What's in a Word?

For the week ending 21 December 2019 / 23 Kislev 5780

A Real Toss Up

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

In the lead-up to Yosef being sold by his older brothers, the Torah uses cognates of the word hashlachah (“throwing”) three times: First, when Yosef’s brothers wanted to kill him and “throw” his corpse into a pit (Gen. 37:20), then when Reuven convinced his brothers to “throw” him into a pit alive (Gen. 37:22), and finally when they actually “threw” Yosef into the pit (Gen. 37:24). In this essay we will examine the meaning, implications and root of the word hashlachah and explore how it differs from zerikah.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) explains that hashlachah is throwing an object in a way that it is not evident whether one is trying to hit something else or just get the object away from oneself. This form of throwing connotes a disrespectful attitude towards that which is thrown, as if one is simply trying to get rid of it. Because this word connotes a more casual or callous form of throwing, it usually refers to throwing something downwards, which is the easiest way to throw something. It might be more accurate to translate hashlachah as “dropping” or “throwing away.”

When there was no water left in her flask, Hagar “threw” (vatashlech) young Yishmael underneath a tree (Gen. 21:15). In that context, Nachmanides offers two ways of understanding the word vatashlech: First, he explains that it means that Hagar “abandoned” Yishmael, thus explaining that hashlachah as a form of “forsaking.” Second, he proposes that Hagar “sent away” Yishmael, thus explaining that hashlachah means to “send away,” an assertion he proves from other Scriptural passages (Deut. 29:27, Ps. 51:13).

In this second explanation, Nachmanides essentially argues that hashlachah’s root SHIN-LAMMED-KAF can mean the same thing as its near-homonym SHIN-LAMMED-CHET. They are “near-homonyms” because in the traditional Ashkenazi mode of pronunciation the letters CHET and CHAF are pronounced in the same manner.

Rabbi Pappenheim notes that most cognates of hashlachah which appear in the Bible refer to throwing something away in a disparaging fashion — e.g., Hagar “throwing away” Yishmael (Gen. 21:15); Yosef’s brothers chucking him into a pit; Moshe “throwing” down the Tablets (Ex. 32:19); Pharaoh’s decree that Jewish baby boys be “thrown” into the river (Ex. 1:22); and the command that non-kosher meat be “thrown” to the dogs (Ex. 22:30).

Nonetheless, Rabbi Pappenheim admits that not all instances of hashlachah in the Bible refer to this type of casual “throwing away.” Some cases connote throwing something deliberately to bring about certain results. For example, Aharon “threw” his staff and it turned into a snake (Ex. 7:10) and “threw” the Jews’ gold into the fire to make the Golden Calf (Ex. 32:24). The same could be said of the requirement to “throw” cedar wood, hyssop, and a red string into the fire while burning the Red Heifer (Num. 19:6).

In Modern Hebrew, hashlachot are “consequences” or “ramifications.” This extension of hashlachot’s usage is not attested to in the Bible or in Rabbinic Writings, but may refer to a “result” as a sort of “throw-off” from its cause.

Most grammarians, such as Menachem Ibn Saruk, Ibn Janach, and Radak, maintain that the root of hashlachah is the triliteral SHIN-LAMED-KAF. However, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that hashlachah is actually a portmanteau of the two biliteral roots SHIN-LAMMED (“throwing out”) and LAMMED-KAF (“going/walking”).

Linguists propose a similar theory (cited by Ernest Klein and Avraham Even-Shoshan in their respective dictionaries) based on a rare verb conjugation called shaphel,in which the letter SHIN serves a grammatical function and is not part of the root. In such cases, the letter SHIN denotes an action which creates the situation of the verb whose root is used in a given word. To better illustrate this idea, we will show some examples:

·The root of shiabud is AYIN-BET-DALET (eved), which means “slave,” and the SHIN denotes the creation of servitude through “subjugation” or “obligation”.

·The root of shichrur is CHET-REISH-TAV (cherut), which means “freedom,” and the SHIN denotes the creation of freedom through formal “emancipation.”

·In Modern Hebrew, the root of shichpul is KAF-PEH-LAMMED (kefel) which means “double,” and the SHIN denotes the creation of twin items through “copying.”

·In Modern Hebrew, the root of shichvtuv is KAF-TAV-BET (ktav), which means “writing,” and the SHIN denotes the creation of a new draft or written adaptation through “rewriting.”

Thus, the theory goes that the word hashlachah is derived solely from the two-letter root LAMMED-CHET (“going”). According to this theory, the letter SHIN that appears in hashlachah (and cognates of this word) is not part of the words’ root, but creates a grammatical conjugate which denotes the creation of a situation in which something has “gone” — from one place to another — through “throwing.”

In a tangentially-related note, Rabbi Moshe Shapiro (1935-2017) explains that the Hebrew/Aramaic word shapir (“good,” “make better,” “nice”) also uses the shaphel form. He explains that its root is the same as tiferet/pe’er (“glory” or “beauty”) — with the SHIN at the beginning serving a grammatical function that denotes an action which leads to the creation pe’er. Interestingly, a folk etymology connects the ancient Jewish surname Shapiro to the word shapir, although historians argue that it is more likely derived from the name of the German town Speyer.

Now let us examine the other word for throwing, zerikah. Rabbi Pappenheim explains that zerikah is a portmanteau derived from the roots ZAYIN-REISH (“spreading, dispersal”) and REISH-KUF (“emptying”). He explains that zerikah connotes one purposefully causing something to land in a specific spot. Zerikah is related to “spreading” because it usually involves throwing something with multiple small parts (like sand, ashes, or any liquid) that spreads out as it falls. Hence, the ritual “sprinkling” of sacrificial blood is zerikah. (In Modern Hebrew, a zerikah is a “shot.”)

Nonetheless, explains Rabbi Pappenheim, the Rabbis use the term zerikah for any type of “throwing” (deliberate or not). For example, the Mishna (Shabbat 11:1) rules that if one “threw” (zarak) any object from a private domain to a public domain, or vice versa, he has violated the ban on carrying on Shabbat. Here zerikah is used when the item was deliberately thrown into a different domain. In another case, the Talmud (Chagigah 15a) relates that Rabbi Meir likened learning from his apostate teacher Acher (also known as Elisha ben Avuyah) to eating a pomegranate: Rabbi Meir “ate” the fruit and “threw away” (zarak) the peel — i.e. he picked out the good parts of Acher’s teachings and rejected the rest. In this case, zerikah is used when the destination of the cast away item is irrelevant.

G-d told Moshe to “throw” a handful of ashes (zarko) into the air to bring about the Plagues of Boils (Ex. 9:8). Rashi explains that G-d commanded Moshe to throw the ashes with one hand, since He wanted Moshe to throw them with full force and it is easier to throw forcefully with one hand. Maharal (1520-1609) explains that Rashi knew that Moshe was supposed to throw the ashes forcefully because the Torah uses the word zerikah and that term implies throwing with force, whereas hashlachah does not.

Rabbi Yehoshua Hartman suggests that this distinction is the basis for Rashbam’s comment concerning Moshe throwing down the Tablets of the Ten Commandments. The Torah reports that when Moshe saw the Jews partying with the Golden Calf, he became angry and threw down (vayashlech) the Tablets (Ex. 32:19). Rashbam explains that Moshe became so enraged when he saw the Jews’ perfidious idolatry that he could not gather the strength to “throw” the Tablets, so he just “dropped” them. Rabbi Hartman infers from this that like Maharal, Rashbam also understood hashlachah to mean “dropping” without putting in extra force (as opposed to zerikah, which means “throwing” with full-force).

There are two other Hebrew words for throwing: hazayah and ramah. Rabbi Pappenheim argues that hazayah connotes the same type of throwing as zerikah, just over a longer distance. Alternatively, the Malbim explains that zerikah connotes throwing/sprinkling with a vessel, while hazayah is done by hand.

In Hebrew, the REISH-MEM root refers to something “esteemed” or “high” and is also occasionally used in Biblical Hebrew to mean “throw” (see Ex. 15:1). Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the Hebrew term ramah refers to “throwing” or “shooting” something upwards in an arc trajectory so that it will land precisely upon its intended target. The Targumim translate Hebrew zerikah-cognates into Aramaic words that share the ZAYIN-REISH-KUF root. However, they translate cognates of hashlachah into Aramaic derivatives of the REISH-MEM root. Thus, it seems that in Aramaic REISH-MEM cognates mean the same thing as hashlachah. Perhaps they refer to lifting an object in order to throw it.

In conclusion, we have two basic words for throwing: hashlachah and zerikah. Hashlachah usually implies “throwing away” or “dropping” an item, so when the Torah uses hashlachah to describe Yosef being thrown into a pit, it means that his brothers haphazardly tossed him there. On the other hand, zerikah is a general term for “throwing” that sometimes connotes throwing purposefully and forcefully. Hazayah and ramah are fairly similar to zerikah, but with a twist: Hazayah connotes throwing long distance and/or by hand, while ramah emphasizes throwing the object upwards (so that it will land precisely on target).

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