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

Locating the Place

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After Aaron’s death in the Jews’ last year wandering the wilderness, the Canaanite king of Arad in the south heard that the Jews were traversing the derech ha’atarim on their way to the Holy Land, and decided to pre-emptively attack them (Num. 21:1). The meaning of the word atar in this context is somewhat obscure, with most sources (like Eichah Rabbah §1:21, Targum Onkelos, Menachem Ibn Saruk, Rashi, Rashbam, Rabbeinu Yosef Bechor Shor, Ibn Ezra, and Radak) relating it to the word la’tur (“to spy”) by seeing the initial ALEPH as extraneous to the core root. They explain that derech ha’atarim refers to the route that the Ten Spies had taken close to four decades prior, entering the Holy Land from the south. However, this essay follows another subset of commentators who take the word atar in this context to mean “place,” “site,” “location,” or “spot.” In that sense, the Hebrew word atar appears to be synonymous with the Hebrew word makom and the Aramaic word duchta, so this essay focuses on attempting to trace the etymologies of those words and search for how they might differ. [For more about the term la’tur, see “Spy versus Spy” (June 2017).]

We begin our discussion with the very common Hebrew word makom, which appears an impressive four-hundred times in the Bible. That word means “place/site/location/spot” in various different ways. What’s interesting about the word makom is that Menachem Ibn Saruk (920–970) in his Machberet Menachem has no entry for the word, so we do not know what he understood as its root. However, both Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach (990–1050) and Radak (1160–1234) in their respective Sefer HaShorashim list the word makom as a derivative of the triliteral root KUF-VAV-MEM, thus presuming that the initial MEM is not radical to the core root. Words derived from this root have various meanings, including “standing,” “rising up [e.g., against one’s enemies],” and “establishing.” How these concepts relate to the word makom is not readily understood.

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Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) fills in the blanks by offering a comprehensive analysis of words derived from KUF-MEM and how they relate to one another (being the biliteralist that he was, Rabbi Pappenheim did not see the middle VAV as essential to the root from which makom derives). He identifies the core meaning of this root as “height,” in reference to the dimension of a physical object that measured along the up-down axis. From this core root, derives the word komah (“[physical] stature”), kamah (“standing grain,” i.e., unharvested produce), kumah (the act of “standing/arising,” which in a figurative way refers to one who holds his own stature while facing adversity), kiyum (“everlasting/established,” which refers to something maintaining its composure and stature without ever changing), and finally, makom (“place,” i.e., the geographical location where something has been planted and thus firmly-established, also borrowed in a more abstract sense to refer to any particular “spot”).

Rabbi Pappenheim also sees the term nekamah (“revenge”) as related to this root, because it denotes keeping the “debt” that a wrongdoer is owed as something “well-established,” until such late time as one is able to “repay/payback” that debt by vengefully taking retribution. Either way, Rabbi Pappenheim’s framework helps us better understand the etymology behind the Hebrew word makom and how it relates back to its core root. [For an explanation of why Hashem is sometimes called Ha’Makom (literally, “the place”) in rabbinic literature and liturgy, see Ha’Ktav Ve’Ha’Kabbalah to Ex. 33:21.]

Going back to the phrase derech ha’atarim in which the word atar appearswe previously mentioned that some commentators explains that this word means “place,” “site,” “location,” or “spot.” To be more precise, exegetes like Rabbi Toviah ben Eliezer in Pesikta Zutrata/Midrash Lekach Tov (to Num. 21:1), Rabbeinu Meyuchas (to Num. 21:1), and Rabbi Menachem Ricanati (to Num. 21:1) all use the word makom to define the word atar. As a matter of fact, in other cases, Rashi himself also uses the word makom to define the word atar (see Rashi to Dan. 2:38, Ezra 6:3, 6:8, 8:15, Ketubot 68a, Bava Metzia 67a, Bava Batra 29a, 103a, Avodah Zarah 7b, 31b).

In context, this would seem to mean that the Canaanite king of Arad heard that the Jews had been taking the “scenic route” to engage in site-seeing, hence the term derech ha’atarim would literally mean “the path of the sites/places.” Of course, in Modern Hebrew, the word atar has been reappropriated to more closely parallel the English word site, so it therefore refers to “tourist sites/attractions,” “construction sites,” and “geo-location,” plus atar is also used in reference to “websites” on the internet.

That said, instead of viewing atar and makom as pure synonyms, the aforementioned exegetes all make a point of noting that atar is actually an Aramaic word (while makom is obviously Hebrew). This means that while atar and makom might mean the exact same thing, they are not quite synonyms because only makom is a native Hebrew word, whereas atar is a loanword borrowed from Aramaic. In fact, outside of the phrase derech ha’atarim, the word atar never appears in any other Hebrew part of the Bible (nor does it ever appear in the Mishnah!). Yet, it does appear five times in the Aramaic parts of the Bible (Dan. 2:35, Ezra 5:15, 6:3, 6:5, 6:7).

Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein is a research fellow associated with the Veromemanu Foundation. Click the logo to find out more about the Veromemanu Foundation and their research.

Moreover, as Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469–1549) points out in Meturgaman, the word atar is the standard Aramaic rendering of the Hebrew makom in the Targumim (for example, see Targum to Gen. 1:9, 13:4, 20:11, Deut. 12:2, Jud. 19:13, I Sam. 7:16, II Sam. 17:12, I Kgs. 13:16, Jer. 22:3), thus solidifying its Aramaic bona fides. Some readers might be more familiar with the Aramaic word atra (a cognate of atar), which appears in Kaddish D’Rabbanan, and also refers to a “place/locale.” [In a previous essay, I discussed the possibility that the Rabbinic Hebrew term le’alter (“immediately”) derives from the Aramaic word atar, and is actually a portmanteau of al atar (“on the spot”), see “Forthwith in the Fourth Dimension” (Sep. 2017).]

Interestingly, Rabbi Yaakov Yehudah (Zilberberg) de Kassif (1914–2003) seems to explain atar as a Hebrew word. By way of metathesis, he connects three different Hebrew roots which use the consonants ALEPH, TAV, and REISH as all relating to the concept of “boundaries” and “clear delineation.” He explains that TAV-ALEPH-REISH (toar) refers to the “aesthetic form” of a person, which is outlined by the contours of their body’s shape and curves; TAV-REISH-ALEPH (hatraah) refer to a “warning” given to a violator, as it clearly establishes the border of what is considered acceptable and informs the potential sinner of what punishments await him should he choose to cross that line; and ALEPH-TAV-REISH (atar) refers to a “place” as a geographical unit defined by its borders that mark it off from the rest of the world.

The Hebrew word asher is a common conjunction in Biblical Hebrew, appearing thousands of times in that corpus. In general, it means “that/which/of/because/so,” but in at least two places, Targum translates the word asher as atar (Targum to I Sam. 23:13, Ezek. 23:40, see Rashi there and to Kiddushin 76b). On a simple level, one may argue that Targum is not actually translating the Hebrew asher into the Aramaic atar, but is rather interpreting the two verses in question as though the word asher in context meant “that [place where]…” Nevertheless, there is ample room to see Targum as explaining that in these cases the Hebrew asher is actually cognate with the Aramaic atar, as we often find that the Hebrew SHIN turns into a TAV in Aramaic (plus there is an Akkadian word ashru, which actually means “place”). Taking this a step further, Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843–1916) writes that the Akkadian/Sumerian word ashartu for “temple” literally means “[holy] place,” and is cognate with the Hebrew asher and Aramaic atar.

With this in mind, we can partially solve a puzzle that has perplexed archeologists in recent decades. At a site named Kuntillet Ajrud (in the northeastern Sinai Peninsula), archeologists found a Hebrew inscription that reads, “I blessed you to Hashem of Samaria and His Asherah (u’l’asherto).” This epigraphical find is quite perplexing because it implied that whoever wrote it was not a pure monotheist, but rather believed in a Canaanite goddess besides Hashem — Asherah. However, in light of what we have learned here that the words asher/atar can refer to a “temple,” “shrine” or otherwise “holy site,” we can read the inscription as instead saying: “I blessed you to Hashem of Samaria and His Temple (u’l’asherto),” which makes more sense.

Those readers who study a lot of Gemara might be familiar with another Aramaic word for “place”: duchta. This word is quite common in the Babylonian Talmud, and Rashi (to Moed Katan 16b, Ketubot 77a, and Sanhedrin 96b) defines it by — again — using the Hebrew word makom. A shortened version of this word, duch, also appears in the Talmud (Brachot 42b), and Rashi again defines as makom.

Interestingly, Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur in his Meturgaman has no entry for the word duchta or duch. Yet, as far as I know, the word duchta does appear at least once in Targum as a way of rendering the Hebrew word makom into Aramaic (Targum to Prov. 27:8, see also Targum to I Kgs. 14:28 and II Chron. 12:11, which use the word ducha).

This leads me to an interesting question: Why would Aramaic have two different words that mean the exact same thing — atar and duchta? When it comes to Hebrew, we showed how there’s only one word for “place” — makom — while atar is a borrowed Aramaicism. But why does Aramaic itself have two words to convey this idea?

Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein (1899–1983)and Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak (Jared) Greenblatt see the Aramaic word atar as related to verb cognates in Arabic and Ethiopic that mean “tracing/tracking” (l’ater is used in a similar way in Modern Hebrew). Based on this, we may argue that the “place/location” meaning of the Aramaic duchta/duch is an expanded meaning that is not core to the etymology of the words themselves, which refers more to “finding something’s location.”

Alternatively, Rabbi Joseph Perles (1835–1894) in his German work Etymologische Studien zur Kunde der rabbinischen Sprache und Alterthümer (pp. 57, 81–82) argues that the Aramaic word duchta/duch actually derives from the Old Persian words daqyua and dahi. This explanation is cited approvingly by Dr. Alexander Kohut (1842–1894) in his Aruch HaShaleim, which does not mean much to me because Kohut has general propensity toward seeing words in rabbinic parlance as being sourced in Old Persian. However, Rabbi Shaul Goldman clarified that the actual word in Avestan/Old Persian that Perles and Kohut were referring to is dahyu (“country/province”). In light of this, it would seem that the ostensibly Aramaic words duchta/duch are not actually native Aramaic words, but were rather borrowed Old Persian, while Aramaic itself only has one native word for “place/location,” that is, atar.

If this connection can be positively established, then it is not too farfetched to see the Old Persian dahyu as a derivative of the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root deuk- (“lead”), as dahyu may refer to a territory united under the “leadership” of a single governance. Besides for Old Persian, other languages which evolved from PIE include Latin. Thus, linguists argue that that PIE root is also the etymon of the Latin words dux/ducis (originally, “military commander/leader,” but later expanded to refer to the “ruler” of a particular region), and their counterpart duchus in rabbinic idiom (see Brachot 32b, Sanhedrin 39a, Sotah 14a, Avodah Zarah 11a). The Latin word, in turn, is also the forebear of the English words dukeduceduchessduchy, as well as a whole slew of other English word including: ducatductconducededuceinduceproduceseduceeducate.

When I asked ChatGPT about a possible etymological connection between the Aramaic duchta and the Latin dux, the AI bot replied that this proposal does indeed have some merit, as both words share common conceptual similarities (see Bereishit Rabbah §5:3 which possibly alludes to such a connection in expounding Ps. 93:3). Nonetheless, it is difficult to conclusively confirm any actual etymological link between these two words.

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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