Sunday, December 27, 2020


The Hebrew root pakad פקד has many meanings. Some of them seem to be opposites. For example, a mifkad מפקד is a census, where those present are counted. But someone absent is nifkad נפקד (like an AWOL soldier.) What's the story with this root?

Edward Horowitz, in his book How the Hebrew Language Grew, addresses this question (page 56):

Anyone who has studied the Bible in Hebrew or who has even only a fair familiarity with it will remember coming across the word pakad very often. It actually occurs several hundreds of times and in many seemingly unrelated senses. It would be worthwhile to tie them all together.

The root pakad has the large general senses of "to give one's attention to." From this large general meaning there have developed many specialized senses. These simply specify in detail various ways of giving one's attention.

Thus pakad means:

  1. to attend to
  2. to observe
  3. to remember
  4. to seek, and sometimes to seek in vain, i.e. to need, to miss
  5. to visit, and sometimes to visit in an evil sense, i.e. to punish, usually divine punishment
  6. to number
  7. to put someone in charge, to appoint
The nifal [nifkad] picks up three of these senses, and means: 1) was appointed, 2) was visited upon, 3) was sought vainly, i.e. missed. The hifil [hifkid] has the meaning to appoint, and to to entrust or deposit. The hitpael [hitpaked] means "was numbered."

There are a number of nouns that come from this formidable list:

  • pekuda פקודה - visitation, numbering
  • pakid פקיד - overseer, officer
  • pikud פיקוד - a precept, because it means something appointed to be done, a charge
  • pikadon פקדון - something entrusted, a deposit
  • mifkad מפקד - numbering or mustering, appointment
  • tafkid תפקיד - function
A modern language cannot possibly use just one single word in these many important different senses and yet remain sharp, clear and exact. It just because of this very rich development that pakad [in the kal form] is today a beggar word; hardly anyone uses it in ordinary conversation. This word reveals the truth of the rabbinic dictum "If you grasp too much, you grasp nothing."

The hifil though, is frequently used in the sense of "to entrust." Pekuda - command, pakid - officer, and pikadon - a deposit - are also in active use.

Horowitz's book was published in 1960, so some of the meanings of the words he mentioned have changed in more recent Hebrew. For example, pakid now usually means "clerk," pikud means "command" in the military sense (like the Home Front Command - Pikud HaOref  פיקוד העורף), and tafkid usually means "role, position, task." Another military term is mifaked מפקד - "commander."

While providing many of the same meanings, Klein suggests a different etymology. He says the original meaning was probably "to miss." In English the verb "to miss" can mean both "to fail to hit" and "to long for someone." The first sense is reflected in nifkad - "not present," but that same soldier is also being looked for, perhaps longed for, and that provides many of the other meanings, where pakad means "to attend to, to visit, to observe." From there the other meanings of "to appoint," "to number," and "to command" developed.

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