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The Torah (Genesis 44:18) famously uses the word “vayigash” when reporting that Yehudah approached Yosef to plead for Binyamin’s release. Hebrew has two words for coming closer: “gishah” and “kiruv.” What’s the difference between them?

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Shapira-Frankfurter (1743-1826), a great-uncle of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, maintains that “gishah” means approaching with trepidation, which is why when describing a person approaching a judge, the Bible uses a conjugation of “gishah” (Deuteronomy 25:1) but when stating that G-d will approach us to judge us, it uses a cognate of “kiruv” (Malachi 3:5).

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The Malbim similarly explains that “gishah” implies coming close to something one would otherwise be scared to approach. “Gishah” is thus most appropriate when a power imbalance exists between the party approaching and the party being approached (as existed between Yehudah and Yosef). “Kiruv,” on the other hand, is used in relation to two equals, one of whom is coming closer to the other.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) suggests “gishah” means actively approaching, while “kiruv” means approaching and stopping (i.e., one has already come as close as possible and cannot approach any further). The same suggestion is made by Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935).

Thus Leviticus 2:8: “and [the donor] brings [the meal-offering] closer to the kohen (hikrivah), and [the kohen] brings it close (higishah) to the altar.” As Rabbi Pappenheim explains: The donor’s ultimate goal is offering the sacrifice on the altar; thus, when he brings it to the kohen, the animal still has a ways to go, so a “kiruvbased word is used. When the kohen actually brings the offering to the altar, though, he has fulfilled the donor’s wish, so a conjugation of “gishah” is appropriate.

Rabbi Pappenheim traces “gishah” to the biliteral root gimmel-shin, which refers to such a strong closeness that the people or objects involved are touching. For example, in describing a blind man who is said to grope about in an attempt to touch things he cannot see, the Bible uses the word “nigshashah” (Isaiah 59:10).

Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) adds that since “gishah” denotes coming as close as possible, the term also came to mean direct contact. Thus, the term for an ox goring in Targum Yerushalmi (Exodus 21:25) is “yigash” (literally, impacting). Similarly, “goshesh” describes a boat in shallow waters such that its bottom touches and drags along on the seabed (Bava Kamma 116b and Bava Metzia 79b).

In the Bible, a “gush” of dirt (Job 7:50) refers to a clump of dirt whose components are all closely compact. Rabbi Pappenheim theorizes that perhaps the Land of Goshen got its name from the fact that the fertile area had much compact dirt, unlike the rest of Egypt where land was sandier.

Along the same lines, Rabbi Pappenheim argues that “geshem” (in Medieval Hebrew) came to refer to any solid object whose particles are tightly bound together (hence “gashmiyos,” physicality). He also explains that “geshem” in the sense of rain is related to this core meaning because “geshem” specifically means a downfall with thick rain drops that fall due to a higher concentration of water in the clouds.

Using Rabbi Pappenheim’s discussion as his point of departure, Rabbi Mecklenburg writes that while “gishah” specifically denotes physical closeness, “kiruv” denotes a more abstract meeting of minds. Thus, when the Torah describes a litigant approaching (nikrav) the court (Exodus 22:7), it means the litigant alters his mindset to prepare himself to stand before a judge; it doesn’t mean he literally walks toward the court.

Similarly, “korban” (commonly translated as sacrifice or offering) means coming closer to G-d by seeking to align one’s will with His. The closeness of a korban certainly cannot refer to a physical closeness since G-d is incorporeal and has no physical body one could theoretically approach.

Following this explanation, it seems that when Yehudah approached Yosef, he came physically close to him (vayigash) – perhaps even in a threatening way, as is implied by certain Midrashic sources.

The Ramban (in his objections to Maimonides’ Sefer HaMitzvos, Negative Commandment #353) notes that both terms for closeness are used in the Bible to imply intimacy (see Deuteronomy 22:14, Isaiah 8:3, and Exodus 19:15). When the Torah forbids coming close to women whom one is forbidden to marry, however, the Torah uses the term “kiruv” (Leviticus 18:6) to indicate, says Rabbi Mecklenburg, that even coming close (as opposed to coming as close as possible – gishah) to these women is forbidden. According to Rabbi Mecklenburg, the Torah’s word choice is the source of Maimonides’ ruling that hugging and kissing these women is biblically forbidden.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Leviticus 21:17) takes the opposite approach. He writes that “kiruv” means decreasing the distance between two points and notes that it is used in this sense in relation to both animals and people. By contrast, “gishah” only appears in the Bible in relation to human beings because “gishah” denotes a step forward in reaching a specific goal. Only human beings, writes Rav Hirsch, can think and make decisions for themselves, so only they can be said to engage in “gishah” when they approach something/someone to further their goals (see also Abarbanel’s commentary to Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed 1:18).

In line with Rabbi Hirsch’s explanation, when Yehudah approached Yosef, he apparently did so very deliberately as a step in his campaign for Binyamin’s release.

Interestingly, all these nuances are lost in Aramaic, as the Targum typically translates cognates of both “gishah” and “kiruv” in the same manner. We thus see that the secrets of the Holy Tongue often remain with it exclusively and do not necessarily show up elsewhere.

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