The late 15th century Italian scholar Rabbi Shlomo of Urbino (a student of Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura) writes in Ohel Moed (his lexicon of synonyms) that Hebrew has three words for hard: “kashah,” “kashiach,” and “perech.” What are the differences between them?
“Kashah” means hard in both senses of the English word “hard” – i.e., both physically hard (solid, stiff, rigid) and difficult or challenging.
In the context of the exodus from Egypt, G-d promises that He will harden (akasheh) Pharaoh’s heart in order to perform many miracles (Exodus 7:3). Most commentators explain that G-d helped Pharaoh continue being obstinate – i.e., rigid or inflexible.
Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865), however, prefers to explain “kashah” as difficult and challenging. G-d told Moses that He would ensure Pharaoh faced something difficult for his heart to endure.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) offers two fascinating insights on the root of “kashah” based on the interchangeability of the letters kuf, yod, and gimmel. First, he notes that because kuf interchanges with yod, “kashah” is related to “yesh” (which means is or exists). From man’s perspective, the more tangible – the more concrete or hard something is – the more real it seems.
Second, Rabbi Hirsch notes that because kuf can be interchanged with gimmel, “kashah” is also related to “gishah”/“gashash” (approaching, impacting). Most people only consider solid objects substantial enough to approach or cause an impact.
The Torah refers to the menorah in the mishkan as made of a “mikshah” (Exodus 25:31 and 37:22 and Numbers 8:4). G-d commanded that it be fashioned from a single hunk of gold; hence, it was harder than it would have been had it been made by pouring molten metal into a mold. Rashi writes that the menorah was created by hitting the chunk of gold with a hammer until it was the desired shape. Thus, the menorah was banged into existence with the sort of physical impact described by Rabbi Hirsch.
Talmudic literature is replete with references to a rabbinic hermeneutical rule known as a hekesh. This rule allows the rabbis to compare the details of two different areas of halacha if they are juxtaposed to one another in a given verse in the Bible. Thus, “hekesh” refers to the impact or collision of two different realms in one Biblical passage.
In rabbinic literature, “kashah” (or “kushya”) is a logical difficulty. When the Talmud raises a problem with an opinion or statement, it sometimes leaves the matter as a kashya. According to a tradition dating back to the Geonim, “kashya” means a difficulty (the logical clash) remains and the matter requires further exploration. (A kashya differs from a sheilah in that the former seeks to undermine a given assertion while the latter is simply a request for more information.)
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) offers a list of words derived from the biliteral root kuf-shin, all of which are related to hardness: “kash” (straw) is the hard part of a stalk of grain that grows closest to the ground and is not even fit for animal fodder; “kishu” (gourd) is a vegetable that has a particularly hard peel; “keshet” (bow) is the unbendable part of an archer’s implement; and “mokesh” (trap) is a trap made of a hard substance and is hard to escape.
Now we come to the word “kashiach,” which appears in the Bible twice. When revealing Himself to Job, G-d explains that He always takes care of His creations. In doing so, He contrasts Himself with the ostrich and stork, which might callously abandon the eggs they lay, leaving them to be trampled upon. Such a mother bird can be said to “harden (kashiach) herself against her children as if they were not hers” (Job 39:16).
Similarly, Isaiah complains, “Why G-d do You allow us to stray from Your path [and] harden (kashiach) our hearts from fearing You?” (Isaiah 63:17).
The Ibn Ezra (to Job 39:16) and Radak (in Sefer HaShorashim) explain that “kashiach” means cruelty. Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Melech (Michlal Yoffi to Isaiah 63:17) adds that “kashiach” specifically denotes cruelty as a form of estrangement from something/someone that one would have otherwise been expected to love.
The Metzudas Tzion (to Isaiah 63:17 and Job 39:16) writes that “kashiach” is a portmanteau of “kashah” (hard) and “sach” (remove). He explains that “kashiach” denotes a certain type of cruelty whereby a person is particularly harsh/difficult with others but also coldheartedly removes his harshness from his own thoughts as if he had done nothing out of the ordinary.
(Modern Hebrew calls a hard-drive “disk kashiach.” In this neologism, the English “hard” is translated into Hebrew as “kashiach.”)
The last word for hard that we mentioned at the beginning of this article is “perech,” which, in relation to work, means hard labor. However, “perech” literally means to break. For example, according to halacha, if an animal’s lung is so dry that it is brittle (“nifrechet” – i.e., easily broken), the animal is considered moribund (Chullin 46b). Similarly, a lulav that is dry and brittle (nifrechet) cannot be used (see Tosafos to Sukkah 29b).
In Talmudic parlance, a pircha is the sort of question that breaks a logical sequence, causing a chasm between an ostensible precedent and a case to which it might otherwise be applied.
Rashi explains that the avodat parech imposed by the Egyptians on the Jews was back-breaking labor. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that “avodat parech” refers to the Egyptians drafting the Jews as laborers in order to break the homogeneity of Egyptian society and create a class difference between themselves and the Jews. In this sense, “perech” denotes a type of breaking that is more closely linked with separating. Indeed, Rabbi Hirsch connects “perech” to “parochet,” the curtain used to separate the Holy from the Holy of Holies.
“Perech” may also be related to uselessness just as something brittle crumbles away and can no longer serve any utilitarian purpose. The Torah forbids engaging a Jewish bondsman in perech work (Leviticus 25:43), which the Toras Kohanim defines as limitless or needless work. Accordingly, Rabbi Saadia Gaon (882-942) explains that “avodat parech” means pointless labor.
Rabbi Pappenheim writes that, in relation to labor, “perech” refers to unfairly interrupting a worker in the middle of a project to demand that he begin a new one. This sort of cruel behavior denies a laborer the satisfaction of finishing a project. It makes him feel like his work just crumbles away to waste.