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

Ki Seitzei: Fearing the Fight

The social sciences, like psychology and sociology, seek to quantify man’s reactions to various types of hostile situations, and systemize a way of pre-determining such responses. These efforts have brought about such ideas as “Game Theory” and other theoretical ways of measuring dangerous situations and man’s reactions. As we will see, the eternal wisdom of the Torah has already “contemplated” such matters, and the very language it uses exhibits an awareness of these nuances.

After the miraculous splitting of the Red Sea, Moshe and the Jews broke into song extolling G-d’s greatness and praying for their future success. They said about their potential rival nations occupying the Holy Land, “May fear (aimah) and fright (pachad) befall them…” (Exodus 15:16). In this passage the Jews ask G-d to render their enemies too scared to fight, but they use two different words to refer to that frightfulness: aimah and pachad. What is the difference between these two types of fear? Furthermore, there are at least two more words used in the Bible to refer to “fear” (morah/yirah and da’agah); what do these words exactly mean and how do they differ from each other?

Rashi (to Exodus 15:16) explains that aimah and pachad denote different sorts of fear in that one refers to fear from a faraway threat and one refers to fear from something close-by. Which one is which is subject to dispute, as different versions of Rashi and other commentators cite this explanation in various ways. Either way, man reacts differently to hearing news of something threatening than he does to actually experiencing or encountering a threat. Those different fight-or-flight responses are reflected in the Hebrew language by these otherwise synonymous words. In another passage, Rashi (to Deuteronomy 11:25) repeats this distinction when delineating the difference between pachad and morah, but also adds that pachad refers to a sudden fear, while morah refers to a fear which has remained pent up for some time. This time factor features prominently even in contemporary thought.

Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer explains that morah is a more intense type of fear because it is continual and builds on itself, while pachad is a less intense form of fear because it is sudden, but short-lived. He also notes that the word pachad can only be applied to humans, who have the intellectual capacity for understanding the implications of certain dangers, while other words for fear can also apply to animals, whose animalistic instincts react with fear even if the animals do not have the intelligence to fully comprehend their situation

Ibn Ezra (to Exodus 23:27) explains that aimah is the emotive feeling of being afraid, while pachad is the outward manifestations of one’s fears.

Rashi (to Yoma 75a) defines da’agah as the fear of losing something which one has, while elsewhere (to Gittin 70a), he defines it as the fear of the arrival of a scary situation (like a famine or an enemy invasion).

King Solomon, in his great sagacity, offers the most practical advice in dealing with da’agah: “[When there is] Da’agah in one’s heart, he shall converse with others” (Proverbs 12:25). Da’agah refers to a certain type of worrying which can be assuaged by simply speaking out one’s fears (because constricting those immeasurable fears into finite words shows the worrier that his fears are not limitless). Another understanding of King Solomon’s counsel is “Da’agah in one’s heart, he shall distract himself with other [idea]s”.

How does da’agah differ from morah/yirah? Rabbi Yosef Dov Solovetchik (1820-1892), author of Beit HaLevi, writes in Parshat Vayigash that yirah refers to fear from something which one anticipates might occur, while da’agah refers to worrying about that which one foresees will occur. Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer explains that da’agah does not refer directly to worrying, but to the resulting despondency of someone steeped in anxious fright. This explanation echoes the famous words of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at his inaugural speech, “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…”

About the Author
RABBI REUVEN CHAIM KLEIN is an editor and researcher at the Veromemanu Foundation in Israel. His weekly articles about synonyms in the Hebrew language appear in the OhrNet, as well as in the Jewish Press, Jewish Tribune, and Times of Israel. Rabbi Klein grew up in Valley Village, CA where he studied at Emek Hebrew Academy and Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles. He then studied at Yeshivat Mir in Jerusalem and in Beth Medrash Govoha of America in Lakewood, NJ, before finally making Aliyah in 2011. He is the author of Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew (Mosaica Press, 2014) and God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry (Mosaica Press, 2018), as well as countless articles and papers published in various journals. Rabbi Klein is also available for hire in research, writing, and translation projects, as well as speaking engagements.
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