Monday, March 29, 2021

mashal and moshel

The 929 Project, which covers a chapter of the Tanakh every day over a 3.5 year cycle, will be starting the book of Mishlei (Proverbs) soon. Since I write a weekly entry for 929, I thought I would take the opportunity here to look into the word mashal משל - the source of the book Mishlei.

In the Bible, the root משל has two meanings - "to rule" and "to resemble, to make like, to speak in parables." The first sense, to rule, appears 81 times as a verb, and also has noun forms, like moshel מושל - "ruler. governor" and memshala ממשלה - meaning "rule, dominion" in Biblical Hebrew, and "government" in Modern Hebrew.

The second meaning occurs 17 times as a verb, and an additional 39 as a noun, generally translated as "proverb" (giving the name to the biblical book.)

Is there a connection between the two meanings? Many older sources do make a connection. Here are a few examples:

Rabbi Hirsch, on Bereshit 4:9, writes that the basic meaning of mashal is "to declare what something is and should be, to give its character and designation. Hence: to command, to rule. […] Hence, also the Proverbs of Shlomo: saying which tell us what men and things are and should be. So in general. But hence mashal also means quite specially such a saying or sentence whose meaning refers not to the things actually described in it, but they are used metaphorically to refer to some general fact or teaching, to describe the character or designation of something else, i.e. a parable."

Jastrow has the original meaning as "to handle, to touch" (he brings the example of Yoma 46a - "the fire had taken hold of them.")  That sense developed into a) to attend, manage, control, and b) something tangible, substantial, plausible. From there it developed to "a truth substantiated by an illustration, wise saying, fable, allegory, example."

Steinberg suggests that the earlier, common meaning was "to straighten, to organize." This organization can both be done by a ruler, or by an orator, who arranges two concepts in a parable.

Gesenius, in his dictionary, writes: "Learned men have made many attempts to reconcile the significations of making like and ruling […] I have no doubt but from the signification of making like, is derived from that of judging, forming an opinion […] which is nearly allied to the notion of giving sentence, ordering, ruling."

However, more recent scholars have begun to doubt that the two meanings share a common origin. Klein, for example, lists them as two separate entries. For the meaning "to rule," he provides one cognate: the Phoenician משל. For the sense "to be like, resemble, to speak in parables," he offers a number of Semitic cognates:

Aramaic מְתַל (= was like, resembled), Syriac מְתַל (= he compared; he spoke in parables), Akkadian mashālu (= to be like), Arabic mathala (= was like, resembled, imitated), mithl (= a thing similar, resemblance, likeness), Ethiopian masala (= became like).

The substitution of the "sh" for "t/th" in many of these languages, but only for this meaning, could indicate a separate origin. (The Aramaic amatla אמתלא - "excuse, pretext" derives from the cognate מתל, and has entered Hebrew as אמתלה, with the same meaning.)

But as Prof. Chaim Cohen argued in this comprehensive article (English summary here, pp. 372-373), this may not be the case. He writes that "while a majority of Biblical scholars today derive the term משל from a primary verb מש"ל 'to be like' […] this view, despite many attempts to bolster it with additional evidence, has never been sufficiently compelling to win overall scholarly approval." He goes on to claim that the original meaning of the noun mashal is "saying" and the verb means "to express, relate." 

This understanding fits the book of Proverbs well. While many of the Proverbs are indeed parables - for example, "A passerby who gets embroiled in someone else’s quarrel is like one who seizes a dog by its ears." (Mishlei 26:17), others are simply sayings without a metaphor: "Do not envy evil men; Do not desire to be with them" (Mishlei 24:1). 

So it could well be that the original meaning of mashal was "saying" and then later developed to the more specific type of saying - the parable.

If that's the case, perhaps we can make a connection to "ruling" after all. I did not see this mentioned in the sources I read, but there are other words in Hebrew that connect ruling to speaking - see my posts on nagid נגיד and amar אמר. It would not surprise me if mashal is an additional example.

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