Saturday, February 29, 2020

The word “chidah” (chet-yod-dalet-heh) appears 17 times in Tanach in various forms. The basic meaning of “chidah” seems to be a riddling question. (But sometimes the word is used with a broader meaning.)

The earliest example of a riddle in Tanach is one that Shimshon challenged to the Pelishtim. The phrase used by Shimshon was “achudah na lachem chidah.” The riddle itself was a cryptic six-word statement alluding to food, with the last three words being: “u-meaz yatza matok” (=out of the strong, came forth sweetness). The Pelishtim were supposed to guess what Shimshon was alluding to. (He was alluding to his having recently eaten honey from bees that were in the carcass of a lion.) He gave them seven days to figure out what he was alluding to and specified a reward to them if they could. After a few days, they threaten Delilah and have her get the answer from Shimshon. Delilah gets the answer and secretly reveals it to them.

The riddle of today’s column is: What is the origin and meaning of the verb chet-vav-dalet and the noun chet-yod-dalet-heh? Surely these words have their origin in something more concrete than “riddle.”

Just to review, we all know of a verb Ch-D-H that means “rejoice.” (E.g., the word “chedvah.”) We also all know of a verb Ch-D-D that has a “sharpness” meaning. (Remember that by “va-yichad Yitro,” Ex. 18:9, Rashi mentions both of these as possible interpretations.) But nowhere in Tanach, outside of this riddle context, are there verbs chet-vav-dalet or chet-yod-dalet.

A widespread explanation is as follows. Parts of the book of Daniel are in Aramaic. There the word for riddles has an aleph in front of it: A-Ch-Y-D-N. (The N reflects that the word is in the plural.) The suggestion is that perhaps the original word for riddle in Hebrew had that initial aleph. The root would be A-Ch-D. The next step is to realize that dalet and zayin are related letters in Semitic languages. So A-Ch-D would have a meaning like A-Ch-Z. We all know that the root A-Ch-Z means “seize.” But sometimes in Tanach it seems to have a meaning like “shut, close up.” See Nech. 7:3 and the Daat Mikra commentary there. So the suggestion is that a riddle comes from a “shut, closed up” meaning of the root A-Ch-D, since a riddle is something whose meaning is “shut” and “closed up.”

Of course, not everyone agrees with this multi-step solution. We just took a word in Hebrew and assumed that there was once an initial aleph there that got lost. Maybe that was not justified. Maybe Aramaic added the initial aleph. In Akkadian, for example, there are words similar to “chud” and “chidah” that may mean riddle. In these Akkadian words there is no initial aleph, just like in Hebrew.

What are our other choices to explain chud and chidah?

The Brown-Driver-Briggs work noted an Arabic word “hada” that meant “turn aside, avoid” and suggested that it was perhaps connected to the Hebrew word because of the “obscure” nature of a riddle.

The more recent work Koehler-Baumgartner related it to an Aramaic root chet-vav-dalet that means “to join together.” This is also implied in the entry of Jastrow, p. 430. Presumably, the idea is that a riddle joins together two different subjects. Something like this is found in Mandelkern, relating it to an Arabic word that means “join.”

Another suggestion notes that there is an Arabic word with the root chet-dalet that means “tied a knot.” (Note that at Daniel 5:12, after it refers to Daniel as a solver of riddles, it calls him a “mesharei kitrin” =a loosener of knots.) This “knot” origin approach is taken in the Soncino commentary to Judges 14:9. The comment there is: “The word chidah is derived from a root ‘to tie in a knot’…“ (Even in English, we have the expression “knotty problems.”)

Upon reflecting on all this, I realized that, pre-solution, a riddle is a knotty problem that needs to be solved. But post-solution, the riddle joins two disparate ideas. Perhaps the first step in understanding the etymology of the word is to decide whether we think the Hebrew word for riddle more likely would describe the pre-solution situation or the post-solution situation.

I mentioned in a previous column that the etymology of the word “safek” (doubt) remains “uncertain”! So here too, we will conclude that the etymology of the word “chidah” remains a “riddle”! (Perhaps we should ask Adam West to ask Frank Gorshin!)

P.S. I cannot leave this topic without mentioning Mandelkern’s suggestion that every riddle has a “sting” to it. Thus he suggests a relation to the verb Ch-D-D!


Now I would like to discuss one “riddle” of a word that was discussed recently in a column at balashon.com.

When I read The Wall Street Journal, they sometimes refer to a big corporation as a “behemoth.” What are they alluding to? In the book of Job, verses 40:15-24, there is a section that describes an extraordinary animal and uses the word BHMOT (“vehemot”). We all know the word BHMH for a single animal and the plural appears several times in Tanach to refer to many animals. But in this section of Job, the plural form is used but it is referring to one animal. What is going on here?

One view points out that the plural in Hebrew can sometimes refer to only one object. For example, this may be the explanation for “Elokim” as a name of God. (See Ibn Ezra to Gen. 1:1.) Another example is “adonim” that is used for one master. See, e.g., Isaiah 19:4 and Malachi 1:6. The plural is a sign of respect or extraordinariness. So at Job 40:15, the proper translation would be something like “super-beast.”

But the other view of BHMOT at Job 40:15 would say that we have just missed something major and completely misinterpreted the word. The word is the Hebrew word for “hippopotamus”! The Hebrew word would have been based on the Egyptian word for hippopotamus: “pehemau.” Those who take this approach then have to argue that all the details of the beast over the nine verses match the description of a hippopotamus. (Rabbi Slifkin believes that they do. See his “Sacred Monsters,” pp. 185-87.)

The author of the balashon.com site suggests a compromise position. When that Egyptian word “pehemau” was heard by the Israelites, they Hebraicized it to “behemoth.” The result is a word that looks like Hebrew but really had a foreign origin.

On a related note, I am still waiting for archaeology to find the original name of the Aramean king “Kushan-Rishatayim.” See Judges Chap. 3. Probably this was not exactly his original name, but the Israelites twisted it a bit to make him “doubly wicked”!

By Mitchell First

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected] A riddle for my readers: Which Jewish Link columnist has a (distant) relative named “Last”? That would be me!

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.