• yehoshua steinberg

Bereishit: And Behold, It Was Very Stable ~ Yehoshua Steinberg

Article Abstract:

The word טוב appears more times in Parashat Breishit than in any other – but what does the word actually mean? "Good" may suffice as an approximate translation, but there are varied and diverse nuances which become evident in various contexts, as found in the Targumim and commentators. This article seeks to determine the core underlying meaning of this ubiquitous word through various etymological techniques, such as comparing it to other words containing the two-letter string טב.

  By seeking to fathom the depths of the Holy Language, we hope to better appreciate the greatness of the Holy One's good world.



וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאוֹר כִּי טוֹב וַיַּבְדֵּל אֱלֹהִים בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ (בראשית א:ד).

And God saw that the light was good [טוֹב], and God separated between the light and the darkness (Gen. 1:4).

The word טוב (good) appears 18 times in Parashat Bereishit - more occurrences than in any other Parashah in the Pentateuch. It is very difficult to establish an exact meaning for this word, since it is comprised of many dimensions, as RSRH writes: RSRH Ex. 33:19-20 - “Good is by its nature a relative idea, denoting that which leads to אושר (well-being and happiness); but, this אושר itself depends on the nature of the particular individual who is said to achieve it.”[1]

In order to demonstrate the many facets of this word, we note that it has six distinct Aramaic renderings in the Targumim (of which three appear in our Parashah):[2]

1. בחיר (select / chosen) - see Targum Yonatan on Gen. 2:12.[3]

2. שפירן (beautiful) - see Targum Onkelus and Targum Yonatan on Gen. 6:2.[4]

3. יאות / יאוון (becoming) - see Onkelus on Gen. 40:16; Yonatan on Num. 24:5 and II Kgs. 11:18.[5]

4. בר קיומא (stable / enduring) - see Yonatan on Ex. 2:2.[6]

5. תקין (in order / functional) - see Onkelus on Gen. 1:31, and both Onkelus and Yonatan on Gen. 2:18.[7]

6. שליוא (serenity / tranquility) - see Yonatan on Jer. 44:17.[8]

Conversely, there is another Hebrew word which is rendered as טוב in Aramaic: The Hebrew word מאושר is translated into טוביהון (laudable): Prov. 3:18 - It is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and its supporters are praiseworthy [מְאֻשָּׁר]; Targum - “Those who engage in it are טוביהון.”[9]

Despite the diverse senses in which the word טוב may be used, one idea can be postulated as a matter of common sense - that the opposite of טוב is רע.[10] With this fact in mind, we can examine the meaning of the word רע, with the hope that our findings will shed light on its antonym.

RSRH explains that the word רע derives from the rootרעע [11] (instability / breakage[12]): RSRH Gen 21:11[13] - “The matter was extremely bad [וירע] in the eyes of Abraham - רע is from the root רעע.[14] It derailed the plans[15] that he had pictured for his [Yishmael's] future.”[16]

Accordingly, we can say that טוב means the opposite of this - namely stability and existence. Ramban indeed stresses this several times, at least in conjunction with the creation of the world, as in: Ramban Gen. 2:18 - “In the act of creation,טוב is existence , as I explained on the utterance: and God saw that it was טוב (Gen. 1:4).”[17]

Additional support for this is found in the Aramaic words that are related to טוב. For example, the letters ט and צ are often interchangeable when switching between Hebrew and Aramaic;[18] hence, we ought to probe the Aramaic word צב and its derivatives to better understand the meaning of טב in Hebrew. Inflections of this word often appear as translations of the Hebrew root נטע - planting (trees or tents,[19] and, in a borrowed sense, Man):

Lev. 19:23 - and you shall plant [וּנְטַעְתֶּם] any food tree; Targum Onkelus renders וּנְטַעְתֶּם as ותצבון.[20] Num. 24:6 - like aloes planted [נָטַע] by Hashem; Targum Onkelus renders נָטַע as נצב.[21] Isa. 5:7 - The vineyard of Hashem, Master of Legions, is the House of Israel, and the people of Judah are the planting [נְטַע] of His delight; Targum Yonatan rendersנְטַע as נִצְבָא.[22] Isa. 17:10 - because you had been planted as pleasant saplings [תִּטְּעִי נִטְעֵי]; Targum Yonatan renders תִּטְּעִי נִטְעֵי as נְצִיבָא נִצְבָא.[23] The common denominator is existence and stability[24] of the planted entity.[25]

Another example of צ and ט interchanging is the word צבי in Hebrew, whose Aramaic equivalent is always טביא, as in: Deut. 12:22 - Even as the deer [כַּצְּבִי] and the hart are eaten, so may you eat it, the contaminated one and the pure one can eat it together; Targum Onkelus renders צְבִי as טביא.[26]

However, the wordטביא is also used as the translation of טוב, as in: Isa. 5:20 - Woe to those who say that evil is good [טוֹב]; Targum Yonatan renders this as: “those who say to the evil ones… you are good [אתון טביא]”.[27] Is there any connection between the wild animal [28]called צבי, and the concept of “good”?

An answer to this question may be found by observing the Scripture’s descriptions of the Land of Israel, where the wordצבי is repeatedly used, as in: Ezek. 20:15 - The land I had given them, [a land that] flows with milk and honey, a splendor [צְבִי] for all the lands. Ezek. 26:20 - I will bestow splendor [צְבִי] on the Land of Life.[29] Dan. 11:16 - he will also stand in the Coveted [הַצְּבִי] Land.[30]

Moreover, the Talmud derives the praises of the Land of Israel from the characteristics of the deer [צְבִי]: Jer. 3:19 - I gave you a cherished land, the heritage coveted [נַחֲלַת צְבִי] by the multitude of nations; Ketubot 112a - “Why is the Land of Israel compared to a צבי... Just as the skin of a צבי cannot cover its flesh [once it has been removed],[31] so too the Land of Israel cannot contain all of its produce... just as the צבי is the quickest animal, so is the Land of Israel the fastest at ripening its fruits.”[32]

However, there is another meaning to the word צבי, mentioned frequently by Rashi and other commentators - the concepts of strength and stability, standing at the helm. This meaning appears in the word נצב / מצב, as in: II Sam. 1:19 - הַצְּבִי יִשְׂרָאֵל; Rashi - “the stronghold of Israel [מצבן[33] של ישראל].”[34] Isa. 24:16 - From the edge of the earth we have heard songs, ’The righteous shall be upraised [צְבִי לַצַּדִּיק]’; Rashi - “and what are the songs? ‘The righteous shall be upraised.’ There shall be a position and an elevation [מצב ותקומה] for the righteous.”[35]

That said, we are led to the obvious question: How are all of the meanings found in the Targumim cited above (select / chosen, beautiful, becoming, et al.) connected to matters of planting and stability?

The answer is clear - without stability and a firm hold, all other qualities are worthless. No entity has a chance to become select or well-established if its very existence is in question, and it certainly cannot exist in a calm and tranquil state. Without a firm hold and stability, all its beauty and splendor is worthless, and the concept of happiness surely cannot apply to it. In short, all of the characteristics of טוב depend entirely on durability and stability.

Until now, we've tried to gauge the meaning of טוב by comparing it to the word רע, by analyzing how it is translated into Aramaic, and by seeing how it is used by certain commentaries. We will now embark on a comparison of this word with other roots in Leshon Kodesh which share the two-letter string טב. The following four roots appear to fit with the meanings we've seen until now - stability / firmness, existence, being select and perfect:

1. טבר (navel) - The fetus is connected to its mother via the navel, and thus it is a vital link to the source of its existence.[36]

2. טבע (sinking) - The basic meaning of this root is “to sink.”[37] However, it also bears other meanings: establishing, preparing and being fixed in place, as in: Prov. 8:25 - before the mountains were settled [הָטְבָּעוּ]; Ralbag - “Before the mountains were set in their places”; Metz. David - “Before the mountains were sunken into and riveted into the earth.”[38] Job 38:4-6 - Were you there when I laid the earth's foundation... into what are its bases sunken?; Malbim - “It is described as a tent or tabernacle in which the beams are sunken into the base supports.” [39]

3. טבל (immersing) - Among the alternate meanings of this root is hat: Ezek. 23:15 - girded with belts upon their loins, with סְרוּחֵי טְבוּלִים upon their heads; Rashi - “סְרוּחֵי טְבוּלִים - the extra material of large hats [כובעים]… and so did Yonatan translate this as מחתין קולסין.”[40] The word כובע corresponds to the word קובע which appears a few verses later (Ezek. 23:24), with Yonatan translating both טבולים and קובעים with the same Aramaic word - קולסין.[41] Now, a קובע, which means a helmet, must fit precisely onto the head of its wearer in order to protect him, meaning it must be snugly secure and fixed in its place.[42] In short, טְבוּלִים בְּרָאשֵׁיהֶם means helmets held securely in place on their heads.[43]

4. רטב (moist) - The simple meaning of this root is wet, as in: Job 24:8 - They become wet [יִרְטָבוּ] from the mountains' flow; Radak (entry רטב) - "this means לחות (dampness / wetness)."[44]

However, רטב has an additional meaning of power, as in: Job 8:16 - He is moist [רָטֹב הוּא] before the sun's heat; Rashi - "רָטֹב הוּא - Moist and strong."[45] This root also denotes beauty: Ps. 37:35 - well-rooted like a native evergreen [כְּאֶזְרָח רַעֲנָן]; Radak - "And a moist [רטוב] tree is called אזרח because it is visible and exposed to all in its beauty and its moistness."[46]

In the Midrash, we find the word הרטבה denoting birth and burgeoning: Song 1:16-17 - Even our cradle is fresh. The beams of our house are cedars; Song Rabba 1:17 - “The stones upon which our father Jacob slept became a soft, moist [פלומה][47] bed underneath him, and what moisture came from them [ומה הרטבה הרטיב מהן]? ... These are the righteous men and women, prophets and prophetesses that stemmed from him”; Kanfei Yonah Commentary - "’What moisture came from them?’ - Meaning, to what did Jacob give birth and foster from there, that the verse states, Even our cradle is fresh… What became moist and developed from this cradle?" Similarly, this root also denotes growth and expansion: Song Rabba 6:10 - “So will be the Israelites' redemption… it will slowly bud, then it will be fruitful and multiply, and then it will מרטבת והולכת [grow and expand, as explained by Eitz Yosef].[48]

On the other hand, there are certain words containing the string טב that denote severing and cutting, which at first blush appears to be the exact opposite of stability and being secured in place:

5. חטב (cutting) - This root means severing and cutting, as in: Deut. 19:5 - to hew [לַחְטֹב] trees. Deut. 29:10 - From the hewer of your wood [מֵחֹטֵב עֵצֶיךָ] to the drawer of your water. Ezek. 39:10 - They will not carry wood from the field, nor will they cut it [וְלֹא יַחְטְבוּ] from the forest.[49]

However, this root also indicates quality and superiority. Rashi explains the word as meaning praiseworthy or select, according to Biur HaGra: Ps. 144:12 - Our daughters are like crafted [מְחֻטָּבוֹת] cornerstones; Rashi -“מְחֻטָּבוֹת - praised by those who see them.” Prov. 7:16 - I have decked my bed with spreads, with praised [חֲטֻבוֹת] Egyptian linen; Biur HaGra- "with praised [חֲטֻבוֹת] Egyptian linen - חֲטֻבוֹת comes from the word חטיבה, which means the select."[50]

The Sages also took this word as a substitute for the word for "praise" and "select," according to Rashi: Chagiga 3a - "You have distinguished Hashem today to be a God for you… and Hashem has distinguished you today to be for Him a treasured people (Deut. 26:17-18) - the Holy One, blessed be He said to the Israelites: ‘You have made Me a unique חטיבה in the world,[51] I will make you into a unique חטיבה in the world’”; Rashi - “חטיבה אחת - One praise, a unique praise, therefore we have chosen[52] You as our God.”[53]

What severing and selectness have in common, is that by choosing a certain entity as select and praiseworthy, one separates it from all the rest, meaning it is now severed from its peers. We already see a similar case of dual meanings in the root כרת itself. Although that root means to sever, there is also the concept of כריתת ברית, forging or "cutting" a covenant. In almost every appearance of this term,[54] the intent is a symbolic separation or sanctification, completely devoid of any physical severing whatsoever. Cheshek Shlomo even explains that this is also the meaning of the word ברית - an act of selecting.[55]

6. קטב (cutting) - This root, like חטב in the previous paragraph,[56] denotes cutting and severing: Hos. 13:14 - I will be the One who decrees [קָטָבְךָ] the grave upon you; Radak - “אֱהִי קָטָבְךָ שְׁאוֹל - I will be the cause for your severance to the grave.” Isa. 28:2 - a destructive tempest [שַׂעַר קָטֶב]; Metz. David - "שַׂעַר קָטֶב - Like a stormy wind that severs and destroys.” Ps. 91:6 - nor the destroyer [מִקֶּטֶב] who lays waste at noon; Metz. Zion - "מִקֶּטֶב - it is called this based on severing.”[57]

However, in the Mishnah we find the word קוטב denoting a heavy beam / pole used for pressing olives in order to squeeze out their oil:[58] Shvi'it 8:6 - “One may not press olives in an olive press and with a weighted beam [קֹטֶב], but he may crush them and put them in a small press.”[59] While pressing the olives does sever the oil from the flesh of the fruit, the goal is really to separate the best, most select part of the olive - its precious oil.[60] Thus, we see a connection between קטב in the sense of cutting / severing, and קטב in the sense of selecting, just like we saw with the root חטב in the previous paragraph.

7. טבח (slaughter) - This word is usually rendered into Aramaic as כוס: And slaughter a slaughtering [וּטְבֹחַ טֶבַח] and prepare (Gen. 43:16); Onkelus renders the phrase as וכוס נכסתא.[61] This is also the Targum of the words שחט and זבח (as in Ex. 24:5 and Lev. 3:2, respectively).

However, we also find the words טבחים and טבחות to sometimes mean professional cooks, as in: I Sam. 8:13 - He will take your daughters to be perfumers and טַבָּחוֹת; Radak - "וּלְטַבָּחוֹת - those who cook.” I Sam. 9:23 - and he said to the טַבָּח; Metz. Zion - "לַטַּבָּח - the cook."[62] In another verse we find טבח meaning preparation: I Sam. 25:11 - my meat that I have טָבַחְתִּי for my shearers. In that verse, Targum Yonatan renders טָבַחְתִּי as דְּאַתְקֵינִית.[63] Meaning, the root טבח can also mean preparing and fixing / enhancing.[64]

To summarize, there are two primary meanings for words containing the two-letter string טב: A. Stability / connection B. Severing. While prima facia these meanings may seem contradictory, they in fact complement one another, as follows: The very influx of abundance and kindness that God bestows upon us at all times is liable to leave us with a sense of embarrassment, like a poor man who accepts charity with little hope of repaying his benefactor. In order to avoid us having to undergo this humiliating ordeal, the Creator blessed be He established an entire system of commandments and worship, so that as payment for these service that we perform on His behalf, we “deserve” His generous influx. This phenomenon is known in Aramaic as נהמא דכיסופא (bread of shame).

Michtav Me'Eliyahu uses this idea to explain the expression הגומל חסדים טובים (who bestows beneficent kindnesses), which we say in our morning prayers to describe God:[65]

Michtav Me'Eliyahu (Elul, Rosh Hashana, p. 242)