The most common Hebrew word for “secret” is sod. This word appears more than twenty times throughout the Bible, but it does not quite mean “secret” in the same way that we use it nowadays. In this essay, we will explore what sod originally meant, and how it came to mean secret today.
Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach (990-1050) writes in his Sefer HaShorashim that the Biblical word sod has two distinct meanings: sometimes it means “a gathering or grouping of individual people,” and sometimes it means “advice.” For example, when the prophet Amos said: “Hashem the G-d does not do anything unless He reveals his sod to His servants, the prophets” (Amos 3:7), Amos means that Hashem always reveals His plans to a select “group” of prophets. And when Proverbs instructs, “Plans are canceled without sod, and with many advisers it will stand” (Proverbs 15:22), this means that without considering the “advice” of others when formulating one’s plans, those plans will fall apart.
That said, Rabbi David Kimchi (1160-1234), also known as Radak, disagrees with Ibn Janach’s formulation. Instead, Radak argues in his Sefer HaShorashim that both meanings of sod are really one. Radak’s understanding of sod is analogous to the English word counsel/council, which refers to an assembly of advisors with whom an executive officer might consult. Thus, the term sod refers to a gathering of people from whom one might take advice.
In the introduction to the piyyutim recited in the Chazan’s Repetition on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the chazan states that these liturgical insertions were instituted “mi’sod chachamim u’nevonom” (“from the sod of wise men and mavens”). In this context, the term sod refers to the advice of the earlier sages who recommended adding various poetic compositions to the prayers – not to any untold “secrets.”
So how did sod come to mean secret? From the fact that only one’s closest advisors are privy to one’s innermost thoughts and plans, the word sod expanded in Rabbinic Hebrew to refer to any sort of restricted or confidential information to which only a select few are privy. Hence, the word sod came to mean secret.
For example, take the following statements by the rabbis: “When the wine enters, the sod comes out” (Eruvin 65a, Sanhedrin 38a); “six things were said about an ignoramus: … one should not reveal to him one’s sod” (Pesachim 49b); “the Torah Scholars who deprive themselves of sleep in This World, Hashem will reveal to them the sod in the World to Come (Chagigah 14a); and “reveal [your] sod to [only] one in a thousand” (Yevamot 63b). The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 20b, Ketubot 112a) mentions a concept known as Sod Ha’Ibbur (literally, “the Secret of the Intercalation/Pregnancy”), which Rashi (to Rosh Hashanah 20b) explains as referring to calendrical teachings that were stated in remazim (“hints” or “allusions”).
Both Ibn Janach and Radak trace the word sod to the triliteral root samech-vav-dalet. As is his way, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Genesis 49:6) compares the idea behind this triliteral root to the ideas behind two other phonetically similar three-letter roots, namely zayin-vav-dalet (nazid and meizid) and tzadi-vav-dalet (tzad). These three roots are associated via the interchangeability of the letters samech, zayin, and tzadi, and Rabbi Hirsch explains that they all refer to the festering and fomentation of an idea or plan in the depths of one’s thoughts.
For instance, the word nazid (Genesis 25:29, II Kings 4:38) refers to a dish that is left simmering and stewing on the fire. The longer it is left on the flame, the more developed and flavorful that culinary treat will be. Its cognate meizid (“purposeful” or “wantonness”) similarly refers to a premeditated action that a person had “cooked up” in his mind before actually doing. The word tzad (“capturing” or “trapping”) refers to the actual carrying out of one’s carefully laid plans. And finally, the word sod refers to the notion of sharing one’s discrete devices with others for mutual consultation.
As he is wont to do, Menachem Ibn Saruk (920-970) in Machberet Menachem traces the word sod to the biliteral root samech-dalet. Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) in turn explains how all the various words derived from that biliteral root relate back to one singular concept.
According to him, the root samech-dalet refers to the “foundation” or “basis” of something. The most obvious word derived from this root is yesod (“foundation”), which serves as the most rudimentary basis for the existence of something else. In a more abstract sense, Rabbi Pappenheim explains, a yesod refers to the axiomatic givens assumed in intellectual discourse. Based on this, he explains that the less-apparent logical conclusions that can be derived from those yesodot are called sodot.
Rabbi Pappenheim further notes that sod may also refer to whatever tools are used in an effort to derive conclusions from the given facts, be they the use of wise advisors or one’s own deductive reasoning. Like we mentioned above, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that because such conclusions are usually confined to one’s own mind or at most to just a small group of counselors, they are often considered “secretive,” so sod came to be associated with “secret.”
Other words that Rabbi Pappenheim sees as deriving from the samech-dalet root include the following:
- The Mishnaic word sadan (Kilayim 1:8, 6:4, Shabbat 12:1, Bava Batra 4:9, Sanhedrin 7:3) refers to the trunk of a tree, which is the main branch from which the tree grows.
- The word sadin (“bedding”), which appears four times in the Bible (Judges 14:12-13, Isaiah 3:23, Proverbs 31:24), refers to the sheet spread upon one’s bed as a “foundation” on top of which one places one’s body, pillow, and blanket.
- The word sadeh (“field,” “prairie”) refers to the most “fundamental” unit of topographical and agricultural space (as opposed to mountains and hills which are considered more topographically anomalous; or non-fertile lands, which are considered agricultural outliers).
Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865), on the other hand, sees “tying” or “tethering” as the core meaning of samech-dalet. With that in mind, he explains the word sod in the sense of “secret” as the attempt to “tie down” access to specific information and disallow it from escaping outside of its purview. He likewise explains the ”counsel/council” meaning of sod as referring to a body of individuals united (“tied”) together in their common advisory role.
Interestingly, Rabbi Pappenheim claims that although the word sod in Biblical Hebrew does not quite mean “secret,” the actual term for “secret” in Biblical Hebrew is dvar seter. This is seen when Ehud requested a private audience with the Moabite king Eglon by saying, “I have a dvar seter with you, O the King” (Judges 3:19). Ehud implied that he had a secret to reveal to the king, but really he had a dagger ready to kill him. The term dvar seter literally means “hidden matter,” with the latter word being related to the root samech-tav-reish (“hiding”). I hope to devote a future series of articles to the many Hebrew words for “hiding.”