Sunday, June 25, 2006


This week's parasha (Chukat) opens with a description of the procedure of purification from contamination by a corpse, most notably with the ashes of a red cow. It is interesting that one of the verbs mentioned in the process (Bamidbar 19:12) is yit'chata יתחטא - "he shall cleanse himself". There would seem to be a connection between yit'chata and chata חטא - "he sinned". But aren't those terms opposites?

In addition to the hitpael form found here, we find the piel form חיטא in other places in the Tanach. This too means to cleanse, and chitui חיטוי in modern Hebrew means a disinfectant. Again, what is the connection between chitui and chet חטא - sin?

We are familiar with such contradicting terms in English as well. They are called autoantonyms, or contronyms, meaning a homonym which is also an antonym. Some of them are just coincidences with unrelated etymologies such as cleave, meaning both "adhere" and "separate". But there are a number of words in English where the verb means to remove the noun. "To peel" means to remove the peel, "to pit" means to remove the pit, "to dust" means to remove dust, "to shell" - remove the shell, "to seed" - to remove the seeds.

According to Ruth Almagor-Ramon in the book Rega Shel Ivrit, Hebrew has the same phenomenon as well, in the piel form of some verbs, where it can mean "to remove". Shoresh שורש is a "root", להשתרש is "to take root" but לשרש is "to remove from the roots". The verb סקל means "he stoned, executed by stoning", but סיקל means "he freed from stones". Zanav זנב means "tail", but according to Klein, לזנב means "he routed the rear of an army, lit. "he cut off the tail."

And therefore we can understand the connection between chitui and chet. The verb חיטא means "to free from sin, to cleanse from sin". Yit'chata - "he shall free himself (from sin, impurity)."

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