Compact And Rich

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Guest post by Prof. Shlomo Karni

Shlomo Karni was Professor of Electrical Engineering and Religious Studies at University of New Mexico until his retirement in 1999. His books include Dictionary of Basic Biblical Hebrew:Hebrew-English (Jerusalem: Carta, 2002).

Lexicographers and linguists tell us that Biblical Hebrew has some 8,000 words in all –small by comparison to, say, Shakespeare’s English (around 20,000), or modern English (450,000).

Despite such compactness, Biblical Hebrew has numerous rich lodes of words which are specifically unique to one – and only one – idea (noun, verb, etc.) on the one hand, and several synonyms on the other. Let us list just a few examples:

  1. The noun אֶתְנַן (Deut. 23:19, and ten other places) means ‘a prostitute’s fee’—not just any fee, or any price. Yet, in the much bigger English the translations are ‘fee’ (JPS) or ‘hire’ (KJV).
  2. The verb משה , in the stem פָּעַל (קל) , means ‘to draw out of the water’, related to the name of Moses (Ex.2:10) as discussed in an earlier note — not merely a generic ‘ draw’ משך . We find the same specific verb twice in the causative stem הִפְעִיל :
    יַמְשֵנִי מִמַּיִם רַבִּים (II Sh. 22:17, Ps. 18:17)
    rendered as “He drew me out” (in the stem קל ) by both JPS and KJV.
  3. Still on the subjects of drawing and of water, but this time from a well, we have the verb דלה
    in the stem קל , as in
    וַתִּדְלֶנָה וַתְּמַלֶּאנָה… (Ex. 2:16)
    “ They drew water and filled…” , from which we have also the noun דְּלִי , ‘bucket’.
  4. The verb אלםin the stem פִּעֵל has its exact English equivalent “to sheave”, although
    in אֲנַחְנוּ מְאַלְּמִים אֲלֻמִּים (Ex. 37:7), both JPS and KJV render it as “We were binding sheaves.”
    Why not “we were sheaving sheaves”? Awkward in English? Beautiful and poetic in Hebrew!
  5. As to synonyms, we have, for instance:

  6. For “poor”: אֶבְיוֹן, דַּל, מִסְכֵּן, עָנִי
  7. For “strong”: אַבִּיר, אֵיתָן, גִּבֹּור, חָסוֹן, חֲסִין, כַּבִּיר, עַז, עֱזוּז, עָצוּם, תַּקִּיף
  8. For “calamity”: אֵיד, אֲסוֹן, דְּחִי, הַוָּה, מְחִתָּה, שֶבֶר, שוֹאָה

These are but a few illustrations of the riches of Biblical Hebrew, compact as it may be.

About Shlomo Karni


  1. “Lexicographers and linguists tell us that Biblical Hebrew has some 8,000 words in all –small by comparison to, say, Shakespeare’s English (around 20,000), or modern English (450,000).”

    You are correct to compare biblical Hebrew – a corpus of literature, not the complete language – with Shakesepeare, but not with a complete language like English.

  2. MiMedinat HaYam

    if its only 8,000 words, then the bible codes analysis would be more susceptible to the mathematical analysis some claim it has. (without getting into the issue itself.)

  3. If “etnan” means “prostitute’s fee,” why is the word “zonah” attached to it?

  4. Nachum, not getting into the language, if it wouldn’t say Zonah we would misinterpret the Posuk. #1 we might think of it as an Esnan paid to be with an animal (the next words are U’Mechir Kelev). #2 we would apply it to the money a woman pays a man as well, whereas the Torah is speaking specifically to when a man pays a woman.

  5. Not if the author is correct and it means a prostitute’s fee; only ‘kelev’ would be required for clarification if the basic meaning was a zonah’s fee.

  6. Esnan, could mean a fee paid for sex. if the Torah said Lo Tavi Esnan U’mchir Kelev, i could interpret that to mean the exchange of a dog, or the money (sheep) paid to sleep with a dog, cannot be brought as a sacrifice.
    Besides for the fact that zonah in the feminine is excluding payment made to a male prostitute

  7. Getting back to the basic point… I think the key is diqduq. In English, we have “fall” and “throw down” as disjoint words. Through the magic of hif’il (causative conjugation) the same /nfl/ can serve for “nafal” and “hipil”. A stillborn — “neifel”.

    On the tangent… Does “zonah” even mean “prostitute” in Biblical Hebrew? I know “qedeishah” is either prostitute in general or a temple prostitute (eg Asheirah’s priestesses). But WRT not marrying kohanim, a “zonah” is anyone who had relations outside of marriage. And the shoresh has to do with satisfying physical need — c.f. “mazon” (food) — nothing about payment.

  8. Micha,

    The understanding of zonah you mentioned stems from the word being reassigned from it’s original meaning, the same way someone might use “whore” in English as an insult towards a person who had extramarital relations. It’s not the strict meaning of the word.

    A Zonah, strictly speaking, is a run of the mill prostitute who exchanges sex for money. A Qedesha is no regular prostitute but one who is a “Sacred” prostitute. They take money for sex in the name of their god. Sex cults and prostitution as idol worship was part of the ancient near eastern world, both males and females, and the Torah felt the need to call that out specifically.

  9. Also I should note that Qadosh and Qedesha share the same root for that reason.

    Also what you mentioned about Zonah having a root that signifies a need is interesting in that it might tell us a lot about how the Torah viewed sex and why people in Tanakh don’t really seem to have much of a problem with prostitutes or prostitution.

  10. Apropos “zona” being from the same root as to feed”: I remember, with
    affection, our 6th grade tanach teacher, sweating profuselhy when we came to the story of Rachav. He fumbled, and finally mumbled that she was a food seller. On a related topic: “kelev” in that sentence is sometimes interpreted as “male prostitute” – to allow the parallel of “zona”.

  11. P.S.: …not to mention (actually, yes, mention)that the root of ‘zonah’ is ז-נ-ה, while the root of ‘mazon’ is ז-ו-ן

  12. MiMedinat HaYam

    see various explanations for rachav (in yericho, later yehoshua’s wife) being called “isha zona” in beginning of sefer yehoshua.

  13. A Zonah, strictly speaking, is a run of the mill prostitute who exchanges sex for money. A Qedesha is no regular prostitute but one who is a “Sacred” prostitute.

    Tamar is described as a “kedeshah” when she dressed up as a prostitute, though there’s no hint that she was involved in any ritual activity.

    In general I think this comment thread contains too many sweeping generalizations which, even if not contradicted like this one, cannot be relied on since they are only based on a handful of data points.

  14. Shlomo,

    It’s relevent that when Yehuda first approaches her, he thought that she was a Zonah, as explicitly written. It’s only when he goes asking around about her he asks “Where is the Qedesha.”

    This would signify some kind of difference between the two as he purposely chose not to ask where the Zonah was when that’s what he thought she was. We can imagine all sorts of explanations for the two but one fact is that the Qedesha was a highly respected position where the Zonah was seemingly of no importance and he was either calling her Qedesha out of respect or because the people would judge him less for going to one.

    Of course we don’t have enough data points in tanach to make a scientific analysis based on just those words, but we do have evidence from other near eastern cultures that inform us on those words and their intended meaning. It’s hard to say that the tanakh used the terminology without having any idea of what it was referring to.

  15. If “mazon” refers to food even when it’s not bought, then “zonah”…

  16. MiMedinat HaYam

    synapse — doesnt rashi (or some one) say he questioned her about being “jewish” and not a niddah? if so, she must have had some sort of kedush….

  17. MiMedinat HaYam,

    You mean the midrash from Sotah (10a). In this kind of discussion, Midrash will not inform us on much except what Chazal thought about that encounter into which they retroject a lot of information from their own time.

  18. In many languages, notably Slavic, the word for “wife” resembles זנה ZoaNah. This is not because women in several cultures are considered sluts, but because outside the tiny religious world, a man marries a woman to get sex in exchange for sustenance.
    In Modern Western society, women can get hired for other things, and men don’t need to pay for sex. That is why marriage and reproduction has plummeted in the non-Moslem-Hareidi world.

    Roots were designated by human pedants. In HaShem’s language, Zayin-Noon as “food” and “sexual abberation” BOTH speak to the ZoaNaH.

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