The Sukkah and… the Golden Calf?

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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).

The word סֻכָּה comes from the verb root ס-כ-ך , meaning ‘to cover’,’ to hide’. Thus, in the coming holiday, אָנוּ סוֹכְכִים אֶת הַסֻּכַּה בִּסְכָך , we cover the Sukkah with (roof) cover. (Several repetitions of this sentence are a time-honored way of clearing one’s throat, much better than “ahem”…)

This verb and its derivatives are fairly common in the Bible. Perhaps the most famous–and awesome–one is found in Ex. 33:22, when Moses asks of God, “Let me behold Your Presence”, whereupon God advises him, “Man may not see Me and live.” Instead, Moses is told to station himself on the rock, and “as My Presence passes by, I will … cover you with My Hand…” וְשַׂכֹּתִי כַפִּי עָלֶיךָ… , with שַֹכֹּתִי = סַכֹּתִי = סָכַכְתִּי

Derived nouns include סְכָכָה , a thicket of branches covering the spot below them; in modern Hebrew it is a shed, a pavilion. מָסָך is a screen.

The word מַסֵּכָה , found, for example, in Isaiah 25:7 וְהַמַּסֵּכָה הַנְּסוּכָה עַל כָּל הַגּוֹיִם also means ‘a cover’ , as is the modern meaning ‘mask’. Yet the root here is not ס-כ-ך, but נ-ס-ך , ‘to pour a libation’, and, figuratively, ‘to weave a scheme’, ‘to create a cover story’, as in Isaiah 30:1 “לַעֲשׁוֹת עֵצַה וְלֹא מִנִּי, וְלִנְסֹך מַסֵּכָה וְלֹא לְרוּחִי ” The noun to be formed from this root should be מַנְסֵכָה (Similar nouns of such structure are, e.g., מַכְשֵלָה , מַהֲפֵּכָה ). Here, the letter נ , being a ‘weak’ root-letter, is dropped and the ‘strong dagesh’ in the letter ס reminds us of it.

A second meaning of מַסֵּכָה , still with the root נ-ס-ך, is ‘molten cast’, remotely akin to the ‘pouring’ of the first one, as in the case of the golden calf, Ex. 32:4 “… וַיַּעֲשֵׂהוּ עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה … ”

About Shlomo Karni


  1. 1. Is it just coincidence that the English word mask is like the Hebrew word massekhah?
    2. Is there a connection between n-s-kh and n-t-kh (as in mattekhet)?

  2. Prof. Karni:

    can you please explain (1) how we know that “sachach” and “sachah” have the same root (rather than two differnt roots, one ending in kaf and one ending in heh) and (2) how we know that when not just one but two letters change (i.e. not only is a kaf replaced by a heh, but also a samech is replaced by a sin) it is still the same root? Thanks

  3. To Anonymous:
    1. This is a fascinating topic. There are other words that sound almost the same. Coincidence? (I’ll come up with examples later).

    2.No. Natakh is related to both Ugaritian (n-t-kh) and Akkadian (nataku) – and both also mean ‘to pour’

  4. P.S. to Anonymous – I came up with כֶּבֶל and ‘cable’. There are others. Google “Hebrew words that sound like English”, and you’ll find some interesting articles (others – not so much).

    To Shmuel: (1) these do have two different roots (סכה has its Aramaic equivalent of סכא, no “room” for a final ך)
    (2) samech and sin are often interchangeable.As to two letters missing, there is no general rule (I think); just look at the root
    נ-ת-ן, and its infinitive תֵּת!

  5. MiMedinat HaYam

    chevel (with a chet) is an old hebrew (even in the torah) meaning rope, which “kebel” / “kable” as you spell it is a modern hebrew word which is the same in (almost) every language. like “gas” / “gaz”, “telephone”, “televizia” many others i cant think of right now. are the same in every language; call it an “international” word. (of course, “tele” words are greek in origin.)

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