Sunday, May 24, 2020

shevet and matteh

There are two Hebrew words that are very similar: shevet שבט and matteh  מטה. 

They both have the same two non-synonymous meanings: stick (or staff) and tribe. And they both appear in parallel in Biblical Hebrew. How is that so?

Let's first take a look at the etymologies. The origins of shevet and matteh are actually very different, which contributes to the mystery.

Shevet comes from a root meaning "to strike."  It has cognates in other Semitic languages, including the Akkadian shabatu (= to beat, kill, destroy). That, according to Klein, is the root of the Hebrew month of Shevat - literally the "month of destroying rain."

Matteh comes from the root נטה meaning "to stretch out" or "to bend down." That root also gives us such words as mita מיטה - "bed" and mata מטה - "down" (as we discussed here.) Perhaps this is either how a stick or branch stretches out (or comes down) from a tree, or because a stick or a staff is brought down on the ground when walking or pointing.

As I mentioned, both appear in Biblical Hebrew. While they each appear more frequently in some books than others, they do appear in the same books, and sometimes even in the same verse, such as this one:

וְגַם אֶת־אַחֶיךָ מַטֵּה לֵוִי שֵׁבֶט אָבִיךָ הַקְרֵב אִתָּךְ וְיִלָּווּ עָלֶיךָ וִישָׁרְתוּךָ וְאַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ אִתָּךְ לִפְנֵי אֹהֶל הָעֵדֻת׃

You [Aharon] shall also associate with yourself your kinsmen the tribe [matteh] of Levi, your ancestral [literally father's] tribe [shevet], to be attached to you and to minister to you, while you and your sons under your charge are before the Tent of the Pact. (Bamidbar 18:2)

In his JPS commentary here, Milgrom writes that "synonyms are used to avoid monotonous repetition." But he adds, referring to this more detailed article of his, that matteh is more precise (referring specifically to one of the 12 tribes), whereas shevet can be also a smaller group (like in this verse, Aharon's father's family) or to the entire nation of Israel (like in Tehilim 74:2). 

How did these two words with distinct origins come to mean both stick and tribe? And why did "stick" develop into "tribe" (twice)?

There are a number of theories:

  • Some say that between "stick" and "tribe" the term meant "scepter." (The Hebrew word for scepter - sharvit שרביט - may have derived from shevet  as well.) That symbol of leadership became associated with the leader of the tribe itself, and then to the tribe he led. This intermediate stage is found in Bereshit 49:10, for example. Based on how he presents the order of the definitions of shevet, I think this is Kaddari's approach. Since he presents that development for shevet, and not for matteh, perhaps he holds that matteh was influenced by shevet in that regard. (For more detail about how the meanings of the words developed, see this Hebrew article by Athalya Brenner. She finds the "missing link" of shevet referring to the actual leader, but that link is not found with matteh.)
  • Stahl has a similar approach, and points out that the the shevet as a scepter signified the leader's power to beat and punish, which connects back to the etymology of the root.
  • Ben Yehuda says that shevet (as stick) became "tribe" in the way a branch splits off from the main part of a tree. In the same way multiple tribes would be divisions of a single nation.
  • Radak takes a different approach. He says that the "original" word was matteh. He writes that one leans (relies) on a matteh (as implied by the root of the word), and both shevet and matteh as "tribe" refer to something you can rely upon. Perhaps he means that in tribal group everyone helps one another.
  • Gesenius combines some of the above approaches, saying that shevet came to be tribe from the authority of the scepter, and matteh represents the branching out (as Ben Yehuda wrote about shevet). I suppose he viewed the developments of shevet and matteh as parallel, but independent.
Before researching this, I thought that there was a parallel development in English, with the word "staff" meaning both "stick" and "group (of people employed by an organization.) But that was a very late entry into English, first appearing only in 1702. It originally had a specifically military sense, as it came "from the notion of the 'baton' that is a badge of office or authority." 

The early Zionist leader and Hebrew linguist Nahum Sokolow adopted this meaning of staff as a group of military officers, and adopted the word matteh for that purpose. So today, the commander in chief of the Israeli army is the rosh hamatteh haklali ראש המטה הכללי - "the Chief of the General Staff" (frequently abbreviated to רמטכ"ל Ramatkal.)

And while in Modern Hebrew matteh has a primarily military connotation, shevet has much more of a civilian tone, used either for groups in youth movements, or to represent an ethnic or large family group (sometimes in a derogatorily way, similar to the English "tribal.") 

As I've said before, Hebrew just can't handle synonyms...

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