Reuven Chaim Klein

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  • Check out this related article about tzedek/tzedakah (צדק/צדקה) on the blog of the Academy of the Hebrew Language.

    Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

    in reply to: Where does the word for "elephants" come from? #3433

    Once we’re talking about elephants, I thought I would chime in with my own two cents. The word פיל is how Chazal refer to “elephants”. But what is the word “elephant” in Tanach? In two places (I Kgs. 10:22, II Chron. 9:21), the Bible mentions that King Solomon had ships coming from Tarshish (Tarsus?) that brought all sorts of goodies including something called שנהבים. The Targumim to those two instances translate שנהבים as שן דפיל – literally, “the tooth of an elephant” or what we nowadays called ivory. This explanation is followed by all the standard commentaries (i.e. the Radak and Metzudos both in Kings and Chronicles, as well as Rashi, R. Yosef Kara and Ralbag to Kings). However, pseudo-Rashi (that is, the commentary printed under Rashi’s name to Chronicles which was probably not written by him) writes that the word שנהב not only refers to an elephant’s tusk, but also to the elephant itself. So there you have it, the Biblical Hebrew word for “elephant” is שנהב.
    If you will, I’d like to take this a step further. R. Yonah Ibn Janach in his lexicon of shorashim in the Hebrew Language suggests that perhaps the word שנהב is a compound word derived from two words stuck together. He doesn’t explain himself, but I would say that he means the perhaps the word שנהב is derived from שן (“tooth”) and הב (“gives”) which would refer to the beast who “gives” away really long “tooth” (i.e. ivory) that can be used for various purposes. If that’s what he means, then it would seem that שנהב does not just refer to the tusks of the elephant, but to elephant itself. So if anybody ever asks you what the Hebrew word for “elephant” is, it could be פיל and it could שנהב. Don’t forget, because an elephant never forgets…

    Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

    I also wrote about this in an essay entitled “Names of the Underworld” in which I cited Rabbi Pappenheim’s view and also an original explanation from our friend Rabbi Tzvi Abrahams. I wrote in that essay:

    The word sheol and its various forms appear close to seventy times in the Bible. Sheol’s literal meaning is “grave.” Interestingly, Ibn Ezra to Gen. 37:35 criticizes the Christian Vulgate for translating sheol in that verse into the Latin infernus (“inferno”), because Ibn Ezra maintains that sheol literally means grave. However, Rashi (there) explains that although the plain meaning of sheol is “grave,” exegetically it can refer to the post-mortem purgatory of the soul. The Malbim writes that sheol literally means a deep pit from which it is impossible to get out. This applies to both a “grave” and gehinnom.
    Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740–1814) explains that the root of the word sheol is SHIN-LAMMED which denotes something “thrown away” or “negated.” That meaning extends to the grave because death marks the onset of a plane of existence which is “away” from the realm of the living. My friend Rabbi Tzvi Matisyahu Abrahams takes a more exhortative approach in his book Root Connections in the Torah. He writes (p. 274): “The grave is called sheol because at the time when we will be placed into the ground, there will be a big question (sheilah) mark hanging over our heads as to where we will be headed.”
    Alternatively, we propose another connection between the word sheilah and sheol: sheol literally means “deep pit”, which serves as a metaphor for one who asks a question. A question creates a burning need for an answer. Just as a deep pit serves as a portal to the empty abyss, a question leaves a gaping hole in the questioner’s mind that begs to be filled.

    Kol Tuv,
    Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
    Beitar Illit

    I would add that there is another word for elephants in the Bible: )שנהביםII Chron. 9:20, I Kgs. 10:22), which the commentators (like Rashi and Radak) connect to the word שן (“tooth”) because elephant teeth were used for making ivory products.
    Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

    I would add a theory proposed by Rabbi Aharon Marcus in his work Keses HaSofer to Gen. 8:20 (it’s on page 262 in the 2016 Mossad HaRav Kook ed.). I cited this in one of my earlier essays:

    Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843–1916) makes a fascinating suggestion. He proposes that in all Hebrew words whose essential root is the two letter combination SAMECH-LAMMED, the SAMECH is actually a placeholder for the letter AYIN which proceeds it. In other words, he says that when a word’s root seems to be SAMECH-LAMMED, it should really be understood as AYIN-LAMMED. The letters AYIN-LAMMED refer to something “on top” (al/lemalah) of something else, and to something which is “raised” or “ascends upward” (oleh/aliyah). To that effect, he suggests that the word selah should be understood using this paradigm, and that it too refers to something which “comes up”—in this case the type of rock which “comes up” from underground.

    Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

    I happened to have been reading Jose Faur’s The Horizontal Society earlier today, and I saw that on Page 79 he writes:

    The Hebrew mashal (root MShL) usually translated as ‘metaphor,’
    and ‘proverb,’ is connected to moshel ‘ruler, legislator,’ because the ideal government, as per Ec 12:9, governs by issuing ‘aphorisms’ (including
    both the idea of ‘metaphor’ and ‘proverb’) to guide the people. In this
    sense mashal is an ‘analogy that governs,’ best understood in the light of
    Justice Cardozo’s remark, concerning the two forms of legal analogies, The
    Paradoxes of Legal Science, p. 8:

    The one searches for the analogy that is nearest in point of similarity, and adheres to it inflexibly. The other, in its choice of the analogy that shall govern, finds community of spirit more significant than resemblance of externality.

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