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

Heaps of Water

Image by Kerstin Riemer from Pixabay.

In the miraculous spectacle known as the Parting of the Sea, the Red Sea’s waters stopped their normal flow and instead began to pile up, so that the Jewish People could cross the river as though it were dry land. When the Song of the Sea describes this aspect of the miracle, it says ne’ermu mayim (Ex. 15:8), using a cognate of the word areimah (“pile/heap”) to denote the amassing of water. In this essay we consider the possible etymological connection between the word areimah and a similar word — chamar. The latter word also appears in the Exodus story, as the Bible relates that when the Plague of Frogs finished, the dead frogs were gathered in “piles and piles” — chamarim chamarim. (Ex. 8:10).

The triliteral root AYIN-REISH-MEM, from which areimah derives, has multiple meanings (see below), but appears eleven times in the Bible (besides for Ex. 15:8) in the sense of “pile.” Although a plurality of these occurrences is in the Book of Chronicles (II Chron. 31:6-9), the word is also found in Jeremiah (3:26), Haggai (2:16), Ruth (3:17), Nehemiah (3:34, 13:15), and Song of Songs (7:3). This word also occurs in the Mishna (Terumot 2:1, Maaserot 1:5-6, 5:7, Beitzah 4:1).

The word chamarim, which seems to derive from triliteral root CHET-MEM-REISH, appears in the Bible in the sense of “piles” three times (twice in Ex. 8:10 and once in Num. 11:32). A related form also appears once in the Mishnah (Uktzin 2:5), when referring to a heap of onions that had been amassed into one grouping (chamran). In commentating on that Mishnah, Rabbi Sherirah Gaon (906–1006) notes that the verb used to denote the amassing of onion cognates with the Biblical term chamarim chamarim (as does Maimonides in his commentary there).

Although I have not been able to locate any source that explicitly takes note of a connection between the words areimah and chamarim, such an etymological connection does seem tenable in two steps: First of all, the root AYIN-REISH-MEM appears to be related to the root AYIN-MEM-REISH (“bundling”) by way of metathesis. Indeed, when Maimonides (in his commentary to Peah 6:2 and Eduyot 4:4) defines a gadish as an areimah of amarim, he purposely used these two related terms because they are indeed synonymous (see Rabbi Yaakov Emden’s Mishneh Lechem to Peah 5:1). Secondly, the root AYIN-MEM-REISH seems related to CHET-MEM-REISH by way of the interchangeability of the letters AYIN and CHET. Thus, through this two-stage process, we can see that areimah and chamarim are actually related to each other. As noted, I have not yet seen any commentators who explicitly link these two words to each other, nor have I found anybody who offers a way of differentiating between the meanings of these apparent synonyms.

Our explanation of ne’ermu mayim as referring to the waters of the sea piling up into “heaps” follows Mechillta (to Ex. 14:16) that writes on this verse that the waters became areimot areimot. This understanding is echoed by Rashbam, who writes that the waters “piled up high like a heap of wheat.”

However, there is an alternate way of understanding what exactly ne’ermu mayim means. Besides referring to “piles,” the root AYIN-REISH-MEM can also refer to “cleverness” (for example, see Gen. 3:1, Job 5:12, Prov. 19:25). Based on that, Targum Onkelos translates ne’ermu mayim into Aramaic as chakimu mayim – “the waters became smart.” This also seems to be Rashi’s preferred explanation.

As Chizkuni clarifies, “smart waters” means that the waters of the Red Sea were intelligent enough to pursue the Egyptians and drown them (and has nothing to do with added electrolytes). Rabbi Chaim Paltiel similarly explains that it refers to the waters being able to differentiate between Jew and Egyptian, thereby allowing the Jews to cross safely and the Egyptians not. On the other hand, the Tosafistic compilation Sefer HaGan explains that this means that the water suddenly accrued the knowledge to sing of G-d’s praises (alongside the Jews who sang Az Yashir in response to the miracles on the sea).

Like the Mechilta, Rabbi Saadia Gaon (892-942), also known as Rasag, also defines ne’ermu in this context as an inflection of the word areimah. Yet, in his objections to Rasag’s commentary, Donash Ibn Librat (920-985) disagrees with Rasag’s understanding — although regrettably there is an omission in the printed version of Donash’s work, and so his preferred explanation is not presented. Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra gives somewhat of a clue as to Donash’s understanding, as Ibn Ezra wrote a work which defends Rasag from Donash’s objections (published under the title Sefat Yeter). Regarding this specific case, Ibn Ezra simply notes that Donash differs with Rasag, and comments that Donash’s preferred explanation should be considered drash rather than pshat. In both of his commentaries to Exodus, Ibn Ezra follows Mechilta and Rasag. It is quite possible that Donash, for some reason, preferred the approach taken by Targum Onkelos and Rashi in explaining ne’ermu as referring to “cleverness.”

Fascinatingly, the Midrash (Esther Rabbah 3:15) states that when G-d punishes the wicked in Gehinnom, He strips them of their external clothes. Another opinion in the Midrash adds that when G-d punished the Egyptians, He similarly did so while they were naked, as alluded to in the first word of the phrase ne’ermu mayim, which seems to be a cognate of arum (“naked”).

If you’ve been keeping score, you’ll notice that the root AYIN-REISH-MEM has three seemingly disparate meanings: “pile,” “cleverness,” “nakedness.” Machberet Menachem mentions these three senses of that root, but does not intimate a connection between these concepts.

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However, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), in his commentary to Gen. 2:25, explains the connection between “cleverness” and “pile” by noting that a pile is typically comprised of multiple items that have been heaped together. Each of these items on its own has no major value, but when grouped together in a pile, can become something important. In the same way, “cleverness” is like a “pile” of thoughts that the intelligent person has considered. While one thought or action on its own may not seem important, when all of these are joined together, they show how the smart person is indeed smarter than the average bear.

It is most noteworthy that Rabbi Hirsch (to Gen. 1:22–23, 11:3) uses a similar idea to explain the meaning of amar (with an ALEPH), chamar, and amar (with an AYIN) — all of which are related through the interchangeability of the letters ALEPH, CHET, and AYIN. Rabbi Hirsch sees the underlying definition of CHET-MEM-REISH (as in chomer, “matter/material”) to be the unification and conglomeration of multiple components. He compares this concept to amar/omer, which refers to “bundling” many stalks; chamarim which are “piles” of like items; and amar (“speech/statement”), which is composed of many ideas/words that are focused on one all-encompassing theme. Rabbi Hirsch also notes that the word cheimar (“mortar”) refers to that material which is used to “unify” bricks and hold them together (see Gen. 11:3, 14:10, Ex. 2:3).

After explaining the above-mentioned two meanings of AYIN-REISH-MEM (“pile” and “cleverness”), Rabbi Hirsch admits that he does not know how “nakedness” fits into the picture, instead arguing that the word for nakedness is actually derived from a different root, AYIN-VAV-REISH (ohr, “skin/hide”). Elsewhere, Rabbi Hirsch (to Gen. 13:13) explains that “nakedness” is connected to “cleverness” in that the clever person is unencumbered by the worldly considerations that often cloud a person’s intellect. In being “naked,” he is bereft from such external forces of confusion and can therefore think straight. Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) in Keset HaSofer (to Gen. 3:1) makes a similar point.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Brelsau (1740-1814) traces the triliteral root AYIN-REISH-MEM to the biliteral AYIN-REISH (whose core meaning is “revealing/unconcealed”) and uses that to explain the connection between these various meanings. The concept of “nakedness” obviously relates to the core meaning of AYIN-REISH because being in the nude exposes/reveals one’s body. Rabbi Pappenheim explains that this meaning also relates to “piles” because in the typical agrarian model, putting one’s grain in piles is only done after the kernels of grain have already been taken out of their sheaves, and thus “revealed” (as opposed to a gadish which refers to piles of grain that are still within the sheaf, contra Maimonides who seems to equate gadish and areimah). Interestingly, Rabbi Pappenheim notes that armon (Gen. 30:37) refers to a type of tree (possibly the Platanus orientalis) that that only has branches on the top, but not along its length, thus giving it the appearance of being “naked.”

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Finally, Rabbi Pappenheim connects the “cleverness” meaning of AYIN-REISH-MEM to AYIN-REISH by first explaining that eir (“awake”) derives from this root, because when one awakens, one’s abilities (that are not readily apparent as he sleeps) are suddenly revealed. Based on this, he explains that “cleverness” refers to a person whose intellectual acumen remains sharp and aware, as though he is always “awake.”

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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