The Hebrew word for a blind person is iver. Cognates of that word appear in such Biblical quotations as “Do not put a stumbling block in front of a blind person” (Leviticus 19:14) and “…bribery blinds the eyes of wise men” (Deuteronomy 16:19). However, the Talmud and Targumim use two Aramaic words to refer to a blind man — suma and sagi-nahor. What are the deeper meanings of all these words, and in what ways do they differ from each other?
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) writes that the word iver is related to the orthographically identical word for “skin” — ohr (both are spelled AYIN-VAV-REISH). He explains that blindness is related to skin because the most common cause of blindness is a cataract, which is essentially a skin-like membrane which develops over one’s eyes. Because this is the most common form of blindness, any blind person is known in Hebrew as an iver, and the illness is called ivaron.
Based on this, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that when the Bible warns that “bribery blinds the eyes of wise men” this does not mean that it takes away their intellectual faculties completely. Rather, it is similar to that which plagues the typical blind person. His eyes themselves function just fine, but the cataract over his eyes impedes his ability to see clearly. Similarly, when a judge accepts a little “sweetener,” this does not completely take away his ability to properly judge court cases. Rather, the bribe becomes like a cataract that blinds his ability to see the truth in this case.
The Talmud (Bava Batra 16a) says that the Satan, the Evil Inclination, and Angel of Death are all one. According to the Zohar, the name of this angel is Samael. The root of this name is the same as the root for the word suma — which implies that this angel is blind. However, the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 20b) seemingly contradicts this by asserting that the Angel of Death is full of eyes. If he is blind, then why does he have multiple eyes?
Rabbi Mordechai HaKohen of Safed (1523-1598) answers that, on its own, Samael is really blind (as his name suggests), and he has no eyes. However, whenever a person sins and rationalizes his transgression by saying “there is no Eye that sees me do this”, then he is effectively giving an extra eye to the Evil Inclination, so that by the time he confronts the Angel of Death before he dies, the angel sports a multitude of eyes.
The word sagi-nahor is actually a portmanteau of the two words: sagi (“enough”) and nahor (“light”). It refers to one who is blind by way of a rhetorical device known as antiphrasis, whereby one says the exact opposite of what he means. According to this understanding, sagi-nahor refers euphemistically (or sarcastically) to the unseeing. However, the Kli Yakar (Num. 24:4) writes that while a blind person’s visual faculties are non-existent, his other senses are sharpened, so he is considered enlightened enough through those senses that he can appropriately be called a sagi-nahor. This goes to show how G-d provides everyone with exactly what they need, and even if the visually impaired lack the ability to see, they still have “enough” light.
Besides ivaron/averet, there is another word for “blindness” in Biblical Hebrew: sanverim. When the residents of Sodom mobbed Lot in order to ravage his guests, the Bible reports that they were miraculously stricken with sanverim (Gen. 19:11). This word appears only twice more in the Bible (II Kings 6:18). Throughout the ages, a wide range of scholars have attempted to trace the exact meaning of sanverim, and how it differs from ivaron:
- Rashbam (to Gen. 19:11) writes that sanverim is a combination of blindness/confusion.
- Malbim (to Gen. 19:11) writes that sanverim refers to some form of distorted vision, but not actual blindness.
- Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto (1800-1865) suggests that sanverim is a contraction of the phrase soneh ohr (“he who hates light”), and refers to some sort of over-sensitivity to light (photophobia). He explains that although the term primarily refers to somebody who simply cannot tolerate light, it was borrowed to mean “blindness”.
- Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1800-1880) writes that sanverim is a contraction of sneh (a type of thorn) and ohr, and refers to a blind person, as if his eye was poked with a thorn.
- Rabbi Yehoshua Trunk of Kutna (1821-1893) explains that sanverim refers to a malformed type of vision whereby one sees multiple instances of everything. It’s like seeing double, but even more than double! The medical term for this is polyplopia. This affliction effectively rendered the men at Lot’s house blind because they could not translate what they saw into reality.
- The Sochatchover Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel Borenstein (1855-1926), explains that sanverim refers to a confusion of the heart’s emotions, whereby one can physically see something, but remains unable to process that sight on an emotional level.
- Academic conspiracy theorist Dr. Immanuel Vilkovsky (1895-1979) writes that sanverim is different from ivaron because sanverim specifically denotes a form of blindness inflicted upon somebody through hypnosis.
- Dr. Fred Rosner writes in Medicine in the Bible and the Talmud that sanverim and averet both refer to amaurosis — that is, blindness without any visible organic change, caused by disease of the optic nerve.
- Evyatar Cohen suggests that sanverim is related to the word snir (“snow” — see Rashi to Deut. 3:9), because the light of the sun reflected from snow can blind people. This is why it is always recommended to wear sunglasses when walking in the snow during the day.
- Rabbi Lt. Col. Yehoshua Steinberg connects the word sanverim to tzinur (“pipe”), because an eye which cannot function resembles a hollow pipe.
- Chaim Tawil, in his lexicon of Akkadian, argues that the Hebrew word sanverim is borrowed from a similar Akkadian word which means “radiant light”. Apparently, that light was understood to be so strong that it blinds those exposed to it. Alternatively, he cites other linguists who say that sanverim is related to the Akkadian word for “night-blindness”.