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

Behaaloscha: On Clouds

On Clouds

The word anan (“cloud”) and its various forms appear in the Bible close to one-hundred times. In no other parsha is the word anan found as many times as it does in the Torah portion of Beha’alotcha (the parsha read this week in Israel this year), where it appears no less than seventeen times! It is therefore quite appropriate that we dedicate this week’s column to discussion of the word anan and its ostensible synonyms. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Taanit 3:3) and various Midrashim (Midrash Tehillim §135 and Bereishet Rabbah §12:12) assert that there are five words in Hebrew for “clouds”: avim, eidim, ananim, nesiim, and chazizim. Our job this week is to unpackage that assertion and explain each word.

The above sources explain that a cloud is called an av (e.g., in Ex. 19:9, Judges 5:4, and II Sam. 22:12) because heavy clouds “darken” (m’avev) the sky’s or land’s ambiance by blocking out the sun. (See Rashi to Ex. 19:9, 20:18 for the exact definition of arafel and how it relates to avim.)

The second term, eid (ALEPH-DALET), is taken by the Yerushalmi and Midrashim as a word that can have a dual meaning. In some contexts, however, the word eid refers to “breaking” or “wrecking” (see Targum to Deut. 32:35). In other contexts the word eid refers to a “holiday” (see Avodah Zarah 1:1). Putting two and two together, these sources explain that clouds are called eidim (Gen. 2:6) because clouds “break” the “holiday” of price-gougers. This is because clouds signify the onset of rain, which will cause the market to be flooded with produce. The high supply will cause the prices to fall, ending price-gouging.

Similarly, the Yerushalmi and Midrashim explain that clouds can also be called by a third name, ananim, because rain-bearing clouds make people “humble” (anavim) in their interpersonal relationships. This is because when there is a surplus (brought on by ample rain), people tend to treat each other more fairly and are at peace with one another. In times of austerity and famine, however, people compete with each other for limited resources.

Alternatively, clouds are called ananim because they make people “poor” (aniim). Meaning, the uneven distribution of rain results in some people having a surplus of one type of product, but still needing to barter with others to get the other things they need. In that type of market, each person is considered “poor” because he is not entirely self-sufficient.

The fourth term for “clouds” is nesiim (literally, “princes”). Clouds have a sort of majestic “kingmaker” role, because they create class differences by bringing rain. Some people’s fields get rain and thus generate crops — and in turn wealth — while others’ fields do not. Because it appears as though the clouds determine which people will become successful “princes,” the Bible sometimes calls them nesiim (see Ps. 137:7 and Prov. 25:14).

The fifth and final term mentioned by the Yerushalmi and Midrashim is chaziz (see Iyov 28:26 and Zech. 10:1). This is because clouds create “visions” or “sights” (chizyonot/chazon), i.e. the different types of flora that grow from the rain might be colored differently. Others explain that this term is used when G-d brings clouds as Heavenly signs for man to interpret. The Zohar similarly connects the downpour of rain, which is a physical Divine influx, to prophecy, which is a spiritual Divine influx.

Sefer HaChochma (a work printed with Peirush HaRokeach ascribed to Rabbi Elazar Rokeach of Worms) differs slightly from the above. Its author contends that ananim refer to clouds which block sunlight, eidim are clouds that come with thunder, chazizim are colorful clouds (?!), and avim refer to clouds that are thick and full of water. Ibn Ezra writes that eid refers to a “smoky” cloud.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Brelsau (1740-1814) provides us with the roots of each of these words, giving us the etymological bases for their respective connection to “clouds.” Rabbi Pappenheim writes that the root of the word anan is the letter AYIN, which denotes “movement.” In the case of clouds it denotes the fact that clouds, which are in some ways created by the movement of the wind, are put into motion by the powers of the wind.

The root of the word avim is AYIN-BET (av), which denotes something “especially thick” (see Rashi to Ta’anit 6b). It refers to a cloud that is especially thick due to a high concentration of water, such that it blocks sunlight. (This is similar to the English expression “thick clouds.”) Rabbi Pappenheim writes that the root of the word eid is the letter DALET, which denotes “extraction” and “separation.” It thus refers to clouds forming from water which had evaporated — a process of “extraction” or “separation” from a larger body of water. This approach complements Rabbeinu Bachaya’s explanation that “eid” means water vapor. Although the Yerushalmi and Midrashim assert that eid is a word for “cloud,” in Rabbinic Hebrew (not to mention Modern Hebrew) it does indeed mean water vapor or steam.

Interestingly, Midrash Lekach Tov (also known as Pesikta Zutrata) connects the word eid to the Hebrew word nod (“flask”), explaining that clouds carry water like a flask carries liquid. Although Rabbi Pappenheim does not link eid with nod, he does mention the word nod when discussing the various derivatives of the letter DALET. He explains that the two-letter core-root NUN-DALET (nad), like in nadud (“moving” or “traveling”), is derived from DALET because it too involves “separation” (in this case the separation from one’s home), and that the word nod as “flask” refers to the equipment one might bring along on such a trip.

Rabbi Pappenheim also writes that the root of nesiim is SIN-ALEPH (sa), which refers to “carrying” or “lifting.” This is relevant to clouds which “carry” rainwater from place to place. Alternatively, clouds are called nesiim because they are so light that they naturally tend to rise upwards as though being “lifted” into the sky (as opposed to thick, heavy clouds, which tend to come downward like fog).

In Rabbi Pappenheim’s estimation, the root of chaziz is CHET-ZAYIN, which denotes comprehension via the sense of sight or imagination. We find this root in the word chazon — prophetic vision (per above). Rabbi Pappenheim understands that chazizim are specifically the clouds which accompany thunder. They are related to the sense of sight because they also bring about flashes of light, i.e. lightning.

While the Yerushalmi and Midrashim cited above assert that there are five Hebrew words for clouds, Rabbi Shlomo of Urbino (a 16th century Italian scholar) writes in Ohel Moed (a lexicon of Hebrew synonyms) that there are two more. He adds a sixth term, nivlei shamayim (Iyov 38:37), which is explained by Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and others as referring to “clouds.” Menachem Ibn Saruk (920-970) in his famous Machaberet connects this phrase to the word neivel (“flask” or “jug”). In the generation after him, Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach (990-1055) in his Sefer HaShorashim, and Rabbi Yehudah Ibn Balaam (1000-1070) in Sefer HaTzimud, explain the connection by writing that clouds are like flasks which pour out water. Hence, neivel is another word that could be added to our list.

The seventh possible term is kapayim (Iyov 36:32 and Lamen. 3:41), which is understood by many commentators, including Rashi, to refer to clouds. Indeed, Midrash Chuppat Eliyahu Rabbah actually lists six synonyms for “clouds,” adding the word kaf to what we have above. The Metzudat Tzion explains the connection by noting that clouds are like a kippah (“covering”) over people’s head. So we see that kapayim can be another word for “clouds.” However, Rabbi Pappenheim and others disagree, positing that kapayim does not specifically refer to “clouds” but to the sky as a whole.

Rabbi Yaakov Chaim Sofer (Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Kaf HaChaim in Jerusalem) points to an eighth possible synonym. When Yaakov blessed Yosef on his deathbed, he said: “From the G-d of your father you shall be helped, and from Sha-dai you shall be blessed, Heavenly blessings from Above, bottomless blessings crouching below, blessings of breasts and the womb” (Gen. 49:25). Peirush HaRokeach explains that shadayim (“breasts”) in this context refers to clouds that empty out water, as nursing breasts empty out milk. Accordingly, the word shadayim can also refer to “clouds.”

To summarize, we discussed the five Hebrew words for “clouds” which appear in the Yerushalmi and Midrashim, plus another three possible synonyms. It’s a pity we couldn’t find one more word to discuss, for then we would have reached cloud nine.

The English-speaking community here in Beitar under the leadership of Rabbi Zev Stark is working on raising money to finish building our new Shul before Rosh HaShannah. Check out the Kehillas Simchas HaTorah website for more information…

About the Author
RABBI REUVEN CHAIM KLEIN is the author of God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry (Mosaica Press, 2018). Mosaica Press published his first book, Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew, in 2014, and it became an instant classic. Rabbi Klein has also published papers in several prestigious journals, including Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society (New York), Jewish Bible Quarterly (Jerusalem), Kovetz Hamaor (Monsey), and Kovetz Kol HaTorah (London). His weekly articles also appear in the Ohrnet, Jewish Press, Oneg Shabbos, and other publications. Many of his writings and lectures are available for free on the internet. Rabbi Klein is a native of Valley Village, CA and graduated Emek Hebrew Academy and Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, before going to study at the famed Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem and in Beth Medrash Govoha of America in Lakewood, NJ. He received rabbinic ordination from leading authorities Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, Rabbi Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Lerner, and Dayan Chanoch Sanhedrai. He is also a member of the RCA, an alumnus of Ohr LaGolah, and was awarded a summer fellowship at the Tikvah Institute for Yeshiva Men in 2015. He is a long-time member of the Kollel of Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem and lives with his wife and children in Beitar Illit, Israel. Questions and comments can be directed to The author is available for research, writing, and translation projects, as well as speaking engagements.
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