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

Happy Horses (Part 1/2)

Towards the end of the Story of Purim, when the Persian king Achashverosh decided to overturn his awful decree against the Jews, the king sent out messages to all one-hundred and twenty-seven provinces under his dominion announcing that the Jews had permission to fight back against their enemies. In describing how those messages were spread, the Scroll of Esther states, “and he sent scrolls in the hands of the runners with susim, the riders of the rechesh, the achashtranim, sons of the remachim” (Est. 8:10). While the word sus means “horse” — of course — the meanings of these other three nouns are obscured. In this two-part essay, we will explore the meanings of the four nouns in that verse and consider the possibility that all four words are actually synonyms that mean “horse.” Part One focuses on the words sus and rechesh, while Part Two will be dedicated to the words achashtranim and remachim. We will also discuss alternate meanings of some of these words, as well as the etymology of the name of Achashverosh’s horse.

The word sus (“horse”) appears approximately 140 times throughout the Bible, making it a fairly common word (although, in Isa. 38:14 it actually refers to a type of bird). A form of sus also appears in the personal name Gadi ben Sussi (Num. 13:11).

Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach (990–1050) and the Radak (1160–1234) trace the word sus to the triliteral root SAMECH-VAV-SAMECH, while Menachem Ibn Saruk (920–970) sees its root as the biliteral SAMECH-SAMECH. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) offers two slightly different etymologies for this word. In his work Yeriot Shlomo, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the root of sus is the monoliteral root SAMECH (“repellence”). That core root gives way to the term nisah (“fleeing/running away”), which relates to a “horse,” as an equid beast is used for running away and fleeing. In his work Cheshek Shlomo, Rabbi Pappenheim sees the core root of sus as SIN-SIN (via the interchangeability of the letters SAMECH and SIN), whose principal meaning is “liveliness.” This root also gives us the word sasson (“gladness”), as a jovial and happy person is said to be “full of life” (while the opposite is true of a depressed and melancholy individual). In line with this, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that a sus is likewise an active and cheerful animal.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 1:21) takes a similar approach that also links sus to sasson. He sees SAMECH-VAV-SAMECH as related to ZAYIN-VAV-ZAYIN, SIN-VAV-SIN, and TZADI-VAV-TZADI (via the interchangeability of SAMECH, ZAYIN, SIN, and TZADI). Words derived from all of these roots refer to “movement” in varying degrees: zuz (“moving/shifting,” the most basic movement), sasson (“gladness,” active movements of happiness), and tzitz (“blossoming,” fertile movement). All of these relate to sus, which also denotes a vehicle of “movement.”

The connection between sus and sasson already has precedent in earlier sources. For example, the Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah §1:49) expounds on the presence of the word sus regarding Pharaoh (Song of Songs 1:9), as though Hashem said that just as He was “happy” to drown the Egyptian cavalry at the Red Sea, so is He always “happy” to annihilate the Jews’ enemies. The commentators (Eitz Yosef there and Rabbeinu Bachaya to Gen. 2:19) explain the basis of this exegesis as grounded in the connection between sus and sasson, and the way that horses are “happy” to engaged in warfare (see also Pesachim 113b which states that horses “love” war).

Rabbi Avraham Saba (1440–1508) similarly writes in Tzror HaMor (to Gen. 2:20) that the horse is the happiest of all animals. In fact, he notes that happiness is so ingrained in the horse’s nature that if a person was sad or worried, simply riding a horse will forthwith make him happy and glad. This is why the words sus and sasson are related. Rabbi Yaakov Ashkenazi of Janow (1550–1625) writes in Tzeina U’Reinah (Parashat Bereishit) that when Adam encountered all the animals in order to give them their names, he saw that horses were especially jovial and happy, so he named them sussim, which is a word etymologically-related to sasson.

The Maharal (Ohr Chadash to Est. 8:1) makes a similar point in explaining that the Scroll of Ester stressed that the royal proclamations that allowed the Jews to defend themselves were specifically disseminated via horses, because that proclamation heralded happiness. In contrast, the earlier proclamations that called for killing the Jews were not said to have been sent via horses (see Est. 3:13–15), because they did not project happiness.

The term rechesh only appear four times in the Bible: twice when talking about Achashverosh’s couriers (Est. 8:10, 8:14), once when talking about the various tributes that people brought King Solomon (I Kgs. 5:8), and once when discussing tethering a wagon to an animal (Mic. 1:13).

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The term rechesh also appears in the Talmud in an interesting context: The normal way of gifting something according to Halacha is by way of kinyan (“formal act of acquisition”), but the rabbis instituted that a person on his deathbed may gift somebody by merely verbalizing his will to give such a gift (matnat sh’chiv m’ra). If one had a document attesting that he was gifted something by way of matnat sh’chiv m’ra that also attests to a kinyan, the Talmud says arkavei a’trei richashei – “he [the giver] has mounted him [the receiver] on two rechashim” (Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 55b, Bava Batra 152a, Jerusalemic Talmud Kiddushin 1:5).

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Initially, the Talmud thought that this means that the gift is invalid, as though one hitched a wagon to two horses (two richashi) with each horse pulling in a different direction. This would leave the wagon in the exact same spot it started out, just as it would leave the gift in the hands of the giver. But then, the Talmud clarifies that it actually refers to one who tied a wagon to two horses (two richashi) who were travelling in the same direction. In that case, the additional horsepower allows the wagon to travel faster. In the legal context, it means that the receiver of the gift has two different legal claims to the gift, which means he has a more “powerful” argument than if he only had one claim.

Interestingly, pre-Islamic Persian folklore tells stories about a mythological hero named Rostam, who reportedly had a special stallion named Rakhsh. His beloved equine was said to possess special intelligence, and would only allow Rostam to ride him. Although these stories were written long after the Scroll of Esther, the use of the name Rakhsh for a horse clearly comes from the Aramaic word rechesh for “horse” that we have been discussing.

But does the word rechesh actually just mean “horse” or something else? The commentaries offer a bevy of explanations:

  • Ralbag (to Est. 8:10) explains that rechesh refers to an especially fast type of horse. Ibn Janach (in his Sefer HaShorashim) likewise writes that rechesh refer to a superior type of young horse. In a similar vein, the German linguist Wilhelm Gesenius (1786–1842) writes that the word rechesh is related to the Arabic verb that means “running/galloping” of a horse, leading him to remark that rechesh refers to a superior breed of horse/stallion known for its remarkable speed.
  • Radak (to Est. 8:10, I Kgs. 5:8, and Sefer HaShorashim) writes that rechesh refers to some unspecific species of animal that runs swiftly, but does not necessarily refer to a “horse.” He actually cites Est. 8:10 and I Kgs. 5:8 (which mention rechesh alongside sus) as implying that a rechesh is not a “horse.”
  • Ibn Ezra and Rabbi Moshe ben Yitzchak Ibn Chalava (to Est. 8:10) explain the word rechesh as a permutation of rechush (“property”). In the context of Achashverosh, this refers to special horses that were the “property” of the king. [Interestingly, Solomon Rabinowitz of New York (d. 1943) in his Sefer HaMishkalim sees the word rechush in Ezra 1:4 as referring to the rechesh horse, not to the regular word rechush.]
  • Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Carpentras (an 18th century grammarian and dayan) writes in Ohalei Yehuda that rechesh refers to a horse adorned with its rider’s weapons, which can be viewed as its “property” (rechush).
  • Alternatively, he explains that rechesh relates to reches (“attached/tying”), as it denotes the team of a horse and rider, who can be viewed as “attached” to one another.

Rabbi Samson Raphael (to Gen. 12:5) explains rechesh as referring specifically to the type of horse that pulls a wagon. In doing so, he sees rechesh as related to the root REISH-KAF-SAMECH (“attaching/tying”), via the interchangeability of the letters SHIN and SIN/SAMECH. In line with this, he differentiates between sus and rechesh by explaining that sus is a general term for “horse,” while rechesh refers to a more specific type of horse, of course.

The Maskillic Hebrew scholar Naftali Torczyner/Tur-Sinai (1886–1973) sees the root REISH-KAF-SHIN as a metathesized form of the root KUF-SHIN-REISH (“tying/tethering”), probably based on the interchangeability of the letters KUF and KAF. Like Rabbi Hirsch, he too explains that rechesh refers specifically to horses that are tied to a wagon. Tur-Sinai takes this a step further and asserts that rechush derives from rechesh because one’s main property was one’s livestock, or because moveable property was typically transported by rechashim. [For more about the root REISH-KAF-SHIN/SIN, see my earlier essay “Prime Property” (Nov. 2022).]

To Be Continued… [Part Two of this essay will discuss the words achashtranim and remachim, as well as the etymology behind the name of Achashverosh’s horse.]

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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