In this weeks parasha, Avraham argues with God over his plans to destroy Sdom. When he claims that the killing of the innocent would be unjust, he says (Bereshit 18:25)
חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה
"Chalila lecha to do a thing like this"
What does chalila mean here? A very popular explanation is based on the Gemara (Avoda Zara 4a, Berachot 32a) - חולין הוא לך - "it would be chulin for you". This gemara is also subject to interpretation. Most explain chulin as "sacrilege, profanation, desecration" - in other words "beneath your honor" (this also fits with Steinberg, who derives chalila from the root חלה - from which we get choleh חולה "sick" - and means "to be low") . Rashi, however, on Ber. 18:25 explains chulin as "usual or ordinary" - this would seem to be the way God acted with the generation of the flood and the generation of the tower of Bavel. However, while this may work where Avraham is speaking to God, it does not fit the many other examples of chalila where one man is speaking to another.
Ben-Yehuda, in his dictionary, has difficulties with the Gemara's explanation. He writes that "the scent of drush (midrash) wafts too strongly from this (explanation) and it is difficult to believe that in ancient times they would use a metaphor such as this. The origin of this usage has not been explained well."
Ibn Ezra has a slightly different explanation. He says it means "impossible", perhaps deriving from the word חלול halul, meaning "hollow", something with no content.
Amos Chacham in the Daat Mikra on Iyov 34:10 writes that chalila always appears in the Bible as a form of oath (perhaps to damn?), where a person forbids himself or another to do a certain action.
Onkelos, who in his translation makes great efforts to protect God's honor, would clearly have difficulty having Avraham accuse God of a desecration. And therefore he translates chalila lecha as קֻשְׁטָא אִנּוּן דִּינָךְ - "your laws are true". However, in a different location where chalila is used - where the brothers are speaking to Yosef's steward (Bereshit 44:7) - Onkelos has no such reservations. And here his translation is interesting: חַס - chas.
Rashi quotes Onkelos in his commentary on 44:7 and writes:
חלילה לעבדיך - חולין הוא לנו, לשון גנאי. ותרגום חס לעבדיך, חס מאת הקב"ה יהי עלינו מעשות זאת והרבה חס ושלום יש בתלמוד בלשון הזה:
"It would be profane for us (Avoda Zara 4a); an expression of disgrace. Onkelos translates; 'chas to your servants' as, may there be chas from the Holy One, Blessed is He, upon us from doing this. There are many examples of this word in the Talmud as chas v'shalom"
This brings up a number of questions. What does chas mean? And does Rashi's first explanation agree or disagree with Onkelos?
The Rashi HaShalem edition (published by the Ariel Institute) has three possible answers:
a) Chas comes from the root חוס and means "pity". (Another possibility is that it comes from the root חסה which means "to protect". According to Klein, the two roots don't seem to be related - something I should have paid more attention to in this post.) Onkelos disagrees with the Gemara, and believes that chalila actually means "pity" - perhaps based on midrashim that explain ויחל משה (Shmot 32:11) as "he asked for pity and mercy". This is the explanation of the Lifshuto Shel Rashi by Rav Shmuel Gelbard, but the Rashi HaShalem rejects it for grammatical reasons. (The Mizrachi also explains the translation of Onkelos on 18:25 as due to a need to show that God doesn't need pity.)
b) Chas means "pity" but Onkelos is not giving a literal translation of chalila, but rather using an expression with the same meaning. If chalila is an oath, then chas would be more of a prayer, as the Mizrachi explains chas v'shalom - "may God bring mercy and peace upon us to prevent this from happening". (Rav Gelbard- as quoted in the Margolin Chumash Rashi - has a slightly different translation - "Have pity [on us that it should not happen] and [then] peace [will be with us].")
It also could be here that Onkelos would agree with Ibn Ezra (above) and not Rashi, and doesn't see chalila as associated with "disgrace".
c) Onkelos agrees with Rashi, but chas here means "desecration, disgrace" - like chalila. This is the opinion of Kohut in Aruch HaShalem (entry חס ). He writes that chas is related to an Arabic root meaning "contemptible". He rejects the opinion of the Mizrachi by saying that God is not mentioned anywhere in the verse (and therefore it should not be seen as a prayer.) He also writes that the shalom in chas v'shalom does not mean "peace" but "completely" and therefore the expression should be translated "completely disgraced".
Rashi HaShalem seems to find the second explanation the least forced, and I think I agree.
So we can see a development of the phrases meaning "God forbid" or "Far be it from me". The Tanach has chalila and the Talmud has חס לי and chas v'shalom. In the Middle Ages we begin to see chalila v'chas חלילה וחס and in more modern Hebrew we see chas v'chalila חס וחלילה .
It should be noted that the phrase chozer chalila חוזר חלילה - meaning "and so forth", referring to going around in a circle or loop, isn't related to chalila as desecration, but from the root חול meaning "to move in a circle." (We've seen some etymological confusion between those two meanings before.)
And after such a heavy post, I'll end with a joke brought by Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish.
Two Jews decide to assassinate the czar. They bring sharp knives and conceal themselves behind trees in a park where the Russian leader takes his daily stroll. Hours pass, and the czar fails to appear. At sundown one of them worries: “I hope nothing happened to him, chalila."