The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 3 June 2023 / 14 Sivan 5783

All Tied Up

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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In this week’s essay, we discuss various Hebrew words for “tying,” including keshirah, asirah, ketirah, tzror, kafut, and more. In doing so, we trace these words to their etymological forebears and investigate whether or not they are all truly synonymous.

Let’s begin with the word keshirah: Words hewn from the triliteral root KUF-SHIN-REISH — from whence keshirah is derived — appear sixty times throughout the Bible. These include “tying” tefillin to one’s hand (Deut. 6:8, 11:18), tying a red string to Judah’s firstborn son (Gen. 38:28), tying a rope in the window (Josh. 2:18, 2:21), and the like. Inflections of keshirah are also used in the Bible in reference to a less tangible “tying,” like when Judah said that his father’s soul is “tied” to the soul of Benjamin (Gen. 44:30), or when Proverbs teaches that one should proverbially "tie" good virtues and wisdom to one's person (Prov. 3:3, 6:21, 7:3).

Nonetheless, the most common use of the root KUF-SHIN-REISH in the Bible refers to a “conspiracy,” whereby a group of people “tie” together in the figurative sense in order to overthrow the government or otherwise achieve a political goal. For example, when the evil Queen of Judah Athaliah realized that there was a vast conspiracy determined to overthrow her, she called out "kesher, kesher!" (II Kgs. 11:14).

The term asirah derives from another triliteral root, ALEPH-SAMECH-REISH, which appears close to ninety times in the Bible. It usually appears in the context of “tying” a wagon to the animal that pulls it (e.g., Gen. 46:29, Ex. 14:6, II Kgs. 9:21), or “tying down” a person who was taken captive or otherwise detained (Ps. 146:7, II Kgs. 17:4, Jud. 16:21). In fact, the word for “jail” or “place of incarceration” is bet ha-assurim, literally, “the house of those tied down” (Jud. 16:21, 16:25, see also Gen. 39:20, 40:5).

Another word ultimately derived from this root is issur (“prohibition”), which already appears several times in the Pentateuch in the context of taking vows that prohibit certain actions or items (see Num. 30:3–15). This connects to the idea of “tying” because when something is forbidden, it is as though it has been “tied down” and rendered inaccessible to the whomever it is forbidden. We find a sort of parallel to this in the English expression “my hands are tied,” which means that I am blocked from taking a certain course of action (for whatever reason). Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) ties this to the biliteral root SAMECH-REISH (“removal”), explaining that when one is tied down, one’s freedom of movement is “removed.” In fact, the notion that the ALEPH of assur is superfluous to the actual root has already been noted by the early grammarian Rabbi Yehuda Ibn Chayyuj (945–1000), who adduces that the phrase bet ha-surim (Ecc. 4:14) is the semantic equivalent to the phrase bet ha-assurim.

Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785–1865) similarly explains that mussar (“moral reproach”) likewise relates to “tying” because it gives a person the ability to “tie down” his Evil Inclination and keep his illicit desires in check. [In my earlier essay, “Holy Matrimony” (Oct. 2020), I discussed the notion that the Hebrew term erusin (“betrothal/engagement” may be a metathesized form of asirah. For more on the connection between issur and the idea of “tying,” see my essay “Brilliant Prohibitions” (May 2021).]

Malbim (1809–1879) explains that the main difference between keshirah and asirah is that asirah is done without the consent of whatever is being tied. For example, when a captive (assir) is taken, he might be detained against his will, and would be forcibly “tied down” to curb his movement. In this way, Malbim relates asirah to the term yissurin ("suffering"), which likewise denotes something non-consensual that comes upon a person against his will. Similarly, Malbim notes that issur in the sense of “prohibition” refers to the idea that one's actions may be precluded (by law or by nature) against his will (as noted above).

On the other hand, Malbim explains that keshirah denotes "tying" something in a way that whatever is being tied "consents" to that action. For example, in the case of a kesher ("conspiracy"), the co-conspirators willfully enter in communion with each other to join one another in their plot (see also Radak to II Kgs. 9:14), they are not forced into.

The word ketirah derived from the triliteral root KUF-TET-REISH. In Hebrew, this root refers to “smoke” or incense,” but in Aramaic, it refers to “tying.” (I‘m not aware of any connections between these two meanings of the root). The Aramaic terms appears three times in the Aramaic sections of Daniel: In one instance, it refers to something literally “tied” (Dan. 5:6), while in the other two cases, it refers to a “mystery/enigma/riddle” (Dan. 5:12, 5:16), which is figuratively “tied up in a knot” that has to be opened. This Aramaic term is also the standard Targumic rendering of the Hebrew keshirah, as Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469–1549) already noted in Meturgaman. There is one instance in the Bible where a cognate of this root appears (Ezek. 46:22), and the commentators disagree over whether it means “smoke” (like in Hebrew) or “tied” (like in Aramaic).

In many words, the Hebrew letter SHIN becomes a TAV when switching to Aramaic (like shor becomes tor). Based on this, Rabbi Yaakov Berger of Kiryat Sefer writes in Milon Leshon HaMikra that it makes sense why the Hebrew KUF-SHIN-REISH becomes KUF-TET-REISH in Aramaic (presuming that TAV and TET are interchangeable).

Interestingly, just as keshirah in Biblical Hebrew can refer to a "conspiracy," so does katir in Rabbinic Herew mean the same thing. That term appears in the Talmud (Yevamot 61a) when relating that there was a "conspiracy" behind the appointment of Yehoshua ben Gamla as the Kohen Gadol — because his wife bribed the Hasmonean king Yanai to arrange for that position.

The Bible reports that after death of Sarah, Abraham took a new wife named Keturah (Gen. 25:1). Rabbinic tradition relates that keturah is actually none other than Abraham’s former concubine/wife Hagar (Sarah’s maidservant), whom he had originally married under Sarah's auspices but later sent away. The word Keturah relates to the concept of “tying,” because Hagar/Keturah "tied herself" up by holding back from getting married to anybody else, so that that she might be able to return to Abraham in the future (Bereishit Rabbah §61:4). According to some sources, Hagar “tied shut” the entrance to her reproductive organ so that she may remain chaste until Abraham remarried her (see Hadar Zekanim to Gen. 25:1).

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 25:1) explains that the name Keturah in this sense is related to the Hebrew word keshirah. Taking this idea a step further, Rabbi Hirsch even connects her original name Hagar to the words agur (“gathered in”) and chagurah (“belt”) — based on the interchangeability of HEY, ALEPH, and CHET — both of which also refer to something “tied” or “inward-looking” that is cut off from the outside.

Another term for “tying” is tzror — derived from the root TZADI-(VAV)-REISH. For example, when the Torah says that Maaser Sheini must be eaten in Jerusalem, or should be redeemed for money and taken to Jerusalem, it says "and you shall take the money and tie [v’tzarta] the money in your hand, and you shall go to the place that Hashem your God has chosen it" (Deut. 14:25). Similarly, when the Torah outlaws one man marrying two sisters at the same time, it says that doing so “ties” (l’tzror) them together (Lev. 18:18). In Mishnaic parlance, tzarot refer to “co-wives” who are tied together by being married to the same man. Rabbi Pappenheim traces the word tzror to the biliteral root TZADI-REISH ("union of strongly connected/attached parts"); indeed, if you tie something tightly, that certainly fits the bill.

The term kafut (“tied down”) appears four times in the Aramaic parts of the Bible (Dan. 3:20–24). In explaining the meaning of that word, Rashi once uses the term asirah (to Dan. 3:20) and elsewhere uses the term keshirah (to Dan. 3:23).

The term kafut also appears in Mishnaic Hebrew in several instances: When describing how the rabbinic court would carry out a flogging, the Mishnah reports that the hands of sinner being punished would be kafut to a pillar, while the court’s messenger would carry out the punishment (Makkot 3:12). Similarly, when describing the Korban Tamid (“Daily Sacrifice”) in the Temple, the Mishnah (Tamid 4:1) uses a variant of the word kafut to say that when the goat was tied down, it was not subject to being kafut, but rather to akeidah (see below)! On the other hand, when describing the procedure for the Parah Adumah (“Red Heifer”), the Mishnah (Parah 3:9) teaches that the cow was indeed kafut before being slaughtering it. The word kafut also appears in the Mishnah concerning tying down a goat or slave in other contexts (Bava Kamma 6:5, Taharot 7:5). Interestingly, when kafut appears in the Talmud, Rashi again sometimes defines it by using the term asirah (Sukkah 31a, see also Targum to Ps. 118:27) and sometimes, by using the term keshirah (Chullin 16a, Sanhedrin 77b, Kiddushin 70a).

One way of understanding the etymology word kafut is by tying it to the term kefiyah (“duress/compulsion/forcing”), as in both cases there is an element of subjugating and dominating another. This approach jibes with how Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) explained the core meaning of the biliteral root KAF-PEH as "receptacle.” In doing so, Rabbi Pappenheim sees a whole litany of words as deriving from this root, including: kaf (“palm”), kofef (“bending,” the act needed to turn one’s palm into a receptacle), akifah (“enforcement,” which compels others to bend to a given authority), kippah (“dome,” a palm-like structure), kofeh (“turning over [a vessel],” which creates a dome-like space), and kafan (“famine,” i.e., the sort of natural disaster that might cause a person’s stature to be bent). In that spirit, Rabbi Pappenheim explains the etymological basis of kefiyah as likewise referring to subduing/suppressing any dissent, and therefore causing another to “bend”.

Dr. Michael Sokoloff, in his dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, connects the word kafut to the quadriliteral Aramaic root KAF-REISH-PEH-TAV, which appears once in the Talmud (Niddah 48b). According to this, the letter REISH is sometimes dropped because of assimilation. Nonetheless, the way some commentators explain the word the one time it appears in the Talmud, it seems totally unrelated to kafut.

Other roots related to “tying/binding” include:

  • REISH-TAV-MEMin the word ritom refers to “tying” a wagon to an animal (Mic. 1:13). That root also gives way to the name of a plant (rotem, in II Kgs. 19:4–5, Ps. 120:4, Job 30:4), which, in turn, likely gives way to the place-name Ritmah, where the Jews stopped in their forty-year sojourn through the wilderness (Num. 33:18–19). The connection between these two meanings remains obscure.
  • AYIN-KUF-DALET appears eight times in Genesis, once in the famous story known as Akeidat Yitzchak (“the Binding of Isaac”) when Abraham “tied down” his son Isaac like an animal sacrifice (Gen. 22:9), and seven times when mentioning animals that were spotted on the body parts that were usually used to “tie them down” (Gen. 30:35–40, 31:8–12). The only other times it appears in the Bible is in the phrase bet eiked (II Kgs. 10:12, 10:14), which Radak’s father explains as referring to the place where shepherds would “tie down” their sheep in order to shear them.
  • AYIN-NUN-DALET appears twice in the Bible (Job 31:36, Prov. 6:21), although some see a metathesized form of this root (AYIN-DALET-NUN) as appearing in Job 38:31. The Malbim explains that this particular word refers to “tying” something that serves as a decoration or ornament. In Modern Hebrew, a verb derived from this root is used for “tying” a wristwatch.
  • CHET-BET-SHIN refers to "tying" a saddle to a donkey (e.g., Gen. 22:3, Num. 22:21, Jud. 19:10, II Sam. 16:1), "tying" a hat on a person's head (Ex. 29:9, Lev. 8:13, Ezek. 24:17), or "tying/dressing" a tightly-bound bandage on a wound to help it heal (Isa. 1:6, 30:26, Ezek. 30:21, Hos. 6:1, Job 5:18, Ps. 147:3). This gives us the Hebrew word tachboshet (“bandage”). Interestingly, Chizkuni (to Ex. 28:7) explains the word cheishev ("belt") as a metathesized form of this root.
  • Regarding the root CHET-TAV-LAMMED, Malbim explains that chitul/chatulah (Ezek. 16:4, 30:21, Job 38:9) refers to “wrapping something” with a soft fabric (as opposed to “tying” it tightly). In Modern Hebrew, the noun form of this root refers to a “diaper.” For a possible metathesized form of this root, see II Kgs. 10:22. How does this chatulah connects to the word chatul/chatulah (“cat”) that appears multiple times in the Babylonian Talmud (Brachot 56b, Shabbat 51a, 128b, Eruvin 100b, Bava Kamma 80a-80b, Horayot 13a-13b, Chullin 52b-53a, Bechorot 8a-8b) and once in the Jerusalemic Talmud (Peah 3:7), but never in the Bible or Mishnah? Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843–1916) explains that the catis known for its agility and dexterity, which means that it is supple and flexible — just like a piece of soft cloth. Rabbi Marcus also writes that the Ancient Egyptian word Hathor (which referred to a deify "cat") is derived from the Hebrew word chatul, because Egyptians pronounced the l-sound like an r-sound). Moreover, he writes that the Hebrew word chatul entered Latin as catulus, and from there spread to other languages, like Italian (gatto), Spanish (gato), Swedish (katta), Polish (kot), German (katze), French (chat), and English (cat).

The root REISH-KAF-SAMECH, which also means “tying/fastening,” was discussed in two earlier essays: “In the Middle” (July 2022) and “Speedy Horsepower

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