On the second night of Passover, we begin Sefirat HaOmer (“counting of the Omer”), which counts the fifty days from when the annual barley offering was brought in the Holy Temple until the holiday of Shavuot. The Torah commands that this counting begin “when the sickle (chermesh) commences upon the standing-grain” (Deut. 16:9). This expression refers to using the sickle to harvest barley on the second night of Passover, to be brought as part of the annual Omer- offering the next morning. Yet, when the mishna (Menachot 10:3) describes the public affair of cutting the Omer, it uses a different word for the tool used: magal. The mishna reports that the harvester would hold up a magal, and ask the assembled crowd, “Is this a magal?” And those in attendance would answer, “Yes!” He would then ask again, “Is this a magal?” And the crowd would again respond, “Yes!” This leads us to the obvious question: Why does the mishna call the tool used for harvesting barley a magal, since the Torah calls it a chermesh? Are chermesh and magal synonyms? Is there a difference between these two words?
The word chermesh appears twice in the Bible — both times in the Book of Deuteronomy: Once when describing the Cutting of the Omer (as mentioned above), and once when prohibiting a worker from using a chermesh to harvest the landowner’s produce for his own consumption (Deut. 23:26). Similarly, the word magal also appears twice in the Bible, both in conjunction with the tool used for harvesting (Jer. 50:16, Yoel 4:12). When it comes to the Mishna, the word magal appears multiple times (Sheviit 5:6, Menachot 10:3, Keilim 13:1, 15:4), but chermesh never appears in the Mishna (although it is found once in the Tosefta, see Tosefta Bava Metzia 2:14).
What is the relationship between the words chermesh and magal? Each time that chermesh appears in the Bible (Deut. 16:9, 23:26), the Targumim translate the Hebrew chermesh into Aramaic as magla. This suggests that while the Biblical word chermesh is Hebrew, the Biblical word magal is actually a Hebraicized form of the Aramaic word magla. Indeed, the Sifrei (to Deut. 23:26) also explains that chermesh means magal. This would suggest that the two terms in question are actually synonymous, but that chermesh is of Hebrew origin, while magal is of Aramaic origin. This accounts for why the Book of Deuteronomy, which was written earlier, would use the purely Hebrew term for the harvesting tool in question, while the later prophets (Jeremiah and Yoel) and the mishna, which were written after Aramaic became more prevalent, would use the Aramaic-influenced term.
Indeed, Radak in Sefer HaShorashim writes that the word magal is a cognate of the Arabic word almunajil (“sickle”). Maimonides (in his commentaries on Peah 4:4 and Sheviit 4:6) also uses that Arabic term to define magal. According to this, magal should technically be mangal, with an extra NUN in the middle, but the NUN is dropped as often happens. Maimonides, in his commentary to Sheviit 5:6, writes that the mishnaic term magal-yad means “a small chermesh,” again showing that the words magal and chermesh mean the same thing.
Israeli archaeologist Dr. Shmuel Yeivin (1896-1982) writes that some scholars have proposed that chermesh refers to a “sickle,” while magal refers to the larger “scythe.” However, Yeivin rejects this proposal arguing that there is no basis in the Bible for such a distinction. He also notes that from an archeological perspective, this explanation is untenable because there is no evidence of the existence of the scythe in Biblical Times. Thirdly, he explains that in Mishnaic Hebrew, the term magal referred to both a sickle and a scythe, but that they differentiated between the two by using a modifier attached to the word magal, like we saw earlier where the smaller sickle is called a magal-yad (while the larger scythe is called a magal-kotzer). Instead, Yeivin explains that both chermesh and magal refer to the exact same harvesting tool, but that the term magal is of later usage (hence, its appearance in the books of the prophets), while Deuteronomy uses the more archaic word chermesh.
Yeivin further suggests that the word chermesh is related to the Hebrew word chalamish (“flintstone”), given the interchangeability of REISH and LAMMED. As a result of this, he proposes that perhaps the chermesh was a cruder harvesting tool made of stone (from the earlier “Stone Age”), while the magal was a more technologically-advanced version of the same tool that was made of metal (from the later “Bronze Age” or “Iron Age”).
There are two more theories as to the etymology of the word chermesh: Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 25:6) theorizes that Hebrew words with seemingly four-letter roots in which the final letter is a SHIN are really derived from three-letter roots, with the added SHIN as a radical unrelated to the core root. Using that methodology, he explains that the root of the word chermesh is the triliteral CHET-REISH-MEM, cherem (“destroy” or “ban”), and the added SHIN means that chermesh denotes the tool used for destroying or cutting. Dr. Shlomo Mandelkorn (1846-1902), in his concordance of Biblical Hebrew Heichal HaKodesh, also suggests that chermesh is derived from cherem.
Rabbi David Chaim Chelouche (1920-2016), the late Chief Rabbi of Netanya, offers another theory as to the etymology of chermesh. He argues that the quadriliteral root of chermesh actually reflects the merging of the two biliteral roots CHET-REISH (“hole”) and MEM-SHIN (“move”), because this tool cuts (i.e. “creates a hole”) grain and allows it to be moved from its present location.
The Italian Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe David Valle (1697-1777) writes that the word chermesh is a portmanteau of the words cherem (“ban”) and aish (“fire”), thus associating it with the realm of justice, as opposed to magal, which he understands as alluding to the realm of mercy. Alternatively, Rabbi Valle reads the word chermesh as an acronym for the phrase: “chafetz retzono marbeh sheilato,” which essentially teaches that the more a person tries to attain all his wants and desires, the needier he will end up being.
In another Kabbalistic exposition related to these words, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620) offers an esoteric explanation of the cutting of the Omer (Deut. 16:9), which he homiletically interprets as speaking of a person’s lifespan. The way he reads it, the hidden message in that passage is that once a person reaches the age of twenty and becomes liable for Divine punishment for his sins, a person remains in that situation for the next fifty years — until he reaches the age of seventy, the archetypal lifespan of a human in the Bible. In supporting this explication of the verse, Rabbi Chaim Vital notes that the word chermesh has a gematria value of 548, which equals the gematria of the phrase “and the Angel of Death” (reminiscent of popular depictions of the Grim Reaper with his scythe/sickle). Thus, as Rabbi Chaim Vital explains, it is the word chermesh that introduces the element of punishment and death to the interpretation of this verse. Rabbi Vital then asserts that the Bible uses the word chermesh here, instead of magal, precisely to teach us this lesson!
Concerning the word magal, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) writes that its root is the two-letter GIMMEL-LAMMED, which primarily means “round.” Other words derived from this include gal (“heap” of stones in a circular formation), galgal (“wheel”), and megillah (a “scroll,” which is rolled up). He explains that magal relates to this root because the sickle’s blade is curved and almost forms a circle.
Rabbi Pappenheim also traces the words galut (“exile”) and geulah (“redemption”) to this two-letter root. His particular way of connecting those words to the core meaning of GIMMEL-LAMMED is a bit complex, but I would suggest that the connection lies in the cyclic nature of the exile-redemption-exile paradigm that prevails until the final redemption. In light of this understanding, I would like to further suggest that the rabbis preferred the word magal to chermesh because the word magal etymologically fits with the theme of Passover that stresses the freedom associated with the transition from galut to geulah.