The most common Hebrew word for “secret” is sod. This word appears more than twenty times throughout the Bible, but it does not quite mean “secret” in the same way that we use it nowadays. In this essay, we will explore what sod really means and how it came to mean “secret.” Afterwards, we will discuss other words for “secret” like kamus, raz/raza, and tamir.
Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach (990–1050) writes in his Sefer HaShorashim that the Biblical word sod has two distinct meanings: sometimes it means a “gathering/grouping of individual people” and sometimes it means “advice.” For example, when the prophet Amos said: “Hashem the G-d does not do anything unless He reveals his sod to His servants, the prophets” (Amos 3:7), Amos means that Hashem always reveals His plans to a select “group” of prophets. And when Proverbs instructs, “Plans are cancelled without sod, and with many advisers it will stand” (Prov. 15:22), this means that without considering the “advice” of others when formulating one’s plans, those plans will fall apart.
That said, Rabbi David Kimchi (1160–1234) also known as Radak, in his Sefer HaShorashim disagrees with Ibn Janach’s formulation. Instead, Radak argues that both meanings of sod (“grouping” and “advice”) are really one. Radak’s understanding of sod is analogous to the English word counsel/council, which refers to an assembly of advisors with whom an executive officer might consult. Thus, the term sod refers to a “gathering” of people from whom one might take “advice.”
In the introduction to the piyyutim recited in the Chazan’s repetition on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Chazan states that these liturgical insertions were instituted mi’sod chachamim u’nevonom (“from the sod of wisemen and mavens…”). In this context, the term sod refers to the “advice” of the earlier sages who recommended adding various poetic compositions to the prayers, not to any untold “secrets.”
So how did sod come to mean “secret”? From the fact that only one’s closest advisors are privy to one’s innermost thoughts and plans, the word sod expanded in Rabbinic Hebrew to refer to any sort of restricted or confidential information to which only a select few are privy. Hence, the word sod came to mean “secret.”
For example, the rabbis say “when the wine enters, the sod comes out” (Eruvin 65a, Sanhedrin 38a), “six things were said about an ignoramus… one should not reveal to him one’s sod” (Pesachim 49b), “the Torah Scholars who deprive themselves of sleep in This World, Hashem will reveal to them the sod in the World to Come (Chagigah 14a), “reveal [your] sod to [only] one in a thousand” (Yevamot 63b). Similarly, the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 20b, Ketubot 112a) mentions a concept known as Sod Ha’Ibbur (literally, “the Secret of the Intercalation/Pregnancy”), which Rashi (to Rosh Hashanah 20b) explains as referring to calendrical teachings that were stated in remazim (“hints,” or “allusions”).
Both Ibn Janach and Radak trace the word sod to the triliteral root SAMECH-VAV-DALET. As is his way, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 49:6) compares the idea behind this triliteral root to the ideas behind two other phonetically similar three-letter roots, namely ZAYIN-VAV-DALET (nazid and meizid) and TZADI-VAV-DALET (tzad). These three roots are associated via the interchangeability of the letters SAMECH, ZAYIN, and TZADI, and Rabbi Hirsch explains that they all refer to the festering and fomentation of an idea or plan in the depths of one’s thoughts: The word nazid (Gen. 25:29, II Kgs. 4:38) refers to a “dish” that is left sautéing or cooking on the fire. The longer it is left on the flame, the more developed and flavorful that culinary treat will be. Its cognate meizid (“purposeful” or “wantonness”) similarly refers to a premediated action that a person had “cooked up” in his mind before actually doing. The word tzad (“capturing” or “trapping”) refers to the actual carrying out of one’s carefully laid plans. And finally, the word sod (“advice” or “secret”) refers to the notion of sharing one’s discreet devises with others for mutual consultation.
As he is wont to do, Menachem Ibn Saruk (920–970) in Machberet Menachem traces the word sod to the biliteral root SAMECH-DALET. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) also offers this etymology of sod and explains how all the various words derived from that biliteral root relate back to one singular concept.
Specifically, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that SAMECH-DALET refers to the “foundation/basis” of something. The most obvious word derived from this root is yesod/mossad (“foundation”), which serves as the most rudimentary basis for the existence of something else. In a more abstract sense, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that a yesod refers to the axiomatic givens assumed in intellectual discourse. Based on this, he explains that the less-apparent logical conclusions that can be derived from those yesodot are called sodot.
Rabbi Pappenheim further notes that sod may also refer to whatever tools are used in an effort to derive conclusions from the given facts, be they the use of wise advisors or one’s own deductive reasoning. Like we mentioned above, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that because such conclusions are usually confined to one’s own mind or at most to just a small group of counselors, they are often considered “secretive,” so sod came to be associated with “secret.”
Other words that Rabbi Pappenheim sees as deriving from the SAMECH-DALET root include the following:
- The Mishnaic word sadan (Kilayim 1:8, 6:4, Shabbat 12:1, Bava Batra 4:9, Sanhedrin 7:3) refers to the “trunk” of a tree, which is the main branch from which the tree grows. Rabbi Pappenheim actually relates this word to the Biblical sad (found in Job 13:27, 33:11), discussed below.
- The word sadin (“bedding/linen”) — which appears four times in the Bible (Jud. 14:12–13, Isa. 3:23, Prov. 31:24) — refers to the sheet spread upon one’s bed as a “foundation” on top of which one places one’s body, pillow, and blanket.
- The word sadeh (“field,” “prairie”) refers to the most “fundamental” unit of topographical and agricultural space (as opposed to mountains and hills which are considered more topographically anomalous, and as opposed to non-fertile lands which are considered agricultural outliers) .
- The word sadeh gives way to the word sid (“plaster”), which was typically made by taking rocks found in the sadeh and burning them under certain conditions.
The aforementioned Biblical word sad literally refers to the ropes and chains used to tie down a prisoner. Rabbi Pappenheim (following Rashi to Job 13:27) understands this term as a reference to “tree trunks,” to which prisoners were typically tied so that they will not escape. Rabbi Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785–1865), on the other hand, sees the “tying/tethering” meaning of sad as indicative of the core meaning of SAMECH-DALET. With that in mind, he explains the word sod in the sense of “secret” as the attempt to “tie down” access to specific information and disallow it from escaping outside of its purview. He likewise explains the ”counsel/council” meaning of sod as referring to a body of individuals united (“tied”) together in their common advisory role.
Interestingly, Rabbi Pappenheim claims that although the word sod in Biblical Hebrew does not quite mean “secret,” the actual term for “secret” in Biblical Hebrew is dvar seter. This is seen when Ehud requested a private audience with the Moabite king Eglon by saying, “I have a dvar seter with you, O the King” (Jud. 3:19). Ehud implied that he had a secret to reveal to the king, but really he had a dagger ready to kill him. The term dvar seter literally means “hidden matter,” with the latter word being related to the root SAMECH-TAV-REISH (“hiding/destroying”). [I hope to devote a future series of articles to the many Hebrew words for “hiding.”]
Another word for “secret” in Biblical Hebrew is kamus. This word — whose root is the triliteral string KAF-MEM-SAMECH — appears only once in the entire Bible, thus making it a hapax legomenon (that is, a word which appears only once within a given corpus). The context in which kamus appears is Moses’ prophetic song that foretells of a time that the Jewish People will be punished for committing idolatry, but the other nations will not realize the reason for the Jews’ downfall because the Jews’ misdeeds will not be so obvious to them. About this, Hashem says, “For is it [the Jews’ misdeeds] not kamus with Me, sealed in My storage-houses?” (Deut. 32:34). Meaning, even though nobody else realizes it, Hashem is privy to the “secret” of what the Jews will have really done and what they will really deserve.
A possible cognate of this word appears in the Mishnah (Peah 5:8), which rules that sheaves bundled into kumsaot (“stack bases”) are not subject to the regular law that bundles forgotten in the field must left for the poor to glean.
A popular expression combines both Hebrew words for “secret” that we have seen so far: sod kamus (“a secretive secret”). According to the Academy of the Hebrew Language, this term was coined by Rabbi Yitzchak Ibn Ghiyyat (1030-1089) in one of his poems and has only gained in popularity since then.
By implicitly invoking the interchangeability of KAF and KUF, as well as that of SAMECH and TZADI, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ex. 35:22, Lev. 2:2, Deut. 32:34) connects kamus to kamatz (“gathered/minimized”) in that both refer to something stored away and protected. In the case of kamus, it implies protected, classified information that is safely kept away from those who do not need to know.
Rabbi Avi Kobernick similarly relates the root KAF-MEM-SAMECH to its metathesized counterpart, SAMECH-MEM-KAF (“next to/adjacent/juxtaposed”), arguing that one’s closely-guarded secrets are “kept close” and not revealed indiscriminately.
I once theorized that the letter MEM of the root KAF-MEM-SAMECH is not integral to the root, such that the core etymon is actually KAF-SAMECH, a biliteral root that primarily means “cover,” and it makes sense to say that something “covered” becomes “hidden” or “secretive.”
Another word for “secret” in the Bible is raz (Dan. 4:6)orraza (Dan. 2:18–47). It typically only appears in parts of the Bible written in Aramaic, but possibly appears once in Hebrew (see Isa. 24:16). Rashi (to Dan. 2:19, 2:47, Sanhedrin 94a) defines raz as seter (“hidden”), and elsewhere (to Dan. 4:6), as satum (“closed,” “sealed’”). Either way, raz refers to an idea that is hidden and “closed up” in a way that it is inaccessible to the masses. Raz is actually a very common word in the Dead Sea Scrolls, where it used for various mystical and esoteric allusions. According to linguists, this Aramaic word derives from the Old Persian word raza, which, in turn, is related to the Sanskrit word rahasya (both said to be derived from the Proto-Indo-Iranian word rajh).
I suggest understanding raz as a permutation/metathesis of the word zar (“strange/foreign”), because it denotes information that is withheld — and thus “estranged” — from others. After looking into this suggestion a bit, I saw that Rabbi Dov Kook of Tiberias mentions that the gematria of raz/zar equals that of rahav (the name of the angelic representative of Egypt) and bahar (literally “at the mountain,” the term used to denote commandments given at Mount Sinai), but I have not merited to understand the secret behind these connections. Interestingly, the Chassidei Ashkenaz write that the word zer (“diadem”) and the second syllable of mashzar (“interwoven”) that appear when discussing the construction of the Tabernacle allude to the various Kabbalistic “secrets” (razin) contained therein (see Tosafot HaShaleim to Ex. 25:10 §9, 25:11 §6 and §16, 25:25 §6, 39:2 §1).
The Biblical verb rezem (Job 15:12) and the Mishnaic verb remez (Gittin 5:7) both refer to “hinting” or “alluding” to something, without spelling it out explicitly. Rabbi Pappenheim and the Malbim (to Job 15:12) write that rezem derives from the biliteral root REISH-ZAYIN (“hidden/secretive”). As Rabbi Pappenheim explains it, winking with one’s eyes or otherwise gesturing with one’s body language communicates to those in the know that one is privy to the “secret” that others do not know about. Although Rabbi Pappenheim only says this about the word rezem (which appears in the Bible), it is not much of a stretch to extend his explanation to the word remez (which does not appear in the Bible), as well.
Rabbi Pappenheim and the Malbim also explain that the term roznim (“noblemen,” “ministers”) found several times in the Bible (Jud. 5:3, Isa. 40:23, Ps. 2:2, Prov. 8:15, 14:28, 31:4) also derives from this root, as such aristocrats were often privy to secret information that was unavailable to the plebs (see also Malbim to Prov. 14:28 and Shoresh Yesha).
Many Kabbalistic sources mention an angel named Raziel, and there is even a book called Raziel HaMalach ascribed to Adam HaRishon that discusses various secrets that Adam learned from this angel. Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469–1549) writes in Sefer Tishbi that the name of this angel is derived from the Aramaic raz, and alludes to this angel’s role as Hashem’s secretary of sorts. By the way, the English word secretary is derived from the English word secret.
The Aramaic word tamir (“hidden”) is used by the Targumim when translating many of the Biblical Hebrew words for “hidden” — including tamun (Gen. 35:4, Ex. 2:12, Jer. 13:5), kisui (Job 36:32), seter (Ps. 10:11, 27:5, 32:7, 139:15), and mitchabeh (I Sam. 10:22). It is also used by Targum pseudo-Jonathan (to Deut. 32:34), who translates the Hebrew word kamus as tumrah.
Rabbi Ernest Klein (1899–1983) proposes that the Biblical Hebrew root TET-MEM-NUN (“hidden, buried”) actually derives from the Aramaic root TET-MEM-REISH (tamir), with the NUN and REISH interchanging, as often happens. Although, it is equally possible that the opposite is true, and the Aramaic word really derives from the Hebrew word. Interestingly, Rabbi Ernest Klein relates the English term mattamore (“a subterranean dwelling or storehouse”) to this Hebrew/Aramaic term (by way of French and Arabic).
The Maggid (“angelic study partner”) who spoke to Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488–1575) consistently referred to the Provencal Halachic authority Rabbeinu Yerucham (1290–1350) as Yerucham Tamiri, “Yerucham the Hidden One” (see Maggid Meisharim to Vayakhel and Tzav). Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724–1806), also known as the Chida, writes that Rabbeinu Yerucham’s published works are riddled with typographical errors and other mistakes. The Chida further relates that he heard from the elder sages of Jerusalem that from a Kabbalistic perspective, Rabbeinu Yerucham’s works are associated with “the secret of the Hidden World,” such that if anybody writes a commentary to elucidate Rabbeinu Yerucham’s work, that compilation will be destroyed before it is published or the author will perish in his heyday. As Rabbi Elazar Lipa Gartenhaus (1893–1980) points out, both of these curses came true when my great-great-great-grandfather Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein of Davidkoff (1826–1873) published his work Shenot Chaim — a commentary to the first part of Rabbeinu Yerucham’s Toldot Adam v’Chava: He lost the rest of what he wrote before he was able to publish it, and he died at the tender age of 47.