Several different Hebrew words can be translated to mean “middle.” Each one has its own distinct definition and usage, often based on the historical context in which it appears. In this essay we will take a look at emtza, the standard word for “middle” in the Mishnah, as well as merkaz, lev, and tabur.
The word emtza appears countless times in the Mishnah, though it does not appear in the Bible. In Aramaic, the letter aleph of the word emtza is dropped so the word for “middle” is actually metzia or metziyata (see Targum to Genesis 1:6, 2:9, Exodus 26:28, Judges 16:29, Job 20:13, Psalms 45:10, 135:9). The most famous example of this is in the name of the Mishnaic tractate Bava Metzia, which means “the Middle Gate.”
In his famous “new dictionary” of Hebrew, Avraham Even Shoshan argues that emtza actually derives from the Greek word mesos (“middle”). This Greek word is at the root of Mesopotamia (the area “in the middle” of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers) as well as the meson, a subatomic particle found “in the middle” of a nucleus. Linguists maintain that the Greek mesos is in turn derived from the Proto-Indo-European root medhyo, which also gives us the Germanic midja and the Latin medius, the origin English words as middle, medium, mediocre, mediate, Mediterranean, and meridian.
The Hebrew word merkaz (“center”) seemingly derives from the triliteral root reish-kaf-zayin. In Modern Hebrew, the words for both juice concentrate (tarkiz) and the ability to concentrate on one’s studies (lehitrakez) are derived from the root reish-kaf-zayin. Like in English, where the word “central” came to mean anything that is especially important, the Hebrew merkaz also refers to something that is important. For example, tachanah hamerkazit refers not to a bus station’s geographic location within a city but to the fact that it is central in status.
Neither the word merkaz nor any other cognate of reish-kaf-zayin appear in Biblical Hebrew or Mishnaic Hebrew. In fact, the word merkaz first appears in Medieval Hebrew in works that were translated from Judeo-Arabic by the Ibn Tibbon family. Rabbi Shmuel Ibn Tibbon (1150-1230), who translated Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed into Hebrew, writes in his Peirush HaMilot HaZarot (“Explanation of Bizarre Words”) that he borrowed the word merkaz from Arabic in order to denote “the point inside a circle from which all lines to the circle are congruent.” Of course, that’s just a fancy way of saying the “middle” of the circle (because that point is equidistant to all points along the circle). The great etymologist Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein (1899-1983) agrees that the Hebrew merkaz derives from the Arabic markaz (“foothold, center, station”), which in turn is borrowed from the Akkadian markasu (“a spot for tying”), which is ultimately derived from the Akkadian rakasu (“to fasten”).
Despite Ibn Tibbon’s admission that merkaz comes from Arabic, there is still room to see this word as having something of a Hebraic origin. Rabbi Dovid Golumb (1861-1935) in Targumna posits that the Late Hebrew root reish-kaf-zayin actually comes from the earlier Hebrew root reish-kaf-samech (via the interchangeability of zayin and samech). In A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English, Klein similarly insinuates a connection between reish-kaf-zayin and reish-kaf-samech,
In order to better appreciate this hypothesis, we must first discuss the root reish-kaf-samech. It appears four times in the Bible: twice as a verb in the context of fastening the choshen to the ephod (Exodus 28:28, 39:21), and twice as a noun – once in the word rachasim, “mountain-range(s)” (Isaiah 40:4) and once in a word that describes man’s “difficulties” (Psalms 31:21). Most commentators see the core meaning of reish-kaf-samech as something “strong” or “hard,” but have slightly different ways of explaining how these examples fit that idea. Ibn Janach in Sefer HaShorashim and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Genesis 12:5) see the “fastening” meaning of this root to refer to creating a strong and unbreakable bond by means of tying. Ibn Janach further explains that this root is used in reference to a mountain-rage because of the tough and difficult terrain. In Machberet HaAruch, Shlomo Ibn Parchon similarly writes that a mountain-rage is called rachasim because one must exert much strength and effort in order to traverse it. Finally, the difficulties and hardships that a person endures are “strong” obstacles that stand in the way of life.
Rabbi Aharon Marcus (Keset HaSofer to Genesis 12:5) writes that the core meaning of reish-kaf-samech is “gathering/attaching.” The connection to “fastening” is obvious: by tying two items together, one attaches and thereby gathers them into a single entity. He further explains that mountain-range can be viewed as a series of mountains that are “attached” geographically. Interestingly, Rabbi Marcus avers that several other Hebrew roots are derived from reish-kaf-samech through a series of interchangeable letters: rechush (“property,” the total accrual of one’s belongings), through the interchangeability of sin/samech and shin; neches/nechasim (“property,” again the accumulation of possessions and wealth), through the interchangeability of reish and nun; and more.
In light of all this, it seems that the principle meaning of the root reish-kaf-samech is “to tie together.” When things are tied together, the nexus of the knot is the point where their connection is strongest and most-highly concentrated. Thus, the semantic jump from “tying” (reish-kaf-samech) to “middle” (reish-kaf-zayin) is not so far, and there is ample reason to argue for a connection between these roots.
If emtza is only a Mishnaic Hebrew word, and merkaz is essentially a Late Hebrew or Modern Hebrew word, then how do you say “middle” in Biblical Hebrew? There are two words that primarily have anatomical meanings that were borrowed in Biblical Hebrew to mean “middle”: lev and tabur.
The word lev (“heart”) primarily refers to that life-giving organ that pumps blood; but the heart’s location as roughly in the middle of one’s body allowed this word to be borrowed to refer to the “middle” of anything. As a result, the Bible speaks of the “lev of the elm tree” (II Samuel 18:14), “the lev of the seas” (Exodus 15:8, Ezekiel 27:4, 27:25–27, 28:2, 28:8, and Psalms 46:3), and “the lev of the Heavens” (Deuteronomy 4:10).
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) sees the word lev as reflective of the core meaning of the biliteral root lammed-bet. In line with what we wrote above, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that, in a borrowed sense, lev can refer to anything that is located in the center or otherwise plays a central role in some process.
The word tabur appears multiple times in the Mishnah (Shabbat 18:3, Sotah 9:4, and Bechorot 7:5) in the sense of “navel/umbilicus.” The word tabur appears twice in the Bible, both times in the phrase “the tabur of the land” (Judges 9:37, Ezekiel 38:12). In these cases, the word tabur refers to the “center/middle” of the land. Just like the lev is roughly situated in the “middle” of the body and came to mean the “middle,” the same seems to be true of the word tabur. Moreover, just as the lev is an essential organ for life, so does tabur refer to that which is essential for sustaining a fetus in its mother’s womb. Although I have not yet seen any examples of this, if lev can be expanded to also refer to the essential or chief principal within a greater range of discourse, then perhaps tabur can also mean the same. (For more about the connection between the name Tiberias and the Hebrew word tabur, see my essay “The Shining Sea of Galilee,” Aug. 2019.)