The Anatomy of a Mitzvah

For the week ending 20 July 2024 / 14 Tamuz 5784

Balak: Lick It Up

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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When the Moabites led by Balak turned to their mortal enemies the Midianites to ally with them against the impending threat of the Israelites, the Moabites said to the Midianite elders, “Now the congregation [of Israelites] will lick away all our surroundings, like an ox licks away the vegetable of the field…” (Num. 22:4). The Hebrew verb for “licking” used twice in this passage is lechicha, and these are the only two times that derivatives of the triliteral root LAMMED-CHET-KAF appear in the Torah. That root appears another four times in the rest of the Bible (II Kgs. 18:38, Mic. 7:17, Isa. 49:23, Ps. 72:9), but there is another term for “licking” — lekikah — which appears slightly more often than that in the Bible. In this essay, we explore these two synonymous expressions, while examining their etymology and considering what the difference between them might be.

The term lechicha appears in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud Bava Kamma 6a, Jerusalemic Talmud Bava Kamma 6:5) when discussing the liability of a person who lit a fire that scorched a plowed field in such a way that the owner would have to plow the field again. The term used in the Talmud is that the fire “licked” (lichacha) the plowed area. Perhaps the flames that came forth from the greater fire to scorch the earth can be likened to a tongue exiting a person’s mouth and licking something outside. Other than that, I’m at a loss to explain the connection (see I Kgs. 18:38 and Targum to Mal. 3:19 where the verbs for "licking" are again used in reference to a fire "singing" something.)

The verb form lechicha appears in rabbinic literature in another very fascinating context: The Midrash (Esther Rabbah §8:7) relates that when Mordecai declared a fast day over the holiday of Passover (in order to prayer for the overturn of Haman's decree against the Jewish People), Mordecai prayed to Hashem saying, "It is revealed and known before the Throne of Your Honor O Master of the Worlds that it is not from the haughtiness of my heart or the exaltedness of my eye that I did [this in] not bowing to Haman, rather from You fear I acted in this way to not bow to him, for I am in awe before You to not give Your honor to a [man of] flesh and blood, and [therefore] I did not want to bow to anyone other than You. For who am I that I should not bow to Haman on pain of the salvation of your Nation Israel? For I would have licked [lechicha] the shoe of his foot [if not for my aforementioned considerations]. And now, O our God, save us from his hand..." In a nutshell, Mordecai said that the only reason did not lick Haman’s shoes and instead opposed him was for the sake of Heaven, and not for his own personal gain. And the verb used to denote that gross act of “licking” Haman’s shoes is a cognate of lechicha.

Rabbi Yaakov Berger of Kiryat Sefer writes in Milon Leshon HaMikra conjectures that the term lechicha derives from the word cheich (“palate”), whose root is CHET-(YOD)-KAF. This presumes that the initial LAMMED of lechicha is not part of the core. In a similar way, Rabbi Yaakov Yehudah Zilberberg (Di Kasif) in Leshonenu HaKedoshah (p. 304) connects lechicha to cheich, explaining the act of "licking" as using the tongue to roll liquids (lach) towards one's cheich.

As mentioned earlier, declensions of the Biblical Hebrew term lekikah appear seven times in the Bible within two contexts (Jud. 7:5–7, I Kgs. 21:19, 22:38). The first context concerns the Jews’ war against Midian in the time of Gideon. When preparing for that war, Hashem did not want Gideon to lead such a large army because then His miraculous intervention that will lead to the Jews’ victory will be less apparent. Instead, Hashem commanded Gideon to whittle down the number of soldiers in his army by carrying out a very interesting test: He brought his soldiers to drink water from a river, and watched how each soldier would drink. The soldiers who “lapped up” or “licked up” (yalok) the water to drink (like a dog) were considered worthy of joining his army. These men were referred to as ha’milakekim (literally, “the lickers”). The other soldiers who crouched down in a bowing or prostrating position on their knees were understood to have been too steeped in idolatry to be worthy of joining Gideon’s army and were instead discharged from duty. In the second context, the prophet Elijah warns Ahab the King of Israel that at that same spot that dogs licked (lakeku) the blood of Naboth, they will lick (yaloku) Ahab's blood as well (I Kgs. 21:19), and the Bible reports that indeed that is precisely what happened (I Kgs. 22:38).

Interestingly, this root also appears in the make-up of a proper name: the Midrash (Midrash Tanchuma Ki Teiztei §9, Pesikta D’Rav Kahane Zachor §8) parses the name of the evil nation Amalek as a portmanteau of the words am (“nation”) and lak (“lick”) — a reference to the notion that Amalek came like a dog to “lick” the blood of the Jewish People as they exited Egypt. Similarly, another Midrash (Midrash Aggadah to Parashat Balak, also in Baal HaTurim and Sefer Russiana) parses the name of the Moabite king Balak as a portmanteau of ba (“he comes”) and l’luk (“to lick”) — again in reference to the notion that Balak wanted to “lick” the blood of the Jewish People.

The triliteralists like Ibn Chayyuj, Ibn Janach, Radak, and Ibn Parchon trace these words to the triliteral root LAMMED-KUF-KUF, while the biliteralist Menachem Ibn Saruk in Machberet Menachem traces them to the two-letter root LAMMED-KUF. As you may have noticed in the previous paragraph, not every inflection of lekikah actually has two KUFs. Either way, both Ibn Saruk and Radak actually use cognates of LAMMED-CHET-KAF (lechicha) to define the meaning of LAMMED-KUF-(KUF). This implies that they saw those expressions as essentially synonymous. Indeed, Rabbi Shlomo of Urbino in his work Ohel Moed lists these two terms as synonyms. Of course, the letters KUF, KAF, and CHET are often considered interchangeable, so it should not surprise us that they understood those two roots are meaning the same thing. Indeed, Rabbi Dr. Asher Weiser in Mikra V’Lashon sees lechicha as a cognate with lekikah (again, probably assuming the former’s CHET turns into the latter’s first KUF, and the former’s KAF turns into the latter’s second KUF).

Like Ibn Saruk, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (in his work Cheshek Shlomo) traces lekikah to the biliteral root LAMMED-KUF. He defines the core meaning of that root as "detaching something small from something bigger." In line with that definition, he explains that when licking something up, one only slurps up a little bit at a time, thus "detaching" a small amount of food or drink with one's tongue from the rest of the foodstuff in question.

Another word he sees as related to this is yelek (Nah. 3:16, Joel 1:4, 2:25), which refers to a type of grasshopper that Rabbi Pappenheim explains would typically consume its food via lekikah. Ibn Ezra (to Joel 1:4) cites a similar explanation in the name of the Karaite exegete Yefet ben Ali. [For more about the word yelek and other Hebrew words for grasshoppers, see "Army of Grasshoppers" (Jan. 2018).] A third word that Rabbi Pappenheim sees as related is melikah (Lev. 1:15, 5:8), which is the ritual act by which the Kohen uses his finger to "detach" the head of a sacrificial bird from the rest of the body (and needless to say, the fowlbeast's head is smaller than the rest of its body). Furthermore, Rabbi Pappenheim sees the word lahakat (“group/gathering”) in Sam. I 19:20 as derived from this root, arguing that it actually denotes a sub-group formed from a subset of a larger grouping. (Others explain lahak as a metathesized form of kahal.)

The famed German philologist Wilhelm Gesenius (1786–1842) wrote that words in Semitic languages and Indo-European (what he calls Indo-Germanic languages) share many stem-words and grammatical roots. He ascribed such occurrences to one of two phenomena: Sometimes, there are direct borrowings between these families of languages that account for common etymons, while other times, both language families independently created similar words in imitation of the same natural sounds (known as onomatopoeia). As an example of the latter, he adduces (Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, Introduction §1:4) the case of the words lakak (Hebrew), lachach (Hebrew), leicho (Greek), lingo (Latin), lecher (French), lecken (German), and lick (English). The way he sees if, all of these words refer to “licking” in various languages, but despite their similarities are not etymologically cognate with each other. Rather, they are all based on an onomatopoeic representation of the sound one makes when “licking.” We could add to his list even more words, including: lek (Afrikaan), likken (Dutch), slikke (Danish/Norweigan), sleikja (Icelandic), ligh (Irish), leccata (Italian), linge (Romanian), yaleaq (Arabic), and of course leki (Esperanto).

Along similar lines as Gesenius, Rabbi Moshe Tedeschi-Ashkenazi (1821–1898) in his work Otzar Nirdafim (§175) on Hebrew synonyms writes that the two roots in question, LAMMED-CHET-KAF (lechichah) and LAMMED-KUF-KUF (lekikah) essentially mean the same thing, but he proffers an important difference between them: He claims that LAMMED-KUF serves as an onomatopoeic representation of the sound one makes when licking up (“slurping”) liquid. Hence, in the case of Gideon’s test to see who is worthy of joining his army, the verb used to denote the soldiers “licking up” water is derived from LAMMED-KUF-KUF. On the other hand, he sees the root LAMMED-CHET-KAF as making a harder sound which implies “licking” something less liquidy than water. Because of this, he explains LAMMED-CHET-KAF as sourced in the root CHET-KAF, which gives us the word cheich (“palate”). This is why in the case of Balak’s parable about an ox “licking up” the vegetables of a field, he uses the root LAMMED-CHET-KAF, and not LAMMED-KUF-KUF. [By the way, the word chiyuch (“smile”) in Modern Hebrew is also derives from cheich.]

Interestingly, Ibn Parchon in his Machberet He’Aruch writes that lechichah refers to “eating quickly,” while lekikah refers to “drinking without a vessel.” That distinction perhaps alludes to the sort of distinction that Rabbi Tedeschi was referring.

Nonetheless, if you asked me, I would argue that the onomatopoeia explanation is not enough, because different cultures “hear” and “record” the same natural sounds differently. For examples of this, see my essay “Animal Sounds” (Mar. 2021). To me, the fact that across so many different languages, the word for “licking” bears a resemblance to the Hebrew word for that same act rather suggests that Indo-European languages might have borrowed or evolved from Semitic languages (as some linguists posit), and did not just develop independently alongside them.

The root LAMMED-KUF-HEY refers to the act of “hitting/smiting” another person and is common in the Rabbinic Hebrew term malkut (which refers to the mandated meting out of lashes given to a sinner). Although this may not be at all connected to lekikah, we could argue that the whip used to mete out such corporeal can be likened to a “tongue” lashing upon the sinner’s body in the same way that a “tongue” might lick something else. In a fascinating parallel, the English word lick in the expression “to lick one’s enemies” (based on Num. 22:4) similarly refers to “smiting” or “defeating” one’s enemies, and the English idiom to “lick the whip” refers to tasting or experiencing punishment. Thus, the English lick refers to both smiting another, and to the act of passing one’s tongue over something to taste it, moisten it, or clean it. Nonetheless, linguists would probably say that it is simply by chance that this usage resembles the Semitic roots LAMMED-KUF-HEY (“hitting”) and LAMED-KUF-KUF (“licking”). For more about the term lakah/malkut in the sense of “hitting/lashing,” see “That’s a Flogging” (Feb. 2020).[1]

[1]מקרא ולשון (עמ' 243, 126)

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