One of Moses’ first heroic acts of kindness recorded in the Bible was his helping out the daughters of Jethro who were harassed by the local shepherds. Jethro’s seven daughters had already arrived at the well and “drew” water from the well to give their father’s sheep to drink, when the local shepherds came and chased them away. Then, Moses arrived on the scene to the girls’ aid, and he saved them from the savage shepherds and helped them give water to their flock. The Hebrew verb used by the Bible in this story to denote the act of “drawing” water is dalah (Ex. 2:16–19). Another verb that denotes “drawing” water is shoev. This essay will investigate these two synonyms for the act of “drawing” water, explore their etymologies, and show the nuances reflected in each specific term.
The triliteral lexicographers in the mold of Ibn Chayyuj, Ibn Janach, and Radak trace the word dalah to the triliteral root DALET-LAMMED-HEY. They see the word dalah in the sense of “drawing water” as just another permutation of dalah in the sense of “lifting [something] up.” For example, in the verse “I will exalt You O Hashem, for You have lifted me up (dilitani)” (Ps. 30:2), an inflection of dalah is used in the general sense of “lifting up” and not to denote “drawing water.” As you can imagine, the link between these two acts is quite intuitive: In order to “draw water” from a well, one must somehow “lift up” the waters that have pooled down below in the well. In fact, the name for the very instrument used for “lifting up” these waters also relates to dalah, as the Hebrew word d’li means “pail/bucket” (see Num. 24:7, Isa. 40:15) and is also derived from this root.
Similarly, the aforementioned lexicographers also explain that the Hebrew word daliyot — which appears eight times in the Bible: Jer. 11:16, Ezek. 17:6–7, 17:23, 19:11, 31:7, 31:9, 31:12 — refers to the “branches at the top of a tree.” Those branches also intuitively relate back to the core meaning of this root as “lifting up,” because their placement at the top of the tree give of the appearance as though someone lifted them up and placed them there. The singular form of that word (which never appears in the Bible) would be dalia, which is likely the basis of the feminine Jewish Name Dalia. The use of the given name Dalia may also be related to Arabic influence, because Dalia/Dahlia is also an Arabic name. Dalia is also the name of the goddess of fate in pre-Christian Lithuanian mythology, but somehow I don’t think that the Jewish Name Dalia is related to that deity. Interestingly, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky (1927–2021) asserts that the name Dalia is not a traditional name amongst Ashkenazi Jews and does recommend that this name be given to a child unless one’s family already has a specific custom to use this name.
In line with the biliteralist tradition with which he is identified, Menachem Ibn Saruk (920–970) sees the core root of dalah as the two-letter string DALET-LAMMED. The way he understands it, there are three distinct derivatives of this root: dalah (“drawing water”), dalah (“lifting up”), and dal (“poor/destitute”). This is quite different from what we’ve seen above: Whereas the lexicographers mentioned earlier see the first two of these as essentially one category, Menachem splits them in twain. Moreover, whereas those lexicographers trace the word dal to the root DALET-LAMMED-LAMMED, Menachem traces them to DALET-LAMMED. Additionally, Menachem never offers an inkling as to how he understood the etymology of daliyot, even though the other lexicographers traced that term to the same root as dalah.
Despite Menachem categorizing these three terms as distinct derivatives, perhaps Menachem would also agree that there is a thematic relationship between them. As we explained earlier, “drawing water” and “lifting up” can actually be seen as one act. Perhaps we may similarly explain that dal in the sense of a “downtrodden pauper” relates to these meanings as the polar opposite of “lifting up.” The dal has been brought down to the lowest levels possible, so it fits into this root in the manner of “a thing and its opposite.” Alternatively, we may offer a more inspirational understanding that dal denotes an unfortunate person who has reached rocked bottom and the only thing that can happen next would, per force, involve “lifting up” the pauper from his unfortunate situation. Interestingly, some authorities maintain that one should avoid giving the name Dalia because of its etymological association with the negative dal. In light of what we have written, this negative connotation might not be so clear-cut.
In expanding on the biliteralist position, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740–1814) explains that the root DALET-LAMMED primarily refers to “drawing water from a well.” In a borrowed sense, it can refer to the act of “lifting up” anything in the same way that water is lifted from a well. Unlike Menachem, he explicitly links daliyot to the biliteral DALET-LAMMED, explaining that the branches at the top of a tree suck up the waters from the tree’s root via capillary action in a way that is similar to the act of lifting up waters that were drawn from a well. Rabbi Pappenheim also sees the Rabbinic Hebrew term dildul (“dangling/hanging”) as related to this root.
Similarly, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that dal in the sense of “poor” invokes the imagery of a person bereft of his fortune. This mirrors the image of a well emptied of its waters after they had been drawn out of it. Interestingly, Rabbi Moshe Tedeschi Ashkenazi (1821–1898), the Italian author of Hoil Moshe, implicitly disagrees with Menachem’s classifying dal as a derivative of DALET-LAMMED, because he asserts that dal is actually derived from the word zol (“cheap”), via the well-established interchangeability of ZAYIN and DALET.[For more about the word dal in the sense of “destitute” and other words related to that idea, see my earlier essay “The Poor and Unfortunate” (May 2019). For more about the word zol and its cognates, see “Disgraceful Disparagement” (Nov. 2021).]
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 6:10, 30:32) adds that the Hebrew word delet (“door”) also relates to the idea of “drawing water,” because the door serves as the means for gathering all those who are inside the house into one place, just like the d’li is used to draw water and gather it into a single receptacle.
The German linguist Wilhelm Gesenius (1786–1842) offers an interesting contribution which bears mention because it makes sense. He argues that the core meaning of DALET-LAMMED is “hanging/swinging.” In that sense, the word delet as “the leaf of a door” refers to that flapping apparatus that opens and closes a doorway. Similarly, daliyot refer to branches that hang off a tree and are not so strongly attached that they are rendered immobile (the same would be true of the word dildul). He further explains that a dal (“poor” or “unfortunate” person) refers to a feeble individual whose wealth is not well-grounded but is figuratively “hanging” and may “swing” from one situation to another. Finally, this relates to the act of dalah, because drawing water from a well typically entails hanging a d’li (on a rope) and lowering it into the well to fetch water.
Before we move on to the next term for “drawing water,” I wanted to share with you an interesting thought. The biliteral root LAMMED-DALET refers to “birth.” Thus, it is the etymological basis for the words yalad/yaldah (the verbs for the act of “giving birth”), toldot (“offspring,” as the results of birth), valad (the “womb” from whence birth happens), and yeled/yaldah (a “child” who is born). It seems to me that LAMMED-DALET and DALET-LAMMED are exact opposites: When drawing water, one exerts an outside force that pulls the waters away from where they have been until now in order to take them out. When giving birth, the converse happens: an internal force (i.e., uterine contractions) acts to push the baby out of its mother’s body, where it had been until now. To me, this contrast is reflected in the order of the consonants in the very roots themselves.
The other word for “drawing water” is shoev. In this case, Menachem agrees with Ibn Janach and Radak that the word derives from a triliteral root, namely SHIN-ALEPH-BET. Permutations of this root appear 19 times throughout the Bible. For example, in the story of Rebecca drawing water for Abraham’s servant and his camels, the Bible consistently refers to that action with a cognate of shoev (Gen. 24:11—45). Similarly, the Simchat Beit HaShoeivah celebrations in the Holy Temple related to “drawing the waters” for the Water Libation ceremony on Sukkot. In Talmudic parlance (Sotah 47a, Sanhedrin 107b, Avodah Zarah 44a), a magnetized stone is called an even shoevet (literally, “a rock that draws”) because it attracts oppositely-ionized particles. Likewise, in Modern Hebrew a vacuum cleaner is called a sha’avak, which is a portmanteau of the words shoev (“draws”) and avak (“dust”).
What is the difference between the terms dalah and shoev? The Malbim (1809–1879) explains that dalah implies drawing water from a deep well. Such an endeavor requires much effort, because it involves lowering a pail into the well and then raising the pail of water out of the well. On the other hand, the term shoev simply refers to drawing water into a bucket without any effort. This is most commonly done when drawing waters from a spring or waterhole, because those waters are on the surface level and not deep down, so they do not require lowering and lifting a bucket. Shadal (to Gen. 24:13) offers a similar explanation.
The prophet Isaiah draws on this imagery in his inspirational vision: “And you will draw (u’shavtem) water with gladness from the springs of salvation” (Isa. 12:3). In this case, the prophet specifically used a cognate of shoev, because he was talking about drawing waters from a spring, and not from a well. In contrast, another verse reads: “Advice in the heart of man is [like] deep waters, and the understanding man can draw it out (yidlenah)” (Prov. 20:5). In this case, since the waters described are “deep” and require more effort to draw out, the verb used is a cognate of dalah, not shoev.
Similarly, even though Rebecca drew water from a well, the Bible uses a cognate of shoev to denote her act of drawing water, because the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah §60:5) relates that the waters miraculously arose to greet her, and she was thus able to draw water from the well with minimal effort, as though drawing water from a spring.
Once we realize that the term shoev is more appropriate for discussing “drawing” water from a spring than from a well, we can better appreciate a comment made by Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim about the etymology of shoev. He sees the ALEPH in the middle of the SHIN-ALEPH-BET string to be a radical that is not integral to the core root. This allows him to trace shoev to the biliteral root SHIN-BET (“return”). Other words derived from this root include hashavah (“returning” a lost item or stolen goods), lehashiv (“to answer,” returning to a question by resolving it), shev/yeshivah (“dwelling,” establishing of one’s homebase to which they will always return), shabbat (“rest,” returning to one’s natural state of rest), and more.
In the case of shoev, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that drawing water by gathering it into a vessel stops those water’s natural movement and flow by rendering them stagnant. In this way, shoev relates to shabbat because both denote a cessation from action. For our purposes, it is noteworthy that this underlying meaning of shoev is best illustrated when drawing waters from a spring, because hitherto those waters were flowing in the spring’s current (as opposed to a well, whose waters might remain stationary even before being drawn).
We invoke the merit Moses’ kind deed on Shemini Atzeret in a poetic request for rain: “remember [Moses], who was drawn (mashui) from the water in a reed basket / the one about whom it was said “he had drawn (dalah) [for us water]” (Ex. 2:19) and who gave the sheep to drink water… / in his righteousness, grant us a flow of water.” In this stanza, we encounter another term for “drawing” water — mashui. In a future essay, I hope to address the etymology of the word mashui (which is, after all, the onomastic basis for the name Moshe) and its counterpart moshech (which more broadly means “to pull”).