Monday, August 14, 2023

pesher and efshar

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.

 The eighth chapter of Kohelet opens with this verse:

מִי כְּהֶחָכָם וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ פֵּשֶׁר דָּבָר חׇכְמַת אָדָם תָּאִיר פָּנָיו וְעֹז פָּנָיו יְשֻׁנֶּא׃

"Who is like the wise man, and who knows the meaning of the adage: 'A man’s wisdom lights up his face,
So that his deep discontent is dissembled'?" (Kohelet 8:1)

The word translated here as "meaning" is the Hebrew pesher פֵּשֶׁר. Other translations render it as "solution", "explanation," or "interpretation."

In his commentary, Alter notes:

Pesher, “solution,” occurs only here in the Bible, though it is common in later Hebrew. It is cognate with patar, the verb used for Joseph’s solving the enigma of dreams, and would seem to suggest laying open a hidden meaning.

Klein also notes that pesher "is related to base פתר" (patar). Patar is generally translated today as "to solve", and is the root of pitaron פִּתְרוֹן - "solution." This is different from pesher which still is defined as "meaning, explanation", but is more commonly used in contexts where the meaning is unknown or lacking, as in "what is the pesher" or "there is no pesher."

Klein also connects pesher to two other uses of the root פשר - "to compromise, reconcile" and "to thaw, melt." Here's his full entry:

פשׁר to melt, dissolve; to be or become lukewarm; to solve, interpret.
Qal - פָּשַׁר 1 melted, was dissolved; 2 was or became lukewarm; 3 he interpreted.
 Pi. - פִּשֵּׁר PBH 1 he disengaged, freed; PBH 2 he arbitrated, compromised; NH 3 he explained.
Hiph. - הִפֽשִׁיר PBH 1 he caused to melt; PBH 2 he made lukewarm; MH 3 he compromised.

BAram. פְּשַׁר (= he interpreted a dream), Aram. פְּשַׁר (= it melted, was dissolved; he interpreted a dream, solved a riddle), פַּשֵּׁר (= he disengaged; he interpreted a dream, solved a riddle), Syr. פּֽשַׁר (= it melted, was dissolved; he interpreted a dream, solved a riddle), פַּשֵּׁר (= he melted, solved, liquefied; he interpreted a dream), Akka. pashāru (= to solve, to interpret dreams). Arab. fassara (= he explained), is prob. a Syr. loan word.

Klein's etymologies often follow those offered in Ben Yehuda's dictionary. In the notes for שרש in that dictionary, it says that the basic meaning of the root פשר is "the release/loosening of a concrete or abstract thing." 

So this would apply to the physical dissolving of a solid in the process of melting or thawing, and the abstract release of a problem when it is solved, or a dispute when a compromise (פְּשָׁרָה peshara) is reached. This is similar to the relationship in English between the words "solve" and "dissolve." The Online Etymology provides this origin for "solve":

late 14c., solven, "to disperse, dissipate, loosen," from Latin solvere "to loosen, dissolve; untie, release, detach; depart; unlock; scatter; dismiss; accomplish, fulfill; explain; remove," [...]  The meaning "explain, clear up, answer" is attested from 1530s.

And dissolve similarly originally meant:

"to loosen up, break apart," from dis- "apart"  + solvere "to loosen, untie"

Klein connects פשר to two more possible roots. One is שבר shever. It can also mean "interpretation (of a dream)", as in Shoftim 7:15. Since the root שבר generally means "to break", Klein writes that it probably means a "solution (i.e., 'breaking') of a dream." But he also quotes the linguist Jacob Barth, who connects this meaning of shever to pesher, presumably through metathesis.

The other word he sort of connects to pesher is efshar אֶפְשָׁר, usually translated as "possible/possibly", "permitted." or "perhaps." In his entry for פשר, he adds "compare to אפשר." But in the entry for אפשר, he writes:

Of uncertain origin. The usual connection with פָּשַׁר (= it melted, dissolved), must be rejected for semantic reasons.
This also is a case where Klein follows the Ben Yehuda dictionary, which notes the pesher - efshar connection is suggested by Levy, Kohut, and Jastrow, but remains unconvincing. 

However, Even-Shoshan writes in the entry for efshar that maybe it comes from פשר. It does sound reasonable - efshar is something possible, "released" from the realm of impossibility. 

Let's leave it as a possible solution - pesher efshari...

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