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Horses neigh and donkeys bray. A lion roars, a cow moos, a hart coos, a bird chirps, and a bear snarls. We have all of these verbs thanks to onomatopoeia, which is the notion that some words are derived from the sounds associated with their meaning.

Societies sometimes perceive sounds differently, though, so Hebrew has different verbs for various animals making noises. In his epic poetic response to Menachem Ibn Saruk (920-970), the early Hebrew grammarian Donash Ibn Labrat (920-990) notes that a hart is oreg (Psalms 42:2), a lion is nohem (Proverbs 19:12 and 28:15), a cow/ox is go’eh (I Samuel 6:12 and Job 6:5), a horse is tzohel (Jeremiah 5:8), and a bird is mitzaftzef (Isaiah 10:14, 29:4, and 38:14).


In his more prosaic comments, Donash adds that a lion is sho’eg (Amos 3:8, Ezekiel 22:25, and Psalms 104:21), a bear is shokek (Proverbs 28:15), a wild donkey is nohek (Job 6:5), and a dog is novayach (Isaiah 56:10).

Donash additionally notes that the verb “yehegeh” applies to both the noise a lion makes (Isaiah 31:4) and the noise a dove makes (Isaiah 59:11). (Incidentally, the Talmud [Berachos 3a] also uses “nohem” to denote the sound made by a dove.)

In the Bible, the verb “no’er” appears once – in reference to a lion cub’s roar (Jeremiah 51:38). Yet, in the Talmud (Berachos 3a), it refers to the sound a donkey makes. Rabbi Nosson of Rome (1035-1106) in Sefer HaAruch explains away this discrepancy by noting that this verb primarily refers to the young lion’s roar, and it was only used by the Talmud to refer to a donkey’s bray in a borrowed sense.

In various places, Rashi cites Donash’s list of different verbs for animals making sounds. On Chullin (53a), he notes that another verb for a dog barking is “charatz” (see Exodus 11:7).

An apocryphal Midrash describes the colorful sounds made by the animals etched on King Solomon’s throne. Most of these words do not appear in the Bible. It states that a hart is tzohel, a tiger is tzorayach, a sheep is chonev, a wolf is zorer/zored, a deer is mifaret, a bear is migamgem, a donkey/ibex is mavrim/mavris, an elephant is nohem/tofes, a Re’em is mitzaltzel, and a giraffe is milavlev.

This Midrash is cited by the Kabbalistic work Sodi Razi (Hilchos Kisei) ascribed to Rabbi Elazar Rokeach of Worms (1176-1238), as well as by Rabbi Avraham ben Shlomo of Yemen’s commentary to I Kings 10:18.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenehim of Breslau (1740-1814) offers etymological insights into some of these words for animal sounds by tracing them to their core biliteral roots. For example, he writes that “go’eh” (for a cow’s moo) is derived from the root gimmel-ayin (exertion to the point of exhaustion), which gives us such words as “yage’a” (tired), “yegiyah” (toiling), and “geviyah” (expiration/death). Rabbi Pappenheim explains that a cow exerts much effort in letting out its moos.

The core root of “mitzaftzef” (chirping), says Rabbi Pappenheim, is tzadi-peh, from which “mitzapeh”/“tzipui” (coating), “tzofeh” (gaze), and “tzipiyah” (anticipation) are derived. The chirping of a bird expresses its anticipation and hope for the arrival of its mate and/or its food.

The root of “novayach” (barking), meanwhile, says Rabbi Pappenheim, is betchet (sound that travels through the air), whose only other derivative is the first word in the term “avchat cherev” (Ezekiel 21:2), the swooshing of a sword.

Shokek,” a bear’s roar, is related, according to the Vilna Gaon (on Proverbs 28:15), to “shokek” in the sense of desire, because a bear is always hungry and desires food.

Other commentators, like Ibn Janach and the Radak, maintain that “shokek” does not refer to a bear’s roar, but rather to its sauntering gait. The Radak argues that “shokek” is actually related to “shok” (commonly translated as thigh, but really calf), which moves as one walks.

Rabbi Pappenheim argues that “shokek” is derived from the core meaning of the two-letter root shin-kuf, which means making consecutive sounds. He explains that when a lion is shokek, it produces consistent sounds one after the other. From this meaning, the word “teshukah” (desire) came about, because when one is in the throes of desire, one’s heartbeat becomes more noticeably consistent and consecutive.

A tertiary meaning derived from this root is “neshikah” (kiss), which is related to shinkuf either because it is the outward realization of one’s teshukah or because kissing produces a distinct sound.

Rabbi Pappenheim further explains that “neshek” (weapon) is related to this root because the mechanics of a weapon creates a certain type of noise or because two opposing combatants approaching each other on the battlefield to fight resemble two lovers approaching each other for a kiss.


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Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes The Jewish Press's "Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh" column.