Photo Credit: Jodie Maoz

The Talmud (Pesachim 113a) teaches that each and every day, Hashem “announces” in the Heavens that He is impressed with three categories of people: poor people who exert themselves to help return lost objects to their rightful owners; rich people who take off tithes even when nobody is looking; and unmarried men who live in the city and do not sin. The temptations of the urban setting and availability of sinful outlets are so plentiful that it is praiseworthy for a single man to live in such a milieu and still remain free from sin. Similarly, the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah §27:2) talks about the great reward that Hashem grants the ravak who lives in a community and contributes to the communal funds for child education – even though he himself does not have any children. The unmarried man’s temptation to avoid contributing to this cause makes sense from his perspective, but when such a person exerts special effort to pay his dues, he is lauded in the Heavens.

Both the Talmud and Midrash use the word ravak here as the term for an unmarried man. In this article, we explore the etymologies of ravak and two other Hebrew terms for an unmarried or single man – panui and bachur – try to zone in on the nuances they express.




The word ravak does not appear in the Bible, but it does appear three times in the Mishna. Kiddushin 4:13-14 cites the opinions of those rabbis who ruled that a ravak may not serve as a teacher for young children nor work as a shepherd, and two ravakim may not sleep together under the same blanket. In the context of these restrictions, there is a dispute amongst the commentators as to what exactly the word ravak means. Rashi (to Kiddushin 82a) explains that ravak refers to any male who is unmarried – regardless of whether he was previously married and subsequently divorced or became a widower. Tosafot (to Kiddushin 82a) and Maimonides (in his commentary to the Mishna there) disagree with this assessment, however, and write that ravak refers specifically to a bachelor who was never married.

In a prophecy that foretells the downfall of the Chaldeans who were destined to destroy the First Temple, Isaiah metaphorically refers to that nation as young and full of vigor: “and the young lads will become tired and they will be worn out, and the bachurim will surely stumble” (40:30). The Targum translates bachur there into the Aramaic word ravak, and the Tosafists and Maimonides cite this to support their view that ravak refers specifically to a man who was never married. (Personally, I do not understand how the Targum’s translation supports this view.)

Ravak makes another appearance in some versions of the Targum to Psalms 148:12, which translates the Hebrew bachur as ravak, although other versions use an Aramaic variant of elem there. Either way, it is interesting to note that Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469-1549) does not list the word ravak in his lexicon of Targumic Aramaic Meturgaman despite the fact that ravak appears in Targum at least once.



Panui (and penuiah for an unmarried woman) does not appear anywhere in the Bible nor in the Mishna, but it does appear multiple times in the Talmud (e.g. Yevamot 59b, 61b, 76a; Sanhedrin 51a; Temurah 29b-30a).

In a complicated case involving levirate marriage, the Mishna (Yevamot 3:5) talks about three brothers, two of whom were married to two sisters with a third brother described as a mufneh. For the purposes of the halacha taught in the Mishna there, there is no difference as to whether the third brother was unmarried or was married to a woman who was not a sister to the other two sisters/sisters-in-law. Either way, this Mishnaic term mufneh is a cognate of the word panui.

HaBachur reveals the etymology of the word panui by tracing it to the Mishnaic Hebrew verb panah. That elastic term variously refers to “removing” or “emptying,” “making available,” “freeing up.” For example, the Mishna (Avot 2:4) states: “Do not say ‘when I will be available [k’she’efneh], I will study,’ for maybe you will never become available [lo tipaneh].” In the same way, an unmarried man is called panui because he is “available” and “open” to forging a matrimonial bond (and an unmarried woman is likewise called a penuiah for the same reason).

HaBachur asserts that the usage of the root peh-nun[-heh] in this sense does not occur in the Bible except in an exegetical interpretation of the blessing, “And I [Hashem] will turn to you [paniti]” (Leviticus 26:9). Rashi (there) explains that passage as referring to Hashem “clearing” Himself of all other tasks (i.e., making Himself available) in order to pay the reward due to those who follow His words. Despite HaBachur’s assertion to the contrary, it does appear that there are a few more examples of this sort of usage in the Bible; for example, when Bethuel invited Abraham’s servant into his home, he made sure to say “and I cleared [piniti] the house” (Genesis 24:31).

In one instance, Rashi (to Exodus 12:30) refers to single men with the phrase revakim penuiim, which uses both ravak and panui together. This possibly suggests that Rashi understood them to both mean the same thing. Indeed, Rashi (to Pesachim 113a) seems to equate the terms ravak and panui by using panui to define ravak. This equation seems to be a semantic one – Rashi equates the meaning of the two terms – but Dr. Alexander Kohut (1842-1894) infers from this that there is also something of an etymological equation, in that the etymology of ravak is similar to that of panui, with both referring to something “empty.” Nevertheless, Kohut disagrees with the explanation he saw in Rashi. Instead, he views the Mishnaic Hebrew word ravak as a loanword borrowed from Arabic: the Aramaic word ravaka (probably originally pronounced something like rawaka) means “young man,” and similar Arabic cognates rayq/rauq (“youth”) bear comparable meanings.

While Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein (1899-1983) acknowledges that some scholars, like Kohut, see those Semitic cognates as the etymological bases for the Mishnaic Hebrew ravak, he thinks it is more likely that the original meaning of this word is “empty,” and that it derives from the base reish-yod-kuf and means “a man whose house is empty from wife and children.”



The Hebrew word bachur in appears close to 50 times in the Bible, but it never refers exclusively to an unpaired bachelor. It is used in various contexts to refer to “young man,” especially one of military age. In its colloquial usage, bachur refers to an unmarried male (e.g. Ketubot 10a), but it can technically even refer to a married young man (e.g. Sukkah 26b).

All that being said, the one time when the word bachur appears in the Mishna it clearly refers to unmarried men. Taanit 4:8 relates that on the 15th of Av (Tu B’Av) and on the 10th of Tishrei (Yom Kippur), the single girls of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards to try and attract a mate. They would say, “O bachur, lift up your eyes and see what [i.e., whom] it is that you choose.”

Radak (1160-1235) writes in Sefer HaShorashim that the root of bachur is bet-chet-reish, which primarily refers to the act of “choosing.” He explains that this root relates to an unmarried lad, because such young men tend to be at the peak of their physical strength and are thus the choicest candidates for labor or the military. Similarly, the 18th century grammarian and dayan Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Carpentras writes in Ohalei Yehuda that the word bachur derives from the triliteral root bet-chet-reish because a mature young adult male is at the choicest stage of his life in terms of his vigor and aesthetic appeal, but does not yet have the responsibilities of a more mature adult sapping his energy. Alternatively, he explains the word bachur as a fusion of the two words bo (“in him”) and char (“heat”), noting that within a bachur burns a strength or passion that may be likened to a raging fire.

Interestingly, Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur was known as “HaBachur” because he married late in life. Some have argued that the nickname came from his book on Hebrew grammar, Sefer HaBachur, but he wrote the truth in the introduction of that very book: one of the reasons he titled his work Sefer HaBachur was because he himself was given that appellation. It was also applied to Rabbi Kalonymus HaBachur (see Shibbolei HaLeket §140), a Tosafist active in the German town of Mainz during the Crusades, in order to differentiate between him and his older contemporary Rabbi Kalonymus HaZaken of Speyer.

I used to think that the English word bachelor was somehow a corruption of the Hebrew term bachur, but then I realized that the Hebrew term itself does not exclusively refer to an unmarried boy (as explained above), nor does the English word derive from Hebrew. As Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein explains in his Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, the English word bachelor derives by way of the Middle English bachelere and the Old French bacheler from the Latin term baccalarius, which means “young man” in addition to “owner of a small farm.”


Previous article7-Year Protest: Ehud Barak’s Role in Shaping the Anti-Bibi Movement
Next articleThe ‘Amazed’ Mr. Christie
Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes The Jewish Press's "Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh" column.