One of Moses’ first heroic acts of kindness recorded in the Bible was his helping out the daughters of Jethro. Jethro’s seven daughters had already arrived at the well and drew water from it for their father’s sheep to drink when some local shepherds came and chased them away. Moses came to the girls’ aid, saving them from the savage shepherds and helping them water their flock.
The Hebrew verb used by the Bible in this story to denote the act of drawing water is “dalah” (Exodus 2:16-19). Another verb that denotes drawing water is shoev. This essay will explore the etymologies of these two synonyms for the act of drawing water and the nuances reflected in each term.
The triliteral lexicographers in the mold of Ibn Chayyuj, Ibn Janach, and Radak trace the word dalah to the triliteral root dalet-lammed-hey. To them, dalah in the sense of “drawing water” is just another permutation of dalah in the sense of “lifting [something] up.” For example, in the verse “I will exalt You O Hashem, for You have lifted me up (dilitani)” (Psalms 30:2), the dalet-lammed-hey root is used in the general sense of lifting up and not to denote drawing water. The link between these two acts is intuitive. In order to draw water from a well, one must somehow “lift up” the waters that have pooled down below. In fact, the name for the very instrument used for lifting up these waters is also derived from this root: the Hebrew word d’li (“pail” or “bucket”) (see Numbers 24:7, Isaiah 40:15).
Biliteralist Menachem Ibn Saruk (920-970), however, sees the core root of dalah as the two-letter string dalet-lammed. The way he understands it, there are three distinct derivatives of this root: dalah (“drawing water”), dalah (“lifting up”), and dal (“poor” or “destitute”). Whereas the lexicographers mentioned earlier see the first two of these as essentially one category, Menachem Ibn Saruk splits them in twain. Additionally, while those lexicographers trace the word dal to the root dalet-lammed-lammed, Menachem traces them to dalet-lammed.
Still, perhaps Menachem would agree that there is a thematic relationship between these three derivatives. As we explained earlier, “drawing water” and “lifting up” can actually be seen as one act. Perhaps we may similarly explain that dal in the sense of a “downtrodden pauper” relates to these meanings as the polar opposite of “lifting up.” The dal has been brought down to the lowest levels possible, so it fits into this root in the manner of “a thing and its opposite.” Alternatively, we may offer a more inspirational understanding that dal denotes an unfortunate person who has reached rock bottom and the only thing that can happen next would, per force, involve “lifting up” the pauper from his unfortunate situation. Interestingly, some authorities maintain that one should avoid giving the name Dalia because of its etymological association with the negative dal. In light of what we have written, this negative connotation might not be so clear-cut.
In expanding on the biliteralist position, Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) explains that the root dalet-lammed primarily refers to “drawing water from a well.” In a borrowed sense, it can refer to the act of “lifting up” anything in the same way that water is lifted from a well. Rabbi Pappenheim explains that dal in the sense of “poor” evokes the imagery of a person bereft of his fortune – a well emptied of its waters after they had been drawn out of it. Interestingly, Rabbi Moshe Tedeschi Ashkenazi (1821-1898), the Italian author of Hoil Moshe, implicitly disagrees with Menachem’s classifying dal as a derivative of dalet-lammed. He asserts that dal is actually derived from the word zol (“cheap”) via the well-established interchangeability of zayin and dalet.
The German linguist Wilhelm Gesenius (1786-1842) offers an interesting contribution: He argues that the core meaning of dalet-lammed is “hanging/swinging.” In that sense, the word delet as “the leaf of a door” refers to that flapping apparatus that opens and closes a doorway. He further explains that a dal refers to a feeble individual whose wealth is not well-grounded but is figuratively “hanging” and may “swing” from one situation to another. Finally, this relates to the act of dalah, because drawing water from a well typically entails hanging a d’li on a rope and lowering it into the well to fetch water.
(Before we move on to the next term for “drawing water,” I wanted to share with you an interesting thought. The biliteral root lammed-dalet refers to “birth.” Thus, it is the etymological basis for the words yalad/yaldah, the verbs for the act of giving birth, toldot (“offspring”), yeled/yaldah (“male child/female child”), and so on.
It seems to me that lammed-dalet and dalet-lammed are opposites: When drawing water, one exerts an outside force that pulls the waters away from where they have been until now in order to take them out. When giving birth, the converse happens: an internal force – uterine contractions – act to push the baby out of its mother’s body, where it had been until now. To me, this contrast is reflected in the order of the consonants in the very roots themselves.)
The other word for “drawing water” is shoev. In this case, Menachem Ibn Saruk agrees with Ibn Janach and Radak that the word derives from a triliteral root, namely shin-aleph-bet. Permutations of this root appear 19 times throughout the Bible. In the story of Rebecca drawing water for Abraham’s servant and his camels, for example, the Bible consistently refers to that action with a cognate of shoev (Genesis 24:11-45). The Simchat Beit HaShoeivah celebrations in the Holy Temple related to “drawing the waters” for the water libation ceremony on Sukkot; and in Talmudic parlance (Sotah 47a, Sanhedrin 107b, Avodah Zarah 44a), a magnetized stone is called an even shoevet (literally, “a rock that draws”) because it attracts oppositely-ionized particles. In Modern Hebrew, a vacuum cleaner is called a sha’avak, which is a portmanteau of the words shoev (“draws”) and avak (“dust”).
What is the difference between the terms dalah and shoev? The Malbim (1809-1879) explains that dalah implies drawing water from a deep well. Such an endeavor requires much effort, because it involves lowering a pail into the well and then raising the pail of water out of the well. The term shoev, in contrast, refers to drawing water into a bucket without any effort. This is most commonly done when drawing waters from a spring or waterhole, because those waters are on the surface level and not deep down so they do not require lowering and lifting a bucket. Shadal (to Genesis 24:13) offers a similar explanation.
The prophet Isaiah draws on this imagery in his inspirational vision: “And you will draw (u’shavtem) water with gladness from the springs of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3). In this case, the prophet specifically used a cognate of shoev, because he was talking about drawing waters from a spring and not from a well.
Compare that verse to this: “Advice in the heart of man is [like] deep waters, and the understanding man can draw it out (yidlenah)” (Proverbs 20:5). In this case, since the waters described are “deep” and require more effort to draw out, the verb used is a cognate of dalah, not shoev.
According to the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah §60:5), when Rebecca drew water from the well the waters miraculously arose to greet her – her ability to draw water from the well with minimal effort, as though drawing water from a spring, explains the usage of the cognate of shoev in this context.
Once we realize that the term shoev is more appropriate for discussing drawing water from a spring than from a well, we can also better appreciate a comment made by Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim about the etymology of shoev.
He sees the aleph in the middle of the shin-aleph-bet string to be a radical that is not integral to the core root. This allows him to trace shoev to the biliteral root shin-bet (“return”). Other words derived from this root include hashava (“returning” a lost item or stolen goods), lehashiv (“to answer” – returning to a question by resolving it), yeshiva (“dwelling,” establishing of one’s home base to which they will always return), shabbat (“rest” – a return to one’s natural state of rest), and more.
In the case of shoev, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that drawing water by gathering it into a vessel stops those water’s natural movement and flow. In this way, shoev relates to shabbat because both denote a cessation from action. For our purposes, it is noteworthy that this underlying meaning of shoev is best illustrated when drawing waters from a spring, because hitherto those waters were flowing in the spring’s current (as opposed to a well, whose waters might remain stationary even before being drawn).