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

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The Torah uses three different words to refer to Rebecca as a “girl”: naarah (Gen. 24:14; 24:16; 24:28; 24:55; 24:57), betulah (Gen. 24:16), and almah (Gen. 24:43). Of course, the most common Hebrew word for “girl” is yaldah. Each of these four words also has a masculine counterpart that means “boy” (naar, bachur, elem, and yeled). In this essay, we will seek to understand the possible nuances expressed by these four sets of words, and show how they are not true synonyms.

Let’s begin with the terms naar/naarah. The Talmud (Kesuvos 39a) defines naarah as a girl from the age of twelve until six months after she has reached physical maturity. This would suggest that the term naar for a “boy” likewise refers specifically to a boy at the age of thirteen. Indeed, Rashi (to Gen. 25:27) explains that when the Torah refers to Jacob and Esau as ne’arim, this means that they were thirteen. This also explains why Ishmael was called a naar when the angels visited Abraham (see Rashi to Gen. 18:7) — at that time he was thirteen years old (see Gen. 17:25).

Nonetheless, it is quite difficult to define naar/naarah as belonging to a certain age bracket because we find those words used in the Bible multiple times to refer to girls who were not twelve years old and boys who were not thirteen. Case in point: the Torah refers to Rebecca as a naarah when Eliezer chose her as Isaac’s wife, yet none of the commentators explain that she was twelve years old. According to Seder Olam (ch. 1), she was three years old when she married Isaac, which is too young to fit our definition of naarah; and according to Sifrei (to Deut. 33:21), she was fourteen years old, which is too old.

This problem is compounded when we survey the various males referred to as a naar in the Bible, We find baby Moses called a naar when he was three-months old (Ex. 2:6). Furthermore, Ishmael was called a naar when he was thirteen years old, but he is also called a naar three years later when he was already 16 years old (see Gen. 21:12; 21:17-20). Similarly, Joseph is called a naar when he was seventeen years old (Gen. 37:2), and was still called a naar when he was thirty years old (Gen. 41:12). We similarly find Joseph’s younger brother, Benjamin, called a naar at the age of thirty-one (Gen. 44:22, 44:33); King David’s son Absalom, at the age of twenty-one (II Sam. 18:32); King Solomon’s son Rehoboam, at the age of forty-one (II Chron. 13:7); and Moses’ attendant Joshua, at the age of fifty-seven (Ex. 33:11).

Possibly, because of these questions, Midrash Mishlei (to Prov. 1:4) expands the age limit of the term naar to twenty, twenty-five, and even thirty years old. This resolves most of the difficulties we raised, but does not account for the cases of baby Moses, Rehoboam, and Joshua. Taken altogether, these passages suggest that the terms naar/naarah do not refer to a specific age group, but to something else.

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When the Torah calls the seventeen-year old Joseph a naar, Rashi (to Gen. 37:2) comments that Joseph used to engage in seemingly immature childlike activities, like fixing his hair and tending to his eyes. Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi (1455-1526) explains that the Torah did not mean to brand Joseph a naar, but to describe his behavior as naar-like. He doubles down on our assumption that naar refers to a boy specifically between the ages of thirteen, and thirteen-and-a-half, but adds that, depending on the context, the term naar can sometimes apply to a male outside of that age bracket if that person somehow resembles an actual naar.

For example, when baby Moses was called a naar, this either refers to the fact that Moses’ voice sounded like the voice of an actual naar, or that his mother had enclosed him in the basket with a sort of mini-wedding canopy expected of an actual naar because she anticipated missing him getting married (see Sotah 12b).

In the case of Joseph, his immature behavior was enough of a reason for the Torah to brand him a naar, even as he was older than the age usually denoted by that term. Furthermore, Mizrachi explains that Rehoboam was called a naar as a forty-one year old because he was immature and had weak leadership skills, as if he were a young boy. When Joseph was again called a naar at the age of thirty (Gen. 41:12), this did not actually reflect anything immature about Joseph’s behavior. Rather, as Rashi explains, the Pharaoh’s butler called Joseph a naar in order to disparage him and imply that Joseph was not worthy of the greatness that awaited him.

Turning to the cases of Benjamin and Absalom, Rabbi Mizrachi explains why they were called naar at more advanced ages than that term suggests. Vis-à-vis their fathers, they are always going to be considered a “boy,” even when they are in their twenties and thirties.

Finally, Rabbi Mizrachi explains that Joshua was called a naar in his late fifties because that verse was said in the context of his serving Moses, and anybody who functions as a servant in the service of others can be called a naar, regardless of their actual age (see also Radak to Joshua 6:23, who makes this point). Although Rabbi Mizrachi does not mention this, the Torah also calls Isaac a naar at the age of thirty-seven (Gen. 22:5) and Ishmael a naar (Gen. 22:3) at the age of fifty-one. We can account for both examples by explaining that they were both attending to Abraham, and essentially just following his lead, as a child might follow his father.

With this information in hand, we can now begin to consider why the Torah might refer to Rebecca as both a naarah and an almah. Ibn Ezra (to Song of Songs 1:3) explains that the word almah denotes a girl who is younger than a naarah. Accordingly, we may explain that Rebecca’s physical age was that of an almah — younger than a naarah — but her emotional/intellectual maturity and/or her spiritual stature was on par with that of an older naarah. For this reason, both of those terms are appropriate in describing Rebecca. (This understanding works best if Rebecca was three years old when she was chosen as Isaac’s mate.)

According to many commentators, the words elem andalmah are related to the Hebrew words eilum and ne’elam, which mean “hidden.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 13:15) explains the connection by noting that elem refers to a “young naar” who has not matured/developed yet, such that his potential remains “hidden” and “unrealized.” Peirush HaRokeach points out that throughout the story of David and Jonathan’s secret pact, the lad who served as their go-between is called a naar (see I Sam. 20:1-42), but in one instance he is referred to as an elem (I Sam. 20:22), in allusion to their need to keep the agreement “hidden” from Jonathan’s father, King Saul.

Based on this link, the commentators offer various ways of understanding the word almah as differing from the word naarah. For example, Peirush HaRokeach explains that the term almah refers to a girl who is less “outgoing” than the term naarah wouldindicate. Accordingly, Rebecca may have already reached the age of naarah and perhaps even advanced beyond that technical stage of development (if she was fourteen), yet she was still an almah because she was “hidden” from other people. Peirush HaRokeach adds that the term almah teaches us that Rebecca was such an innocent and sheltered damsel that she had never even been propositioned before, something apparently uncommon for a girl of her age at that time and place.

Rabbeinu Efrayim ben Shimshon (to Gen. 24:43) explains that the term almah said about Rebecca, and the word elem said about King David (I Sam. 17:56), imply a person who “hides” their words, which is typically a sign of someone wise. Thus, naarah might describe Rebecca’s physical age, while almah speaks more about her intelligence.

Rabbi Shimon Dov Ber Analak of Siedlce (1848-1907) explains that the two terms in question refer to two qualities characteristic of people in the age of adolescence. The word naar relates to the young adult’s tenacious industriousness, which gives them the resolve to “shake off” (l’na’er) anything that might get in their way and impede their ambitions. The term elem, on the other hand, does not refer to the adolescent’s tenacity, but to their sheer power and strength. This meaning of elem in the sense of “energetic” is related to the word alim (with an ALEPH), which is the standard Targum rendering of ometz/amitz (“strong” or “resilient”).

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Chizkuni (to Gen. 24:44) contends that the words naarah and almah mean the exact same thing, but that naarah is a Hebrew word while almah is Aramaic. He explains that in the story at hand, the narrator first refers to the young lass as a naarah (in Genesis 24:16) because the Torah is written in Hebrew. Afterwards, in Eliezer’s dialogue with the girl’s family, Eliezer refers to her as an almah (to Gen. 24:43) because he thought that Rebecca’s family understood only Aramaic (because they lived in Harran, which is in Aram, where Aramaic was spoken). Nonetheless, Chizkuni points out that Rebecca’s family did actually speak Hebrew, because when the question of her leaving with Eliezer arose, her brother and mother referred to her as a naarah (Gen. 24:57).

Another female in the Bible referred to as an almah was Moses’ sister Miriam, who watched over her younger brother as he was put into the Nile and was saved by the Pharaoh’s daughter (Ex. 2:8). In this case, she was six years old at the time (Shemot Rabbah 1:13). It seems that this age is too young to fit the technical definition of almah (yaldah is more appropriate)as the Talmud (Sotah 12b) felt the need to seek out exegetical explanations for the use of this appellation. The Talmud explains that Miriam was called an almah in this context because she “hid” the fact that she was Moses’ sister, or because she acted with the “strength” and “vigor” expected of an older young lady.

As is his way, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Brelsau (1740-1814) traces the words in question to their two-letter etymological roots and uses that information to shed light on their primary meaning. This approach is quite useful in showing us how apparent synonyms actually differ from each other because it digs into the core meanings of those words.

Rabbi Pappenheim traces naar/naarah to its biliteral root AYIN-REISH, “revealing.” For example, when Rebecca “poured (vate’ar) her jug” (Gen. 24:20), the act of pouring out liquid from a container essentially serves to reveal the bottom of said container; thus that verb is derived from this two-letter root. Other words derived from this root include ohr (“skin”, the part of one’s body which is revealed to the outside), ervah (“nakedness”, when a person’s body is revealed), taar (“razor”, a blade used for cutting hair and revealing the skin underneath), and ar (an “enemy” who reveals his enmity outwardly). The word eir (“awake”) is also derived from this root because when one sleeps, his or her abilities are not readily apparent, but when they awaken, those abilities are suddenly revealed. Building on this last example, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that naar/naarah denotes a stage in an adolescent’s maturation when their potential suddenly reveals itself, as if they just woke up from the slumber of childhood. (Rabbi Pappenheim also writes that sometimes this word denotes the youthful irresponsibility of one who “shakes off” (l’na’er) his or her obligations.)

When it comes to the word elem/almah, Rabbi Pappenheim finds that its etymological root is the biliteral AYIN-LAMMED, which means “on top.” The most common word derived from this root is al (“on”) — conjugations of which appear in the Bible close to some 6000 times! A whole slew of other words also come from AYIN-LAMMED, including elyon (“high”), l’maaleh (“up”), oleh (“elevate”), aleh (“leaf” which grows on a branch), ohl (“yoke” which is placed on an animal), meil (“tunic” which is worn on top of other clothing), na’al (“shoe” which is worn on top of the foot), and more. For our purposes, the most relevant words are olel and elem. The word olel (“toddler”) denotes the age at which a child has already been weaned from his mother’s milk and now “gets up” on his own to find/ask for food. The olel experiences a growth spurt throughout his childhood years, until he becomes an elem, at which stage he has grown “up” to nearly his maximum.

On the surface, Rabbi Pappenheim’s explanations of naar and elem seem to refer to the exact same stage in life. In fact, Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach and Radak (in their respective works entitled Sefer HaShorashim) explicitly write that naarah and almah mean the same thing. Nevertheless, Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) offers a synopsis of Rabbi Pappenheim’s explanations, which accentuates the difference between naar and elem. He admits that according to Rabbi Pappenheim both terms refer to the same stage of life, but that elem focuses on the manifestation of physical maturity, while naar focuses on the development of intellectual/spiritual maturity.

Segueing to the word yeled/yaldah, Rabbi Pappenheim writes that this is a general term for “child,” and does not necessarily denote a specific age. In fact, Yishmael is still called a yeled at the age of sixteen (Gen. 21:15-16), and when the Mishna (Erachin 4:4) uses the term yeled, Rashi (to Erachin 18b) explains that it refers to anybody between the ages of twenty and sixty (as opposed to zaken, who is someone over sixty).

Midrash Tadshe(ch. 6) lists six stages in a person’s life: yelednaarrovehelemishsav, and zaken. Unlike what we have seen earlier, this source places elem after naar, and adds the stage of roveh between the two. In terms of our discussion, we see from this Midrash that yeled connotes the earliest stage of a person’s life. (Interestingly, Rabbi Eliyahu HaKohen of Izmir (1659-1729) cites anonymous “sages of astrology” who explain that yeled refers to a boy between the ages of 2-5, naar is between 5–8, and bachur is between 8-18.)

When Reuben tried to convince his brothers not to harm Joseph, he called Joseph a yeled (Gen. 44:22). Rabbi Meir Simcha of Divnsk (1843-1926) explains that Reuben specifically used that term, as descriptive of a seventeen-year old Joseph, in order to highlight the fact that Joseph had not yet reached the age of twenty and was thus not yet liable to be punished in the Divine Court.

As simple as it seems, Rabbi Pappenheim traces the word yeled to the two-letter root LAMMED-DALET, which refers to “birth.” Hence, yalad/yaldah is the verb for the act of “giving birth,” toldot refer to the “results” of birth, valad is the “womb” from whence birth begins, and yeled/yaldah is any “child” who is born.

In Aramaic, there are another two sets of words that refer to “boys and girls.” It is a complicated discussion as to exactly how they correspond to the various Hebrew words we have encountered so far, and so I will just point out some of the difficulties. Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky (1891-1986) already noted some of the Targumic inconsistencies we will raise, but his resolution lies beyond the scope of this essay.

The word roveh/reva/ravya (“boy”) is the standard Aramaic translation of yeled in Targum Onkelos (e.g., see Gen. 21:8, 21:16, Ex. 2:6, see also Succah 5b). The feminine counterpart to this word is rivah/riviysa, which means “girl” (see Rashi to Sanhedrin 58b). Interestingly enough, in the one place that the Hebrew word yaldah appears in the Pentateuch (Gen. 34:4), Targum Onkelos translates that word as ulemta (the Aramaic form of almah), rather than rivah.

To make things even more complicated, ulemta and its masculine counterpart, ulema, are the words Onkelos typically uses as translations for naarah and naar, respectively (although there are exceptions like Gen. 37:2, Num. 30:17, Ruth 2:5-6, when Onkelos translates naar as ravya). Rashi (to Shabbat 127b, Kesuvot 62b, and Sanhedrin 109b) also translates rivah/riviysa as naarah.

Finally, Targum also uses cognates of revi/ravya as Aramaic renderings of the Hebrew bachur (Ruth 3:10, Lam. 5:13), but also uses the word ulema for bachur (Ecc. 11:9). Rashi (to Sotah 26a) throws a wrench into this discussion by defining roveh as bachur and yeled!

In some places, Targum gives the Aramaic word for yeled and naar as tali/talya (its femine counterpart is talya/talyasa, see Megillah 5b and Dikdukei Sofrim to Yevamot 114a). Indeed, Rashi (to Megillah 5b) also defines tali as naar. Interestingly, the Rashbatz and Bartenura (to Avot 1:10) write that the name of the early Sage Avtalyon alludes to that Sage’s role as the head of the Sanhedrin, as the Talmud (Gittin 36a) says that the court functions as the “father of orphans,” and the name Avtalyon can be read as a portmanteau of av (“father of”) and talyon (“children”).

Although I have not found any sources that explicitly deal with the origins of these Aramaic pairs of words for “boy” and “girl,” I think that their etymologies are straightforward. Firstly, the words ravyareva, and their various cognates, are clearly derived from the two-letter root REISH-BET, which means “to grow” in Aramaic (e.g., see Targum to Gen. 25:27). This refers to “boys” and “girls” as people who are still “growing.” Secondly, the words talya, talyasa, and their various cognates seem to be related to the Biblical Hebrew word tleh (“young goat”). Just like the English word kid refers to both “young goats” and “young children” (ostensibly because they both run around wildly), so does the Aramaic term carry both of those meanings.

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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