Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Mishpatim 5763/ February 1, 2003

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Parashat Mishpatim 5763/ February 1, 2003

"When men quarrel, When men fight"

Yossi Peretz
Miqra'ot Gedolot Haketer Project

The Jerusalem Talmud (Nazir, 58a) asks a question regarding two statements in this week's reading: "When men quarrel" (Ex. 21:18), and "When men fight" (Ex. 21:22). In Hebrew, the first is yerivun, the second yinnatzu. This is the talmudic text:

Is a fight a quarrel and a quarrel a fight? What does the Torah wish to teach by saying "when men fight" and "when men quarrel," if not to contrast the case of one who acted with intention and one who did not act with intention?

In other words, the two verbs, quarrel and fight, and not synonyms; rather, they refer to two distinct actions, each pertaining to a different situation and each entailing different legal consequences.

Below we briefly review the attitudes of the Sages and of medieval commentators to synonyms in Scripture, examining whether they always ascribed different meanings to duplicate expressions in Scripture.[1]

Synonyms in Rabbinic Literature

Some of the rabbis interpreted overlapping expressions as indicative of halakhic distinctions; others interpreted synonyms as having identical meaning.

In Tractate Rosh Ha-Shanah (6a), the gemara raises the question of the difference between a votive (neder) or a freewill (nedavah) offering, as referred to in Leviticus 7:16: "If, however, the sacrifice he offers is a votive or a freewill offering." The answer given there is as follows: "If it is a votive offering, and [the animal to be sacrificed] dies or is stolen, he is responsible for it; but if it is a freewill offering, and dies or is stolen, he is not responsible for it." This and the previous example (quarrelling vs. fighting) show that the pairs of words are not synonyms; rather, each is interpreted as entailing a different consequence in the halakhah.

In the Bible's prose and its poetic passages we also find interpretive distinctions drawn between pairs of words. For example:

1. The Song on the Sea (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate Shirata, ch. 2):
One passage reads: "Horse and driver He has hurled [Heb. ramah] into the sea" (Ex. 15:1), and another passage reads: "Pharaoh's chariots and his army He has cast [Heb. yarah] into the sea." How can these two passages exist side by side, since ramah indicates that they would rise high to the heavens, and yarah indicates they would sink down to the deep?

2. Regarding the prose passage, "the Lord your G-d will put the dread and the fear of you over the whole land" (Deut. 11:25), the midrash wonders (Sifre on Deuteronomy, par. 52): "If they are in dread, then do they not fear? Rather, those near you will be in dread of you, and those who are farther away will be in fear." A similar interpretation is given for the pair of words in the following verse: "Terror and dread (‘emata va-fahad) descend upon them" (Ex. 15:16) - "Terror on those who are far, and dread on those who are close" (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Shirata 9).

Some Sages did not ascribe any difference in meaning to such pairs of words. Regarding the pair of words "wine" and "intoxicant," in the laws on the nazirite (Num. 6:3), the question is asked, "Is not wine an intoxicant and an intoxicant wine?" The answer given there is that the Torah simply used two ways of speaking (Sifre on Numbers, par. 23). The midrash proceeds to cite other examples:

Likewise, one says that slaughtering is sacrificing and sacrificing is slaughtering; kemitza is the same as harama and harama the same as kemitza; deep (amukah) is the same as shallow (shefelah)and shallow the same as deep; a sign (ot) is a marvel (mofet) and a marvel, a sign; the Torah simply used two ways of speaking. Here, too, it is said that he should abstain from wine and intoxicants; but wine is intoxicant and intoxicant is wine; the Torah simply used to different expressions.

Additional examples in the same vein can be found in many midrashim that first state the number of times a certain subject is mentioned in synonymous terms, and then list those terms. For example: "There are eight nouns that denote a poor person: ani, evyon, misken, rash, dal, dakh, makh, halakh" (Lev. Rabbah 34:6); "Many terms have been used to refer to prayer: tefillah (prayer), tehinah (beseeching), tze'akah (shouting), ze'akah (crying), sheva'ah (wailing), renanah (singing), pegi'ah (touching), ne'akah (moaning), keriah (calling), atirah (petitioning), amidah (standing), hilui (appealing)" (Midrash Tanhuma, Va-ethanan, par. 3): "There are seven word for lion: aryeh, ari, kefir, lavi, layish, shahal, shahatz" (Avot de-Rabbi Nathan, Version B, ch. 43); and "Four names are given to the snake: nahash (the generic term for snake), peten (adder), ef'eh (viper) seraph, tzifoni, tannin (crocodile), shefifon (viper, horned snake)" (ibid.); "There are ten words for a prophet...''; "Idolatry has ten pejorative names," etc.

The Attitude of Medieval Exegetes towards the Use of Synonyms

Almost all the medieval biblical exegetes recognized the use of synonyms in Scripture. In their commentaries one frequently encounters expressions such as "there is a duplication in the subject, using different words," or "the same sense is repeated in different words," etc. Regarding the verse, "My might and first fruit of my vigor" (Gen. 49:3), Rashbam commented, "There is one statement here; it is the way of Scripture to double expressions." On the pair of words, "my person" and "my being [lit. my honor]" in the verse, "Let not my person (nafshi) be included in their council, let not my being (kevodi) be counted in their assembly" (Gen. 49:6), Ibn Ezra wrote: "Rabbi Moses ha-Cohen the Sepharadi says that kevodi is the same as nafshi; and there are many similar instances in Psalms; his interpretation is fine, for the meaning is duplicated, as is the way in prophetic writing." Ibn Ezra's commented in like fashion on the verse, "Come, curse me Jacob, come, tell Israel's doom!" (Num. 23:7). "Tell Israel's doom - this is a repetition of the same meaning; for it is a manner of speaking, to say one idea in different formulations, and the repetition is for emphasis." In contrast to the Sages, who interpreted the pair of words yarah and ramah as indicating different things, Ibn Ezra interpreted them as synonyms, writing in his short commentary on Exodus (15:4), "Yarah means the same as ramah."

Radak, as well, recognized the use of synonyms and employed this exegetical tool in many of his commentaries. On the second half of the verse from Jeremiah, "Erect markers, set up signposts" (Jer. 31:21), he wrote: "It is a repetition of the idea in different words, for signposts are the same as markers." In a slightly different formulation, Ralbag commented on the verse, "His bones are like tubes of bronze, his limbs like iron rods," (Job 40:18), "the idea is repeated in different words."

The scope of the use of synonyms can be seen by looking in the Bar Ilan Responsa Project CD- Rom at the commentaries of two representative commentators:

1) Ibn Ezra, in his commentary on the Bible, notes several hundred places where synonyms occur; in most of them he uses the phrase "the meaning is repeated" and in some cases "a repetition of the idea."

2) Radak notes the use of synonyms in about two hundred places, in most instances using the phrase "a repetition of the idea" and in some, "the idea (verse) is repeated."[2]

In contrast to these exegetes, a small group of commentators ascribed different subtleties of meaning to pairs of words. First among them is Rabbi Joseph Ibn-Caspi (1279-1340), from Provence. In his interpretation of synonyms he continued the approach of Maimonides, who maintained that no two words are absolutely synonymous in the full sense of the word.[3] One of the examples discussed by Ibn Caspi pertains to three words used to denote an implement with a blade made of metal: herev (sword), sakin (knife) and ma'akhelet (knife):

Even though the one implement is called herev, sakin, or ma'akhelet, so one might think all three refer to one and the same thing, nevertheless one noun is not like the other; for it is called herev when it is used to destroy (yeherav) the one who is struck; it is called sakin when the one struck by it is endangered (mesukan); and it is called ma'akhelet when the one struck by it is consumed (ne'ekhal) and slaughtered. This is attested by the fact that there are three different roots.[4]

Thus, even though all three words refer to the same object, in his opinion they are not synonymous in their meaning, since each one emphasizes a different aspect.

Two other commentators, closer to our day, who observed words that were close in meaning but interpreted them as pointing to different ideas are the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) and Malbim (1809-1879). The Vilna Gaon, for example, distinguished between the pair of words tikvah " (hope)" and "tohelet (ambition)" in Proverbs 11:7: "At death the hopes of a wicked man are doomed, and the ambition of evil men comes to nothing"; and between simhah (rejoicing), gil (exultation) and sason (gladness), in Job 3:22; and other distinctions.[5] Also Malbim, who dealt with this subject extensively, maintained that there are no true synonyms in the Bible. In the introduction to his commentary on Isaiah (Mevo Ha-Mahberet), he presented the basics of his approach and the "three pillars on which his commentary rests":

In the language of the prophets there is no duplication of the same subject matter in different words - neither duplication of the subject, no duplication of the utterance, nor duplication of the expression, nor two sentences whose subject is one and the same, nor two parables proving the same point nor two words that duplicate each other.

In his study of words with similar meaning, Malbim set forth the following general principle: "The phrase always intensifies from light to grave, from small to large, from few to many, and never the reverse." He applied this rule to the verse from Isaiah (1:4), in which seven expressions describe the people having abandoned the Lord: "Ah, sinful nation! People laden with iniquity! Brood of evildoers! Depraved children!," etc. In his opinion there is no duplication here, rather a series of acts with different degrees of severity, each expression adding to the gravity of the previous one. In Malbim's words, "the prophet ascends a scale, increasing the extent of their sins step by step."[6]

We conclude our remarks with a brief look at the fate of synonyms in the rebirth of the Hebrew language. One of the greater challenges encountered by those who revived the Hebrew language was a serious lack in basic lexicon for expressing concepts needed in daily life. One way of solving this problem was to use semantic differentiation, giving different meaning to groups of words that originally were equivalent or close in meaning. The importance of using the sources at our disposal in this way to enlarge the Hebrew lexicon is evident in the proposal made by Klausner, a contemporary of Ben-Yehudah:

In Scripture there are some twenty words, all of which denote "thorn": na'atzutz, nahlol, shamir, shayit, akrav, kotz, serev, silon, barkan, hedek, sirpad, and others. What would our language lose if we were to reserve one or two words for the meaning of thorn, and use the other nouns to denote various plants that resemble thorns in looks or nature?[7]

Indeed, this process accelerated in modern Hebrew. Many synonyms, primarily one from biblical Hebrew with a parallel in Mishnaic Hebrew,[8] underwent a process of semantic differentiation in Modern Hebrew. For example, yeled (which has come to denote child) vs. tinok (now denoting an infant); kalkalah (now meaning economy) vs. parnasah (now meaning livelihood); shofet (judge) vs. dayyan (judge in a rabbinic court) and many more

[1] For further elaboration, see my article: "Al Ha-Milim ha-Nirdafot be-Mikra," in Talelei Orot 10, Mikhlelet Orot-Israel, Elkanah 1992, pp. 11-26.
[2] It is interesting to note that Metzudat David, appearing in the standard Mikraot Gedolot, remarks on a "repetition of the subject" over six hundred times.
[3] The presence of synonyms intrigued Maimonides (1135-1204), as is evident from his introduction to Guide for the Perplexed (M. Schwartz ed., Tel Aviv 1969, p. 4). He does not discuss this as a question of style and esthetics, but as affects his explanations pertaining to faith and belief: "The primary objective of this book is to explain the meaning of nouns appearing in the prophets." On the pair of words temunah and tavnit he writes: "Temunah and tavnit are thought to be one and the same in the Hebrew language, but that is not so" (p. 23). In this regard, see the distinction which he draws between the three verbs ra'ah (saw) - hibit (looked) - hazah (beheld in a vision) (Ch. 4, p. 24). In another work of his, Millot ha-Higayon (M. Ventura ed., Mosad Harav Kook 1969, p. 67), he writes: adam - ish - enosh (all meaning "man") - these are indeed basically synonymous, but not identical in all their shades of meaning.
[4] I would like to thank Prof. Hannah Kasher from the Department of Jewish Philosophy for calling my attention to Caspi's exegetical approach to synonyms. See her doctoral thesis, Joseph Ibn Caspi ke-Parshan Philosophi, 1983, p. 132.
[5] Pinehas ha-Cohen Peli gathered from the Vilna Gaon's works a list of more than one hundred groups of synonyms, including groups of three, four , and even more synonymous words. See Sefer ha-Gra, vol. 1, Mosad Harav Kook 1954, pp. 333-342.
[6] See Eleazar Touitou, "Bein Peshat le-Derash - Iyyun be-Mishnato ha-Parshanit shel ha-Malbim," De'ot 48 (1970), pp. 193-198, note 10.
[7] Joseph Klausner, Ha-Lashon ha-Ivrit - Lashon Hayah, Jerusalem 1949 (Ch. 2, Mekorot le-Harhavat ha-Lashon") p. 32.
[8] This subject is treated at length by A. Bendavid, Leshon Mikra u-Leshon Hakhamim, 1-2, Tel Aviv 1967.