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As every student of anatomy knows, there are two pipes in the human neck: the “windpipe,” also known as the trachea, which is used for breathing air; and the “food pipe,” also known as the esophagus, which is used for swallowing food and drink. In this essay, we focus on the trachea and the three Hebrew words used to refer to that pipeline of life: garon, gargeret, and kaneh. In doing so, we will explore the respective etymologies of these words and consider whether or not they are truly synonymous.

The word garon appears eight times in the Bible. In five of those cases, the word is associated with speech, so it is clearly talking about the trachea through which speech passed to exit one’s mouth (Isaiah 58:1, Psalms 5:10, 69:4, 115:7, 149:6). In two of the cases, in contrast, the word garon refers to the throat or neck in general without regard for a specific pipe within the neck (Isaiah 3:16, Ezekiel 16:11). In the final case, garon is associated with eating and drinking, so it seems to refer to the esophagus (Jeremiah 2:25).

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Possibly based on this break-down, Malbim maintains that the word garon primarily refers to the windpipe, which is inside a person’s neck; was expanded in a general sense to mean the entire throat or neck as it is visible to the onlooker; and from that to even mean esophagus.

The word gargeret appears four times in the Bible, all in the Book of Proverbs (Proverbs 1:9, 3:3, 3:22, 6:21). When examined in context, the Biblical term gargeret seems to refer to one’s neck in a general sense, as in all four cases it is associated with adorning oneself (wearing a necklace on one’s gargeret, for example).

When the word gargeret appears in the Mishnah, however, it obviously references the windpipe.

In order to properly slaughter an animal, one must sever most of both pipes within its neck (or most of one pipe, in the case of a bird). The Mishnah (Chullin 2:4, 3:1-4) constantly references the veshet (which we know is the “food pipe”) vis-à-vis the gargeret. Moreover, the Mishnah (Chullin 10:4, Negaim 10:9) also uses the term gargeret when discussing the so-called Adam’s Apple, which is clearly a feature of the windpipe.

The truth is that every time that gargeret appears in the Bible, it is always written in the plural form: gargerot. Rashi (to Proverbs 1:9) accounts for this by explaining that the exterior of the windpipe consists of various “rings” along the length of the trachea. Because of this multiplicity of “rings,” the very word for trachea always appears in the plural.

The words garon and gargeret seem to be etymologically related, as both words are based on the gimmel-reish root; but what, if anything, is the core difference between these two terms?

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740–1814) understands the core meaning of garon to be “food pipe,” but maintains that since the windpipe is attached to it the term also expanded to include the entire neck, external and internal. He further notes that because when one looks at the exterior of a person, the most prominent feature of the neck is the bulging Adam’s Apple, so the term gargeret (used to denote the spot along the neck that necklaces were worn) came to refer specifically to the “windpipe.”

Rabbi Pappenheim identified multiple words as coming from the biliteral root gimmel-reish root found in garon and gargeret. They include ger (“sojourner” in Biblical Hebrew), goren (“granary,” which is the grain’s temporary home while being processed), nigar (“gathering of water”), gerem (“bone,” which houses marrow and other moist liquids), and garger (“grape,” which houses grape juice/wine). Following that theme, Rabbi Pappenheim understands garon to primarily denote the esophagus, which is the temporary home for food on its way towards the stomach.

The rabbis (Taharot 7:9, Targum to Lamentations 1:11) use the term gargaran to refer to a “gluttonous person” who gorges his or herself with food, and in a borrowed sense to any hedonist who overindulges his or her desires (Niddah 10:8).

This terminology is somewhat problematic because the word gargaran is clearly derived from gargeret, yet it describes something done with the veshet. When the rabbis refer to somebody eating food as though his “garon derived benefit” (hana’at grono) from what he ate (Chullin 103b), this is problematic because, as mentioned earlier, garon primarily refers to the trachea, not esophagus. Even if we accept Rabbi Pappenheim’s explanation that garon/gargeret primarily refers to the “food pipe,” the fact remains that in rabbinic literature the gargeret is always juxtaposed to the veshet. Why then is the ravenous binge-eater called a gargaran and not something related to veshet?

Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (1578–1654) in Tosafot Yom Tov (to Taharot 7:9) explains that the foodie is so into his food that he wishes that he could not only eat from just his veshet, but also from his gargeret as well. Because of this, he is called a gargaran. Rabbi Binyamin Mussafia (1606-1675) explains that a gluttonous eater is called a gargaran because in his great zeal to consume as much as possible, he is liable to choke on his food and cause the food “to go down the wrong pipe” by entering his windpipe. Alternatively, Rabbi Meir Batzri of Beitar Illit explains that when the gastrophile is busy swallowing food he cannot breathe, so he negates his gargeret and is thus called a gargaran. This last explanation may be alluded to in Maimonides’ commentary to the Mishnah (Taharot 7:9), in which he seemingly mentions the epiglottis (shipui kova, “the tilted cap” that covers the gargeret when one eats) in conjunction with the gargaran (see also Tosafot Yom Tov and Rabbi Yaakov Emden’s Lechem Shamayim there).

The third Hebrew word for “windpipe” is kaneh. The word kaneh appears more than fifty times in the Bible, where it typically means “reed,” “stem,” “branch,” or “measuring stick,” but never “windpipe.” All of these meanings represent long pipe-like items with a typically hollow middle, so it is no wonder that in Rabbinic Hebrew, the term kaneh came to refer to the “windpipe” — a round, tubular pipe — which also fits that description. We may add that the Biblical term kinamon (“cinnamon”) might be another related word, because that spice grows in the form of pipe-like sticks. [Rabbi Pappenheim has a different way of explaining the connection between all of these Biblical words and the biliteral root KUF-NUN, but we will leave that discussion for another time.]

The word kaneh appears in the Mishnah (Tamid 4:3) when explaining how the various parts of the daily animal sacrifice in the Temple were divvied up amongst the Kohanim who would bring those limbs to the altar. One lucky Kohen would merit to bring the heart, lungs, and kaneh to the altar. In this case, it is clear that the kaneh refers to the “windpipe,” because it is a body part attached to the heart and lungs. In the Babylonian Talmud (Chullin 18a-19a, 21a, 28a-29a, 30b, 32b, 40b, 45a, 50a, 54a, 57b, 85b), kaneh becomes the standard word for what the Mishnah calls the gargeret and is typically juxtaposed to veshet (instead of the Mishnaic gargeret).

In rabbinic idiom, the fear of choking is expressed as not wanting “the kaneh to precede the veshet” (Pesachim 108a, Taanit 5b) by having the food go down the wrong pipe. This phrase comes up when discussing the prohibition of speaking while eating and the rabbinic requirement to recline towards the left at the Passover Seder.

Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1697–1776) explains the relationship between garon, gargeret and kaneh by explaining that that which is called garon in Biblical Hebrew is called gargeret in Mishanic Hebrew and kaneh in Talmudic Hebrew. Rabbi Tanchum HaYerushalmi (a 13th century exegete who lived in the Holy Land) similarly writes that gargeret and kaneh are simply two different words for the same thing. According to this, the three terms in question are indeed synonymous, but reflect different stages of the Hebrew language.

Rabbi Yaakov Weil (circa. 1380–1460) explains in his classical work on ritual slaughtering that while the terms kaneh and gargeret both refer to the windpipe, the two terms are not actually synonyms. Instead, he writes, they refer to two different anatomical parts of the windpipe: gargeret to the ring-like structure that comprises the exterior, while kaneh to the inner membrane. Rabbi Amitai Ben-David (Sichat Chullin to Chullin 18a, 44a, 45a) finds precedent for this explanation in Rashi (to Chullin 18a), who seems to explain that kaneh refers specifically to the inner membrane of the windpipe.

What’s fascinating about the Hebrew garon/gargeret is that it bears an uncanny resemblance to the Old French word gorge (“throat”), which, in turn, may come from the Latin gurges (“whirlpool/sea”). Those words are the etymological ancestors to many other related words in English, like gorge (“to eat greedily”), engorge (“to fill/expand/swell”), regurgitate (“vomit/puke”), garget/gargil (“inflammation of the throat”), gargle/gurgle (“to make a bubbling sound in one’s throat”), gargoyle (“a humanoid or animal-shaped statuette often featuring an exaggerated throat”), gorget (“an armored ornament worn on the neck that defended the throat and accentuated its features”), and gorgeous (“aesthetically appealing, ostentatiously adorned”).

Although it is tempting to posit an etymological connection between the Hebrew words for “throat” and these Indo-European words, it may be that there is onomatopoeia in play as well: Perhaps the words for the throat and things throat-related contain some combination of the gimmel and reish sounds because those are the sounds one makes when gargling (see Rabbi Mussafia’s Mussaf HaAruch who expressly links the Greek/Latin words for “throat” to the Hebrew gargeret).

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