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

Putting & Placing

Photo by Ivana Matijevac on Unsplash.

Thus begins the Torah portion of Bo: “And G-d said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his servants so that I will place (shat) these signs of Mine within him, and so that you shall tell in the ears of your sons and your son’s sons that I had toyed with Egypt, and of My signs which I placed (sam) within them, and then you shall know that I am G-d” (Ex. 10:1-2). In these two verses, the Torah uses two different words to denote G-d “placing/putting” His signs within the Egyptians — shat and sam. Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) takes note of this apparent inconsistency and uses this question to explain how the two words in question are not quite synonymous.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) explains that there are three different terms that refer to “putting/placing” something: natan, sam, and shat. The way he explains it, these terms become increasingly more specific. The verb natan — whose root is the biliteral TAV-NUN (“giving”) — refers to the most haphazard way of simply “placing” something somewhere. The term sam, in turn, refers to a more specific act of “placing” something in an especially-designated spot. This term thus implies “putting” something somewhere in a more deliberate way, as part of a greater plan or system. As Rabbi Pappenheim notes, in many instances the words natan and sam can actually be interchangeable, because at their core they simply refer to putting something somewhere.

Case in point: When the Torah describes erecting the walls of the Tabernacle, it says: “and he placed (natan) its sockets and he placed (sam) its beams and he placed (natan) its support-bars” (Ex. 40:18). In this passage, the sockets and support-bars were placed in a less deliberate fashion because it was not important where each particular socket or support-bar was “placed,” so an inflection of natan is most appropriate. In contrast, the beams were “placed” in a more deliberate arrangement, as the Talmud (Shabbat 103a) explains that they wrote letters on each beam to help them identify where each beam ought to be placed. Because of this, explains Rabbi Pappenheim, the word sam is used.

While sam refers to a more specific form of “placing” than natan, Rabbi Pappenheim notes that shat refers to an even more specific way of “placing” than sam. The way he has it, sam simply denotes placing something in a specific place for an unspecific amount of time, but the verb shat refers to “placing” something in a deliberate way as part of a greater order/system (like sam) that will remain in place for an inordinate amount of time. Thus, shat denotes a more permanent type of “putting” something somewhere than the more haphazard ways of “placing” something denoted by natan and sam.

For example, the first time a cognate of shat appears in the Bible is when G-d punished the snake for its role in the sin of the Tree of Knowledge, saying: “I will place (shat) enmity between you and the woman…” (Gen. 3:15). If the Bible would have used the word sam in this context, Rabbi Pappenheim argues, that would have implied that there would be a mere temporary animosity between the snake and womankind. But because the Bible used a cognate of shat, this means that the animosity G-d placed between them will be long-lasting, and in fact it even continues to this very day.

Based on this, Rabbi Pappenheim notes that when describing how G-d’s signs (i.e., the Plagues) will affect the hearts of Pharaoh and his servants, the Bible uses the term shat because that implies “placing” something in their hearts in a more permanent, long-term way. Rabbi Mecklenburg expands on this point to answer the question at the beginning of this essay by noting that the Torah’s phraseology is quite deliberate. When the Torah spoke about how G-d’s signs will affect the Pharaoh and his servants who lived through them and saw them first hand, the Torah uses the term shat to denote “placing” those signs in their hearts, because for those direct participants, the memory of these signs will be permanently etched in their hearts, and shat denotes placing something in a way that it is intended to remain there long-term. On the other hand, when the Torah spoke about how G-d’s signs that were “placed” upon the Egyptians will be relayed to future generations, this “placement” becomes less permanent and solid, because the survivors of said Plagues will no longer be alive and their memory will only remain a religious tradition. In this case, the Torah purposely uses the word sam to denote “placing” those signs in their hearts for an unspecified amount of time.

Now that we understand the difference between natan, sam, and shat, we can explore their etymologies and see what related words share common roots with those terms.

Rabbi Pappenheim traces the word sam (which is spelled with a SIN) to the biliteral root SAMECH-MEM, via the interchangeability of SIN and SAMECH. The core meaning of this root refers to “placing something in its place.” Other words Rabbi Pappenheim sees as derived from this root include samim (“potion/elixir,” or in Modern Hebrew, “drugs”), which are commonly stored in specifically-designated places; bosem/besamim (“fragrances”), which are commonly made from samim (even though the letter BET is usually considered a radical in Rabbi Pappenheim’s system of roots), and osem (Deut. 28:8, Prov. 3:10), which refers to a “storage-house” where samim are commonly placed.

Interestingly, Rabbi Pappenheim sees the Mishnaic Hebrew word siman (“sign”) as derived from this root as well, as a sign serves as a way of placing/categorizing things in their proper way (see also Isa. 28:25). Others see siman as derived from the Greek word semeion (“sign/mark”), which is the etymon of such English words as semantics and semiotics.

Two words that Rabbi Pappenheim notes are etymologically-related to shat are shatot (“foundations” of a building) that are specifically laid to remain in place long-term and serve as support for the edifice built on top of them (Ps. 11:3), and sheti (“warp”), that is the vertical axis of a woven fabric (as opposed to the erev, “woof,” i.e., the horizontal axis), which refers to the deliberate placement of threads within a greater structure. (In his work Cheshek Shlomo, Rabbi Pappenheim sees the root of shat, SHIN-TAV, as a standalone biliteral root, while in Yeriot Shlomo he understands that this root is ultimately derived from the root SHIN-ALEPH.)

Fascinatingly, Adam’s youngest son Seth (Shet) was so-named because “G-d had provided (shat) me with other offspring, instead of Abel because Cain had killed him” (Gen. 4:25). In this case, by giving Adam another son, G-d had placed/regenerated humankind for the long-term, so a cognate of shat is apropos. Similarly, the Mishna (Yoma 5:2) relates that after the Ark of the Covenant had been hidden away, the focus of the Holy of Holies was a stone known as the Even Shtiyah, which the Talmud (Yoma 54b) explains was the foundation stone from whence the world was built.

Despite sharpening the difference between sam and shat, Rabbi Pappenheim concludes by noting that in several cases the Bible uses both words indiscriminately:

  • When Joseph advised the Pharaoh to “put” someone in charge of conserving supplies from the seven-year surplus before the seven-year famine begins, the Torah uses the word shat (Gen. 41:33); yet, when Joseph later tells his brothers that he had been “put in” as a lord for all of Egypt, the Torah uses the word sam (Gen. 45:9).
  • When Jacob “placed” his right-hand on Joseph’s younger son Ephraim instead of on the firstborn Manasseh, the Bible uses the word shat (Gen. 48:14, 48:17): yet when Joseph tells his father to “put” his right hand on Manasseh because he is the firstborn, the Bible uses the word sam (Gen. 48:18).
  • When the Bible (Ex. 7:22) reports that the Pharaoh’s position in not freeing the Jews was not affected by the Plague of Blood, it says lo shat libo (“he did not place it on his heart”); yet when describing that those Egyptians who did not fear G-d did not bring their servants and livestock indoors during the Plague of Hail, it says about those people lo sam libo (“he did not place it on his heart”).

Nevertheless, Rabbi Moshe Zuriel argues that Rabbi Pappenheim’s own explanation can be used to account for these three cases:

  • When Joseph recommended that Pharaoh “put” somebody in charge of leading the conservation efforts, he used the word shat because he saw that as a long-term position; yet Pharaoh in his jealous stinginess did not want to appoint Joseph to a long-term post, and instead “put” him in a short-term position (hence, the term sam), but kept renewing his mandate.
  • When the Bible records Jacob “placing” his right hand on Ephraim, this symbolic act represented the cosmic reality that throughout the generations, the Tribe of Ephraim will play a more prominent role than the Tribe of Manasseh. For this reason, the Bible used the word shat to denote the long-term implications, yet Joseph thought that Jacob had simply placed his right hand on Ephraim haphazardly, so he used the word sam to represent a more haphazard way of “putting” down his hand.
  • When Pharaoh refused to budge from his position after being faced with the Plague of Blood, he did not take heed to G-d’s orders, but instead sought to strengthen his conviction for the long-term and, indeed, he stubbornly refused to release the Jews even after they had already exited Egypt. For this reason, the Bible uses the word shat to denote his not wanting to take G-d’s message to heart. Yet, when describing the Egyptians who were not scared of the Plague of Hail, the Bible uses the word sam to denote their not placing the threat on their heart, because they did not do it out of any strong long-term conviction, but simply haphazardly failed to take the threat seriously.

Before we conclude, I just wanted to point out another explanation as to the difference between sam and shat. Rabbi Avraham Shick of Slonim (d. 1820) writes in Eshed HaNechalim (to Shemot Rabbah 32:2) that most times when cognates of shat appear in the Bible, the word appears in a negative context. For example, as we see above, the first time a cognate of this word appears in the Bible is when G-d punished the snake. In contrast, the term sam more often has a positive or even neutral connotation. What remains to be seen is whether this idea can be used to explain all the instances of shat and sam in the Bible.

By the way, according to Even-Shoshan’s concordance, cognates of shat appear some 85 times throughout the Bible, while cognates of sam appear 500 more times than that!

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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