Speaking Figuratively

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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).

Expressing oneself figuratively (In Hebrew: בְּהַשְאָלָה , “in a manner of lending” [1] ) , is one mode to show the richness and diversity of a language. Throughout the ages, Hebrew has developed this mode, and we examine here a handful of examples related to the words “father” and “fathers”, noting the evolution of their meanings. English text of the Bible is the JPS translation.

אָב literally, the male of parents as related to his offspring, or, by extension, the father of a clan or a nation. It appears as a prefix in many proper names, e.g., אֲבִיהוּד, אֲבִיאָסָף, or as a suffix, אַחְאָב ,אֱלִיאָב. Figuratively, it can mean:
(a) The first of:

׳הוּא (יוּבָל) הָיָה אֲבִי כָּל תֹּפֵשׂ כִּנּוֹר…׳
“He (Yuval) was the father of all who played the lyre…” (Gen. 4:21)

(b) The inventor, or creator, of:

אַינְשְטַיין הוּא אֲבִי תּוֹרַת הַיַּחֲסִיּוּת
Einstein is the father of the Relativity Theory

(c) Mentor, father figure:

׳וְַישִׂימֵנִי לְאָב לְפַרְעֹה׳
“He has made me a father to Pharaoh” (Gen. 45:8)

(d) A poetic description of God (in prayers, etc.): אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ
(e) In the construct form ( סִמִיכוּת) , a basis for other derivatives, e.g.,
אַב- הַטֻּמְאָה , a major level of uncleanness (see [w] below); אַב-מְלָאכָה ,
one of the thirty nine major types of work forbidden on Shabbat.
(f) A high degree of wisdom, אָב בְּחָכְמָה – בר’ ר’ 90, a very wise man.
(g) אַב-בֵּית-דִּין , chief judge in a rabbinical court; the second to the president of the Sanhedrin in the times of the Second Temple; Chief Justice (Modern Hebrew).
(h) אַבְחַי = אָב + חַי, a protozoan, a one-cell animal in zoology (MH).
( i ) אַב-הַנָּחָה, basic assumption, axiom (MH).
( j ) אַב-טִפּוּס, archetype (MH).
(k) אַב-נֵזֶק, a principal cause of tort. Four are listed in the Torah
(שמ’ 21:28 – 22:5) ; in the Talmud we have
אַרְבָּעָה אֲבוֹת-נְזִיקִין: הַשּוֹר, הַבּוֹר, הַמַּבְעֶה וְהַמַּבְעִיר (בבא קמא 1 א)
In MH, it designates a major cause of tort.
( l ) בִּנְיַן-אָב one of the thirteen rules of textual interpretation for the Torah (ספרא 1) ; a legal precedent (MH).
(m) דֶּגֶם-אָב, prototype (MH) , from דֶּגֶם = sample
(n) תָּכְנִית-אָב, master plan (MH), from תָּכְנִית = plan
(o) אָבוֹת, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
אֱלֹהֵינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ, אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹהֵי יִצְחָק וֵאלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב – שמו”ע
(p) אָבוֹת, both parents [2]:

וְהֵשִיב לֵב-אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים (Mal. 3:24) It reads better, I think, as, “He shall reconcile parents with children”, rather than JPS’s “fathers with sons”, being more inclusive of the entire family.

(q) The Sages of the Talmud, as in מַסֶּכֶת (פִּרְקֵי) אָבוֹת
(r) בֵּית-אָבוֹת , retirement home for the elderly (MH)
(s) זְכוּת-אָבוֹת , merit of the ancestors:
זְכוּת אָבוֹת עָמְדָה לוֹ (Rashi, Isa. 7:1)
(t) אֲבוֹת הָעוֹלָם , the wise men of the world ( ספר בן-סירא השלם, 44:1) ; honorific title for the first תַּנָּאִים:
אֲבוֹת הָעוֹלָם לֹא עָמְדוּ עַל דִּבְרֵיהֶם – משנה עדויות, 1:4
(u) אֲבוֹת הָעֵדָה , leaders of the clan (in the literature of the Dead Sea Scrolls)
(v) אֲבוֹת הָעִיר , members of the city council (MH)
(w) אֲבִי-אֲבוֹת- הַטֻּמְאָה , the supreme cause of uncleanness, a corpse
לָמַדְנוּ שֶהַמֵּת אֲבִי אֲבוֹת הַטּוּמְאָה (Rashi, Num. 19:22)

[ 1 ] For a note about such adverbs and adverbial phrases, see S. Karni,
“It’s All in A Word…” www.torahmusings.com, April 28, 2011.
[ 2 ] אברהם אבן-שושן, “המלון החדש”.ירושלים: קרית ספר בע”מ, תשכ”ט

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