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 … ”