What's in a Word?

For the week ending 8 June 2019 / 5 Sivan 5779

Shavuot Special Feature!

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Kaddish

That’s Amore! — Part 1: The Ten Sayings

The Holiday of Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. At that fateful event, G-d presented Moshe with two tablets upon which were etched the Aseret HaDibbrot. With all due respect to Cecil B. DeMille and Chartlon Heston, Aseret HaDibbrot would be better translated as “Ten Sayings” or “Decalogue.” The Mishna speaks of another series of “Ten Sayings”: “With Ten Sayings, the world was created” (Avot 5:1). In Hebrew, they are called Asara Maamarot. Why are the “Ten Sayings” that G-d said at Sinai called Dibbrot while the “Ten Sayings” with which G-d created the world called Maamarot? What is the difference between speech denoted with dibbur-related verbs (like vayidaber or dibber), and speech denoted with amirah-related verbs (like vayomer, amar, or leymor)?

When G-d told Moshe to prepare the Jewish People to receive the Torah, He told him, “So shall you say (tomar) to the House of Jacob and tell to the Sons of Israel…” (Ex. 19:3). Rashi explains that “the House of Jacob” refers to the Jewish women, to whom Moshe was supposed to broach the idea of receiving the Torah in a gentle manner (tomar/amirah). It follows then, that amirah connotes a softer form of speech. Similarly, Rashi (to Num. 12:1) writes that while dibbur connotes harsh speech, amirah connotes supplicatory speech in which the speaker seeks the listener’s favor.

Rashi (to Ex. 6:2 and 32:7) derives the notion that dibbur refers to harsh speech from the passage in which Yosef’s brothers told their father, “The man — the master of the Land — spoke (dibber) with us harshly” (Gen. 42:30). Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) points out that not in every instance where the Torah uses the word dibbur does it have to mean harsh speech. An example: Concerning Shechem seducing Dinah the Torah says, “And he spoke (vayidaber) to the lass’s heart” (Gen. 34:3), which simply means that he spoke to her in an intense way but not necessarily in a harsh way (otherwise she presumably would not have acceded to his advances). Indeed, Rashi (to Lev. 10:19) writes that dibbur implies boldness, not necessarily harshness.

A rare form of dibbur is the word yadber (in Ps. 47:4), which refers to a type of “leadership.” One might be tempted to say that this type of leadership entails speaking in strong, forceful terms. Nonetheless, the Talmud (Maccot 11a) differentiates between yadber and dibbur, saying that only the latter connotes harshness, while the former actually connotes softness. The Maharal in Netivot Olam writes that dibbur in the context of Torah study is always pleasant, and it refers to harsh speech only when used in other contexts. See also Moshav Zekanim (to Ex. 6:2) who differentiates between the Pentateuch, in which dibbur implies an expression of harshness, and the rest of the Bible in which it does not.

The Zohar’s commentary to Parshat Nasso, also known as Idra Rabbah (132b), explains that dibbur requires raising one’s voice to forcefully make an announcement, while amirah does not require raising one’s voice. Based on this we can argue that whole point of ever raising one’s voice is to make a forceful impression on a listener. Therefore, when G-d created the world and no listeners yet existed, He did not need to “raise His voice,” and so His sayings are called Maamarot. Later, when He revealed the Decalogue to an audience of Jews assembled at Mount Sinai, there were listeners, so there was a point in “raising His voice.” Therefore, those ten sayings are called Dibbrot.

Sefer HaChachmah, ascribed to the late 12th century Asheknazic scholar Rabbi Elazar Rokeach of Worms, writes that amirah denotes setting up a framework and context within which a dibbur can be said. According to this understanding, the Asara Maamarot which created the world served to set up a reality within which the Aseret HaDibbrot can have relevance.

Rabbeinu Bachaya (to Ex. 13:1) writes that the difference between dibbur and amirah is that dibbur alludes to the Written Torah, while amirah alludes to the Oral Torah. Many other Sages have cited this idea and expanded on it, including the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz of Frankfurt (1731-1805) and Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (1816-1893). Interestingly, the word Amora (derived from amirah)refers to a rabbinic Sage of the Talmud who expounds on the scriptures and laws, the hero of the Oral Torah.

With this in mind the Vilna Gaon explicates the opening words of the song of Ha’azinu: “Listen O Heavens and I shall speak (va’adabeira), and the Earth shall hear the sayings (imrei) of my mouth” (Deut. 32:1). When speaking of the Heavens, from whence the Written Torah is revealed to man, Moshe uses the term dibbur, but when speaking of the Earth — whose inhabitants are the ones who bring out the ideas of the Oral Torah — he uses an amirah- related word.

In fact, the Zohar (Genesis 239b) explains that in the oft-repeated expression of Vayidaber Hashem el Moshe leymor (“And G-d said to Moshe to say…”), the word leymor (“to say”) refers to revealing the hidden elements which are not included in Vayidaber (“and He said”). In other words, amirah denotes an expansion on dibbur. When contrasting the Written Torah to the Oral Torah one notices that the former is a fixed, canonized text, while the latter is simply an expansion on the former. In light of this paradigm we see a parallel between the Torah and the world at large. The Zohar (Exodus 161a) teaches that G-d looked into the Torah and created the world. This means that the Torah served as the blueprint which G-d “consulted” when creating the world, and that the world is the final outgrowth of those plans. In other words, the Torah is the fixed cannon, while the world is an expansion on the Torah. With this in place, it is quite appropriate that the type of speech used to express the Torah is dibbur, while the words used to create the world are called amirah — an expansion on said dibbur.

Although certainly at odds with what we presented above, Malbim offers two more ways of differentiating between dibbur and amirah that can help us better understand the two sets of “Ten Sayings.”

Firstly, Malbim explains that amirah is absolute, while dibbur denotes a suggestion or proposition that is not necessarily absolute. In terms of Asara Maamarot versus Aseret HaDibbrot, it seems that the words used to create the world — and thus the rules of nature — must have been uttered in absolute, forceful terms, because they are so powerful that only G-d can break those rules. On the other hand, the words used to express the Decalogue connote a more malleable reality, because, for example, some prohibitions can legitimately be suspended in certain circumstances. However, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) uses the exact opposite reasoning to explain why the commandment of tzitzit, which is not absolutely obligatory but is essentially optional, opens with the word vayomer instead of the usual vayidabber (Num. 15:37).

Alternatively, Malbim explains that amirah is used for short statements, while dibbur is used for longer discourses that elaborate upon and explain short statements. Similarly, Rabbi Shmuel Jaffa-Ashkenazi of Istanbul (1525-1595) writes that amirah denotes “headings” or “headlines” of a specific topic, without getting into the details. To support this understanding he cites Isaiah 17:6, which foretells that Sancheriv will be unable to conquer Jerusalem, just as a harvester cannot reach the olives on the uppermost branch (rosh amir). In that case, amir refers merely to the branch but not to all of its contents, just like amirah refers to the chapter headings but not to all the nitty-gritty details. We can argue that verbosity, or wordiness, is a rhetorical device used to ensure one’s audience completely understands one’s intentions. If so, when G-d used “Ten Sayings” to create the world He could have been as brief as He wanted since there was no intended audience. Because of this, those Sayings are called maamarot/amirah and were said with much brevity — just the “headlines.” On the other hand, when G-d instructed the Jewish People of His expectations for them, He sought to make sure they completely understood Him, and so He sacrificed brevity for clarity — the results being the Aseret HaDibbrot.

That’s Amore! — Part 2: The Speech of Love

In Part 1, we explored various ways of differentiating between dibbur and amirah. We showed how those ideas help shed light on why the “Ten Sayings” with which G-d created the world are called Asara Maamarot, and the “Ten Sayings” which He revealed to the Jews at Sinai are called Aseret HaDibbrot. In this installment, we will continue that discussion and also explain how amirah is connected to the concept of “love”.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Brelsau (1740-1814) writes in Yeriot Shlomo that dibbur refers to the act of using one’s vocal cords, whether or not that produces any sound with a particular meaning. On the other hand, amirah denotes speaking in order to convey a certain message that must have a particular meaning. Rabbi Wolf Heidenheim (1757-1832), in his comments to Yeriot Shlomo, notes that both Ibn Ezra and Rabbi Yoel Ibn Shuaib offer very similar approaches to this in their respective commentaries to Psalm 19:4.

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) also follows this basic approach and expands on it. He writes that dibbur refers to the simple, physiological act of expressing an idea in words. Because it refers to the act of speech itself, dibbur can even apply to speech uttered when nobody else is around to hear or understand it. Dibbur is just a conglomeration of phonomes, or sounds, which are meant to express an idea. On the other hand, Rabbi Hirsch explains, amirah is not simply the act of verbalizing an idea or thought, but denotes an act of communication. Amirah must be said to somebody who then translates the sounds that he hears into the ideas that they express. However, the Vilna Gaon’s commentary to Numbers 22:5 (second version) seems to understand that dibbur implies more of a form of communication than amirah does.

Based on this distinction made by Rav Hirsch, he explains that the ten utterances with which G-d created the world are called Asara Maamarot because a maamar (whose root is the same as amirah) requires an active listener on the receiving end to hear what has been uttered and translate that into reality. In the case of creating the world, G-d’s utterances had immediate effect, as each time He said something it came into being. By contrast, the ten sayings of the Decalogue are called Aseret HaDibbrot because as a form of dibbur they exist independently of the listener. The Decalogue was G-d’s way of revealing His absolute will. And that Divine will continues to exist regardless of whether anybody follows its instructions.

Rabbi Pappenheim also writes that the root of amirah is MEM-REISH which refers to “switching” or “exchanging.” He explains that amirah fits into that umbrella because amirah denotes the exchanging of ideas, and in polite dialogue the parties involved constantly “switch” their status from being vocal (when it is their turn to speak) to being quiet (when it is their turn to listen). Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) expands on this idea and writes that amirah represents a form of speech which creates a reality. It “switches” the situation into something different. If we follow his logic it makes sense that the Ten Sayings that created the world would be denoted with an amirah-related verb because those Sayings represented the ultimate “change” in reality — the change from nothing to something.

A Rare Form of Amirah

The Torah uses a rare cognate of amirah when discussing a consequence of G-d giving the Jewish People special commandments, and the Jews accepting those commandments (see Deut. 26:17-18). In that context Rashi explains that the amirah-related cognates are forms of “separation” and “division.” He explains that by accepting G-d’s commands the Jewish People “separated” (he’emarta)Him from the false gods of the world. And by singling out the Jewish People to receive His commandments G-d “separated” (he’emricha) the Jews from the other nations of the world.

Alternatively, Rashi explains that these amirah-related words are forms of “glory” and “pride.” In support of this reading, Rashi cites Psalm 94:4 which speaks of the wicked “taking pride in themselves” (yitamru).

Rabbi Saadia Gaon (882-942) offers two more explanations to the amirah-related words in question. Firstly, he explains that he’emarta/he’emricha are expressions of “being on top,” just as the amir (Isaiah 17:6) is the most important branch of a tree because it is on top. In his reading, G-d put the Jews “on top” and the Jews put G-d “on top.” This is also related to the Arabic word Emir (“military commander” or “tribal chief”), who sits on top of the hierarchal society over which he presides (see Bartenuro to Shekalim 5:3).

Secondly, Rabbi Saadia Gaon explains these amirah-related words as references to what G-d said to the Jewish People (“I am Hashem your G-d…”) and what the Jewish People said about G-d (“Hashem our G-d, Hashem is one”).

In some ways, Rabbi Saadia’s first approach — the one preferred by his interlocutor Dunash ibn Labrat (925-990) — resembles Rashi’s way of explaining those words as forms of glory/pride (see also Ibn Ezra to Deut. 26:17 who explains those words as referring to “greatness”). Rabbi Mecklenburg similarly explains the doublet emor and amarta said concerning the special prohibition that applies to kohanim (Lev. 21:1) by arguing that the former denotes “raising the kohanim’s status” (i.e. making them great again), while the latter simply means that these laws should be “said.”

Amirahas an Expression of Love

Another way of explaining he’emarta/he’emricha is cited by many Hassidic commentators, such as Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz of Frankfurt (1731-1805) and his brother Rabbi Shmuel Shmelka Horowitz of Nikolsburg (1726-1778), Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Epstein of Krakow (1753-1823), Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Ostrog (1738-1791), Rabbi Shimon Maryles of Jaroslaw (1758-1849), and many others. They all explain that amirah is an expression of “love,” and thus the passages in question mean that G-d showed His love for the Jewish People, and that the Jewish People, in turn, showed their love towards Him. (See Sifsei Chachamim to Deut. 2:16 who deals with the implication of Rashi’s comment that dibbur is a term of endearment.)

When a person feels the weight of the responsibility to live up to certain expectations it generally feels as though those expectations were said in harsh, demanding terms — even if objectively they were not. Because the Decalogue lays out G-d’s expectations of us — which may sometimes feel like a burden — those Ten Sayings are called Dibbrot, as though He spoke them harshly. By contrast, the Asara Maamarot that created the world represent G-d’s gift to us. When somebody receives a gift it is taken as an expression of love — a maamar. (In Talmudic jargon the word maamar denotes a type of marriage instituted by the Rabbis as a prelude to the consummation of the yibbum relationship.)

But what is the philological basis for linking amirah to “love”?

One might perhaps suggest that this homily is based on the Latin word amor (the basis for the English words amorous and enamored), which sounds like a homonym of amirah, but is actually a word for “love.” However, it is quite implausible to presume that these Hassidic Masters based their teaching on a homonym from Latin.

There is a much sounder basis for this explanation. The Targumim translate the cognates of amirah that we are discussing as chativah. The word chativah in Biblical Hebrew refers to “splitting” or “chopping” (which might be the basis for Rashi’s first explanation that renders the terms as “separation”). However, in Aramaic it can also mean “to fall in love” or “to woo” (perhaps because two lovebirds feel like one person “split” into two). A piyyut (liturgical poem) customarily recited by some on the Second Night of Passover uses the word chativah. In explaining the meaning of that word, Rabbi Eliezer ben Nosson of Mainz (1090-1170, also known as Raavan) writes that it is an expression of “love,” and he references the aforementioned Targumim to the words he’emarta/he’emricha. Similarly, a line in the cryptic poem Akdamot (customarily recited on Shavuot) says about the Jewish People, “They make Him a chativah at [sun]rise and [sun]set”. Rabbi Yonah Isaac Neiman of Makow explains that chativah is an expression of “love,” and refers to the Jewish People declaring their love for G-d twice daily when reading Kriyat Shema (see Berachot 6a). Thus, the connection between amirah and “love” is already found in the works of Rishonim,and is even alluded to in the Targumim.

  • For questions, comments, or to propose ideas for a future article, please contact the author at rcklein@ohr.edu

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