As you might know, there are many Hebrew words in Tanach and Chazal which seem to have the same meaning. If the meanings of words in Hebrew are Divine and intrinsic, then why would multiple words be needed for conveying the same concept? Multiple words for the same concept are not only superfluous, but also redundant and extraneous, not mention excessive and unnecessary!
The solutions to these sorts of dilemmas usually follow certain “templated” answers. In some instances the words in question only seemingly mean the same thing, but, in truth, there is a slight, barely-discernable difference between them. In other cases, a given set of words may actually refer to the exact same concept, but recall or focus on different aspects/properties of it.
Similarly, when dealing with verbs, multiple words can sometimes be used for the same action, but the different words can represent that action taken to different degrees or with different intentions.
Sometimes, different words actually complement each other in a taxonomical way, as one might be a general way of referring to something (hypernym), while the other is a more specific element (hyponym), collapsible into the category defined by the first word.
Finally, the Torah sometimes borrows words from different languages in order to illustrate a point, and those words might bear the same meaning as others words in Hebrew.
Let’s go through three quick examples:
- The common words vayomer (“he said”) and vayidaber (“he spoke”) seem to mean more-or-less the same. However, the Malbim explains that vayomer denotes a brief, short verbal expression, while vayidaber denotes a lengthy, drawn-out monologue.
- In a passage quoted multiple times in the daily prayers, the Psalmist says, “For to G-d is sovereignty (melcuha), and He rules (moshel) the nations” (Ps. 22:29). What is the difference between melucha and moshel? Ibn Ezra explains that while both words refer to sovereignty, melucha denotes a popular sovereign whose dominion was willingly accepted upon by his constituents, while a moshel is a dictator who continues to rule whether or not his people object to him.
- When describing G-d appearing to the Jewish People at Mount Sinai, Moshe says, “G-d came (ba) from Sinai, He shone forth from Seir, appeared from Mount Paran, and came (atah) from the holy multitudes” (Deut. 33:2). In this setting, the Torah uses two words which mean “came,” ba and atah. The commentators explain that these two words, although synonymous, are from two different languages, as the former is Hebrew while the latter is Aramaic. The Torah uses an Aramaic word in this context to allude to the notion that G-d had first offered the Torah to the other nations of the world before eventually giving it to the Jews.
Would you like to learn more about this topic? Join our Google group What’s in a Word? and read my weekly essays at ohr.edu exploring synonyms in the Hebrew Language.
Rabbi Klein is the author of Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew (Mosaica Press, 2014). He spent over a decade studying at several yeshivas including Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem, and Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood. Many of his shiurim and lectures are available for free online. His writings have appeared in Jewish Bible Quarterly, Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, Kovetz Hamaor, Kovetz Kol HaTorah and more. He currently lives with his wife and children in Beitar Illit, Israel. He can be reached via email to firstname.lastname@example.org