The word “anan” (cloud) and its various forms appear in the Bible close to 100 times. In no other parshah, though, is it found as many times as in Parshat Behaalotcha (17 times!).
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Taanit 3:3) and various Midrashim (Midrash Tehillim 135 and Bereishit Rabbah 12:12) assert that Hebrew has five words for clouds: “avim,” “eidim,” “ananim,” “nesiim,” and “chazizim.”
A cloud is called an “av” (e.g., Exodus 19:9 and II Samuel 22:12) because heavy clouds darken (m’avev) the sky by blocking the sun.
A cloud is called an “eid” (Genesis 2:6) because this word also means breaking or wrecking (see Targum to Deuteronomy 32:35) and holiday (see Avodah Zarah 1:1). Clouds “break” the “holiday” of price-gougers since they signify the onset of rain, which will cause the market to be flooded with produce, thus causing prices to fall.
Clouds are called “ananim” because rain-bearing clouds make people humble (anavim). In times of surplus (brought on by ample rain), people tend to treat each other more fairly and are at peace with one another versus times of austerity and famine when people compete with each other for limited resources.
Alternatively, clouds are called “ananim” because they make people poor (aniyim). The uneven distribution of rain results in some people having an overabundance of one product and other people having an overabundance of another. Each person is poor in a certain product and must barter with others to get what he or she needs.
Clouds are called “nesiim” (princes – see Psalms 137:7 and Proverbs 25:14) because they play a majestic “kingmaker” role by creating class differences. Some people’s fields receive rain and thus produce crops – and in turn wealth – while others’ fields do not.
Clouds are called “chaziz” (see Job 28:26 and Zechariah 10:1) because clouds create visions or sights (chizyonot) as the different flora that grows from rain might be colored differently. Others connect “chaziz” to G-d bringing clouds as Heavenly signs for man to interpret.
Sefer HaChachmah (ascribed to Rabbi Elazar Rokeach of Worms) argues that “ananim” are clouds that block sunlight, “eidim” are clouds that come with thunder (the Ibn Ezra writes that eidim are “smoky” clouds), “chazizim” are colorful clouds, and “avim” are thick clouds full of water.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) suggests roots for all these words. The root of “anan,” he writes, is the letter ayin, which connotes “movement.” Clouds, of course, constantly move due to the wind. The root of “avim” is ayin-bet, which connotes something “especially thick” (see Rashi to Taanit 6b). An av is an especially thick cloud due to a high concentration of water.
The root of “eid” is the letter dalet, which denotes extraction and separation. Clouds form from water that evaporated – i.e., that was “extracted” or “separated” from a larger body of water. This explanation complements that of R. Bachaya, who writes that “eid” means water vapor. Interestingly, Midrash Lekach Tov connects “eid” to the word “nod” (flask), explaining that clouds carry water like flasks carry liquid.
The root of “nesiim,” writes Rabbi Pappenheim, is sin-aleph, which means carrying or lifting. Clouds carry rainwater from place to place. Alternatively, they are so light that they naturally tend to rise upwards, as though being lifted into the sky.
The root of “chaziz” is chet-zayin, which connotes comprehension via sight or imagination. (Hence the word “chazon” [a prophetic vision]). Chazizim, writes Rabbi Pappenheim, are clouds that accompany thunder and lightning (which is of course related to sight).
R. Shlomo of Urbino (a 16th century Italian scholar) lists two additional words for cloud in Ohel Moed (a lexicon of Hebrew synonyms): “nivlei shamayim” and “kapayim.”
“Nivlei shamayim” (Job 38:37) means clouds according to Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and others. Menachem Ibn Saruk (920-970), in his famous Machberet, connects this phrase to “neivel” (flask or jug). In the generation after him, Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach (990-1055) and Rabbi Yehudah Ibn Balaam (1000-1070) explain the connection by writing that clouds are like flasks that pour out water.
“Kapayim” (in Job 36:32 and Lamentations 3:41) means clouds according to many commentators, including Rashi. Metzudat Tzion explains the connection by noting that clouds are like a “kippah” (covering) over people’s head. (Rabbi Pappenheim and others, though, argue that “kapayim” means the sky, not clouds.)
Rabbi Yaakov Chaim Sofer (rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Kaf HaChaim in Jerusalem) points to an eighth possible word for clouds: “shadayim.” When Yaakov blessed Yosef on his deathbed, he said: “from Shakkai you shall be blessed, heavenly blessings from above, bottomless blessings crouching below, blessings of breasts and the womb” (Gen. 49:25). The Rokeach writes that “shadayim” in this context means clouds filled with water.
We thus have a total of eight possible words for clouds in Hebrew. It’s a pity we couldn’t find one more; if we had, we would have been on cloud nine.