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The root chet-reish-bet appears over 500 times throughout the Bible, contained in a variety of words such as “sword,” “desolation,” and “dry.” This last meaning is relevant to this essay’s topic, as we will discuss the very dry topic of three Hebrew terms for “dry”: chorev, yavesh, and negev. In this essay, we attempt to differentiate between these apparent synonyms, speculate about their etymologies, and learn a little of Tanach.

The Vilna Gaon (to Isaiah 8:23) differentiates between chorev and yavesh, for instance. Chorev implies that there is still some moisture, he writes, even though most of the water/liquid has been dried out; but yavesh implies something that is totally dry. He makes this distinction based on the following passage said regarding the end of the Deluge in Noah’s time:

And it was in the year six-hundred and one, on the first [month] on the first of the month, the waters dried [charvu] from upon the land, and Noah removed the cover from the ark, and he saw that the surface of the ground has dried [charvu]. And in the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the land was dried [yavshah]. (Genesis 8:13–14)

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In this passage, the post-Diluvial world dried up in two stages, the first denoted by a cognate of chorev and the second by a cognate of yavesh. The Vilna Gaon sees in this a process: at first, the land was only partially dried (charev), and subsequently became completely dry (yavesh).

This understanding can already be gleaned from Rashi on Genesis 8:13–14. When the Torah says charvu, according to Rashi, it means that the land became “like mud whose upper surface crusted over.” When it says yavshah, it became totally “dry land like it was supposed to be.” Similarly, in Sefer HaChachmah (ascribed to the late 12th century Ashkenazi scholar Rabbi Elazar Rokeach of Worms) yabashah means a place that is “truly dry,” while chareivah means “a muddy place dripping with moisture.”

Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer (1866-1935) adds that this distinction can help us understand an otherwise difficult passage, where the Torah refers to two sorts of meal-offerings: one that is “mixed with oil” and one that is “chareivah” (Leviticus 7:10). The word chareivah is seemingly a cognate of charev and presumably means “dry” – but there is no type of meal-offering that is totally dry.

Rabbi Wertheimer resolves this by explaining that the term chareivah refers to an oil-less meal offering: it is drier than a meal offering that has oil. Thus, the fact that it is called chareivah and not yeveishah tells us that even this meal-offering is not totally dry in the sense of having no moisture whatsoever.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) offers two ways of explaining the difference between yavesh and chorev. In Yeriot Shlomo and Cheshek Shlomo, Rabbi Pappenheim sees the difference between yavesh and chorev as quantitative, meaning that chorev denotes something “a little bit dry,” while yavesh denotes something “very dry.”

Elsewhere in Yeriot Shlomo, however, Rabbi Pappenheim offers a slightly different take on these two terms. He notes that, in practice, both yabashah and charavah refer to dry land when juxtaposed with bodies of water. But when comparing yabashah and charavah to each other, each one refers to a qualitatively different type of dry land.

Rabbi Pappenheim goes on to postulate that there are two different types of moistness: one refers to something wet on the outside but not necessarily on the inside, while the other refers to something saturated with liquid on the inside but dry on the outside. He ties this distinction to the Hebrew words ratuv (wet, possibly to the point of saturation) and lach (moist or damp). Based on this, Rabbi Pappenheim proposes that the same sort of distinction may be drawn regarding the two words for dryness. Chorev could refer to superficial dryness, and yavesh to something dry on the inside. To better illustrate this distinction, Rabbi Pappenheim notes that a marshland can justifiably be called a charavah because its surface is dry enough that one can walk on top of it, but it cannot be called yavesh because its interior is still saturated with water.

Another approach to the difference between charev and yavesh comes from Maimonides’ son Rabbi Avraham Maimuni in his commentary to Genesis 31:40, where he writes that chorev implies dryness as the result of heat. Words derived from the root chet-reish-hey deal with “hot anger.” Radak in his Sefer HaShorashim contends that the core meaning of that root is “heat”; the association with anger is because to be angry is to be “heated up” about something. Accordingly, we may speculate that the root chet-reish-bet – from which chorev/charev derives – may somehow be an offshoot of chet-reish-hey. The “destruction” meaning of chet-reish-bet may allude to the eventual consequence of uncontrolled “anger,” and the “sword” meaning would refer to the tool used to bring about such “destruction.”

The downside of this theory: Most grammarians and lexicographers agree that the letter bet cannot serve as a radical added to a biliteral root to create a triliteral root.

Regarding yavesh, Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) writes that the core meaning of the biliteral bet-shin is “finishing” a project. He claims that this original meaning of the root is still known to us through Akkadian and is manifest in two Hebrew roots: yod-bet-shin and bet-shin-lammed. The former refers to dryness and seemingly denotes the completion of the drying process. This explanation dovetails with the Vilna Gaon and others cited above who explain yavesh as “completely dry.” The root bet-shin-lammed gives us words like bishul, translatable in different contexts as “cooking” or “ripening” – in either case, indicating that a process has “finished” and the food is ready for consumption. What’s also interesting about Rabbi Marcus’ explanation is that he supposes that the shin of bet-shin stands for aish (fire), which is spelled aleph-shin, to allude to the role of heat in cooking, ripening, and drying.

Finally, we come to the word negev. Of the 110 times it appears in the Bible, in almost all of those instances it means “south,” but in a few cases it could be translated as “dry” (see Joshua 15:19, Judges 1:15, Isaiah 21:1, Psalms 126:4). In Mishnaic Hebrew, cognates of negev are the standard word for the act of drying something that was once wet (see Chagigah 3:1, Avodah Zarah 2:11, 5:11, Menachot 8:4, 3:3, Keilim 25:6, Taharot 2:1, 3:8, 10:2, 10:8, Machshirin 3:5, 4:9, Mikvaot 10:4, Tvol Yom 3:6, Parah 5:2, 7:8, 9:1, 11:8).

Why does negev mean both “dry” and “south?” There are various explanations given as to why the word negev also means “south,” most of them assuming that the south always receives more light from the sun (see Ibn Ezra, Peirush HaRokeach, and Rabbi Hirsch to Genesis 12:9). Rabbi Yehuda Leib Shapira-Frankfurter (1743-1826), however, writes that the southern part of the Holy Land is called the Negev because negev means “south.” He explicitly refutes the idea that the region is called negev because it is desert land and negev means “dry” – the way he sees it, negev only means “south” in Hebrew and only means “dry” in Aramaic.

This explanation notwithstanding, the most plausible way of understanding the word negev is that its core meaning is indeed “dry,” and that the southern part of the Holy Land is called the Negev because it is an arid region.

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