What's in a Word?

For the week ending 27 July 2024 / 21 Tamuz 5784

Pinchas: Performance Platforms

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
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When I was a kid, we used to refer to the Kohanim engaged in Birkat Kohanim as going up “to duchan” or “duchening.” Because of that usage, I always thought that duchan was a verb in Yiddish that referred to the act of “blessing” other people. But as Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur already points out in Sefer Tishbi, the word duchan is actually a noun that refers to the “platform” upon which the Kohanim stood when reciting the Priestly Blessings. In this essay, we look at a whole slew of words in Hebrew — both Biblical Hebrew and Rabbinic Hebrew — that are used in reference to “platforms.” These words include kan, duchan, bimah, basis and itztaba.

Before we discuss the word duchan, I’d like to begin with the word kan (sometimes vocalized as kein), which refers to the “base,” “foundation,” “platform,” “stand,” or “pedestal” upon which something stands. For example, this term is used in the Bible when referring to the base of the kiyor (“water basin”) in the Tabernacle (Ex. 30:28, 30:18, 31:9, 35:16, 38:8, 39:39, 40:11, Lev. 8:111). It can also be used in a more abstract sense to refer to a person’s professional post (meaning, his job — on which his livelihood stands), as when Joseph foretold that the Pharoah will reinstate his jailed butler, Joseph said: “He will return you on your kan [stand/post/position]” (Gen. 40:13), which is precisely what happened (Gen. 41:13).

All in all, the word kan in this sense appears 17 times throughout the Hebrew Bible (according to Even Shoshan’s concordance). It also twice appears in the Mishnah (Yoma 5:3–4) when describing how after sprinkling the blood of the sacrifices in the Temple’s inner sanctum on Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol would place the vessel in which the blood was stored on a golden base (kan).

In his work Cheshek Shlomo, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim traces kan to the biliteral root KAF-NUN, whose core meaning he defines as “base/basis.” Like we saw above, this can refer to both something physical or something abstract. Other words that he derives from this root include ken (“yes,” “so,” “affirmative”) and nachon (“correct”), which affirm something by acknowledging its valid basis, as well as tochnit (“plan”) and hachanah (“preparation”), which are the fundamental bases for any serious enterprise. As a corollary to this last meaning, Rabbi Pappenheim argues that the word kohen (“priest”) refers to the person in charge of making sure that all “preparations” for ritual worship at a temple or shrine are in order. He further adds that the concept of kavvanah (“intention”) in rabbinic parlance likewise refers to the mental preparations a person undergoes when planning for a certain task.

Now, we can start talking about the word duchan. That word does not appear at all in the Bible, but makes it first appearances in Mishnaic Hebrew, occurring thrice in the Mishnah. In all three cases, the word duchan refers to the “platform” or “stage” upon which the Levites stood when performing the ritual singing in the Temple. To that end, the Mishnah (Arachin 2:6) states that there must be a minimum of six Levites standing on the duchan when the Levitical music is being played or sung. Another Mishnah (Middot 2:6) describes the location of the duchan on which the Levites stood by explaining that there was a step between the Ezrat Kohanim and the Ezrat Yisrael in the Temple that was a cubit high, and said duchan was located on that step. That Mishnah further explains that the duchan itself consisted of three steps, each of which was half a cubit high. A third Mishnah (Kiddushin 4:5) states that when examining the genealogical pedigree of a Levite, if one finds that he had an ancestor who stood upon the duchan in the Temple, one need not investigate further, as one can presume that Levite to be of impeccable lineage.

In the Babylonian Talmud, the term duchan in many instances continued to refer to the place upon which the Levites stood when singing in the Temple. For example, in a macabre account of the destruction of the First Temple, the Talmud relates (Taanit 29a, Arachin 11b) that the Levites were still standing on the duchan singing the songs that accompany the daily sacrifices when the Babylonians entered and conquered them (for more examples, see Yoma 15b, Sukkah 51a, Megillah 24b, Sotah 48a, Arachin 11a).

Yet, in the Babylonian Talmud, the term duchan also assumed an additional meaning in reference to the place upon which Kohanim stood when blessing the Jewish People (even outside of the Temple). For example, Rabbi Yose said about himself that he never went against what his colleagues told him, adding that even if they would tell him to go up to the duchan to recite the Priestly Blessings, he would do so, despite knowing that he is not a Kohen (Shabbat 118b). Other examples of the word duchan appearing when discussing the Priestly Blessings include: the warning that a Kohen should not add his own personal blessings to the recitation of the Priestly Blessings (Rosh HaShanah 28b), the rule that a Kohen may not ascend the duchan while wearing shoes (Rosh HaShanah 31b, Sotah 40a), the assertion that a Kohen who fails to ascend the duchan to bless the people has violated three positive commandments (Sotah 38b, Menachot 44a), and the story of a young Rabbi Tarfon ascending the duchan with his uncle and hearing the Kohen Gadol recite Hashem's ineffable name in the Temple (Kiddushin 71a). It is pretty clear that the Yiddish verb duchenen derives from the noun duchan in the sense of the post from which Kohanim blessed the people.

What is the etymological basis for the word duchan?Rabbi Yaakov Emden in Ezer Ohr (his glosses to Sefer Tishbi) writes that the word duchan is a cognate of the Aramaic word duchta (“place/location”), and refers to a “special place” for the Kohanim and Leviim to stand when doing their thing. [For more about the word duchta and its various synonyms in Hebrew and Aramaic, see “The Right Site” (June 2023).]

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Ferber (Kerem Tzvi to Num. 6:23) offers another two ways of understanding the etymology of duchan. Firstly, he suggests parsing duchan asa portmanteau of the Greek prefix du- (“double”) and the Biblical Hebrew kan ("base"). In doing so, he explains that the term duchan refers to the reality that an elevated platform might be double as wide as the stairs at its base that lead it up to it, hence it literally means “double base.” Alternatively, he explains the word duchan as related to the Biblical Hebrew root DALET-(VAV)-KAF, which refers to the verb of "smashing/flattening." This makes sense because the duchan platform would typically be a small area, which means that those standing there might have to squish together for there to be enough room for everyone.

Following this second explanation, we can compare the sense development of the root DALET-(VAV)-KAF to similar developments in the derivatives of the Proto-Indo-European root plat- that originally referred to the act of “spreading/flattening.” That root eventually yielded nouns that refer to a flat surface, like the English words flat (via the interchangeability of f and p), place (which derives from the Greek work platus), platy, plaza, plate, plateau, and more. The same PIE root is also the etymon of the Rabbinic Hebrew term platya (“street/highway”), as well as the Modern Hebrew word plata (“flat surface for heating foods”). All of these words refer to flat surfaces or platforms of sorts, and are derived from the root that refers to the act of making something flat. The same could be true in Hebrew, whereby the word for duchan — which is a flat surface — might be derived from the verb used in reference to “flattening” things (a similar point is made by Rabbi Ernest Klein).

Interestingly, Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein writes (Degel HaTorah §11) that in Talmudic times, a Rosh Yeshiva was sometimes known as a Reish Duchana, using a word that is related to duchan on account of the Rosh Yeshiva’s esteemed position as a public lecturer who pontificated from a special lectern or platform (see also Mekor Baruch vol. 3, p. 1442). Nonetheless, Rabbi Menachem Kasher (Torah Shleimah vol. 26 p. 289) points out that this is not entirely accurate because the only time that the term Reish Duchana appears in the Talmud (Bava Batra 21), Rashi (there) explains that it refers to a low-level teacher's assistant who was paid to help children go over what they learned from the main teacher, not a Rosh Yeshiva.

In Modern Hebrew, a duchan refers to a “booth” or “stand,” where a person might, for example, peddle their wares. Rabbi Ernest Klein in his etymological dictionary of Hebrew likewise connects this word to the Arabic word dukkan (which means” bench,” “store shop”).

Another term for “platform” or “stage” is bimah. Like duchan, this word does not appear in the Bible, but rather first appears in Mishnaic Hebrew. The Mishnah twice refers to a bimah, once when describing how a bimah would be erected for the king to read from the Torah Scroll at the Hakhel ceremony (Sotah 7:8), and once when ruling that a Jew may not build a bimah for idolaters (Avodah Zarah 1:7). The term bimah is also used colloquially when talking about the “table” or “surface” in middle of the synagogue upon which a Torah Scroll is placed when read. In Modern Hebrew, a theatre/movie director is called a bamai because he directs the goings-on of the “stage.”

Rashi (Sukkah 51b, Avodah Zarah 16a, Sotah 41a) translates the word bimah into Old French as almemar (or almemor), which is the preferred term for referring to the platform upon which the Torah is read in a synagogue among German (Yekkish) Jews. Believe it or not, that term actually derives from the Arabic al-minbar (meaning "the pulpit/seat”), using the Ethiopic word minbar for "seat" (see also Maimonides' commentary to Keilim 2:3). The question of how an Arabic term ended up in the Medieval French Jewish vernacular has hexed linguists and historians like Max Weinreich for generations.

The consensus of scholars is that the Rabbinic Hebrew word bimah comes from the Greek word bema (“pacing,” “marching,” “stepping,” “step/stage,” “platform”), which in turn comes from the Greek word bainein (“going”). That latter Greek word is apparently also the basis of the Greek word basis (“step” or “pedestal”), which we will discuss below. This means that bimah is not an original Hebrew word and, in fact, does not even come from a Semitic language.

Indeed, Professor Edward Yechezkel Kutscher in Milim V’Toldoteihen clarifies that bimah is not at all related to the word bamah in Biblical Hebrew, even though bamah refers to a “high place” (used for ritual/sacrificial worship) which is similar to what a bimah is. In contrast to bimah which is of Greek (and thus Indo-European) stock, Kutscher writes that bamah is a native Hebrew word (that appears over 100 times in the Bible!) and is attested to in other Semitic languages like Arabic (buhma) Aramaic (bamata), Moabite (bamat), Akkadian (bamtu), and Ugaritic (bmt). [For more about the word bamah and how it related to yibbum, see “Sort of Siblings” (Aug. 2021).]

Another related word is the Rabbinic Hebrew term basis. This word does not appear in the Bible, but does appear once in the Mishnah when referring to the basis (“base”) of a candelabra (Keilim 11:7). Some readers might also be familiar with the Halachic term basis l'davar ha'assur (Shabbat 47a, 117a, 120b, 125b, 142a, Pesachim 83a, Chullin 125) that refers to something permitted serving as the base or support for something prohibited, in which case the permitted object also becomes forbidden (for example, regarding the laws of muktzah on Shabbat).

This rabbinic term is clearly a loanword borrowed from the Latin and Greek words basis (“base,” “step,” “pedestal,” “foot,” “going”), which needless to say is the etymological forebearer of the English word basis. Other English words which derive from the same etymology include base and basic, as well as diabetes and acrobat (the latter two use the interchangeability of s and t). In Modern Hebrew, the adjective besisi refers to something “basic” or “fundamental” and also derives from basis; and the same can be said of the Modern Hebrew term basis in the sense of “army base.”

Our final word is itztaba, which appears four times in the Mishnah. Three out of four of those instances refer to a specific place in the Holy Temple: The Mishnah (Pesachim 1:5) relates how two loaves of bread were placed on the itztaba (“elevated platform”) in the Temple to signify when one must stop eating chametz on Erev Pesach and when one must burn all remaining chametz. The Mishnah (Shekalim 8:4) teaches that if the parochet in the Temple became ritually impure, it would be immersed in a mikvah and spread out to dry on the roof of the itztaba so that the masses could see the beautiful specimen (if it was still new and looked stunning). Thirdly, the Mishnah (Sukkah 4:4) relates that people would bring their lulav to the Temple before Shabbat and they would be placed on the roof of the itztaba. Lastly, the Mishnah (Niddah 9:3) refers to the itztaba of a bathhouse, which has nothing to do with the temple. The term also appears in several other instances throughout the Talmud.

Rashi (to Taanit 29a, Arachin 11b) uses the word itztaba to define the word duchan, thus seemingly assuming that they are synonymous or near-synonymous. By contrast, Rabbi Ernest Klein’s etymological dictionary of Hebrew offers five definitions of the Rabbinic Hebrew term itztaba: “colonnade,” “portico,” “balcony,” “shelf,” and “bench (fixed to the wall).” In doing so, he traces the word itztaba to the Greek stoa (“colonnade/column”), which according to Julius Pokorny’s Proto-Indo-European etymological dictionary derives from the PIE root sta- which means "to stand."

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