During the eight days of Chanukah, we recite the Al HaNissim prayer, which thanks G-d for His miraculous role in bringing salvation to our forefathers in the times of old. In that prayer, we refer to the “salvation” as both a purkan and a teshua. Another common term that refers to being saved is hatzalah.
In what ways do these words differ from one another?
Purkan is the standard Targumic Aramaic form of the Hebrew word pidyon. Pidyon, in turn, refers to the aspect of the salvation best translated as “redemption,” by which G-d “bought us back” from the Greeks after having “sold us” to them by allowing them to rule over us. When He saved the Jews in the story of Chanukah, it was as if He redeemed them after they had been sold to another.
Although the Rabbis tended to conform to biblical Hebrew in the phraseology of the prayers, here they used the word purkan because the root peh-reish-kuf already appears in the Torah in the context of “salvation” (Lam. 5:8 and Ps. 136:24). In biblical Hebrew, that root also means to “slip something off” (porek), as when the Jews shook off the yoke of Syrian-Greek domination and asserted their own political independence.
Given the association of purkan with financial transactions, Rabbi Yitzchak Eliyahu Landau of Dubno (1801-1876) explains that in the context of Al HaNissim it refers specifically to G-d’s deliverance of the Jews from the hands of financial ruin.
Teshuot, or yeshuot, refers to salvation as related to the idea of “crying out.” They refer specifically to the aspect of redemption that is a divine reaction to our prayers and efforts. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ex. 14:13) suggests that the verb shaavah (“crying out”) refers to the act of yearning for a teshua. Unlike other words for “crying out” that might simply mean a verbalization of one’s suffering, shaavah is an unmistakable cry for salvation – a prayer as opposed to a complaint.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) sees shin-ayin as the root of both yeshua/teshua and shaavah, explaining that at its core this root denotes enjoyment or pleasure. Other words derived from this root include sha’ashua (“playful” or “delightful”), and mishan (“leaning/relying,” in reference to the state of enjoyment and satisfaction that one achieves when one is “supported” by another). Alternatively, we may posit that the core meaning of shin-ayin is smoothness, and in this context refers to the uninterrupted, smooth transition from prayer to salvation.
Rabbi Hirsch proposes an etymological difference between yeshua and teshua. He explains that yeshua derives from the root yod-shin-ayin, which he sees as related to yod-shin-hey (through the interchangeability of ayin and hey) and ultimately to the biliteral root yod-shin, which means “has,” “is,” or “exists.” Accordingly, he explains that yeshua refers to the first-order existence that G-d grants a person. When someone is faced with an existential danger that threatens the very possibility of his continued existence and G-d saves him from this situation, that sort of salvation is referred to as a yeshua.
On the other hand, Rabbi Hirsch explains, the term teshua derives from the root shin-vav-ayin (“crying out”), which he sees as related to the roots shin-bet-ayin (“seven”) and shin-peh-ayin (“influence,” “influx”), via the interchangeability of vav, bet, and peh. He maintains that this set of etymological roots do not refer directly to one’s core existence, but to matters considered peripheral, like material property. Based on this, he explains that teshua does not refer to being saved from something that threatened one’s very existence, but to something that threatens one’s economic freedom. Consequently, Rabbi Hirsch argues that teshua often refers to salvation that comes about through military victory – a win that defeats outside conquerors who threaten one’s freedom.
The Peirush HaRokeach explains that yeshua/teshua implies total and utter salvation from a state of oppression and subjugation, while hatzalah refers to a partial or temporary respite from oppressive situation. The Malbim (to Jer. 15:20) adds that hatzalah focuses on the element of salvation that releases a person from mortal danger. Perhaps it is because of this implication that the term hatzalah is used for paramedic volunteer organizations that serve Jewish communities.
Rabbi Yechiel Michel Heilpern (1660-1742) and Rabbi Chanoch Zundel of Bialystok (d. 1867) explain that while hatzalah can refer to being saved from any sort of threat, yeshua/teshua refer to salvation from a particularly grave threat, like murder or crimes of a sexual nature (see Deut. 22:27). This is why the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah §1:32) assumes that when the Torah reports that Moses “saved” (vayoshian) Jethro’s daughters from the local shepherds (Ex. 2:17), the latter must have had some machinations to commit sexual crimes against those damsels. The Malbim further argues that yeshua refers to being saved from a dire situation, while hatzalah implies being “saved” from the situation as well as being protected from future troubles.
Rabbi Pappenheim traces the word hatzalah to the biliteral root tzadi-lammed, which he defines as “separation for a constructive purpose.” In the sense of saving somebody, then, hatzalah refers to extricating, or separating, a person from a perilous situation. Other words derived from this biliteral root include tzel (“shadow,” which appears as though it separates from one’s person), tzli (“roasting,” which uses heat to extricating the moisture from within an uncooked food), atzal (“bestowal,” e.g., when one blesses another).
In short: Purkan focuses on the redeeming aspect of salvation, as though G-d bought us back after having proverbially sold us; teshua focuses on the idea that salvation is a response to our prayers for help; and hatzalah refers to salvation as the means of separating us from a dangerous situation.