|Artwork: Shadal and Rav Hirsch having a debate in a library |
(generated using the "outpainting" tool on DALL-E)
An Etymological Drash from Rav Hirsch on Jewish vs. Pagan Priests
There are two types of linguistic analysis of the Hebrew language found in Torah commentaries. The first type takes into consideration all available data as the basis for its conclusions and follows the evidence wherever it may lead. This approach may be described as “scientific,” “evidence-based,” or “academic.” The second type of analysis avowedly does not factor in all the data but is guided by a particular set of assumptions, philosophical beliefs, and rhetorical objectives. This approach may be described as “poetic,” “imaginative,” or “homiletical.” The first type of analysis is “bottom-up” whereas the second is “top-down.” The first is a necessity for “pshat” whereas the second is a valuable a tool in the arsenal of “drash.”
Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto, 1800-1865) exemplifies the scientific approach, as Daniel Klein writes in his preface to Shadal on Genesis: “In his investigation of word meanings, Luzzatto drew upon every means at his disposal” including “comparisons with the later (Mishnaic) Hebrew of the rabbis and with languages cognate to Hebrew, such as Aramaic, Syriac, and Arabic” (p.22) Shadal’s commentary is replete with philological analyses based on his understanding of the evolution of the Hebrew language.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), a grand master of the poetic approach, holds by a different set of premises from Shadal. According to Mattityahu Clark (ed. Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew Based on the Commentaries of Samson Raphael Hirsch), Hirsch believed that Hebrew “is not a language that has historically developed and grown by absorbing or adapting words and expressions from foreign sources. Rather, it is a single, integral unit with its own internal structure and grammar, its own logic and patterns, its own meanings and nuances” (p.x). Hirsch “states repeatedly that one should not look to foreign languages to find meanings of words in the Torah,” believing instead that “the Hebrew language is self-contained” (p.xi). Thus, “in his analysis, Hirsch makes no use of or references to other languages of the ancient Near East” (p.293), instead basing his conclusions on his idiosyncratic theory of three-letter roots.
Although there are hundreds of examples which illustrate the differences between these two approaches, the main reason I wrote this article is to showcase a single excerpt from Rav Hirsch’s commentary in Parashas Mikeitz. Yosef is overcome with emotion upon seeing his younger brother Binyamin. “Yosef hurried because נִכְמְרוּ רַחֲמָיו towards his brother, and he sought to weep; he went into the room and wept there” (Bereishis 43:30). The basic question is: What does נכמרו רחמיו mean in the context of this pasuk?
A second question arises from a more common use of this three-letter root in the word כומר, which is universally understood to mean “pagan priest,” as in “[Yoshiyahu] also dismissed the כומרים” (II Melachim 23:5), “for its people will mourn over it, as well as its כומרים” (Hoshea 10:5), and “I will cut off from this place any remnant of the Baal and the memory of the ministers with the כומרים” (Tzfanya 1:4). The second question is: What, if anything, is the relationship between the expression נכמרו רחמיו and the word כומר?
Shadal’s Italian translation of the pasuk in Mikeitz (rendered into English by Daniel Klein) reads as follows: “And immediately Joseph, pity having been kindled in him toward his brother, and wanting to weep, entered into the room and wept there.” Shadal elaborates on his reasoning in his commentary (43:30):
kindled (nikhmeru). Became hot and burning, as in, “Our skin is hot [nikhmeru], like an oven” (Eichah 5:10). In Rosenmueller’s opinion (and before him the Alexandrian translation), the original meaning of rahamim [here translated as “pity”] was “bowels,” just as [the singular form] rehem [means “womb”].
Shadal is not the first one to translate נכמרו as “hot and burning” Ibn Ezra, Avraham ben ha’Rambam, Ralbag, and others took the same approach, many of them citing the same pasuk from Eichah.
As for our second question, we – or at least, I – don’t have access to Shadal’s commentary on any of the three instances of the word כומר cited above. We do, however, have the commentary Hoil Moshe by Rabbi Moshe Yitzchak Ashkenazi (Moisè Tedeschi, 1829-1898), one of Shadal’s “informal” students, who employs a similar evidence-based linguistic approach to that of his teacher:
הכומרים. According to [Heinrich Wilhelm] Gesenius (1786-1842) in his lexicon, its meaning is “those who burn incense.” If so, one must assume that the letters ג,י,כ,ק were transposed and its origin is Aramaic or Syriac. Gachalei eish (fiery coals) is translated as gumrin d’iysha, and the priests raise up smoke with fiery coals on the firepan; accordingly, they are superior in rank to priests whose forms of service are not as significant.
Thus far the scientific approach of Shadal. Rav Hirsch’s poetic approach stands in stark contrast. He reads our pasuk as: “Yosef hastened, for his feelings toward his brother had been stirred up and he wished to cry, and he went into the room and wept there” (trans. Daniel Haberman). Rav Hirsch’s commentary begins with a pshat answer to our first question, then segues into a drash answer to our second question:
נכמרו רחמיו. For Yosef knew what he intended to do to Binyamin, the painful ordeal he intended to put him through, even if only briefly.
כמר, the stirring up of strong emotions, is also the root of מכמורת, a net. A כומר is a pagan priest. The Rabbinic term כמר של זיתים denotes laying fruit on top of one another so that they should heat up and ripen, or it denotes burying them in the earth for this purpose, sealing them off until they become ripe and tender. מכמר בשרא (Pesachim 58b) – initial spoilage in meat. ביב שהוא קמור תחת הבית (Ohalos 3:7) – a hidden drain.
The basic meaning of כמר, then, is to keep back something, shut it up and prevent it from going free, and thus to bring it to fermentation. Thus, on the one hand, a net, and on the other, the process of fermentation. Transposed to the emotional realm, כמר denotes pent-up feelings which, as a result of repression, reach an intense state of ferment. Compare כִּי יִתְחַמֵּץ לְבָבִי (Tehilim 73:21), emotional ferment which can no longer be contained in one’s breast; intense emotional excitement.
For this reason, apparently, pagan priests are called כמרים as opposed to כהנים. The Jewish כהן is not dependent on devotion, emotion. Jewish Divine service is not designed to excite dark mysterious feelings. The Jewish Sanctuary appeals primarily to the intellect: התפלל means to rectify one’s judgment and to make clear to oneself one’s relationship to things in general, one’s duties. Feelings are very cheap. One can weep copiously before God in prayer, and then get up and be no better than one was before! The כומר counts on exciting the emotions. The כהן, however, has to be כן with himself and מכין, provide others with firm direction and a firm basis. Heathenism works on the emotions and thereby shackles the intellect. The emotions, however, are like a clock mechanism without hands, restless movement that knows not whence or wither, which can be exploited for any purpose. The כומר fans the flames of hell and arouses fanaticism; he celebrates his triumph when נכמרו מעים, when the innards of the believers reach a point of total ferment.
This is a beautiful example of what I call “etymological drash.” Rav Hirsch uses the Hebrew language to expound on a core idea about Judaism. The fact that his analysis of the root כ.מ.ר. may or may not be “scientifically accurate” by the standards of modern philology is immaterial. This is the way of drash.
Fortunately, we are not forced to choose between the approaches of Shadal and Rav Hirsch, just as we need not commit ourselves exclusively to either pshat or drash. Rabbi David Fohrman once likened the interrelationship between pshat and drash to that of melody and harmony: both play different roles – the parameters of which must be understood to be effectively used – but together, they result in beautiful music.