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Monday, May 20, 2019

Nun-Shin-Kof is an interesting root because it has two different meanings: “kiss” and “military equipment.”

Could these meanings be related? After all, the purpose of military equipment is to create a physical contact with the enemy, even though it is a hostile contact!

I always thought the two roots were related. Even in English, we have an expression “kiss of death.” This led me to think that the “military equipment” meaning was a euphemism of some sort.

But now that I have researched this topic, I see that the prevailing view is that these two roots are not related.

Regarding the “kiss” meaning, it is very likely that this was not the original meaning of the word. Most likely, the original meaning of the word was something like “join together.”

There is evidence for this “join together” meaning in Arabic. There is perhaps evidence in the Tanach for this meaning. The “kiss” meaning is difficult at Mishlei 24:26 and at Job 31:27. (The latter has the hand “kissing” the mouth! This is the wrong order!) A scholar has suggested that the meaning of “yishak” and “tishak” in these verses is “seal up” (=similar to “join together”). In Job, it is the mouth that is being “sealed up.” In Mishlei, it is the lips. The implication is one of silence. So Mishlei 24:26 should be translated: “He who responds with correct words will silence [hostile] lips.” Similarly, Job 31:27 should be translated: “[if] my hand ever silenced my mouth.” See the article by Jeffrey Cohen, in Vetus Testamentum 32 (1982), pp. 416-424.

Another difficult “yishak” is at Genesis 41:40. Here Pharoah tells Joseph: “ve-al picha yishak kol ami.” Many scholars today relate this “yod-shin-kof” to the “mem-shin-kuf” at Genesis 15:2. There Eliezer is described as the “ben meshek” of the house of Abraham. Of course, we do not know what this word “mem-shin-kof” means. But from the context it is evident that it means something like “feed, support, manage.” (See, e.g., Onkelos, Rashi and S.D. Luzzatto.) It is possible that that word “meshek” derives from the Biblical root “nun-shin-kof” with a meaning like “equip, arm.”

The Daat Mikra mentions the above approach to the “yishak” of Gen. 41:40 approvingly but then argues alternatively that it may mean “kiss” here. It states that to kiss someone can sometimes be a “neshika shel gedula” and suggests an analogy to Samuel’s kissing Saul upon anointing him. (See 1 Samuel 10:1.) But I did not find this analogy convincing. Such a translation would imply that Joseph would be kissing all the people! Even metaphorically this idea is very strange.

S. Mandelkern, in his concordance, raises the possibility that the two N-Sh-K roots are related. He suggests that the connection is “chibur ve-kishur.” He does not explain further. Perhaps he means the following. “N-Sh-K” does not originally mean “kiss” but “join together.” Perhaps military equipment was considered something attached to you. I think this explanation deserves consideration.

Rav Matityahu Clark, in his Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew Based on the Commentaries of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, puts them both in the same entry, but he does not explain or even hint as to why. He always puts words with common roots in the same entry, since (based on Rav Hirsch) he assumes they must be related. As I have mentioned in previous articles, this is very problematic. Words with common roots are often related, but not always! When Rav Hirsch writes and attempts to unite two roots, he is a commentator writing prose. Everyone knows that his commentary is just his opinion. But Rav Clark’s book is in dictionary form, giving the impression that what he writes is authoritative. Rav Clark’s book is very useful, but it must be used with tremendous caution since many of his entries are based on his uniting of roots that are in fact not related.

I did see an interesting remark by Rav Hirsch in his commentary to the “yishak” of Gen. 41:40. He rejects the meaning “kiss” here. Then he writes: “it is definitely preferable to take the other meaning of N-Sh-K viz. to make preparations, equip oneself.” This would have been an opportunity for him to explain how the two roots are related. But instead he just refers to the “other” meaning, implying that the two roots are not related. This is very significant, as in general, as I stated above, Rav Hirsch believes that words with common three- letter roots must be related. (If anyone can find other discussions by Rav Hirsch where he either unifies or separates these two N-Sh-K roots, I would be interested. It is also good to remind ourselves that when we read Rav Hirsch in English, we are only reading a translation from the original German.)

Finally, another interesting use of our root is at Ezekiel 3:13. (This is the verse that follows the famous “baruch kevod Hashem mimkomo” at 3:12.) Here we are told that Ezekiel heard the “kol” (noise) of the “kanfei ha-chayot” (wings of the chayot) as they were “mashikot” one to another. (Remember that the root letter “nun” often drops out in the first position.) Were the wings of the chayot “kissing” one another? Perhaps instead the meaning here is “touch.” This would support my suggestion above that the original meaning of the word was “join together.” Another interpretation is that they were so close it was as if they were kissing. But how would the meaning in either of these translations result in a noise? For this reason, the Targum translates the word as if the root letters were in a different order: N-K-Sh. This root means “knocking.” In this translation, the wings of the “chayot” were knocking against one another, thereby producing the noise. Of course, ordinarily we do not want to transpose the order of root letters to get a workable translation!

By Mitchell First


Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected] A friend suggested to me that an unwanted kiss may be viewed as hostile and aggressive (in particular, in today’s #MeToo world). This would be another possible way of connecting our two N-Sh-K roots!