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

Bereishis: The Sword of Methusaleh

Hand holding Sword. Photo by Public Domain. This photo is under the CC0 / Public Domain License.

Methusaleh is best known for being the person with the longest lifespan explicitly mentioned in the Bible. However, a little-known tradition about Methusaleh sheds some light on the meaning of his somewhat obscure name. The name Methusaleh is comprised of the words met (“he died”) and ve-shelach (“and sword”). What is the significance of this name? According to the Midrash (cited by Peirush HaRokeach, Sifsei Kohen, and others), Methusaleh had a special sword upon which was etched the Ineffable Name of G-d. He used that sword to protect mankind by killing as many as 98,000 demons in one moment. When he died, this sword was buried with him (although, according to some sources like Imrei Noam and Zera Beirech, that sword eventually came to be in the possession of Abraham). According to this, he was called Metushelach because when he died, his sword also “died”.

Where do we find that the word shelach refers to a “sword”, and how does a shelach differ from the more familiar word cherev, which also means “sword”? The word shelach appears as a noun that means “sword” seven times in the Bible (II Chron. 32:5, II Chron. 23:10, Joel 2:8, Neh. 4:11, Neh. 4:17, Job 36:12, Job 33:18), and appears another nine times as the name of Shem’s grandson, the father of Eber (Gen. 10–11, I Chron. 1). According to Radak, a verb cognate of shelach which means “cut” appears in Genesis 37:32.

R. Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740–1814) explains that the wordcherev is related to churban. Churban denotes the destruction of something which is not inherently damaged, but can be termed destroyed, as the result of a disconnection between itself and an outside element which it requires in order to flourish. For example, a “ghost town” which remains completely intact, but is nonetheless abandoned can be considered a churban. This is because the town itself is not damaged in any way, yet its lack of population precludes it from being considered a thriving settlement. It is effectively destroyed, while displaying no outward signs of destruction. By the same token, an especially dry and arid land is called charbah because its infertility is not due to a problem in the land itself, but results from its inability to receive outside water (e.g. if rainfall is a rarity). Given this way of looking at the root, R. Pappenheim explains that the word cherev means “sword” because the sword is an ancient tool for “population reduction” which results in the type of destruction known as churban. Linguists point out that an Akkadian word similar to cherev means a type of a plow.

The Malbim explains that a shelach is used for stabbing, as opposed to a cherev which he implies is used for slicing. Perhaps a shelach was something like a dagger. (The saber, which has a curved blade to allow for both cuts and thrusts, was only invented in later times.)

The common Aramaic word for “sword” in the Talmud is sayif. While the Targumim generally translate the word cherev into Aramaic as charba, in some cases it renders cherev into Aramaic as sayif (Targum pseudo-Jonathan to Ex. 20:22, Targum Jonathan to Jud. 20:2). R. Eliyahu HaBachur (1469–1549) explains that when cherev appears in the singular form, then it is translated as charba, but when cherev appears in the plural form, then it is translated as sayif. Why singular or plural should make a difference in how to translate the word remains a mystery to me.

R. Pappenheim explains that the wordsayifis derived from the word sof (“end”), because a sword has the power to bring an “end” to somebody’s life (see Gen. 18:23 and Isa. 7:20 for conjugations of sof used as synonyms for death). R. Avraham Vilner (1765–1808), a son of the Vilna Gaon (1720–1797), also offers the same explanation of the word sayif. As a side note, the Arabic name Saif/Sayef also means “sword”, and remains one of the most popular names in the Muslim world.

The Bible has two words for “knives”: sakin and maachelet. Sakin is spelled with a SIN the one time it appears in the Bible (Prov. 23:2), and with a SAMECH in later rabbinic writings. R. Pappenheim explains that the word sakin is related to the word sikim—a type of thorn mentioned in Num. 33:55—due to the similarities between knives and thorns. Alternatively, we suggest that sakin is related to the root SAMECH-KAF which means to “spread” or “smear” like one who uses a tableknife to spread butter. Or, perhaps sakin is related to the word sakanah (“danger”), which highlights the risks of a knife-fight or other non-recommended uses of knives.

The word maachelet appears four times in the Bible (Gen. 22:6, Gen. 22:10, Jud. 19:29, and Prov. 30:14). Rashi to (Gen. 22:6) explains that the word maachelet is related to the root ALEPH-KAF-LAMMED which is related to “eating” either because the maachelet “eats” the flesh of a slaughtered animal by cutting into it, or because the maachelet allows others to “feed” from what it cut.

The common word for the knife used by a shochet (ritual slaughterer) is chalaf. Rashi (1040–1105), in his commentary to the Talmud (Yoma 36a and Zevachim 20a), and Rabbeinu Shimson of Shantz (1150–1230), in his commentary to the Mishnah (Middot 4:7), explain that the word chalaf means “knife” in Arabic. Indeed, the Arabic word chalaf refers to something sharp (likely derived from the Herbew word charif, with the r-sound being switched for the l-sound, as is quite common).

Nonetheless, R. Reuven Margolios (1889–1971) and R. David Kamin (d. 1922) ask why Rashi resorts to Arabic, and does not cite the Biblical precedent of Ezra 1:9 where the word machlifim appears, Rashi himself explains that it means “knives”. Moreover, R. Yom Tov of Seville (1260–1330), also known as Ritva (to Yoma 36a), asks this questions and adds that Rashi could have also cited the phrase kalil yachlof (Isa. 2:18), which refers to the future “cutting down” of idols.

Interestingly, while Rashi writes that chalaf comes from Arabic, R. Ovadiah Bartenura (1445–1515) asserts that it comes from Greek, although R. Yisrael Lipschitz (1782–1860) correctly notes that there is no such Greek usage.

About the Author
RABBI REUVEN CHAIM KLEIN is a scholar, researcher, and writer living in the West Bank. His first book, Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew (Mosaica Press, 2014) on the history of the Hebrew Language was a popular hit. Since then, he has published weekly articles about synonyms in the Hebrew language, which appear in the Ohrnet, Jewish Press, Jewish Tribune, and on the Times of Israel. Rabbi Klein has also written papers in various prestigious journals, including Hakirah (Flatbush), Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society (New York), Jewish Bible Quarterly (Jerusalem), and more. Many of his writings and lectures are available for free on the internet. Rabbi Klein grew up in North Hollywood, CA where he studied at Emek Hebrew Academy and Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, before coming to the Holy Land to study at the famous Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem and in Beth Medrash Govoha of America in Lakewood, NJ. He received his semikha from Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, Rabbi Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Lerner, and Dayan Chanoch Sanhedrai. Rabbi Klein is also a member of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and a graduate of Ohr LaGolah. He also served as a fellow at the 2015 Tikvah Institute for Yeshiva Men. Reuven Chaim Klein's newest work is God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry (Mosaica Press, 2018) which traces the history of Avodah Zarah in the Bible and offers an encyclopedia of the different foreign gods mentioned in Tanakh. The author is available for research, writing, and translation projects, as well as speaking engagements. Questions and comments can be directed to rabbircklein@gmail.com
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