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

Finding the gold


King David famously said that the Torah is more precious than gold. In one passage he writes, “The Torah of Your mouth is better for me than thousands of gold (zahav) and silver” (Ps. 119:72). Later in that chapter he exclaims, “I love Your commandments more than zahav and paz” (Ps. 119:127). In yet another passage, King David writes, “They (the Torah’s Laws) are more desirable than gold and much paz” (Ps. 19:11). In these few passages we have so far encountered two words for “gold” — zahav and paz. In addition to these two words we will find another three words in the Bible that refer to “gold”: ketem, charutz, and betzer. This essay will explore these five different words for “gold” and discuss whether or not they are truly synonymous. Various commentators suggest that these different words connote different places in which gold is found and/or different hues of gold.

The most common Hebrew word in the Bible for “gold” is zahav. Along with its Aramaic counterpart dahav — which is explained by the Hebrew ZAYIN morphing into an Aramaic DALET — this word appears more than four-hundred times throughout the Bible. The Talmud (Yoma 44b-45a) states that there are seven types (or grades) of zahav: regular zahav, zahav tov (“good gold”), zahav Ophir (gold imported from Ophir, I Chron. 29:4), zahav mufaz (explained below), zahav shachut (“beaten gold,” I Kings. 10:16-17 and II Chron. 9:15-16), zahav sagur (“fine gold,” this term appears eight times in I Kings 6-7, II Chron. 4 and 9)and zahar parvaim (“gold from a Parvaim,” or “gold whose color resembles a cow’s blood,” II Chron. 3:6). A similar tradition about seven shades of gold in King David’s blonde hair can be found in Tikkunei Zohar (Tikkun #70). [For an alternate list of the seven types of gold, a list that replaces regular zahav and zahav Ophir with zahav tahor (“pure gold”) and zahav mezukak (“refined gold”), see Shemot Rabbah 35:1.]

Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) explains that the root of the word zahav is ZAYIN-HEY (or perhaps even just the letter ZAYIN alone), which means “this,” because something shiny and sparkling like “gold” calls attention to itself. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) similarly explains that zahav is derived from the biliteral root ZAYIN-BET which means “flow,” because when one refines gold the unalloyed gold simply “flows” away from its impurities. [Interestingly, though zahav literally means “gold,” Ibn Janach and Radak write that the word zahav can be borrowed to refer to anything pristine and clean (see, for example, Jer. 51:7 and Zech. 4:12).]

A popular etymology of the word zahav argues that it is a contraction of the phrase zeh hav (“give this”) — an allusion to gold’s role as legal tender. This explanation is cited by such luminaries as Peirush HaRokeach, Rabbi Todros Abulafia (1247-1306), Rabbi Binyamin HaRofeh Anav (a brother of the author of Shibbolei HaLeket)the Maharal of Prague (1520-1609), Rabbi Eliezer Papo (1785-1828), and more.

The Torah describes the Pishon River as circumscribing the Land of Havilah, reporting that the especially good gold is found there (Gen. 2:11-12). In explaining those passages, Nachmanides explains that this “good gold” is found in the sand and on the shores along the Pishon River. Based on this, Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) writes that the word zahav is related to the word zav (“flow”), and denotes the type of gold found near “flowing” bodies of water.

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Havilah is probably named after a person named Havilah son of Joktan (son of Eber), who was a brother to someone named Ophir (Gen. 10:29, I Chron. 1:23). The name Ophir also appears as a place name for the location from which both zahav (I Chron. 29:4, I Kings 9:28; 10:11; 22:49, and II Chron. 9:10) and ketem (Isa. 13:12, Ps. 45:10, Iyov 28:16) are brought. Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu Horowitz (1765-1821) writes in his Sefer HaBrit that Ophir refers to the South American country Peru, where large deposits of gold are supposedly concentrated in the Andes Mountains and in the many rivers that flow across its jungles. Others identify Ophir as someplace on the Indian subcontinent, with the legendary lost city of Atlantis, with the Phillipines, and even with Australia. Nonetheless, the accepted understanding amongst scholars is that Ophir is somewhere in the Arabian Peninsula or in the Horn of Africa (i.e. Ethiopia). Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (1832-1909) identifies zahav Ophir as “white gold” (perhaps platinum or an alloy of gold and some other white metal), which he claims is found in Russia. The American archeologist William Foxwell Albright (1891-1971) identifies Ophir with Punt in Somalia.

The word paz appears nine times in the Bible. Although most commentators understand paz to mean “gold” (as Radak to Ps. 19:11 writes, it specifically means “good and unadulterated gold”), others disagree. Ibn Ezra (to Ps. 19:11 and Song of Songs 5:11) explains paz as a “precious stone,” while Rabbi Moshe David Valle (1697-1777) explains that paz refers to “royal jewels” that happened to be made out of gold. As Rabbi Wertheimer puts it, paz is the best type of gold in the world and is the most rare form of gold.

Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the two-letter root PEH-ZAYIN — from which the word paz is derived — refers to “fast movement.” Thus, when the Bible describes King David as being mifazez before the Holy Ark (II Sam. 6:16), this refers to him furiously dancing in honor of the Torah. Based on this understanding of the root, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the word paz refers to extremely pure gold that shimmers in the sunlight as though it were dancing. He also explains that the adjectives mufaz (I Kings 10:18), me’ufaz (Jer. 10:9), and ufaz (Dan. 10:5) all refer to shiny gold that has a glistening and glowing glimmer. [Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 49:23-24) notes that there ought to be a connection between mifazez and paz, but confesses that he does not know what it is. See also Rabbi Hirsch’s comments to Ps. 19:11.]

Others (like Ibn Janach and Radak) explain that the triliteral root PEH-ZAYIN-ZAYIN is separate from the word paz, and refers to “strength.” They explain mifazez as referring to the “strength” and “vigor” with which King David danced before the Ark. These commentators explain that when these words are used to describe gold, mufaz and ufaz refer to gold that is especially unalloyed and thus “stronger” than other, adulterated types of gold. Radak explains that me’ufaz means “from [a place called] Uzaf,” which is identified by Targum as Ophir (possibly because the ZAYIN of Ufaz is interchangeable with the REISH of Ophir).

The word ketem appears nine times in the Bible. Although Ibn Janach first defines ketem as “jewels,” he concludes that it more likely means “gold,” which is how most commentators explain the word. Like zahav, ketem is also said to be imported from Ophir, and according to Dr. Chaim Tawil the very word ketem is said to be derived from the Akkadian word kutimmu and the Sumerian word kudim which mean “goldsmith.” [Interestingly, Rabbi Moshe Ibn Ezra (1055-1138) writes that the word ketem in Iyov 31:24 actually means “silver,” even though he agrees that elsewhere it is a synonym for “gold.”]

Alternatively, ketem is derived from the Hebrew root KAF-TAV-MEM, which also means “stain” or “dirtied” (for example, see Jer. 2:22). Rabbi Pappenheim writes that both meanings of ketem are actually derived from the monoliteral root KAF, which refers to “hitting.” He explains that KAF-TAV specifically refers to “beating something through repeated rubbing,” such that ketem refers to especially pure gold whose malleability allows it to beaten into something very thin. Since such fine gold is especially eye-catching, the term ketem was borrowed to mean anything which noticeably sticks out, such as a “stain” or “dirt” on an otherwise pristine background.

The Modern Hebrew word katom (for the color “orange”) is derived from the same root as ketem, and the Modern Hebrew word tapuz (for the fruit “orange”) is a contraction of the Hebrew phrase tapuach zahav (literally, “Golden Apple”) — an expression found in Proverbs 25:11. The English word orange, by the way, is related to the Hebrew/Aramaic word etrog/trunga, as both are derived from the Old Persian word narang and refer to various citrus fruits. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the initial o- in the English form of this word is probably influenced by the place name Orange, famous for the House of Orange.

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The word charutz in the sense of “gold” appears six times in the Bible. This word is actually the standard Phoenician (Tyrian) and Akkadian word for “gold,” and so some scholars claim that Hebrew borrowed the word from those languages. On the other hand, Rabbi Marcus explains that since the root CHET-REISH-TZADI refers to “cutting/digging with a sharp instrument,” gold is called charutz because it is dug up from underground. Indeed, Rabbi Wertheimer writes that the word charutz refers to gold found by “digging.” Rabbi Yishaya of Trani (1180-1250) explains that gold is called charutz because the pursuit of gold makes people “diligent” and “industrious,” which are alternate meanings of the Hebrew word charutz.

Psalms 68:14 refers to something called yerakrak charutz (“greenish charutz”), which Menachem Ibn Saruk explains as a type of gemstone. However, Dunash Ibn Labrat and others explain that charutz refers to “gold” (see also Tosafot to Nedarim 32a) such that this term references greenish gold (perhaps a reference to electrum or gold alloyed with cadmium). Indeed, Radak also defines charutz as “gold,” while noting that some say that charutz refers to gemstones.

The Israeli archaeologist Dr. Shmuel Yeivin (1896-1982) wrote (under the pen name Shebna) that the words in question reflect different colors of gold (usually depending on what other metals are present in the alloy). In fact, the Mishna (Yoma 4:4) teaches that on normal days the fire pan used for the incense in the Holy Temple would be made of greenish gold, but on Yom Kippur, they would use one made of reddish gold. Yeivin thus explains that zahav is yellowish gold, ketem is reddish gold, and charutz is greenish gold. That ketem refers to something reddish is hinted to in the Mishna (Niddah 8:1), which uses the word ketem as a “blood stain.” Indeed, gold alloyed with copper — known as “Red Gold” or “Rose Gold” — boasts a reddish color. Additionally, Yeivin argues that the word paz focuses on the shine/luster of gold, without regard to its particular hue.

The last word in our discussion is betezer. The debate concerning this word centers on a specific verse in which Eliphaz the Temanite tells Iyov that man’s best hope is to repent “and then you would have a betezer on the ground and Ophir (i.e. gold) with the rocks of the brooks” (Iyov 22:24, see also Iyov 22:25, 36:19). Ibn Janach, Radak, and Gersonides explain that the word betezer in this context refers to “gold.” However, other commentators disagree with this assessment and explain the word differently: Ibn Ezra writes that betzer is “silver,” while Rashi (following Menachem) writes that it is a “stronghold.” Rabbi Isaiah of Trani explains that betezer does not actually mean “gold,” but is still related to gold because it refers to the crude ore which, when refined, can yield gold.

About the Author
RABBI REUVEN CHAIM KLEIN is an editor and researcher at the Veromemanu Foundation in Israel. His weekly articles about synonyms in the Hebrew language appear in the OhrNet, as well as in the Jewish Press, Jewish Tribune, and Times of Israel. Rabbi Klein grew up in Valley Village, CA where he studied at Emek Hebrew Academy and Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles. He then studied at Yeshivat Mir in Jerusalem and in Beth Medrash Govoha of America in Lakewood, NJ, before finally making Aliyah in 2011. He is the author of Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew (Mosaica Press, 2014) and God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry (Mosaica Press, 2018), as well as countless articles and papers published in various journals. Rabbi Klein is also available for hire in research, writing, and translation projects, as well as speaking engagements.
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