The Loaded Meaning of the Word

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman



By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman


Lecture #03:

The Loaded Meaning of the Word



The most basic building blocks of any narrative are, naturally, words.  We must therefore begin our discussion with the role of words, primarily the layers of meaning that are sometimes concealed beneath the surface of words.


Plot and the Fabric of Words


In every narrative, there are two essential parameters: the plot (the sequence of events) and the fabric of words.  The main direction of the narrative is naturally the plot, but it only shows itself to the reader through the verbal tapestry that the author weaves.  The division between these two parameters is expressed clearly when one translates the narrative into a different language; even if the verbal network becomes unrecognizable, the plot is preserved.


For many years, semantic and linguistic researchers have held that one may distinguish clearly between these two parameters.  As we noted in our first lecture, R. Avraham Ibn Ezra writes this in his commentary on the Torah when he seeks to minimize the importance of the differences between the Ten Commandments in Shemot 20 and those quoted by Moshe in Devarim 5:


The way of the speakers of the Holy Tongue is that at times they explain the matter in great detail, and at times they will say the same briefly, so that the listener will get the gist of their meaning.  Know that the words are the bodies and the meanings are the souls, and the body is merely the container of the soul.  One is compelled to say that the rule of all of the scholars of any language is that they maintain the meanings, but they are not concerned about altering the words, as the new words share the same meaning as the old. 


Now I will give you examples:


1.            God said to Kayin (Bereishit 4:11-12): "And now cursed are you from the ground...  When you till the ground, it shall not henceforth yield to you her strength; a fugitive and a wanderer will you be in the earth," but Kayin said (ibid. v. 14): "Behold, You have driven me out this day from the face of the land." A thoughtless person may think that the meaning is different because of the change in wording. 

2.            Eliezer said (ibid.  24:17): "Please let me sip," but he later says (ibid. v. 45): "I said to her: 'Please let me drink.'"

3.            Moshe said (Shemot 12:29), "To the first-born of the captive that was in the dungeon;" but it is written (11:5), "to the first-born of the maid-servant that is behind the mill"...


It is as I have told you: sometimes they employ a verbose method, and sometimes they employ a terse method.  Similarly, sometimes they will add a conjunction or remove one, but it is all the same.  While God says, "and blue and purple" (ibid. 25:4), Moshe says, "blue and purple" (ibid. 35:6). God says "onyx stones" (ibid. 25:7), while Moshe says "and onyx stones" (ibid. 35:9).  Other examples of this abound, and [in each case] both are correct: the one without an "and" simply and benignly chooses a terse expression, but also the one with an "and" does no damage by being more explicit.  Now, the "and" which one uses in oration — does anyone look for a reason why it is included or excluded? Both this way and that way are proper.[1]


Ibn Ezra’s claim is that one should view words as the way to concretize an abstract concept.  As a result, the words are only the body in which resides the soul, the inner content, the plot — "the meanings." Because of this, one can switch words with the context remaining the same: "[T]he rule of all of the scholars of any language is that they maintain the meanings, but they are not concerned with changing the words." The Ibn Ezra brings many examples from Tanakh of terminological changes of this sort; according to him there is no difference between the report of the Torah that Avraham's servant said to Rivka, "Please let me sip" and his recollection of this request to her family, "Please let me drink."[2]


The power of Ibn Ezra's approach becomes clear specifically because of the context of his gloss — concerning the differences between the Convocation at Mount Sinai as described in the Book of Shemot and as described in the Book of Devarim! In our first lecture, we argued that this is based on the classical distinction of ancient philosophers (Plato and Aristotle, among others), that the same substance, the same inner content, can be realized in different ways.  Just as this holds true in reality, it holds true in language and literature.


This basic distinction has been preserved by modern thinkers and critics, mainly those who examine the theories of linguistics and syntax.  Chomsky, for example, claims that one must differentiate between the "surface structure" of language and the "deep structure" of it, by which he means the syntactic structure ("surface") versus the internal meaning that the language is attempting to express ("deep"). 


However, in recent years, various doubts have been raised about the strength of the distinction between the two parameters and its applicability to everything connected to the design of prose.  Is it possible to really claim that there is no significance to choosing this word or another, as long as the general content will be understood by the reader? In literary writing, there is significance even to the sounds of words, and they influence the experience of reading.  Even more importantly, there are additional meanings that accompany every word, which may not necessarily be true of its synonym.  Todorov expresses this in its most extreme form in his approach to literature in general:


Before its expression and its understanding, the meaning does not exist… There cannot be two words which have an identical meaning if their expression takes different forms.[3]   


Let us consider an example - the verse setting the scene for Avraham's angelic visitors (Bereishit 18:1): "And God appeared to him in the Plains of Mamrei, as he sat by the tent door in the heat of the day (ke-chom ha-yom)." The Septuagint renders this last phrase "at noon" (mesembrias).[4] It may very well be that the Septuagint is correct, and the essence of "in the heat of the day" is a descriptive expression of time, equivalent to the more literal "ba-tzaharayim." We may find support for this by comparing this verse to the opening one of the next chapter, describing the angels’ arrival in Sedom (ibid. 19:1): "And the two angels came to Sedom at evening, as Lot sat by the gate of Sedom." Just as Avraham is sitting "by the tent door," Lot is sitting "by the gate of Sedom;" similarly, the description of time in Lot's case is "at evening," while by Avraham it is "ke-chom ha-yom," i.e., "at noon." However, can one exchange the term "ba-tzaharayim" with the term "ke-chom ha-yom" without influencing the story and the reader? Is the Ibn Ezra indeed correct that there is no significance in changing the "bodies" since "the meanings" remain the same? Choosing this specific way ("ke-chom ha-yom") to describe the time of day, we may assume, is meant to give the reader a deeper sense of reality, touching on something beyond simple chronology.  In the great heat of noontime in the Negev, Avraham acts in a remarkable way (running, bowing, welcoming his guests), making him even more impressive in the estimation of the reader.  In other words, even if the essence of the expression is to put the event in a chronological context, there is an additional meaning that accompanies the basic description of time; this ancillary meaning also influences the reader, changing one's impression of the character that one is reading about.


Sometimes, the choice of a given word is tied to its pronunciation and alliteration; in a situation such as this, it is clear that the synonym cannot possibly create the same sort of impression.  For example, let us take the reaction of Rivka's brother and mother to the request of Avraham's servant to return to his master (Bereishit 24:55): "Let the girl abide with us a few days, at the least ten; after (achar) that she will go." Immediately following this is the servant's reply (ibid. v. 56): "Delay (te-acharu) me not, seeing that God has granted me success." Since these words are fairly common, it is difficult to say whether there is a special significance of the aural similarity between "achar" and "te-acharu" — however, in any case, this play on words cannot even be considered once one translates the verses into another language. 


Naturally, every single word has its own unique significance in the story beyond its conceptual context, beyond its classical, denotative meaning, and its accompanying associations can influence the reader - the Scriptural connotations connected to it, its sounds, and sometimes even the graphic form of it.  José de Sousa Saramago puts it this way:


Despite what people think generally, definition and meaning have never been the same thing.  Definition has a name; it is straight, literal, explicit, hermetically sealed — unidirectional, one might say — while the meaning is never capable of remaining unchanging; overflowing with secondary, third, and fourth meanings; radiating in all directions, which keep dividing and subdividing in branches and twigs until they are lost in view.  The meaning of each word appears like a star when it begins to project strong tides into space, cosmic winds, magnetic disturbances, afflictions.[5]



Modern Theories and Midrashic Interpretations


These conclusions are accepted today in modern literary criticism.[6] In fact, one may find a deep awareness of this in Midrashic sources.  The hermeneutical process, which seeks out the meaning of every single word and is precise at times even to the point of a single letter, must comport practically with the materials of the narrative as they are revealed to the sensitive reader.  Consequently, there is a certain confluence between the ancient reading of the Sages and the modern readings based on innovative literary theories.  A representative example of the full partnership between Midrashic sources and the connotations and associations that words arouse may be found in the following passage:


"On his wedding day" (Shir Ha-shirim 3:11) — this is the Tabernacle; "and on the day of his heart's joy" (ibid.) — this is the Temple.  From where do we know that the [dedication of the] Tabernacle was like a wedding? It is written, "On the day that Moshe completed (kallot) setting up the Tabernacle" (Bamidbar 7:1) — written "kallat" (bride) — on the day that bride entered her wedding suite.  (Bamidbar Rabba 12:8)


The Midrash builds its exegesis on the ambiguous spelling of "kallot" ("k-l-t" in this version[7]), which allows us to vowelize it as "kallat" and consequently claim that this day is the wedding day of the Jewish nation and the Divine Presence.[8] It is reasonable to assume that even the Midrashic author understood the word essentially to refer to the completion of the construction of the Tabernacle, but the use of this word arouses an additional association, and the author utilized it happily. 


Peripheral Meanings


We may unpack each loaded word by examining the concomitant meanings, beyond the conceptual, denotative sense of each, and divide it into three main categories: emotive, collocative and linguistic connotations.  In this lecture, we will discuss the first two categories; we will leave for our next lecture the discussion of linguistic connotations that accompany the essential definition of the word. 


Emotive Meanings


Fifty years ago, research psychologists published a comprehensive study demonstrating that many people experience certain words as having an intensely loaded emotional meaning.  Many of the participants organized lists of words according to an emotional axis: "bad" and "good" words, "beautiful" and "ugly" words, etc.  This depended to a great extent on free associations and linguistic culture, but what is interesting is that these researchers discovered that speakers of the same language tend to classify words similarly along these moral-emotional axes.[9] In other words, an intelligent author can use a series of words with a negative or positive emotional connotation and thereby influence the reader's subconscious appraisal of character development or the situation that the author is describing.


In Tanakh, we may find an example of this[10] in the verbs that the Torah uses to describe what Shekhem does to Dina (Bereishit 34:2-3):


And Shekhem the son of Chamor the Chivi, the prince of the land, saw her; and he took her, and he lay with her, and he humbled her.  And his soul held fast to Dina the daughter of Yaakov, and he loved the girl, and he spoke to the heart of the girl. 


The phrase "and he took her" in this context does not have a negative emotional connotation, because it is used in Tanakh to describe proper marriages as well (Vayikra 21:14; Devarim 22:13, 24:1, 24:5).  Even the phrase "and he lay with her" does not necessarily arouse a negative emotion in the reader, for it may well be (at this point in the story) that the incident is happening with Dina's consent.  Nevertheless, there is already some ambiguity at this point, as generally speaking, consensual sex is described in Tanakh with the preposition "im" rather than "et." For example, when Amnon entreats Tamar to sleep with him, he says, "Come, lie with (im) me, my sister" (II Shmuel 13:10), and after her refusal, the text describes her rape with the following words: "He overpowered her, and he humbled her, and he lay with (et) her" (ibid. v. 14).[11] If the use of the word "et" indicates a nonconsensual act, already at this point, the reader feels a negative emotion towards this act of Shekhem.  The third expression, "and he humbled her," definitely carries a negative emotional connotation.  Thus, we have three verbs that give us a mounting level of criticism of Shekhem: from a positive verb with positive emotional connotations, to a neutral verb (with perhaps a certain negative implication), to a strong verb that expresses a negative judgment of Shekhem. 


However, the Torah continues to describe Shekhem's actions, and to our great surprise, the verse now uses verbs that are markedly positive.  "And his soul held fast" inspires positive associations, for this is how the verse describes the ideal couple before the sin in the Garden of Eden: "Therefore, a man will desert his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife; they will become one flesh" (ibid. 2:24).  Similarly, the next expression, "and he loved the girl," definitely has a positive emotional connotation; and the final expression in the verse, "and he spoke to the heart of the girl," arouses an unquestionably positive feeling in the reader, as there is an atmosphere of reconciliation.[12]  


In conclusion, following the emotional charge that accompanies the verbs that the Torah chooses to use to express the feelings and actions of Shekhem toward Dina reveals a complex picture.  We might almost say that Scripture "plays" with the reader, so that the reader cannot determine conclusively how to relate to Shekhem.  This ambiguity is tied to a more significant ambiguity in the narrative: is Dina persuaded by Shekhem and interested in remaining in his house (as the phrase "and he spoke to the heart of the girl" seems to indicate), or is Dina a prisoner in the house of Shekhem, so that it is only Shimon and Levi's operation that frees her? This is not the place for a deep analysis of this question, but it will suffice to point out that this ambiguity may be intentional, as it is tied to the ethical question of evaluating the act of Shimon and Levi.[13]


It is inherently clear that the emotive connotation of a given word is intimately connected to the mental and cultural world of the reader, and it is logical that it changes from person to person.  Theoretically, it may be that a person who lives in a violent, aggressive society will feel a different emotion towards a verb that expresses violence than a person who grows up in a moral society.  Nevertheless, one may speak of the "intended reader" of stories in Tanakh, the one whom the Torah and the Prophets see before them, to whom the narrative is directed.  This reader is, for example, a believer, one who sees Divine Providence in the world, one who embraces the concept of reward and punishment.  This ideal "reader" can be described in other, more subtle ways, but it is enough for us now to assume that readers of Tanakh have a shared culture which shapes a common world of associations.


Collocative Meaning


As an expansion of the emotive connotation, Geoffrey Leech argues that part of the influence of a word on its reader depends on the domain that the word belongs to.  There are words that, in the consciousness of the reader, belong to a certain family, and putting them in another semantic realm allows the reader to keep a foot in each world.[14] To demonstrate this, let us continue to read the story of Dina and Shekhem: "And Yaakov heard that Dina his daughter had been defiled" (ibid. v. 5).  After the long list of verbs that describe Shekhem's act earlier (took, lay with, humbled, held fast, loved, spoke), the reader is surprised to encounter a new verb: "defiled." This verb is tied to the Scriptural lexicon of the Temple and its holy things, and bringing it into the story of Dina makes the reader aware of the deleterious effects of Shekhem's act in the world of spirituality and holiness.


This collocative meaning is connected to the characteristics of Scriptural semantics; in other words, when there are words which regularly appear in a certain context that are then dragged into a narrative of a different type, we must analyze if this constitutes an importation of the domain of which they are components.  It is clear that not every word is a component of a certain domain that it brings with it wherever it may appear.  However, it is also clear that there are words whose collocative meaning may be easily established. 


For example, established expressions of prayer may appear in a text to summon the image of one standing in prayer before his Creator.  It appears that this is how we must interpret the words of Yo'av to Avishai his brother on the eve of their battle with Aram and Ammon (II Shmuel 10:11):


And he said, "If Aram be stronger than I, then you will be a salvation for me; and if the Ammonites be stronger than you, then I will come to save you."


The linguistic juxtaposition "to be a salvation" appears only five more times in all of Tanakh.[15] In all of those instances, the subject, the one constituting salvation, is God himself, and only in this case does one human being say it to another (Yo'av to Avishai).  This juxtaposition already appears in the Song of the Sea in Shemot 15:2: "God is my strength and song, and He was a salvation for me," and this echoes throughout the generations as an established form of praise, as Yeshayahu (12:2) uses it: "Behold, in the God of my salvation I will trust and I will not fear, for God is my strength and song, Lord, and He was a salvation for me." Similarly, in Tehillim, in one of the psalms that have been integrated into our prayers as Hallel (and which is clearly linked to Yeshayahu), we find "God is my strength and song, and He was a salvation for me" (118:14) and "I will thank you for you have answered me, and you have been a salvation for me" (ibid.  v. 21). 


In all of these places, the context is part of a hymn of praise to God.  It seems that we should see this phrase as a set linguistic form in songs of praise and gratitude, so that someone reading the story of Yo'av and Avishai in Aram would be familiar with it as such.  Consequently, when the reader encounters this expression coming out of the mouth of Yo'av on the eve of their going out to war against Ammon and Aram, he enters the realm of prayer, of standing before God.  However, there is a gap here between the natural realm of the expression and its realization in the narrative; this use of the expression is not in the context of prayer, but rather in words of encouragement between brothers.  Integrating an expression taken from the domain of prayer into a military conversation alludes to an important concept in Tanakh: martial victory and defeat as an expression of God's will.  This adds to the theme of double causality in the narrative.


As we have said, the emotive and collocative connotations which accompany the word are only a part of its peripheral meanings.  More pivotal is the linguistic connotation, and we must expand on this.  How is it that a word carries within it a double meaning? How is it utilized in the biblical narrative to help the reader assimilate hidden meanings? We will discuss this, God willing, in the next lecture.


 (Translated by Yoseif Bloch)

[1] Ibn Ezra, Commentary on the Torah, Shemot 20:1

[2] This view is also expressed in the Radak's commentary on the story of the servant: "In the repetition of these things, there are changes in the wording, but the meaning is the same, for so is the custom of the Tanakh when it comes to repeating things - it preserves the meaning, but not the words" (Commentary on the Torah, Bereshit 24:39 [Ha-Keter ed., p. 213]). 

[3] T. Todorov, Littérature et signification (Paris, 1967), p. 20.  A deeper analysis of Todorov's approach and this question in general may be found in the fascinating book by Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. 

[4] This term also appears in II Shmuel 4:5, and the Septuagint renders it the same way. 

[5] Todos os nomes, Ed. Caminho, 1997 (Portuguese). 

[6] This is stressed many times by Meir Weiss in his analysis.  See, for example, A. Frisch, "Torato shel Rabbi Meir (Weiss) Be-cheker Ha-Mikra," Kiryat Sefer 63 (5750-5751), pp. 655-659. 

[7] Interestingly, the Masoretic text includes a "vav" as the penultimate letter, so that it must be read "kallot."

[8] Rashi (Bamidbar 7:1) also cites this idea in his comments: "'And it was on the day Moshe completed' — written 'kallat' — on the day that the Tabernacle was set up, the Jewish People were like a bride entering the chuppa." Some commentators bring Rashi in line with the Masoretic text and explain that the exegesis is based not on the absence of a "vav", but on the vowelization of the first letter: "kallot", which could also be translated "brides", instead of the less ambiguous "kelot."   

[9] C.  E.  Osgood, W. H. May, M. S. Miron, Cross-Cultural Universals of Affective Meaning (Urbana-Chicago-London, 1975).

[10] F. Polak, Ha-Sippur Ba-Mikra (Jerusalem, 5759) (2nd ed.), p.  22.

[11] However, this distinction does not hold true in the prototypical case of rape in Devarim (22:25), "And the man will take hold of her and lay with (im) her," so there is some doubt as to whether this point is consequential.  It is interesting that in the story of Lot's daughters in the cave, the Torah distinguishes between the two sisters, saying of the older, "And she lay with (et) her father" (Bereshit 19:33), and of the younger, "And she lay with (im) him" (ibid., v. 35). 

[12] Compare this to the instance with Yosef and his brothers (ibid. 50:21), "And he comforted them, and he spoke to their heart."

[13] This is dealt with expansively by M.  Sternberg, "Izun Adin Be-Sippur Ones Dina," Ha-Sifrut 4 (5733), pp. 193-231.

[14] G. N. Leech, Semantics (Harmondsworth, 1974).

[15] Shemot 15:2; Yeshayahu 12:2; Tehillim 118:14, 21; Iyov 13:16.  Similarly, Yeshayahu 63:8 states (in another song of praise), "And He was to them a savior."