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

Hooked on Vavim

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

The sixth letter of the Hebrew Alphabet, VAV, is named after the Hebrew word vav (“hook”), because that letter is orthographically represented by a symbol that very much resembles a “hook” on which things may be hung. Cognates of the word vav only appear 13 times in the Bible, all instances of which are in the chapters of Exodus that deal with the construction of the Tabernacle (Ex. 26, 27, 36, 38). In every single one of those instances, Targum Onkelos renders the word untranslated in his Aramaic translation, leaving the word as simply vav. In this essay, we will explore four words for “hook/hanger” in Hebrew, but along the way we will learn all sorts of interesting factoids related to such diverse languages as English.

The early grammarians like Menachem Ibn Saruk, Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach, and Radak are unanimous in explaining that the root of vav is VAV-VAV, although Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740–1814) seems somewhat inclined to view the word’s root as the monoliteral VAV. Interestingly, Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843–1916) supposes that the Hebrew word vav is not actually comprised from the root VAV or VAV-VAV in the grammatical sense of words derived from roots comprised of letters. Rather, he contends that this word derives from the orthographic appearance of the sixth letter of the Hebrew Alphabet, which looks like a “hook” (similar to the Arabic numerals 6 and 9 with which we might be more familiar). Because of this resemblance, the letter VAV itself came to be synonymous with “hook” in early Hebrew, but not that the word vav actually means “hook.” Rabbi Marcus even goes as far as to claim that this crude nomenclature was later abandoned once the Jews entered the Holy Land, as evidenced by the fact that the word vav appears nowhere else in the Bible besides the chapters in Exodus cited above.

Rashi (to Ex. 27:10) explains that the Hebrew word vavim means ankliyot. This word appears several times in the Mishnah as well (Pesachim 5:9, Tamid 3:5, Middot 3:5, and Keilim 12:2-3) in the sense of “hook,” especially the barbed part of a hook.

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The Mishnaic Hebrew word ankliyot, in turn, appears to actually be a Greek loanword, and seems to be related to such English words as anchorangle, angling, ankle, and hang. According to linguists, Greek and English/Germanic are derived from the Proto-Indo-European language (PIE), and the ultimate forebear of these words is the proto-Indo-European word ang/ank (“to bend”). Some scholars even trace the name of the Angles — one of the Germanic Anglo-Saxon tribes that occupied what later became known as England — to the word in question. They argue that the Angles’ original homeland was a hook-shaped peninsula that protruded from the European continent, or that these tribesman were expert fisherman or descended from expert fisherman who were adept at angling “fishhooks” to catch fish. If this is true, then the word onkliyot also serves as the ultimate etymon of the English word English.

Rabbi Shlomo of Urbino writes in Ohel Moed (his lexicon of Hebrew synonyms) that an alternate word for “hook/hanger” in Hebrew is shfataim, which appears only once in Scripture (Ezek. 40:43). Targum (there) translates this word as ankliyot, although, in this case, it is spelled with an initial AYIN (as opposed to ankliyot mentioned above which was spelled with an ALEPH at the beginning). This explanation is also cited by Rashi and Radak (there).

However, Abarbanel (in his commentary to Ezekiel) and Radak (in his commentary to Ezekiel and in his Sefer HaShorashim, entry SHIN-PEH-TAV) offer an alternate explanation of shfataim as a “place” upon which pots were placed (that is, a sort of stovetop). This explanation is also implied by Machberet Menachem categorizing this word in his fifth category of the SHIN-PEH root. Rabbi Pappenheim also follows this approach in explaining how shfataim can be traced to the biliteral root SHIN-PEH (“slithering”). The core meaning of that root refers to moving around without lifting one’s feet from the ground, like Balaam who was said to walk shefi (Num. 23:3) and other magicians (ashafim), whose name implies that they did the same (Dan. 1:20, 2:2, 2:10). Other derivatives of this root include shephiphon (“snake”), a creature which ambulates about via creeping and crawling on the ground, with its body always touching the floor and never lifting itself up. In that sense, the shfataim refers to the spot where pots are placed, but from which they are not lifted (until they have finished cooked). See also Rabbi Eliezer of Beaugency’s commentary to Yechezkel 40:43, which explains shfataim as a sort of “ledge/lip” that will surround the perimeter of the future Temple’s Table.

A third Hebrew word for “hook/hanger” — one that Rabbi Shlomo of Urbino does not explicitly list as a synonym to vav and shfataim — is the word agmon. This word appears five times in Scripture (Job 40:26, 41:12, Isa. 9:13, 19:15, 58:5), and Targum also renders it as ankliyot (at least in Job 40:26). Elsewhere, Targum (to Isa. 9:13, 19:15) translates the word agmon as hegmon (an explanation also cited in Radak’s Sefer HaShorashim). This latter word is also of Greek origin, and is the antecedent of the English word hegemony. (By the way, Targum to Isa. 58:5 leaves agmon untranslated).

Machberet Menachem defines agmon asa cane with a hooked top. Radak explains that agmon refers to a certain type of reed, arguing that ALEPH-GIMMEL-MEM ought to be understood in light of GIMMEL-MEM-ALPEH (via metathesis), from which derives from the word gome (“reed”). Rabbi Pappenheim makes a similar point, drawing on the biliteralist tradition to trace agmon and gome to the two-letter root GIMMEL-MEM (“absorbent or spongy matter”). The most basic word derived from this root is agam (“swamp/marshland”), on account of such a place’s sponge-like ability to soak up so much water, yet always remain wet. In light of this, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that gome refers to a sort of “spongy reed” that grows in such marshy wetlands, and agmon primarily refers to a sort of thistle with a hooked top that also commonly grows in an agam. As Rabbi Pappenheim explains it, the agmon was commonly used as a fishhook and eventually the word itself came to refer to any hooked or bent item.

In short, there are seemingly three words in Biblical Hebrew and one in Mishnaic Hebrew that mean “hook.” The Biblical Hebrew vav seems to be the most basic word for “hook,” although it only appears in Exodus and nowhere else in the Bible. The Biblical Hebrew words shfataim and agmon also seem to mean “hook,” albeit some commentators explain those words differently. Finally, the Mishnaic Hebrew ankliyot is actually of Greek origin and is, in fact, related to the very word “hook” in English and the word English itself!

As I wrote this article, I began to wonder if the Greek word onkliyot is somehow related to the Greek personal name Onkelos, borne by the author of the famous Targum that translated the Pentateuch into Aramaic. A similar Greek name, Akylas, was borne by another famous translator of the Torah. Some have even argued that the two translators were actually one and the same. This question was discussed at length in the book Aquila and Onkelos by A. E. Silverstone (Manchester University Press, 1970). That book cites a letter that Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto (1800-1865), also known as Shadal, wrote to the Maskillic scholar Rabbi Shlomo Yehuda Rappaport of Prague (1786–1867). In that letter, Shadal argues that the Greek word onkliyot actually derives from the Hebrew root AYIN-KUF-LAMMED (“crooked”) and because of this, people more familiar with this Hebrew term mispronounced the name Onkelos as Akylas. (The fact that Onkelos is spelled with an initial ALEPH and Akylas is spelled with an initial AYIN need not bother us, because we have already seen above that when it comes to this Greek word, the letters ALEPH and AYIN are used interchangeability).

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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