This week’s topic is in Deut 16:10, and it is the word מִסַּ֛ת missat — a hapax legomenon.
“Hapax legomenon” (ἅπαξ λεγόμενον) is Hellenistic Greek for a word that is “said [just] once.” It’s a word that is found just once in a particular body of material — a corpus, as scholars call it — like the plays of Shakespeare, the poetry of Homer, or the Hebrew Bible.
Most of the time when a biblical word is a hapax legomenon, the emphasis is on figuring out what it means. That is often simple enough, for one of three reasons:
- The context makes it obvious what the word must mean.
- The ancient translations all take it in one particular way and so we assume that’s what the word did mean.
- The word is understood from a usage outside the Bible — in later Hebrew texts, in Hebrew inscriptions, or in a related Semitic language.
What you don’t necessarily find in the case of a hapax legomenon is an explanation of why the author picked that word rather than some more common word. Once in a while, there is something that provides an obvious answer to that question. For example, in Isaiah 5:7, the end of the “Song of the Vineyard” that begins Isaiah 5, there’s a phrase where the prophet/poet says:
He wanted justice [מִשְׁפָּט֙ mishpat]
But there was injustice [מִשְׂפָּ֔ח mispaḥ]
Equity [צְדָקָ֖ה tzedaka]
But there was iniquity [צְעָקָֽה tze’aka]
“Equity” and “iniquity” (as NJPS translates the second pair of soundalike words) are standard Hebrew, and so is mishpat — but mispaḥ is a hapax. In this case, I think it’s a pretty good assumption that the author created the word for use in this poem. Presumably, it would have resonated with the ancient Hebrew ear in some way that also conveyed meaning.
That’s not true with missat in our verse. Here is Deut 16:10, as I would translate it:
You must make a Feast of Weeks [שָׁבֻעוֹת֙ shavu’ot] for your God YHWH, a missah that you will voluntarily give [מִסַּ֛ת נִדְבַ֥ת יָדְךָ֖] in accordance with how extensively your God YHWH has blessed you.
As you see from the Hebrew, there are three words in a row, all connected because the first two words are in the construct form. (For the grammar or a refresher on it, see “Hebrew’s Trailer Hitch,” Lesson 13 of my Hebrew course; remember that you can watch the first lesson of the course for free here.)
What is a nedavah? That’s a reasonably common word, appearing a couple of dozen times. A mitnadev is a volunteer in Modern Hebrew, and a nedavah is something that you give voluntarily, a “freewill” offering, a voluntary contribution. But missah complicates things.
We do have some idea what that word means. It’s reasonably common in Aramaic, and what it seems to mean there is “equivalence.” It is used more or less the same as the Hebrew word די ‘enough’ (as in the Passover song “Dayenu”). Earlier in this week’s reading, in Deut 15:8, we’re told that we must not harden our hearts when a poor person needs help; we should give him as much as he needs, and the Targum uses missah to translate that:
Hebrew: דֵּ֚י מַחְסֹר֔וֹ day maḥsoro
Aramaic: כְמִסַת חוּסרָנֵיה k’missat ḥusraneih
All this does, though, is give me two questions about our verse rather than one:
- Why couldn’t our author have used די again here, if that is what מסה means?
- What does it add to say “as much as” you want to offer freely?
This is just a guess, but I think it might be because of what the sound of the word evokes to the Hebrew listener and reader. For me, at least, it brings two things to mind:
- The place name מַסָּה Massah or “Test” (see Deut 9:22), the place where the Israelites “tested” God.
- The word מַס mas, plural missim (so missah would simply be the feminine form of the same word). In Biblical Hebrew it means “forced labor,” but in Modern Hebrew it simply means “tax.” Much of the Bible takes place before there is a money economy, so your time and labor were taxed rather than your bank account. You’ll find the word in 1 Kings 5, where Solomon took the Israelites and sent them to Lebanon in shifts of 10,000 a month, all for the sake of building the Temple in Jerusalem. If you ever have wondered why there was a revolution against Solomon (see 1 Kings 11), now you know.
Why would you use a word referring to something that you are forced to do in connection with a freewill offering? It has to do with Deuteronomy’s psychological orientation.
What Deuteronomy wants is for people to voluntarily do the things that they are obligated to do. Even though you’re giving a freewill offering, you’re obliged to give in proportion to how much God “has blessed you” — a religious way of saying how much wealth you have. It’s a tax that is also a test.
A missah is a kind of legal obligation; a nedavah is no obligation at all. But God’s blessing (says Deuteronomy) puts you under a moral obligation. Just as the old joke said that, come the revolution, everyone will eat strawberries and cream — whether they like strawberries and cream or not — here too we must be eager to fulfill our obligation by volunteering to pay.
That, I think, is why this unusual word was used here. Paradoxical as it sounds, they want you to feel forced to give the most generous freewill offering that you can — an oxymoron, perhaps, but a genuinely Deuteronomic one.
I’ll be back next week, not with a hapax legomenon and an oxymoron, but with something that never gets old, a Deuteronomic quarrel about the balance of power.