Sunday, June 13, 2021

kriyat yam suf

I recently came across an early draft of the speech my son prepared for his bar mitzva, ten years ago this month. It was rather nostalgic to see it again. And while I enjoyed hearing his points, I was actually more fascinated with the typos and misspellings in this first draft. On the one hand, they prove that he actually wrote the speech himself, which was impressive for a 13 year old. But it also was cute to enter the mind of a kid who grew up in Israel, spoke English at home, and tried to straddle both worlds when writing his speech.

One of the most curious phrases he used was "the tearing of the Red Sea." Normally, in English we say "the splitting of the Red Sea." But he directly translated the Hebrew phrase kriyat yam suf קריעת ים סוף. The verb kriya, from the root קרע, means "to tear" and so in the literal sense, his translation to English was logical.

But this actually brings us to a more substantial question. Why do we call it kriyat yam suf? In the Bible, the verbs used to describe the splitting of the sea are baka בקע (as in Shemot 14:16, 21, Tehillim 78:13 and Nechemiah 9:11), or less frequently, gazar גזר (as in Tehillim 136:13). Both roots mean to split, with various nuances. So why did Rabbinic Hebrew (like in the Dayenu song found in the Haggadah) prefer a different Biblical root: kara?

I found a detailed discussion of the question in this article

"'קריעת ים סוף' כמשקפת תהליכי לשון" מאת ציון עוקשי פורסם בכתב העת דעת לשון – מחקרים בלשון העברית לתקופותיה, מכללת אפרתה, ירושלים תשס"ח

The author, Tzion Okashi, focuses primarily on the distinction between baka and kara, and suggests two possible reasons for the later use of kara. One might be from Aramaic influence, as is frequently found in words adopted in Rabbinic Hebrew. He point out that the Aramaic translations of the Bible use the root בזע to translate both בקע and קרע, which may have led to the shift of one usage to the other.

The other answer I found more interesting. He says this is due to a change in the perception of the nature of the event. While the Torah uses the word baka, that is generally applied to the splitting of a solid, hard object, like a rock or a block of wood. That type of splitting can not be repaired or restored. The action of kriya, however, is associated with the tearing of softer items like garments (as is practiced, for example, in Jewish mourning.) According to this theory, those who preferred to refer to kriyat yam suf visualized the sea closing up on itself after the split. The split was not permanent, just as clothing can be repaired, or a zipper can close the opening in a garment. Okashi writes that the Tanach chose to focus on the force of the miracle, which split the sea as one would break open a block of wood, while the Sages preferred the image of the water letting Israel pass through, only to close upon the pursuing Egyptians.

So it seems that even at that early age, our son somehow picked up on the same message the Sages did when they chose their phrasing. Quite impressive, I must say!

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