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

Migrating from Mitzrayim

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One of the most exciting highlights of the Passover liturgy is a poem written by a payytan named Yanai (who probably lived in the Holy Land under Byzantine rule during the sixth century). That work consists of a poetic list of different miracles recorded in the Bible that were said to have happened in the middle of the night. The poem is traditionally recited twice — once on Shabbos HaGadol and once in the Nirtzah portion of the Passover Seder. When listing the story of the Exodus by mentioning the Plague of the Firstborn, the poem reads: “You smote the seed of the firstborns of Patros in the midpoint of the night.” Essentially, when referring to the plague that was wrought upon the “Egyptians” in the middle of the night, the poet uses the word Patros instead of using the common Hebrew word Mitzrayim. In this essay, we discuss the basis for the Hebrew word Mitzrayim as well as its apparent synonyms that refer to the land now known as “Egypt.”

The word Mitzrayim first appears in the Bible in the genealogical tables that detail the descendants of Noah’s son Ham (Gen. 10:6, I Chron. 1:8). In that context, it refers to the name of one of Ham’s sons, whose progeny later inhabited the land known throughout the Bible as Mitzrayim. According to the Bible (Gen. 10:10:13–14, I Chron. 1:11–12), Mitzrayim the person was said to have fathered six sons: Ludim, Anamim, Lehavim, Naftuchim, Patrusim, and Kasluchim (the latter two begat the nations of the Plishtim and Kaftorim). All in all, the term Mitzrayim appears 680 times in the Bible, making it quite a common word.

When the Bible relates that after the Jews crossed the Red Sea, the Egyptians who pursued them drowned, it says: “And [the] Israel[ites] saw Mitzrayim dead on the shore of the sea” (Ex. 14:30). The Midrash Sechel Tov (there) explains that MItzrayim in this context refers to “Grandfather Mitzrayim” — the progenitor of all Egyptians — whom Hashem took out of his grave and revived so that he may witness the annihilation of his wretched descendants. Some Tosafists even had a tradition that the word Mitzrayim earlier in that narrative (Ex. 14:10, 14:25) does not refer to the Egyptians collectively, but rather to “Grandfather Mitzrayim” individually (see Ateret Zekanim to Ex. 14:10, Hadar Zekanim to Ex. 14:10, Sefer Chassidim §607, Siddur Rokeach pp. 213, 222, Peirush Rokeach to Ex. 14:30).

In his commentary to Genesis, Radak (to gen. 10:13) notes that we do not know why Noah’s son Ham named his son Mitzrayim with the YOD-MEM suffix that otherwise serves as an inflection to denote the plural. Although, Radak suggests that it may have had something to do with the circumstance surrounding Mitzrayim’s birth. Remarkably, Radak does posit that once Mitzrayim was given a personal name that looks like a noun in plural form — for whatever reason that happened — Mitzrayim himself named his descendants in the same fashion, giving each one a name with the letters YOD-MEM at the end.

Elsewhere, Radak (Sefer HaShorashim and in his comments to Isa.) notes that sometimes the Bible refers to Egypt in singular form by the name Matzor (II Kgs. 19:24, Isa. 19:6, 37:25). In the same vein, the Arabic equivalent to the Hebrew word Mitzrayim is Misr, which seems to just be the singular form of Mitzrayim. However, commentators see the Biblical word matzor as a common noun referring to “narrow places,” and not as a proper noun referring specifically to Egypt.

Another fascinating approach is cited by Peirush HaRokeach (to Gen. 10:13) and Rabbi Yehuda HaChassid (there). They explain that Ludim, Anamim, Plishtim, and Kaftorim are all written in plural form because these nations progenated from sets of twins as opposed to from one singular patriarch. In other words, Mitzrayim had two sons named Lud, whose families married into each other and begat the Ludim; he had also two sons named Anam, who families married into each other and begat the Anamim, etc… Although this approach accounts for the YOD-MEM ending in Mitzrayim’s sons’ names, it does not quite explain the meaning of the name Mitzrayim itself.

To be fair, though, Ibn Ezra (to Gen. 10:13) explains this list of names as really referring to countries/nations who descended from the common ancestor of the Egyptians, not to the actual names of Mitzrayim’s sons.

In discussing Mitzrayim’s sons, the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah §37:5) notes that all of their names were coined with a suffix related to the yam (“sea”), but the Midrash does not explicitly explain why. Maharzu (there) explains that this refers to the fact that Mitzrayim and his descendants all settled along the coast of the (Mediterranean) Sea and thereabouts (see also Nachmanides to Gen. 10:13 who writes that all of Mitzrayim’s sons settled in the general vicinity of Egypt or its immediate environs). But Rabbeinu Bachaya (to Gen. 10:13) says the plural marker YOD-MEM appended to the name Mitzrayim and his sons actually alludes to the fact that all of these family-nations were destined to be annihilated at the Splitting of the Red Sea when they drowned not long after the Jews exited Egypt.

Indeed, many other sources view the word Mitzrayim as a portmanteau of meitzar (“narrow/border/strait”) and yam (“sea”). Each of those sources has a different way of explaining exactly how those two words relate to Egypt, but the earliest explanation that I found is proffered by Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543–1620). He writes that Mitzrayim is so called because it places a “border/limit” on the Upper Seas. Meaning, because Egypt’s fecundity hinged on the Nile River, it was not as heavily reliant on rain (“the Upper Seas”) as other countries were. This reality could — Heaven forefend — lead people to forget about Hashem in their quest for agricultural success, as they no longer felt the need to look upward toward Him to bring rain (see Gen. 13:10, Deut. 11:10).

The work Sodei Semuchim ascribed to Rabbi Elazar Rokeach of Worms (a late 12th century Asheknazi scholar) notes that the word Mitzrayim uses a type of grammatical inflection typically used for words that come in pairs. He compares this to the words einayim (“eyes”), apayim (“face”), oznayim (“ears”), me’aim (“intestines”), kirbayim (“innards”), raglayim (“feet”), yadayim (“hands”), shinayim (“teeth”), kiryatayim (“twin cities”). In relating this specifically to Mitzrayim, he simply notes that that nation was born from a conglomeration of various descendants of Ham, so it deserves to be in the plural. He also compares Mitzrayim to Yerushalayim (“Jerusalem”), which likewise appears in this paired inflection because it is a united city, which really represents the joining of two cities. [See “Twin Cities: Zion and Jerusalem” (July 2018) for more about this.]

The term Patros/Patrus appears seven times in the Bible, five times in reference to the land of Egypt (Isa. 11:11, Jer. 44:1, 44:15, Ezek. 29:14, 30:14) and twice in reference to the Patrusim people who were said to have descended from Ham’s son Mitzrayim (Gen. 10:14, I Chron. 1:12).

Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843–1916) explains that the word Patros in Egyptian literally means “the land of the south.” It is a reference to Upper Egypt (i.e., Southern Egypt, because the Nile River flows northwards), near the border with Nubia/Ethiopia (probably in modern-day Sudan). The Hungarian Maskil Solomon Löwisohn (1789–1821) and Shadal (to Gen. 10:14) further explain that Patros (known as Pathyris in Greek), was a major city in Upper Egypt, and on account of that city, the entire region was called Patros. They compare this to the fact that later in Greek times, the dominant city in that region was Thebes, and the entire region of Upper Egypt was called Thebias/Thebae (while the term Aegyptus referred specifically to Lower Egypt).

Essentially, the word Patros is a term that is closely associated with Mitzrayim, but is not quite synonymous with it. It refers either to a genealogical descendant of the original person Mitzrayim, or to the entire southern region of Egypt. Either way, it seems that Yanai referred to Egypt by the moniker Patros, instead of the usual Mitzrayim, as a sort of poetic way of referencing Mitzrayim by a more obscure term. He employed his poetic license to loosely use the term Patros as though it meant the same thing as Mitzrayim, even though technically it does not. I came to this conclusion after consulting with Professor Shulamit Elitzur (the world’s expert in piyyutim), who confirmed that there is probably no deeper meaning in the use of these synonyms for Mitzrayim.

Yanai’s more well-known student, Rabbi Eliezer HaKallir, wrote in a famous piyyut recited every weekday of Sukkot: “Like You saved the strong ones [the Jews] in Lud with Yourself, when You took out Your nation [from Egypt] for salvation, so shall you save [us] now!” In this poem, the word Lud appears instead of Mitzrayim. As mentioned above, Ludim — who are mentioned five times in the Bible (Gen. 10:13, Ezek. 27:10, 30:5, I Chron. 1:11, Jer. 46:9) — is the name of one of Mitzrayim’s sons. In the same way that Yanai used the name Patrusim to refer to the entire Egyptian nation, HaKallir also used a name of a son of Mitzrayim to refer to the entire Egyptian nation, he just used the name Ludim instead of Patrusim.

A poem entitled Yom L’Yabashah (or Yam L’Yabashah) describes the Splitting of the Red Sea, and is customarily recited on the Seventh Day of Passover and at the celebratory meal following a circumcision. In that poem, the Egyptians are referred to as Anamim — a term which is also used in many other less popular piyyutim. In light of the above, we may explain that in this case too, the poet exercised his poetic latitude in using a term that technically refers to a son of Mitzrayim as a reference to the entire slew of peoples who descended from Mitzrayim.

As mentioned before, one of Mitzrayim’s sons was named Lehavim. Rashi (to Gen. 10:13 and possibly to Isa. 13:8) presumes a connection between the proper name Lehavim and the Hebrew root LAMMED-HEY-BET (“flame/blade”), saying that the faces of the Lehavim resembles a lahav, but not explaining what that exactly means.

Elsewhere in the Bible, there is a nation called Luvim: For example, when the Egyptian king Shishak (identified by some as Pharaoh Shoshenq I) sacked Jerusalem during King Solomon’s reign, the Bible reports that along with him came a countless amount of Luvim (II Chron. 12:3). Luvim soldiers were mentioned again a few generations later in the time of King Asa (II Chron. 16:8), and are referenced twice more in the Bible (Nah. 3:9, Dan. 11:43). Commentators like R. Yishaya of Trani and Pseudo-Radag (to Dan. 11:43) clearly state that Luvim are the same Lehavim (probably due to the interchangeability of HEY and VAV).

Luvim also come up in the Talmud: the Talmud (Bechorot 5b) reports that every Jew who exited Egypt during the exodus had with him ninety Luvim donkeys carrying Egyptian gold and silver. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Shabbat 51b) discusses which accouterments it is common for a Luva Donkey to be adorned with. In the first case, Rashi simply comments that Luvim donkeys were of especially high quality, but in the second case, he clarifies that these donkeys came from Lub, the land of the Luvim nation (see also Rabbeinu Chananel there). Tosafot (to Bechorot 5b) and Tosafot Chitzoniyot (cited by Shitah Mekubetzet there) further explain that Luvim is another word for Lehavim, and Rabbeinu Tam (cited by Tosafot to Shabbat 51b) states that the term Luvim actually refer to Egyptians (see also Rabbeinu Nissim Gaon to Shabbat 90b).

Scholars like Rabbi Aharon Marcus and Dr. Alexander Kohut (1842–1894) postulate that Lub — the homeland of the Luvites and the Lehavim — is a reference to what we now call Lybia (a country just to the west of modern-day Egypt). Alternatively, we may suggest that Lehavim/Luvim may be an alternate term for Nubians (who lived north of Abyssinia/Ethiopia, i.e. just to the south of Egypt), as the letters LAMMED and NUN are often interchangeable.

As you can imagine by now, there are also liturgical poems that refer to the Egyptians as Luvim and Lehavim. For example, Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gabirol (11th century Spanish poet and philosopher) wrote a poetic rendition of the list of the Torah’s prohibitions known as Azharot (recited in some communities on Shavuot). Towards the beginning of that poem, he writes: “I [Hashem] desired you and loved, I redeemed you from Lahav.” This, of course, follows the same pattern that we’ve seen earlier in the essay of using names of Mitzrayim’s sons in lieu of using the word Mitzrayim itself.

Another term for Egypt is rahav (see Rashi to Gen. 40:23, Chizkuni to Gen. 43:32, and Radak to Ps. 87:4). In rabbinic literature, Rahav is the name of the angelic minister associated with Egypt and the sea (see Bava Batra 74b, Bamidbar Rabbah §18:22, Zohar Terumah 170b, Zohar Chadash Bishalach 38b). The word rahav literally means “confident/strong/haughty,” and is an apt description of the Egyptian mentality. In some versions of Ibn Gabirol’s poem, it says “I redeemed you from Rahav,” instead of “from Lahav.” Either way, he certainly refers to that Nile Country that we have been discussing. Rabbi Aharon Marcus surmises that the name rahav is actually a permutation of the name Lahav (see above), due to the interchangeability of the letters LAMMED and REISH.

The term Kaftor refers to the original homeland of the Plishtim/Philistines (Amos 9:7, Jer. 47:4, Zeph. 2:5), who — as mentioned earlier — are said to descend from the original Mitzrayim. Shadal (to Gen. 10:14) explains that Kaftor refers either to the island of Cyprus or Crete (also known as Kandia).

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Rabbi Aharon Marcus claims that the name “copt” is a corruption of the Hebrew name Kaftor for this island, and from that corruption came about later terms like the Greek Aíguptos and the Latin Aegyptus — the ultimate etymons of the English word Egypt. Others argue that those antecedents to the English word are derived from the native Egyptian word that meant “temple of the soul of Ptah.” Ptah was the deity associated with the Egyptian city of Memphis, and the Greeks applied the name Aíguptos to the region as a whole.

Interestingly, the Talmud actually uses two early forms of the word Egypt. In two places, the Talmud refers to a language called Gipti (Shabbat 115a-115b, Megillah 18a) in which Scripture may have been read or written for the benefit of certain natives. This seems to refer to the Coptic language used in Egypt. Elsewhere, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 4b, Zevachim 37b, Menachot 34b) parses the word totafot (Deut. 6:8, 11:18) as a portmanteau comprised of the words tot (“two”) in Kapti and pat (“two”) in Afriki. The consensus sees the term Kapti as referring to the Coptic language and Afriki as referring to Phrygian. [As an aside, the Romani people were first thought to have originated in Egypt, so they were called Gyptians and then, eventually, Gypsies. However, nowadays, anthropologists maintain that the Romani really come from South Asia.]

Before we conclude, I wanted to share another fascinating idea presented by Rabbi Elazar Rokeach of Worms. He notes that verse that describes the Plague of the Firstborn (Ex. 12:23) contains every single letter of the Hebrew Alphabet, except for the letter TET, which has a numeric value of nine. Based on this, he explains that that plague affected nine different genealogical families, that is, the very names we have been discussing until now: Mitzrayim, Ludim, Anamim, Lehavim, Naftuchim, Patrusim, Kasluchim, Plishtim, and Kaftorim.

By the way, other terms used for “Egypt” include the Biblical phrase eretz cham – “the Land of Ham” (Ps. 105:23, 105:27, 106:22) and its close counterpart admat bnei cham (“the land of the sons of Ham”), which appears in the daily Maariv liturgy, plus the expression malchut eglah (“the Kingdom of the Calf”), which appears in the poem Maoz Tzur customarily recited on Chanuka (see also Jer. 46:20).

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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