How many ways can you say nyet… no… I won’t? Hebrew contains several words for “refusal,” with either synonymous or overlapping meanings.
When the Jews appealed to the Edomites for permission to travel through their territory en route to the Holy Land, the Edomites flatly refused, and even threatened military action. The word used in this week’s parsha to denote the Edomites’ refusal is vayima’en (Num. 20:21). The same word is used when Jacob refuses to be consoled over Joseph’s apparent death (Gen. 37:35), when Joseph refuse to philander with Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39:8) and in other instances.
Yet the word siruv is a more familiar term for refusal than mi’un, a cognate of vayima’en. The term mi’un and its cognates appear 46 times throughout the Bible, while siruv occurs only once, and even that example is not universally agreed upon.
In the passage where G-d tells Ezekiel not to fear repercussions from the Jewish people as a result of his prophecies (Ezek. 2:6), two different words are used: saravim and salonim. While the commentators agree that salonim denotes a type of “thorns,” saravim has more than one meaning:
According to Menachem Ibn Saruk (920–970), Rashi (1040–1105), and Radak (1160–1234), calling the Jews saravim means that they were rebels and “refusers.” Menachem even defines meridah (“rebellion”) as sarvanut. According to this view, it is the only instance of the root samech-reish-bet used in the Bible to mean “refusing.”
Menachem’s famous interlocutor Donash Ibn Labrat (920–990) disagrees, considering the use of saravim in Ezekiel to mean “thorn” (equivalent to salonim).
Also in that chapter of Ezekiel, the Targum renders the cognate words for rebellion (meri/meridah) with a cognate of siruv. To add another word to the mix, the Targum also renders a cognate of pesha ((Ezek. 2:3), meaning rebellion, with an Aramaic cognate of meridah.
That said, all commentators agree that sarvan in later Rabbinic Hebrew refers to a “refusenik.” For example, the Mishnah (Brachot 5:3) rules that if the chazzan made a mistake during the prayers, then he should immediately be replaced with another chazzan, warning that the second chazzan should not be a sarvan under such circumstances, as it would be inappropriate to refuse (sarvan) the honor.
Similarly, a person who pesters another and unrelentingly tries to convince him of something is called misarev (Nedarim 8:7), because he refuses to give up on changing the other person’s mind (see Tosafos Yom Tov there).
In yet another interpretation, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenehim of Breslau (1740–1814) writes that the word mi’un is related to the word ein/ayin (“no,” “is not,” “has not”), because a person who refuses does not engage with what he has rejected but stubbornly tries to ignore it.
Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469–1549) points out in his works Sefer HaTishbi and Meturgaman that most instances of the Hebrew words meridah (“rebellion”), meri (“rebellion”), and mi’un (“refusal”) in Scripture are all rendered by the Targumim as siruv.
In light of this, it seems that the two Hebrew words for “refusal” – mi’un and siruv – are indeed synonyms, but that they are sourced in different languages. Mi’un and its cognates seem to be genuine Hebrew, while siruv, appearing once at most, seems to be a borrowed Aramaic loanword, and thus became more popular in post-biblical Hebrew when Aramaic had a stronger influence on the language.
However, there is another approach to this question.
An early commentary to Targum Onkelos ascribed to Rabbi Yaakov Dienna (published under the various names Patshegen, Tzintzenet HaMann, and Sefer HaYair) points out a biblical instance where a form of mi’un is used where siruv might have been expected. The verse (Ex. 22:16) states that if the father of a girl who was seduced refuses to give his daughter to the seducer for marriage, then the seducer must pay a penalty. The Aramaic reads, “… if the father does not wish….” rather “…the father refuses.”
Rabbi Dienna posits that mi’un and siruv are not perfect synonyms and that mi’un refers to a case wherein somebody was asked to do something (perhaps, a favor) and refused to comply, whereas siruv implies a stronger refusal than simple non-compliance. Siruv implies utter rejection; because of this, Onkelos did not want to translate the Bible’s mi’un into siruv, which would imply a more intense language than the father would likely use in public discourse.
Similarly, when Balaam reported that he cannot accompany Balak’s men, he says: “G-d has refused (me’en) to allow me to go with you” (Num. 22:13).
Targum (there) again refuses to translate mi’un as siruv, instead rendering the clause “there is no will before G-d to allow…” Rabbi Dienna accounts for this unexpected phraseology by explaining that Onkelos felt that using the more vulgar term siruv regarding G-d’s refusal is considered somewhat disrespectful towards Him, so Onkelos creatively rendered the passage differently. According to this approach, the difference between mi’un and siruv lies not just in their etymological roots, but also in their meanings, as siruv somehow implies a more intense form of “refusing” than mi’un does. [On the difference between ma’en and me’en, see Midrash Sechel Tov to Ex. 7:27.]
On another note, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the -nik suffix in English is borrowed from Yiddish and Russian, and is said to have especially come in vogue after the Russians successfully launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957. Hence, the English terms beatnik, no-goodnik, peacenik, and kibbutznik.