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

Greasy Receptacles

The Talmud famously relates that when the Syrian-Greeks entered the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, they defiled all the containers of olive oil used for the Temple rituals, rendering them ritually impure. When the Hasmoneans later overpowered them and reclaimed the Temple, they were only able to find one “container” (pach) of oil whose seal was yet unbroken. From that one container, they lit the Menorah in the Temple, and that small quantity of oil miraculously lasted for eight days. This, in a nutshell, is the story behind the establishment of Chanuka (Shabbat 21b, Megillat Taanit to 25 of Kislev, Sheiltot D’Rav Achai Gaon Vayishlach §26, and Maimonides’ Laws of Chanuka 3:2).

However, one of the signature highlights of Chanuka is the recitation and singing of the epic poem Maoz Tzur (“Rock of Ages”). The stanza that discusses the miracle of Chanuka reads: “The Greeks gathered up against me / Then, in the days of the Hasmoneans / And they breached the walls of my tower / And they defiled all the oils (shemanim) / And from the remnant of the containers (kankanim) / A miracle was done for the roses (shoshanim) / The children of understanding [i.e., the Jewish People] / Eight days, they established for song and praise.” In this retelling of the story, the word used to denote “container” of oil is kankan, not pach. This raises two related questions: Why did the poet decide to replace the word pach used by Chazal with the word kankan? Moreover, are the words pach and kankan synonymous?

Regarding the first question, there is an obvious answer: The author of Maoz Tzur used his poetic license to take liberties with his wording. This allowed him to switch out the expected word pachim for kankanim, because kankanim rhymes with the final word of the next line (shoshanim), while pachim does not. However, Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Shapiro of Dinov (1783–1841) rejects this line of reasoning, arguing that if the poet was so worried about rhyme, then he could have just as easily replaced the expected word pachim with the word shemanim (“oils”), which also rhymes with shoshanim to read “and from the remnant of the oils…”

So we’re back to the original question: Why did the poet insist on using the word kankanim, which is not found in Chazal with respect to the miracle of Chanuk instead of pachim or at least shemanim? I still think the answer about poetic license is the correct approach. To briefly address Rabbi Shapiro’s observation, I would say that the poet did not want to use the word shoshanim because that word was already used to end the previous line and it is considered tacky to rhyme a word with itself.

At this point, I do not have a clear answer as to whether pach and kankan are actually synonyms, but after a discussion about these words, it will become clear that it is a real possibility.

The word pach appears three times in Scripture, each time in the two-word expression pach ha’shemen (“the pach of oil”). It appears in the context of Samuel anointing of King Saul (I Sam. 10:1) and Elisha’s protégé Jonah anointing King Jehu (II Kgs. 9:1, 9:3). Jastrow translates the word pach as “flask” or “jug.” The word pach also appears several times in the Mishnah (Shabbat 17:5, Beitzah 1:7, Bava Kamma 8:6, Keilim 2:2, 3:2, 5:3, Negaim 12:5) as term for a pottery jug typically used for storing oil. Rashi (to Avodah Zarah 71b) explains that a pach is smaller than a chavit (but see below).

According to the early Hebrew lexicographers, pach as a noun is derived from a similar word mefakim (Ezek. 47:2, Shekalim 6:3, Middot 2:6), which is a verb that refers to the “spread/flow” of liquid. In this way, pach denotes the container from which liquid flows out or can be poured out. The triliteralists see the root in question as PEH-KAF-HEY (see Radak’s Sefer HaShorashim), while the biliteralists see the root as simply PEH-KAF (see Machberet Menachem and Rashi to Ezek. 47:2).

Interestingly, Rabbi Pappenheim also traces pach to the two-letter root PEH-KAF, but defines its core meaning as “reversal,” seeing it as the etymological parent of the word hafuch and other words with the HEY-PEH-KAF string. The way Rabbi Pappenehim puts it, pach relates to “reversal” because it refers specifically to a flask/jug with a narrow opening, such that if one wanted to empty it of its contents, one would have to turn it upside down so that those contents will flow out. He also relates the word puch (“eye makeup” in II Kgs. 9:30, Jer. 4:30) to this root, explaining that such eyeliner, or kohl, was typically stored in a pach. Finally, Rabbi Pappenheim relates that the terms puch (Isa. 54:11, I Chron. 29:2) and nofech (Ex. 28:18, 39:11, Ezek. 28:13) as names for precious gemstones were borrowed from puch in the cosmetics sense, because those jewels resembled the color of eyeliner.

Let’s now turn to the word kankan. This word does not appear at all in Scripture, but is used several times in the Mishnah to refer to a container used for storing wine (Maaser Sheini 1:3-4, 3:12-13, Avodah Zarah 2:4), oil (Ketubot 13:4, Bava Metzia 3:8, Shevuot 6:3), or water (Mikvaot 2:7, 2:9). The Tosafists (Tosafot to Avodah Zarah 32a) assert that a kankan is typically made of pottery. So far, the word kankan lines up with everything we know about the word pach, and it seems very likely that they could be used interchangeably and somewhat synonymously.

But the story gets even more interesting.

In several cases, the Mishnah uses the words kad (typically translated as “jug”) and chavit (typically translated as “barrel”) as though the two terms were interchangeable (Terumot 11:7-8, Demai 7:8, Bava Kamma 3:1, 3:5, 10:4). Meaning, the Mishnah might start to discuss a certain ruling using one of those words, and then continue the discussion by using the other word. The Babylonian Talmud (Bava Kamma 27a) explains that this is because in the popular vernacular, the words kad and chavit could be switched around and their meaning was not necessarily fixed. Although the Talmud itself does not take note of this, the word kankan should also be added to the mix, because one Mishnah uses kankan and chavit as interchangeable (Maaser Sheini 3:13) and several other Mishnayot (Maaser Sheini 1:3-4, Ketubot 13:4, Shevuot 6:3) use the words kankan and kad as though they were interchangeable (see Tosafot Yom Tov to Ketubot 13:4).

Now, what would you say if I told you that we also find the word pach used interchangeably with the word kad?

When Jacob’s family crossed the river Jabbok, “Jacob remained alone (levado) [on the other side of the river] and a man wrestled with him until the morning arose” (Gen. 32:25). But why did Jacob return to the other side of the river where he was all by himself, after helping his family and the rest of his entourage cross the Jabbok? The Talmud (Chullin 91a, cited by Rashi to Gen. 32:25) explains that after crossing the Jabbok, Jacob realized that he had forgotten some small pachim on the other side of the river, so he returned to retrieve those items.

Based in London, Rabbi Yossi Kwadrat is the editor-in-chief of the Kankan Magazine. He’s a huge fan of Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein’s God versus Gods, just see his excited smile behind the stoic beard…

This exegesis is fascinating in its own right, but it remains unclear where we see an allusion to pachim in the relevant Scriptural verse. That difficulty is resolved by the version of the Talmudic passage in question cited by the Tosafists (in Daat Zekanim and Hadar Zekanim) and Rabbeinu Bachaya. The way they cite it, the Talmud expounded on the word levado as though it said l’kado (“for his kad“), due to the orthographic similarities between the letters BET and KAF. Thus, the verse reads “Jacob remained for the sake of his kad…” which leads the Talmud to say that he forget some pachim across the river. So there you have it, the Talmud uses the words pach and kad interchangeably. This means that we can justifiably add pach to the group of interchangeable words comprised of chavit, kad, and kankan. And now, we can justify the author of Maoz Tzur replacing the word pach with kankan because they essentially mean the same thing!


Once we’re talking about the word kankan, I wanted to discuss its etymology, which will lead us into another interesting Chanuka-related discussion. Dr. Alexander Kohut (1842–1894) in HaAruch HaShaleim claims that the Mishnaic Hebrew term kankan is actually a loanword borrowed from the Latin word kanne/canna (“reed,” “cane,” “pipe,” “tube,” “small vessel”), probably by way of a linguistic phenomenon called reduplication whereby phenomes are repeated twice within the same word.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the English word can (think: soda can, or can of tuna) — which has cognates in other Germanic languages — also comes from this Latin term. Other related English words said to derive from that Latin word include cane (like in “sugar cane” or “walking cane”), canalchannelkennel, cannister, canon, and canyon. None of this, of course, has anything to do with cancan, a sordid French dance whose etymology remains unclear (but might be related to the word canard duck, as the dance includes duck-like motions).

Rabbi Ernest David Klein (1899–1983) in his Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language adds that the Latin term is actually derived from the Semitic (i.e., Hebrew) word kaneh (“reed,” “stem/branch,” “tube”), which appears over fifty times in the Bible. All of these meanings represent pipe-like items with a typically hollow middle, which is exactly what it means in Latin. So when Mishnaic Hebrew later reborrowed this term from Latin as kankan, it makes sense that it would refer to a vessel with a hollow receptacle — which also fits its original Hebrew etymon. [In a previous essay, I discussed how the term kaneh in Rabbinic Hebrew also came to refer to a “windpipe” (see “The Gorgeous Windpipe” (June 2022).]

One of the contexts in which the term kaneh appears in the Bible is regarding the “branches” of the Menorah (“candelabra”). That golden vessel consisted of six branches and a stem going down the middle, making for a total of seven candles. The word used for these “branches” is kaneh (Ex. 25:31-36, 37:18-22). Given that we’ve already established that hollowness is what characterizes the word kaneh, does this mean that the branches of the Menorah could/should be hollow?

Maimonides (Laws of Beit HaBechirah 3:4) writes that if the Menorah was made chalulah (literally, “hollow”), then it is still fit. There are two ways to understand Maimonides’ intention with this ruling: Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488–1575) explains that making the Menorah chalulah refers to not making it from one hunk of gold, and Maimonides’ intent was to say that even though optimally the Menorah should be made of one hunk of gold, if because of sub-optimal conditions, the Menorah is being ma

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de out of another metal, it need not be made out of one hunk, but can be fashioned from multiple scraps welded together. Aruch HaShulchan He’Atid explains that something not made out of one hunk is called chalulah because there will inevitably be some gaps between the pieces.

In his work Kiryat Sefer, Rabbi Moshe of Trani (1505–1585), also known as the Mabit, offers another way of explaining Maimonides’ ruling. He explains that Maimonides means that in all cases, the branches of the Menorah may ex-ante be made hollow, even when the Menorah is being fashioned out of one hunk of gold. Rabbi Massoud Chai Rokach (1690-1768) and Rabbi Avraham Dovber Kahane-Shapiro (1870–1943) explain that Rabbi Karo did not follow Mabit’s explanation, because there is no source in Chazal which explicitly or implicitly says that the branches of the Menorah may be hollow, so he interpreted chalulah differently than did Mabit.

That said, given our discussion, we can now understand why Mabit understood that the branches of the Menorah may be hollow: the very word kaneh used by the Torah in reference to those branches tell us that they can (or perhaps even should) be hollow. Indeed, Rashbam and Ibn Ezra (to Ex. 25:32) explicitly write that the kanim of the Menorah ought to be hollow on the inside. This is the simple explanation of the word kaneh in the Pentateuch, so Mabit did not need an explicit source in Chazal that says that the branches may be hollow, because such is already implicit in the literal reading of the Torah itself.

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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