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

Just Around the Corner (Part 1 of 2)

Believe it or not, there’s a whole bevy of words in the Hebrew language that all mean “corner.” In this essay, I explore those various synonyms, drawing from the different grammarians and lexicographers who attempted to differentiate between these same-meaning terms. Because of the plethora of relevant words, I decided to split this article into two parts. In Part 1, we will discuss the words peah, keren, and zavit. Afterwards, in Part 2, we will discuss the words pinah, miktzoa, katzeh, atik, and demeshek. Let’s get straight to it!

The word peah (plural: pe’ot or peyot) is the most common word in the Bible for “corner.” Overall, it appears approximately 85 times. In the bulk of its appearances in the Bible, peah refers to a cardinal direction, like when saying which sides of the Tabernacle should have a curtain (Ex. 27:9) or stipulating the law that a city must have clearance on all four sides (Num. 35:5). In most of those cases, the word peah appears alongside a word that refers to a specific direction, like north, south, east, or west. In these cases, peah is generally translated by Targum Onkelos as rucha/ruach. But when the Bible says: “Do not round-cut the peah of your head, and do not destroy the peah of your beard” (Lev. 19:27) or “Do not finish the peah of your field in your harvesting” (Lev. 19:9, 23:22), the word peah means “corner” as opposed to “direction,” and in all four such instances, the Hebrew peah is left untranslated by Targum Onkelos.

When detailing how the Tableof the Tabernacle should be built, the Torah says that one should make four golden rings and place them on the four “corners” (peah) of the Table (Ex. 25:26, 37:13). In the two places where this passage appears, Targum Onkelos renders the Hebrew word peah as zavit — that word will be more important later on.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) offers two theories as to the etymology of the word peah. In Yeriot Shlomo, he explains that peah comes from the biliteral root PEH-HEY, whose primary meaning is “mouth.” This relates to a “corner” by way of analogy, for just as the “mouth” is the place for food to enter the body and for words to exit the body, so is a corner the place within a larger area through which one enters or exits that space. In his work Cheshek Shlomo, Rabbi Pappenheim traces the word peah to the biliteral PEH-ALEPH, who primary meaning he sees as “wide corner.”

Rabbi Pappenheim explains that Moabite noblemen are called pa’at (Num. 24:17, Jer. 48:45) because they are in the “corner” in the sense that their eminence separates them from the rest of the nation and places them at the proverbial corner of society. He also notes that they are called so because they serve as the figurative cornerstones upon which the rest of Moabite society stands.

Similarly, Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785–1865) explains that peah does not necessarily denote something physically located in the “corner,” but can refer to something that is isolated and cut off from the rest, as though it were metaphorically “in the corner.” Based on this, he clarifies that even though the Torah calls for leaving the peah of one’s field unharvested so that the poor may glean from there (Lev. 19:9, 23:22), said peah need not be physically located in the “corner” of one’s field, but can even be in the middle (see Mishnah Peah 3:1).

The word keren in the Bible not only refers to an animal’s “horn,” but also to horn-like protrusions at the four corners of an altar (Ex. 38:2, Lev. 8:15, Ezek. 43:20). In the Mishnah, the word keren expanded to refer to any “corner,” but also maintained the Biblical meaning of an altar’s corner (see Kilayim 6:7, Yoma 5:5, Zevachim 5:3, 6:2, 6:5, 11:3, Tamid 2:5, 4:1, 7:3, Middot 3:2-3, 4:3, 4:5, Keilim 17:9-10). Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) traces the word keren to the two-letter root KUF-REISH, “strong impact.” Words derived from that root denote the forceful collision that results from great weight or velocity. Words derived from this root include korah (“wooden beam”) and tikrah (“ceiling”), as the horizontal beams’ weight weighs down on a building’s support and creates a point of “impact.” Similarly, kir (“wall”) refers to wooden beams that are positioned vertically, which bear the weight of a structure. In the same vein, the word keren as “corner” also relates to the concept of an “impact,” because it refers to the meeting place of two sides.

The way Malbim explains it, the primary meaning of the word keren is “horn” — i.e., that protrusion that bulges out from the head of an animal. In a borrowed sense, it refers to anything that projects outwards from a specific source. For example, a “ray” of light is called a keren because it projects outward from the sun. Thus, he explains that a “corner” is also called a keren because it juts out from an otherwise smooth surface. Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785–1865) in HaKtav VeHaKabbalah (to Ex. 27:2, Lev. 4:7) makes a similar point. Interestingly, Radak even insinuates a connection between the Hebrew keren and the Latin cornu (from which the English word corner is derived via French). [For more about the word keren and its various meanings, see “The Shofar’s Horn” (Sep. 2022).]

The word zavit appears twice in the Bible. In one case, the Psalmist lauds the beauty of Jewish daughters as akin to the hewn “corners” (zavit) of a palace (Ps. 144:12). And in the other case, the prophet Zechariah foretells that the Jewish People will successfully defeat their enemies and will drink “like the corners (zavit) of the altar” (Zech. 9:15). The exact meaning of this imagery is subject to dispute, as Rashi explains that it means that as a result of the Jews’ victories, they will be blessed with all sorts of goodies in the spoils of war and will be overflowing with abundance, just like the corner of the altar overflows with wine. Alternatively, the prophet means that in defeating their enemies, the Jews will figuratively “drink” their blood, which will be spilled in abundance on par with the abundant wine overflowing from the corners of the altar (see Radak and Mahari Kara there).

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Rabbi Pappenheim relates the word zavit to the word ziv (“splendor/shine/radiance”). He offers two different ways of explaining the connection. His first approach, as explained by Rabbi Yehoshua Steinberg of the Veromemanu Foundation, seems to say that zavit in the sense of “corner” invokes the idea that when you are walking and then you turn a corner, you have essentially changed directions. This relates to ziv because shininess also causes one to change directions, because it draws one’s attention to a specific object, which entails recalibrating what direction one is looking at in order to focus on the shiny object. In a separate discussion of this connection, Rabbi Pappenheim seems to give a slightly different explanation: When light bounces off of a shiny object and comes towards one’s eye, it travels in an angular direction, thus producing a “corner”; this leads to another way of seeing the connection between zavit and ziv.

Rabbi Pappenheim also claims that the month of Iyyar was originally called Ziv (I Kgs. 6:1) because in that month the sun somehow turns a corner (perhaps by introducing the new season of spring?). [For more about the word ziv, see “The beauty of Adar” (Feb. 2018).]

The last of Haman’s ten sons was named Vayzata (Est. 9:9), which is an anagram of zavit. Rabbi Benzion Chaim Lubetzky (d. 1945) argues that in naming his son Vayzata, Haman wanted to show off his importance, as though his sons were of the most important people of the Persian Empire — the cornerstones of that society.

The Talmud often uses the expression keren zavit to denote a “corner.” For example, the Talmud (Brachot 53b) states that one may not recite the blessing over benefitting from a fire on Motzei Shabbat unless one can see the actual fire and can use its light at the same time. In explaining this ruling, the Talmud clarifies that it is possible for one to be able to use the light of a torch without seeing the actual fire, if he and the torch are on opposite sides of a keren zavit. Similarly, the term appears when the Talmud (Kiddushin 66a) relates that at some junctures in history, the Torah was so neglected that it was relegated to a mere keren zavit and anyone who wanted to take it, may do so.

Dr. Avi Hurvitz, a veteran linguist and expert philologist, notes that the term keren zavit found in rabbinic literature is actually a semantic redundancy because the word keren already means “corner” and the word zavit already means “corner,” so each word on its own already conveys the same idea as the compound term. [I was also recently asked this question by Rabbi Mordechai Koster of Lakewood.]

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However, at a political rally on behalf of Degel HaTorah, Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg (1910–2012) related that over a century ago, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzenski (1863–1940) already noted the redundancy in the phrase keren zavit, and explained that it refers to a “corner of a corner.” He said that in the second example given above, the Talmud was describing a time in history when the Torah was so marginalized, that it was not even given an entire corner to occupy, but was consigned to just a small corner within a corner. As he put it, the Degel HaTorah party intends to raise the importance of Torah amongst the masses and bring it to a more respectable place than just the corner of a corner. According to this, the phrase that uses two words for “corner” is not a redundancy but is used for emphasis. Nevertheless, this explanation said in a polemic context should probably not be taken as an actual linguistic analysis.

To be Continued…

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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