Over the years, we have discussed many different words in these essays, but we have yet to discuss the words for “word.” In Hebrew, there are at least two words for “word” – milah and teivah.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappeheim (1740-1814) sees milah as an original Hebrew term and teivah a later neologism coined by grammarians. The word milah in the sense of “word” appears in the Torah many times (Ps. 19:5, 139:4, II Sam. 23:2, Prov. 23:9, and over 30 times in Job, plus in the Aramaic sections of Daniel), while teivah in that sense only first appears in later rabbinic writings. We will shed some light on their respective etymologies and the fact that they may not be total Pappenheim synonyms.
Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469-1549), also known as Elias Levita, argues in his works Mesorat HaMesoret and Sefer Tishbi that milah refers to a spoken word while teivah refers to a written word. Meanwhile, Rabbi Yosef Teomim (1727-1792) maintains that milah can refer to either a written or verbalized word, while teivah refers exclusively to a written word.
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman of Hanau (1687-1746) adds that the word milah, derived from the triliteral root mem-lammed-lammed (“speech”), appears in Sarah’s poetic response to the birth of Isaac: “And she said, “Who would have said (millel) to Abraham that Sarah will nurse children, for I have borne a son to this old age!” (Gen. 21:7). King David uses a similar word: “Who will say (yimallel) G-d’s feats, [who] will make all His praises be heard?” (Ps. 106:2).
And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children, for I have borne a son to his old age!”
Millel is the typical Targumic rendering of the Hebrew amirah (“saying”) and its cognates. Moreover, the Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 18a) cites a popular aphorism from the Holy Land: “A milah is worth a sela (a form of currency), and silence is worth two sela.” This also implies that milah refers to speech (its antonym in this aphorism being shtika – silence).
Thus, if milah is derived from a root related to speaking, it makes sense that it would refer specifically to something spoken. In other words, milah refers to the smallest unit of speech that has its own meaning; smaller unites – phonemes and syllables – do not necessarily have a meaning on their own.
But if milah/millel is just another term for “saying/speaking,” how does it differ from such words as amirah, dibbur, sichah, ne’um, yichaveh, and yabia?
Peirush HaRokeach and Siddur HaRokeach explain that millel specifically denotes speaking in an elaborate and verbose fashion, pointing to the opening words of Bildad’s response to Job: “Until when will you speak (timallel) these [words]?” (Job 8:2).
Rabbeinu Efrayaim (to Gen. 21:7) writes that unlike other terms for speech, millel refers specifically to speaking the truth. Rabbi Yehuda Leib Shapira-Frankfurter (1743-1826) makes a similar point, noting that millel refers to speaking as a means of explaining something in the most clear and accurate way possible. They adduce the following verse to support this understanding: “The knowledge of my lips – clarity, do they speak (millelu)” (Job 33:3).
Concerning teivah, on the other hand, HaBachur adduces support for his assertion that it refers specifically to a written word from the Talmud (Yevamot 13b), which says: “any word (teivah) that needs a lammed at its beginning [as a prefix meaning “to”[, the Scripture [can instead] places a hey at its end.” HaBachur understands that this to refer mainly to how the word is written. He also mentions the expression roshei teivos (literally, “the heads of the words”) used for written acronyms/abbreviations.
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman of Hanau writes that the word teivah means “box, chest” and refers to the written word because books that contain written words are stored in a teivah. For example, Noah’s Ark is called a teivah (Gen. 6–9), as was the basket wherein baby Moses was placed (Ex. 2:3). In Mishnaic Hebrew, teivah refers to the Holy Ark of a synagogue which houses the Torah Scrolls, or to the table (also known as bimah) upon which the Torah Scrolls are placed while being read.
I have previously cited Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916), who argues that teivah is related to bayit (“house”) in that both words contain the same letters (metathesis). This implies that a teivah is in some ways like a person’s home. Based on this, I would say that teivah denotes a sort of house for all the letters to come together in that house or box.
Along these lines, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Gen. 6:14) suggests that teivah is derived from the Aramaic root yod-tav-bet, equivalent to the Hebrew yod-shin-bet (“sitting, dwelling, settling”), referring to the teivah‘s place as a temporary domicile. Perhaps teivah as “word” refers to a place in which letters are nestled.
Rabbi Moshe Shapiro (1935–2017) points out that another word for “word” in Hebrew is davar. The root dalet-bet-reish means both “word/speak” and “thing” in Hebrew, alluding to the metaphysical reality described by Sefer Yetzirah that G-d created the world by combining letters from the Hebrew alphabet to form divine words. As Rabbi Akiva Tatz eloquently puts it, “all things in the world are in fact none other than divine words crystallized into material existence.”
I will conclude with an observation from Mrs. Faigy Peritzman in Mishpacha magazine about how words are used to box in abstract thoughts and ideas to make them more specific and finite: “We see this concept in the alternate definitions of the various Hebrew words that mean ‘word’: davar, milah, and teivah. Davar also means a thing, because a word concretizes abstract thoughts into things. Milah also means to cut, to incise, because a word cuts down your limitless thoughts into something tangible and real. Teivah also means a box, because a word is our attempt to squeeze our infinite thoughts into a finite casing.”