Monday, March 07, 2022

ikar, akar and akeret bayit

Let's take a look at the Hebrew root עקר. As a verb, in the kal form it means "to uproot, extract, displace" and in the piel form means "to neuter, spay, sterilize."  The adjective עקר akar, or in the feminine akara עקרה means "infertile, barren." And the noun ikar (spelled either עִקָּר or עיקר) means "essence, main thing/part, gist", with the associated adjective ikari עיקרי meaning "essential, fundamental, major" and the related ikaron עקרון - "principle" and ekroni עקרוני - "of principle, basic."

What is the connection between these various meanings?

They all derive from the sense of "root." That is the original meaning of ikar. That sense isn't found in Biblical Hebrew (although a related word, eker - "offshoot", appears in Vayikra 25:47), but is common in Aramaic, and can be found as such in the Aramaic sections of Daniel (4:12,20,23). Those verses all have the phrase עִקַּר שׇׁרְשׁוֹהִי, which is generally translated as "the stump with its roots." But since both words mean root in Aramaic, perhaps a more precise translation would be "root of the roots" or "the main root." From Aramaic, ikar entered rabbinic Hebrew, where it has the literal meaning of root (for example in Mishna Maasrot 3:10) and the more metaphorical sense of the "important thing" (as in Mishna Avot 1:17). 

English relates to the word "root" similarly, with it also having the meaning "the cause, source or origin of something." And just as in English, the verb "to root" means "to pull up by the roots, to uproot", so too does the Hebrew verb akar mean "to extract, uproot" (see for example Tzefania 2:4 and Kohelet 3:2). This is an example of a contronym (a homonym which is also an antonym, and we've seen them before).

From here we get to the words related to "barrenness." Klein says that they are "probably a special sense development" from the meaning "to pluck, root up, remove." Gesenius implies that this may derive from an original sense of "castration." (He makes a similar connection between shoresh שורש - "root" and saris סריס - "eunuch.")

One phrase that doesn't appear to be connected to any of the above is akeret bayit עקרת בית - "homemaker, housewife." The phrase originates from a biblical verse, Tehillim 113:9:

מוֹשִׁיבִי עֲקֶרֶת הַבַּיִת אֵם־הַבָּנִים שְׂמֵחָה הַלְלוּ־יָהּ

This is a difficult verse to translate. The new Koren translation offers:

"He sets the childless woman in her home as a joyous mother of children. Hallelujah."

Meaning that the phrase akeret habayit means "the barren woman in the house", and (as Ibn Ezra writes) it's not a conjunctive phrase at all. Others see akeret habayit as one phrase, meaning "the barren one of the house." Even if more translations today suggest the first possibility, the latter one seems to be more popularly accepted. (The grammatical structure does seem to suggest semichut, so I can see why). 

From this understanding of the phrase, a drasha developed, saying that this/the woman is not barren, but rather the ikar - the essence - of the home. For example, Bereshit 29:31 says that Rachel was barren (akara). The midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 71:2) reinterprets the verse to say that Rachel was the ikar, the main part of the household: וְרָחֵל עֲקָרָה, רָחֵל הָיְתָה עִקָּרוֹ שֶׁל בַּיִת.

It's not exactly clear when the phrase came to mean "housewife," (for a more detailed history see here) but it was very likely influenced by this  midrash and others like it (see also Bamidbar Rabba 14:8). However, instead of saying that the essence of the home was the wife, the meaning shifted to "the main part of the (this) woman is in the home." An early example of this is Rashi's commentary on Gittin 52a. The Talmud there mentions that Rabbi Yosei never called his wife "his wife" but rather "his home." Rashi explains his reasoning because "all the needs of the home are taken care of by her hands, and she is the essence of the home."

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