Nitzavim: Getting to the Root of Uprooting ~ Yehoshua Steinberg
Updated: Sep 9, 2020
Article abstract for Parashat Nitzavim:
This week's Torah portion uses a word –ויתשם, from the root נתש– used nowhere else in the Pentateuch. This article attempts to pin down the precise foundational meaning of this root, and its phonetically related sister root, נטש.
May Hashem remember us for good on Rosh Hashana, and never desert us, as we pray in the Selichot for Rosh Hashana eve:
דְּרֹשׁ עֶלְבּוֹנָם וְאַל תִּטֹּש See their shame and forsake them not
וַיִּתְּשֵׁם יְהֹוָה מֵעַל אַדְמָתָם בְּאַף וּבְחֵמָה וּבְקֶצֶף גָּדוֹל וַיַּשְׁלִכֵם אֶל אֶרֶץ אַחֶרֶת כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה (דברים כט:כז).
And Hashem ויתשם them from upon their land, with anger, with fury, and with great wrath. And He will ‘throw’ them to a different land… (Deut. 29:27).
In this verse, the Torah warns of the calamities that are destined to befall the Jewish People should they stray into worshipping idolatry. The root נתש appears only in this week’s Parashah, and nowhere else in the entire Pentateuch. But what does ויתשם mean?
Rashi and Targum Onkelus explain that ויתשם means move / transport, and Rashi adds another verse bearing a similar meaning: Behold I will נותשם them from their land (Jer. 12:14).
Many commentators equate the root נתש with the root נטש. Some even cite these verses as an example par excellent of the interchanging of the phonetically related letters ת and ט (both of which belong to the larger דטלנ"ת group of letters which are all phonetically-linked). For example, Rashi implies that he agrees with this assessment: Ezekiel lists a series of disasters, and among them says: And ותתש with fury to be thrown to the land (Ezek. 19:12). Rashi (there) explains the wordותתש by writing that both נתישה and נטישהrefer to something which is moved and dispersed all about.
Nonetheless, even though the roots נתש and נטש bear very similar meanings, there remain nuanced differences between them. For example, Radak (in Sefer HaShorashim) groups the verses deriving from the rootנטש into two main sets, according to their respective collective meanings. The first group in entry נטש contains verses denoting forsaking / leaving; while the verses in the second group in the נטש entry mean spreading / separating.
Radak cites the following verses as reflective of the first definition of נטש (forsaking / leaving):
Behold your father has abandoned [נטש] the matter of the donkeys (I Sam. 10:2); With whom did you leave [נטשת] those few sheep (I Sam. 17:28); For You have abandoned [נטשתה] Your nation the House of Jacob (Isa. 2:6); And you did not even leave me [נטשתני] to kiss my [grand]sons and my daughters (Gen. 31:28); And I will leave you [ונטשתיך] in the desert (Ezek. 49:5); You shall make it slip away, and you shall forsake [ונטשתה] it (Ex. 23:11); For Hashem shall not forsake [יטש] His nation (I Sam. 12:22); King David left [ויטש] the vessels (I Sam. 17:22); and Before the fight has been revealed, abandon [נטוש] it (Prov. 17:14). All of these passages revolve around forsaking or leaving something alone.
For the second meaning of נטש, Radak cites the following Biblical passages:
And [the wind] spread [ויטש] over the camp (Num. 11:31); And the battle spread [ותטש] (I Sam. 4:2); Spread out [נטשים] across the face of the entire land (I Sam. 30:16); Because of an outstretched [נטושה] sword (Isa. 21:15). In all of these cases, the words related to טש serve as an expression of spreading / leaving untouched.
Interestingly, Radak also notes that as an off-shoot of this second meaning of נטש, the word also came to refer to a certain type of tree branch which extends out in various directions. He cites two verses bearing this meaning: And the branches [הנטישות] - He will remove, [and] chop off (Isa. 18:5); and: Remove her branches [נטישותיה] (Jer. 5:10).
At first blush, it seems that Radak’s second definition of נטש as spreading / separating is the same as the meaning of נתש in that both are expressions of dispersal (indeed, as we saw above, Rashi to Ezekiel makes this point of the shared meaning between the two roots). However, even with this common meaning between the two roots, we cannot ignore a prominent difference between them (detailed in the next paragraph). Namely, in all the Biblical sources which Radak cites that use נטש in the sense of spreading / separating, that spreading is carried out in accordance with the will and plan of the one causing the spreading, who certainly does not wish to completely detach whatever is being spread from its original source.
In stark contrast to that, the meanings common to all the examples cited by Radak deriving from the root נתש involve moving (טלטול) / uprooting (עקירה) - implying a complete and utter detachment of an entity from its source. For example, Radak cites he following passages: Behold I am uprooting [נתשם] them from their land, and I will uproot the House of Judah from among them (Jer. 12:14); He will uproot [ונתש] Israel (I Kgs. 14:15); To uproot [נתוש] and to smash (Jer. 1:10); It will not be abandoned [ינתש] nor destroyed again forever (Jer. 31:39); It was uprooted [ותתש] in fury (Ezek. 19:12); and: I will uproot [ונתשתי] your Asherah-trees (Mic. 5:13). In the first of these verses, Targum renders the נתש-related word as a מטלטיל (moving), while in all the other verses cited Targum renders the נתש cognate as a derivative of עקירה (uprooting).
Despite this difference between these meanings of the root נתש and Radak’s second meaning ofנטש (spreading out), they do retain a shared general meaning relating to the concept of dispersal. In contradistinction to both of these though, Radak’s first grouping of נטש-derived verses (forsaking / leaving) does not depend on spreading / dispersal per se, rather the verses all point to forsaking / rejection / leaving something neglected - all of which can be true of entities which have never moved from their original location.
In any case, we will now closely examine these two roots in order to detect the slight differences in their connotations. We begin with words that are related to the root נטש (listed in Machberet Menachem simply as טש because he maintains that the leading letter נ is not intrinsic to the root). Six separate roots contain the string טש (in the Bible, in Aramaic, or in the Rabbinic vernacular), all of which recall the ideas of dispersal / spreading / rejection and other related concepts. We will closely analyze each of those words and find common themes:
1. NATASH נטש (spreading, abandoning) - As mentioned above, this word has two meanings: The first refers to the notion of dispersal / spreading, and the second refers to forsaking / rejection.
2. PATISH פטש (hammer) - The hammer smashes objects, thereby causing chips to fly away and disperse in various directions. For this reason, the Talmud (Brachot 28b) relates that the students of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai likened their teacher to a strong hammer: “When Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai fell ill, his students came in to visit him. When he saw them, he began to cry. His students said to him: ‘Light of Israel, the Right-hand Pillar, Mighty Hammer (פטיש), why are you crying…’”. The Sefer HaAruch (entry פטיש) explains that he was called a ‘Mighty Hammer’ because just as a hammer causes small fragments of whatever it chisels at to be dispersed, so were Halachot in the name of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai disseminated or dispersed throughout the entire world.
3. RATASH רטש (abandoned property) - The Talmud (Baba Metzia 38b-39a) differentiates between two types of abandoned property, the first is called נטושים (derived from נטש) and the second is called רטושים. The first refers to property whose owners were forced to leave, while the second refers to property which the owners willingly deserted. Rashi most often translates רטוש as broken apart. In his commentary on Hosea, Rashi brings a second definition, abandoning: Hos. 10:14 - Mother and child were רטשה; Rashi - “broken apart, as in: Their bows shall shatter [תרטשנה] the young (Isa. 13:18) and: the infants will be shattered [ירוטשו] (Isa. 13:16). Another definition of רוטשה is forsaken, as in נוטשה.” However, Rashi's main definition, breaking, is certainly comparable with the root פטש, as the broken is flung and scattered in all directions.
4. ITESH עטש (sneeze) - This word appears once in the Bible, His sneezes [עטישתיו] flash light (Job 41:10). The word עטישתיו is rendered by the Targum as זרירוהי, the Hebrew cognate of which - also meaning sneeze - appears in II Kgs. 4:35, when Elisha revives a dead child: The child sneezed [ויזורר] up to seven times, and the child opened his eyes. Rashi (there) explains that ויזוררmeans נתעטש. The word זורר itself denotes dispersal, as some say in one version of Tefillat Tal (on the First Day of Passover),  “He scatters [זורר] dew on a line,” and the commentary, Bet Levi, explains that זורר means פיזור, dispersal.
5. LITESH לטש (gleaming, sharpening) - The simple meaning of לטוש is sharpen / polish / whetting. However, many exegetes interpret לטוש and נטוש as interchangeable. For example, Gen. 25:3 tells of the descendants of Abraham and his wife Keturah. She bore a son named Dedan, whose children are listed as Ashurim, Letushim (לטושים), and Leumim. Rashi (there) explains that Letushim were tent-dwelling nomads who were dispersed about. Rashi cites I Sam. 30:16 which refers to: נטושים on the face of the whole land, and argues that the letter ל of Letushim and the letter נ of Netushim are interchangeable. Conversely, when Isaiah refers to a sword that is נטושה (Isa. 21:15), Rashi explains that it refers to a sword that is spread over the face of the earth. He then explains that נטושה means the same as לטושה because the letters ל and נ are phonetically related (part of the דטלנ"ת group mentioned above). Radak (ad loc.) also writes that נטושה means spread, but concedes that some commentators explain that Netushah means לטושה. According to Rashi in Genesis, as well as the initial explanations of Rashi and Radak to Isaiah, נטושים refers to dispersal / spreading, while according to the second explanations cited by Rashi and Radak to Isaiah, נטושים refers to sharpness. In fact, we can suggest an underlying connection between the word ליטוש as clear / shiny and the notion of dispersal / spreading. That is because a precious gem that is polished reflects and disperses the luminescence of whatever light is shone upon it. This is similar to what the Rebbe Riatz of Lubavtich writes (Iggrot HaKodesh, vol. 4, p. 289) in Kabbalistic-style language: “Just as a light naturally shines and disperses, thus multiplying and enlightening far and wide, so does the light shone upon an entity which isמלוטש (polished / shiny) in turn become reflected and disseminated… such that it can then serve as a light for others.” 
6. TISHTESH טשטש (smearing, obscured) - When discussing the laws of leprosy on a house, the Torah requires one to first remove the affected stones, and then re-plaster the affected area (Lev. 14:42). The word used for this re-plastering is טח, which literally means smoothen, and Targum Yonatan translates it as ויתטש. The Talmud (Pesachim 30b) similarly uses an associated term, טשין (smear), stating that one may not smear animal tail fat on an oven, and Rashi explains that טשין is an expression of spreading, akin to טח. Similarly, the Tosefta (Gittin 7:10) rules that a bill of divorce which has been erased or its writing was obscured / smeared (מטושטש), but is still readable, is still valid.
To summarize, after comparing all the different roots containing the two-letter string טש, it appears that the common meaning is spreading / dispersal. The meaning forsaking / leaving, which is the Radak’s first way of defining טש, may be a common consequence of the act of spreading and dispersing, but is not a given. Although if left as is, dispersed entities will become forgotten and forsaken, it is the owner’s prerogative to gather them up again.
The same verses which Radak connected to the root נתש, Machberet Menachem connects to the root תש