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Tetzaveh: Guarded Closure, Hopeful Beginning ~ Yehoshua Steinberg

Updated: Nov 4, 2022

Article Abstract:

Among the priestly garments and accoutrements listed in Parashat Tetzaveh is the High Priest's breastplate of judgment, filled with rows of precious stones.

The word for "row" in Hebrew is טור, and this week's article seeks to find the specific meaning of this word, in contrast to synonyms such as שורה. To this end, as usual we examine the gamut of words deriving from or containing the two-letter string טר in the hope of finding a common thread between them which may shed light on the distinct import of this word, and why it is used in conjunction with the holy breastplate.

וְעָשִׂיתָ חֹשֶׁן מִשְׁפָּט... וּמִלֵּאתָ בוֹ מִלֻּאַת אֶבֶן אַרְבָּעָה טוּרִים אָבֶן (שמות כח:טו-יז).

You shall make a breastplate of judgment… and you shall fill into it stone fillings, four rows [טוּר] of stones (Ex. 28:15-17).

Among the priestly garments listed in Parashat Tetzaveh, the Torah commands us to create the breastplate, and to fill it with rows (טורים) of precious stones. In this article, we will examine the unique meaning of the word טוּר (in contrast to its synonyms such as שׁוּרַָה and the like). As usual, we will examine other words in Leshon Hakodesh that contain the two root letters טר, in an attempt to find a common denominator between them. Finally, we will try to explain why the Torah chose this word in describing the making of this sacred vessel.

The verse cited above is classified in Machberet Menachem under the two-letter root טר. He defines this word as order.

In addition to טור, Menachem includes three other subcategories under the same two-letter root.

1. [Three types of] guarding or preserving:

A. Preserving a grudge: Nah. 1:2 - The Lord… guards [נוֹטֵר] wrath for His enemies; and: Jer. 3:5 - Will He guard [הֲיִנְטֹר] a grudge forever?

B. The shooting target, called a מטרה. The commentators explain that one must guard against distraction (i.e. preserve concentration and focus) when aiming his projectile, so as not to miss the bull's eye.

C. Jail, called a חצר המטרה. This too is connected by dint of the need to guard the inmates, as Radak explains.

2. A castle or tower (טירה). This word is explained interpreted by the Sages (Sifrei, Matot 157) as the place of the idolatrous priests, who guarded their traditions. In the Mishnah (Keilim 5:3), we find another form of guarding in the term טירת התנור, the enclosure of an oven used to retain (i.e., guard) heat from escaping.

3. Moisture (טריות). The Midrash (Gen. Rabba 98:13) says the word טרי refers to a three-day period (during which the object in question presumably could retain [guard] its natural moistness).

All four subcategories of טר in Menachem’s Machberet (guarding, tower, freshness, order [as explained below]) are therefore connected to guarding or preservation of one sort or another. But we have already seen a number of different nuances in the types of guarding, as follows:

A. Retaining resentment B. Focusing / concentrating C. Arresting / gripping / closing D. Keeping traditions E. Moisture. All these meanings are borne by the root טר.

However, as we noted above, Menachem (in his fourth subcategory) explains the word טור as order - סדר. What is the connection between order and the other meanings of טר? We suggest that order itself is also connected to guarding. One of the Biblical sources for the term סדר, according to the commentators, is the word שְׂדֵרוֹת , meaning orderly ranks of guards or soldiers: II Chron. 23:14 - Jehoiada the Kohen took aside the captains of hundreds, the officers of the force, and said to them, ‘Take her away, but keep her within the בֵּית הַשְּׂדֵרוֹת; Metz. David - “Take her to the בֵּית הַשְּׂדֵרוֹת - within the array of guards, so that she does not escape.”

This indicates that guarding and order go hand in hand. This may include guards to prevent infiltration of undesirable outsiders, or to thwart the escape of those being held within (as in this passage in Chronicles, where Athaliah was being held in the בֵּית הַשְּׂדֵרוֹת to prevent her escape). An organized arrangement of any sort (e.g. cleanliness) requires maintenance to preserve its orderliness. The same can be said of the stones of the חושן, which were placed and protected in orderly טוּרִים, rows.

A survey of various Hebrew and Aramaic words indicates that the two-letter string טר holds many different meanings, which at first blush appear unrelated, but which, upon reflection, can be understood as nuanced variations on the themes of order and guarding. Here is our list of those words:

1. שטר (enforcer, document) -

A. שוטר (police). The word שוטר is rendered by the Targumim throughout the Tanach with the Aramaic root סרך, gripping / holding, because one of the responsibilities of a police officer is to apprehend, fetter, and restrain a criminal.

B. שְׁטָר (document): In Rabbinic Hebrew. Ri MiGash explains that this word also relates to the idea of protection: Ri MiGash (to Baba Batra 29b) - “a contract [שְטָר] means a type of שמירה - because a contract guards and protects a matter from becoming forgotten…”

2. קטר (knot, tying) - The meaning stems from tying down and closing. Rashi cites a Midrash that the name קטורה (an alternate name for Hagar) refers to tying and closure. The Torah (Gen. 25:1) tells us that following Sarah’s death, Abraham took a wife named קטורה (root: קטר, Aramaic word for knot); Rashi explains that this was Hagar, who “tied herself up” - i.e. guarded herself from marrying any other man, hoping to reunite with Abraham.

3. אטר (grasping / closing, withholding) : Ps. 69:16 - Do not let the pit תאטר its mouth over me; Rashi - “ואל תאטר- do not close on me”; Metz. Tzion - “this means sealing and closing, as in: a withered right hand [אטר יד ימינו] (Judg. 3:15).” Hamadrich Hamaspik (entry אטר) explains that a left-handed person is called אטר יד ימינו because his right hand appears to be trapped, closed, and non-functional.

4. עטר (crown, to surround) - The root עטר indicates circling and enclosure, as in: You crowned him [תְּעַטְּרֵהוּ] with soul and splendor (Ps. 8:6); and: Who crowns you [הַמְעַטְּרֵכִי] with kindness and mercy (Ps. 103:4). Shoresh Yesha (entry עטר) suggests that the roots טר and עטר are connected: "Perhaps this stems from טר, meaning encircling, guarding and protection… המעוטר (he who bears the crown) is protected, because his army watches over him." Shoresh Yesha adds that we find that within a military context, עטר has an opposite meaning: encircling and trapping the enemy: Saul and his men were surrounding [עֹטְרִים] David and his men, to capture them (I Sam. 23:26).

5. טרק (to close - Aramaic) - See Brachot 28a. Furthermore, by adding the letter ס, we find the word טרקס, which in Aramaic means a wall or gate, i.e. an enclosure (see Yoma 51b, Brachot 35b). It appears that the word טרקלין as well (טרק plus the letter ל) might be connected to this theme. In Modern Hebrew, טרקלין refers to a hall, but Rambam’s commentary to the Mishnah (Eruvin 6:6) defines טרקלין as the most spacious room in a palace, used for the seat of the king; as such, it is the most guarded room as well. It emerges that the Aramaic root טרק and all of its derivatives stem from the root טר, all of whose derivatives share the concept of guarding.

6. חוטר (stick) - This relates to the idea of order, as explained above. Judges ensure social order through their rulings. However, judges need certain tools to ensure that their rulings are carried out, which brings us to the word חוטר - a stick. This is listed amongst the tools of the judge used in enforcing his rulings (see Rif and Ein Yaakov to Sanhedrin 7a); R’ Yehonatan of Luniel explains that the חוטר is used to beat one who rebels against the judge. In Isaiah 11:1, the Messiah’s advent is described as a חוטר, which Rashi explains as his royal staff (scepter), but one which is also used in his role as judge.

7. מטר (rain) – The connection of מטר to טר, guarding, can be explained in two ways: 1) In line with Menachem's explanation of the word טרי (moisture), מטר is related to this root because rain ensures the moisture of all vegetation, thus preserving and guarding all living things. 2) Targumna suggests a connection between מטר and נטר based on the idea of guarding and waiting in anticipation, because there is no natural way to hasten rainfall. All we can do is hope and wait that it comes, as per Job's analogy: Job 29:23 - They would long for me as for rain, opening their mouth wide for the late rain; Malbim - “They would long for me as for rain, as vegetation awaits the rain, which is its life.”

8. פטר (opening) - Finally, we arrive at a root that seems to indicate the opposite of closure - the root פטר, which means opening, as in: פטר רחם, the first-born who opens the womb (Ex. 13:2). Nonetheless, Abarbanel (Ex. 13:1) explains that the womb was in fact guarded and enclosed until it is opened upon the first birth, as in: the beginning of a quarrel is like releasing water [פוטר מים] (Prov. 17:14). In this sense, the word פטר might be explained as a compound-word, composed of "פֶּה-טר" - The initial פ here is the פה, portal (similar to פה, mouth) - the opening of the hitherto closed / guarded womb, bringing new life into the world.

Although we close our discussion of טר - guarded / closed with a word ironically denoting opening, this is the way of Torah, closing one chapter and immediately opening a new one, continuing on to new challenges and new hopes.

May we merit to be judged by the royal staff [חוטר] of the scion of Jesse and the judgment of the rows [טורים] of stones upon the Breastplate, speedily, in our times. Amen.

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