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Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Brelsau (1740-1814) traces “naar”/“naarah” to its biliteral root ayin-reish, which means revealing. Hence “vate’ar” (Genesis 24:20) to describe Rivkah pouring from her jug since when one pours liquid out of a container, one essentially reveals the bottom of it.

Other words derived from this root include “ohr” (skin, the part of the body that’s revealed to the world), “ervah” (nakedness, a revealed body), “taar” (a razor, which is used for cutting hair and thus revealing the skin underneath), and “ar” (an enemy who reveals his enmity outwardly).

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Eir” (awake) is also derived from this root because when a person awakens, his abilities, which had laid dormant while he was sleeping, are suddenly revealed. Building on this last example, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that “naar”/“naarah” denotes a stage in an adolescent’s maturation when his or her potential suddenly reveals itself, as if he or she just woke up from the slumber of childhood.

(Rabbi Pappenheim also writes that “naar”/“naarah” sometimes denotes the youthful irresponsibility of one who shakes off [“l’na’er”] his or her obligations.)

As for “elem”/“almah”: Rabbi Pappenheim writes that its etymological root is the biliteral ayin-lammed, which means on top. The most common word derived from this root is “al” (on), conjugations of which appear in the Bible close to some 6,000 times!

A whole slew of other words also come from ayin-lammed, including “elyon” (high), “l’maaleh” (up), “oleh” (elevate), “aleh” (leaf, which grows on a branch), “ohl” (yoke, which placed on an animal), “meil (tunic, which is worn on top of other clothing), “na’al” (shoe, which is worn on top of the foot), etc.

For our purposes, the most relevant words are “olel” and “elem.” “Olel” (toddler) denotes the age at which a child has already been weaned from his mother’s milk and now gets up on his own to find/ask for food. The olel experiences a growth spurt throughout his childhood years, until he becomes an elem, at which stage he has nearly completely grown up.

On the surface, Rabbi Pappenheim’s explanations of “naar” and “elem” seem to refer to the exact same stage in life. In fact, Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach and Radak (in their respective works entitled Sefer HaShorashim) explicitly write that “naarah” and “almah” mean the same thing.

Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865), however, maintains that while they may refer to the same stage of life according to Rabbi Pappenheim, “elem” focuses on the manifestation of physical maturity, while “naar” focuses on the development of intellectual/spiritual maturity.

Seguing to the word “yeled”/“yaldah,” Rabbi Pappenheim writes that it’s a general term for child and does not necessarily denote any specific age. In fact, Yishmael is still called a yeled at the age of 16 (Genesis 21:15-16), and Rashi explains that “yeled” in Erachin (4:4) refers to anybody between 20 and 60 (as opposed to “zaken,” which refers to someone over 60).

Midrash Tadshe (ch. 6) lists six stages in a person’s life: yeled, naar, roveh, elem, ish, sav, and zaken. Interestingly, this source places elem after naar and adds a stage of “roveh” between them. In any event, we see from this Midrash that “yeled” is the earliest stage of a person’s life.

When Reuben tried to convince his brothers not to harm Joseph, he called Joseph a yeled (Genesis 44:22). Rabbi Meir Simcha of Divnsk (1843-1926) writes that Reuben specifically used this word to highlight the fact that Joseph had not yet reached the age of 20 and was thus not yet liable to be punished by heaven.

Rabbi Pappenheim traces “yeled” to the two-letter root lammed-dalet, which refers to birth. Hence, “yalad”/“yaldah” is the verb for giving birth, “toldot” refers to the results of birth, “valid” is the womb from whence birth begins, and “yeled”/“yaldah” is any child who is born.

(Rabbi Eliyahu HaKohen of Izmir [1659-1729] cites anonymous sages of astrology who explain that “yeled” refers to a boy between the ages of 2-5; “naar,” between 5-8; and “bachur,” between 8-18.)

The word “betulah” is commonly translated as virgin or maiden. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Genesis 1:4 and 30:8) connects its root, bet-tav-lammed, to the root of “havdalah” (separation), bet-dalet-lammed, explaining that abstinence/chastity is a form of separation. The Rabbis (Niddah 8b) expanded this word to refer also to a patch of ground that had never been worked before and to a sycamore tree whose branches had never been cut.

Interestingly, some commentators (like Rabbi Yaakov of Vienna and Peirush HaRokeach) explain that the name of Rivkah’s father Bethuel alludes to a decree he made as the local warlord that gave him the right to each betulah when she came of age or got married (see Yalkut Shimon, Genesis 109 and Maseches Sofrim 21:9).

Other commentators, like R. Efrayim b. Shimshon, parse his name differently, seeing it as a portmanteau of “bito” (his daughter) and “Kel” (G-d) – an allusion to the fact that Bethuel’s daughter Rivkah elevated herself to become a matriarch of G-d’s nation.

The word “bachur” is often found in couplets alongside the word “betulah” (see, for example, Deuteronomy 32:25, Isaiah 62:5, and Ezekiel 9:6), which suggests that it’s the masculine form of “betulah.” (Some have argued that the word “bachurah” for an unmarried woman is an inappropriate Modern Hebrew neologism, but see Olas Yitzchak [vol. 3, 275], which demonstrates that although this word doesn’t appear in the Bible, it was definitely used by the rabbis.)

The Radak in Sefer HaShorashim writes that the root of “bachur” is bet-chet-reish, which primarily refers to the act of choosing. Young unmarried men tend to be at the peak of their physical strength and are thus the choicest candidates for labor or the military.

(“Bachur” technically can refer to a married young man [see, for example, Sukkah 26b].)

The prophet Isaiah told Ahaz, king of Judah, not to fear the kings of Israel and Aram who came to wage war against him because G-d will save him from their hands. As a sign of this assurance, Isaiah foretold that an almah will give birth to a son and she will name him Immanuel (G-d is with us).

In this passage, “almah” doesn’t mean virgin like many Christian interpreters have understood it since the Hebrew word for virgin is “betulah.” Moreover, Isaiah could not have been referring to a virgin giving birth, because that wouldn’t be a clear sign of anything. (How would people know she was a virgin?)

Most scholars agree that the Christian interpretation of Isaiah’s prophecy is based on a mistaken understanding of the Septuagint, which translates “almah” into Greek as “parthenos” (a word that often means virgin).

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