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

Awake Again

Photo by Sean Robbins on Unsplash.

When Pharaoh dreamed in his royal slumber of seven skinny cows consuming seven fat cows, the Bible relates that at the conclusion of this portent dream, Pharaoh “woke up” — vayikatz (Gen. 41:4). Then Pharaoh fell asleep once again and dreamed another dream of seven wind-blasted bundles swallowing up seven good and healthy bundles, and then the Pharaoh “woke up” —vayikatz (Gen. 41:7). This word for “waking up” is the same word used to describe Jacob “waking up” after his fateful dream with the ladder (Gen. 28:16). However, there is another word in Biblical Hebrew for waking up: oorah. For example, “Wake up (oorah)! Why do You sleep? G-d, wake up do not reject us forever…” (Psalms 44:24). This essay traces these two terms for “waking up” to their etymological roots and tries to show the difference between the ostensible synonyms.

The Targumim always translate cognates of the Hebrew yekitzah into Aramaic as cognates of oorah. The word vayikatz itself is translated as ve’itar, with the letter TAV in Aramaic filling in for the Hebrew YOD to denote the reflexive form. The Talmudic term for a person who is half-asleep is nim v’lo nim, tir v’lo tir – “asleep and not asleep, awake and not awake” (Pesachim 120b, Ta’anit 12b). Rashi (to Ta’anit 12b) understands the word tir to be derived from the Targumic ve’itar (as though the letter TAV was somehow part of the root) and refers to a sleeping person on the cusp of waking up (see also Rashi to Bava Kama 117b). The Tosafists, on the other hand, explain that tir refers to the state of wakefulness of a person who is about to fall asleep (Tosafot to Ta’anit 12b; see also Tosafot to Niddah 63a).

The triliteralists like Ibn Chayyuj, Ibn Janach, and Radak all trace the term yekitzah to the triliteral root YOD-KUF-TZADI, which means “waking up.” However, Menachem Ibn Saruk in Machberet Menachem traces yekitzah to the biliteral root KUF-TZADI, which also has several other meanings, including: “border,” “summer,” “pressure,” “disgusting,” “cutting” and “thorn.” Menachem himself does not intimate how these different meanings connect to the concept of “waking up,” but we can glean some connections by looking at some of the other commentators.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 9:24) connects the term yekitzah to kutz (“harvest,” “cut off”) and kayitz (“summer”). When summertime arrives and fruits have reached a certain stage of ripeness, they tend to disengage from their source of nourishment (as if they are already “cut off”) and are ready to be “harvested.” Rabbi Hirsch explains that the same is true of a person who has slept his due. Once he has slept enough and his body has been satisfied with the quantity of sleep, he will automatically wake up.

Similarly, Rabbi Hirsch (to Gen. 41:4) compares yekitzah to kotz/katz (“disgusted”), explaining that when one eats too much food he becomes “disgusted” and “sickened” by the prospect of eating more. Essentially, his body has decided that he ate enough and rejects the notion of eating more. In the same way, explains Rabbi Hirsch, when one has slept enough and has reached a point where his body no longer deems extra sleep to be necessary, he will automatically “wake up,” as if his body is “disgusted” by extra sleep.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Brelsau (1740-1814) explains that the core meaning of the root KUF-TZADI is “end/edge.” This applies both in a spatial context, as k’tzei means the “edge” of a given area (Gen. 23:9, Num. 22:6, and II Kings 7:8), and in a temporal context, as the word ketz refers to the “end” of a given span of time (Gen. 6:13, Ps. 119:96 Dan. 11:35, 12:13). In fact, the word miketz is derived from this last example, with the initial MEM as an added letter. Rabbi Pappenheim also notes that kayitz (“summer”) is the end of the year, as it is the last season before Rosh Hashanah.

These lectures on the histories of different cities in the Holy Land (Land of Israel) were delivered by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein at the Mechinah Program in Yeshivas Ohr Somayach (Fall 2017). These lectures focus on the cities mentioned in the Books of Joshua and Judges, but draws from all the books of the Bible.
These lectures on the histories of different cities in the Holy Land (Land of Israel) were delivered by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein at the Mechinah Program in Yeshivas Ohr Somayach (Fall 2017). These lectures focus on the cities mentioned in the Books of Joshua and Judges, but draws from all the books of the Bible.

Rabbi Pappenheim further explains that the term ketzitzah (“cutting off”) specifically refers to cutting/chopping off the edge or end of something (see Ex. 39:3, Deut. 25:12). He notes that this action is typically performed with one swift motion, as opposed to the prolonged act of sawing or slicing. In this sense, the word yekitzah as “waking up” refers to a sudden and complete “waking up” — in which one moment a person is asleep and the next moment he is awake. As Rabbi Pappenheim explains it, yekitzah denotes a type of “waking up” in which there is no intermediate state of half-awake, half-asleep. By contrast, Rabbi Pappenehim explains that the term oorah refers to a more gradual form of waking up, whereby a person might slowly transition from being “asleep” to being “awake” by finding himself in an intermediate stage of snoozing. This concept is alluded to in the verse, “I am asleep (yesheinah), but my heart is awake (er)” (Song of Songs 5:2), which shows that one can engage in oorah at the same time that one is technically still sleeping.

Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) offers a relatively straightforward explanation of the term yekitzah by relating it to ketz (“end”), and explaining “waking up” as the “end” of one’s sleep.

Alternatively, we may explain that yekitzah refers to the “end” of a dream or other false impression of reality. Most times that cognates of yekitzah appear in the Bible, they are related to waking up from a slumber that involved dreaming (Gen. 28:16, 41:4, 41:7, I Kings. 3:15, Ps. 73:20, Isa. 29:8), or to a drunk person “waking up” from his intoxicated stupor (Gen. 9:24, Prov. 23:35, Ps. 78:65, Yoel 1:5).

In explaining why certain types of angels are called irin, Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) writes that this name derives from the word er (“awake”), because these angels are always “awake” and cognizant of man’s deeds.

Shoresh Yesha explains how derivatives of the root AYIN-VAV-REISH are all related to “revealing” and “exposing.” The Hebrew word ohr (“skin”) refers to the part of one’s body that is visible and exposed, as opposed to the flesh and bones which are covered by the epidermis. The term ervah (“nakedness”) also refers to “exposing” that which ought to be covered. In a similar sense, when a person sleeps, his eyes are closed and he sees nothing — as if nothing has been “revealed” to him. This is why when a person wakes up, it is called oorah — now, an entire world has been “revealed” to him. A “blind” person is called an iver because it is as though he sleeps an eternal slumber, because he sees nothing. Shoresh Yesha alternatively suggests that he is called an iver because it is as though he has a layer of “skin” always covering his eyes.

Similarly, Rabbi Pappenheim traces all of these words to the biliteral root AYIN-REISH, which he too relates to the concept of “revealing.” But when it comes to the word oorah, Rabbi Pappenheim explains the connection to this core root a bit differently: when one sleeps, his or her abilities are not readily apparent; rather the sleeping person appears inanimate and even immobile. But when a person awakens, those abilities are suddenly “revealed,” so the very term for “waking up” is related to the word for “revealing.” Building on this, Rabbi Pappenheim further explains that noer (“roar”) is an outburst of sound that a lion suddenly lets out and “reveals” as within his repertoire.

In the Nishmat prayer recited every Shabbat and holiday mornings, we describe G-d as HaMe’orer Yesheinim v’HaMekitz Nirdamim — “He Who awakens the sleeping and He Who wakes up those who fell asleep.” This expression uses the two different verbs for “waking up,” but also uses two different terms for “sleeping.” Rabbi Yechezkel Pannet of Karslburg (1783-1845), Chief Rabbi of Transylvania, seems to suggest that the term orrer is most appropriate when somebody sleeps a deep sleep (yesheinim), along with dreams and the whole nine yards, and now awakens from that sleep (me’orer). On the other hand, the term yekitzah is most appropriate when waking up a person who merely happened to “fall asleep” (nirdam, in the reflexive tense), i.e., he was dozing off but never fell into a deep slumber.

Alternatively, the Malbim explains that these two terms describe the gradual process of “waking up.” First one comes to one’s sense, which is denoted by the term oorah. Only afterwards does one actually get up from one’s bed and remains fully awake, a stage denoted by the term yekitzah.

For more about Judaism’s struggle against idolatry and what the future holds for that fight, see Rabbi Klein’s book God vs. Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry (Mosaica Press, 2018). Available on Amazon and

The prophet Habakkuk cursed those who put their trust in idols, saying: “Woe unto he who says to wood ‘Wake up,’ [or says] ‘Awaken’ to an inanimate stone” (Hab. 2:19). The Malbim points out that the prophet used a different term for “waking up” when discussing wooden idols (hakitzah) than when he spoke about stone idols (oori), because of the difference in sentience of those items. Meaning, Kabbalistic and philosophical traditions speak of four levels of existence: “inanimate” (domem), like rocks and stones; “growable” (tzomeach), like plants and other flora; “living” (chai), like animals and other fauna; and “speaking” (midaber), i.e. human beings. On this scale, wooden items are considered more “sentient” than stone items. Accordingly, the Malbim explains that Habakkuk used the word oorah when discussing stone idols because it denotes the most basic form of “waking up,” while he used yekitzah for wooden idols because it represents a more responsive state of being awake.

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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