Mishpatim: Forever & Ever ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

The Torah (Ex. 21:6) teaches that if a Hebrew bondsman opts to continue with his master after his initial seven-year indenture, then “his master should pierce his (the slave’s) ear with an awl and he will be his slave forever (le’olam).” In general, the term le’olam means “forever”. However, in this case Rashi explains that le’olam is limited to the end of the fifty-year Jubilee cycle, at which time the bondsman is automatically emancipated. Sometimes the word le’olam is accompanied with other, seemingly synonymous words. To be more precise, sometimes the word le’olam is paired with the words netzach, selah, or va’ed. Based on this, the Talmud (Eruvin 54a) asserts that those words also mean “forever”. What is the logic behind the Talmud’s assertion, and are all of these words truly synonyms?

Rashi understands the logic behind this assertion is simply based on the fact that those words appear alongside le’olam,so they must all mean the same thing. Indeed, the early grammarian Rabbi Menachem ibn Saruk (920-970) writes in his lexicon of the Hebrew language, known as Machaberet Menachem, that the words netzach, selah, olam, and va’ed are all synonymous. They all mean “forever.” Rabbi Yosef Kimchi (father of Radak) makes the same assertion in his work Sefer HaGilui, except that he omits the word selah from this list (see below).

However, Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555-1631), also known as the Maharsha, takes a different approach. As we saw in the case of the Hebrew bondsman, the word le’olam does not really mean “forever” in the sense of something which continues without limit. Rather, the word le’olam denotes a very long period of time, but nonetheless has an end point. That said, when the word le’olam is paired with the words netzach, selah, or va’ed, those words must add some meaning to the amount of time denoted by the word le’olam (because otherwise the dual wording would be superfluous). From this, the Talmud derives that the words netzach, selah, and va’ed must refer to a greater length of time than the word olam does, concluding that those words mean “forever”. Rabbi Avraham ben Ezriel of Vienna (a 13th century authority on liturgy) confines the Talmud’s assertion to instances where these three words appear alongside the word olam, but the Maharsha understands that the Talmud means to extrapolate the meaning of those words in all instances.

In the blessing recited immediately before the Shema in the mornings, we ask of G-d, “And Your mercy and Your kindness shall not forsake us forever (netzach), forever (selah), and forever (va’ed).” Rabbi Avraham ben Natan HaYarchi (a 12th Provencal scholar) and Abudraham (a 14th century commentator to the Siddur) write that because of the redundancy in this prayer, one should omit the words netzah and selah, and only say the word va’ed. However, Rabbi Yitzchak Abuhab (a 14th century halachic decider) writes that we use synonymous words to convey the concept of “forever” in order to stress that we truly request His mercy and kindness to be everlasting.

Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) writes that although all four words in question mean “forever,” each emphasizes a slightly different idea. He argues that the word netzach implies something which is continuous (i.e. unchanging permanence), selah denotes something which is continual (i.e. ever-repeating), and ad/va’ed refers to the concept of infinite duration. That is, the word ad literally means “until,” but when left as a hanging preposition implies an ellipsis, as if to say, “until… (a time which cannot be defined).”

Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) explains that the word olam is related to the word al (“on top”), because the entire purpose of existence is for each element of creation to strive to attain the spiritual level above where it is presently holding. To that effect, the entire world (olam) or the entire span of time (olam) serves as the game board upon which this can be played out. In this way, the entire space-time continuum serves as the playing field for rising above one’s current state. (Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) also explains that the word ne’elam (“hidden”) is related to the word al,because it is “above” one’s range of perception, so it is hidden from him.)

Based on this, Rabbi Mecklenburg explains that the Jubilee year is called le’olam because during that year a slave rises above his lower status and attains the same status of his master, that of a freedman. He also explains that the word netzach is also related to this concept because the word netzach is derived from the word tzach (“pristine” or “pure”), which alludes to the ultimate state of being which the soul yearns to achieve. The word selah is related to the word suleh (Job 28:16), which denotes something of higher value, and the word va’ed is related to the word adi’im (“adornments”), which alludes to the eternal ornaments which will adorn the soul in the World-to-Come.

Before we conclude this article, I would like to focus a bit on the word selah. As mentioned above, the Talmud (Eruvin 54a) explains that the word selah denotes something which continues ad infitium. Based on this, Rashi, Meiri, and other classical commentators (to Psalms 3:3) explain that selah means “forever”. Indeed, the earliest translations of the Bible (Targum Yonatan in Aramaic, Aquilas in Greek, and the Peshitta in Syriac) all consistently translate selah as “forever”.

However, there are other ways of looking at the word selah. Radak (to Psalms 3:3 and in Sefer HaShorashim) and Malbim (to Psalms 3:3 and Habakuk 3:3) explain that selah is an interjection which marks the end of an idea (similar to an exclamation point in English!). Radak further explains that selah serves as a musical note and indicates that one reading/chanting/singing the passage in question should raise one’s voice to denote the end of an idea. (Rabbi Aviad Sar-Shalom Basilea (1680-1749) in Emunat Chachamim criticizes Radak for seemingly rejecting the traditional rabbinic interpretation of selah as “forever”. However, Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1697-1776) defends Radak by explaining that there is a difference between the plain meaning, which Radak offered, and the deeper implication, which tradition provides.) Malbim adds that sometimes it also means to separate the main content of a passage from that which is only meant parenthetical. Rabbi Chaim Friedlander (1923-1986) adds that the word selah means that we have just concluded relaying an important idea, and one should pause and contemplate that which he has just said before continuing.

Rabbi Mecklenburg cites one of the earlier commentators who apparently wrote that Selah is actually one of G-d’s names. Ibn Ezra (to Psalms 3:3) writes that the word selah serves to affirm that whatever has been said is true. Accordingly, selah means something like “this is true”, “so it is”, or “it is correct”. True that!

Yisro: God’s Best Friend ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

The Midrash tells us that Moshe’s father-in-law Yitro (Jethro) had seven different names by which he is called in the Bible: Yitro, Yeter, Reuel, Chovav, Keini, Putiel, and Chever. The Midrash explains how each of these appellations applies to Yitro, but for the purposes of our discussion we will focus only on two names. Yitro is called Reuel because he became a friend (reyah) of G-d, and he is called Chever because he became a friend (chaver) of G-d. These two names of Yitro conjure two different Hebrew words which mean “friend”. In this essay we will explore the implications of these two words and how they are not totally synonymous. We will also discuss a third word for “friend” — amit.

Rabbi Elazar Rokeach of Worms, a late 12th century Asheknazic scholar, in his commentary to the Siddur, explains the differences between these three words for “friend”. He argues that chaver is a friend who has left his original place and has attached (chibbur) himself to another place (like a member of a society is called a chaver of that body). Alternatively, he explains that chaver refers to two people who were separated and now came close to each other, like old friends reunited. The word amit is somebody who comes sometimes, but not so frequently. Therefore, it implies a lesser degree of intimacy than the word chaver does. The word reyah, on the other hand, is somebody whom one is with frequently and to whom one reveals his secrets.

Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) offers a slight variant on this explanation, but the gist of it matches what Rokeach writes. He writes that the word chaver, which is related to the word for connection, implies affinity or connection in one shared aspect (e.g., “We are friends because we both go to the same school.”). By contrast, the word amit, which is not related to connection, denotes a person with whom one enjoys a business relationship. The word reyah tends to denote complete affection, and is the ultimate form of companionship. In short, Rabbi Wertheimer also understands that amit denotes a less intimate associate, reyah the most intimate companion, and chaver somewhere in the middle. (When G-d commanded the Jews to ask of their Egyptian “friends” to borrow gold and silver vessels in Exodus 11:2, the Torah uses the word reyah, which implies a very close form of friendship. I’m not sure what to make of this.)

Should we try to translate these terms into the English vernacular, chaver would mean “friend”, amit, “acquaintance”, and reyah, “confidante”. Indeed, the Bible itself implies that reyah refers to the closest form of inter-personal relationships. When discussing different people whose negative influence might cause a person to commit idolatry, the Torah (Deut. 13:7) mentions “your friend who is like yourself” (rayacha kinafshecha). Similarly, the Torah commands ve’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha, “love your fellow like yourself” (Lev. 19:18). In some places in Rabbinic literature the commandment to love one’s rayah like oneself is specifically applied to one’s wife (e.g., see Kiddushin 41a and Niddah 17a), and indeed in common usage one refers to his wife as rayati (although the term chaver is also applied to one’s wife, see Shabbat 63a). Depending on the exact context, Targum Onkelos sometimes translates ray’ayhu (“his friend”, the third-person possessive form of reyah)into Aramaic as chavrei (his “chaver”) and sometimes as rachamohi (“one who loves him”).

As we have already noted, the root of the word chaver denotes attachment. But what does the root of the word reyah mean? The root REISH-AYIN — ra — usually means “bad” or “evil”. What does that have to do with friendship? The Bible itself already makes a pun on this similarity, roeh kesilim yeiroah (Proverbs 13:20), which means “he who befriends fools will become evil”. Rashi explains that yeiroah does not mean “will become evil,” but actually means “will become broken” (see also Maharsha to Berachot 63a regarding Proverbs 18:24). Indeed, the Talmudic expression kotel rauah means a broken wall, and teruah refers to a series of broken-up sounds which emanate from a Shofar (as opposed to tekiyah which denotes one unbroken note).

In essence, the root of the word reyah means “broken”, but the word reyah also refers to a close friendship, which is a form of connection (just like the word chaver). These two aspects are diametric opposites! It seems that this is yet another example of a phenomenon in the Hebrew language whereby a word can paradoxically carry one meaning and carry the exact opposite meaning, as well. Alternatively, we may suggest that the word reyah implies the idea that your friend’s existence as a separate body is only because he is “broken” apart from you, but is really meant to be attached to you.

Whenever you are contemplating the idea of friendship, you must remember the immortal words of the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), “The only way to have a friend is to be one.” Y’all come back now, or as President Bill Clinton famously said, “Shalom Chaver.”

Bishalach/Tu B’Shvat: Tree Words ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

This upcoming week is a little-known holiday called Tu B’Shevat (the 15th of the month of Shevat). The Mishna (Rosh Hashanah 1:1) says that Tu B’Shevat is the Rosh Hashanah (New Year) for Trees. This means that Tu B’Shevat is the halachic cut-off date for delineating between one year’s fruits and the next. In honor of the significance of this holiday and its connection to trees we will explore two Hebrew words which mean tree: “eitz” and “ilan”.

We might be familiar with the word eitz and its various forms from the Bible: eitz ha’daat (the Tree of Knowledge), eitz ha’Chaim (the Tree of Life), atzei Shittim (Shittim wood), atzei Levanah (Lebanon wood), and the like. There is, however, another word for tree: ilan. We have already shown over and over again that no two words in the Hebrew language mean exactly the same. So then why are there two words for “tree” and what is the difference between those two words?

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) writes that the word eitz is related to the Hebrew word atzum (strong) and etzem (bone), as it denotes the strength and durability of a tree (as opposed to other, flimsy forms of flora, like grass).

The attentive reader might notice that while the word eitz appears countless times in the Bible, the word ilan does not. Rather, the word ilan appears only once in the Bible (Daniel 4:7) and a similar word — ilana (which also means tree) — appears several times in the fourth chapter of Daniel (verses 8, 11, 17, 20, and 23). That chapter, like most of the book of Daniel, is actually written in Aramaic, not in Hebrew. This would suggest that eitz is a Hebrew word, while ilan(a) is an Aramaic word. The latter word constantly appears in the Mishna and other rabbinic writings, leading us to ask why the Sages of the Mishna preferred to use the Aramaic word for tree, instead of the Hebrew one.

To resolve these difficulties, Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn (1857-1935) explains that while Biblical Hebrew uses the word eitz to mean both a tree and its wood, the Rabbis decided to differentiate between living trees and cut wood by using two different words. To that effect, they took the Aramaic word ilana found in the Bible to mean a living tree, Hebraized it to coin the word ilan, and adopted that neologism as the new word for a live tree. Concomitantly, they narrowed the definition of the Hebrew word eitz to refer only to wood. The advantage of this new linguistic policy was that the Rabbis now had a convenient way of differentiating between a live tree and wood with a simple change in word.

Rabbi Betzalel Stern (1911-1988), the author of Responsa Be’tzel Ha’chachma,wasonce asked whether the traditional formulation of blessings and prayers were phrased according to the grammar and usage of Biblical Hebrew or of Rabbinic Hebrew. He answered this question by citing the Mishna (Berachot 6:1) which rules, “On the fruits of an ilan one blesses borei pri ha’eitz (“He who creates the fruit of the eitz”).” Rabbi Stern explained that although the word for tree in the spoken vernacular was the Aramaic-based ilan, the Mishna nonetheless chose to use the word eitz in the wording of the blessing before eating fruits. To him, this clearly demonstrates that the Rabbis preferred Biblical Hebrew to their own form of Hebrew when deciding on the exact phraseology of blessings.