Synonyms in the Hebrew Language Boys & Girls (Part 1 of 2) – The Jewish Voice

Posted By on November 19, 2020

By: Reuven Chaim Klein

The Torah uses three different words to refer to Rebecca as a girl:naarah(Gen. 24:14; 24:16; 24:28; 24:55; 24:57),betulah(Gen. 24:16), andalmah(Gen. 24:43). Of course, the most common Hebrew word for girl isyaldah.Each of these four words also has a masculine counterpart that means boy (naar, bachur, elem,andyeled). In this essay we will seek to understand the possible nuances expressed by these four sets of words, and show how they are not true synonyms.

Lets begin with the termsnaar/naarah. The Talmud (Kesuvos39a) definesnaarahas a girl from the age of twelve until six months after she has reached physical maturity. This would suggest that the termnaarfor a boy likewise refers specifically to a boy at the age of thirteen. Indeed, Rashi (to Gen. 25:27) explains that when the Torah refers to Jacob and Esau asnearim, this means that they were thirteen. This also explains why Ishmael was called anaarwhen the angels visited Abraham (see Rashi to Gen. 18:7) at that time he was thirteen years old (see Gen. 17:25).

Nonetheless, it is quite difficult to definenaar/naarahas belonging to a certain age bracket because we find those words used in the Bible multiple times to refer to girls who were not twelve years old and boys who were not thirteen. Case in point: the Torah refers to Rebecca as anaarahwhen Eliezer chose her as Isaacs wife, yet none of the commentators explain that she was twelve years old. According toSeder Olam(ch. 1), she was three years old when she married Isaac, which is too young to fit our definition ofnaarah; and according toSifrei(to Deut. 33:21), she was fourteen years old, which is too old.

This problem is compounded when we survey the various males referred to as anaarin the Bible, We find baby Moses called anaarwhen he was three-months old (Ex. 2:6). Furthermore, Ishmael was called anaarwhen he was thirteen years old, but he is also called anaarthree years later when he was already 16 years old (see Gen. 21:12; 21:17-20). Similarly, Joseph is called anaarwhen he was seventeen years old (Gen. 37:2), and was still called anaarwhen he was thirty years old (Gen. 41:12). We similarly find Josephs younger brother, Benjamin, called anaarat the age of thirty-one (Gen. 44:22, 44:33); King Davids son Absalom, at the age of twenty-one (II Sam. 18:32); King Solomons son Rehoboam, at the age of forty-one (II Chron. 13:7); and Moses attendant Joshua, at the age of fifty-seven (Ex. 33:11).

Possibly, because of these questions,Midrash Mishlei(to Prov. 1:4) expands the age limit of the termnaarto twenty, twenty-five, and even thirty years old. This resolves most of the difficulties we raised, but does not account for the cases of baby Moses, Rehoboam, and Joshua. Taken altogether, these passages suggest that the termsnaar/naarahdo not refer to a specific age group, but to something else.

When the Torah calls the seventeen-year old Joseph anaar,Rashi (to Gen. 37:2) comments that Joseph used to engage in seemingly immature childlike activities, like fixing his hair and tending to his eyes. Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi (1455-1526) explains that the Torah did not mean to brand Joseph anaar,but to describe his behavior asnaar-like. He doubles down on our assumption thatnaarrefers to a boy specifically between the ages of thirteen, and thirteen-and-a-half, but adds that, depending on the context, the termnaarcan sometimes apply to a male outside of that age bracket if that person somehow resembles an actualnaar.*

For example, when baby Moses was called anaar,this either refers to the fact that Moses voice sounded like the voice of an actualnaar,or that his mother had enclosed him in the basket with a sort of mini-wedding canopy expected of an actualnaarbecause she anticipated missing him getting married (seeSotah12b).

In the case of Joseph, his immature behavior was enough of a reason for the Torah to brand him anaar,even as he was older than the age usually denoted by that term. Furthermore, Mizrachi explains that Rehoboam was called anaaras a forty-one year old because he was immature and had weak leadership skills, as if he were a young boy. When Joseph was again called anaarat the age of thirty (Gen. 41:12), this did not actually reflect anything immature about Josephs behavior. Rather, as Rashi explains, the Pharaohs butler called Joseph anaarin order to disparage him and imply that Joseph was not worthy of the greatness that awaited him.

Turning to the cases of Benjamin and Absalom, Rabbi Mizrachi explains why they were callednaarat more advanced ages than that term suggests. Vis--vis their fathers, they are always going to be considered a boy, even when they are in their twenties and thirties.

Finally, Rabbi Mizrachi explains that Joshua was called anaarin his late fifties because that verse was said in the context of his serving Moses, and anybody who functions as a servant in the service of others can be called anaar,regardless of their actual age (see also Radak to Joshua 6:23, who makes this point). Although Rabbi Mizrachi does not mention this, the Torah also calls Isaac anaarat the age of thirty-seven (Gen. 22:5) and Ishmael anaar(Gen. 22:3) at the age of fifty-one. We can account for both examples by explaining that they were both attending to Abraham, and essentially just following his lead, as a child might follow his father.

With this information in hand, we can now begin to consider why the Torah might refer to Rebecca as both anaarahand analmah. Ibn Ezra (to Song of Songs 1:3) explains that the wordalmahdenotes a girl who is younger than anaarah. Accordingly, we may explain that Rebeccas physical age was that of analmah younger than anaarah but her emotional/intellectual maturity and/or her spiritual stature was on par with that of an oldernaarah. For this reason, both of those terms are appropriate in describing Rebecca. (This understanding works best if Rebecca was three years old when she was chosen as Isaacs mate.)

According to many commentators, the wordselemandalmahare related to the Hebrew wordseilumandneelam,which mean hidden. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 13:15) explains the connection by noting thatelemrefers to a youngnaarwho has not matured/developed yet, such that his potential remains hidden and unrealized.Peirush HaRokeachpoints out that throughout the story of David and Jonathans secret pact, the lad who served as their go-between is called anaar(see I Sam. 20:1-42), but in one instance he is referred to as anelem(I Sam. 20:22), in allusion to their need to keep the agreement hidden from Jonathans father, King Saul.

Based on this link, the commentators offer various ways of understanding the wordalmahas differing from the wordnaarah. For example,Peirush HaRokeachexplains that the termalmahrefers to a girl who is less outgoing than the termnaarahwould indicate. Accordingly, Rebecca may have already reached the age ofnaarahand perhaps even advanced beyond that technical stage of development (if she was fourteen), yet she was still analmahbecause she was hidden from other people.Peirush HaRokeachadds that the termalmahteaches us that Rebecca was such an innocent and sheltered damsel that she had never even been propositioned before, something apparently uncommon for a girl of her age at that time and place.

Rabbeinu Efrayim ben Shimshon (to Gen. 24:43) explains that the termalmahsaid about Rebecca, and the wordelemsaid about King David (I Sam. 17:56), imply a person who hides their words, which is typically a sign of someone wise. Thus,naarahmight describe Rebeccas physical age, whilealmahspeaks more about her intelligence.

Rabbi Shimon Dov Ber Analak of Siedlce (1848-1907) explains that the two terms in question refer to two qualities characteristic of people in the age of adolescence. The wordnaarrelates to the young adults tenacious industriousness, which gives them the resolve to shake off (lnaer) anything that might get in their way and impede their ambitions. The termelem,on the other hand, does not refer to the adolescents tenacity, but to their sheer power and strength. This meaning ofelemin the sense of energetic is related to the wordalim(with an ALEPH), which is the standard Targum rendering ofometz/amitz(strong or resilient).

Chizkuni(to Gen. 24:44) contends that the wordsnaarahandalmahmean the exact same thing, but thatnaarahis a Hebrew word whilealmahis Aramaic. He explains that in the story at hand, the narrator first refers to the young lass as anaarah(in Genesis 24:16) because the Torah is written in Hebrew. Afterwards, in Eliezers dialogue with the girls family, Eliezer refers to her as analmah(to Gen. 24:43) because he thought that Rebeccas family understood only Aramaic (because they lived in Harran, which is in Aram, where Aramaic was spoken). Nonetheless,Chizkunipoints out that Rebeccas family did actually speak Hebrew, because when the question of her leaving with Eliezer arose, her brother and mother referred to her as anaarah(Gen. 24:57).

Another female in the Bible referred to as analmahwas Moses sister Miriam, who watched over her younger brother as he was put into the Nile and was saved by the Pharaohs daughter (Ex. 2:8). In this case, she was six years old at the time (Shemot Rabbah1:13). It seems that this age is too young to fit the technical definition ofalmah(yaldahis more appropriate),as the Talmud (Sotah12b) felt the need to seek out exegetical explanations for the use of this appellation. The Talmud explains that Miriam was called analmahin this context because she hid the fact that she was Moses sister, or because she acted with the strength and vigor expected of an older young lady.

In next weeks essay we will expand on the idea that the termnaar/naarahis related to the concept of revealing, which contrasts very nicely with what we wrote above thatelem/almahis connected to the idea of hiding. We will also discuss the wordsyeled/yaldahandbetulah/bachur.

To be continued

*NOTE: See also Rashi (toKetuvot44b), who explains that when the wordnaarahis spelled deficiently (i.e. sans the letter HEY as the ultimate letter), it could also include a girl younger than the age of twelve. However, whennaarahappears in the plene form with the letter HEY at the end, it serves toexcludea girl younger than twelve.

EARLIER THIS WEEK,I had a chance to chat with the host of the Seforim Chatter Podcast and we spoke about my bookGod vs. Godsas well as some other projects that Im involved in. Im sure youll find the interview both informative and entertaining, so check it out by clickingHERE:

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Synonyms in the Hebrew Language Boys & Girls (Part 1 of 2) - The Jewish Voice

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