Holiness, Loving Kindness and Righteousness

Recently, a question on social media asked, “What are the values that underpin the beliefs of Judaism?” Encompassing haShem’s revelation to our people for millennia and our extensive cultural development, the values of Judaism cannot be adequately expressed with just a few words. Nevertheless, here are a few words, and their etymologies, that I believe are of pinnacle importance in attempting to answer this question.

Qadosh – holiness:

In Exodus 19:6, just prior to our receiving the ten commandments at Sinai, the Torah states:

אתם תהיו לי ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש

You (pl) shall be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

Likewise, after expounding upon the laws of Kashrut, in Leviticus chapter 11, we are told twice:

והייתם קדשים כי קדש אני

And you (pl) will be holy, because holy am I.

In the Torah, variations of this sentiment occur in parshat Q’doshim (Lev 19:2, 20:7, 20:26), in parshat Emor (Lev 21:6), in parshat Sh’lach (Num15:40), in parshat v’etchanan (Deut 7:6) and in parshat R’aeh (Deut 14:2, 14:21).

The most common explanation that I have encountered regarding the fundamental meaning of the root QaDaSh (קדש) is that it means to be / make separate. Although, not entirely incorrect, a literal translation of this root would be to bring ahead / forward, to dedicate to bring ahead / forward. In fact, like QaDaSh, all of the Semitic roots consisting of the letter Qoph followed by a Dalet (קדד קדח קדם קדר קדש עקד שקד) essentially mean to move the head forward or to move ahead.

The starting point for these words is the verb QaDaD (קדד) to bow, and its associated noun QaDQoD (קדקוד), meaning the crown of the head. The commonly understood meaning of the verb QaDaM (קדם), to go / proceed ahead / before, to confront, and to come before, without further explanation clearly demonstrates a semantic connection. From here the semantic connections are a bit more complicated. The verb QaDaR (קדר), generally means to be sad, gloomy or sullen; but it literally means to drop the head or for the head (face) to fall. This can be seen in Jeremiah 14:2 when the gates of Judah have languished, having fallen face down to the earth (ושעריה…קדרו לארץ). Additionally, a QaDaR is a potter, one whose face is in the fallen down position while he works. In Arabic, among other things, this root means to anticipate and in Akkadian it describes a runner. Both can be described as acts of directing the head and face in a forward direction in pursuit of the final goal. Likewise, the verbs QaDaCh (קדח), \aQaD (עקד), and ShaQaD (שקד) describe acts involving forward and downward head positions. QaDaCh (קדח) means to bore and drill, and then secondarily to kindle and burn. The verb

\aQaD (עקד) describes an act of placing an animal’s head forward and drawing together its limbs for the purpose of binding them together. Likewise, in Arabic, it means to fasten with a knot, lock together, knit, congeal, and contract. However, in Arabic, it also means to fix one’s eyes on something demonstrating further the connection to directing the head and face toward a particular sight. Similarly, the verb ShaQaD (שקד) means to be watchful, bent upon, determined, intent, and vigilant. However, an almond tree is not called ShaQaeD because it is determined or watchful, but rather in a manner reminiscent of the root QaDaM (קדם), because of its flowering earlier than all the others in the land of Israel.

Often, when determining the etymology of a Semitic root, it is the exception that sheds light on a word’s essential meaning. It is apparent that QaDaSh means to be / make holy. But the root is also used a number of times by Jeremiah (6:4; 22:7; 51:27,28) and Micah (3:5) to mean to ready, prepare or dedicate to bring forward (war, destroyers, and nations). Targum Jonathan, an Aramaic translation of these texts uses the Aramaic root ZaMaN (זמן) meaning to invite and appoint (as in Hebrew). Taking the above into consideration, we can reconsider the following line from Deuteronomy 22:9 :

לא תזרע כרמך כלאים פן תקדש המלאה הזרע אשר תזרע ותבואת הכרם

You shall not sow your planting doubly constrained, lest you would bring forward the exhausting of the seed that you sow and the produce of the planting.

This translation clearly expresses the understanding that hybridization of crops can produce sterile offspring, thus exhausting the potential of the seed. The word m’lae/ah (מלאה) usually translates as fullness. However, the Hebrew word La/aH (לאה) meaning to exhaust / be exhausted evolved from the the root MaLa/ (מלא) through the elision of the initial aleph.

So then, what does it mean for us to be QaDoSh? Does it imply pure and untainted as in Akkadian? Does it imply separate and untouched as in Syriac? Does it imply venerated as in Arabic or celebrated as in Sabaic? I suggest that it means for us to be in the front, not separate as is commonly understood. This is especially true regarding our being dedicated to both haShem and the moment to moment existence that haShem creates. The Torah makes a very definitive etymological connection between G-d’s name, the YHWH (יהוה) and the verb HaYaH (היה), to be / exist. The tetragrammaton, quite possibly the piel form of the verb (or at least its variant, הוה), possibly means the one bringing forth existence. Our ancestors considered haShem to be a tangible force, ever creating not just the significant aspects of the universe, but also the least of significant. In making a diligent effort to be as mentally present with G-d’s creation as possible, we could dedicate ourselves to advance forward (QaDaSh) in alignment with haShem’s creation and be empowered to live lives of fulfillment and self actualization. Furthermore, the Torah makes it clear that it is our responsibility to ensure that those less fortunate, be assured the most basic rights and be supported and empowered through acts of kindness, assurance of fairness, and enforcement of justice. To that end, we need to be in the front and leading the way, to be a light to the nations.

Chesed – loving kindness:

Although, to my knowledge, there is no particular Torah commandment telling us to engage in acts of CheSeD (חסד), kindness. G’milut chasadim, the delivery of acts of loving kindness, is a foundation of our religious practice. The word chesed (חסד) has a number of disparate meanings. Once again, a closer examination of those meanings can help to distill a root’s essential meaning, broadening our understanding of the richness of a word, helping to appreciate a word’s many flavors. Since a Semitic root expresses a basic idea, the words that evolve from that root can have neutral, negative and positive connotations. The word chesed is an exemplary example of such a phenomenon. Although the positive is expressed in Hebrew’s common usage of the word, “loving kindness.” The negative is expressed well in the Arabic word chasad (حسد), meaning envy. In Syriac, the verb of this root means to revile, reproach, taunt, scorn, and defy. Although rarely used in the Tanakh, Hebrew also has a negative form meaning “to indulge” as in Proverbs 25:10

פן יחסדך שמע ודבתך לא תשוב

“Lest one listening indulge you, such that your bad report cannot be recanted.”

The use of the word chesed with a negative connotation, although often translated as a shameful act or thing; as in Leviticus 20:17 and Proverbs 14:34; is best translated as a shameful indulgence. Furthermore, in Hebrew, chesed does not only mean loving-kindness and shameful indulgence, but in Yonah 2:9 it is often translated as loyalty. Lastly this root is used to name the stork, the Chasidah (חסידה), often described as a loyal and dedicated parent (Zc5:9)(Jb39:13).

So what is the essential meaning of this root that gives such disparate meanings as taunt, envy, kind, shameful indulgence and loyalty? In order to unravel this discordance of meanings, we need to peel back a few layers of the etymological onion. The root ChaSaD (חסד) evolved from the verb ChooS (חוס) which when associated with the preposition \aL (על) means to show concern / shower consideration upon. However, when joined with the preposition b’ (ב), it means to have trust in or rely upon. The word ChooS (חוס) evolved from the root ChooSh (חוש) which has an essential meaning of to spend time with or persist with someone or something by experiencing, sensing, feeling or considering. In the Tanakh, the connotative uses of ChooSh (חוש) are to experience life / live it up (Ec2:25) and to be anxious to do / hasten / make haste. Derived from the essential meaning of the root ChooSh (חוש) are the verbs ChaShaBh (חשב) to regard, consider, calculate and devise; ChaShaD (חשד) to suspect; and NaChaSh (נחש) to divine. Each of these are acts of persisting in thought or feelings about someone or something. But to fully understand these words, we need to peel back one more layer of the onion. The root ChooSh (חוש) evolved from a rarely used root, \ooSh (עוש), which is related to \aSaH (עשה) which means to make, do and perform in pa’al and in piel means to physically feel, touch, grab, and grope (Ezekiel 23:3, 8, 21); but literally this root means to persist with something.

Essentially all of these words mean to persist with either a person, thought process, feeling or activity. The evolution of each iteration occurred through a slight change in both sound and meaning. When trying to find the one word in English that fits most with ChaSaD (חסד) and some of the other related Hebrew words, I like to use the word consideration. Although not a perfect fit, the English word consider literally means to be with the stars. The sense of it is to spend a considerable amount of time gazing and thinking. It encompasses the ideas of thinking and spending time with something or someone. Its variant, the word considerable, means something worthy of one’s attention. Loving kindness, envy, shameful indulgence and taunting are all investments in time. Loving kindness (חסד) and showing concern (חוס על) are positive ways wherein we take our time to be more considerate of the needs of others. Envy (حسد חסד) is a process of consideration where the time is spent in negative thought about another. With shameful indulgence (חסד), the investment of time is put into the performance of an inappropriate act. Taunting (Syriac – חסד) is similar, in that the taunted person is the object of one’s negative consideration, but the thoughts are expressed, rather than being held inside as with envy (חסד) and suspicion (חשד). The loyal stork makes an investment of time with her nest and the offspring that she raises. When we trust or rely upon someone (חוס ב), we are depending upon that person to show us consideration as well as to be able and willing to attend to our needs.

So next time, when wrestling with the various meanings of the word CheSeD (חסד) consider this: what is truly worthy of the investment of your time? Should your time be spent indulging in inappropriate behaviors? Should your time be spent feeling envious (or suspicious) of another? G-d forbid, should your time be spent taunting or scorning another human being? Should your time be spent indulging in gossip or giving another a receptive ear for gossip? Or would it be best to invest time into relationships replete with acts of loving kindness and relationships of trust and loyalty?

Tsedeq – Righteousness:

The authors of the BDB Hebrew and English Lexicon translated the two words TseDeQ (צדק) and TseDeQaH (צדקה) as righteousness. The similarity of these two words does make it fairly easy to blur their otherwise distinct meanings. Nevertheless, their meanings, although subtle, are in fact distinct. TseDeQ (צדק) does mean righteousness. Even though, in post Biblical Hebrew and in modern Hebrew TseDeQaH (צדקה) means charity, in the Tanakh, most often TseDeQaH (צדקה) means a righteous act. The following quote demonstrates the difference.

ובשוב צדיק מצדקו ועשה עול ונתתי מכשול לפניו הוא ימות כי לא הזהרתו בחטאתו ימות ולא תזכרן צדקתו [צדקתיו] אשר עשה ודמו מידך אבקש

And with a righteous person’s drawing back (lit: settling down) from his righteousness such that he did iniquity. And I gave forth a stumbling block before him, he shall die. Because you did not warn him, in his sinning he shall die. And his righteous act[s], that he had done, shall not be remembered. And his blood, I shall seek out from your hand.(Ezekiel 3:20)

Another rare usage of the word TseDeQaH (צדקה) brings us closer to its etymological foundations. In Genesis 30:33, Yaaqov tells Lavan that he will remove the striped, spotted and dark from the flock and that, in the future, when Lavan might again come across his flock, if there were to be any not striped, spotted or dark, then it was stolen. Yaaqov uses the phrase וענתה בי צדקתי which is usually translated as my righteousness will testify for (with) me. The problem is that this phrase וענתה בי can also be found in Isaiah 3:9 and 59:12 and in both places it is correctly translated as testify against. Even with the corrected translation, Yaaqov’s righteousness would be presumed and it is not at all clear, given their relationship, that Lavan believes him to be righteous. Despite our faith in Yaaqov, any righteousness that Yaaqov might possess would be intangible at best. What is concrete is that Yaaqov states that he will take the animals with those traits in particular. Were Lavan in the future to find with him different animals, it is that statement of intention that will testify against him. The case will be two facts pitted against each other: which particular animals he specified that he would take against which animals he actually has. In my opinion, the better translation is my performing in a particular way / exacting way will testify against me. At first, this might seem a departure from the commonly understood meaning of this root, but consider that when the word TseDeQ (צדק) isn’t being used to mean righteous, it is sometimes used to mean correct, accurate and meticulously exact. The modern Hebrew term for this is בדיוק from the Semitic root DWQ (דוק) meaning to be particular.

It is not unusual to form a triliteral root by prefixing a sibilant letter (shin-sin-samekh) to a biliteral root. Here I am suggesting that the root Ts.D.Q. (צדק) was so formed from DWQ דוק and that, perhaps through a linguistic process called assimilation the more commonly prefixed sibilant (shin-sin-samekh) morphed into a tsade, thus forming the word TsaDaQ (צדק), to be particular > to be correct / right. To justify this theory further, I recently read an article about early Aramaean that stated that “…dissimilated forms appear side by side with regular ones even in the same text (e.g.,ṣdq).”1

So, yes of course, TseDeQ means righteousness and TseDaQaH means righteous acts (charitable acts in later Hebrew), but more profoundly this root means to be particular and exacting in one’s behavior.

The Torah states צדק צדק תרדף righteousness, righteousness, you shall pursue. Be particular in your behavior, fill your behavior with righteous acts, do not only what is right, but pursue doing what is exactly right. Invest time being considerate to others and preclude from spending times in behaviors that are shamefully indulgent. Pursue doing the right thing, empower others in their pursuit of doing the right thing, but don’t revile and taunt others when they have fallen short, for we too fall short of our goals and pursuits. This is the essence of being QaDoSh – dedicated to haShem, dedicated to haShem’s unrelenting unfolding of existence, and dedicated to be at the front, not in pride, but in pursuit of a better, holier world filled with loving kindness and righteous acts. As a Jew, this is the basis for the values that I believe are expected of me as I stumble through this world.

1 – The Aramaeans in Ancient Syria: Language and Script. Holger Gzella. LEIDEN BOSTON 2014

To be clear, in this article the auther is positing the opposite process. In their view, the root צדק must have always begun with a tsade and the frequent occurence of it written otherwise, with a different sibilant (not specified), is an example of dissimilation. In my view, this is a case of assimilation where the root began as other שפל formations, but over time, under the influence of the emphatic letter qof, the initial sibilant also became the emphatic tsade.

Francis Brown, S.R.Driver, Charles A. Briggs (1906 /2000) The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

Ernest Klein (1987) A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company

Hans Wehr. Ed by J Milton Cowan (1979) Hans Wehr A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic. Ithaca, NY: Published in the United States by Spoken Languages Services, Inc with permission of Otto Harrassowitz

Jeremy Black, Andrew George, Nicholas Postgate, eds., A Concise Dictionary ofAkkadian, 2nd corrected printing (Santag Arbeiten und Untersuchungen Zur Keilschriftkunde, 5; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2000)

Marcus Jastrow (1996) A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushlami, and the Midrashic Literature.New York: The Judaica Press

J. Payne Smith’s (1999) A Compendious Syriac Dictionary. Published by Wipf and Stock

About the Author
David Kolinsky is a retired physician born and raised in Monsey, New York. While living in Monterey California, David initially lived as a secular, agnostic Jew. However, in his spare time, he delved into twenty years of daily study of Hebrew etymology and Torah study culminating in the writing of an etymological dictionary of Biblical Hebrew and a metaphorical translation of Torah. Abandoning his agnostic views, David was simultaneously a spiritual leader of the world's smallest conservative synagogue, a teacher in his local reform synagogue, and a gabbai at Chabad. He is currently sheltering in place with his family in his new home in Plano, Texas.
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