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The Torah states that any kohen or animal with a mum (blemish) becomes unfit for ritual sacrifice.

Rabbi Sholomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) writes that “mum” and “me’umah” derive from the two-letter root mem-mem, which denotes the smallest amount. Accordingly, he explains that “mum” refers to something that is either missing or extra such that it makes the object less than perfect. Thus, a body with a mum either lacks something or has an extra something it is not supposed to have.


Along these lines, Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein (1899-1983) writes that “mum” without the letter aleph is probably derived from “mum with an aleph (see Job 31:7 and Daniel 1:4) or me’umah, which means something or a point. He explains that this word originally referred to a dot or speck on an otherwise pristine background and was later expanded to mean any type of blemish or defective imperfection.

Similarly, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) writes that “me’umah” represents the smallest possible smidgen of existence; it is something that is only a bit bigger than nothing. He writes that its root is aleph-mem, which means mother (the source of all life/existence) and if (the precondition necessary for anything to exist).

Another word used for blemish is “pgam.” Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469-1549) writes that this word literally means groove or crevice. He points to the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 23b), which refers to the “pgam of the moon” as the dark parts of the moon that are only visible at certain times of its monthly cycle. He also notes that pgam is the Talmudic term for a nick in a knife that renders it unfit for slaughtering (Chullin 10a, 17a).

In light of this, Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein’s contention that “pgam” is probably a cognate of the Arabic word “fajama” (to break off a bit) makes much sense. (These two words, by the way, are unrelated to the English word “pajama,” which is derived from the Persian words “pay” [leg] and “jameh” [garment].)

A slew of sources indicate that “pgam” literally refers to something lacking or deficient, and that “blemish” is only a borrowed meaning:

  1. After the kohen gadol on Yom Kippur reads relevant passages from Leviticus from a Torah Scroll, he quotes passages from Numbers by heart. The Talmud (Yoma 70a) explains that he doesn’t roll the Torah Scroll from Leviticus to Numbers because doing so would needlessly make the audience have to wait.

Why doesn’t he take out a second Torah Scroll? Because people would then suspect that the first Torah Scroll had a pgam. Rashi explains that pgam means lack; people would think the first Torah Scroll was rejected because it lacked all the requirements that would render it fit for use.

  1. Rashi (to Kesubos 84a) defines a “familial pgam” as something embarrassing that essentially detracts from a family’s sterling reputation.
  2. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 73a) characterizes a rapist as somebody who has caused a betrothed woman a pgam. Rashi explains this to mean that he embarrassed her and cheapened her.
  3. A less-than-full cup of wine is considered pagum and thus unfit for Kiddush (Pesachim 106a).
  4. Detracting from the value of a written loan’s document by accepting partial payment of that debt is called “pogem” or “pogemet” (see Kesubos 9:7-8, Tosefta, Shavuos 6:5).

Rabbi Pappenheim traces the etymology of “pgam” to the biliteral root peh-gimmel, which means weakened. For example, when Jacob was first told that Joseph was still alive and became the ruler of Egypt, the Torah says, “His heart became weak (vayafag) because he did not believe them” (Genesis 45:26).

As a corollary of this meaning, “pag” (Song of Songs 2:13) refers to unripened figs, whose sweetness is “weaker” than fully-ripe fruits. (In Modern Hebrew, pag refers to a baby born prematurely and to the expiration date of, say, a coupon.)

The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 67a) rules that taste from a forbidden food can render otherwise permitted food forbidden. However, if that added taste is taam l’fgam (meaning, it detracts from the taste of the permitted food), it does not prohibit the food. In this case, “pgam” means weakness of taste (while in other contexts it means “weakness” of a knife’s blade or the “weakening” of a girl’s worth).

One more word for blemish is “simpon.” The Talmud (Kesubos 57b) talks of a woman having a “simpon” that might retroactively null her betrothal. “Simpon,” though, actually has several meanings, each of which ultimately derives from a different Greek word.

In the Mishnah (Chullin 3:1), “simpon” appears in the sense of a bronchial artery which branches off from the lungs. In this sense, “simpon” is derived from the Greek word “siphon,” which means a pipe.

In Greek, “symphonia” refers to some sort of musical instrument (possibly a bagpipe or virignal). Rabbi Binyamin Mussafia (1606-1675) writes that Greek words entered the Aramaic lexicon as early as the times of Daniel. As an example, he cites the word “sumponia” in Sefer Daniel (3:5, 3:10, and 3:15).

Simpon” also appears in the Mishnah (Bava Metzia 1:8) to refer to extra clauses or conditions added to a legal document as a sort of post-script. This word is derived from the Greek “symphoneo,” which means agreement or harmony, and it refers to parties to an agreement coming to terms with one another.

Rashi (to Kiddushin 10b, Kesubos 57b, and Bava Metzia 20a) explains that “simpon” literally means cancel, and refers to any sort of clause that can “cancel” a deal. An early commentary to Targum Oneklos ascribed to Rabbi Yaakov Dienna (published under the names Patshegen, Tzintzenet HaMan, and Sefer HaYair) suggests a Semitic etymology for “simpon” by explaining that it is derived from the Hebrew/Aramaic root samech-yud-mem, which means erase or destroy, and pon which (somehow) refers to something from the past.

To summarize, “mum,” “pgam,” and “simpon” can all mean blemish in some sense, but “mum” really means something, “pgam” literally means hole or lacking, and “simpon” literally means cancellation.


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