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

Proper Properties

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The Hebrew word rechush (“property”) and its variants appear seven times in Parashat Lech Lecha, making it the Parashah with the highest concentration of such instances: It appears when relating that Abraham took his “property” with him on his journey to the Holy Land (Gen. 12:5); when the abundance of “property” caused Abraham’s herdsmen to have a falling out with Lot’s herdsmen (Gen. 13:6); when the “property” of the Sodomites were captured (Gen. 14:11), along with Lot and his “property” (Gen. 14:12) and were later returned (Gen. 14:16); when Abraham allows the King of Sodom to take the “property” he won in the war (Gen. 14:21); and when Hashem promises Abraham that after his descendants will be enslaved, they will exit the land of their enslavement with much “property” (Gen. 15:15). But the word rechush is not the only word for “property” in the Bible — the words mikneh and nechasim also refer to “property.” In this essay, we will study the three Hebrew words for “property,” examine their etymologies, and show how they are not simply synonyms.

Going back to the word rechush, it is interesting to point out that although the word appears 33 times in the Bible, all such instances are confined to the books of Genesis, Numbers, Daniel, Ezra, and Chronicles. The word does not appear in any of the other books of the Bible. Moreover, the verb cognate of rechush that means “to accrue property” (rachash, derived from the triliteral root REISH-KAF-SHIN) only appears in the Book of Genesis, and nowhere else in the Bible.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 12:5) — as well as Solomon Rabinowitz (d. 1943) — argues that rechush (with a final SHIN) is related to the word reches (with a final SIN), which refers to “tying/attaching” (see Rashi to Ex. 28:28). According to this, the term rechush alludes to the pursuit of wealth and riches, whereby one seeks to accrue as much as possible and add them to his repertoire. By doing so, one seeks to “tie” all these assets together to collectively add them to one’s net worth.

The Hebrew scholar Naftali Torczyner/Tur-Sinai (1886–1973) offers a slightly different approach: He understands rechush as ultimately derived from the word rechesh (a type of “horse”). Because one’s livestock was the crux of one’s possession in the ancient world, rechush later expanded into a general term for all of one’s possession. Ohalei Yehudah understands that rechesh itself relates back to reches, because a harness or stirrup was tied to the horse for riding.

The word mikneh (or miknei in the construct form) is the most common term for “property” in the Bible, appearing over 75 times therein. The lexicographers trace this term to the root KUF-NUN-(HEY), from which words like miknah and kinyan (“transaction/acquisition”) are derived. Based on this, Nachmanides (to Gen. 14:18, 34:23) and Radak (in Sefer HaShorashim)clarify that mikneh is not a general term for all of one’s property; rather, it refers to specifically to one’s “livestock” as that is a person’s chief acquisitions. This was especially true of the ancient world, where the amount of livestock in one’s possession was a measuring stick of how rich one was. In fact, Dr. Gerald Leonard Cohen (from the Missouri University of Science and Technology) notes in his Comments on Etymology that the importance of livestock can be seen in the fact that of the first three letters of the Hebrew Alphabet, two letters refer to domesticated animals (ALEPHmeans “ox” and GIMMEL is related to gamal, “camel”).

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740–1814) sees the core meaning of KUF-NUN as “minimal home/domicile.” The most obvious derivative of this root is the word ken (or kan in the construct form), which refers to a bird’s “nest.” Another derivative is the concept of kinyan, which often causes a shift in domicile as an item moves from one party’s domain to another’s. Based on this, Rabbi Pappenheim argues (like Nachmanides) that mikneh relates to the central role of livestock in commerce, explaining that domesticated animals can be used for a wide variety of purposes (for its shearings, for its milk, for its fur/skin, for its offspring, for eating, for working the field, etc…), as opposed to produce, which can only be eaten. Alternatively, Rabbi Pappenheim sees mikneh in the sense of “livestock” as directly related to the core meaning of KUF-NUN, because such beasts are often kept in minimal living accommodations (like a small barn), as opposed to the more respectable sorts of housing typically granted to people.

Radak (to Gen. 12:5) writes that the term rechush includes gold, silver, and other moveable possessions, adding (to Gen. 14:11) that rechush also includes mikneh. According to this, rechush is a hypernym that includes all different types of assets, while mikneh is a hypnoym that denotes a specific type of rechush, i.e., livestock. Indeed, Ibn Ezra (to Gen. 12:5) seems to explain that rechush means the same thing as mikneh, or at least can sometimes mean the same thing as mikneh.

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On the other hand, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 12:5, 13:2, 31:18) does not view the relationship between rechush and mikneh as that of hypernym and hyponym. Instead, he contrasts the meanings of these terms by explaining that rechush refers specifically to “inanimate, moveable belongings,” while mikneh refers specifically to “livestock.” Rabbi Hirsch explains the connection between mikneh and kinyan by asserting that domesticated animals recognize their owners who “acquired” them (Isa. 1:3) and will therefore follow them from place to place of their own volition; while when it comes to inanimate rechush, the owner himself has to physically take them and move them from place to place. Thus, according to Rabbi Hirsch, rechush and mikneh have totally different meanings, and mikneh is not included in rechush.

Another explanation can be gleaned from Rabbi Menachem ben Shlomo (circa. 1140) in Midrash Sechel Tov (to Gen. 31:18, 36:6-7), who seems to explain that mikneh refers to “animal property,” while rechush refers to “human property” (i.e., slaves and maidservants).

While the words rechush and mikneh in the Bible always appears in singular form, the word nechasim always appears in the plural. Nechasim appears seven times in the Bible, once in Joshua (22:8), twice in Ecclesiastes (5:18, 6:2), twice in II Chronicles (1:11, 1:12), and twice in the Aramaic parts of Ezra (6:8, 7:26). More significantly, in Rabbinic Hebrew, it becomes the standard word for denoting one’s “total assets.” In fact, while the words rechush or mikneh do not appear at all in the Mishnah, the term nechasim appears many times (Peah 3:6-8, Sheviit 10:6, Challah 1:9, Bikkurim 2:1, 3:12, Shekalim 4:6-8, Chagigah 1:5, Yevamot 4:3-4, 4:7, 10:1, Ketubot 4:7, 4:11-12, 6:6, 8:1-2, 8:5-8, 9:1, 9:7-8, 10:2-3, 11:1, 12:2, 13:3, Gittin 4:3, 5:2-3, 9:4, Kiddushin 1:5, 4:14, Bava Kama 1:2, 8:6, Bava Metzia 1:6, Bava Batra 3:3, 4:9, 8:3-7, 9:1-3, 9:6-10, 10:7-8, Sanhedrin 10:5, Shevuot 6:3, 7:7, Avot 2:7, Bechorot 8:3-4, 8:9, Arachin 6:1-2, 6:4-5, 8:2, 8:4).

As mentioned above, several authorities have already suggested that the word rechush is related to the word reches. Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843–1916) contends that neches (the singular form of nechasim) is likewise derived from reches (ostensibly via the interchangeability of the letters REISH and NUN). He notes that nechasim has similar-sounding cognates in Phoenician (Canaanite) and Akkadian, languages whose speakers were in close contact with Hebrew from an early time. Indeed, the word nechasim first appears in the Book of Joshua—written once the Jews had already reached the Holy Land and could theoretically have been influenced by its Canaanite inhabitants. Based on this, Rabbi Marcus notes that the connection between nechasim and rechush is especially poignant for Joshua in particular, because he was a member of the tribe of Ephraim who pronounced the SHIN like a SIN (see Jud. 12:6), so he may have pronounced the word rechush as rechus.

Rabbi Marcus also notes that in many ancient languages the equivalent letters to SHIN and LAMMED are interchangeable, leading him to claim that the root of rechush is also the original source for the triliteral root REISH-KAF-LAMMED, from which the word rochel (“merchant”) derives.

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah §22:8) assumes that the word nechasim is related to the Hebrew word kisui (“covered/hidden”), explaining that nechasim are called such “because they are hidden from this [person] and revealed to this [person].” Meaning, the ephemeral nature of material possessions is such that a person only holds onto such belongings temporarily, they do not inherently become an inseparable part of him (unlike physical strength or wisdom, which might be said to become part of one’s person).

Rabbi Shmuel de Uçeda (1545-1604) in Midrash Shmuel (to Avot 2:8) sharpens this point by noting that oftentimes man spends much of his life trying to accrue riches, but then dies — thus allowing others to end up reaping the benefits of his hard work. According to this explanation, nechasim relates to kisui because although on the surface material possessions seem like attractive prizes, there is always a “hidden” aspect to materialism, whereby the one who toils and puts in the effort does not always get to enjoy the fruits of his labor. De Uçeda concludes his discussion by cynically commenting, “many people gather up money for the benefit of their wives’ [future] husbands.”

Rabbi Shimon Yehuda Leib Goldblit (an early 20th century exegete) offers two more ways of connecting the word nechasim to kisui: a person’s financial value is often “hidden” from those who encounter him, because one’s net worth is not readily apparent to those who do not know. Alternatively, if a person has all sorts of flaws and imperfections, but is materially wealthy, his wealth “covers up” his shortcomings so that people will relate to him as though he did not have those flaws (this latter explanation is already found in Shoresh Yesha).

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Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim likewise traces the word nechasim to the biliteral root KAF-SAMECH, whose core meaning is “placing something on top of something else.” Besides the obvious example of kisui, Rabbi Pappenheim also sees other words as deriving from this root, including kesut (“clothing” that cover one’s epidermis), kos (a type of “cup” that has a cover), kise (a type of “chair” that has a cover), and kis (“pocket,” i.e., a covered container). As Rabbi Pappenheim has it, the word nechasim derives from the word kis because it denotes property/profit that one puts into one’s pockets (whether literally or figuratively). Two more terms he sees as derived from kis include meches (“tax,” i.e., monies that end up falling into the government’s kis), and michsah (the central “pot of funds” into which all partners of a Paschal Offering pool their monies to cover the costs, see Ex. 12:4).

Alternatively, Rabbi Pappenheim suggests that nechasim relates directly to the core meaning of KAF-SAMECH in the sense that a person tries to “cover/hide” his asserts in order to hold on to them and protect them. Finally, he suggests that one’s belongings are called one’s nechasim because they “cover” for one’s needs and necessities, helping ensure that he does not need the aid of others to survive.

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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