The Little Hebrew Word אוֹ (o “or”), Second Essay
Little did I think a while back that the small word אוֹ (pronounced “o”, “or”) would ever be the subject of one, much less two essays! I promise this will be the last. But the reason this word ought to excite the student of Biblical Hebrew is that it is the link between words, words that are necessary to build a diverse and supple Hebrew vocabulary. For example, in the first essay, o was the instrument for introducing us to at least 35 Hebrew words. I hope to be able to introduce a several more here. Though the focus will be on “o’s” stunningly frequent use in Leviticus (130/320 appearances), I will say a few more words about Exodus and Numbers appearances of o.
Exodus—A Few More
We recall several words from Ex. 22:1, “ox/sheep,” which are shor/seh; then the “steal/slaughter/sell” triad, the first which we have not yet seen, are גָּנַב (ganab)/ tabach/ makar. But we push down a few verses (22:5) to find “field/vineyard” or שָׂדֶה (sedeh)/ כֶּרֶם (kerem) separated by an o. Especially interesting to me are the technical terms for grain: the “stacked grain/standing grain” duo of 22:6 are גָּדִישׁ (gadish)/קָמָה (qamah). The latter only appears 4x in the Bible and derives from the verb קוּם (qum), to “stand.” In the same verse we have two words that we have already seen, separated by an o, the qamah/sedeh, or “standing grain/field.” “Money/goods” in 22:7 uses the word keseph for “money,” which we have already seen (“silver” in Gen. 44:8) but gives us the new kelim (singular כְּלִי (keli) for “goods” or “utensils.” Ex. 22:10 is a rich harvest, both of terms we have seen and new terms. It speaks of a “donkey/ox/sheep,” chamor/shor/seh (all of which we have seen), that either dies/is hurt/is driven away. The three verbs, in their 3rd person form, are מוּת (muth)/שָׁבַר (shabar)/ שָׁבָה (shabah), though the last of the three is often rendered as “take captive” (e.g., Gen. 14:14; Num. 24:22). Ten new words here.
Numbers—A Few Examples
Numbers speaks of time with “two days/month” in 9:22, which is yamim (יוֹם, yom is singular) or חֹדֶשׁ (chodesh). Just because the name of Egypt is a proper name doesn’t mean we can avoid it: מִצְרַיִם (mitsrayim). It is contrasted in 14:2 with מִדְבָּר (midbar) so we have an “Egypt/wilderness” duo. Then, two of the more popular words for sacrifices are given in 15:3, עֹלָה (olah)/ זֶבַח (zebach) or the “burnt offering/a sacrifice.” But vows are also important in that verse, and we have a “vow” or a “freewill offering,” which is a נֶדֶר (neder)/ נְדָבָה (nedabah). It is a felicitous situation when vow and freewill offering, which have nothing in common in English words, are so close in Hebrew. This is easier to remember than that nedabah appears 26X in the Bible, memorize it and promptly forget it. We must hasten on to Leviticus, but one last one adds to our growing list of names for animals: “herd” or “flock” are בָּקָר (baqar)/ צאֹן (tson). We are covering so many bases and just starting the language! Since the two nouns just mentioned were taken from Gen. 13:5, we can add a few other words from that verse: גַּם (gam; “also”); לוֹט (Lot); אֵת (eth; “with”) and הָיָה (hayah; “there was”). Fourteen more.
A Few From Leviticus
Leviticus is largely about the sacrificial system of Israel. As such, it uses a more formal vocabulary, since proper performance must be captured by precise words. For example, rather than the ish/ishah distinction of “man/woman,” which we have already seen, it has the זָכָר (zakar)/ נְקֵבָה (neqebah) distinction for “male/female” (3:6). We can start to become a little confused with all the “n’s,” which doesn’t begin a lot of words in English (neder/nedabah/neqebah), but patient examination of the “or’s” of these will sort them out quickly.
Sheep/goats also are represented by a few more words (כֶּשֶׂב (keseb) / עֵז (ez); the keseb is often rendered “lamb”). Various sacrifices are mentioned in Leviticus, and in one instance one can bring either a “turtledove” or a young “pigeon” (תּוֹר (tor)/ יוֹנָה (yonah); Lev 1:14). The yonah was sent out by Noah from the ark after the Great Flood to check on the water level. Now we have another context in which to learn and master it. Two verbs capture the heart of what it means to be a witness of something in ancient Israel: they are the common “see/know” (רָאָה (raah)/ יָדַע (yada); 5:1). The word for “witness” is another single syllable word: עֵד (ed). In the next verse we have people who might touch either an “unclean” thing or the “carcass of an unclean beast,” where the former is טָמֵא (tame—two syllables) and the latter is נְבֵלָה (nebelah). So we have: nebelah/nedabah/neder/neqebah—a veritable harvest of “n’s.” Which word stands for what?
As the text of Leviticus unfolds we have words for lambs and goats which we have already seen (keseb/ez). One of the arguments for the inspired nature of the Bible for me is that the Book of Leviticus repeats the hard words! We have very hard words regarding deposits or sureties or security instruments in Lev. 6, but I will not introduce them here, but I will introduce “robbery/extortion,” which are much more interesting! The former is גָּזֵל (gazel)/ גָּזַל (gazal is the verb) while the latter is עשֶׁק (osheq), though the latter is often translated (it appears 35x) as “oppress.” We have already seen ganab for “steal,” so now we have two words from the robbery/stealing vocabulary.
Once we get to Lev. 13-14, we have the incredibly rich and important description of scabs or marks on the body that must be examined to see if the person suffers from leprosy. I will only introduce a few of these pairs. In 13:2 we have swelling/scab/bright spot, which are שְׂאֵת (seeth, two syllables)/ סַפַחַת (sappachath)/ בֹּהֶרֶת (bahereth. Seeth is from the verb נָשָׂא (nasa), which means to “lift up,” which is what a “swelling” is. The word for “scab” only appears in one other passage and the “bright spot,” though appearing 12 times, just is present in Lev. 13-14. These are rare words, but it sometimes is nice to know them.
A little secret about learning from a long-time learner. . .If your professor ever realizes upon asking a question that you have detailed and obscure knowledge on a subject s/he is asking about, you might just get “A’s” from that professor (and anyone s/he talks to) for the rest of your student days.
This and the last essays are sufficient to show the fruitfulness of the method of learning the words on either side of the o, “or.” Thirty-three words in the first essay were supplemented by another forty-two here. I apologize if I got carried away with the extent of words here, but they just naturally beckoned us on. If you just keep this up in studying Hebrew, the language will open up nicely for you.