Friday, March 02, 2007

zecher and zachar

This shabbat is Parshat Zachor, where we must remember (זכור) what Amalek did to us on our way out of Egypt. Is there any connection between zecher זכר - "remembrance, memory" and zachar זכר - "male"?

Klein says that some scholars make a connection. They claim that the root זכר originally meant "to pierce". From here we get the concept of memory - "to pierce" -> "to fix in one's mind" -> "to remember". Zachar as "male" is anatomically associated with piercing (think of the biological symbol for male), just as the word for "female", nekeva נקבה - is related to נקב - "to puncture, pierce".

Steinberg points out that the Aramaic for זכר is דכר, which is related to דקר - also "to pierce".

Until fairly recently I confused zachar and zachor: I mistakenly thought the Friday night gathering before a brit was a shalom zachor (connected to rememberance) and not shalom zachar (welcoming the male child).

From the gemara in Bava Batra 21b, we see that Yoav made a similar mistake. It says there that:

David sent his commander Yoav to fight Edom, and Yoav killed all the males. David asked why he did that, and Yoav answered because of the pasuk *Timche et Zachar Amalek (you shall wipe out all of the MALES of Amalek - Devarim [Deuteronomy] 25:19). David ... explained that it's Zecher Amalek (...the MEMORY of Amalek) , not Zachar.
Rav Mordechai Breuer here quotes Rav Meshulam Roth as saying that this story is hard to accept. How could Yoav have confused zachar and zecher? And here it was in the construct state (smichut) - so it would have been zchar amalek - even further away from zecher! But Rav Roth continues that there are some words where in the construct state they become like zecher - for example, ashan עָשָן becomes eshen עֶשֶן. So from here he learns that Yoav learned the word zecher with two segol marks. Had he learned it correctly, withe a tzerei instead of the first segol, he wouldn't have made the mistake. This is important, for there is a rabbinic disagreement as to whether the word zecher is with two segol marks, or one tzerei and one segol. Rav Breuer's article states that we must be faithful to the Masoretic text, which indicates the word should be marked with the tzerei - and reading the verse twice casts doubts on this text and should not be done!

Rav Breuer passed away this week. A number of bloggers have written about him: see here, here, here and here for example. During my time in Yeshivat HaKibbutz HaDati I merited hearing Rav Breuer speak on a number of occasions. I was always impressed with his sharp wit, his unbending passion for truth and his originality that was so convincing you couldn't believe you never thought of it before. I have since purchased his books Pirkei Moadot and Pirkei Bereshit, and have continued to learn much from them.

In 1998 the magazine Deot had an interview with him. To explain his method of study, he gave the following example:
There was a disagreement between the Sages as to whether the mezuza should be placed horizontally or vertically. As a compromise, it was placed on an angle.

The lesson to be learned from this, is that if one was to come and look at the mezuza without knowing the background, he would think that it was placed on an angle as the ideal state. But someone who knows the story, is aware that there is nothing ideal about the angle, but the significance lies in the disagreement between the horizontal and vertical positions.
This insight has much to do with what I'm trying to do with this site. Everyone can see the mezuza on an angle - I'm trying to see the back story, how it should be seen as both vertical and horizontal - concurrently! (This is why you should excuse any apparent contradictions in my writing...)

Rav Breuer's daughter, Elisheva was the ulpan teacher in the yeshiva, in my first year out of high school. My knowledge of Hebrew was practically zero. I don't remember particular lessons from her class, but I'm sure some of my passion for Hebrew comes from her. And her husband, Rav Avia Hacohen was my Torah and Tanach teacher - and again, much of my love of learning the Bible derives from his teaching.

May the memory of Rav Breuer be a blessing, and may his family be comforted in the building of Tzion.

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