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

Book ‘Em

Photo by Sohaib Al Kharsa on Unsplash.

When Moses pleaded with G-d to forgive the Jewish People for the sin of the Golden Calf, he said: “And now, if You leave behind their sin, [then good]. And if not, then please erase me from Your book (sefer) that You wrote.” (Ex. 33:32) In this passage, the Bible uses the Hebrew word sefer to denote “book” or “written document.” Besides the word sefer, there are various other terms used in the Bible and in later rabbinic discourse for “books.” As befits the People of the Book, several such terms have come into use. This essay explores some of those terms (including iggeret, megillah, machzor, and kuntres) and attempts to pinpoint their exact meanings and how they differ from one another.

We begin our discussion with an insightful analysis of the word sefer, the generic term applied to the twenty-four books of the Bible (although, some books are described as a megillah, see below). This word is also used to describe a Torah Scroll (Sefer Torah). But why is a Torah Scroll called a sefer? My illustrious ancestor, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk (1717-1786), explains that the word sefer is related to the word sfar (“border”), because just like a border protects a country in that one must clear the secured border in order to enter, so does the Torah protect the Jewish People by insuring their closeness to G-d. On the other hand, the word sefer is also applied to legal documents — like a Marriage Document, which the Mishna (Yevamot 15:3) calls a Sefer Ketubah.

In a similar vein, Rabbi Moshe Shapiro (1935-2017) explains how all words derived from the SAMECH-PEH-REISH root are interrelated and refer to the concept of “unifying” disparate parts. The verb sippur (“storytelling”) denotes joining together multiple details to form a single narrative.

This is similar to a sfar (“border”), which confines everything within its “boundary” and unites them into one political unit. These two terms are related to mispar (“number”) and sofer (“counting”), because the system of counting joins all numbers together in an organized and logical way. Finally, all of this relates back to the word sefer (“book”), which includes all the details and contents recorded therein, and binds them together into one entity. This explanation does not just apply to Holy Books, but to all books in general.

Professor Raymond P. Dougherty of Yale University (1877-1933) wrote the following insight to explain how sefer derives from the core meaning of “to count”: “The act of counting is primarily a mental process, but memory is fallible, and so there must be recourse to a written tally or record. Hence, the secondary meanings of the verb developed, with the result that sofer came to mean ‘scribe’ and sefer became a term for ‘record’, letter’, ‘book.’”

Interestingly, the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 24b) notes that the Persian equivalent to the word sefer is dvir, and the Talmud uses this to explain the connection between the original name of the city Dvir and its newer name Kiryat Sefer (Judges 1:11).

As mentioned above, some books of the Bible are called a megillah, while some are called a sefer. Rabbi Shmuel Strashun (1794-1872) notices that when the Talmud (Bava Batra 14b) lists the various books of Tanach, it is careful to use the word sefer when mentioning the Book of Psalms (Sefer Tehillim) and the word megillah when mentioning the Book of Esther (Megillat Esther), but does not use those two words when discussing any other of the twenty-four books of the Bible.

To explain this phenomenon, Rabbi Strashun postulates that the term sefer said about Psalms implies an affinity between that book and the quintessential sefer — the Sefer Torah (i.e., the Pentateuch). He accounts for this affinity by noting that like the Five Books of Moses, Psalms is also divided into “Five Books,” and the total amount of verses in Psalms is somehow similar to the total amount of verses in the entire Pentateuch (see Kiddushin 30a).

In explaining why the Book of Esther is called a megillah, Rabbi Strashun explains that this refers to the requirement that the Book of Esther to be read on Purim ought to be written on a separate scroll of parchment and not on a scroll that also includes other books of the Bible (see Radak to Jer. 36:1, and see also Megillah 19a).

In fact, throughout rabbinic literature the term megillah without further specification refers to Megillat Esther, and, similarly, the blessing that the rabbis instituted over reading Megillat Esther is al mikra megillah. As an aside, because Esther is seen as the quintessential megillah, Rabbi Strashun finds the position of Masechet Sofrim (14:3) difficult, because that work stipulates reciting the blessing al mikra megillah upon publicly reading any of the so-called Five Scrolls: Ruth, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. Nonetheless, the Vilna Gaon (Biur HaGra to Orach Chaim §490) adopts this custom, and it is still followed by many communities in Israel.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740–1814) traces the word megillah to the biliteral root GIMMEL-LAMMED (“round/circular”). Other words derived from this root include gal (“heap” of stones in a circular formation), gollel (“to roll”), galgal (“wheel”), gulgolet (“skull”), and magal (“sickle”). The word megillah fits with the core meaning of GIMMEL-LAMMED, because it refers to a scroll comprised of multiple sheets of parchment sewn together that are subsequently rolled up. Rabbi Pappenheim also notes that the word gilayon (often mispronounced as gilyon) similarly derives from this root and refers to a single sheet of parchment upon which one might write something and then roll it up. In later usage, the Hebrew word gilayon came to refer to the empty margins of a written document, and then to glosses often written in those margins.

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Ever since I was a child, I thought that the difference between the terms sefer and megillah lies in how many pins the scroll is roll up into. I understood that the word sefer denotes a scroll that is rolled up on two wooden pins (like a Sefer Torah, Sefer Yehoshua, Sefer Yishaya, or Sefer Trei Asar), while the term megillah refers specifically to a scroll that rolls up into one wooden pin (like Megillat Esther and the other four Megillot). More recently, I have tried to find a source for this distinction, but have come up empty-handed. If anybody has any relevant sources that they can point me to, please contact me directly.

We discussed earlier that the Book of Esther differs from all other books of the Bible in that it is specifically called a megillah. The truth is that the Amoraic sage Shmuel (Megillah 7a) said that the Book of Esther “was said in order to be read, not said in order to be written.” In fact, the Book of Esther actually refers to itself as an iggeret (Esther 9:26-29), which implies that it is somehow different from the other books included in Scripture, which are typically called a sefer (or megillah). How do we understand the term iggeret in this context, and how does it differ from a sefer?

In the Book of Chronicles (II Chron. 30:6), we find that when King Hezekiah attempted to effectuate a mass repentance movement, he dispatched runners with royal proclamations (iggeret) that exhorted the Jewish People to return to G-d. Based on this passage, Rabbi Dr. Jose Faur (1934-2020) proffers that the term iggeret implies government decisions that were publicized orally via a royal herald who would recite those proclamations from written epistles. Because copies of such epistles were not made available to the public, one could say about such them they were given “in order to be read, not… to be written.” Faur explains that the term sefer implies an officially “published” book, from which other copies were allowed to be produced for the public’s use. This stands in contrast with the term iggeret, which he defines as a sort of “written memorandum” to be recited by heralds, but not made available to the public.

As Faur explains it, when a herald would recite an iggeret, he would typically unfold the entire scroll before reading it. Moreover, because an iggeret does not have the same status as a sefer, it would not be read with the traditional cantillation used for reading a sefer. Based on these two points, Faur concludes that the current way of reading Esther actually represents a synthesis or compromise between an iggeret and a sefer, because the prevailing custom is to read Esther on Purim with the traditional cantillation (like a sefer), but to also unfold the entire scroll before reading it (like an iggeret).

Rabbi Avraham ben Yom Tov of Seville (1250-1330), also known as the Ritva, writes that the difference between a shtar and an iggeret is that a shtar is written with the intention that it last a long time (ostensibly to serve as evidence to whatever transaction or event it records and testifies about), while an iggeret is not intended as long-term documentation. Without directly quoting Ritva, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) uses this sort of distinction to understand the difference between a sefer and an iggeret. He understands that a sefer implies a document that was meant to last a long time (see Jer. 32:14), while an iggeret is more like a temporary memo that is not meant to last for a long time. With this in mind, he explains a Talmudic passage (Megillah 19a) wherein Rav says that although the Book of Esther is called an iggeret — which would lead one to think that its parchment parts can be sewed together with the less durable linen threads — since it is also called a sefer, it must be sewn with the more long-lasting animal sinews. As Rabbi Soloveitchik explains, Rav’s reasoning assumes that a sefer implies something that lasts longer, while an iggeret implies something that is not intended to last as long. (However, see Sotah 13a which uses the word iggeret in the sense of “document” that attests to a sale, which is more similar to a shtar.)

In Mishnaic Hebrew, the term iggeret typically refers to a writ or document issued by a rabbinic court. For example, the word iggeret is used in reference to a bill of divorce (Gittin 6:5), and indeed the Mishna (Gittin 9:3) uses the terms sefer teiruchiniggeret shevukin, and gett peturin as synonyms for a bill of divorce. Similarly, an iggeret mered is issued against a woman who “rebels” by refusing to perform her wifely duties (Yevamot 64a) and an iggeret bikoret (Ketuvot 11:5) is a judicial proclamation of intention to sell a property. Similarly, we find the word iggeret used to describe “letters” that included Halachic rulings sent from the Holy Land to Babylon by Ravin (Ketubot 49b, Bava Metzia 114a, 139a, and Niddah 68a, see also Shabbat 115a, Bava Batra 41b, and Sanhedrin 29a). The Talmud (Shabbat 19a) even talks about sending an iggeret in the mail.

Rabbeinu Tam (cited by Tosafot to Ketuvot 100b) explains that the legal term iggeret refers to a sort of document produced by a Bet Din in one locale to be sent to another Bet Din elsewhere. In line with this, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Leiter of Kiryat Sefer suggests that iggeret may be derived from the biliteral root GIMMEL-REISH (“temporary residence”), and thus implies that the iggeret’s original home is short-lived, because it was only written with the intention that it be sent elsewhere. Rabbi Pappenheim offers a similar understanding in explaining that an iggeret implies a document which is moved about all over a given province in order to thoroughly publicize its contents. (This is more in line with Rabbi Faur’s explanation.)

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Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) explains that the word iggeret is related to agur (“collection”), which implies storing items long-term. In that sense, an iggeret refers to a document that was meant to be preserved for a long time. On the surface, this understanding of the etymology of iggeret seems to contradict the positions of Rabbi Faur and Rabbi Soloveitchik.

Professor Avi Hurvitz, a prominent linguist and historian, actually sees the terms iggeret and sefer as synonymous, with both meaning “letter.” However, he argues that the difference between the lexical terms used is simply reflective of different periods in the historical development of the Hebrew language, with sefer representing an older variant of the language, and iggeret, a later one. Indeed, the word iggeret and its variations only appear in the later, post-Exilic books of the Bible; namely, Esther, Ezra/Nechemiah, and II Chronicles.

In a short but sweet comment, the Malbim explains that iggeret refers to a document related to two parties, sefer refers to a document that “tells” (misaper) about a certain topic or story, megillah refers to a scroll that was written with intention that it be “rolled up” (gollel), gilayon refers to something written in a way that it was intended to be “revealed” (gilui) but not rolled up or folded up, and ktav is a general term for anything “written” (kotev).

In early Medieval sources, the Hebrew term for a Bible codex was machzor, while the word sefer referred specifically to a scroll. The term machzor derives from the Hebrew/Aramaic root CHET-ZAYIN-REISH, which means “return” because when one finishes reading a codex, one can easily “return” to its beginning, unlike a scroll which has to be rolled from one end to the other. Another Medieval term that was used for Bible codices was mitzchaf (which was apparently borrowed from the Arabic word mishaf). In later times, this word fell into disuse and machzor came to refer to a special prayer book used for Jewish holidays. In that context, the word machzor recalls the cyclic nature of the Jewish Calendar, whose holidays “return” annually.

In contemporary speech, a kuntres (often translated as a “notebook”) refers to a short treatise that is not significant enough to be presented as an independent sefer. The Tosafists typically refer to Rashi’s Talmudic commentary as the kuntres. Although Rashi himself does not use this word to describe his own work, he does use it to describe his teacher’s commentary (see Rashi to Gittin 82a).

Scholars like Rabbi Binyamin Mussafia (1606-1675), Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein (1899-1983), and Rabbi Daniel Sperber understand that this word comes from the Greek word commentaries, with Sperber explaining the origins of the term as referring to the records of the public register that documented official government activities. On the other hand, Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469-1549) in Sefer HaTishbi contends that the word kuntres is derived from the Latin quinternus, a quire comprised of five sheets of paper.

For a discussion about the differences between the terms gett and shtar, see my earlier essay “Documents of Cutting.”

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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