The best way to remember the glory of the Holy Temple is to imagine ourselves reliving those times of old. Imagine walking past the walls of Jerusalem (chomot Yerushalayim) towards the Temple Mount. We can picture ourselves moving beyond the wall of the rampart (the cheil) and into the Temple building. We can envision ourselves gazing upon the altar and seeing its walls with the sprinkled blood of sacrifices (kir ha’mizbeach).
Alas, the only remnant of that magnificent complex that still stands is the Western Wall – the Kotel HaMaaravi.
In the two paragraphs above appear four Hebrew words for wall. An additional two are “shur” and “chayitz.” As is his wont, Rabbi Shlomo of Urbino (a 16th century Italian scholar) writes that the six words in question all mean exactly the same thing. However, if we dig deeper into the roots of these words, perhaps certain nuances in meaning will emerge.
“Chomah” appears over 130 times in the Bible and always refers to a wall that surrounds a city or important/large building. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814), like Menachem Ibn Saruk, traces “chomah” to the two-letter root chet-mem, which he explains refers primarily to heat. Thus “milchamah” (war), which is the culmination of a heated fight between two parties.
Rabbi Pappenheim suggests that “chomah” is related to “milchamah,” as the main purpose of building a city wall is to protect its inhabitants from enemy warfare. Alternatively, Rabbi Pappenheim proposes that “chomah” is directly related to “cham” because a city wall might block cool winds from entering, thus keeping the city warm.
Rabbi Eliezer ben Nosson (1090-1170), also known as the Raavan, notes that “chomah” is also related to sight, as the Aramaic root chet-mem-hey means seeing (see Targum Yonatan to Exodus 14:31, for example). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Genesis 49:22) makes a similar point.
Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) connects “chomah” to “cheimah” (anger) and “chamah” (sun), focusing on how a city wall sets a city apart from everything beyond its walls. Interestingly, Rabbi Hirsch (to Genesis 21:15) proposes that “cheimet” (flask) is related to “chomah” because a flask encloses and protect its contents just like a city wall surrounds and protects a city.
The word “kir” in the sense of wall appears about 75 times in the Bible. Most grammarians trace “kir” to the triliteral kuf-yod-reish, but some maintain that the letter yod is not part of the root. Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Carpentras (an 18th century grammarian and dayan) writes in Ohalei Yehuda that “kir” is related to “kar” (cold) and denotes a wall whose purpose is to provide shade and allow people to cool off.
Rabbi Pappenheim takes a different approach. He traces “kir” to the two-letter root kuf-reish, which denotes the strong impact that results from extreme weight or velocity. Words derived from this root include “korah” (wooden beam) and “tikrah” (ceiling) because the weight of the horizontal beams that comprise a ceiling weigh down on a building’s support, thus creating a point of impact.
With this explanation in mind, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that “kir” (wall) denotes a vertically-positioned wooden beam that bears the weight of a structure. From that original sense, “kir” was borrowed to refer to any sort of wall (i.e., even of stone or metal).
When Bilaam prophesies of Jewish supremacy in Messianic times, he says the Jews will “karkar” all the other nations of the world (Numbers 24:17). Most commentators (Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Ibn Janach) explain that Bilaam is prophesying that the Jews will destroy these nations, but don’t explain the etymology of “karkar” and how it means destroying.
The Radak in his Sefer HaShorashim writes that “karkar” derives from kir, explaining that this verb refers to destroying a wall (i.e., eliminating a person’s means of protection). He compares “kir” to the noun shoresh (root), whose verb form, “misharesh,” means to uproot. Thus, “kir” can refer both to building a wall and tearing down a wall. (Rabbi Hirsch [to Leviticus 19:28 and Numbers 24:17] and Rabbi Yitzchok of Volozhin [to Numbers 24:17] offer similar explanations.)