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

Pelting and Stoning

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After a certain unnamed man (son of a Jewish mother and Egyptian father) blasphemously uttered the name of Hashem for a curse, he was brought in front of Moses and detained until Hashem would reveal to Moses the man’s fate. Ultimately, Hashem told Moses that this blasphemer ought to be subject to the death penalty — he should be taken outside of the camp and the entire nation shall stone him. And indeed, that is precisely what was done (Lev. 24:10–23). In that passage, the verb regimah for “stoning” a person to death makes four appearances. This essay seeks to determine what, if anything, is the difference between regimah and the more common word sekilah. Are they actual synonyms, or is there something more to the story?

Let’s begin with the word sekilah, whose root is clearly the triliteral SAMECH-KUF-LAMMED. Inflections of this root that refer to “stoning” somebody or something to death appear twenty times in the Bible. It is the prescribed punishment for one who approaches Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:13), for an ox who kills a person (Ex. 21:28–29, 21:32), for an idolator (Deut. 17:5) or one who incites other to commit idolatry (Deut. 13:11), and for the betrothed virgin who commits adultery and her paramour (Deut. 22:21, 22:24).

The term sekilah also appears when Moses refused Pharaoh’s offer to bring sacrifices to Hashem in Egypt (in lieu of allowing the nation to leave), because Moses claimed that the Egyptian would not tolerate the Jews slaughtering their gods and would instead “stone” the Jews. Similarly, when the Jews complained to Moses that there was no water in the desert, Moses cried out to Hashem claiming, “just a little bit more and they will stone me” (Ex. 17:4). The term sekilah was also used when a similar sentiment was expressed by King David (I Sam. 30:6). At another point, King David actually was “stoned” and cursed by Shimi ben Geira, but he was not killed in that stoning (II Sam. 16:6, 16:13). The term sekilah further appears in two more instances of men who were stoned to death: Achan, who illegally took the spoils of war from Jericho (Josh. 7:25); and Naboth, against whom Jezebel and Ahab conspired to take his vineyard (I Kgs. 23:10–15).

This usage also appears in the Mishnah both in the context of “stoning” a person or animal to death (Yevamot 8:6, Ketubot 4:3, Sotah 3:8, Bava Kamma 4:9, 9:2, Sanhedrin 1:4, 6:1, 6:3-5, 7:1, 7:4, 7:7, 7:9-10, 8:4, 9:3, 10:4, Eduyot 6:1, Chullin 6:2, Keritut 6:2, and Niddah 5:5) and in terms of “stoning” a dead person’s coffin (Eduyot 5:6).

Derivatives of the root SAMECH-KUF-LAMMED appear two more times in the Bible, but not in the sense of “stoning” somebody, rather in the sense of “clearing/removing” stones. Most famously, Isaiah prophesied about the Future Redemption and urged the Jewish People to pave the way for that to happen and saklu m’even (“remove the stones”) that may impede its path of arrival (Isa. 62:10). Similarly, in a parable about planting a vineyard, Isaiah again uses the word sakel to refer to clearing out rocks that could be detrimental to the cultivation of grapevines (Isa. 5:2). This agricultural use of the term also appears in the Mishnah (Sheviit 3:7, 2:3).

When discussing the root SAMECH-KUF-LAMMED, the early lexicographer Menachem Ibn Saruk (920–970)in Machberet Menachem lists two separate semantic categories for that root: “stoning” and “clearing/cleaning.” This implies that he does not see those two meanings as related. However, Ibn Janach (990–1050)and Radak (1160–1234)in their respective Sefer HaShorashim both see the two meanings of this root as related, in the sense that they mean the exact opposite of each other. It is a well-established phenomenon in the Hebrew language that a given root might have one meaning and also mean the exact opposite (a “self-antonym”); this case is just another example: one meaning of this root refers to “using” stones, while the other meaning refers to “getting rid” of them.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814)bridges the gap between these two meanings of sekilah by explaining that both refer to the act of “throwing” rocks, but that the first meaning refers to “throwing” rocks at a person, while the second meaning refers to clearing an area of the rocks that are there by “throwing” those rocks elsewhere.

Rabbi Yehoshua (Jeremy) Steinberg of the Veromemanu Foundation suggests that SAMECH-KUF-LAMMED in the sense of “removing” stones is a metathesized form of the Mishnaic Hebrew root SAMECH-LAMMED-KUF (like in siluk), which means “to remove/finish.” The same suggestion is cited by Rabbi Yaakov Berger of Kiryat Sefer in Milon Leshon HaMikra.

Rabbi Moshe Tedeschi-Ashkenazi (1821–1898) in his work Otzar Nirdafim explains the root SAMECH-KUF-LAMMED as referring to the “amassing of a large quantity” — in this case, a large quantity of stones. The first step towards stoning an individual is to gather a bunch of stones to be used in the act, and likewise when one clears one’s field or vineyard of rocks, one amasses a quantity of such stones.

Rabbi Moshe Tedeschi further compares SAMECH-KUF-LAMMED to two other roots that are phonetically similar to it: SAMECH-GIMMEL-LAMMED (like in segulah, “treasure/property”) and (ALEPH-)SHIN-KAF-LAMMED (like in eshkol, “cluster”). The first comparison is predicated on the interchangeability of GIMMEL and KAF, and the second comparison, of SIN/SAMECH and SHIN. The word segulah refers to those items that a person wishes to accrue and “gather up” in his storage chest. Likewise, the Hebrew vowelization mark segol refers to a “grouping” of three dots in a triangular formation. Essentially, SAMECH-GIMMEL-LAMMED refers to a “collection” with a large quantity.

In a similar way, eshkol refers to that which “gathers together” a number of individual grapes into one mass. The root SHIN-KAF-LAMMED also refers to the act of “becoming bereft of one’s children” (see Gen. 27:45, 43:14, Isa. 49:21, I Sam. 15:33). This is because just as the pyramid-like formation of a grape cluster starts on the top with a multitude of grapes on each row and then each becomes successively less populated, so does a person who becomes shakul start with a certain amount of children and then becomes increasingly bereft of them. Either way, the idea of “gathering a large quantity” implied by the roots SAMECH-GIMMEL-LAMMED and SHIN-KAF-LAMMED is similar to the way Rabbi Tedeschi explains the core meaning of SAMECH-KUF-LAMMED.

Segueing to the word regimah, its root REISH-GIMMEL-MEM appears sixteen times throughout the Bible in the sense of “stoning” someone to death. Besides for the four instances it appears in connection with the blasphemer mentioned at the beginning of this essay, regimah was also the punishment meted out to other people, like the man who publicly desecrated Shabbos (Num. 15:35–36) and the prescribed punishment for one who offers their child to Molech (Lev. 20:2), one who consults with necromancers like Ov and Yidoni (Lev. 20:27), and the rebellious son (Deut. 21:21).

Regimah is also was what the Jews wanted to do to Joshua and Caleb who rejected the other spies’ negative report of the Holy Land (Num. 14:10), what the Jews actually did do to King Rehoboam’s tax-collector (I Kgs. 12:18, II Chron. 10:18), and what the idolatrous Jews in the times of King Joash did to Zecharia ben Yehoyada, who was both a Kohen Gadol and a prophet (II Chron. 24:21). Additionally, Ezekiel prophesied that regimah will be the fate of the Jewish People, whose idolatry can be likened to adultery (Ezek. 16:40, 23:47). Finally, when it comes to the story of Achan, the Bible (Josh. 7:25) actually uses both regimah and sekilah (see below).

The term regimah also appears twice in the Mishnah: After a certain Sadducean Kohen failed to perform the Libation of Water ceremony on Sukkot in the proper way, the nation “pelted him” (ragmuhu) with their etrogim (Sukkah 4:9). Similarly, when explaining that in the Sekilah death penalty, if the sinner survives being pushed off a high platform and having a large boulder placed on his heart, then the Jews in attendance should regimato, “stone him” (Sanhedrin 6:4).

King Solomon refers to the fleeting usefulness of honoring a fool who will likely dishonor himself not long after by writing, “like tying a stone to a catapult (margeimah), so is giving honor to a fool” (Prov. 26:8).The word margeimah seemingly derives from the root REISH-GIMMEL-MEM which likewise refers to “throwing/launching” stones. Moreover, the Talmud (Chullin 133a) almost certainly alludes to this connection when explicating that verse to derive the following lesson: “whoever teaches an unworthy student is like one who throws a stone [as a way of worshipping] Merculus.”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ex. 26:1) sees a connection between regimah (REISH-GIMMEL-MEM) and rikmah (REISH-KUF-MEM), meaning “embroidery,” via the interchangeability of the letters GIMMEL and KUF. He explains that just as the former involves piling stones on top of a person, so does the latter involve sewing a special picture or shape on top of a pre-existing fabric.

Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Carpentras (an 18th century grammarian and dayan) in Ohalei Yehuda relates regimah to regev (Job 21:33, 38:38), which means “clump of dirt,” noting that both refer to a “collection” or “gathering” of smaller individual parts. They are related due to the interchangeability of the letters MEM and BET. This explanation is similar to Rabbi Moshe Tedeschi’s way of explaining regimah’s counterpart and apparent synonym, sekilah (as mentioned above).

Rabbi Pappenheim sees the letter MEM of regimah as unessential to its core literal root, allowing him to trace the etymology of regimah to the two-letter root REISH-GIMMEL (“subduing”). Regimah relates to that notion because a stoned person is overwhelmed and subdued by the quantity of stones thrown at him, which limit his ability to continue functioning. Other words derived from this root include: harigah (“killing/murder”), because when one “kills” another, he has subdued them and put them to rest in the most absolute way possible, and arigah (“weaving”), because threads in a fabric are so tightly woven together, that they appear “subdued” when rendered immobile in place.

Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843–1916) takes this idea a few steps further and connects several other words with the REISH-GIMMEL string to this biliteral root, including regev (“clump of dirt”), regel (“foot”), rogez (“anger”), regesh (“feeling”), noting that all of these words are associated with “subduing,” “conquering,” and/or “trampling” in one way or another. In a similar vein, Rabbi Moshe Tedeschi also compares REISH-GIMMEL-MEM to other words that use the biliteral string REISH-GIMMEL, like regel (“foot/tread”), ragan (“complain/repine”), raga (“terrify/swirl/thrash”), and regesh (“tumult/tempest”). All of these words refer to actions related to strong, even violent, movement, thus leading Rabbi Moshe Tedeschi to likewise explain that regem refers to the violent act of “throwing” stones when stoning somebody.

Until now, we have encountered two terms for “stoning” in Biblical Hebrew — sekilah and regimah. From now, we will discuss the interplay between these two terms and how they relate to one another. In doing so, we will consider whether or not they are truly synonymous expressions that can be used interchangeably, or there is some small nuanced difference between them.

Before we begin, it is important to note, as Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1468-1549) already pointed out in his work Meturgaman, that Targum consistently renders the Hebrew term sekilah into Aramaic as regimah, but also translates the Hebrew regimah into Aramaic as regimah.

Likewise, Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh notices an interesting factoid about the relationship between regimah and sekilah: If one calculates the gematria (“numeric value”) of regimah’s root REISH-GIMMEL-MEM (243) and compares it with sekilah’s root SAMECH-KUF-LAMMED (190), one sees that the difference is 53 — which is the exact gematria of the word even (“stone”).

But how do we differentiate between sekilah and regimah?

Rabbi Moshe Tedeschi Ashkenazi (1821–1898) in his work Otzar Nirdafim on Hebrew synonyms attempts to differentiate between these terms, although he admits that there is no clear line of demarcation that separates them in actual usage.

However, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814)does differentiate between regimah and sekilah. Based on his earlier-mentioned understanding of the word regimah as related to a stoned person being “subdued” and “rendered immobile,” he explains that while regimah and sekilah both refer to “stoning,” there is a slight difference between them: sekilah refers to the act of “throwing” stones at the individual being stoned, while regimah refers to the result of the stoning in that the individual who has been stoned is now “subdued” and “immobile.”

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Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785–1865) in HaKtav V’Ha’Kabbalah (to Lev. 24:16, see also Ex. 17:4) cites a similar explanation in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Reggio (1784-1855), known simply as Yashar. Like Rabbi Pappenheim, he explains that sekilah refers to the act of “throwing” stones at somebody, but he notes that this term does not necessarily entail killing said person by stoning. Case in point: When Shimi ben Geira “stoned” King David to show his disapproval with the king, the term sekilah is used (II Sam. 16:6, 16:13), even though King David was not killed in that stoning. Yashar further explains that because the term sekilah itself does not necessarily imply “stoning to death” but rather simply “stoning,” whenever the Bible prescribes sekilah as punishment for the perpetrator of a sin, it also adds that the sinner in question “should be put to death” alongside saying that he should be subject to sekilah. By contrast, Yashar understands that regimah refers specifically to “stoning to death,” which is why usually when regimah appears in a verse, it is not followed by an explicit reference to the person’s death. In short, like Rabbi Pappenheim, Yashar also sees sekilah as referring to the act of “stoning” and regimah to the results of “stoning.”

Along these lines Rabbi Yehuda Leib Shapira-Frankfurter (1743-1826) argues that sekilah is just a means to killing somebody, and even if the victim was theoretically killed with one stone, that would be enough. This stands in contradistinction to regimah, which entails continuously throwing an entire heap of stones on the victim, even if he is already dead. With this in mind, he explains why in the context of regimah the Scripture or Mishnah typically says “the entire nation” did the stoning — because it is a multi-person effort! In contrast, sekilah could theoretically be effectuated with a single stone, so a whole crew of people is not necessarily needed to carry it out.

Sefer HaChachmah (ascribed to the late 12th century Asheknazic scholar R. Elazar Rokeach of Worms) differentiates between these two terms differently. He writes that regimah refers to the act of throwing stones, while sekilah refers to the resultant pile to stones that is amassed after throwing all the stones at one’s target.

As mentioned earlier, when it comes to Achan, the Bible (Josh. 7:25) actually uses both regimah and sekilah. Rashi explains that this is because Achan himself was subject to regimah, while the animals he took as booty were subject to sekilah (see also Targum and Radak there). However, based on the above, Yashar explains that the Bible uses the term regimah first because that term denotes killing somebody by way of stoning, which is exactly how Achan was killed. Afterwards, the Bible uses the term sekilah which refers simply to the act of throwing rocks without necessarily killing somebody to convey the idea that once Achan was already dead (and subsequently burnt), people threw rocks at his corpse and ashes in order to further disgrace him.

Fascinatingly, Rabbi Avi Kobernick in Hipuch Otioyot ties together the root REISH-GIMMEL-MEM with the roots derived from the various combinations of those same letters: GIMMEL-MEM-REISH (“finish” or “finish off,” like in gomer), MEM-GIMMEL-REISH (“destroy,” like u’timager in the Blessing on Heretics in the Daily Prayers), and GIMMEL-REISH-MEM (“break”). All of these roots convey the idea of destruction and annihilation, which fits with the general idea of regimah as a means of killing somebody.

Towards the beginning of the Second Temple period, the prophet Zechariah was asked by a delegation of Jews who remained in the Babylonian diaspora about whether they should continue mourning and fasting the destruction of the Temple during the month of Av, like they had been doing for the last seventy years. The people who sent this question were named Sarezer and Regem-Melech (Zech. 7:2). As an aside, the Midrash Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer (ch. 3) claims that these two men were officers from Nebuchadnezzar’s entourage who converted to Judaism after they helped destroy the First Temple. Similarly, in the genealogical listings of Chronicles, there was a Jewish man from the Tribe of Judah named Regem (I Chron. 2:47). The names Regem and Regem-Melech both seem to be somehow derived from the triliteral root REISH-GIMMEL-MEM.

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In the case of Regem-Melech, Menachem Ibn Saruk (920–970) in Machberet Menachem understands that it is not actually a proper name. Instead, he explains the word regem as meaning “grouping,” such that regem melech simply means “royal delegation.” Others explainregem as meaning “officers,” with regem melech meaning “royal officials” (see Ibn Ezra to Zech. 7:2, Ps. 68:28).

Abarbanel (to Zech. 7:7 and Mashmia Yeshua 14:2) suggests that perhaps Regem-Melech was a title or appellation that alludes to Regem-Melech’s professional role within the royal court. In fact, in Ugaritic — a Semitic language that bears many affinities to Hebrew — the root equivalent to the Hebrew REISH-GIMMEL-MEM means “to say/announce/answer.” Putting this together with what Abarbanel wrote would suggest that perhaps Regem-Melech served as the Babylonian king’s herald or press secretary. [Similarly, we can argue that perhaps the name Sarezer ought to be parsed as sar (“officer”) and otzar (“treasury”), making him the treasurer of the Babylonian kingdom.]

Nonetheless, Radak (to Zech. 7:2 and Sefer HaShorashim) and Ibn Ezra (to Zech. 7:2) favor the approach that sees Regem-Melech as an actual name. [The scholar Avraham Shmuel Herschberg (1858-1943) claims that Regem was the name of the God of Air, and that the given name Regem-Melech contains a theophoric reference to that idolatrous deity. Nevertheless, I have not been able to substantiate this claim and have found no other sources that point to the existence of such a deity with that name.]

Rabbi Yosef Kimchi (1105–1170) in Sefer HaGalui and Sefer HaChukah writes that the root REISH-GIMMEL-MEM is related to the word argaman (“purple cloth”), with the extra ALEPH and NUN at the end of the word added to the core root. He sees this as deriving from the “officers” meaning of REISH-GIMMEL-MEM, as only prominent government officials were allowed to wear previous clothes made from argaman. This explanation is adopted by Meiri (to Prov. 26:8) and is cited by Rabbi Kimchi’s son, Radak in Sefer HaShorashim. Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur in Sefer HaTishbi when discussing the word etnan deriving from TAV-NUN compares that case to argaman deriving from REISH-GIMMEL-MEM. [For more about argaman, see “The Color Purple” (Feb. 2022).]

Another term seemingly derived from the root REISH-GIMMEL-MEM is the Hebrew/Aramaic word targum (“translate”). This word already appears in the Bible (Ezra 4:7), but its exact relationship to the triliteral root REISH-GIMMEL-MEM is not clear. Several explanations have been proposed:

  • Rabbi Refael Gruskin presumes that targum derives from regimah, explaining just as regimah essentially refers to “throwing” stones from one place to another, so does targum refer to transferring a text or statement from one place’s language to another’s.
  • Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn (1857–1935) explains the core meaning of targum as “speaking.” He too sees targum as derived from regimah, but explains regimah itself as derived from rikmah (“embroidery”), allowing him to characterize speech as a verbal tapestry produced by weaving together phonemes into letters, letters into words, and words in ideas and sentences.
  • Rabbi Yaakov Yehudah Zilberberg Di Kasif (1914–2003) explains that targum refers to “speech” in a smooth and coherent way without any hesitation, although the exact way he connects this to REISH-GIMMEL-MEM is somewhat unclear to me.
  • Rabbi Binyamin Kohen-Shauli (1942–1971) sees the root REISH-GIMMEL-MEM at the core of targum as a metathesized form of the root GIMMEL-MEM-REISH, which means “to learn” in Aramaic (like in the word gemara). He thus explains targum in the sense of “translating” as the means for learning something that is in a language that one does not understand.
  • Rabbi Yaakov Loyfer (in his introduction to Targum Onkelos published in Otzar HaRishonim) sees the core meaning of targum as “elucidated speech.” He suggests that its root is REISH-GIMMEL-MEM, and connects it to the aforementioned Ugaritic term. This would mean that the Hebrew word for “translating” from/to another language actually is actually derived from the word for “saying” in a different language! [In my mind, this is similar to the Yiddish term for “translating” — taytsh. That word is really just an early form of the German word deutsch (“German”) from before the t sound morphed into a d sound ala Grimm’s Law. In fact, the Yiddish term taytsh is cognate with the English word Teutonic (“German”), so it really just means “rendering something in German.”]
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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