In the miraculous spectacle known as Krias Yam Suf, the parting of the sea, the Red Sea’s waters stopped their normal flow and began to pile up so that the Jewish people could cross as though on dry land. When the “Song of the Sea” describes this aspect of the miracle, it says ne’ermu mayim (Ex. 15:8), using a cognate of the word areimah (“pile/heap”) to denote the amassing of water.
In this essay, we consider the possible etymological connection between areimah and a similar word, chamar. The latter also appears in the Exodus story, as the Torah relates that when the plague of frogs was over, the dead frogs were gathered in “piles and piles” – chamarim chamarim (Ex. 8:10).
The triliteral root ayin-reish-mem, from which areimah derives, has multiple meanings but appears 11 times in the Torah (in addition to Ex. 15:8) in the sense of “pile.”
The word chamarim, which seems to derive from triliteral root chet-mem-reish, appears in the Bible in the sense of piles three times (twice in Ex. 8:10 and once in Num. 11:32). A related form also appears once in the Mishnah (Uktzin 2:5), when referring to a heap of onions that had been amassed into one grouping (chamran).
In commentating on that Mishnah, Rabbi Sherirah Gaon (906–1006) notes that the verb used to denote the amassing of onion cognates with the biblical term chamarim chamarim (as does Maimonides in his commentary there).
Although I have not been able to locate any source that explicitly takes note of a connection between the words areimah and chamarim, such an etymological connection does seem tenable in two steps: First of all, the root ayin-reish-mem appears to be related to the root ayin-mem-reish (“bundling”) by way of metathesis. Indeed, when Maimonides (in his commentary to Peah 6:2 and Eduyot 4:4) defines a gadish as an areimah of amarim, he purposely used these two related terms because they are synonymous (see Rabbi Yaakov Emden’s Mishneh Lechem to Peah 5:1).
Secondly, the root ayin-mem-reish seems related to chet-mem-reish by way of the interchangeability of the letters ayin and chet. Thus, through this two-stage process, we can see that areimah and chamarim are actually related to each other.
As noted, I have not yet seen any commentators who explicitly link these two words to each other, nor have I found anybody who offers a way of differentiating between the meanings of these apparent synonyms.
Our explanation of ne’ermu mayim as referring to the waters of the sea piling up into “heaps” follows Mechillta (to Ex. 14:16) that writes on this verse that the waters became areimot areimot.
This understanding is echoed by Rashbam, who writes that the waters “piled up high like a heap of wheat.”
However, there is an alternate way of understanding what exactly ne’ermu mayim means. Besides referring to piles, the root ayin-reish-mem can also refer to “cleverness” (for example, see Gen. 3:1, Job 5:12, Prov. 19:25). Based on that, Targum Onkelos translates ne’ermu mayim into Aramaic as chakimu mayim – “the waters became smart.” This also seems to be Rashi’s preferred explanation.
As Chizkuni clarifies, “smart waters” means that the waters of the Red Sea were intelligent enough to pursue the Egyptians and drown them (and has nothing to do with added electrolytes).
Rabbi Chaim Paltiel similarly explains that it refers to the waters being able to differentiate between Jew and Egyptian, thereby allowing the Jews to cross safely and the Egyptians not.
On the other hand, the Tosafistic compilation Sefer HaGan explains that this means that the water suddenly accrued the knowledge to sing of G-d’s praises (alongside the Jews who sang Az Yashir in response to the miracles on the sea).
However, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888), in his commentary to Gen. 2:25, explains the connection between “cleverness” and “pile” by noting that a pile is typically comprised by multiple items that have been heaped together.
Each of these items on its own has no major value, but when grouped together in a pile, can become something important. In the same way, cleverness is like a pile of thoughts that the intelligent person has considered.
While one thought or action on its own may not seem important, when all of these are joined together, they show how the clever person is indeed cleverer than the average bear.
It is most noteworthy that Rabbi Hirsch (to Gen. 1:22–23, 11:3) uses a similar idea to explain the meaning of amar (with an aleph), chamar, and amar (with an ayin) – all of which are related through the interchangeability of the letters aleph, chet, and ayin.
Rabbi Hirsch sees the underlying definition of chet-mem-reish (as in chomer, “matter/material”) to be the unification and conglomeration of multiple components. He compares this concept to amar/omer, which refers to bundling many stalks; chamarim, which are piles of like items; and amar (speech/statement), which is composed of many ideas/words that are focused on one all-encompassing theme. Rabbi Hirsch also notes that the word cheimar (mortar) refers to that material which is used to unify bricks and hold them together (see Gen. 11:3, 14:10, Ex. 2:3).
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740–1814) connects the “cleverness” meaning of ayin-reish-mem to ayin-reish by first explaining that eir (awake) derives from this root, because when one awakens, one’s abilities (that are not readily apparent as he sleeps) are suddenly revealed. Based on this, he explains that cleverness refers to a person whose intellectual acumen remains sharp and aware, as though he is always awake.