Words of Ailing, Words of Healing

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Words of Ailing, Words of Healing
David Curwin

While the coronavirus has led to a crisis like nothing seen in over a century, humanity as a whole, and the Jewish people in particular, have experienced plagues and epidemics over the millennia. It should therefore not be surprising that many Hebrew words relating to illness and health have very ancient roots.

The word most commonly used today to describe the pandemic is magefa. It appears in the Bible 26 times, as does the related synonym negef, which is found seven times. Both words come from the root n-g-f, which means “to strike, to smite.” (The post-Biblical word for boot, magaf, is from a different root.) In modern Hebrew, the word negif was coined to give Hebrew a word for “virus.” While “virus” comes from Latin, it does have a related word in Hebrew. According to the linguist Ernest Klein, in his Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, the word eres, “poison, venom,” entered Hebrew in the post-Biblical period and may derive from the Latin “virus.”

A more common Biblical word for plague is dever. This word does not appear to be related to the very common word devar meaning “word, speech.” More surprisingly, it is not cognate with the word hadbara – “extermination.” That word comes from a third Hebrew root, which meant “to follow behind” or “to push forward.” This meaning led to the word midbar – “desert,” which was a place where cattle were pushed forward to graze. In the more intense hifil form of the verb, hidbir, “pushing forward” became “subdue, overwhelm,” and from there came the meaning “to eliminate, exterminate.” (“Yadber sonenu,” we recite in the Prayer for the I.D.F., asking God to “subdue our enemies.”) 

The word for disease is maḥala, and an ill person is a ḥoleh. In Biblical Hebrew this word can also mean “to be weak.” The linguist Menachem Kaddari in his Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew brings an opinion that the piel form of the verb from this root, ḥila, meaning “to entreat, to supplicate” (as found, for example, in Exodus 32:11, “But Moses implored [vayiḥal] the Lord his God”) is related to “weakness.” The explanation he mentions says that this sense derives from trying to “weaken the anger.” Kaddari also mentions a different opinion, which says that ḥila is cognate to an Arabic root meaning “to be sweet,” since the supplicant is trying to make the “angry face more pleasant.” If so, it would be related to the sweet sesame paste halvah, which derives from that Arabic root.

The Modern Hebrew word for vaccine is ḥisun. This comes from a root, ḥasan, meaning “to strengthen.” There is debate among scholars if this meaning is related to its homonym, meaning “to store.” This latter root gave us the words maḥsan – “storeroom”, and through Arabic, the English word “magazine” (a cartridge that holds ammunition as well as a periodical which houses multiple articles). The nineteenth century Jewish linguist Yehoshua Steinberg connected the two meanings, saying they derive from an earlier common root meaning “to close, to stop, to hold tightly”. From here he derives the meanings of “strong and strength,” and storage is “something closed away from others.” Klein, however, says that the two roots have different etymologies, since “to be strong” has cognates in Aramaic and Arabic, and “to store” is connected to a separate Akkadian root.

Haḥlama is the Hebrew word for “recovery” (from illness). It derives from a root meaning, “to become healthy, strong.” A number of attempts have been made to connect it to alom – “dream.” Some say that when you dream, you are sleeping “well.” Another theory is that having dreams is a sign of maturity, and as we mature, we become stronger. Steinberg came up with the creative idea that during sleep, our ideas become strong and are therefore free of the rule of the intellect.

While starting in post-Biblical Hebrew the word bari began to mean “healthy,” in the Bible, the word meant “fat” (as in the beriot cows in Pharaoh’s dream in Genesis 41). This is clearly a sign of an earlier era, when fatness was a sign of health. Could there be a connection to bara meaning “create”? Steinberg suggests that they both come from an earlier sense, which is connected to the root bar – “to set apart, separate.” This root gives us such words as barur – “clear, distinct” and baraita – the Tannaitic sayings not included in the Mishna. Steinberg says that bara, “to create,” indicates the “removal” of something from nothing – i.e., creation ex nihilo. Bari, in his opinion, derived from “choosing the best food to eat.” Modern linguists, however, say the two roots are unrelated. Klein points out that bari is cognate with the root mara – also meaning “to be fat.” In Hebrew words the letters bet and mem occasionally alternate, as they are both labial consonants. (For example, the place name Dibon is also called Dimon in Isaiah 15:9.)

Doctor – rofeh – and healing – refuah – both come from the root rafa, meaning “to heal.” Interestingly, rafa can also mean the opposite – “to weaken.” In general in Biblical Hebrew, when that root ends with the letter alef it means “to heal,” and when it ends with the letter heh, it means “to weaken.” But there are exceptions, where the root ending in alef means “to weaken” (e.g., Proverbs 14:30) and where the ending heh means “to heal” (e.g., Psalms 60:4). There are even verses, such as Proverbs 15:4, where it is not clear which meaning is intended. 

When the same word also means its opposite, it is called a “contronym.” This is a phenomenon found in many languages. In English the word “cleave” means both “to split” and “to adhere”; “sanction” means both permission and punishment. Hebrew has them as well. Ḥet dirties us with sin and ḥitui is cleaning. Sakal means “to execute by stoning,” but sikel is “to free from stones.” 

Sometimes contronyms aren’t related etymologically, and are just linguistic coincidences, like “cleave.” In other cases, the development can be traced. In Hebrew, the piel form often means “to remove.” So ḥitui is removal of sin.

It is unclear whether the two meanings of rafa are etymologically related. Most dictionaries don’t offer a connection, although both have cognates in Arabic. One theory suggests that to heal comes from a sense of “to find rest after fatigue, weakness.” Others say a common root might mean “to lighten,” so “to heal” means to lighten the illness, and “to weaken” lightens the body’s strength. 

This uncertainty regarding rafa echoes the uncertainty we are all feeling about our current situation. Are we heading toward further weakening or a complete recovery? We pray for the best and for complete healing, but we cannot know. We put out trust in our medical professionals and in our Heavenly Healer:

Rabbi Abba said to Rabba bar Mari that there is an apparent contradiction in a verse. It is written: “All the disease that I placed in Egypt I shall not place upon you, for I am the Lord, your Healer” (Exodus 15:26). And since God does not place the disease upon the Jewish people, why is healing necessary? Rabba bar Mari said to him that this is what Rabbi Yoḥanan says: This verse can be interpreted and the contradiction resolved from the contents of the verse itself, as it is stated: “And He said: If you will diligently hearken to the voice of the Lord, your God” (Exodus 15:26). If you hearken to God’s voice, I will not place the disease upon you, and if you do not hearken to God’s voice, I will place the disease upon you. Nevertheless, even if you do not hearken to the voice of God, and I place the disease upon you, know that I will heal you, “for I am the Lord, your Healer” (Sanhedrin 101a).

David Curwin writes about the origins of Hebrew words on his Balasḥon Blog, and about Jewish thought in TRADITION, Hakirah, and The Lehrhaus. 

[Published March 30, 2020]

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