodies/thoughts to form a unified entity/program, be it in the physical domain (a creation – see Gen. 2:7) or in the abstract (the inclination in man’s heart, called a יֵצֶר  (see Psalms 33:11). Thus, ‘יצר’  is related to the root ‘צר’/’צרר’  and all the others, as it involves the consolidation and tying together of various components to form one strong body[5]. Indeed, Yeriot Shlomo (2:53a) suggests that ‘יצר’  derives from ‘צר’, which denotes the pressing together of separate parts to form a unified entity that can exist on its own.

[We should also note that there is an example of ‘יצר’  (in Zech. 11:13) that has the meaning of ‘אוצר’  (a sealed and guarded treasure) according to Radak. Also, the Midrash (Kohelet Rabbah 2:1:11) links ‘יצר’  to ‘צייר’  (an artist), stating that the Creator is like an artist, Whose world is His beautiful painting. It likewise links ‘יצר’  to ‘צור’  (hard rock), implying that God is referred to as ‘צור’  because He is the ‘יוצר’  (Creator).]

  1. Natzar ‘נצר’ (guard) – involves protect/bind/fasten. One guards an object by enclosing and/or binding it.

Both Menachem and Yeriot Shlomo (2:53a) see the word as deriving from the 2-letter root ‘צר’. According to the latter, ‘נצר’  (like ‘אוצר’, a treasure) denotes a strong, unbreakable binding that protects and guards. It is for this reason that a twig that is planted for the purposes of growing a tree is called a נֵצֶר  (see Isaiah 11:1, 60:21), since it is guarded and protected until it can become a tree.

  1. Katzar ‘קצר’ (shorten) – related to pressure/congestion, as follows. Shortening an object restricts and contracts it. Indeed, the verse: for the mat will be too short (קָצַר)  for stretching out (Isaiah 28:20), is interpreted by Rashi to mean that God will send an enemy to pursue and oppress Israel. Thus, this shortening  is indeed linked to stressful force and oppression.
  2. Tzarav ‘צרב’ (cauterize) – involves contraction/pressure/compression through the heating of the skin. According to Radak (entry צרב), צָרֶבֶת means the cauterization of the skin. However, Rashi, in his comments to the verse, it is the צָרֶבֶת of the inflammation (Lev.  13:23), explains that צָרֶבֶת  means the contraction of the skin that occurs as a result of the cauterization. [Although Rashi  also refers to it asרגיעת עור , the irritation of the skin (see Job  7:5), Sefer Zikaron (commentary on Rashi, Tunis 1507) [6] explains that the two are related, as the irritation of the skin by the heat dries it out, causing it to contract and attain folds].

Now, if we consider this process, the contraction of the skin causes the different areas to combine and form separate units, namely, the skin folds. This might then explain the connection between ‘צרב’  and ‘צרף’ [7] (refine – see discussion in No. 11 below), which denotes the cleansing of impurities that leads to the unification of all the untainted components.

  1. Tzaraf ‘צרף’ (refine/combine)– contract/pressure/compress/gather/combine via heating of metal.

The meaning of this root in Scriptural Hebrew is always the refining and purification of metals from its impurities through fire (e.g., Isaiah 48:10; Malachi 3:2). However, in Aramaic, it means to combine/join (vis. Targum Yerush., Num. 24:24). I would like to propose that the two definitions are indeed linked, since the aspect of combining/joining  is the natural outcome of the refining/purification that we call soldering. That is, the metal is heated up to its melting point, thereby causing the expulsion of its impurities. However, the spaces that are created by the removal of the foreign matter are filled immediately with the purified molten metal, bringing about an absolute joining and unification of the purified elements. [We might also add that by re-arranging its letters, the root צרף  becomes פצר  (badger/urge/pressure – see No. 6 above). As we explained above,  פצרinvolves trying to persuade someone to do something by causing pressure and stress through incessant verbal pleas. Likewise, צרף  denotes using pressure and stress to cause the expulsion of impurities.

  1. Tzarad ‘צרד’ (dry)– to contract/gather/combine by drying out. This is a Talmudic word not found in Scripture. We find it both in the context of food (צָרִיד – Maaser Sheini 2:4), and in the context of a sound being dry, or hoarse (צָרוּד – R.H. 27b), both of which are translated by the early commentators as dry. Dryness causes contraction and shriveling (discussed in No. 10 above). In Scripture, dryness and shriveling take on similar meanings, such as the reference to dry grapes (i.e., raisins) as צִמֻּקִים in I Samuel 30:12, or the mention of shriveled breasts  שָׁדַיִם צֹמְקִים)) in Hosea 9:14, which Metz. Tzion defines as dry breasts. We also find in the Talmud (Shab. 37b) that overcooked food is מצטמק, and Rashi explains that it shrivels from dryness.
  2. Tzarach ‘צרח’ (shout ) – stress/crowding/gathering caused by cries to gather in the face of enemy danger. Radak (entry צרח), writing in the name of his father, defines the term יַצְרִיחַ  (Isaiah 42:13) as a call to arms in the face of an approaching enemy[8]. The term צְּרִחִים  (I Samuel 13:6), based on Rashi’s definition as a fortress built from interlaced wood, might be related through its being a narrow (צר)  hideout. And according to the definition of Ohalei Yehudah (entry צרח), as a narrow  (צר)  and tall tower that is not penetrable by the oppressor  (צר), the link is even clearer.
  3. Tzarach ‘צרך’ (need)– pressure/distress/stress/tightness are all common symptoms of a poor person in need.

There is but a single appearance of this root in all of Scripture (II Chron. 2:15); it is however, commonly used in Aramaic. The word pauper (אֶבְיוֹן)  is translated by Targum Yonatan as צְרִיכָא, needy (see Deut. 15:11, 24:14). This is also the meaning of the invitation we issue to כָּל דִּצְרִיךְ  (all the needy) in the Passover Haggadah: כָּל דִּצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח.

  1. Tzara ‘צרע’ (illness/leprosy) – pressure/distress/stress/tightness are likewise symptoms of an ill person.

Our Sages (Tanchuma Metzora 2) expound the word ‘צָרוֹת’  (plural of צָרָה, tribulation) as צָרַעַת (leprosy/illness). [Ibn Ezra also links the word צִרְעָה  (hornet-swarm) to צָרַעַת, seeing it as a general term for illness.] They also indicate (Arachin 16a) that one is afflicted with צָרַעַת  as punishment for his stinginess, which is referred to as צָרוּת עַיִן, “narrowness” of eyes  (i.e., he is unwilling to share his wealth with others).

  1. Tzara ‘צרה’ (liquid extract/syrup/sap)– suck/absorb/push are all actions involved in producing liquid extract.

The word צֳרִי  (derived from the root צָרָה), which appears several times in Scripture (e.g., Gen. 37:25), is defined in the Talmud (Shab. 26a) as שְׂרָף, the sap that is extracted from a certain tree. [It is interesting to note that the term שְׂרָף  is very similar in sound to the English word “syrup.” Likewise, Rashi  says that it means גומ”א  in Old French, which resembles the English word “gum,” which is indeed a gelatinous substance extracted from certain plants].

How is this naturally produced? The system of liquids that sustains trees is one of the amazing wonders of God’s nature. In contrast to a person, for example, who is created with a heart which continuously pumps his blood throughout all parts of his body, there is no similar mechanism in trees. The explanations for this phenomenon vary, with some scientists acknowledging that they lack a comprehensive explanation for the mechanics of the overall system (especially in giant tree such as the Sequoia). What is clear however, according to all the views, is that the liquids are transported through artery-like passageways, through a combination of suctioning/pulling from above that is initiated by the evaporation of moisture from the leaves on the one hand, and a pushing/pressure from the water absorbed by the roots below on the other hand.

Whereas the verb שׂרף  (burn) in Hebrew denotes heat and the byproducts of fire, the verb שׂרף in Aramaic takes on the meaning of גמיעה  (sipping) [same as the Scriptural גמיאה, as Rashi notes in Gen. 24:17], מציצה  (sucking), and שאיבה  (drawing) [see Zohar 3:154b; Rashi  to Ber. 61b], as noted by Rashi  to Av. Zarah 29b and Nazir 36b, and Tif. Yisrael to Av. Zarah 2:5.

Thus, to summarize, the צֳרִי  is the juice that drips and is drawn out of the tree. [Perhaps we can suggest that Rashi’s French definition of גומ”א also stems from the Hebrew “גמיאה”, which means drawing and sucking, which is how the שְׂרָף  is transported throughout all the branches of the tree]. Also, the term שְׂרָף  is attained by association from the wondrous system of drawing and pressing  that we have just described.

[As noted above, the branch of a tree, or a twig that is planted so as to grow a tree, are referred to as a נֵצֶר  (see Isaiah 11:1, 14:19, 60:21). Perhaps we can propose that this name also derives from its primary sustenance, the צֳרִי/שְׂרָף. For the word צרי  is similar to the word טרי, which also indicates moisture in Scripture (see Jud.  15:15; Isaiah 1:6). Moreover, both the root ‘צר’  and the root ‘טר’  can mean preserving  in Scripture, as in, Preserver (נוֹצֵר)  of Kindness (Ex. 34:6), and, You shall not preserve (תִטוֹר)  a grudge (Lev. 19:18). Thus, the branch is named after the primary sustainer that guards and preserves its life in all its forms, namely, water. [See also our essay in Parashat Tetzaveh on the meaning of the root ‘טר.]

Closing Prayer: From “between the distresses” (בין המצרים, the woe-filled 3-week period leading up to the Temple’s destruction), let us call out to G-d, that He transform it speedily to a festival and holiday, and He shall lead us from the straights (מיצר) to wide-open relief, and we shall say before Him songs of praise in His Sacred Courtyards  (חצרות)speedily in our days, Amen.



[1]  [בחילוף אותיות אחע”ה].

[2]  [בדומה לשתי ההוראות שרש ‘זעק’: 1. צעקה (ירמיה נ:מו), 2. קיבוץ ואסיפה (יהושע ח:טז)].

[3]  [גם רשר”ה (בר’ טז:א-ב) השווה אותם, וצירף עוד מלים קרובות (בחילוף אותיות אחע”ה, זסשר”ץ)]: עצרני ה’ מלדת – ‘עצר’ קרוב ל’אצר’, ‘אסר’, ‘אזר’: לקשור כחות ולהחזיקם כאחד.

[4]  [רד”ק (שרשים, ערך ‘צרר’) כתב ש’צרר’ ו’צור’ הם “שני שרשים בענין אחד”, כנ”ל, וענינו פירש בערך ‘צור’. וזו לשנו שם]: יעמדו סביבותיה במצור עד רדתה מרעב.

[5]  [‘יצר’ נדרש מלשון “צייר” ו”צור”]: קהר ב:א (יא): ויצר ה’ אלהים את האדם מה ת”ל אשר יצר (בר’ ב:ח), אלא הצור הוא צייר נאה, כביכול מתגאה בעולמו. [וכן “צור” נדרש מל’ “צייר”]: מגילה יד. – אין צור כאלהינו אין צייר כאלהינו… הקב”ה צר צורה בתוך צורה ומטיל בה רוח ונשמה קרבים ובני מעים. [וגם שם “צור” (כינוי לאלוקים, בהשאלה מן האבן החזקה ומגובשת) נדרש מלשון ‘יוצר’]: ויקרא רבה כג:יב – צור ילדך תשי (דב’ לב:יח) – התשתם כוחו של יוצר. [וראה י”ש ב:נג.-נג: להרחבות בכל הקשרים הללו].

[6]  [ספר זכרון על רש”י מסביר את הקשר בין ‘רגיעה’ ל’כיווץ’]: ספר הזכרון על רש”י1 – נרתע העור לאחור ונכווץ, מלשון: עורי רגע דאיוב. [כך פרש”י שם באיוב]: איוב ז:ה – עוֹרִי רָגַע; רש”י – רגע – נקמט כמו רוגע הים (ישעיה נא). יר’ לא:לד – רֹגַע הַיָּם; רש”י – רוגע הים – מנידו ומרתיחו ונעשה קמטים קמטים כמו: עורי רגע (איוב ז). 1[לרבינו אברהם בר’ שלמה הלוי בקראט (מגולי ספרד. חובר בתוניס, שנת רס”ז. מובא בספר י”א מפרשי רש”י)].

[7]  [בחילוף אותיות בומ”ף].

[8]  [רד”ק (ערך ‘צרח’) בשם אביו. והשוה לשתי ההוראות של ‘זעק’ (צעקה וכינוס)].


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

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

3 thoughts on “Pinchas: An Expansive Lesson on Constriction – The Wonders of the Holy Tongue

  1. Reminds me of MiZrayim (Egypt) often associated w/ the borders/restriction aspect of TSaR, but now w/ your insight we can take reconcile the Koor BarZel – iron furnace aspect of Mizrayiim wherein we were subjected to the accelerated refinement process that allowed us to receive the entire TarYaG 613 Eitz Chaim – Torah covenants after just 26 rather than over the normal stress (heat/pressure) level 1000 generations so 974 generations early by Moses 10+10+6 from Adam. Refererence/references in RCCF framework for understanding science.