When Mordechai tried to convince Queen Esther to intervene on the Jews’ behalf, he famously says, “[F]or if you will surely be silent (hachareish tacharishi) at this moment, redemption and salvation will arise for the Jews from another avenue” (Esther 4:14).
The root of “hachareish tacharishi” is of course “cherish.” But “shetikah,” “dom,” “chashah,” and “hass” also mean silence or quiet. What’s the difference between them?
Rabbi Avraham Bedersi HaPenini (1230-1300) comments on two of these other words: “shetikah” and “dom.” The former, he argues, denotes a silence that comes after a commotion has been quelled. This word appears only four times in the Bible, two of which are in the context of Jonah telling his shipmates that if they throw him overboard, the stormy sea will calm down (Jonah 1:11-12).
“Dom,” in contrast, is a natural state of silence. The Bible says that “Aharon was silent (vayidom)” after two of his sons were killed. He was so overwhelmed that he could do nothing but stand in silence; he could not even think.
Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) explains that “dom” means deliberate silence; a person is quiet because he consciously decides to be quiet. Thus, “vayidom Aharon” means Aharon purposely refused to comment on what had occurred.
Still others explain that “dom” is a general word for stoppage, which is why Joshua 10:12 says “shemesh b’Givon dom” in reporting that Joshua stopped the sun from moving.
A third word for quiet is “chashah.” King Solomon famously writes, “There is a time to be silent (eit lachashot) and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:7). Rabbi Mecklenburg writes that “chashah” is a reflective, introspective sort of silence. Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) writes that “chashah” refers to the silence of a person who holds himself back from answering another.
A fourth word for quiet is “hass.” This verb means making others quiet (i.e., hushing them). The etymology of this word might be an onomatopoeic adaptation of the sound used to quiet others (like “shh…”). Rabbi Mecklenburg proposes that the “hasket” (listen – Deuteronomy 27:9) is a portmanteau partially derived from “hass.”
But what does “cheresh” – of Mordechai’s “hachareish tacharishi” – mean?
Rabbi Bedersi says it means an introspective silence whereby the silent party considers certain ideas but does not verbally reveal them. Wise men act in this manner, which is why “charash” in Akkadian means wise or intelligent. A certain type of craftsman is also called “charash” (Exodus 35:35), and Pharaoh’s advisors are called “charshei” by the Targum. These people silently think a lot. An artisan, in particular, tends to be quiet while he concentrates on his work. Digging into the depths of one’s mind is conceptually similar to plowing. Hence the Hebrew word for it: “charishah.”
A cognate of “cherish” appears in the famous verse, “G-d will fight for you, and you will be silent (tacharishun)” (Exodus 14:14). The Jews were told to sit silently on the sidelines, contemplating G-d’s salvation. In using the words “hachareish tacharishi,” Mordechai was possibly thus conveying the opposite message to Esther: She couldn’t just contemplate silently at a time like this; she had to act.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) explains that the core meaning of the root chet-reish-shin comes from “charishah” (plowing), which prepares land for agricultural use. From that context, the root’s meaning was expanded to refer to preparing or manufacturing tools (a smith is called a choresh). From that context, the root’s meaning was further expanded to refer to anybody who deliberately ponders his actions, and from there to anybody who’s quiet.
Another derivative of this root is “chorshah” (forest) which – because of the thick foliage – is a quiet, insulated area (see I Samuel 23:15, II Chronicles 27:4).
Rabbi Pappenheim stresses that the type of silence expressed by “cherish” is still related to the primary meanings of chet-reish-shin since contemplative silence is a preparation for talking. Just like plowing prepares a field for sowing, silence prepares a person for speaking. Mordechai was thus telling Esther: There’s no time to silently consider what to say. Action must be taken immediately.
In Mishnaic Hebrew, “cherish” means somebody who can neither speak nor hear (see Niddah 13b). Rabbi Pappenheim explains that a deaf-mute is a paragon of quiet as silence surrounds him on all sides. He does not break the silence by speaking nor does he hear anything other than silence.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), to Psalms 28:1, explains that “cherish” refers to the stillness of a person who ignores a request to speak or act. Such a person acts as though he were deaf and did not hear the request.
Perhaps, then, Mordechai purposely used the loaded term “hachareish tacharishi” to tell Esther that she should not ignore his call for action as though she were deaf. Instead, she should speak to Achashverosh and save her people.