Vaetchanan: Beware of Different Kinds of Guarding – Wonders of the Holy Tongue


Only beware  (הִשָּׁמֶר) for yourself and greatly beware  (וּשְׁמֹר) for your soul, lest you forget the things that your eyes have beheld  (Deut. 4:9).

The verse contains two words —  הִשָּׁמֶר and שְׁמֹר — which are both derived from the root ‘שמר’, yet their Aramaic translations are entirely different, with Onkelos using ‘אסתמר’  and ‘טר’, respectively. This is no mere coincidence. Throughout Scripture, if the root  ‘שמר’  appears in the נִפְעַל  (simple passive) tense, the Aramaic translations of Onkelos or Yonatan use it with the Aramaic root ‘סמר’; if it appears in the קַל  (simple active) tense, they translate it with the root ‘נטר’. For example, when Abraham told his servant Eliezer, “Beware(הִשָּׁמֶר)  not to return my son there”  (Gen. 24:6), or when Moses was told to warn the people at Mount Sinai, “Beware (הִשָּׁמְרוּ)  of ascending the mountain” (Ex. 19:12), the verbs are simple passive (i.e., it merely entails preventing something from happening, rather than any proactive act); hence, Onkelos translates them as אסתמר  and אסתמרו, respectively. By contrast, in the verses, “Because he commands his children that they shall observe (וְשָׁמְרוּ)  the way of God, doing charity and justice” (Gen. 18:19), and, Safeguard (שָׁמוֹר)  the Sabbath day to sanctify it  (Deut. 5:12), the root ‘שמר’  appears in the simple active tense (קל – i.e., he must actively fulfill these commandments); hence, their Aramaic translations are ויטרון  and טר, respectively. R’ Eliyahu Bachur, the author of Meturgamon (entry נטר), already noted this duality in the Aramaic translations of the Scriptural root ‘שמר’. He then closes by referring the reader to the entry ‘סמר’.

However, in addition to appearing as the Aramaic translation of all the passive instances of ‘שמר’, the root’סמר’  also appears in Scriptural Hebrew — both in the noun form of מַסְמֵר  (nail) [e.g., and he would strengthen it with nails (בְמַסְמְרִים)  so that it should not loosen (Isaiah 41:7); with nails (בְּמַסְמְרוֹת)  and with hammers he fastens them (Jer. 10:4)], and the verb form of ‘סמר’  (bristle) [bring up the horse, as the bristling (סָמָר)  locust (Jer. 51:27 with Rashi); A spirit brushed my face, causing to stand on end  (תְּסַמֵּר)  the hair on my face (Job 4:15)]. As noted by Metz. Tzion (to Jer. 51:27, citing Job 4:15), the verb form is derived from the noun, as the hair bristles or stands on end because it became hard and erect like a nail. [Likewise, the Mishnah (Niddah 9:8) states that just before the onset of menstruation, a woman may be seized by צְמַרְמוֹרֶת  (usually translated as shudder/chills). R’ Obadiah of Bertenura (hinting to the phonetic connection between the Rabbinic term  צמרצורת and the Biblical סמר), explains that this term is derived from the verse, My flesh shuddered (סָמַר)  from dread of You (Psalms 119:120). Maimonides’ allusion (Hilchos Isurei Bi’ah 8:2) is even clearer, explaining that צמרצורת refers specifically to the bristling of hair.

Now, at first glance, there does not appear to be any connection between ‘סמר’  (the root of מַסְמֵר/nail) and ‘שמר’  (the root of ‘שְׁמִירָה’, protecting/observing/safeguarding).  However, we find in Ecclesiastes (12:11), The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails (וּכְמַשְׂמְרוֹת)  well-driven are the masters of collections of sayings. Although the word וּכְמַשְׂמְרוֹת  is spelled with a שׂ, the plain understanding is that this is simply one of many examples in which Scripture uses the similar-sounding שׂ  and ס  interchangeably. However, the Sages (Midrash Tanchuma [Buber] Beha’aloscha 25) expound וּכְמַשְׂמְרוֹת  as if it is spelled with aשׁ  in order to also allude to the root ‘שׁמר’, stating: “If you fastened them like a nail, they are preserved (מִשְׁתַּמְרִין)  [in your memory], and they protect (מְשַׁמְרִין)  you.” Thus, there are two aspects of protecting alluded to in the root’סמר’ — that one must guard the valuable words of Torah wisdom, so that they will protect you as well [See also Rashi to the verse in Ecclesiastes, who cites a slightly different homiletic interpretation].

It seems to me that, by interpreting the word as if written with a שׁ  rather than a שׂ, the Sages have hinted to a vital link between the roots ‘סמר’  and ‘שמר’, or more specifically, between the word מַסְמֵר  and the verb ‘שׁמר’. For a nail is capable of serving several purposes, e.g.: 1) the attachment and reinforcement of loose parts; 2) the enclosure and sealing of valuable items in a protected location, such as in a container; 3) protection from any sort of damage, such as we find in Menachot (107a) that if one vows to donate iron to the Temple, he must donate enough to cover a square cubit of the Sanctuary roof with protruding nails to prevent the ravens from sitting on it. Thus, in all three cases, the nails serve to protect from some form of external damage: 1) a loose piece of furniture may collapse and cause damage to itself or someone oblivious to its weak status; 2) one nailing shut a container with valuables seeks to protect them from being stolen; 3) the installation of protruding nails is an attempt to prevent an undesired use, such as the ravens in the Sanctuary.

The example of locking up an item in a container that is nailed shut brings us to a fundamental difference between the various types of protection that are used for different intended purposes. If a person wishes to protect a gold chain from theft, he will lock it up in such a sealed container, and may also bury the container — all in an effort to protect the item of value from the potential threat. By contrast, if his goal is to protect the contents of a bag of milk, such an approach will be to no avail. For these actions may indeed guarantee that the bag of milk is not stolen, but in the meantime, the milk itself will spoil. In other words, in contrast to the gold jewelry, the immediate threat to the milk is not an external one, but rather an internal enemy, namely, bacteria. Therefore, the goal of its protection must not be from theft, but rather to preserve its freshness through refrigeration etc.

In our essay on Parshas Tetzaveh, we cited the view of Machberes Menachem,  who treats the verb נְטִירָה  as one of the subdivisions of the root ‘טר’, which also includes the word תִטֹּר  in the verse, You shall not take revenge and you shall not תִטֹּר  (bear a grudge – Lev. 19:18). Another subdivision is devoted to the word ‘טרי’. In the verse, He found a jawbone טְרִיָּה   of a donkey (Jud. 15:15), Metz.Tzion defines the word טְרִיָּה  as moist. Likewise, in the verse, only injury, bruise, and a wound טְרִיָּה  (Isaiah 1:6), Rashi quotes Menachem’s definition of a moist wound that releases puss. Herein lies the hidden link between these seemingly unrelated words תִטֹּר  and טְרִיָּה. For the moisture of a wound that is ‘טרי’  (fresh, or festering) eventually dries up and disappears naturally as the wound heals. Likewise, when two people have a disagreement or feud over some slight or grudge, the resulting resentment and hatred between them would dissipate naturally over time, until it completely disappears in due course. Thus, לִטֹּר/תִטֹּר  (bear a grudge) is to take a proactive step to preserve (נוֹטֵר)  the freshness of the initial hatred by counteracting the natural tendency of time and forgetfulness to sooth and dissipate this animosity.

In contrast to נְטִירָה, which requires an active intervention, all the aforementioned uses of a מַסְמֵר  merely protect the object in a passive manner from some external threat. [While a nail may also serve as a weapon — as in the incident cited in the Talmud (B.K. 83b), “he singed him with a skewer or a nail” — that is clearly not its primary purpose]. Thus, the argument can be made that the Aramaic translation equates the Hebrew term ‘שמר’  with the Hebrew root ‘סמר’, which denotes a passive protection, like that of the מַסְמֵר. This passivity is recognizable in the root ‘שמר’  itself, in the context of the word שְׁמָרִים  (lees), the sediment from fermenting wine that sinks to the bottom of the cup on its own, as long as nothing is done to actively prevent this from happening, as Metz. Tzion notes in his comments to the word שְׁמָרֶיהָ  in Psalms 75:9. For this reason, שְׁמָרִים  are an ideal symbol of quiet and indifference, as stated in Jer. 48:11, Moab was complacent from its youth, tranquil on its lees. Metz. David explains that “ever since becoming a nation, [Moab] had sat in tranquility, quietly remaining in his place like the wine that rests on its lees.” He also equates it with the expression הִשָּׁמֵר וְהַשְׁקֵט (Isaiah 7:4), which Rashi and Radak interpret to mean, Be calm and still (sinceהִשָּׁמֵר  means to be like the שְׁמָרִים  of wine that are calm), whereas Targum Yonatan translates it as ‘אסתמר’. According to our view above, the common aspect of both of these interpretations is “passivity,” since ‘אסתמר’  is a passive form of guarding. Hence, the Targum, in using this translation, also means to impart a sense of calming, for that is the plain import of the portion there, as Isaiah was commanded by God to relax the Judean King Ahaz, in the face of the threats against him from Rezin, King of Aram.

In light of all the above, we can now understand the verse with which we began this essay — Only beware (הִשָּׁמֶר)  for yourself and greatly beware (וּשְׁמֹר)  for your soul, lest you forget the things that your eyes have beheld  (Deut. 4:9) — and Onkelos’ usage of two very different terms, ‘אסתמר’  and ‘טר’, to translate the seemingly similar words הִשָּׁמֶר  and שְׁמֹר, respectively. For the Torah is commanding us to guard (לִנְטוֹר)  in our hearts the exalted sights that our eyes had seen, lest they abate and fade from memory. This guarding requires a highly active intervention in order to sustain and invigorate –refresh– the memories, and make it possible to pass them on to our descendants.

As for Onkelos’ translation of the expression “הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ”  as “אִסְתַּמַּר לָךְ”, we refer to Abrabanael, who explains [in his comments to the verse, But you shall greatly beware for your souls (Deut.  4:15)] that since the people had been issued a severe warning not to forget the awesome sights that they had witnessed on the day they received the Torah at Mount Sinai, Moses feared that they might be inclined to make some sort of form that would help them remember what they saw. Rabbeinu Bachya suggests that the need to exhort them against making any form, statue or carved image stemmed from the foreign influences of the surrounding nations, some of whom were accustomed to worshipping various animals and beasts.

Consequently, they had to be issued two warnings: a) They were reminded to stand guard and protect themselves against the infiltration of these foreign influences into their souls. This is the intent of the first expression, הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ, which is therefore translated by Onkelos with the passive  אִסְתַּמַּר לָךְ. b) But, like milk locked up and buried, passive protection of such memories would be for naught unless a mechanism for their constant renewal be implemented. Consequently, they were warned to actively guard and preserve the memory of the awe-inspiring visions that they had seen at Sinaiso that they would be like new revelations on each ensuing day. This is the meaning of the second expression, וּשְׁמֹר נַפְשְׁךָ, which Onkelos therefore translates as וְטַר נַפְשָׁךְ, “and actively protect your soul” by keeping the visions therein fresh – טריים.


Closing Prayer: May it be the will of God that we shall remember and observe (נִשְׁמֹר)  Your decrees, and that we shall install them like a nail (מַסְמֵר)  opposite our eyes, that we never forsake them. May their merit protect us  (יִשְׁמְרֵנוּ) from every affliction and disease, and from all dire straits, Amen.









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.

To partner with Veromemanu consider a secure donation at:
Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg