The Torah allows ritual sacrifices to be brought from only three families of animals: ovine (sheep), bovine (cows), and caprine (goats). In this essay we will explore various Hebrew words related to the bovine family, explaining exactly what they mean and how they differ from one another. The more we dig into this, the more we notice that English terminology has neat parallels to the various Hebrew words used for cattle-beasts. However, in Hebrew we can trace the etymology of these words and related words to various themes, while in English we cannot.
There are two English words for a female bovine. A heifer refers to a young female bovine, especially one that has not yet given birth to a calf, while a cow is a mature female that has already given birth and therefore produces milk. Nonetheless, in a colloquial sense, the word cow is generally used to refer to any bovine animal and not just to a mature female one.
Regarding male bovines, the English language differentiates between the gelded (i.e. castrated) and the fertile, the young and the old, and animals bred for food or for work. Castration, of course, is used to render these beasts docile and more disposed to working. A male bovine with its testicles intact is called a bull and is typically used for breeding. A castrated male bovine used for producing beef is called either a steer/bullock (if castrated when young) or a stag (if castrated when older). An older castrated bovine used for draft work (like pulling wagons or plows) is called an ox. Nonetheless, ox is sometimes used in a colloquial sense to refer to any bovine trained for draft work.
Now let’s turn to the Hebrew terms.
Rabbi Eliezer HaKallir in a piyut (liturgical poem) for the second day of Passover uses five Hebrew words for “ox”: par, shor, egel, aleph, and bakar. In this article we will explore these five words and their meanings. Interestingly, Peirush HaRokeach and Rabbeinu Efrayim write that the Bible alludes to these five names for bulls by levying a penalty on a thief who steals cattle and then slaughters or sells it. Such a thief is obligated to pay the original owner five-times the value of the stolen bovine (see Ex. 22:37).
We begin with the first stage in the life of a bovine, when it is a “calf.” Calves are immature bovines that rely on their mother’s milk in order to survive and grow. In English the word calf refers to both a male and female. In Hebrew an egel is a male calf while eglah is a female calf. Rabbi Zalman Hanau (1687-1746) in Tzohar HaTeivah writes that the word egel is derived from the word igul (“circle”) because young calves tend to be round and pudgy.
The classical words for bovines in Hebrew are parah for a female, and par for a male. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) classifies the words par/parah as derivatives of the biliteral root PEH-REISH. In Rabbi Pappenheim’s opinion this root refers to the act of “breaking something down into smaller components.” Different words derived from this root include perurim (“crumbs”), efer (“ash”), parur (a special “pot” for cooking crumbs or other small grains), pri (a “fruit,” which is a microcosm of a tree that comes off the tree), pe’er/tiferet (a form of “all-encompassing beauty,” which breaks down into multiple aspects), hafarah (the act of “disintegrating” or “nullifying” a vow), primah (the act of “tearing” clothing into multiple shreds), and tefirah (“sewing,” the means of rectifying the damage done by primah).
Rabbi Pappenheim explains that a pri refers to the act of reproduction or procreation (whether we are talking about people, plants, or animals). Similarly, the par (“bull”) is associated with reproduction because it is fertile, unlike the castrated shor (“ox”). The female parah (“cow” or “heifer”), of course, is almost always used for its maternal, motherly properties — whether for breeding calves or for producing milk. Only a small minority of female cows are ever made impotent.
The Mishna (Parah 1:1) records a dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages regarding the cut-off age that sets apart an eglah (“female calf”)from a parah. Rabbi Eliezer maintains that a calf is an eglah until it has finished its first year, and from then on it is called a parah. The Sages, on the other hand, maintain that it is still called an eglah even in its second year, but after that it is called a parah. Either way, Rashi (to Ps. 69:32, Chullin 60a, Avodah Zarah 8a) writes that a shor can already be called so from the day it is born (see Lev. 22:27), while a par assumes that name only later.
Rabbi Pappenheim traces the word shor to its biliteral root SHIN-REISH. He explains that the word shor is borrowed from shar/sharir (see Ezek. 16:4, Prov. 3:8, and Iyov 40:16), which means “umbilical cord.” Just as the umbilical cord at the unborn baby’s stomach attaches it to its mother and serves as its conduit for all growth, so too does a shor contain the core of its energies and strengths in its stomach. (In Aramaic, the letter SHIN of the Hebrew shor morphs into a TAV to become tor. In fact, some linguists maintain that the Latin word taurus is derived from the Aramaic tor.)
While many presume that a shor, by definition, must refer to a castrated bull (i.e. an “ox”), others beg to differ. Rabbi Yonah Merzbach (1900-1980) argues that the word shor in the Torah cannot refer to a castrated bull because according to halacha it is forbidden to castrate an animal (see Lev. 22:24). Instead, he writes that a shor and a par must be the same in terms of gelding. Radak (to Ps. 69:32) similarly writes that a shor is “big” and a par is “small,” although it remains unclear if he means in terms of age or in terms of physical build.
…cowboy… must also “seek out” greener pastures for his cattle…
The word aleph appears eight times in the Bible in reference to bovines (see Deut. 7:12, 28:4, 28:12, 28:51, Ps. 8:8, 50:10, Prov. 14:4, and Isa. 30:24). Interestingly, the letter Aleph in the original paleo-Hebrew script (Ktav Ivri) looked like an ox. That script was later borrowed by the Phoenicians and then by the Greeks until it became the standard Alpha bet. Rabbi Pappenheim connects the word aleph to the two-letter root LAMMED-PEH that denotes “a strong hold.” He explains that a “chieftain” (i.e. the alpha-male) who has a strong hold over the people in his control is called an aluf, and the amount of people one needs to control in order to gain this title is “one-thousand” (elef). All of this is related to an aleph, which is the strongest type of ox. [Alternatively, the Vilna Gaon (to Prov. 14:4) connects the word aleph to the Aramaic yalif (“learn” or “study”), but his explanation of the difference between a shor and an aleph is too complex to be cited here.]
The word bakar refers to a collection of bovines, and is translated into English as “cattle.” Radak in Sefer HaShorashim explains that the basic meaning of the BET-KUF-REISH root is “investigation,” “seeking” and “probing.” The word boker (“morning”) is derived from this root because it is the time when light appears and one can begin probing and discerning. The term bikkur cholim is used as though it means “visiting the sick,” but really it entails “finding out” what sort of state he is in and what can be done to help him. In this spirit, Rabbi Lt. Col. Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg of the Veromemanu Foundation explains that bakar is the word for “domesticated cattle” since this type of animal requires attention, supervision and defense from marauders. All of this is the job for the boker/voker — “cowboy” (see Amos 7:14) — who must also “seek out” greener pastures for his cattle.
Some have claimed that the English slang term buckaroo (“cowboy”) is derived from the Hebrew word boker/voker,which bears the same meaning. However, most linguists agree that buckaroo is actually derived from the Spanish word vaquero,which, in turn, comes from the Spanish vaca (“cow”). Alternatively, the late Dr. Julian Mason (1931-2018), a professor at the University of North Carolina, argued that the origins of buckaroo are to be found in Gullah (a Creole language spoken by African-Americans in the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia), in which the word buckra means “white man.”