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

Sukkos: The Majestic Holiday of Gathering

Wheat Harvest, preparing for the in-gathering by bundling the stalks (Source: Public domain.)

There are three Hebrew words for “a gathering” which are associated with the holiday of Sukkot: asifah, aggadah, and kehillah. The Torah (Ex. 23:16, 34:22) refers to Sukkot as the “Holiday of the Ingathering” (Chag HaAssif). Rashi explains that this is because Sukkot is the last chance a person has “to gather” (asifah) his produce and bring it indoors before the onset of the rainy season. On the holiday of Sukkot, we are commanded to the take the Four Species, and we traditionally bind three of them (the palm, myrtle, and willow branches) into what the Talmud calls an egged/aggudah (Sukkah 11b, 13a). Finally, on the Sabbath that falls out during Sukkot, we customarily read the Scroll of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). Kohelet is a nickname for the book’s author, King Solomon, who is called Kohelet because his wise teachings were relayed in “gatherings” (hakhell/kahal/kehillah), as it says, “Then, Solomon gathered…” (I Kgs. 8:1). Alternatively, Rashi (to Ecc. 1:1) explains that Solomon is called Kohelet because he “gathered up” many forms of wisdom. In addition to the three words for “a gathering” that we have just mentioned—asifahaggudah, and kehillah—there are also three more—kovetz, eidah, and agur—and it is our job to untangle the differences between all of these words.

Asifah vs. Kovetz

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Edel (1760–1828) explains that asifah refers specifically to gathering up disparate items in order to bring them to their proper place. This fits with Rashi’s explanation that Chag HaAssif is one’s last chance to “gather” one’s produce and bring it inside to protect it from the rain.

Moreover, asifah/asaf is also used as a respectable way of referring to a person’s death (e.g. Gen. 49:33, Num. 27:13). Rashi (to Gen. 49:29) explains that death is called asifah because the soul is “gathered up” and brought to the trove in which the souls are placed. Here too, Rashi explains that asifah implies gathering and putting something in its proper place. Based on this, Malbim explains that when asifah refers to multiple items/people, it refers to gathering them together in a specific place. But when cognates of asifah are applied to an individual (e.g. Num. 11:30 says that Moses “gathered” unto the camp), it only means arriving at the appropriate destination.

Malbim uses this idea to sharpen his understanding of the difference between asifah and its counterpart, kovetz. Le’esof (the infinitive verb form of asifah) connotes bringing inside what one has gathered, while le’kavetz just means gathering without necessarily bringing inside. Malbim illustrates this point by noting that when Achashverosh gathered up the virgins of his kingdom, the Bible uses a cognate of kovetz (Est. 2:3) instead of asifah, because while he gathered all the women from far-flung places, he only brought one of them into the palace as his new queen.

Similarly, the Vilna Gaon (to Hab. 2:5) explains that asifah refers to bringing things inside, while kovetz refers to taking all the different items that are already inside and putting them in one place. With this in mind, the Vilna Gaon accounts for an interesting word-switch found in the Torah: On his deathbed, Jacob called twice for all his sons to gather before him so that he could bless them. First Jacob used a cognate of asifah (Gen. 49:1) so that his sons who were outside would come inside, then in the next verse he used the word kovetz so that his sons who had now come inside would gather together before him.

Despite our review of the meaning of asifah and how it differs from kovetz, it seems that Rabbi David Kimchi (1160–1235), also known as Radak, disagrees with this assessment. In his work Sefer HaShorashim, Radak explains that asifah applies to “death” because death entails one gathering together with his deceased forefathers. In this way, he disagrees with Rashi’s assertion that asifah implies arriving at one’s proper place. Instead of following the explanations we gave above, Radak writes that the difference between asifah and kovetz is that the former connotes gathering items which are close by, while the latter connotes gathering items which are more distant and dispersed from one another.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) writes that asifah connotes gathering up all the components at once, while kovetz connotes gathering them little by little until one has accumulated an entire collection. Interestingly, Rabbi Pappenheim writes that the word asifah focuses on the “border” or “boundary” that defines the confines of a group. He argues that asifah is derived from the two-letter root SAMECH-PEH which means “edge,” “end,” or “threshold,” and recalls the movement of the group’s “boundary” when more items are added.

Aggudah

The word aggudah/egged/iggud implies more than just “a gathering,” it means taking all the items that one has gathered and attaching them, thus joining them to form one unit. In a physical sense, this means tying them together with a string or rope. In a more abstract sense, this refers to a social contract or agreement that ties people’s fates together. Rabbi Pappenheim traces the root of aggudah to the two-letter string GIMMEL-DALET, which denotes “attaching”. Other words derived from this root include gad (a “spiritual force” that is attached to a specific physical entity), gid (“sinew” which holds together different parts of the body), gedud (“squad,” a unit of soldiers joined together), and haggadah (the act of presenting new information by weaving it into a broader narrative).

Kehillah vs. Eidah

Turning to the word kahal—the basis for King Solomon’s nickname Kohelet—Rabbi Avraham Bedersi HaPenini (1230–1300) explains that its cognate kehillah refers to any gathering of people, while eidah (“congregation”) denotes a group whose members have joined together for a specific purpose or devoted to a given cause. Along the same lines, the Vilna Gaon (to Prov. 5:14) explains that kehillah refers to any ordinary gathering of people, while eidah refers specifically to a gathering of righteous people.

Rabbi Pappenheim notes that kehillah always refers to an assembly of human beings; it never applies to a gathering of animals or inanimate objects. He explains that it is related to the word kol (“voice”/”sound”), because people heed the sound of whatever indicates that they ought to band together (e.g. in the wilderness, the Jews gathered at the sound of the trumpet, see Num. 10:2). Alternatively, he explains the connection by noting that a gathering with many people will always be noisy. Rabbi Pappenheim further explains that the word kol itself is derived from the two-letter root KUF-LAMMED (“light”, i.e. the opposite of “heavy”) because sound is so light that it can travel within air and does not sink, or because sound travels so fast like something light and agile that is not bogged by weight.

Agur

Another eponym given to King Solomon is Agur (Prov. 30:1), which refers to the fact that he “gathered up” (agar) the Torah’s wisdom. Notably, Midrash Agur (§4) teaches that Solomon’s names Kohelet and Agur, both different forms of “gathering”, allude to the Jewish People being “gathered together” (i.e. united) in his times, with no in-fighting—the pax Judaica.

Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866–1935) writes that agur-cognates refer to gathering up little by little for long-term storage. Similarly, Rabbi Pappenheim writes that cognates of agur refer to collecting or stockpiling items for later use. Rabbi Bedersi explains that cognates of agur only refer to collecting inanimate objects, like wine (Deut. 28:39) or silver (I Sam. 2:36), while asifah, kovetz, and kehillah can also refer to a gathering of living creatures like human beings.

Rabbi Pappenheim argues that the root of agur is GIMMEL-REISH, which denotes “temporary residence.” Other words derived from this root include ger (“sojourner” in Biblical Hebrew) and goren (“granary,” which is the grain’s temporary home until it is finished being processed). More derivatives of this root which also denote “gathering,” include gargir (a grape with juice gathered inside it) and the small currency geirah (Ex. 30:13), also called agurah (I Sam. 2:36). These coins have almost no value on their own, but do have collective value when gathered together. [The Aramaic word agra (sometimes mispronounced as igra) means “wages” or “reward” (see Avos 5:22 and Targum Onkelos to Gen. 15:1), and may be derived from agurah. In Modern Hebrew, one hundred agurot comprise a shekel, just like one hundred cents/pennies make up a dollar.]

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 rabbircklein@gmail.com The author is available for research, writing, and translation projects, as well as speaking engagements.
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