Sunday, January 19, 2020


Today I was thinking about the word teiva תבה. In the entire Bible, it only appears twice: as the word for Noah's ark and for the baby Moshe's basket.

Here is Klein's entry for teivah:

1 ark, box. 
NH 2 Holy Ark (in the synagogue). 
PBH 3 word. 
[Prob. a loan word from Egypt. tbt (= chest; coffin). Arab. tābūt (= box, case, chest, coffer), is a Heb. loan word.]

I can easily understand how the word progressed from meaning 1 ("box") to meaning 2 ("Holy Ark in the synagogue" - although the word for the Ark that carried the Tablets of the Law in the desert is aron ארון.)  But how did teiva come to mean "word"?

This was surprisingly difficult to research. First of all, the dictionaries that I thought would help me - Ben Yehuda, Jastrow, Klein, Even-Shoshan - all mentioned the various meanings, including "word", but didn't explain the shift in meaning.

Secondly, since the meaning is "word", searching online is really challenging. If I'm looking for a web page or article, I often search for the the term and include the various meanings. That will usually pull up something helpful. But since the meaning is "word" - well, that appears on probably every page. Not really beneficial.

So I had to try a little harder. I did find some discussion of it in the dictionary Aruch Hashalem by Alexander Kohut. He says that some claim that teiva meaning "word" comes from a different source - an Arabic root meaning "to cut." And therefore, teiva means a word "cut and separate" from other letters in the text.

He then compares teiva to a common word for "word" - mila מילה.  This word is familiar from the phrase brit milah ברית מילה - "circumcision." So according to this theory, both teiva and mila come from the sense "to cut."

However, this theory is problematic. From their uses in Rabbinic Hebrew (where teiva first means "word"), mila refers to spoken words, and teiva to written words. This also fits the etymology of mila.  Klein points out that mila meaning circumcision comes from the root מול - "to circumcise", whereas mila meaning "word" comes from מלל - a root meaning "to speak, to say."

So while "cut" could be still be an origin of teiva, the parallel to mila doesn't hold up.

Kohut then provides a second theory, saying that in a teiva, the letters are connected as if they were in a box. This seems like a more reasonable theory - it keeps the various meanings of teiva with the same origin, as all of the dictionaries I checked claimed.

A further expansion on this idea is found in the Hebrew Wiktionary entry for teiva. The entry provides five meanings found in Biblical and Rabbinic sources:

  1. boat (Bereshit 7:13, Shemot 2:3)
  2. box (Mishna Tahorot 8:2)
  3. ark (closet) that holds the Torah scrolls (Mishna Taanit 2:1)
  4. a rectangle or square; the rectangle that one word is written in (Talmud Yerushalmi Eruvin 5:1, Talmud Bavli Menachot 30a)
  5. a word with a space before and after it (Talmud Bavli 30a)
There is a note there saying that meaning 5 derived from meaning 4. This works well with Kohut's second theory. The only issue is that neither example provided in 4 are particularly convincing. The source from the Jerusalem Talmud says, "How did did the Israelites march in the desert? Like a teiva." This means they formed a square (in contrast with the other opinion, which says they marched in a column, like a beam.) That doesn't really mean that teiva meant "rectangle", but only that a rectangle is like a teiva, because of the shape. 

The second example, from Menachot 30a says that when writing a Torah scroll, the space between one teiva and another teiva must be the size of one small letter. While I suppose it's possible that teiva there could mean the rectangle that contained a word, the simpler meaning is that it just meant the space between one word and the following word. And the Wiktionary entry itself provides a quote from the same page in Menachot where teiva clearly means "word"!

Now, if I could find some evidence that all words were enclosed in rectangles, there would be more support for this theory. I'm not a scribe, so I can't speak from personal experience, and I couldn't find any mention of that in the sources I checked. And the nature of Wiki editing prevents me from contacting the person who wrote this theory. But if any of you out there have any proof, or even suggestions, one way or another - please let me know!

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