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An ancient Shavuot custom that dates back over 1,000 years calls for reading piyutim that list the 613 commandments. These liturgical compositions comprise a category of poems known as azharot (literally, warnings or prohibitions).

Cognates of “azharah” appear some 22 times in the Bible. For example, when Jethro advises Moses on how to establish a judicial system, he tells him, “And you shall warn (v’hizhartah) them about the statutes and the laws, and you shall notify them of the path that they shall walk in and the actions that they shall do” (Exodus 18:20).

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The word “azharah” itself in the sense of a prohibition first appears in the Mishnah (Pesachim 3:1 and 4:1, Sanhedrin 7:7, and Karetot 3:10). It often denotes the warning aspect of a prohibition (i.e., “thou shalt not…”) as opposed to the punishment aspect (e.g., Yevamot 2b and Sifrei, Naso 1).

All the early Hebrew lexicographers – including Menachem Ibn Saruk (920-970), Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach (990-1050), Rabbi David Kimchi (1160-1235), and Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Parchon (12th century, author of Machberet He’Aruch) – understand the source of “azharah” to be the triliteral root zayin-hey-reish. They understand that root to have two very distinct meanings: warning and light (see Hosea 7:16 and Psalms 132:12). None of these grammarians intimate a connection between the two.

However, Maimonides’ son, Rabbi Avraham Maimuni (1186-1237), writes that the root of “l’hazhir” in the sense of to warn is the three-letter root zayin-hey-reish, which means light or brilliance (“zohar”). He explains that one illuminates another’s intellectual perception by instructing that person on his or her responsibilities; thus, warning a person can be said to be shedding light on that person’s expectations.

Accordingly, the shared theme common to both meanings of this root is the concept of enlightenment, both in the literal sense of bringing light and in the figurative sense of enlightening a person by adding to his or her knowledge.

The late Rabbi Dr. Jose Faur (1934-2020) infers from this explanation that at its core, “azharah” does not just refer to what the Torah outlaws (negative commandments), but also to what the Torah prescribes (positive commandments). For this reason, the poetic liturgical compositions known as azharot list both types of mitzvot, not just the negative ones.

But not everybody agrees that the root of “azharah” is the triliteral zayin-hey-reish. Some trace the word to the biliteral zayin-reish (estrangement, as in “zar”) while others even suppose that its source is the monoliteral zayin.

In fact, there is one case in which a cognate of azharah is spelled without the letter hey, which we have assumed until now is part of its root: In Leviticus 15:31, G-d tells Moses to “warn (v’hizartem) the Children of Israel from their impurities.” The word used is “v’hizartem” instead of the expected “v’hizhartem.”

Rabbeinu Efrayim touches on the connection between warning (“azharah”) and estrangement (“zar”) by noting that warning a person means telling him he should estrange himself from what he’s been warned against.

Similarly, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) traces “azharah” to the biliteral root zayin-reish. One group of derivatives of this root is headlined by the word “zoreh,” which means to scatter (see, for example, Exodus 32:20, Leviticus, 26:33, Ruth 3:2, and Psalms 106:27). A sub-derivative is the word “zohar” (light), which denotes the way light scatters/spreads out.

In the same way that rays of light spread out to illuminate as much as possible, an enlightened person must spread his intellectual purview across a wide body of knowledge in order to be cautious and not violate what is expected of him.

Rabbi Pappenheim explicitly writes that “azharah” does not mean warning and that the verb “la’hazhir” means to enlighten. For example: “You shall enlighten them and they shall not incur guilt” (II Chronicles 19:10) and “And you shall enlighten them from Me” (Ezekiel 3:17).

Enlightening a person to his obligations is tantamount to forewarning him on what he should be careful about. Thus, even as Rabbi Pappenheim traces “azharah” to the biliteral zayin-reish, he still offers the same basic explanation as Rabbi Avraham Maimuni who traces this word to the triliteral zayin-hey-reish.

Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) traces “zohar” to the monoliteral root represented by the letter zayin. He explains that this letter stands for visual revelation of that which can be seen by the eye, as Hebrew words derived from this root are related to the ocular realm. Most notably, “zeh” (this) is derived from this root and according to rabbinic tradition always refers to something perceivable by the sense of sight.

Other words associated with this root include “zach” (pure), “zahav” (gold, which is shiny and sparkling), “ziv” (countenance, which dazzles one’s eyes), “zikim”/“zekukin” (sparks of fire, which glitter and shimmer), “zanav” (tail, which protrudes from behind an animal and is quite visible), “ozen” (ear, which protrudes from a person’s head and is also quite visible), and “chazah” (which either refers to vision itself, or to chazeh, chest, which is a very visible part of the body). In the same sense, “zohar” refers to light/enlightenment that illuminates the eye.

Interestingly, Rabbi Marcus notes that the Germanic words for seeing (“sehen” in Modern German, “zien” in Dutch, “zen” in Yiddish, “sien” in Afrikaans, “see” in English) also seem to be phonetically related to the letter zayin.

Elsewhere, Rabbi Marcus contends that “zohar” is actually derived from the earlier Biblical Hebrew words “tzohar” (light) and “tzoharayim” (noon, when the sun’s light reaches its peak). He explains that the letter tzadi later morphed into a zayin (as the two letters are often considered interchangeable), such that “tzohar” became “zohar.”

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