Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Recently, I've been asked by a few people about the Hebrew words for rooster. There are three such words: tarnegol תרנגול, gever גבר and sekhvi שכוי. I've discussed tarnegol here, and Klein writes that a rooster is called a gever because it is a male chicken. But sechvi is a much more complicated word.

Many of us are familiar with the word sechvi from the morning blessings, where we thank God אשר נתן לשכוי בינה להבחין בין יום ובין לילה - "who gave the sechvi understanding to distinguish day from night". In the Koren siddur, Sacks translates sechvi here as "heart", and in the footnotes writes that "this is the translation according to Rabbeinu Asher (Rosh); Rashi and Abudraham read it, 'the cockerel." How did sechvi come to mean either heart or rooster?

The blessing (first mentioned in the Talmud in Berachot 60b) was inspired by a verse in Iyov (38:36), the only time the word sechvi appears in the bible, making it difficult to clarify the meaning. The verse reads:

מִי-שָׁת בַּטֻּחוֹת חָכְמָה    אוֹ מִי-נָתַן לַשֶּׂכְוִי בִינָה

The JPS translates it as "Who put wisdom in the hidden parts? Who gave understanding to the mind [sechvi]?", but in a footnote writes that sechvi could also be translated as "rooster", and concedes that the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain.

Klein has an explanation that can answer why these very different terms were the two options for translating the word. He writes:

Of uncertain etymology and meaning. Usually rendered by 'cock', but also by 'mind' or 'understanding'. In the Talmud and the Midrash שכוי [sechvi] is also rendered mostly by תרנגול [tarnegol] (=cock), but in some passages by בינה or בינתא (=understanding). The word שכוי [sechvi] probably derives from the base שכה (=to look, see), from which both meanings can be derived.

The idea that both meanings can come from a root meaning "to see" is found in many sources, both older (such as Radak's Sefer Hashorashim) as well as more modern ones. Kaddari, in his dictionary writes that if the root is Hebrew (שכה), then the meaning is "likeness, vision in the heart" (based on a similar phrase in Tehilim 73:7), but if it comes from the Aramaic root שכא, "to see", then the options of mind, or possibly rooster come to play.

After all this, I think two primary questions remain. The first is, why is the heart associated with vision? I would think that the mind would be better (we think there, and it is adjacent to our eyes), and in fact we've seen that some translations offer "the mind". But why do others say "the heart"? For this, I highly recommend reading this set of articles about the word lev לב by Ethan Dor-Shav (a four part series, appearing in reverse chronological order). He points out that:

Though the Ancient Hebrew word lev is normally translated as “heart” (like its modern use), not once - in over 850 biblical appearances - does it mean the physical blood-pump muscle. While other body parts are dissected, for instance, in sacrificial animals ("Take the fat of the ram, the fat tail, the fat that covers the entrails, the fatty lobe attached to the liver, the two kidneys and the fat on them, and the right thigh..." Exodus 29:22), an anatomical organ called "heart" is nowhere to be found. Likewise, contrary to what we would expect from the anatomical heart, lev is never associated with blood! At most it is used to depict the chest (where the high priest's breastplate was placed, Absalom was stabbed, and Jehoram got shot through. See entry in Encyclopaedia Biblica, The Bialic Institute). Hosea, too, talks about the whole ribcage as a "heart-cage," or - read much more aptly - the "breastcage" (13:8). That is as close as it gets.

I did a very simplistic search of Talmudic literature, using Jastrow's dictionary, and while the results are clearly not comprehensive, he also does not give any examples where the Talmud or Midrashim use lev or levav לבב as referring to the physical organ. Dor-Shav instead proves that the lev is viewed as the seat of wisdom and understanding - what we would call "the mind". Again, please read his posts, and I think you will also be convinced that at least biblically, lev has all the functions of the mind, and so vision and understanding can easily be associated with it. Clearly, that isn't as much the case in English, so translating sechvi as "heart" can be a little confusing, but it is faithful to the original Hebrew.

My other question is, of all birds, why is the rooster associated with wisdom? And if we follow the expansion of the idea in the morning blessing - how hard is it really to see the difference between day and night?

Ben Yehuda in his dictionary (although since it is in the footnotes, probably Tur-Sinai) discusses this question. He suggests that if sechvi does refer to a bird, perhaps the original meaning was not a rooster, but rather a bird of prey. Hawks are associated with wisdom (Iyov 39:26) as well as eagles/vultures in Mishlei 23:4-5. Certainly if sechvi referred to them, the connection to vision would make sense, as they can see great distances when searching for food.

Daat Mikra on Iyov 38:36 quotes Feliks as writing (based on Gittin 68b) that the wild chicken was likely the duchifat דוכיפת - the hoopoe (now the national bird of Israel), and was known for its wisdom. Wisdom was also associated with the ability to fly - something certainly lacking from today's chickens.

The rabbis mention in a number of locations (Vayikra Rabba 19:24, Yerushalmi Berachot 9:2) that people called the rooster a sechvi. Ben Yehuda suggests that perhaps this was simply a linguistic observation, maybe underlying the fact that a sechvi isn't technically a rooster. However, as we often see, in language, common usage wins out.

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