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

Devarim: Beds of the Righteous

The Torah impresses upon us the enormity of Og, king of Bashan, by saying, “Behold his bed (eres) is a bed (eres) of iron—is it not in Rabbat [capital of the] Sons of Ammon?—nine handbreadths its length and four handbreadths its width…” (Deut. 3:11). In this passage and in eight others, the Bible uses the word eres to mean “bed.” However, the more common Biblical word for “bed” is mitah, which appears close to thirty times. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707–1746), also known as Ramchal, writes that the words mitah and eres are synonyms used side-by-side for poetic effect. However, by closely examining when each word is used, we see that they are not totally synonymous but rather do have differences in meaning. In the following paragraphs, we will explore the words mitah and eres.

In many instances, both mitah and eres are translated by the Aramaic Targumim into arsa—a cognate of eres. This would suggest that the words actually mean the same thing, but that mitah is primarily a Hebrew word, while eres is an Aramaic word that was borrowed by Hebrew. [In general, the Hebrew word is spelled AYIN-REISH-SIN while its Aramaic cognate is spelled AYIN-REISH-SAMECH, but, then again, the letters SIN and SAMECH are often interchangeable.]

The root of the Hebrew word mitah is subject to some controversy. The early grammarian Menachem ibn Saruk (920–970) writes that its root is MEM-TET, Radak (1160–1234) in Sefer ha-Shorashim writes that it is either MEM-TET-TET or NUN-TET-HEY, and Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740–1814) in Yerios Shlomo and Cheshek Shlomo writes that it is TET-HEY.

R. Aharon Marcus (1843–1916) suggests that the root ofmitahis the letter TET itself, which according to him denotes “movement to the side.” He shows this idea through a bevy of words which contain the letter TET and imply such movement: stiyah, (“deviation”), natah (“to incline”), titah (“turn aside”), tata (“broom”), tach (“plastering”), taah (“erred”), and more.

The common denominator between all these possible roots is that the word mitah is derived from a root which means “incline” or “stretch out.” The connection is obvious: when a person lies down in bed, he must “incline” his body to “go horizontal”. The same phenomenon is found in Greek, where the word kline (“bed”) is derived from klino (“incline,” “slant,” “bend”). By the way, that Greek root is the etymological basis for such English words as reclineincline,climaxclimate, and clinic.

In the context of Og, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir—Rashi’s grandson, also known by his acronym Rashbam—explains that Og’s “eres” (in the verse cited above) was his “crib.” He explains that the Torah’s point in saying that Og’s crib was made of iron is that even as a baby, Og was so big and strong that he needed a metal crib to contain him; otherwise he would have broken his bed. Rashbam notes that since a baby is less aware of his movements, it was more necessary for Og to have a stronger bed as a baby than as a more mature person. Partially following this explanation, in Modern Hebrew, the word eres means “cradle” and arisah,“crib.”

Rabbi Nosson of Rome (1035–1106) writes in Sefer HaAruch that the root AYIN-REISH-SIN/SAMECH (from whence eres is ostensibly derived, per above) is an expression of “mixture.” Based on that meaning, other commentators explain that the Biblical Hebrew arisah (“dough” in Num. 15:21)—which is synonymous with the Mishnaic Hebrew isah—is also related to this root because it too is a mixture of ingredients kneaded together.*

Indeed, Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785–1865) and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888) point out that in some sources, the word arisah (“dough”)is conjugated as a verb (e.g., see Brachos 37b), which implies that its root primarily refers to an act of “mixing” or “mutual connection. Based on this, they explain that the primary meaning of eres is a bed whose sides are fastened together by multiple strips or bars through the middle and/or is built from woven/layered planks. In this way, the bed shows marks of “mixing” and “mutual connection.”

Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866–1935) suggests that mitah refers to a bed with a wooden frame, while eres refers specficially to a bed with an iron (metal) frame. In his assessment, the difference between mitah and eres does not lie in the structure or configuration of the bed, but in the material of which it is made.

The Malbim writes that while mitah refers to a generic bed, the word eres refers to a special-customized or fitted bed, such as those used by the infirm (Ps. 41:4), by children (a kinderbett, as in the case of Og), or by especially pampered women (see Prov. 7:16). The word arsa is also used in Talmudic Aramaic to mean “a coffin” (Kesubos 103a) and, in certain ways, this nicely dovetails with Malbim’s approach, although mitah is also used in rabbinic parlance to mean “coffin.” Elsewhere, Malbim writes that mitah refers to any piece of furniture upon which one lies or reclines oneself (including a sofa, couch, or loveseat), while an eres refers specifically to a “bed” upon which one sleeps.

Other sources appeal to a more esoteric or Kabbalistic way of differentiating between mitah and eres. Rabbi Aviad Sar-Shalom Basilea (1680–1749) in Emunat Chachamim posits that the word mitah is typically the term used to denote the space in which a man and wife engage in intimacy. In that way, the word mitah represents the proper and just balance of influencer and receiver. This based on the idea in Jewish Thought that men represent the “influencing/initiating” force, while women represent the “receiving/building” force. The act of intimacy (especially seen in the light of potential pregnancy) is a microcosm of this interplay. Because of this, he explains that the word mitah is thematically evocative of the righteous tzaddikim, who also maintain the proper balance of influencer and receiver by recognizing their receptive role vis-à-vis G-d. On the other hand, the word eres connotes the bed of the wicked and sinful evildoers. This connotation is best seen by the use of the word eres in conjunction with the wicked Og.

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kaidanover (1648–1712) in Kav HaYashar also associates the word eres/arisah with the forces of evil, and connects the word eres (with an AYIN) to its homophone eres (with an ALEPH), which means “poison”—an allusion to the poisonous snake in the Garden of Eden who first brought sin into the world by enticing Eve. In short, these sources understand that the word mitah represents the positive bed of the righteous, while eres represents the evil bed of the wicked.

* NOTE: In this, the Torah uses an apparent cognate of eres when speaking about the challah dough required to be consecrated and given it to a Kohen. Some commentators explain that in doing so the Torah means to teach a tangential lesson by drawing an equivalency between the consecrated dough and one’s eres(“bed”). They explain that just as one is expected to consecrate his dough and set it aside as something holy, so should one recognize that he must consecrate his “bed” as well. This has been taken to mean that upon waking up, even before getting out of bed, one should “consecrate” oneself for the service of G-d. Alternatively, it means that even the activities one performs in bed (i.e. marital intimacy) must be done in a holy and pure way.

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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