In the cold of winter, we can often find solace in the warm depths of the Torah by plunging into a deep Torah discussion and forgetting about the weather. In this week’s essay, we do just that by examining the two Hebrew words for cold: kor and tzinah. These rare words appear only four times in the Bible: Cognates of kor appear three times – once when listing an annual cold season called kor (Gen. 8:22), and twice when describing cold water as mayim karim (Jer. 18:14, Prov. 25:25). Cognates of tzinah seem to appear only once.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) traces the words kor (coldness) and kar (cold) to the biliteral root kuf-reish, which refers to a “strong impact” resulting from a high concentration of mass or velocity. Rabbi Pappenheim explains that coldness fits this core meaning because the process of homeostasis ensures that one’s body always remains warm; thus, when one encounters something cold the temperatures clash, resulting in a sort of “strong impact.”
This is similar to mikrah/keri (occurrence or happenstance), as in the expression mah karah (“What happened?”), which refers to the collision of a person and a new set of circumstances.
Other words that Rabbi Pappenheim explains as deriving from kuf-reish include kir (wall), korah (wooden beam), and tikrah (ceiling). He explains that the weight of horizontal beams that make up the ceiling typically weigh down on a building’s support, such that they create a point of impact, while walls are often comprised of vertically-positioned wooden beam that carry the weight of a structure, thus also creating a point of impact.
What about the word tzinah? As mentioned above, that word only appears once in the Bible – in the verse, “Like the cold (tzinah) of snow on a harvest day [is] a messenger who is trusty to his sender” (Prov. 25:13).
Rashi (1040-1105) explains that this refers to one’s longing for the cold of winter (i.e., “snow time”) in the heat of the harvest season (i.e., the summer), while Rabbi Yosef Kimchi (1105-1170) writes that this refers to a cool wintry breeze blowing on a summer day. Either way, Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) and Rabbi Yishaya of Trani (1180-1250) explain the analogy by noting that a bit of icy coldness on a summer day gives a person the same sort of relief or satisfaction as being able to rely on his agent to handle his affairs.
Rabbi Moshe Kimchi (in the commentary to Prov. 25:13 mistakenly attributed to Ibn Ezra) suggests that the word tzinah in the sense of cold is related to tzinah in the sense of “shield,” as cold serves to shield one from the heat of the summer. Abarbanel (to Amos 4:2), on the other hand, connects tzinah in the sense of shield to tzinah in the sense of cold, by noting that a shield protects a person from the heat of battle.
Shoresh Yesha connects the tzinah as coldness to the tzanuah/tzniut (modesty), explaining that like a modest person is not ostentatious or flamboyant but prefers to remain reserved or reticent, so is the cold winter a time for retreating into one’s abode and not venturing outside.
He further explains that tzinah as shield also relates to this idea because a shield protects and covers a person in the same way that an individual who is described as tzanuah might remain hidden away from others.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim traces the word tzinah to the biliteral root tzadi-nun, whose core meaning he defines as a sort of “thorn.” Based on that core meaning, Rabbi Pappenheim notes that the word tzinah (shield) refers specifically to a spiky shield used in battle for both offense and defense.
In the same vein, he explains that tzinah in the sense of coldness recalls the stinging bite of a cool frost, which resembles the sting of a thorn or spiky shield. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ex. 16:33) similarly explains that tzinah primarily denotes something painfully cold (like the sting of a thorn).
Along these lines, the Torah warns that if the Jews do not drive out the inhabitants of Canaan when they conquer the Holy Land, then those who remain will be “sikim in your eyes and tzninim in your sides” (Num. 33:55). While most commentators explain the words sikim and tzninim as different types of thorn, Rashbam (there) explains that tzninim is related to tzinah in the sense of “cold.” Rashbam does not explain how this fits into the context, but based on what we have seen so far, perhaps the Torah refers to a sort of “sharp/stinging coldness,” which annoys a person and hampers his ability to accomplish more.
When comparing the terms kor and tzinah, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that they refer to different degrees of coldness. He understands that tzinah denotes the most basic form of cold that typically describes a solid object that has not been exposed to a source of heat, or to any liquid that simply feels cold.
This form of cold can be experienced on a typical winter day or even in the summer when one is not directly in the sun. It is a natural coldness that does not make a person sick, nor is it painful; it is a level of cold that the human body was built to withstand.
On the other hand, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that kor refers to an extreme cold that is only manifest on the coldest days of winter. It can also describe solid items that have become especially cold and are even painful to touch, like cold metal or marble. Rabbi Pappenheim explains that the Torah calls the winter kor (Gen. 8:22) not because it reaches this level of coldness but because of all the seasons of the year, real kor is most likely to happen in the winter.
Rabbi Yehoshua Steinberg of the Veromemanu Foundation uses the juxtaposition of tzinah with sheleg (“snow”) in Prov. 25:13 to shed light on the two meanings of tzinah. He argues that just as snow covers a large area and surrounds a person on all sides, so does a tzinah (shield, or perhaps armor) surround a person on all sides to protect him. Accordingly, Rabbi Steinberg argues that tzinah in the sense of coldness does not simply refer to the drop in temperature as kor does but rather denotes the fact that there is an all-encompassing “coldness” that covers a wide area and totally envelops a person.