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

Bava Gate

The Hebrew word shaar (“gate”) and its various inflections appear approximately 375 times throughout the Bible, making it one of the most common words in that corpus. Most commonly, it refers to a breach in the wall that surrounds a city, citadel, or Temple, which allowed people to enter. In some cases, the word shaar is used more broadly to refer to any sort of settlement where people lived. This essay focuses on two Aramaic words that are typically used as translations of the Hebrew shaar (t’ra and bava), with a special emphasis on alternate meanings of the word shaar and its cognates.

The Hebrew word shaar clearly derives from the triliteral root SHIN-AYIN-REISH. Another meaning of this triliteral root appears twice in the Bible: “And Isaac sowed in that land, and he found in that year one-hundred quantities (meah shearim)“ (Gen. 26:12) and “As you have evaluated (shaar) in your soul, such it is [in reality]” (Prov. 23:7). In these two cases, shaar refers to the act of estimating or assessing the reality, or more specifically, gauging the expected amount of something in a quantitative sense.

The word shaar appears many times in the Mishnah. Most commonly, it refers to a “gate,” especially one in the Holy Temple or a city gate where judges sat (Brachot 9:5, Maaserot 2:2, 3:6, Orlah 2:12, Eruvin 8:4, Shekalim 5:1, 6:3, Yoma 1:3, Sukkah 4:9, 5:4-5, Taanit 2:5, 4:1, Sotah 1:5, 8:3, Bava Batra 1:5, Sanhedrin 2:1, Eduyot 1:3, Tamid 1:1, 3:7-8, 5:6, Middot 1:1, 1:3-5, 1:7, 2:3, 2:6, 4:2). Less commonly, shaar refers to a “price” or “exchange rate” (Maaser Sheini 4:1-2, Taanit 2:9, Bava Metzia 4:12, 5:1, 5:7-8) or, when in verb form, to the act of “evaluating” or “assessing” (Terumot 4:6, Shekalim 4:9, Chullin 7:4, Keilim 7:3, 7:6, 17:5). Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Luzzatto (1800–1865), also known as Shadal, bridges the gaps between these disparate meanings by explaining that the merchants who gathered at the city “gate” would spend their time “appraising” and “evaluating” merchandise and other commodities, so it was they who would determine the “price” for whatever was being sold and they who would set the relevant “exchange rates.”

The word shiur appears once in the Mishnah (Kritut 4:1) and refers to a specific “amount,” or unit of “measurement.” This usage mirrors the mentioned-previously Biblical meaning of shaar in the sense of specific quantities. In the vernacular, a shiur refers to a “lecture” or “lesson” given on a specific topic, perhaps because the lecturer or teacher much measure his or her words, or otherwise make sure to limit the discussion to the specific topic.

Let’s move on to the Aramaic terms at the heart of our discussion.

The Aramaic term t’ra first appears in the Bible (Daniel 2:49, 3:26, Ezra 7:24), and it is the typical word in the Targumim for rendering the Hebrew shaar into Aramaic. It is tempting to say that tera is simply an Aramaicized form of shaar, with the initial Hebrew SHIN morphing into an Aramaic TAV (as often happens) and the subsequent letters AYIN and REISH switching their positions in the root. However, there is a more convincing etymology: The Targumim use t’ra not just to translate the Hebrew shaar, but to translate other Hebrew words related to “demolition,” “destruction,” “rupturing,” and “breaching” (see Targum to Lev. 14:45, Deut. 12:3, II Sam. 6:8, and Ezek. 22:30). Based on this, Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469–1549) in Meturgaman suggests that tera in the sense of “gate” is related to this meaning of the Aramaic word, seemingly because a gate is essentially nothing more than a break/breach in the wall. In fact, the Targumim (to Gen. 18:1, Ex. 33:9, Jud. 4:20) use the word t’ra as a translation for the Hebrew word petach (“opening”), which also means just that.

Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew (Mosaica Press), by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew (Mosaica Press), by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

In contrast to t’ra, the word bava does not appear in Biblical Aramaic, nor do the Targumim ever use it as a translation of any Hebrew word. That said, bava does appear in Targum (to Est. 5:14) in an addition that is not a literal translation of the Biblical text, when relating that Haman entered his home. When the Aramaic word bav/bava appears in the Talmud, Rashi translates it back into Hebrew as shaar (Moed Katan 22a) or petach (Shabbat 32a, Yoma 56a, Taanit 6b, Moed Katan 28a, Ketubot 62a, 1061, Nedarim 66b, Gittin 68b, Sanhedrin 29a, Menachot 57a). In some cases, Rashi uses the word delet, “door” (Eruvin 104a, Bava Metzia 86a).

I would like to offer a fascinating insight into the etymology of the Aramaic word bava and how it connects to related Hebrew words, but first we have to discuss the one-letter root BET.

In his seminal work Machberet Menachem, Menachem Ibn Saruk (920–970)explains that the words bat ayin/bavat (“[the eye’s] pupil”) and yevavah (“sobbing/crying”) are sourced in either the monoliteral root BET or the biliteral root BET-BET. Rabbi Jeremy Steinberg of the Veromemanu Foundation clarifies (based on Rashi to Jud. 5:28) that both of these words are related to the limb of eyesight, as the “pupil” is a part of the eye and “crying” is best manifest by tears dripping out of the eye.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) offers a different understanding of the one-letter root BET. He explains that its core meaning is “in/inside,” which is the precise meaning of the letter BET when it appears as a grammatical prefix. The Bible describes the tablets of the Ten Commandments as navuv (Ex. 27:8), which means they were “inscribed through and through.” Rabbi Pappenheim sees navuv as a derivative of the root BET, because when something is so thoroughly inscribed, it leaves a gaping hole or empty crevice into which something else can enter and come inside. He also explains that the Mishnaic Hebrew term biv (Eruvin 8:10, Avodah Zarah 3:4, Ohalot 3:7) — the precursor of the Modern Hebrew biyuv (“sewage”) — likewise refers to a pipe into which disposed liquids flow.

Other words that Rabbi Pappenheim sees as deriving from the monoliteral root BET-(ALEPH) include those words related to bo/biah (“coming”), because when one “comes” to a certain place, he goes “inside” that realm. These include mavoi (“alleyway” used to come to a house or courtyard), tevuah (“produce” which comes from the earth), and navi (“prophet,” who foretells of what is to come).

Shadal continues in this approach, offering new insights into other words derived from the root BET-BET. Like Rabbi Pappenheim he sees navuv and biv as coming from this root, but adds that the word levav/lev (“heart”) also comes from this root (possibly because the heart is deep inside one’s chest). Shadal also includes the word bat/bavat (“pupil”) as a derivative of this root (possibly because the pupil is essentially a hole in the eye into which light enters and is processed by the cortex).

What is important for our purposes is that Shadal also includes the Aramaic word bava (the Talmudic equivalent to the Hebrew shaar and the Targumic t’ra) as a derivative of this root. This is presumably because a “gate” or “entrance” is simply an opening or hole in the wall that allows one to come inside. In fact, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ps. 17:8) explains that bat/bavat means “eyelid,” not “pupil” (see Rashi to Bechorot 38b), leading him to characterizing the word as referring to the “gate” that opens and closes one’s eyes, and explicitly noting that it is connected to the Aramaic bava — “gate.”

If this Aramaic word is beginning to sound familiar, that’s because the names of three famous tractates of the Mishnah begin with the word bavaBava KammaBava Metzia, and Bava Batra. Those names respectively translate into English as “the first bava,” “the middle bava,” and “the last bava.” [In the Cambridge MS of the Mishnah, the middle tractate is called Bava Tinyana, “the second bava.”] As the Meiri and other commentators have explained it, these three tractates were originally one long tractate (Masechet Nezikin) that was thirty chapters long, but it was later split into three smaller tractates with each one containing ten chapters. A similar sort of division was made to Tosefta Keilim and Seder Olam, which are likewise broken up into Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia, and Bava Batra.

Rabbi Gershon Shaul Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (1578–1654), in his classical work Tosafot Yom Tov (introduction to Seder Nezikin) writes that it is quite appropriate that Masechet Nezikin be broken up into three “gates,” because the Mishnah is the gateway to understanding the Torah’s laws, as the Oral Torah opens up that body of knowledge to the learner. Others have explained the connection by noting that three bavas discuss civil laws, and the judges who adjudicated such proceeding typically sat at the city “gate.” [This latter explanation does not explain the connection between bava and the Tosefta Keilim or Seder Olam.]

Truth be told, many other classical Jewish books as early as the Geonic and Medieval periods are similarly divided into shearim (“gates”), which roughly correspond to what we would call “chapters” or “sections.” For example, the constituent parts of Rabbeinu Yonah’s Shaarei Teshuvah (“Gates of Repentance”) are each called a shaar. The same is true with Rabbeinu Bachata Ibn Pakuda’s work that was translated into Hebrew as Chovot HaLevavot (“Duties of the Hearts”). But what does any of this have to do with “gates”?

Rabbi Uriel Frank of Mitzpe Yericho (founder of the Maane Lashon Society) explains that the truth is that this has nothing to do with gates. His father Rabbi Yitzchak Frank, in his important dictionary of Talmudic Aramaic, offers three distinct definitions of the term bava: The first meaning is “gate/door, entryway” — as seen above. The second meaning of bava is “set/unit.” For example, when the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 33b) refers to “sets” of sounds blown by the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, they are called bavei (“groups”). The third meaning is “part/section [of a text].” For example, when the Talmud might break up a longer teaching into multiple parts, it might refer to them as “three bavas” and name them “the initial bava,” “the middle bava,” and “the end bava” as convenient nomenclatures (see for example Avodah Zarah 68b). In these latter two senses, bava/shaar has nothing to do with the medium used for entering any specific space and is totally unrelated to “gate.” Rather, a gathering of multiple statements or rulings under one heading or category is called a bava or shaar because that is one of the meanings of that word.

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That understanding notwithstanding, I found another source which ties these different meanings together: Rabbi Shmuel Ibn Tibbon (1150–1230) famously translated Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed from Judeo-Arabic into Hebrew, and his father Rabbi Yehuda Ibn Tibbon was likewise responsible for translating Chovot HaLevavot into HebrewThe junior Ibn Tibbon writes in his Peirush HaMilot HaZarot (“Explanation of Bizarre Words”) that a collection of statements related to one topic is called a shaar because due to their commonality, they can be likened to citizens of one city who all share the same city gate for entering and exiting the city. In line with this analogy, these various statements can figuratively said to be of one city “gate.” Because of this, any section or chapter of an excurses, tract, or book is called a shaar. The term shaar can also be used to express the Aristotelian concept of a “category,” into which multiple articles can be subsumed. Similarly, the standard buying rate is called the shaar because all buyers are subject to that particular price, just like they are all use the same city gate.

Although Ibn Tibbon does not explicitly extend this idea to an explanation of the Aramaic word bava, I think it is not farfetched to say that a collection of sayings and discussion united under one hearing can be called a bava for the same reason that they can be called a shaar.

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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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