Bent Word of the Week

At the start of this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha (Gen 12:1 – 17:27), God announces:

“…I will bless you [va’avarekhekha]…you shall be a blessing [berakha]…

“And I will bless all who bless you Va’avarekhah mevarakhekha]…

and the families of the earth will bless themselves by you [venivrekhu]”

Gen 12:2,3
Image of Gen 12:1-3 in Hebrew and English or visit Mechon-Mamre or Sefaria for full text

Much has been written about what “blessing” means in general and what it means in particular for Abraham, for his descendants, and for other families of the earth. In the spirit of noticing words that have a meaning related to “bending,” here are some notes on the root bet-reish-chaf (ברכ, barakh; berekh — sometimes transliterated with a ch) in Hebrew.

Berekh and Berakha

As a noun, berekh, means “knee,” as in Isaiah 45:23, “…unto Me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear” (found also in the Aleinu prayer). The noun, berakha — as in Gen 12:2 above — is usually translated as “blessing.” Both nouns are categorized as feminine in Hebrew.

The verb Bet-Reish-Chaf ברכ

Several derivations are listed for the verb:

  • Brown-Driver-Briggs just lists the meanings as “kneel, bless” as though these concepts were always linked:
  • Strong’s Concordance suggests that the verb originally meant kneeling and so “by implication to bless God.”
  • Jastrow’s dictionary links the verb to a two-letter word, bet-reish [בר], meaning “forest or uncultivated land” and “clear, visible surface,” and with a related verb, bet-reish-reish [ברר], meaning “to make clear” (like land or a point).

Detailed definition notes and more links below.**

Jastrow also tells us that the causative form, hivrich, means “to form a knee, to engraft; esp. to bend a vine by drawing it into the ground and making it grow forth as an independent plant, to sink.” The dictionary cites several Talmudic passages using a form of bet-reish-chaf in an agricultural context to mean “graft,” specifically bending a vine as described. Then, we have this teaching which applies the agricultural “forming a knee” for a metaphorical purpose:

And Rabbi Elazar said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “And in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed [nivrekhu]” (Gen 12:3)? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Abraham: I have two good shoots to graft [lehavrikh] onto you: Ruth the Moabite, the ancestress of the house of David, and Naamah the Ammonite, whose marriage with Solomon led to the ensuing dynasty of the kings of Judea.

Babylonian Talmud Yebamot 63a. William Davidson translation with crowdsourcing, full text at Sefaria.

There is so much emphasis on separating in this part of Genesis: Abraham and Sarah leave Ur; Abraham and Lot separate; Hagar’s child and his many off-spring separate from those of Sarah’s son… It’s interesting to find this play on words telling us that branches we are told are quite separate from the inchoate Hebrew line — Moabites and Ammonites, the offspring of Lot and his daughters — are not so separate after all.

NOTES:

**Brown-Driver-Briggs gives definitions for “bet-reish-chaf” as “kneel, bless.” Strong’s Concordance says “A primitive root; to kneel; by implication to bless God (as an act of adoration), and (vice-versa) man (as a benefit).” Both found on BibleHub.com

Jastrow’s Dictionary offers a full page of definitions for the verb and noun (direct link here), with four basic forms for the verb:

  • barakh: 1) to cave out2) to select, point out3) whence to bless (Pi. [pi’el, next bullet]). The passive participle, barukh, means chosen, blessed, praised. (This is the pa’al or simple form);
  • beirakh — as in Mishebeirach prayers: “May the One who Blessed….” — meaning “to praise, bless, recite benedictions.” (This is the pi’el or active-intensive form);
  • hitbareikh or nitbareikh mean to be blessed, as in Gen 22:18 “and the earth will be blessed… [v’hitbarkhu]” (This is the reflexive form, hitpa’el / nitpa’el);
  • hivrikh means “to form a knee, to engraft; esp. to bend a vine by drawing it into the ground and making it grow forth as an independent plant, to sink.” (This is the active-causative form, hif’il).

In the pi’el, Jastrow also gives a second meaning, the later Hebrew use of “bless,” euphemistically to mean “curse.” A third pi’el meaning “to cut through, to clear virgin ground or forest,” relates to the root bet-reish and the verb bet-reish-reish, having to do with clearing or taking outside and, thus, “to make clear, prove, ascertain.”

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