Leah named her youngest son Zevulun, saying, “This time my husband will live with me (yizbeleini), because I have birthed for him six sons (Genesis 30:20). The word “zvul” denotes a prominent dwelling place – a sort of castle or palace, if you will.
Other Hebrew and Aramaic words for castle or palace are “armon,” “apadna,” and “tirah.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Genesis 30:20) writes that “zvul” doesn’t simply designate a dwelling-place; rather, it denotes a home that completely meets all objectives of the one for whom it’s intended.
Thus, the Talmud says (Rosh Hashanah 17a) “zvul” refers specifically to the Holy Temple. Rav Hirsch says this edifice is the fitting location for G-d’s presence to rest. He also connects “zvul” to the common Mishnaic word “zevel” (fertilizer), which readies the ground to be a fitting dwelling place for seeds so they may thrive there.
When the prophet Habakuk reflects back on Joshua stopping the movement of the sun and moon, he says: “The sun [and] moon stood in their zvul” (Habakuk 3:11). The commentators (see Targum and Radak) explain that in this context, “zvul” refers to the place in which the sun and moon typically dwell. Indeed, the rabbis teach us that zvul is the name of one of the seven heavens (Chagigah 12b).
In Ugaritic, Akkadian, and other Semitic languages, cognates of “zvul” mean to lift or to elevate. Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffmann (1843-1921) therefore suggests that the “zvul” denotes a lofty abode located in a high place, like the Holy Temple (which stood atop a mountain) or the location of the celestial luminaries (which are up in the sky). He notes that an Arabic cognate of “zvul” means butter or grease because such oily grub rises to the top when mixed with water.
The most common Hebrew word for castle or palace is “armon” (which appears 32 times in the Bible). Ibn Janach and Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim write that the root of “armon” is reish-(vav)-mem, which means height. This root relates to palaces, as they are typically tall buildings. The Radak also cites this explanation, but ultimately concludes that “armon” is derived from its own root, aleph-reish-mem. Menachem Ibn Saruk traces “armon” to the quadriliteral root aleph-reish-mem-nun.
“Apadna” appears once in the Bible (Daniel 11:45), and the commentators explain that it denotes a palace. In the Talmud, “apadna” sometimes means, not a palace, but a den that is especially grand or kingly. Rashi (to Bava Metzia 35a, Bava Basra 6b, and Shabbos 77b) defines “apadna” as a royal triclinium, which basically means a fancy dining room.
According to Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein (1899-1983), “apadna” comes from Old Persian, a language that descends from the Indo-European linguistic family. Dr. Chaim Tawil, however, traces this word to the Akkadian “appadanu,” which he understands to mean a colonnaded audience hall. According to Tawil, the word is of Semitic origin, not Indo-European. Indeed, an Arabic cognate of this word, “fadan,” means palace or high tower.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) traces “apadna” to the biliteral Hebrew root peh-dalet, which means redemption or freedom (as in “pidyon” or “pedut”). Another derivative of this root is “efod” (vest or apron), which is a sort of royal vestment worn by people who were free and unindentured (e.g., see I Samuel 2:18 and II Samuel 6:14). In the same way, he explains that “apadna” refer to the sort of luxurious domicile where a freed man might live.
Taking this explanation a step further, Rabbi Pappenheim suggests that the Biblical Hebrew word “padan” denotes an independent region that had its own sovereignty and/or was free from paying imperial taxes. He thus explains that “Padan Aram” (Genesis 31:18) refers to the Free State of Aram as opposed to other polities that existed in the Aram area.
The word “tirah” appears seven times in the Bible. It seems to refer to some sort of enclosed castle or fort, perhaps even a fortified village. The Ibn Ezra (to Gen. 25:16) writes that “tirah” carries the same meaning as “armon.”
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim maintains that the root of “tirah” is the two-letter string tet-reish, which means straight line. Other words that derive from this root include “tur” (row), “matarah” (target or goal towards which one shoots straight), and “matar” (rain, which falls straight downwards).
He explains that “tirah” is related to this root because a castle is typically constructed with rows (turim) of boards. The Radak writes that “tirah” comes from “tur” as castles are typically built with rows of hewn stone.
Rabbi Pappenheim also suggests that “tirah” is related to netirah (safeguarding, protecting), which, in turn, stems from the tet-reish root. He explains that the constant vigilance and mindfulness needed to watch over something (netirah) means that one’s thoughts must be kept straight on it; they cannot deviate.
Two related corollaries are the words “tahor” (a pure or clean state that can only last if one carefully watches to make sure it isn’t sullied) and “iter” (closed – i.e., so closely protected that it is locked up and cannot function). Based on this last connection, Rabbi Pappenheim writes that “tirah” refers to an impenetrable castle or fortress, whose defenses are so well-designed that no one can enter or exit.
Rabbi David Chaim Chelouche (1920-2016), the late chief rabbi of Netanya, similarly writes that “tirah” derives from the root tet-reish (guarding), as it denote as sort of fort or citadel built to protect a king’s subjects. He also writes that a tirah is generally built with a wall surrounding it and is thus similar to a crown (an atarah), which is a special ornament that goes around a regal head. He explains that “atarah” is derived from a combination of the roots ayin-tet (cover) and tet-reish (guard).