Sunday, July 09, 2023

bitachon and avatiach

This post is part of a series about words from Kohelet, in honor of the release of my new book, Kohelet - A Map to Eden. For more information about the book, and how to get a discount for your purchase, see this Balashon entry.

A word common in Hebrew today, but rare in Biblical Hebrew, is bitachon בִּטָּחוֹן. It appears in Kohelet:

כִּי־מִי אֲשֶׁר (יבחר) [יְחֻבַּר] אֶל כׇּל־הַחַיִּים יֵשׁ בִּטָּחוֹן כִּי־לְכֶלֶב חַי הוּא טוֹב מִן־הָאַרְיֵה הַמֵּת׃

"For he who is attached to the living has something to trust in: that a live dog is better than a dead lion." (Kohelet 9:4)

Here the word bitachon is translated as "something to trust in." 

The other occurrences of the word are in two parallel verses (Melachim II 18:19 and Yeshayahu 36:4), quoting the Assyrian commander Ravshakeh's words to the Judean king Chizkiyahu:

וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם רַבְשָׁקֵה אִמְרוּ־נָא אֶל־חִזְקִיָּהוּ כֹּה־אָמַר הַמֶּלֶךְ הַגָּדוֹל מֶלֶךְ אַשּׁוּר מָה הַבִּטָּחוֹן הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בָּטָחְתָּ׃

And Ravshakeh said to them, "You tell Chizkiyahu: Thus said the great king, the king of Assyria: 'What is this confidence in which you place trust?'"

Here, bitachon is identified as "confidence." The same verse(s) also include the verb בטח - "to place trust", which of course is the root of bitachon. 

That root appears much more frequently - 120 times throughout the Tanakh. It generally means "to trust, rely, depend upon." 

However, there are some verses where the root appears to mean something else. This Safa-Ivrit essay does a good job of explaining why, and I'll try to summarize it and provide some additional understandings. 

The author notes that in Arabic, the similar root bataha means "to knock down, throw on the ground." He believes this is cognate with the Hebrew בטח, and writes that this can explain those verses where the meaning "to trust" seems difficult to accept.

He first cites Yirmiyahu 12:5- 

כִּי אֶת־רַגְלִים  רַצְתָּה וַיַּלְאוּךָ וְאֵיךְ תְּתַחֲרֶה אֶת־הַסּוּסִים וּבְאֶרֶץ שָׁלוֹם אַתָּה בוֹטֵחַ וְאֵיךְ תַּעֲשֶׂה בִּגְאוֹן הַיַּרְדֵּן׃

His suggested translation would be something like:

"If you race with the foot-runners and they exhaust you, how then can you compete with horses? If you tumble [boteach] in a tranquil land, how will you fare in the jungle of the Jordan?"

He then quotes Mishlei 14:16 - 

חָכָם יָרֵא וְסָר מֵרָע וּכְסִיל מִתְעַבֵּר וּבוֹטֵחַ׃

And again he offers a translation that adopts the meaning found in Arabic:

"A wise man fears, and departs from evil: but the fool rages, and slips [boteach]."

This explanation is also offered by Rashi in his commentary, who quotes the verse from Yirmiyahu as support.

The author then suggests that we should understand the root בטח as "to lean on something, be supported by something, place your weight on something." When you lean on something, it may indeed descend to the ground. 

This helps explain one further difficult verse, Tehilim 22:10 -

כִּי־אַתָּה גֹחִי מִבָּטֶן מַבְטִיחִי עַל־שְׁדֵי אִמִּי׃

Some translations try to explain the word מַבְטִיחִי as relating to trust:

"You took me from the womb, you made me trust at my mother's breast."

But the Safa-Ivrit essay says this can be better explained by utilizing the Arabic cognate, and could be translated as "you lean me [or lay me] on my mother's breast." Of course, in the abstract sense, this does imply as well the trust that the child has in the mother.

That meaning of "trust" finds itself in other related Hebrew words. The biblical nouns בֶּטַח and בִּטְחָה mean "safety, security." We also find the hifil form in a few verses. The meaning isn't always entirely clear, and seems to mean more literally "make someone trust you." In later Hebrew this develops into the more common meaning "to promise."

In Modern Hebrew, we find many nouns deriving from בטח with specialized meanings that represent much more recent concepts:

  • ביטוח bituach - "insurance"
  • בטיחות betichut - "safety"
  • אבטחה avtacha - "protection, security" (usually used for protecting people, property, data)
  • בטחון bitachon - from the biblical sense of "something to trust in" or "confidence", it later took on the more religious sense of confidence or faith (for example in God), and today has a more secular meaning as self-confidence, as well as security in the military sense, as in שר הבטחון Sar HaBitachon - "Defense Minister."
We also find the more colloquial term בטח betach, meaning "sure thing, definitely." Starting in the 1930s, the Israeli linguist Yitzhak Avineri railed against its use, saying it was a foreign borrowing, with no earlier Hebrew usage. However, this use is very much part of Hebrew today, and has even developed an opposite, sarcastic meaning of "no way!" or "fat chance!".

One potential cognate of בטח is אבטיח avatiach - "watermelon." It only appears once in the Tanakh, in the list of Egyptian foods in Bemidbar 11:5. It has cognates in the Aramaic אֲבַטִּיחָא and the Arabic batich. In Arabic culture, watermelons were so ubiquitous and cheap, that they were part of a slang expression that later entered Hebrew:  “lo <something>, v’lo batich” ולא בטיח – meaning “I didn’t get X, and I didn’t get watermelon,” i.e., I got nothing. 

As noted here, the Arabic baṭṭīḫ is the source of the "Spanish budieca, Portuguese pateca and French pateque, the modern French pastèque."

There are at least two theories of how avatiach might be connected to בטח. The Safa Ivrit article mentioned above suggests that perhaps it is due to the nature of watermelons to grow sprawling on the ground, since as noted, בטח can also indicate being on the ground.

The TDOT quotes the linguist Ludwig Kohler as claiming that the Semitic root means "to be plump, taut" (the first of which applies to watermelons) and also "to be firm, tight" (the first of which implies security and trust.)

Both theories are plausible, and certainly interesting. However, I can't help but end with the very true reservation offered by the TDOT: 

"Indeed, in Hebrew homonymous roots are nothing uncommon." 



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