The English word uncle refers to one’s parents’ brother and also to the husband of one’s parents’ sister. This means that uncle can denote up to four types of relationships: one’s father’s brother, one’s mother’s brother, one’s father’s sister’s husband, and one’s mother’s sister’s husband. In contrast to this, the Biblical Hebrew word dod (“uncle”) primarily refers to only one of those types of relationships: one’s father’s brother. Another Hebrew kinship term — misaref — seems to mean one’s mother’s brother, and this essay will show how even though dod and misaref might both be translated as “uncle,” they are not synonyms.
The Torah (Lev. 18:14, 20:20) prohibits a man from marrying his dodah (“aunt”) because doing so “exposes the nakedness” of his dod (“uncle”). It is clear from the Torah’s wording that this Biblical prohibition specifically applies to one’s father’s brother’s wife (see Torat Kohanim there). However, one is still forbidden from marrying his mother’s brother’s wife according to Rabbinic fiat (see Yevamot 21a).
A person’s father’s sister or mother’s sister is typically referred to respectively as one’s “father’s sister” or “mother’s sister” (Lev. 18:12-13, 20:19) — not dodah. Yet, there is one exception. When Moses’ father Amram, son of Kehat, son of Levi, married Yocheved, daughter of Levi, the Torah describes Yocheved as Amram’s dodah (Ex. 6:20) because she was his father’s sister. However, this exception is found only with the word dodah but not with the word dod.
Indeed, Rashi (to Yirmiyahu 32:12) authoritatively asserts that we never find in Scripture that the term dod refers to one’s mother’s brother. It always means one’s father’s brother. In fact, when rendering dod in Aramaic, Targum Onkelos (Lev. 18:14, 20:20) translates dod as achvuhi, which Rabbi Rafael Binyamin Posen (1942-2016) explains is a portmanteau of the words ach (“brother”) and avohi (“his father”).
Nonetheless, the semantic range of dod later expanded to include “lover” or “companion,” as the word seems to mean throughout Song of Songs. This can be chalked up to the regularity of avunculate marriages, whereby a woman would marry her uncle, and does not represent an actual change in the core meaning of the term dod (however, see Rabbi Zev Hoberman’s Zeev Yitraf, Pesach ch. 90).
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Brelsau (1740-1814) traces the word dod/doodah to the monoliteral root represented by the letter DALET, which means “separation”/ “protrusion.” He explains that just as a dad (“breast”) protrudes from one’s body and is separated from the rest of one’s person, so does a dod/doodah protrude from the linear stem of one’s family tree as a separate branch.
Interestingly, the Targumic term achvuh was later abbreviated into chaviv/chabib in Talmudic Aramaic. With this in mind, Rashi (to Maccot 3b) explains that the Amoraic Sage Rav would refer to Rav Chiya as “chabibi” (“my uncle”) because Rav Chiya’s brother was Rav’s father. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 5a, Pesachim 4a) relates that Rav Chiya’s sister was Rav’s mother, and yet Rashi focuses on the fact that Rav Chiya’s brother was Rav’s father because the term chaviv, which is the Aramaic equivalent to the Hebrew dod, refers specifically to one’s father’s brother and not to one’s mother’s brother (which should be misaref, see below). This point is made by Rabbi David Cohen of Gvul Yaavetz in Brooklyn and Rabbi Yochanan Sofer (1923-2016), the late Erloi Rebbe. (If you are wondering how both of Rav’s parents could be Rav Chiya’s siblings, as Rashi to Eruvin 12b and Chullin 32a, and also Rashbam to Bava Batra 41b note, the answer must be that one sibling was related to Rav Chiya maternally and the other paternally. Thus, both siblings were related to Rav Chiya but not to each other. So, they were allowed to marry and Rav was born of that union.)
Similarly, Rabbi Moshe Kunitz (1774-1837) argues that Esther was Mordechai’s cousin through his father’s side because the Torah describes her as “Esther, daughter of Avichayil, uncle (dod) of Mordechai” (Esther 2:15), using the word dod instead of misaref. Rabbi Kunitz offers proof to his position from the Talmud (Yevamot 54b), which explains that the prohibition of marrying one’s doodah (“aunt”) applies only to one’s aunt “from the father’s side,” meaning one’s father’s paternal brother’s wife. Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (1835-1909) agrees that this passage proves that dod refers only to a paternal uncle, but notes that it does not prove that misaref refers to one’s maternal uncle. (Parenthetically, we should note that although by Biblical law a man is allowed to marry his father’s maternal brother’s ex-wife or widow, the Rabbis nonetheless decreed that one is forbidden from doing so, as in Yevamot 21a).
We have already mentioned the word misaref several times in this essay, but where does this word come from and how does it fit into our discussion? The prophet Amos foretells of utter destruction that was destined to befall the Kingdom of Israel, whose population would be diminished through plague and enemy onslaught, and even the survivors would subsequently be killed when the enemies captured their cities and burned their houses down. In that context, Amos says the following: “And his uncle (dod) and misarfo will carry him and take out the bones from the house…” (Amos 6:10).
What does misarfo in this verse mean? This word appears only once in the entire Bible — making it a hapax legomenon — which certainly complicates any efforts to hone in on its precise meaning.
Ibn Ezra (to Amos 6:10) cites the early grammarian Rabbi Yehuda Ibn Kuraish (9th century North Africa) as explaining that while dod refers to one’s paternal uncle (i.e. his father’s brother), misaref refers to one’s maternal uncle (i.e. his mother’s brother). The same understanding is found in Ibn Janach’s Sefer HaShorashim (entry SIN-REISH-PEH), as well as in the Radak’s Sefer HaShorashim. It was also popularized in Karaite scholarship by the early Karaite commentator Yefet ben Ali (10th century Iraq). According to this approach, both dod and misaref mean “uncle,” but the two words refer to two different types of uncles.
One problem with this approach is that the relationship of maternal uncle comes up several other times in the Bible (Gen. 29:10, Judges 9:1, 9:3) and is always denoted by the phrase that literally reads “mother’s brother/brothers” and never by the term misaref. This would suggest that misaref does not mean “mother’s brother.” Moreover, Professor Gary Rendsburg wrote to me that Ibn Kuraish and Ibn Janach’s interpretation may have been influenced by their native Arabic, which has two words for “uncle” — em (“paternal uncle”) and khal (“maternal uncle”) — and there is no reason to assume that the same should not be true in Hebrew.
That said, the various commentators offer other explanations of the word misarfo that are not necessarily related to “uncles.” For example, Rashi (there) seems to explain misaref as a generic term that means “relative” or “cohort,” but does not denote a specific kinship relationship. This is also the approach taken by the Septuagint and the Peshitta in translating said verse in Amos. Rabbi Yosef Ibn Kaspi (1279-1345) also seems to follow this approach, lamenting the fact that our understanding of the Hebrew language is incomplete, such that we do not know the exact familial relationship denoted by the word misaref.
Targum Yonatan and Radak (to Amos 6:1) explain that misarfo is actually a verb that refers to “burning.” They understand that although this word is spelled with a SAMECH, since SAMECH and SIN are often interchangeable, its root is the triliteral SIN-REISH-PEH, which means to “burn” or “incinerate.” Nonetheless, if this is indeed the meaning of misarfo, then this word would represent a unique inflection/conjugation of that Hebrew root that appears nowhere else in the Bible (see also HaKtav VeHaKabbalah to Lev. 21:11).
Rabbi Shimon Yehuda Leib Goldblit (an early 20th century exegete) offers a synthesis of these two explanations by arguing that one’s love for one’s maternal uncle especially “burns” strong (see Song of Songs 8:6-7 for imagery of love depicted as a raging fire). He also explains that this is alluded to in what the Rabbis say that “most children resemble the mother’s brothers” (Bava Batra 110a).
Professor Rendsburg follows Yechezkel Kutscher (1909-1971) in explaining misarfo as a verb to mean “to smear with resin.” He explains misaref as related to the Aramaic/Hebrew word seraf (“sap” or “syrup”). Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) similarly proposes that misaref is derived from seraf (“tree sap”) — a word that appears in the Mishna (Orlah 1:7, and see also Shabbat 26a) – although that word is spelled with a SIN. Rabbi Wertheimer explains that one’s descendants are called one’s “sap” because in the same way that the sap comes from within the tree itself, one’s descendants come from one’s own flesh. Rabbi Wertheimer further clarifies that misaref refers specifically to “unwanted children” (i.e. wicked or wayward offspring) who “drip down” from their parents almost involuntarily, just like the sap flows from the tree casually, whether the tree wants it or not. He also notes that this lines up with the word sar’af (Yechezkel 31), “branch,” whose root is the same as misaref, albeit with an extra AYIN added as the penultimate letter.
As an aside, some have argued that the English word syrup is related to the Hebrew/Aramaic word seraf. However, etymologists cited by the Oxford English Dictionaryoffer a different explanation. They explain that the English words syrup, sorbet, and sherbet/sherbert all ultimately derive from the Arabic word sharba/sharab, which means “drink.” Interestingly, in Hebrew, the root SHIN-REISH-BET means “thirstiness” or “dryness” (or “heat wave,” in Modern Hebrew) making it an auto-antonym of its Arabic cognate. Shoresh Yesha actually invokes the interchangeability of PEH and BET to connect saraf with sharav, explaining that “dryness” comes from heat, just like “burning” does (see also Malbim to Yeshayahu 35:7).