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Chukat: Settling on a Bite ~ Yehoshua Steinberg

Updated: Dec 2, 2022


Following the Israelites' murmuring against the manna sent from heaven, God dispatched snakes to bite them. The word "נשיכה" appears only in relation to the snake, and not regarding the bite of any other living thing such as dogs, scorpions or mosquitos. In this article, we focus on the depth of this word, and why it is applies only to the snake and not to any other living being.

Num. 21:5-6 – …there is no bread and no water, and we are disgusted with this accursed bread.

The Lord sent against the people the venomous snakes, and they bit the people, and many people of Israel died.

The root נשך in the sense of a physical bite[1] appears more times in this week’s Torah portion (3x) than in all the rest of the portions combined. Our Sages expressed puzzlement in general over the benefit to the snake of its bite:

Deut. Rab. 5:10 – The serpent was asked: ‘ What benefit do you derive from biting? ‘ He replied: ‘ Instead of asking me, ask those who engage in slander, as it is said: Surely the serpent will bite without enchantment, neither is there profit for the slanderer  (Eccl. 10:11), which means: What benefit does the slanderer derive from his slander?

While the question could just as easily have been posed to e.g. the bee or the scorpion, the snake is different from the stingers in that it sinks it teeth into the flesh of its victim from above and below. Since other beasts biting in this manner would naturally remove and devour the flesh “while they’re at it,” the snake’s disinterest appears especially peculiar. [2]

In any event, there certainly seems to be a unique aspect to the snake’s bite being hinted at in this Midrash and indeed in the singular use of the term נשך only in relation to the serpent among all brutes. The author of Yeriot Shlomo (1:110a) terms the snake’s bite as “settling” (משכין) its teeth in its prey, and thereby connects נשך with other words bearing the two letters ‘שכ’, such as: ‘משכן’   (Tabernacle/abode), ‘נשכה’/’לשכה’ (rooms on the Temple Mount),  ‘שכם’  (shoulder), ‘אשך’ (male privates).

With this as a point of departure, we have added other words containing the ‘שכ’ string to this group to test if the gamut of these words shares a common theme. In total, we found eleven such words/roots: 1. ‘שכך’ 2. ‘נשך’ 3. ‘נשך’/’לשך’ 4. ‘שכן’ 5. ‘חשך’ 6. ‘שכב’ 7. ‘שכם’ 8. ‘שכח’  9.’אשך’[3]  10. ‘שכר’  11. ‘משך’. We suggest that all these words share meanings related to: Settling/resting, as well as the related themes: embedding, sinking, descending, retreating, waning, receding, and pacification/sedation. We will now examine them one at a time:

  1. ‘שכך’ – This word denotes sinking[4] (Gen. 8:1), pacification (Est. 2:1, 7:10), putting to rest (Num. 17:20, T. Onk. ad loc.). Note that T. Yon. on the Pentateuch and the Targum Sheni in Esther render שכך with derivatives of the Aramaic שדך (the source of שידוך, [5] for only marriage can bring a calm, settled state). Other words sharing this Aramaic translation are שקט (quiet, [6] calm; [7] vis. T. Yon. Josh. 11:23, 14:15, Ju. 3:11, 3:30, 5:31, 8:28, IIK 11:20, Is. 14:7, Ez. 16:49), שוב (pacification; see T. Yon. Gen. 27:44) and שכב (lying down; see T. Yerush. Num. 23:24).

  2. ‘נשך’ – This word means embedding fangs/teeth in prey, rendered משכין –settling– by Yeriot Shlomo, as above.

  3. ‘נשך’/’לשך’ – The term לשכה/נשכה (Neh. 12:44, 13:4, 7, Ez. 40:17) refers to various discreet rooms on the Temple Mount. This designation is derived from their purposes and activities comparable to “dwelling” (שכונה/לשכון]], see Yeriot Shlomo 1:110a; Maim. Beit Habechira with R. Shalom Tzadok’s commentary).

  4. ‘שכן’ – This word means dwelling/settling (e.g. Gen. 14:13. Note that Onk. renders the word שרי, a word related to לשרות, immersing – because the term indicates “dropping anchor”/ “sinking roots,” similar in meaning to להשתקע [settling permanently] from שקיעה [descending/sinking]).

  5. ‘חשך’ – Darkness comes with the descent of the sun, bringing with it calm and lying down to sleep). [8]

  6. ‘שכב’ – The time of lying down –descending to one’s bed– is a time of peace and calm. As cited above, T. Yerush. Num. 23:24 renders שכב with the same word –שדך– as שכך and שקט.

  7. ‘שכם’ – A synonym for shoulder, the only naturally horizontal part of the human anatomy, upon which a load may rest[9] (hence: “to shoulder a burden”). Yeriot Shlomo (ibid) and RSR Hirsch (Gen. 9:23) explain that the word השכם (to awaken early) derives from rousing the resting shoulder to return to its toils. See also Ohr Chadash (Gen. 19:2) for an alternate explanation of השכם.

  8. ‘שכח’ – Forgetting. Manot Aharon[10] (Esther 2:1) compares שכח to שכך [i.e. both refer to a thought, intention or memory waning and receding].

9.’אשך’  – This word (denoting male privates) is rendered פחתין by Onk. (Lev. 21:20). פחתין is also the Targum of שקערורות (depressed, sunken, vis. Lev. 14:37). A pit (a depression in the ground) bears a similar rendering by T. Yon. in various places. This lower part of the anatomy is given to sinking downwards according to the forces of gravity. It is interesting to note that Chanania ben Antignus (Bechor. 7:5) equates אשך with חשך (similar to the equation of to ויאבק to ויחבק see Ramban Gen. 32:23). See Etz Yosef (Shir Rab. 11:11) for explanation of Chanania’s position. [11]

  1. ‘שכר’ – Drunkenness. Inebriation causes a waning and deadening of one’s awareness and senses. The Targum of “drunk” is רוי (see Gen. 9:21). The Aruch (entry מרוא) brings a second meaning of the word (from Targum to Nachum 3:14) – “mud”/“muck” – perhaps underscoring the level to which the drunkard can sink. [12] Along these lines, רעל, poison, carries the same Targum (Zech. 12:2).

  2. ‘משך’ – Pulling, dragging, removing. This word appears to bear an opposite meaning to the permanent sinking and settling denotation characteristic of the other ‘שך’ words. Here again we turn to Yeriot Shlomo (1:110a), who simply explains that while משך indicates removal, all matter removed from one place eventually is transplanted elsewhere; משך denotes simply removal of an object from one abode to another. [13]

Alternatively, Yeriot Shlomo (1:116a) cites other examples of a leading מ changing the meaning of a word to the opposite; for instance: 1. While נע denotes movement, מנע means halting and impeding progress. 2. While עד indicates eternal endurance (e.g. שוכן עד, Is. 57:15), the definition of מעד is falling/collapsing. Similarly, שך means settling permanently while משך indicates uprooting and removing.

May G-d extend (ימשוך) His kindness to His people, such that the biting fangs of our enemies be forgotten forever, and darkness will be replaced with light. May He establish His Temple as a permanent abode, and we will ascend shoulder to shoulder, speedily in our times. Amen.

[1]  [בניגוד למובן  ריבית שמופיע ארבע פעמים בפרשת כי תצא].

[2]  [ואכן לא מצינו פועל ‘נשך’ במקרא אצל שום בעל חי חוץ מהנחש, אלא רק בהשאלה אצל מלווים בריבית, אצל נביאי שקר (מיכה ג:ה), ואצל מלכודת בעל שינים (יר’ ה:כו)].

[3]  [ראה י”ש א:י,ב-יא,א (הקדמה); קט,ב-קי,א; קטז,א; ג:יז,א].

[4]  [ומכאן נגזרת בלשון חז”ל המלה “שייך”, כלומר ענין המתחבר עם ענין אחר, היינו ש”נח” עליו, “חל”, “נופל” עליו (כטעם “לשון נופל על לשון”)].

[5]  [ומכאן “שידוך” בל’ חז”ל, שמושאלת לענין  סידור קידושין – דבר המשקיט רוחו של אדם]: שבת יב. – אין משדכין את התינוקות לארס. [כי האדם חש מנוחת הנפש ושקט, ומסוגל להשתקע – רק עם מצא אשה, מצא טוב].

[6]  [ראה ת”י יהושע יא:כג, יד:טו; שופ’ ג:יא, ל; ה:לא; ח:כח; מ”ב יא:כ; ישע’ יד:ז; יחז’ טז:מט].

[7]  [ת”י בר’ כז:מד].

[8]  [וע’ אור חדש (ר’ דוד שלוש) לבראשית א:ב].

[9]  [בדומה לביטוי בלע”ז: to shoulder a burden].

[10]  [בדומה לביטוי בלע”ז: to shoulder a burden].

[11]  [ומצינו “פחתין” כתרגומו של “שקערורות”, שפרש”י: “שקועות”. “שוחה” (בור) מתורגם “פחת”. “פחתת” ת”י “שקיעא”. “פחד ופחת” פרש”י: גומא ליפול בוץ עכ”ל רש”י, וכולם ענין שקיעה ושככה עד למטה. מעניין להעיר גם שהתנא חנניה ב”א השוה “אשך” ל”חשך” (אולי מעין השוואת “אבק” ל”חבק” [ע’ רמב”ן לפסוק “ויאבק איש עמו”])]: בכור’ ז:ה – מרוח אשך חנניה בן אנטיגנוס אומר כל שמראיו חשוכים. [ומביא העץ יוסף (ש”ר יא:יא) את דברי הערוך (ערך ‘חשך’): בבכור’ מד: כל שמראיו חשוכים פי’ מי שיש לו מרוח לעולם פניו חשוכים].

[12]  [גם רעל מתורגם “מרוי”, כלומר חומר שפל וירוד]: זכ’ יב:ב – סַף רַעַל; ת”י – מָן מְלֵי מַרְוֵי.

[13]  [ולהלן מסביר י”ש את הענין על פי האות מ’ בראש המלה]: י”ש א:קטז. (ת”ד) – כבר הראנוך בשמות… ‘מנע’, ‘מעד’… ודומיהם מנוספי מ’ האמנתי”ו בראש המלה המורות על היפוכן… שם ‘נע’ המציין תנועה, ושם ‘מנע’ – על בטול תנועה… שם ‘עד’ המציין וועד [היינו  פעילות מתואמת (לשון “מועד” ו”ועד”)  והמשכיות (כלשון “עדי עד”)], ושם ‘מעד’ – על העדר הוועד [כלומר  התמוטטות… כך גם] שם ‘שך’ מורה על השכונה, ושם ‘משך’ – על נתוק השכונה.


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