Monday, January 26, 2015


Bernard asked me about the etymology of the Hebrew word for decision - החלטה hachlata. This is actually kind of tricky.

The word itself is from Modern Hebrew, but the root חלט is biblical. The difficulty, however, is that the root only appears once in the Tanach - in Melachim I 20:33 - and the meaning there is not clear. The verse is describing a conversation between the king of Israel and the servants of the king of Aram. In response to a question from the king of Israel, it is written about the servants

   וְהָאֲנָשִׁים יְנַחֲשׁוּ וַיְמַהֲרוּ וַיַּחְלְטוּ הֲמִמֶּנּוּ 

The JPS translates this as: "The men divined his meaning and quickly caught the word from him [ויחלטו]". They translate the root חלט here (in the kal form - vayachletu, unlike the hifil form we use in modern Hebrew) as "caught". This fits the Aramaic translations of the verse, who use the verb חטף - "to seize". Kaddari suggest that perhaps the verb means "to accept as certain". Daat Mikra on the verse quotes Rashi, who says that they wanted to make what the king said permanent, so they "cut off his words", so he could not change his mind. Rashi's word for permanent is tzmitut צמיתות, which he derives from Vayikra 25:23. There Onkelos translates לצמיתות latzmitut as לחלוטין lachalutin. and Ibn Ezra says the that the root צמת also means "to cut off" (as also found in Tehilim 94:23). So if we accept this meaning of the root, then there is a similar development to the English words "decide" and "decision", which also come from a root meaning "to cut off" (found also in such words as excise, circumcise, and incision).

In post-biblical Hebrew we see the root חלט used more frequently, meaning "to decide", but also "determined", or "absolute", as in the expression lechalutin or the synonymous phrase from the same root - muchlat מוחלט. In Modern Hebrew we also have the expression be'hechlet בהחלט - "certainly, without doubt".

An unrelated root also spelled חלט means "to mix, knead with hot water." In the Talmud we find this verb used to describe mixing boiling water with flour to make dough, or mixing food with vinegar to preserve it. Today it the word is primarily used to describe making tea - chalita חליטה is a tea infusion. 

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