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

Pesach: Cutting Open the Red Sea

The seas are being parted with a pathway through the ocean.
The seas are being parted with a pathway through the ocean.

On the Seventh Day of Passover, we traditionally read one of the most captivating stories in the entire Bible: the splitting of the sea. After the Egyptians finally let the Jews out of Egypt, they quickly changed their minds and followed in pursuit of their former slaves. The Jews traveled and traveled until they reached edge of the Yam Suf (Red Sea, or Reed Sea). With the Egyptians behind them and the sea in front of them, the Jews had nowhere to go but forward, so G-d miraculously split the sea open and allowed the Jews to cross the dry sea bed. Jewish tradition immortalizes this fantastic miracle as Kriyat Yam Suf — literally, “the tearing of the Yam Suf”. However, if one looks very closely, one will notice that Torah never uses the verb korea (“tearing”) to describe the sea opening up. Rather, the Torah uses the verb bokea (“splitting”) to refer to G-d’s breaking the sea open (Ex. 14:15, 14:21). What is the difference between bokea and korea? And why does the Torah use the former, but other traditional sources use the latter?

The Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchok Meir Alter (1799-1866), author of the Chiddishei HaRim, was once asked this question. He replied that he has much to say, but from Above he is stopped from giving a full answer. Instead, the Gerrer Rebbe said that he could reveal only a partial answer, one that is based on the halachic definition of the act of korea (“tearing,” which is forbidden on Shabbat). The Shulchan Aruch HaGraz (Orach Chaim §340:17) defines korea as the act of ripping apart two things that were joined together, but were once separate. The Midrash says that when G-dfirst created the world, He stipulated with the water that when the time comes, they will split in order to allow the Jews to cross the Yam Suf. Because of this prior stipulation, the water can be seen as having already been split from the time of Creation. Thus, when the Jews came to the Yam Suf and G-d split the sea for them, He was actually splitting something which had already once been split. For this reason, the Oral Torah uses the word korea when talking about splitting the sea. Nonetheless, the Gerrer Rebbe said that he cannot reveal why the Written Torah uses the word bokea.

Rabbi Shmuel Borenstein of Sochatchov (1855-1926) offers a different answer. In his work Shem Mi’Shmuel,he explains that the difference between bokea and korea lies in whose voice is speaking. He explains that the word bokea refers to something which was split from the inside out. For example, a hatchling which bursts out from inside an egg is described as bokea (Isa. 34:15), as is wine which busts open a flask (Gittin 26a). In contrast, the term korea applies to something which is cut by an outside force (like North Korea and South Korea, which were split by the Cold War).

Accordingly, Rabbi Borenstein explains that from G-d’s point of view the sea split from the inside out, because He commanded it to split and it listened to Him. For this reason, the Written Torah — in which G-d speaks to us—uses the term bokea when describing the sea’s splitting. However, the Oral Torah is written from the perspective of the Jewish People. From that vantage point the sea did not appear to split on its own. Rather, we look at the sea as having split due to an outside force acting upon it. In other words, we look at G-d as coming from the outside and splitting the sea on our behalf. For this reason the Oral Torah uses the term korea when describing the sea splitting.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) writes that korea refers specifically to “tearing” or “ripping” something which is soft and can be easily torn. The halachic requirement for one to rend one’s clothes when in mourning is called tearing kriyah. According to this we can explain that when speaking of the tradition of G-d’s “tearing” the sea open, we specifically use the term kriyat yam suf to note that vis-à-vis G-d, tearing the sea is no great feat, because He can do everything. When He tore open the sea, it was as though He tore or ripped something which can be easily torn.

Elsewhere, the Bible uses a third verb to denote the cutting open of the sea. In Psalms 136:13, the splitting of the sea is referred to as “cutting (gozer) the Yam Suf into cuts (l’gezarim)”. We also thank G-d in the daily Maariv prayers for being “the one who passes His children between the cuts (gizrei) of the Yam Suf”. How does this verb gozer differ from bokea and korea?

Rabbi Pappenheim explains that gozer refers to the act of precision-cutting with an instrument. Anything which is purposely “cut out” from being attached to something bigger can be described as nigzar or a gizrah. A decree, or judicial verdict, is also called a gezirah because the final ruling is “cut out” from the greater back-and-forth of the legal discussion, and is applied on its own. Interestingly, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ps. 136:13) writes that the Psalmist specifically chose the word gozer because that word refers not only to “cutting,” but also denotes “decreeing” and “deciding”. At the splitting of the sea G-d decided the fates of two nations: the Jewish nation who crossed the sea bed on dry land, and the Egyptians who ended up drowning.

In a separate discussion about the meaning of the root gozer, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that it denotes the type of cutting whereby one must continuously apply a blade, moving it backwards and forwards until it has cut through whatever one is cutting. This type of cutting is used for cutting something especially thick, such as people (I Kings 3:25), animals (Gen. 15:17), or wood (II Kings 6:4). Accordingly, cutting the Yam Suf is referred to by the verb gozer because the sea is considered something eminently thick.

Rabbi Pappenheim and others explain that the two-letter root GIMMEL-ZAYIN — from which gozer is derived — refers primarily to “shaving” or “trimming,” which is a type of cutting that leaves some parts attached and some parts detached. Some quick examples of words that are derived from this root: geiz (Ps. 72:6) refers to the grass remaining after trimming, gozez (Gen. 38:12, 31:19) is the act of shearing wool from sheep; gezel is the act of stealing or robbing somebody’s possession (while leaving some of his other possessions intact); gazam is a type of grasshopper which meddles in produce by eating some of it (and leaving over the rest); geza is a tree whose top has been truncated, and gazit refers to a hewn stone (i.e. parts of the stone are shaved down, and the rest of the stone remains in place). In light of this we can easily understand the etymology of gozer (“cut”), and how it relates to the two-letter root GIMMEL-ZAYIN. [The Modern Hebrew word gezer (“carrot”) is not directly related to this discussion because it is actually derived from the Arabic word for that root-vegetable, jazar (which also means “cut” in Arabic).]

More Words for “Cutting” in the Hebrew Language

Until now, we discussed three forms of “cutting” Hebrew: bokea, korea, and several words derived from the biliteral root GIMMEL-ZAYIN (gozer, gazit, and more). In this installment we will continue that discussion, and sharpen the differences between another twelve words, which all refer to the concept of “cutting”. In lieu of an elaborate introduction, let’s cut right to the chase.

The most common word for “cutting” is chaticha. However, it should be noted that a chaticha-related word appears only once in the entire Bible (Dan. 9:24). Nevertheless, cognates of chaticha come up more often in later Hebrew writings. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) explains that chaticha primarily refers to the act of “cutting” something down the middle, thereby splitting it into two halves. Rabbinic Hebrew adopted the word chaticha and its cognate as the principle words for “cutting,” and expanded the word’s meaning to refer to all types of “cutting”.

Rabbi Pappenheim explains that like the word chatichabatar also refers to cutting something in half. More specifically, it refers to cutting an animal in half for the purposes of using that cut animal as a sign for a covenant/treaty between two parties. He explains that the word batar is related to brit, as both words have the same three consonants. In fact, Genesis 15 describes the Covenant Between the Pieces (Brit Bein Ha’Betarim) — an agreement between G-d and Abraham, which Abraham endorsed by following G-d’s command to cut up certain animals and seal the deal. The prophet Jeremiah (in Jer. 34:18-19) also describes solidifying a treaty by cutting animals in half and walking through them. In all of these cases, the word batar is used.

With this in mind, Rabbi Pappenheim explains the meaning of the expression harei bater (“mountains of bater”), which appears in Song of Songs 2:17. That term refers to a pair of mountains which appear to have been originally formed as one, but were split from each other over time.

Another word for “cutting” is natach (or its verb form minateach)Rabbi Pappenheim explains that natach differs from batar in that it refers to cutting an animal into multiple pieces (not just two), and is not used for making a treaty, but for other purposes. For example, when a butcher sells different parts of an animal’s body, or a cook cuts up pieces of meat so they can fit in a pot, this is called natach. The Modern Hebrew word nituach (“surgery”) is derived from this Biblical root.

The term petitah (found, for example, in Lev. 2:6) refers to breaking up something with one’s bare hands. For instance, a baked good broken up into smaller parts is called pat/pita (one of several Hebrew words for “bread”). Rabbi Pappenheim explains that this term differs from natach not in the quality of the cutting, but in its focus. Petitah/pat focuses on the pieces which result from cutting, while natach refers to the whole body of that which was cut.

Interestingly, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the two-letter root PEH-TAV, which makes up the core of petitah, is also related to the words mefateh/pitui (“convincing” or “cajoling”). When one needs to “convince” somebody else to acquiesce to his propositions, he has essentially “torn up” that person’s feelings into different parts, with the person partially agreeing to him and partially disagreeing. On the other hand, when a person does something completely of his own volition, he is said to do it b’lev shaleim (“with a complete heart”), not with a “partial heart”. Rabbi Pappenheim also expands on this idea to explain the etymology of the word mofet (“wonder” or “sign”), which serves to “convince” somebody of a certain reality.

Another word for “cutting” is mohl/milah. Rabbi Pappenheim explains that this term is reserved for cutting off the top of something. It is famously applied to brit milah (“circumcision”), which is the commandment of cutting off the foreskin (on the top of the male organ). It is also applies to cutting off the tops of stalks (Job 18:16, 24:24) and of grass (Ps. 37:2), and dulling the tips of arrows (Ps. 58:8). One who engages in this sort of cutting is called a mohel. I seem to remember reading somewhere once that the terms mohel or milah refer specifically to cutting something round, but I am unable to recall where I saw this idea.

Nonetheless, Rabbi Pappenheim writes something similar about a different word. He explains that poleach means to cut something open (see Ps. 141:7, Prov. 7:23), while pelach is that which has been cut out (see Song of Songs 4:3, I Sam. 30:12). Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the hallmark of a pelach is that it refers specifically to something “cut off” from a greater circular parent, such that the shape of the pelach makes its obvious that it is cut from something circular or spherical. The shape of an orange segment or a slice of pizza can be described as a pelach (a “sector” in geometrical terms), and poleach refers specifically to cutting something in that fashion.

According to Rabbi Pappenheim, ketev refers to the type of cutting which does not penetrate the entire thickness of something to completely sever it. Rather, it is simply a cut that slices into the thickness, but not through-and-through. This is like a paper-cut, when one’s finger gets cut but is not completely severed. Rabbi Pappenheim explains that all four times that cognates of ketev appear in the Bible (Deut. 32:24, Isa. 28:2, Ps. 91:6, and Hos. 13:14), they refer to a type of illness that cuts one’s innards but does not sever them.

Another word for “cutting” is primah/porem (Lev. 13:45, 21:10). Rabbi Pappenheim sharpens the definition of primah by comparing it to kriyah/korea. Each act of kriyah makes another tear that separates one piece from the item-at-large. However, with primah, one act of tearing causes multiple pieces to come off of the item in question. When one rips something made up of many smaller parts (e.g., cheap fabrics), one simple act of ripping already begins to unravel the entire item. That type of “tearing” or “cutting” is called primah.

Other words for “cutting” include: 1) Gada (“truncating”), which specifically refers to cutting something as a means of destroying it or rendering it useless. 2) Ketzitzah (“chopping”)which refers to the act of cutting something with one strong blow. Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the root of ketzitzah is the two-letter string KUF-TZADI, which means “end,” because through chopping an object into two parts one creates two new ends of it. 3) Ketifah, which refers to severing something which was only flimsily connected. It is the word used to refer to plucking or detaching a flower or other flora. 4) Karet also refers to “cutting,” and is used to refer to the punishment of spiritual excision. In a future essay I hope to address the etymology of karet and how it differs from another punishment called ariri.

About the Author
RABBI REUVEN CHAIM KLEIN is the author of God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry (Mosaica Press, 2018). Mosaica Press published his first book, Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew, in 2014, and it became an instant classic. Rabbi Klein has also published papers in several prestigious journals, including Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society (New York), Jewish Bible Quarterly (Jerusalem), Kovetz Hamaor (Monsey), and Kovetz Kol HaTorah (London). His weekly articles also appear in the Ohrnet, Jewish Press, Oneg Shabbos, and other publications. Many of his writings and lectures are available for free on the internet. Rabbi Klein is a native of Valley Village, CA and graduated Emek Hebrew Academy and Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, before going to study at the famed Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem and in Beth Medrash Govoha of America in Lakewood, NJ. He received rabbinic ordination from leading authorities Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, Rabbi Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Lerner, and Dayan Chanoch Sanhedrai. He is also a member of the RCA, an alumnus of Ohr LaGolah, and was awarded a summer fellowship at the Tikvah Institute for Yeshiva Men in 2015. He is a long-time member of the Kollel of Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem and lives with his wife and children in Beitar Illit, Israel. Questions and comments can be directed to The author is available for research, writing, and translation projects, as well as speaking engagements.
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