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Monday, May 18, 2009

Bamidbar 1:49 Contronyms: מילים שיש להם מובנים הפכיים

The National Census discussed in this week's Torah portion can be viewed in entirely different ways. Reb Yakov Kaminecki says that counting can be a purely secular matter, to assess military strength or to apportion resources, in which case it evidences a lack of trust in God's promise of victory. On the other hand, it could be motivated by a spiritual purpose, so that the Jewish nation could better emulate the Merkovo, the heavenly host that appeared at Har Sinai, or as Rashi says, "kedei l’hashros Shechinoso aleihem", in order to rest the heavenly presence upon them.

The hamon am, the unenlightened among the people, viewed it as military planning, a lack of faith which later expressed itself in the Chet Hameraglim, the sin of the spies, who said that a realistic comparison of the Jewish people's military strength and the Canaanite armies indicated that the Jews would be routed.
The Levites, on the other hand, understood the real purpose of the Census. The Jewish Nation did not base their decisions on ostensible military realities or on mundane considerations of resources and actuarial prognostication. They were the Nation of God, who, while inhabiting a natural world, were in God's hand and under God's protection, and therefore above the vagaries and caprice of chance or the dismal calculations of economics and strategy.

Reb Yaakov points out that the the Torah says, in 1:2, "Se’u es rosh kol adas b’nei Yisroel." Also, the word "Naso" is used in the beginning of the next Parshah. This expression can have contrary meanings: in the story of Yosef interpreting the dreams of the Sar haofim and the Sar hamashkim, he used the expression "yisa roshcha" for both the sar hamashkim and the sar ha’ofim, but in one case it meant yisa roshcha, he will be elevated and respected, and the in the other it meant yisa roshcha mei’alecha, his head will be separated from his body. One word; two diametrically opposed meanings.

When Christopher Wren completed his Cathedral in the late 1600s, King Charles II was brought to see that great architectural work, which he had commissioned. He said that he found it “awful, artificial, and amusing.” Christopher Wren felt highly honored. He had received a great compliment. At that time, awful meant awe-inspiring or awesome, artificial meant a work of art and craftsmanship, and amusing meant inspired by a muse, or a work of genius. Sometimes, one word can have two meanings that are very, very different. In fact, in a few odd cases, those two meanings are not only different, but actually opposite. This is not like ‘pitted,’ which can mean with pits or pits removed, or boreich, (as in “hamevareich es Hashem,” which means to curse the heavens,) which can be used euphemistically or ironically to have the opposite of the usual meaning. The words I refer to here really have two diametrically opposed definitions. For example, in English, we have the words cleave, which means to cling but also means to split; fast, meaning moving quickly but also immobile; bolt, which means to screw into place, but also to quickly run away; temper, which means quick to heated anger but also to quickly cool off; qualified, which means unquestionably fit, but also unsure and doubtful, and sanction. These words have been described as auto-antonyms, enantiosemic or Janus-words, or, Richard Lederer’s neologism, contronyms.

Freud, in a paper published in 1910 ("Uber den Gegensinn der Urworte", "The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words") refers to this phenomenon, and builds on the theories of a philologist named Abel in 1884. Freud claimed that this displacement expressed itself in dream symbolism, where instead of visualizing something disturbing, a person will dream about its opposite. As Lacan recently said, "the unconscious is structured like a language" I once had a brief correspondence with Professor Laurence Horn, author of A Natural History of Negation (Chicago, 1989), in which he suggested that not only was Freud’s philology utterly unscientific and erroneous, but that his theories were bizarre, and interesting primarily for the window they provided into Freud’s subconscious. In any case, we are not writing here about the history of negation, nor about Freud’s ideas on the subject. We are writing only from the Torah perspective. However, I do find it interesting and ironic that Freud missed a classic example of this theory as applied to dream symbolism-- that when Yosef interpreted the dreams of the butler and the baker, Yosef interpreted identical words and image in the two dreams as having opposite meaning– yisa roshcha either meaning (for the butler) lift your head by pardoning you, or (for the baker) lift your head by removing it from your shoulders, as Reb Yakov Kaminecki noted, quoted above. Let us then disregard Freud's theories about the gegensinn of urworte and focus on developed languages. In the case of such words in, for example, English, one assumes that these chimeras developed because two words that come from different languages coincidentally sounded the same and were joined in the English language, or the same root word was used differently by distantly separated groups. In Hebrew, a language that developed among and was used by a small and relatively homogenous group of people, one would think that such cases would not exist, or would be extremely rare. In fact, however, we find a vast array of such words in Hebrew.

The word Keles can mean praise and glory, but it can also mean shame and disgrace— la’ag vakeles, but le’alei ulikaleis. Atzura can mean attached, or separated. Yosof can mean to add, but it can mean absolutely finished. And the word ‘Chet’ can mean sin, but it can mean cleansing. Arum, from the story of creation in the beginning of Chumash, is another example. Applied to Adam and Chava, it means uncovered, or exposed. Applied to the Nochosh, it means covert, shrewd, or deceptive. And there is also ‘pokad,’ which means remember, as in “pokad es Soroh,” but also missing, as in “lo nifkad mimenu ish.” (A complete list of these words follows this discussion, below.) This duality is noted by the Rambam in his “Moreh Nevuchim.” His example is the word “ponim.” Ponim means face, the exterior, the exposed surface. On the other hand, ponim is very close to ‘Pnim,’ which means the interior, the hidden, and to ‘Lofonim,’ which means long ago, or hidden in the past. According to the Rambam, this phenomenon is not isolated. Instead, he says, the recurrence and centrality of this phenomenon teaches that one must always assume that a word implies something very different from what our initial presumption leads us to believe. Whenever a word is used in the Torah, there is the manifest meaning that is indicated by the context, but there is also a hint, a trace, of a meaning that is very different. In fact, we can use the Rambam’s example as the symbol of this concept— every word has a ponim, a face, a literal and self-evident meaning, but it also has a pnim, an interior in which a meaning that is very different is hiding.

In our tradition, words are very powerful things. They are not merely a tool to enable communication, but instead were created at the same time– and with the same creative power and significance as– the tangible world. Words reflect, in a manner of speaking, the soul of reality. When we realize that words in the Torah are written to have an inherent duality, we must understand that the Torah is teaching us that it is not only words that may contain opposite meanings. The duality of these words teaches us that there is a duality in life itself. Although things mean what they mean, they carry within themselves the potential to mean the opposite. Through the creation of one, the potential for the other is also created. Every thing has a ponim, but it also has a pnim. It has within it a little seed that can grow and produce the opposite of the ponim. A sin, chet, creates the need for cleansing, and remembering, pokad, means that something had previously been, and might in the future be, forgotten. We compose our ponim, our face, to hide what is bifnim, hidden in our hearts.

Chazal apply this philosophy to the greatest of all good things, the Torah itself. It says in Chumash, “vesahmtem es devorai eileh ahl levavchem.” The Gemora says that the Torah is a ‘sahm,’ like a medicine. If one merits, the Torah will be his medicine of life. If he does not merit, then the Torah can be his poison. If one merits, he will draw life from the well of Torah. But if one is not worthy, his behavior will cause that dangerous little seed to sprout and produce not life, but his own destruction.

This is closely related to the philosophical concept called “zeh le’umas zeh.” Hashem told Moshe that he must lead the Bnei Yisroel in a war against the Midyanim, and that after that war he, Moshe, would die. We have to wonder, why does the Torah associate Moshe’s death with the war against Midyan? Was it merely a calendric coincidence, that the war was scheduled first, and Moshe’s death second? There seems to be more to the connection than that. Chazal tell us that Bilaam, the great and evil prophet, died during that war. When Bilaam the Rosho died, Moshe Rabbeinu had to die. Similarly, when the magic of Avodah Zarah came to an end, true prophecy disappeared. The world has to remain in balance, there has to be a tension between good and bad. The divine gift of human free will cannot be disturbed. Not only do words contain contrary meanings, but the world as a whole must be balanced between clashing forces, to the extent that every moment of great holiness creates the potential for evil, and vice versa. And perhaps we can take this even further— every event that takes place, every thing that we experience, every action we take, can result in good things or bad. The expression “blinding sun” also evokes this concept. Light is necessary for vision, but too much light can inhibit, even destroy, vision. Yisro saw the hashgochas Hashem on Klal Yisroel, and he came to join us. Amalek was exposed to the same light, and was blinded by it. Of course, the expression “sagi nahor” is a euphemism, but it can be seen as meaning that the person cannot see just like a person that cannot see because he has too much light. In Yeshaya 55:13 it says, “Tachas hana’atzutz ya’aleh verosh vesachas hasirpod ya’aleh hadas.” This doesn’t only mean that the good berosh and hadas will replace the bad thorns. It means that the thorns themselves will become the source of beroshim and hadasim. And in the next perek it says (56:3-5) “let not the childless say, behold, I am a dry tree...I will give them in my house and in my walls a place and a name.” This, too, means that the suffering and sadness that people experience will enable them to reap blessings greater than they would have been capable of receiving if they had a calmer life.

There is a remarkable Chazal that talks about the power of teshuva. If one does teshuva properly, “zedonosov ne’esin lo kezachuyos.” This means, not only can teshuva erase the red ink in our account book, but it can transform a debit into a credit. Hashem views the sin as if it were a meritorious act. On the other hand, if a person does a mitzvah, and becomes a ba’al ga’avah, or uses his reputation for personal gain or to accomplish wicked things, or creates a chillul hashem, then his mitzvah becomes an aveirah. It is not merely that his merit is erased: his mitzvah, meritorious at the time it was done, is viewed in retrospect as if it were a wicked thing. As A member of my shiur, Lothar Kahn, says, “vehoseir sotton milifoneinu umili’achareinu—” first, the Yeitzer Hora stands in our way to stop us from doing mitzvos. If we overcome him, and do the mitzvah, right away he gives us a yasher koach and says “You are such a tzadik!” This, too, can generate excessive confidence and haughtiness, which ultimately leads to a downfall. Here is the list of words for the moment. If you are aware of any others, please write me at
Sotah 27a top of the daf Kodesh Yosof Bamidbar 11:26, and by Yehuda and Tomor, as Rashi mentions there..
See Kedushin 6a Ozov can mean abandon/leave, can mean stay and help. See Shemos 23:5. (it’s interesting to note that in I Melochim 14:10, it says "otzur ve'ozuv b’Yisroel.” Rashi there explains ‘ozuv’ in that possuk differently than where he brings the possuk in Shmos. In any case, both words, ‘otzur’ and ‘ozuv’, are on this list.
(console/acceptance/comfort, and remorse). But see Rashi in Chumash by No’ach, where he says that it just means change of heart, which could be regret or consolation. Orum Ponim Rambam in Moreh
(Pakad es Sarah, lo nifkad mimenu ish. So ploni nifkad could mean remembered or lost.) Seichel/Sachal. (The difference between a Shin Smalis and a samach is insignificant to everyone except Rava in Sotah 4b. Come to think of it, Maseches Sotah is a funny place for Rava to make that point. I guess that in Rava's Gemara, Sotah and Kli Cheres were spelled with a Shin Smalis.)
(arguable, because it is not justice/mercy, but rather righteousness, or rectitude.)
(armed and ready to pioneer, and abdication/withdrawal) Tzofoh (see, and remove from sight/hide, as in tzafun)
(mixed/blended, and separated/cut off.) (Might be wrong, because one is Mol and the other is mohal.)
Raga: Yeshaya 51:4, it means "calm" and "placid."  Yeshaya 51:15, ten psukim later, it means "agitated" or "turbulent."
Breishis 35:18, Rachel meant weakness/suffering, Yakov meant strength.  See Rashi there.  (Coincidentally, that parsha, Vayeishev, also contains the word Yasaf, where it says about Yehuda and Tamar that lo yasaf le'da'ata.)

Note, also, that wherever these words occur, Rashi states that the two meaning stem from the same idea. He opposes the Rambam’s concept of true contradictory meaning co-existing in a word.  For example, Rashi says that the reason Keles means two opposite things is because Keles means "arousing talk about unusual character."  See also Rashi Kiddushin 6a DH Atzurasi.
מילים שיש להם מובנים הפכיים
UPDATE October 2, 2011, Three Tishrei Ayin Beis.
We just layned Parshas Haazinu, and I was with my mother shlitah in the hospital with a Gemara and a Chumash for two days, the second day of Rosh Hashanna and Shabbos.  I looked at Haazinu more carefully than previously, and I noticed that there is a machlokes brought by Rashi from the Sifrei between Reb Yehuda and Reb Nechemia on passuk 32:36. 
 כִּי יָדִין ה' עַמּוֹ וְעַל עֲבָדָיו יִתְנֶחָם
כִּי יִרְאֶה כִּי אָזְלַת יָד וְאֶפֶס עָצוּר וְעָזוּב
As it turns out, Reb Yehuda and Reb Nechemia learn almost every word in these psukim as meaning diametrically opposed things, with Azlas, Atzur, and Azuv having opposite meanings respectively. Remarkably, this string of dual meanings is introduced with the word Yisnecham.

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