What's in a Word?

For the week ending 20 May 2023 / 29 Iyar 5783

Bamidbar: Out in the Wild

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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The fourth book of the Pentateuch is known as Bamidbar (“the book of Numbers”) after its opening verse, which reads: “Hashem spoke to Moses in the midbar of Sinai...” (Num. 1:1). If you are confused as to the proper translation of the word midbar, that is because early English translations of the Bible disagreed over how to render the word: In the Wycliffe Bible, midbar is translated as “desert,” while in the Tyndale and KJV editions, it is rendered as “wilderness.” Without taking sides in this debate, the essay before you explores the etymology of the Hebrew midbar and considers if and how it might differ from its apparent synonyms, aravah and tziyah.

Just to break down the stats:

  • The word midbar appears approximately 270 times in the Bible and is often attached to a proper place-name, like Midbar Sinai, Midbar Sin, Midbar Paran, Midbar Shur, Midbar Kadesh, Midbar Damesek, Midbar Ein-Gedi, and Midbar Yehuda.
  • The word aravah (plural: arvot) appears sixty times in the Bible, and is also sometimes attached to a proper place-name, like Arvot Moav and Arvot Yericho.
  • The word tziyah appears sixteen times in the Bible, with all instances in Psalms, Job, or the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Trei Asar). Unlike the other two terms, it never appears in the Pentateuch and it is never attached to any proper names.

The early lexicographers Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach (990–1050) and Radak (1160–1234), in their Sefer HaShorashim, trace the word midbar to the triliteral root DALET-BET-REISH. While Menachem Ibn Saruk (920–970) does not explicitly trace midbar to that root, he does write that there are six distinct meanings that derive from it: dibbur ("speaking"), yadber ("leading/exterminating"), dever ("plague/epidemic"), dvar ("about/concerning/regarding"), devorah ("bee"), and dvir ("inner sanctum"). Radak bridges the connection between the first two meanings by explaining that animals are “lead” by the “speech” of the one in the charge, who commands them where to go. In line with this, Radak implies that the core meaning of midbar is “pastures far away from civilization” to which shepherds would lead their flock in order to graze. In a borrowed sense, midbar came to refer to any remote or far-flung area which is distant from human settlement.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814)sees the word midbar as related to dever, explaining that the midbar refers to an empty, uninhabited place which is missing any human life, as though a plague had — God forbid — wiped out civilization.

Similarly, Rabbi Tzvi Matisyahu Abrahams, in his work Root Connections in the Torah(published by Mosaica Press), explains that midbar relates to the concept of dibbur because the desert/wilderness is a place free from any distractions, so it is especially conducive for hearing the “speech” of another. He explains that because the midbar is an especially ripe place for a person to hear Hashem speaking, the Torah was actually given in a midbar. In this way, he also connects midbar with devir, which denotes an intimate, private setting where speech can be relayed without any disturbances or eavesdroppers.

When it comes to the word aravah, all the early lexicographers (Ibn Janah, Radak, and even Ibn Saruk) explicitly trace it to the three-letter AYIN-REISH-BET. Menachem actually lists eleven different meanings derived from this particular root, namely: erev ("evening"), areiv ("sweet/pleasant"), aravah ("willow"), areiv ("guarantor"), eiruv ("connection/mixture"), erev (“woof,” i.e., the widthwise axis of a woven fabric), arov ("mixture of wild animals"), erev/arav ("Arabia"), oreiv ("raven"), aravot (one of the names of "the heavens"), and finally, aravah ("desert/wilderness"). Much has been written on the connection between these various words, so we will limit our discussion to only a few interesting and salient points.

Rabbeinu Meyuchas ben Eliyahu (a Greek/Byzantine scholar who lived sometimes before the 1500s) explains that a desert/wilderness is called aravah because of its topography, as aravah denotes a depressed valley, which is typically less exposed to sunlight, and is thus something like a dark jungle. To bolster this explanation, he compares the word aravah to the word erev ("evening," i.e., the dark segment of the day) and orev ("raven," a black bird).

Rabbi Abrahams offers a different way of connecting aravah to the other words that use the three-letter string AYIN-REISH-BET. The way he explains it, the core idea behind this three-letter string is the breaking down of boundaries which consequently causes individual units to blend into each other. For this reason, a “mixture” is called a taarovet/irbuvia, because all the constituent ingredients intermingle into a single mass. Similarly, the word erev (“evening”) denotes a time of day when there is less light, so it is harder to distinguish between objects and they all seem to merge together in the darkness. Likewise, an eiruv is a Halachic mechanism used to merge otherwise distinct domains (for the purposes of allowing one to carry on Shabbat), an areiv (“guarantor”) obscures the distinction between the actual borrower and another person who undertakes to pay the borrower’s debt, and areiv (“sweet”) represents the balance resulting from the harmonious blend of tastes. [Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ex. 7:15) similarly explains that the Plague of Arov in Egypt effectively turned the country into an untamed jungle (in which there are no rules, so all boundaries are broken), with wild animals running amok.]

Under this rubric, Rabbi Abrahams explains that aravah denotes an empty land which is a geographical outlier in that it is neither elevated like a mountainous area, nor depressed like a valley. Instead, the aravah is a desert plain which is something in between a mountain or a valley, and serves to obfuscate the differences between those two landscapes.

Rabbi Abrahams adds that an aravah (“willow”) is likewise a plain and unremarkable plant that has no outstanding or redeeming quality (like a good taste or good smell). It is thus no wonder why in rabbinic exegesis, the aravah represents the Jew who is neither proficient in Torah nor has performed any good deeds (Vayikra Rabbah §30:12). Rabbi Hirsch (to Lev. 23:40) offers a simpler explanation, noting that willows are called aravot because they do not require so much water to grow, so they can therefore grow even in an aravah.

The etymology of the Hebrew word tziyah is subject to dispute amongst the early lexicographers: Menachem traces it to the monoliteral root TZADI, Ibn Janach traces it to the triliteral root TZADI-YOD-YOD, and Radak traces it to the triliteral root TZADI-YOD-HEY.

In his Sefer HaShorashim, Radak traces three other terms to the same root as tziyah: tziyim (Isa. 13:21, 34:14, Jer. 50:39) refers to some “desert-dwelling animal” that makes its home in the tziyah (often translated as “jackal” or “ostrich”); tzi (Isa. 33:21) or tzim (Num. 24:24, Dan. 11:30, Ezek. 30:9) refers to a “boat/ship,” and Tziyyim (Ps. 72:9, Isa. 23:12) refers to the name of a nation of people who either lived in the desert or were seafaring.

Radak does not explain how tzi/tzim relates to tziyah. For that, we turn to Shoresh Yesha, who explains that on the high seas, there are only two things: ”water” and “boats/ships.” Thus, just like tziyah in the sense of “dry desert” represents the opposite of a water-land, so does tzi in the sense of “boat” represent the opposite of water. Alternatively, he explains that tzi relates more directly to the concept of “dryness” (see below), because the function of a ship’s hull is to keep out the water so the vessel can remain afloat, so in a sense it serves to keep out water, which is conceptually the same idea as “dryness.”

Implicitly following Menachem Ibn Saruk’s approach, Rabbi Pappenheim expands on the meaning of the monoliteral root TZADI and its various tributaries. He defines the core meaning of that root as “exiting/going out.” According to this understanding, tziyah refers to a “desert/wilderness” as something “dry/desolate,” whose liquid/inhabitants have exited and left. In a similar way, matzah ("unleavened bread," a dry biscuit-like food whose moisture has been left it) and metzitzah ("sucking," i.e., causing liquid to leave something) are also derived from TZADI. Rabbi Pappenheim even connects this to tzi (“boat/ship”), which serves as a vessel for travelling on the waters and going out from one’s home base.

Other terms that Rabbi Pappenheim traces to this monoliteral root include: na’atz (“anger,” a sentiment that bubbles up inside until eventually it is expressed outwardly), tzoeh (“excrement,” waste which exits the body), atz (“pressure,” a force that pushes one to leave one’s present conditions/situation), yatza ("go out" of a certain place, or "disseminate" from a certain location), tze'etza ("descendant," those offspring who come out of one's loins), tzon ("flock," dainty domesticated animals whose nature is to not stay in their corral, but to exit it and go outside), tzitz/netz ("bud," the part of a floral sprout that blossoms outwardly), nitzotz ("spark," of a flame that bursts out from the parent fire), tzitzit ("strings on the fringe of a clothing" that go out from the center), and metzia ("finding," the revelation of suddenly seeing something out in the open).

The Psalmist lauds Hashem's ability to completely transform places in a way that totally flips their nature, saying, "He changes riverside lands into a midbar, and water sources into a tzimaon [literally, "thirsty" place]... He changes the midbar into a watery marsh, and tziyah lands into sources of water" (Ps. 107:33-35). The parallelism expressed by this passage couples midbar with midbar, and tziyah with tzimaon, thus implying a shared etymological connection between those two words. This might hint to the notion that tzom (“fast”) and tzama (“thirsty”) are likewise derived from the single root TZADI in the sense that they denote a person whose desires to be quenched as though all his moisture had exited him (albeit Rabbi Pappenheim himself traces those words to the biliteral TZADI-MEM).

Now that we have established the etymological bases of the three words midbar, aravah, and tziyah, we can now visit the various explanations given as to how they differ from one another.

In the Haftarah to Parashat Bamidbar, the prophet Hosea relates that Hashem warns the Jewish People to stop worshipping idolatry (which he likens to a married woman cheating on her husband), “lest I strip her naked and present her like the day she was born, and I will change her into something like a midbar and I will render her like a tziyah land” (Hos. 2:5).

In explaining this passage, Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer (1720–1797), the Gaon of Vilna, writes that midbar and tziyah mean essentially the same thing, but that tziyah implies a more intense desolation than midbar does. Based on this, he explains that Hashem’s warning meant that if the Jewish People do not cease and desist from committing idolatry, then He threatens to strip them of the important gifts that He had previously granted them; He will take away from them the gift of nevuah (“prophecy”) and leave them like a midbar, and even more menacingly, He will even take away the gift of ruach hakodesh (“divine spirit,” a lower level of divine inspiration) and leave them as bereft as a tziyah.

The prophet Jeremiah foretold that even though Babylon was destined to conquer the Kingdom of Judah, their fate was to eventually become destroyed and be left as "a midbar, tziyah, and aravah" (Jer. 50:12). In this one passage, Jeremiah uses all three words for “desert/wilderness” to describe the future desolation of Babylonia. [If you have ever visited Iraq or seen pictures, you can see how Jeremiah’s prophecy has indeed come to fruition.]

As he often does, the Metzudat David (to Jer. 50:12) writes that in this passage the Bible simply uses a series of synonyms to express the same idea (possibly as a form of poetic expression), without intending any semantic difference between them. However, Malbim (there) refers the reader to his comments to Isaiah, where he discusses the differences between these terms.

Isaiah prophesized of the Jews’ future return to the Holy Land and its rejuvenation. In doing so, he speaks of a time when "the midbar and tziyah will rejoice, and the aravah will be glad" (Isa. 35:1). In other words, the Holy Land will be transformed from a desolate and forsaken place into a fruitful and populous home. It is in the context of this passage, that Malbim explains the difference between these three expressions.

The Malbim writes that tziyah primarily refers to an especially dry and arid place caused by prolonged exposure to heat. For this reason, the Psalmist praises Hashem as the One who transforms a tziyah into a source of water (Ps. 107:35), as the tziyah represents the exact opposite of an area blessed with springs and pools of water. By contrast, the term aravah denotes a place in which all sorts of wild growths like thorns and thistles dominate. Thus, the aravah is not completely dry like the tziyah, but rather has enough moisture to support these wild florae. The opposite of an aravah is a flourishing garden, and indeed elsewhere Isaiah foretells of when Hashem will comfort the Holy Land by transforming its aravah into something like "the Garden of Hashem" (Isa. 51:3). Lastly, Malbim contends that the word midbar refers to an empty deserted place where people are generally not found; thus midbar implies a place that is inherently unfit for settlement or cultivation, which consequently leaves it empty of human settlement or even human passersby. As Malbim clarifies, the tziyah and aravah are desolate because of external factors (the tziyah because it is afflicted by extreme heat, and the aravah because it has become dominated by wild weeds), while a midbar is a place that is inherently unworthy of cultivation.[1]

[1] מלבי"ם (ישעיה לה:א), יאיר אור (מערכת מ' אות ד'), רבינו מיוחס (דברים א:א),

Rabbi Abrahams also connects aravah to the word araviyah (“Arabia”), the traditional homeland of the desert-dwelling Arabs, who are known for breaking down boundaries by engaging in theft (didn’t want the torah because of lo tigzol) and promiscuity (they got 10 kavim of zenut).

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