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In Az Yashir, the Jewish people sing, “The [Egyptian] enemy said, ‘I will chase them, I will reach them, I will apportion the booty’” (Ex. 15:9).

In this context, the Torah uses the word “shallal” to denote spoils of war. Elsewhere, though, the Torah uses “bizah,” “ad,” “shevi,” or “malko’ach” to mean (apparently) the very same thing.

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Rashi (on Numbers 31:11) explains that though they all mean booty, these words denote specific kinds of booty: “shallal” denotes clothing and jewelry, “baz” denotes movable items other than jewelry, and “malko’ach” denotes people and animals. This explanation is cited approvingly by Rabbi Avraham Bedersi HaPenini (1230-1300) and the Maharal of Prague (Gur Aryeh to Numbers 31:11).

The Radak writes that “shevi” denotes human prisoners, “malko’ach” denotes animal spoils of war, and “shallal” denotes clothes and vessels. When “malko’ach” appears alone, though, without “shevi” (Numbers 31:27), it refers to all living things – human and animals – captured in war.

(Rabbi Yaakov Chaim Sofer notes that II Chronicles 15:11 speaks of offering captured shallal as ritual sacrifices; evidently then, “shallal” can mean animals.)

The Vilna Gaon (Biur HaGra to Isaiah 10:6) writes that plundering enemy loot typically occurs in stages. “Shallal” are the valuables taken first while less important items called “bizah” (related to “bizayon” [disgrace]) are taken second. The Vilna Gaon also explains (in Biur HaGra to II Chronicles 14:13) that “bizah” denotes non-living things captured in battle, while “shevi” denotes living people or animals captured in war.

The Malbim writes that the difference between “shallal” and “bizah” resembles the difference between “shevi” and “malko’ach.” “Shallal” is a general term for the ownerless property of the defeated party while “bizah” refers specifically to property that was already taken as loot. Similarly, “shevi” refers to all the captured people that were defeated while “malko’ach” refers specifically to people taken by captors to serve as slaves or used for other purposes.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) traces “shallal” to the two-letter root shin-lammed, which means moving something outside of its proper place (e.g., “Remove [shal] your shoes from upon your feet” [Exodus 3:5]). Booty, of course, is property taken away from its previous owners as a prize of war.

Rabbi Pappenheim traces the etymology of “baz” and “bizah” to the biliteral root bet-zayin, which refers to something unimportant. Since plunderers take the spoils of war for free, they are essentially degrading them. Alternatively, since plunderers receive their loot without having to pay for it, they do not treat it with much care. Booty may also have this name because victims of pillaging ignore (and thus effectively disparage) it in trying to save their own lives.

The root of “malko’ach” is lammed-kuf-chet, which means taking and relates to the spoils for war for obvious reasons.

As mentioned above, “ad” also means booty as in Genesis 49:27: “Binyamin is a clawing wolf; in the morning he will eat his ad and in the evening he will allocate shallal.” Rashi explains that “ad” in context means plunder and notes that in Aramaic, the ayin-dalet root has the very same meaning. Indeed, Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469-1549) points out that the Targumim usually translate “shallal” or “bizah” with Aramaic cognates of “ad.”

Rabbi Pappenheim explains that “ad” is derived from “adi (jewelry, ornament) and refers specifically to ornamental clothes of war that soldiers would be stripped of when captured. The Malbim writes that “ad” denotes dead animals that were taken as war-prizes.

Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) maintains that “ad” in the sense of booty is derived from “ad” in the sense of transferring because booty is property that was transferred from one party to another. Rabbi Mecklenburg writes that “shallal” is a catch-all phrase that includes all items taken as booty while “ad” refers specifically to jewelry and decorative items.

A similar point is made by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Numbers 31:11). When no other words are used alongside it, “shallal,” he writes, can refer to anything pilfered in battle – even animals and humans – because ultimately all spoils of war are the same in that they are all taken through violence.

Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein (1860-1940) explains that there are separate words for living booty (“malko’ach”) and inanimate booty (“shallal”) because they are taken in different ways: Inanimate objects are taken by hand or physical force while living creatures are often taken in verbally – by either persuasion or command.

When Rabbi Shmuel Ibn Tibbon (1150-1230) translated Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed from Judeo-Arabic into Hebrew, he needed to coin new words for some of the philosophical concepts Maimonides discusses and found himself needing Hebrew words for positive and negative. So he appropriated “shallal” to mean negative (“shelili”) – since losing one’s property in war is a rather negative development.

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