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  • yehoshua steinberg

Chayei Sarah: Take a Bow ~ Reuven Chaim Klein



The two seemingly unrelated stories in this week’s Parshah find common ground in bowing. When telling of Abraham buying the plot that will be the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the Torah makes a point of telling us twice that Abraham bowed before the Hitties (Gen. 23:7, 23:12). Later on, when Abraham’s servant successfully finds a suitable wife for Isaac, he takes a bow as a way of thanking G-d (Gen. 24:26), and makes a point of mentioning this to Rebecca’s family (Gen. 24:48). When Rebecca’s family finally accedes to the servant’s request that she marry Isaac, Abraham’s servant again bows to the floor to thank G-d (Gen. 24:52). In both stories, the main protagonist bows, and in all five times that bowing is mentioned, the word used is a conjugation of the noun hishtachavaah (and its verb form hishtachavyah). However, when describing Eliezer’s initial bowing when he encountered Rebecca, the Torah also uses the word kidah to describe his bow. What is the difference between hishtachavaah and kidah? Furthermore, a third word for bowing appears in the Bible, namely, kriah. How does this type of bowing differ from the first two?

The Talmud (Megillah 22b, Brachot 34b) already addresses this issue and explains that these three words are not synonyms, but rather denote three different types of bowing: 1) Kidah refers to bowing one’s face. The Talmud adduces this understanding from a passage in which King David’s wife Batsheba entered for an audience with the king: “And Batsheba bowed (kidah) her face [to the] ground” (I Kgs. 1:31). This apparently shows that kidah is bowing with one’s face.* 2) Kriahrefers to kneeling, as King Solomon was described as “bowing (kro’ah) on his knees” (I Kgs. 8:54). Indeed, the word kera refers to the leg or knee of both living creatures (i.e. animals or people) and inanimate objects (e.g., tables or chairs). 3) Hishtachavaah refer to prostrating oneself on the floor and stretching out one’s hands and feet.

Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555–1631), also known as the Maharsha, explains that each of these three types of bowing involves bowing one’s head, but some involve more than that. First, he explains that the word kidah implies only bowing one’s head, such that one remains otherwise standing erect, but his head bows to the ground (without bending his knees!). As the Talmud (Sukkah 51a) relates, not many people could perform this feat, save for Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel who would enter the Temple Courtyard, and perform kidah. He did so by supporting himself on his two thumbs, while his face touched the ground and he kissed the Temple floor, before he stood up straight again. We certainly do not know how to do this nowadays, so don’t try it at home! Indeed, the Talmud (Sukkah 53a) relates that the late Tanaaic sage Levi once demonstrated kidah in front of Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi and ended up paralyzed.

Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740–1814) and the Malbim (1809–1879) explain thatkidahis derived from the word kadkod (“skull”), because when performing this acrobatic riteone tilts the top of one’s head downwards. Indeed, linguists say that the Hebrew word kidah is related to the Akkadian word qadadu, which means “to incline”.

As the Maharsha explains, the second type of bowing is a bit easier to achieve. It involves bending one’s knees on the floor and then bowing one’s face to the ground. This is called kriah. The last type of bowing is called hishtachavaah, and calls for one to go down on his knees, bow his head to the ground, and then stretch out his hands and feet on the floor.

Samson Raphael Hirsch (1800–1880) explains the difference between the symbolic implications ofkidahversus that of hishtachavaah (but he does not discuss kriah). While both forms of bowing are signs of submission, they differ in how exactly they express that idea. Because kidah focuses on the movement of the head—the seat of the intellect—it denotes the submission of one’s intellect, or will, to the proclivities of another. On the other hand, hishtachavaah requires the prostration of one’s entire body, so it symbolizes one dedicating all faculties of his physical existence to a certain cause. Just as one is willing to bend his posture for the sake of another, so is he willing to break his will and submit to somebody else’s wishes.

A fourth word for bowing—sagad or segidah—appears only four times in the Bible, clustered in chapters 44–46 of Isaiah. Radak in Sefer ha-Shorashim explains that segidah is Aramaic for hishtachavaah. Indeed, Targum (Gen. 18:2, 23:7, 23:12, Gen. 24:26 and more) generally translates hishtachavaah as sagid. Nonetheless, the fact that Isa. 44:17 uses the terms hishtachavaah and segidah side by side suggests that they are not synonyms from different languages.

Malbim explains that while the physical acts of hishtachavaah and segidah might be the same, the difference lies in the motives behind these acts. The term hishtachavaah appears when bowing is used as a means of giving honor to whatever he bows towards/upon. On the other hand, segidah is a type of bowing whose purpose is not to give honor, per se, but to be a sort of religious rite which is said to bring special benefits from Above.

The Modern Hebrew word for an Islamic place of worship is misgad which is related to the word segidah in Hebrew/Aramaic—and “bowing” is precisely what Muslims do when they worship. The more direct etymological ancestor of the Modern Hebrew word is the Arabic masjid (of which the English word mosque is a corruption).

* NOTE: The Tosafists point out that the word “face” is found in conjunction with hishtachavaah as well (e.g., Isa. 49:23), not just kidah. This leads them to conclude that the Talmudic assertion that kidah refers to bowing one’s face is based on a tradition, as opposed to hermeneutic considerations.


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