Reuven Chaim Klein
What's in a Word? Synonyms in the Hebrew Language

Animals and Boors

When the Torah states that a person is liable for damages caused by his animal eating or trampling in another’s field, it says “when a man brings to graze in a field or vineyard, and he send his animal (be’ir), and it consumes in another’s field, he [the owner of the animal] shall pay from the best of his field and he shall pay from the best of his vineyard” (Ex. 22:4). In this context, the Hebrew term for “animal” is be’ir, which is a relatively-obscure word that only appears in that sense six times in the Bible (see Gen. 45:17, Num. 20:4, 20:8, 20:11, Ps. 78:48). The standard Hebrew word for “animal” is behemah, which appears close to two-hundred times through the Bible. In this essay, we will try to understand the possible differences between behemah and be’ir, determining whether or not they are perfect synonyms.

The early Hebrew lexicographers Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach and Radak in their respective Sefer HaShorashim trace the word behemah to the triliteral root BET-HEY-MEM, which can refer to a “single beast” or to “animals” in general. As opposed to them, Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785–1865) argues that the letter BET in behemah is not part of the core root, which is simply comprised of the string HEY-MEM-(HEY). That latter string makes up the Hebrew root that means “noise/confusion,” and is the basis of the word behamah because animals make confused, incoherent noises, in contrast to humans whose oral expressions have semantic meaning. [For more about Hebrew words for specific animal sounds, see “Animal Sounds” (March 2021).]

Similarly, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Carpentras (an 18th century grammarian and dayan) writes in Ohalei Yehuda that behemah is derived from a merger of BET-HEY (“in it/her”) and HEY-MEM (“confusion, harried”). Alternatively, he explains that behemah refers to the smallness and insignificance of animals (as opposed to humans which are loftier beings), because they have no significance or import in their own right — as if to say about such creatures, bah mah (“what is in it/her?”). This phraseology mirrors Moses and Aaron’s self-negating statement, “and we are [but] mah [what, i.e., nothing]?”(Ex. 16:7, 16:8), said as an expression of their humble humility.

Based in London, Rabbi Yossi Kwadrat is the editor-in-chief of the Kankan Magazine. He’s a huge fan of Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein’s God versus Gods, just see his excited smile behind the stoic beard…

Before we discuss the etymology of be’ir, I wanted to mention that some commentators see the name Balaam son of Beor as an allusion to the Talmudic assertion that Balaam consorted with his beloved donkey (Sanhedrin 105a). This is because the name Balaam can be parsed as a metathesized form of the verb “fornicating” (boel), and Beor can be read as a form of be’ir, which means “animal” (see Meor Ha’Afeilah to Num. 22:2 and Yad Ramah to Sanhedrin 105a).

The early lexicographers like Menachem Ibn Saruk, Ibn Janach, and Radak unanimously see the word be’ir as derived from the triliteral root BET-AYIN-REISH. In Biblical Hebrew, that root has a whole slew of different meanings, including “removing,” “grazing,” “consuming,” “destroying,” “burning,” “kindling,” and “fool.” The way Ibn Janach categorizes the different tributaries of this root, be’ir in the sense of “animal” derives from the “grazing/consuming” meaning of BET-AYIN-REISH, as animals are typified by their propensity to consume food. However, the way Ibn Saruk categories the words derived from BET-AYIN-REISH, be’ir actually falls into the same category as “fool” (ba’ar), as we will explain below. [Rashi (to Ex. 22:4) seems to weigh in on this question by commenting that “grazing/consuming” is related to “animal,” but his exact intent remains unclear. See Rabbi Yaakov Yechiel Weinberg (1884–1966) in responsa Seridei Aish (vol. 4 Chakirat HaMekorot §7:2) who discusses the possibilities of what exactly Rashi means.]

Mitchell First in his book Words for the Wise (Kodesh Press, 2022) on page 149 reasons that the word be’ir is unrelated to any of the other meanings of the BET-AYIN-REISH root. He also notes that a cognate of BET-AYIN-REISH in Arabic means “camel,” and in some dialects (like South Arabic), it is a general term for “animals” much like the Biblical be’ir. Based on this, Rabbi Shet bar Yefet in Chemat HaChemdah (to Ex. 22:4) argues that be’ir is actually Arabic, not Hebrew.

Others see the letter BET in be’ir as unrelated to its core root. For example, Rabbi Shlomo Yehuda Rapoport (1786-1867) — who was a son-in-law of the Ketzot HaChoshen and is typicallyconsidered a maskil — argues that be’ir should be read as “in the city,” as though the word comprised of the initial BET as the grammatical prefix “in” and ir meaning “city.” He takes this as reflective of the fact that be’ir refers specifically to “domesticated animals” of the sort one might find in an urban setting, as opposed to the term behemah, which can include non-domesticated, wild animals (see Ps. 8:8).

Similarly, Rabbi David Chaim Chelouche (1920–2016) sees the core root of be’ir as AYIN-REISH, which means “bare/naked.” He explains that a foolish person is bereft of the adornment of wisdom, and thus is left “bare.” He also connects this with the term be’ir by noting that animals tend to consume the food left in a field, such that they bereave the field of its produce, leaving it naked. [I’ve discussed the root AYIN-REISH previously in multiple essay, so if you’d like to learn more about it and the words derived thereof, check out “Razor’s Edge” (May 2018), “Boys and Girls Part II” (Nov. 2020), “Piles and Piles” (Jan. 2022).]

In one my earliest essays in this series (“Don’t be a Behemah or a Chayah,” Nov. 2016), I presented the idea that the term behemah refers specifically to a “domesticated animal,” while chayah refers to a “wild animal.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 1:24, 45:17, Ex. 22:4, Lev. 1:2, Ps. 73:21) also follows this approach and adds be’ir to the fray in discussing the etymological basis for all three Hebrew words for “animal.”

Rabbi Hirsch explains that the word behemah is related to the word bamah (“elevation/high place” or “platform”), because behemah denotes an animal that is subservient to man. As such, a behemah serves as a platform for the elevation of man, because the behemah can take of the menial tasks that man needs done, thus allowing man to pursue more lofty things. Alternatively, animals themselves serve as the lower rung of life which are figuratively “trampled upon” by their servility to man. When offering this latter explanation, Rabbi Hirsch compares the root BET-HEY-MEM (from which behemah derives) to the root PEH-AYIN-MEM (“stepping”), via the interchangeability of BET and PEH, plus HEY and AYIN.

By contrast, Rabbi Hirsch explains that chayah relates to the word chai/chaim (“life”), because it connotes a wild animal as something that constitutes an independent life-form that is not subservient to man. Alternatively, he writes that chayah invokes the notion that animalistic living is yet a higher form of existence than plant/flora (chai vs. tzomeach).

Finally, Rabbi Hirsch discusses be’ir, which he understands refers to a totally-subdued creature (even more so than the merely domesticated behemah) that is trapped in a cage and only takes care of what its natural instincts pushes it to do in order to survive. In sharpening this view, Rabbi Hirsch explains that be’ir is cognate with ba’ar (“unintelligent/totally ignorant person”)which refers to a boorish person who is likewise motivated solely by his animalistic instincts. Interestingly, these nuances are lost in Targumic Aramaic, wherein the Hebrew words behemah and be’ir are both typically rendered as be’ira (which is clearly cognate with be’ir).

The connection between be’ir and baar is not just noted by Rabbi Hirsch; it is ubiquitous amongst other commentators, as well. For example, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Edel (1760–1828) and the Malbim (1809–1879) explain that a ba’ar is called so because his lack of intelligence makes him sub-human, as though he is like a be’ir. Conversely, Ohalei Yehuda writes that an animal is called be’ir, because it behaves like a ba’ar. Either way, this connection between be’ir and baar may be alluded to in the Bible itself, in which King David humbly states, “I am a baar and I do not know, I was [like] an animal (behemah) with You” (Ps. 73:22).

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The Mishnah (Avot 2:5) states that a bur (“brute” or “uncultured person”) cannot be a fearer of Heaven. Some explain the word bur as cognate with a similar word bur used by the Mishnah (Peah 2:1) and Targum Onkelos (Gen. 47:19) in reference to the desolation of an “uncultivated” field (see Rashi, Tashbetz, Bartenua and other others to Avot 2:5). Alternatively, Rabbi Dr. Asher Weiser explains bur as a cognate of bor (“pit”), in this context referring to a person whose mind is empty like a “pit.” He also sees the words be’er (“wellspring,” which only contains a limited amount of water) and beiur (“explanation,” the antidote to the ba’ar’signorance) as related. But Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469–1549) in Sefer HaTishbi understands bur as a form of ba’ar (based on Targum to Prov. 12:1, 30:2).

Before I worked on this essay, I genuinely thought that the English word boor was derived from the Hebrew term bur. However, when asked about this possible connection, the translator and literary critic Hillel Halkin (writing under his cryptonym Philologos) replied that they are unrelated. He claims that the Rabbinic Hebrew word bur is more closely related to the Aramaic word bar (“outside,” like in Baraita), and is unrelated to either the Biblical Hebrew ba’ar or the English boor. Halkin masterfully notes: “although Hebrew bur and English boor are similar in meaning, they come at it from opposite ends. Bur reflects rural values: The ignorant mind is like unfarmed land. Boor is an urban term: There is no one as ignorant as a bumpkin of a farmer. There’s a world of difference in such similarity.”

Indeed, among etymologists there are two main theories as to the origins of the English boor: Some maintain it is derived from the French bouvier (“herdsman”), which, in turn, goes back to the Latin word bovarius (“bovine,” or “relating to oxen/cows”), that come from bos/bov. Interestingly, a Celtic tribe named the Boii derive their name from Proto-Indo-European cognates of this term for cows, and their name is immortalized in the names of two regions in Europe: Bohemia and Bavaria. There is also the word boustrophedon, which refers to a script that is not written strictly left-to-right or right-to-left, rather has one line written in one direction and the next line written in the opposite direction, just like the ox plows one row left to right and then the next row from right to left. Others relate the English word boor to the Old English gebur (“dweller,” “peasant”, “farmer”), which is a cognate of the English word neighbor and the German word bauer (“peasant/farmer”).

About the Author
RABBI REUVEN CHAIM KLEIN is a researcher and editor at the Veromemanu Foundation in Israel. His weekly articles about synonyms in the Hebrew Language appear in the OhrNet and are syndicated by the Jewish Press and Times of Israel. For over a decade, he studied at preimer Haredi Yeshivot, including Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, Yeshivat Mir in Jerusalem, Beth Medrash Govoha of America. He received rabbinic ordination from multiple rabbinic authorities and holds an MA in Jewish Education from the London School of Jewish Studies/Middlesex Univeristy. Rabbi Klein authored two popular books that were published by Mosaica Press, as well as countless articles and papers published in various journals. He and his wife made Aliyah in 2011 and currently live in the West Bank city of Beitar Illit. Rabbi Klein is a celebrated speaker and is available for hire in research, writing, and translation projects, as well as speaking engagements.
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