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

Behar: Making Mountains Out of Hills

When allegorically referring to the hastening of the Exodus from Egypt, King Solomon writes (Song of Songs 2:8), The voice of my beloved — behold it comes — skipping over the mountains and jumping over the mountains. The first word for mountain used in this passage is har and the second word is givah. What is the difference between a har and a givah? Furthermore, the Talmud (Rosh HaShanah 11a) explains that this verse alludes to the Jews’ merits which allowed for making their exit from Egypt earlier than otherwise expected: skipping over the mountains refers to the merit of the patriarchs (Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov) and jumping over the mountains refers to the merit of the matriarchs (Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah). How are the merits of the forefathers and the foremothers hinted to in the two different words for mountain?

The Vilna Gaon writes that har and givah are two different types of mountains. The har is a classical mountain whose upwards slope reaches a peak and climaxes at its tip. A givah, on the other hand, is an elevated plateau whose top does not come to a point, but rather remains flat. Radak more or less adopts this approach, while Malbim takes a different approach. He explains that a har is an overly tall mountain, while givaot are a series of shorter hills which surround the mountain.

According to Kabbalistic sources, the patriarchs and matriarchs embody the two forces necessary for the continuity of creation—the male (influential) and female (receptive) forces. These two forces are symbolized by the har and the givah. The male force comes to a peak to focus its energy for the purpose of influencing others. This is symbolized by the har whose incline culminates at one concentrated point.

The so-called female force, on the other hand, remains open and casts as wide a net as possible to receive the maximum flow of raw influence (see Brachot 61a). The givah represents the female force because its apex is not a small point, but a wide plateau. Rabbi Eliyahu Margules explains that the word givah is related to the Hebrew word gaviah (goblet); just as a goblet serves as a receptacle to hold the drink inside it, so does the givah represent the receiving force. Additionally, the female force engulfs the male force (see Jer. 31:21), just as a range of givah-mountains surround the har. For this reason, it is customary for a bride to encircle her groom seven times under the wedding canopy.

The female force is charged with receiving raw material and developing it into a finished product, just as in the physical world the fetus of an unborn child is developed in the womb of its mother. However, this analogy begs the question: the Hebrew for a woman becoming pregnant is vatahar, which super-literally means, “and she became a mountain (har)”. The basic and simplest connection is obvious, but on an esoteric level, the matter requires further explanation: Why is a pregnant woman associated with a har if womankind are otherwise linked to the givah?

The answer to this question lies in a paradgimal shift in the expecting woman’s role. While previously, she served as the recipient of the influence bestowed by the male force, after conception her role shifts into being the influencer vis-à-vis the child she carries. By assuming the responsibility for influencing/sustaining her unborn child, the pregnant lady herself now partially becomes associated with the male force; therefore, she is more like a har than ever before.

To sum up, we explained that there are two words for mountain in Hebrew: har and givah. The word har denotes a mountain which comes to a sharp point, while the word givah denotes a flat mesa. We also offered a deeper, more mystical approach to understanding the differences between these two words. Before we conclude, we should also mention that there is a third, less common word for mountain: Pisgah. The commentators explain that a Pisgah is even taller than a regular mountain and, as such, is more suited for serving as a lookout point as opposed to a har or a givah.

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 rabbircklein@gmail.com The author is available for research, writing, and translation projects, as well as speaking engagements.
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