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

Their Bony Selves

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As Joseph neared the end of his life, he demanded of his brothers that after he passes away, they should take his atzamot (“bones”) out of Egypt and bury him in the Holy Land (Gen. 50:25). Indeed, when the Jews later exited Egypt, the Torah stresses that Moses took Joseph’s atzamot with him (Ex. 13:19). The Targumim typically use the Aramaic term garmei to translate the Hebrew etzem (“bone”). That Aramaic word also appears in the Bible (Dan. 6:25), and is a cognate of the Biblical Hebrew word gerem, which also means “bone.” Because of the interplay of cantillation and vowelization, gerem is usually pronounced garem (see Prov. 17:22, 25:15). In this essay, we explore the apparently-synonymous words etzem and gerem to seek out their exact meanings and how they relate to each other.

The same triliteral root AYIN-TZADI-MEM that gives us the word etzem also gives us the pronouns atzmi (“myself”), atzmo (“himself”), atzmecha (“yourself”). This works because the exact definition of personhood or selfhood is notoriously difficult to pin down. What makes up a person? Is it his physical skeleton? His inner consciousness? His soul? In this sense, Biblical Hebrew has several different terms to refer to oneself: nafshi (“myself,” but literally “my soul”), galmi (“myself,” but literally “my matter”), gufi (“myself,” but literally “my body”), and atzmi (“myself,” but literally “my bones”). So it makes sense that the same root that gives us “bone,” gives us “self.”

In Machberet Menachem, Menachem Ibn Saruk (920–970) writes that the triliteral root AYIN-TZADI-MEM actually has five different meanings: “bone” (per the above), “color/visible hue” (Ex. 24:10, Lam. 4:7, Ps. 139:15), “strength/power” (Gen. 26:16, Ex. 1:7, 1:9, Isa. 40:29, 41:21, Ps. 38:20), “closing [the eye]” (Isa. 29:10, 33:15), “the thing itself” (Gen. 7:13, Ex. 12:41).

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740–1814) writes that the word etzem (“bone”) is related to the Hebrew words atzum (“strong”) and eitz (“tree”), because it denotes the hard part of the body that is akin in its strength and durability to a tree. The tree too is characterized by its hard/strong trunk, as opposed to other, flimsy forms of flora (like grass). Indeed, Nachmanides (to Lev. 23:28) already makes the point that something’s etzem refers to its most powerful point. [See “The Strong Ones” (Sep. 2020) for further discussion of the AYIN-TZADI root.]

When Jacob was on the cusp of death, he gathered his twelve sons and blessed each one of them. In doing so, he famously compared some of his sons to various animals: Judah to a lion cub (Gen. 49:9), Dan to a snake (Gen. 49:17), Naftali to a gazelle (Gen. 49:21), and Benjamin to a wolf (Gen. 49:27). When it comes to Issachar, Jacob said: “Isaachar is a garem donkey” (Gen. 49:14). What is the meaning of garem in this context?

Rashi explains that garem here means “strong-boned” (using the Hebrew word etzem to convey that idea). In the overall context of Jacob’s blessing to Issachar, it means that Jacob blessed his son Issachar that he ought to be likened to a strong donkey (i.e., one comprised of hard “bones”). By that, Jacob meant that Issachar and his descendant should be known for being able to take on heavy burdens, as indeed the Tribe of Issachar was known for producing Torah Scholars, who likewise bear heavy responsibilities in accepting upon themselves the yoke of Torah Study (see also Rabbeinu Bachaya to Gen. 49:14).

Gersonides (also known as Ralbag) explains just the opposite: garem means “boney.” The way he explains it, Jacob compared Issachar to a weak donkey, that is, a donkey so malnourished that its bones jut out and are plainly visible. This explanation also recalls the Tribe of Issachar’s renown for Torah scholarship, for just like a weak donkey cannot go outside, so do the Torah Scholars of Issachar remain in their locale and not venture outwards. This blessing to Issachar stands in stark contrast to the blessing granted to his brother Zebulun, whose descendants comprised of merchants who would travel overseas.

Either way, Rashi and Gersonides both understand that gerem in this case means “bone.” Indeed, Job refers to the power of prayer to overturn harsh decrees from Above by saying, “a soft tongue can break a bone [gerem]” (Prov 25:15). In that verse gerem clearly means “bone.”

When Balaam tried to curse the Jewish People, but ended up blessing them instead, one of the blessings he offered was that the Jews “will devour their enemy nations, and their [those nations’] bones, they [the Jews] will yigarem” (Num. 24:8). The meaning of the word yigarem in this context is obscure. This word clearly derives from the triliteral root GIMMEL-REISH-MEM, but what does it mean in this case?

Menachem Ibn Saruk in Machberet Menachem writes that the triliteral root GIMMEL-REISH-MEM has two distinct meanings: “bone” and “breaking.” As is his way, he does not intimate a connection between these two categories of words. Thus, Rashi (to Num. 24:8) cites Menachem Ibn Saruk as explaining that yigarem means “they will break.” The connection between “bone” and “breaking” will be discussed later on.

Rashi himself disagrees with Menachem, preferring to explain that yigarem refers to the act of “scrapping” (gorer) the meat around the bone with one’s teeth and sucking the bone of its marrow to leave the bone “naked” in its bare state — bereft of meat and marrow (see also Rashi to Ezek. 23:34).

Another meaning of gerem is “the thing itself.” We saw earlier that this is one of the meanings of the Hebrew word etzem. Indeed, permutations of gerem are the standard words used by the Targumim for translating etzem in the sense of “self,” just like they are used for translating instances of etzem in the sense of “bone.”

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This usage of gerem as “itself” may already be seen in the Bible, in the phrase gerem ha’maalot, which means “the step itself” (see Metzudat Tzion to II Kgs. 9:13). Just as we explained with the word etzem, it would seem that gerem as “bone” relates to gerem as “self,” because one’s self may sometimes be characterized by the hardest parts/limbs of one’s body.

As Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469–1549) points out, in rabbinic usage the root GIMMEL-REISH-MEM took on another meaning: “to cause” (goremgramagarmi). This is best seen in the Targum’s rendering of the Hebrew word sabovti (“I caused about”) as garamti (Targum to I Sam. 22:22). Inflections of this word appear many times throughout the Talmud and Halachic literature. This sense of the root as causation may be related to gerem as “the thing itself,” because a specific “self” (i.e., cause) is what brought about the occurrence in question. Meaning, if I cause something to happen, “myself” brought about that occurrence, so grama relates to the “self” meaning of gerem.

Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1697–1776) offers a different view of things. He explains that gerem as “bone” refers to the skeletal foundation upon which a person or animal’s physical existence is predicated. According to this, the “bone” functions as a sort of “cause” that allows the rest of the body to the come into existence and continue to function. Because of this, he explains that a strong donkey is called a chamor garem because its underlying “bones” are well-established, thus causing the beast to be especially stout and robust.

Interestingly, the Talmud (Niddah 31a) interprets Jacob’s blessing of Issachar using this causation meaning of the root GIMMEL-REISH-MEM, as though the word garem means “caused.” The Bible (Gen. 30:14–18) relates that Issachar was born on account of Rachel trading her right to live with Jacob for the night for dudaim (“mandrakes”) that Leah’s son Reuben found. When Jacob came home from the field that night, the bray of his donkey alerted Leah of his arrival, so she went out to call him. As the Talmud explains it, chamor garem means that a donkey “caused” Issachar to be born, because it was through the donkey’s bray that Leah knew that Jacob was returning home (see Sefer HaAruch, s.v. chamra).

There is another (quite fascinating) way to explain how a donkey “caused” Issachar to be born: A long-standing legend maintains that when mandrakes are pulled out of the ground, they emit a loud shriek that would kill any living creature that hears it. Based on this, the Tosafists explain that mandrakes were commonly picked by starving an old donkey that was no longer useful and then clearing the area of all people, leaving the donkey to pull out the mandrakes in its desperate hunger. When the shrieking mandrake would let out its lethal shriek, the donkey would die, but in the meantime, it will have already pulled out the mandrakes from the ground for the taking. Apparently, the mandrakes Rachel traded to Leah were extracted using this method, so chamor garem means that a donkey “caused” Issachar to be born via the donkey’s role in pulling out the mandrakes.

Now that we understand that gerem and etzem both mean “bone” and both mean “self,” how do these two words differ from one another?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 49:14, Ex. 1:7, Num. 24:8, Deut. 25:4, Ps. 139:15) explains that while technically both etzem and gerem might refer to the same body part — what we call a “bone” — the respective etymologies of these words focus on different aspects of that body part. The word etzem focuses on the “strength/durability” of the bone as made of a hard and durable material. He relates this word to the phonetically-similar words osem (“gathering/storing”), chosem (“closed/blocked”), and otzem (“closing [one’s eyes]”) because something strong is a self-contained and closed-up entity.

On the other hand, the word gerem focuses on the bone as something that is merely one part of a greater system (i.e., a portion of a person’s entire skeletal structure, or even a portion of the person himself). For example, we mentioned above that the Hebrew word gerem refers to a single step in a larger staircase (II Kgs. 9:13). Similarly, Rabbi Hirsch explains that grama refers to “causation” as one link within a greater causal system of causes and effects (like a step toward one’s final destination). Based on this, Rabbi Hirsch explains that the verb form of GIMMEL-REISH-MEM can refer to “breaking” in the sense of breaking down that system by detaching the various constituent parts from one another.

Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866–1935) takes a different approach to explaining the difference between etzem and gerem. He understands that etzem is a general term that includes all different types of “bones.” The way he explains it, when a fetus is initially formed, it is first comprised of fleshy tissue, which gives it its soma and physique. As the unborn fetus continues to gestate and develop, some of those fleshy stuff close up and harden to become bones (see Job 10:11, Chullin 89b). In contrast to this, the term gerem refers specifically to the larger bones in a body. Those bones are particularly instrumental in allowing a person or animal to carry a heavy load, and it was specifically them that Jacob invoked in his blessing to Issachar.

Rabbi Pappenheim traces gerem to the biliteral root GIMMEL-REISH (“dragging/temporary domiciliate”), because the bone houses marrow and other moist liquids. Words derived from this root include ger (“sojourner” in Biblical Hebrew), goren (“granary,” which is the grain’s temporary home while being processed), nigar (“gathering of water”), and garger (“grape,” which houses grape juice/wine). Rabbi David Chaim Chelouche (1920–2016), the late Chief Rabbi of Netanya, similarly argues that gerem in the sense of “bone” relates to the biliteral root GIMMEL-REISH, because liquefied bone marrow collects within the bone.

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This association of gerem with the liquid marrow inside the bone may find precedent in the Bible, if we juxtapose the following two verses: “good tidings fatten the bone [etzem]” (Prov. 15:30), while “sadness dries the bone [gerem] (Prov. 17:22). In explaining this latter verse, the Vilna Gaon (1720–1797) writes that etzem implies the hard outer surface of a bone, while gerem refers to the cavity inside the bone, where the marrow is found.

The Mishnah (Negaim 2:1) states that the whitest shade of tzaraat looks dim on the skin of a germani. Maimonides (in his commentary to the Mishnah there) and Rabbi Tanchum HaYerushalmi (in HaMadrich HaMaspik, a lexicon of Rabbinic Hebrew) argue that the designation germani is borrowed from the word gerem in the sense of “bone,” because bones have a whitish color and germani denotes a person with especially-white skin.

However, if we accept the Vilna Gaon’s understanding that gerem differs from etzem in that gerem refers to the bone’s interior while etzem refers to the bone’s exterior, connecting germani to gerem becomes problematic. It is likely for this reason that the Vilna Gaon himself (in Shenot Eliyahu to Negaim 2:1) did not accept Maimonides’ explanation of germani, and instead explained the word as a reference to members of the European tribes that resided in the lands that the Romans called Germanica (i.e., Germany).

Another term derived from the triliteral GIMMEL-REISH-MEM is garmei shamayim (“celestial bodies,” that is, the sun, moon, stars) used in Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed and other works translated from Judeo-Arabic. Those bodies are independent “selves” in the Heavens, and relate to gerem in the sense of “self.” Finally, the term hagrama (see Chullin 9a) in reference to cutting in the wrong part of an animal’s throat (thus rendering the slaughtering invalid) also might relate to gerem (see Rashi to II Kgs. 9:13 and Maggid Mishnah to Laws of Shechitah 3:12).

About the Author
RABBI REUVEN CHAIM KLEIN is a researcher and editor at the Veromemanu Foundation in Israel. His weekly articles about synonyms in the Hebrew Language appear in the OhrNet and are syndicated by the Jewish Press and Times of Israel. For over a decade, he studied at preimer Haredi Yeshivot, including Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, Yeshivat Mir in Jerusalem, Beth Medrash Govoha of America. He received rabbinic ordination from multiple rabbinic authorities and holds an MA in Jewish Education from the London School of Jewish Studies/Middlesex Univeristy. Rabbi Klein authored two popular books that were published by Mosaica Press, as well as countless articles and papers published in various journals. He and his wife made Aliyah in 2011 and currently live in the West Bank city of Beitar Illit. Rabbi Klein is a celebrated speaker and is available for hire in research, writing, and translation projects, as well as speaking engagements.
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