Hebrew roots – they don’t always do what you expect

There’s something that I’ve found really perplexing in conversations about Hebrew with English speakers, and I think I’ve finally got it.

Last night I was talking to an English speaker online about the word “bara”, the Hebrew word in Genesis 1:1 which is translated into English as “created”. (This has its own interesting problems, in that “created” is also the word you’d use for, say, a sculptor sculpting stuff into a shape. In Hebrew we have a separate word for that. But I digress.)

The guy I was talking to – consulting a dictionary, I assume – said: oh, I see “bara” also has another meaning, to do with fattening.

I was totally stumped. I know the word “bara” and I know it to only have that one meaning: it’s used to describe God creating stuff. I couldn’t think of any connection with fattening. But I opened my Biblical Hebrew dictionary and looked for other words with the same root, and found the verb “hivri” (which I don’t think we use in this sense in modern Hebrew, so it didn’t come to mind earlier) which is used to describe the fattening of animals for slaughter.

So I went back to this guy and said: oh, I think I see where you got this idea, but no, the verb “hivri” is totally different from the verb “bara”, they just happen to have the same root.

His response gave me this light bulb moment – I can now see that from the point of view of English speakers, because of how English normally behaves, there is an assumption that if two words have the same root then they must share something in terms of meaning. So when the dictionary tells you that the word “hivri” and the word “bara” have the same root, you think there must be some connection there, there must be some sense of “fattening” included in the concept of creation. Which could, if you’re not careful, take you down a very weird and unhelpful path.

Hebrew doesn’t work the same way as English. Maybe it would have been better if we had a different term rather than “root” so that English speakers wouldn’t have this expectation. But let me try and explain.

In Hebrew, each and every word has this thing we call a root – normally a combination of three letters. Those three letters are not a word in their own right, they are just three letters. (In the case of the verbs “bara” and “hivri”, for example, the 3-letter root is Bet Resh Aleph.) We then have something called “mishkal” which is like the shape, or the mould, into which the root letters are placed. (The “mishkal” gives clues as to what kind of word this is, but I’m not going to try and go into that level of detail here.)

Quite often, words with the same root do have something in common in terms of meaning. Quite often – but not always. You can’t assume that they always do.

The root Bet Resh Aleph, the root of the verb “bara” (created), is also the root of the word “bari”, which means: healthy. We have a few different words in that “health” family: “briut” means health; “hivri” in modern Hebrew means “became healthy” – as in when you get better after you’ve been ill. So you see there is a little word family with the same root – but there are also words with that same root which are not part of that family, they don’t share a meaning. The verb “bara” has nothing to do with health. The word “bari” (healthy) has nothing to do with creation.

As I thought of words to do with health, I thought of another one: the verb “hekhlim”, which is a synonym of “hivri”, meaning “became well” [after an illness], or “recovered”. We have another word related to this verb – we have the noun “hakhlama”, which means recovery [from an illness]. But we also have another word family with the same root, which has nothing to do with health or illness: it’s to do with dreaming. The root of the verb “hekhlim” is Khet Lamed Mem, and it is also the root of the verb “khalam”, which means “dreamt”, and of the noun “khalom”, which means “a dream”.

Another example that came to my mind is the root Zayin Kaph Resh, which is the root of the adjective “zakhar”, meaning “male”; but it is also the root of a whole word family to do with memory, including the verb “zakhar” (remembered), the noun “mazkeret” (a souvenir, something to help you remember a place or a person) and the noun “zikaron” (memory).

I’m not an expert on etymology, but I remember reading something on an Israeli linguist’s blog about how sometimes we have words that have the same root by accident, because we borrowed two different words from two different languages. So maybe “zakhar” as “male” came from one language and “zakhar” in the memory sense came from another language. (Similar to what can happen in English with bits of words borrowed from different languages. The “homo” in “homo sapiens” is not the same as the “homo” in “homonym”. One comes from Latin and one comes from Greek.)

Bottom line: if the dictionary tells you that two Hebrew words have the same root, please don’t assume they are of the same family in terms of meaning.

You may find it helpful to think of it like surnames: if you meet two people called John Smith and Jane Smith, they may or may not be related.

2 thoughts on “Hebrew roots – they don’t always do what you expect

  1. Here I was, thinking this would be an article on Noahides or other aspects of the Hebrew Roots movements floating around. Misunderstandings are so easy to come by. Thanks Meirav for clarifying at least one issue …

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