In this week’s essay, we discuss various Hebrew words for “tying,” including keshirah, asirah, ketirah, and tzror, tracing these words to their etymological forebears and investigating whether or not they are all truly synonymous.
Keshirah and Asirah
Words hewn from the triliteral root kuf-shin-reish appear sixty times throughout the Bible. These include tying a red string to Judah’s firstborn son (Genesis 38:28) “tying” tefillin to one’s hand (Deuteronomy 6:8, 11:18), and tying a rope in the window, as discussed last week (Joshua 2:18, 2:21). Inflections of keshirah are also used in the Bible in reference to a less tangible “tying,” like when Judah said that his father’s soul is “tied” to the soul of Benjamin (Genesis 44:30). Nonetheless, the most common use of the root kuf-shin-reish in the Bible refers to a “conspiracy,” whereby a group of people “tie” together in the figurative sense in order to overthrow the government or otherwise achieve a political goal. For example, when the evil Queen of Judah Athaliah realized that there was a vast conspiracy determined to overthrow her, she called out “Kesher, kesher!”(II Kings 11:14).
The term asirah derives from another triliteral root, aleph-samech-reish, which appears close to ninety times in the Bible. It usually appears in the context of “tying” a wagon to the animal that pulls it (e.g., Gen. 46:29, Ex. 14:6, II Kgs. 9:21), or “tying down” a person who was taken captive or otherwise detained (Ps. 146:7, II Kgs. 17:4, Jud. 16:21). In fact, the word for “jail” or “place of incarceration” is bet ha-assurim, literally, “the house of those tied down” (Jud. 16:21, 16:25, see also Gen. 39:20, 40:5).
Another word ultimately derived from this root is issur (“prohibition”), which already appears several times in the Pentateuch in the context of taking vows that prohibit certain actions or items (see Numbers 30:3-15). This connects to the idea of “tying” because when something is forbidden, it is as though it has been “tied down” and rendered inaccessible. We find a sort of parallel to this in the English expression “my hands are tied,” which means that for whatever reason I am blocked from taking a certain course of action.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) ties this to the biliteral root samech-reish (“removal”), explaining that when one is tied down, one’s freedom of movement is “removed.” Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) similarly explains that mussar (“moral reproach”) likewise relates to “tying” because it gives a person the ability to “tie down” his Evil Inclination and keep his desires in check.
According to Malbim (1809-1879), the main difference between keshirah and asirah is that asirah is done without the consent of whatever is being tied. For example, when a captive (assir) is taken, he might be detained against his will, and would be forcibly “tied down” to curb his movement. In this way, Malbim relates asirah to the term yissurim (“suffering”), which likewise denotes something non-consensual that comes upon a person against his will.
Similarly, Malbim notes that issur in the sense of “prohibition” refers to the idea that one’s actions may be precluded (by law or by nature) against his will. Keshirah, on the other hand, denotes “tying” something in a way that whatever is being tied “consents” to that action. For example, in the case of a kesher (“conspiracy”), the co-conspirators willingly enter into a plot with one another (see also Radak to II Kings 9:14).
The word ketirah derives from the triliteral root kuf-tet-reish. In Hebrew, this root refers to “smoke” or “incense,” but in Aramaic it refers to “tying.” (I am not aware of any connections between these two meanings of the root.)
The Aramaic terms appear three times in the Aramaic sections of Daniel. In one instance, it refers to something literally “tied” (5:6), while in the other two it refers to mystery or riddle figuratively “tied up in a knot” that has to be opened (5:12, 5:16). This Aramaic term is also the standard Targumic rendering of the Hebrew keshirah, as Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469-1549) already notes in Meturgaman.
In many words, the Hebrew letter shin becomes a tav when switching to Aramaic (e.g. shor becomes tor). Based on this, Rabbi Yaakov Berger of Kiryat Sefer writes in Milon Leshon HaMikra that it makes sense why the Hebrew kuf-shin-reish becomes kuf-tet-reish in Aramaic (presuming that tav and tet are interchangeable).
Interestingly, just as keshirah in Biblical Hebrew can refer to a conspiracy, katir in Rabbinic Hebrew means the same thing. The term appears in the Talmud (Yevamot 61a) when relating that there was a conspiracy behind the appointment of Yehoshua ben Gamla as the Kohen Gadol (his wife bribed the Hasmonean king Yanai to arrange for that position).
The Bible reports that after the death of Sarah, Abraham took a new wife named Keturah (Genesis 25:1). Rabbinic tradition relates that Keturah is actually none other than Abraham’s former concubine and Sarah’s former maidservant, Hagar, whom he had originally married under Sarah’s direction but later sent away. The word keturah relates to the concept of “tying,” because Hagar “tied herself” up by holding back from getting married to anybody else so that that she might be able to return to Abraham in the future (Bereishit Rabbah §61:4).
According to some sources, Hagar “tied shut” the entrance to her womb to remain chaste until Abraham remarried her (see Hadar Zekanim to Genesis 25:1). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Genesis 25:1) explains that the name Keturah in this sense is related to the Hebrew word keshirah. Taking this idea a step further, Rabbi Hirsch even connects her original name Hagar to the words agur (“gathered in”) and chagurah (“belt”), both of which also refer to something “tied” or “inward-looking” that is cut off from the outside.
Another term for “tying” is tzror, which derives from the root tzadi-(vav)-reish. For example, when the Torah says that Maaser Sheini must be eaten in Jerusalem or should be redeemed for money and taken to Jerusalem, it says “and you shall take the money v’tzarta (and tie) the money in your hand, and you shall go to the place that Hashem your G-d has chosen (Deuteronomy 14:25). Similarly, when the Torah outlaws one man marrying two sisters at the same time, it says that doing so “ties” them together (Lev. 18:18). In Mishnaic parlance, tzarot refer to “co-wives” who are tied together by being married to the same man. Rabbi Pappenheim traces the word tzror to the biliteral root tzadi-reish; indeed, if you tie something tightly, that certainly fits the bill.