The Hebrew Language is seemingly blessed with three different words that mean “marsh” or “swamp.” When Pharaoh saw a dream that consisted of seven fat cows, the Bible reports that the cows were grazing in the achu (“marsh;” Gen. 41:2, 41:18). Yet, when bringing the Plague of Blood upon the Egyptians, G-d told Moses to tell Aaron to stretch his hand “over the waters of Egypt — over their rivers, over their canals, over their marshes (agam), and over all their gatherings of water” (Ex. 7:19), again using the word agam for “marsh.” Similar verbiage appears concerning the Plague of Frogs as well (Ex. 8:1). Bitzah, a third word for “marsh,” appears three times in the Bible (Iyov 8:11, 40:21, Yechezkel 47:11) and also denotes a muddy, swampy place. In this essay we will explore the etymologies and nuances of these three words achu, agam and bitzah.
Rashi (to Gen. 41:2) asserts that achu means agam. To support this claim, Rashi cites Iyov 8:11, which reads: “Can reeds (gome) grow tall without a marshland (bitzah), or a marsh (achu) without water?” That said, Nachmanides (to Gen. 41:2) takes issue with Rashi’s commentary and argues that achu does not mean “marsh,” but rather refers to a certain type of grass or vegetation that tends to grow on the river banks. Nachmanides then suggests that the etymology of achu relates to the Hebrew word ach (“brother”), in allusion to the camaraderie between the various types of flora that grow in tandem along the river’s edge. (Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch makes the same point. Rabbi Pappenheim writes that achu refers to the “brotherhood” between the different animals which join up together in the fertile land to feast on its produce, or that it refers to the fact that the achu’s location alongside the river makes it appear as the river’s “brother.”)
Rabbi Moshe ben Shem Tov Gabbai (1340-1420) defends Rashi’s position by explaining that achu refers to a “marsh” in which the type of vegetation mentioned by Nachmanides often sprouts. Because such vegetation tends to materialize in swampy areas, the word for this sort of vegetation became synonymous with “marshes” themselves, such that in practice achu means the same thing as agam. (See also Ibn Janach and Radak’s Sefer HaShorashim, which already propose that achu refers to both a certain type of grass, possibly papyrus, and the place in which that grass typically grows.)
To make things a bit more complicated, Rashi (to Ex. 7:19) also defines agam as a stagnant body of water and translates the Hebrew word into the Old French estanc (etang in Modern French), which means “pond.” A pond is not quite the same thing as a marsh or swamp.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) traces the word agam to the biliteral root GIMMEL-MEM, which refers to “spongy or absorbent material.” In that sense, agam refers to a tract of water-soaked land inundated or partially flooded with water. Such a place must be sponge-like if it is to soak up so much water and always remain wet. Another word derived from this root is gome, which is a sort of “spongy reed” that grows in marshy wetlands. (Rabbi Wertheimer even writes that a marsh is called agam because of the gome that grows therein.)
The word bitzah appears three times in the Bible (Iyov 8:11, 40:21, Yechezkel 47:11), and also denotes a muddy, swampy place. It derives from the Biblical Hebrew botz (“mud,” Jer. 38:22). Rabbi Pappenheim argues that these two words derive from the biliteral root BET-TZADI, which refers to “a fluid with mucus-like consistency.” The most obvious and common derivative of this root is beitzah (“egg”), whose contents are typically gooey, like mucus. (Parenthetically, the word beitzah in the singular form never appears in the Bible, only the word beitzim, in plural, does (e.g. Deut. 22:6, Yechezkel 30:9). The viscosity of botz similarly resembles mucus because it is not quite as pourable as water, nor can it be described as wholly solid. Bitzah, in the sense of “marsh,” also fits this core meaning because under swamp conditions the ground tends to remain muddy and thus viscous. Interestingly, Rabbi Pappenheim also asserts that the word butz (Esther 1:6, 8:15, Yechezkel 27:16) refers specifically to a type of “flax/linen” that grows in watery soil like that of a bitzah.
Rashi (to Gen. 41:2) writes that achu translates into Old French as maresc (a cognate of the English word marsh). Elsewhere (to Taanit22a, Yevamot121a, Sanhedrn5b), Rashi writes the same about the word agam and its Aramaic cognate agama, and yet again (to Yechezkel 47:11, Iyov 8:11, Bava Metzia74a), he uses that Old French word as a translation for bitzah. Rashi (to Shevuot16a, Sanhedrin 96a) also translates the Talmudic term bitzaim/bitzaei mayim (with an AYIN) into Old French as maresc.
But wait! There is one more word that did not make it to our list: suf. Rashi (to Ex. 2:3, 13:18) writes that suf is related to agam. However, Rabbi Avraham Meir HaKohen Glanzer of Antwerp infers in Maayanei Agam that Rashi does not write that suf means the same thing as agam. Rather, Rashi implies that suf is somehow associated with the agam, but is not coterminous with agam. This is borne out by the continuation of Rashi’s comments, in which he translates the Hebrew suf into the Old French roisel, which means in English “roseau cane” — also known as the “common reed.” Thus, suf refers to the reeds that tend to grow in a swamp or marsh, but does not actually refer to the swamp itself. Hence, Yam Suf means the Reed Sea (not the Red Sea), not the Swamp Sea.
(In this essay, we used the English terms marsh and swamp interchangeably. Interestingly, according to Google Books’ Ngram Viewer, the word marsh was more popular in English literature published between 1800-1850, while swamp was more popular from 1850-1970. Then marsh became more popular from 1970-2000. Since the year 2000, the word swamp has again been more popular.)