The Veromemanu Foundation was formed in 2002 by Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg with the mission of spreading the profoundly beautiful wisdom of the Biblical Hebrew language.
BiblicalHebrewEtymology.com is a project of The Veromemanu Foundation.
In classical Jewish thought the language of the Hebrew Bible is considered different from any other language. The Midrash (Gen. Rabba 31:8) tells us that the words which were used to create the universe were uttered in the Sacred Tongue, and the Torah itself was written in that same language.
Let us expound upon this concept in depth: The aforementioned Midrash offers two examples as proof-texts for the above claims. The first involves the copper serpent fashioned by Moses -upon G-d’s directive- to end a plague ravaging the Israelites (Nu. 21:8). Missing however, from G-d’s command are the specifics of the snake’s composition and appearance – what material should be used; what color should it be? Moses deduces that it must be fashioned of copper because the Hebrew word for snake is נחש, which appears to be related to the word for copper: נחשת. The Midrash concludes that this is proof that “the Torah was given in the Holy Tongue.”
The second example involves the apparently related names for Man and Woman in Hebrew: איש and אשה. The Midrash cites examples in three other languages in which the names for the male and female are not related, and from this concludes that “the world was created with the Holy Tongue.”
These examples fairly cry out for explanation. For starters, why did Moses not simply ask G-d for clarification if he was in doubt? He had done so in other cases such as the makeup of the Menorah and the sanctification of the new moon. How much more so should this case demand immediate clarification since tens of thousands of lives were potentially at stake should he choose the wrong materials!
And in the second case, what kind of empirical proof does the non-matching of two words in two or three languages -out of many thousands- provide. And what of other languages where the appellations do seem to fit, such as “Man” and “Woman”? Does this somehow refute the creation of the world with the holy Language?
The indisputable conclusion in the first case is that Moses knew first hand that G-d’s Language is not Man’s language, wherein haphazard sounds are agreed upon by consensus. The Divine Tongue, in contrast, is precision-engineered, down to every sound, every derivative, every homonym. Upon this belief was Moses willing to stake the very lives of his entire beloved people.
Regarding איש and אשה, Rabbi Akiva tells us (Sota 17a), that if a man and woman live worthily, the holy Shechina dwells amongst them. But if not, the pair is nothing but fire and fire – אש ואש. The deeper meaning here appears to be that the default root of both words is indeed אש, and only through active work to insert the missing י-ה, G-d’s Name, will the couple survive and thrive.
Beyond the profound moral lesson indeed relayed here, Rabbi Akiva is teaching us that this language is unlike any other. Whether or not the words for male and female match in other tongues is immaterial – none but the Divinely-engineered language can ever be expected to embody such profundity.
This then is the inspiration and purpose of our articles on this website, to attempt to plumb the depths of the Holy Tongue in search of the hidden treasures and life’s lessons embodied in every precious word.