The Power To Hold Back – The Jewish Press –

Posted By on September 29, 2020

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The Book of Kings refers to the seventh month of the Jewish calendar what we colloquially call Tishrei as the month of the eitanim (I Kings 8:2). The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 11a) states that it received this name because the patriarchs of the Jewish people who are called eitanim (powerful ones) were born in this month.

This leads the Talmud elsewhere to identify Eitan the Ezrachite in Psalms 89:1 as Abraham, the powerful hero who stemmed the tide of polytheism (see Maharsha to Bava Basra 15a).

The Meutzudat David (to I Kings 8:2) writes that Tishrei is called the month of the eitanim because it is an especially powerful month with so many different holidays that one can use towards self-perfection. In other words, Tishrei is when a person can transform himself into a firm, strongly-anchored stalwart. Just as a rock cannot be easily budged, so too a strong believer cannot be easily swayed from his devotion to G-d.

Commenting on the mitzvah of eglah arufah which must be performed at Nachal Eitan (Deuteronomy 21:4) Rashi writes that eitan means strong/hard (and nachal a valley/wadi). Accordingly, the place of the ceremony is a rocky locale. Maimonides (Laws of Murder 9:2), however, understands eitan to mean strong-flowing (and nachal a river).

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Edel (1760-1828) writes that eitan literally denotes a riverbank, which holds back waters from passing beyond its threshold. Since this activity takes much strength, eitan came to be synonymous with strength and power.

It thus is no wonder then eitan appears in the Torah when describing Josephs unshakeable righteous prowess (Genesis 49:24) and the rocky habitat of Jethros descendants (Numbers 24:21). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Exodus 14:27) writes that eitan refers to something strong and durable that has lasted a long time like bedrock.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) writes that he is unsure exactly how to break down eitan. In Yerios Shlomo, he suggests its root is tavnun, which means give. Eitan comes from this root because eitan is a concentration of strength that can only be given to a person as a Divine gift.

In Cheshek Shlomo, Rabbi Pappenheim connects eitan to the biliteral root aleph-tav, which he further reduces to the monoliteral root tav. He explains that this root means connections and linking. For example, et connects a verb to its object and sometimes even means with. Similarly, ot (sign) another word derived from this root forges a semiotic connection between the sign and the signified. Eitan is a concentration of power resulting from extreme compression of multiple components connected together (like in rocks).

Other words for power in Hebrew in addition to eitan are chozek, koach, gevurah, adir, and kabir.

Pirkei Avos (4:1) states, Who is a gibbor (strongman)? He who conquers his evil inclination. This classical teaching suggests that gevurah (strength/power) is also related to self-control.

Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), in his essay Catharsis, notes that in the beginning berachos of Shachris we thank G-d twice for the power He has given us. We bless G-d who girds Israel with gevurah and we bless G-d who gives koach to the tired.

Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that these two blessings recall different aspects of mans powers. Koach is physical strength (which animals also possess), while gevurah is mans ability to transcend the brute instinct of survival.

If gevurah entails holding oneself back, then G-d is the ultimate gibbor (see Jeremiah 32:18) because He holds back His anger and gives the wicked much time before punishing them (see Yoma 69b).

Rabbi Pappenheim writes that koach is the most general for strength, chozek is extra-strength koach i.e., a non-standard ability; and gevurah is an act by which one actualizes ones koach.

Eitan, meanwhile, is inherent qualitative strength (like a rock) while kabir is quantitative strength i.e., something strong because it consists of multiple units banded together (see Rashi to Brachos 8a who associates kabir with the power of communal prayer). Otzem is a union in which each sub-unit doesnt necessarily contribute an equal amount of force, while kabir denotes a union of equally-powerful components.

Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) writes that koach is the power of maintaining/preserving a given state, a feat that necessitates withstanding forces that try to break the status quo. Gevurah, on the other hand, is a more proactive use of koach; it tries not to just withstand opposition but to defeat it entirely.

Alternatively, Rabbi Mecklenburg explains that koach denotes mental fortitude and concentration. Hence the Targums translation of koach in Deuteronomy 8:18 as eitzah, which typically means advice. In that context, koach refers to the mental strength of being able to think through a problem and decide on a course of action.

Rabbi Mecklenburg also points to the Talmudic discussions of the superlative reward for whoever answers Amen yehei shmei rabbah with all his koach (Shabbos 119b). The Talmud doesnt mean that he screams the words as loud as possible. It means he says them with the concentration of all his mental focus (see Rashi and Tosafos there).

As for the word adir: Rabbi Pappenheim writes that while someone who is chazak is more powerful than somebody else, someone who is adir is the most powerful (in a given group). It thus is quite apropos that G-d is described as the most adir of all existence (see Exodus 15:6 and Psalms 8:2 and 93:4).

Rabbi Pappenheim traces adir to the two-letter root dalet-reish, which means freedom of motion without constrictions. Rabbi Edel maintains that adir is related to adar/hadar (beauty/glory) because G-ds acts of strength bring Him honor and glory as they demonstrate His omnipotence.

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