Photo Credit: Jodie Maoz

On his deathbed, Jacob prophesied a time when the Land of Judah would produce plentiful wine, like a spring flowing from their territory. He foretold that so much wine would be produced that “He will tie his ass to the grapevine (gefen), and his jennet to the grapevine (sorekah)” (Gen. 49:11).

While the word gefen plainly refers to a grapevine, the meaning of sorekah/sorek is unclear.

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Another word coupled with gefen is shdeimah. Before his death Moses saw the Jews’ would become idol-worshipers who might share the fate of the destroyed societies of Sodom and Gomorrah, and said, “For from the grapevine (gefen) of Sodom is their grapevine, and from the shdeimot of Gomorrah” (Deut. 32:32).

Rabbi Shlomo of Urbino, in his lexicon of Hebrew synonyms Ohel Moed, claims that the words gefen, sorek, and shdeimah all refer to “grapevines.”

Are these three words synonyms, and what is their respective etymology and exact meaning?

The most common of the three is gefen. Cognates of gefen appear 55 times in the Torah. Cognates of shdeimah appear only six times, while sorek/sorekah appears just three times.

The early grammarians (i.e., Menachem Ibn Saruk, Yonah Ibn Janach, and the Radak) all trace the word gefen to the triliteral root gimmel-peh-nun – defined as “grapevine.” But Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814), the strong proponent of bilateralism, argues that the root of gefen can be traced to the biliteral root gimmel-peh, whose core meaning he sees as “outward protrusion/expansion.” In that sense, the word gaf refers to the side of something that protrudes outwards (see Prov. 9:3), as well as to the “wing” of a bird that likewise protrudes outwards.

Accordingly, Rabbi Pappenheim argues that gefen connotes the wing-like shoots and buds that protrude from a grapevine. Other words he sees as derived from the two-letter root gimmel-peh include: guf (body), which refers to the outward, physical projection of one’s person (as opposed to his soul, which is his inner person); mageifah (plague), which refers to the sort of disease that spreads out via person-to-person contact; and agaf (flank), which refers to a formation of troops who spread out over a specific area (like the outstretched wings of a bird).

Shoresh Yesha relates the root gimmel-peh-nun to kaf-peh-nun (famine) by implicitly invoking the interchangeability of gimmel and kaf. He sees this root-word as an allusion to the Talmudic assertion that drinking wine makes a person hungry (see Pesachim 107b–108a). In other words, the very word gefen connotes this specific property of the grapevine’s foremost product.

When it comes to the word shdeimah, not everybody agrees that this refers to a grapevine. For example, Rashi (to Deut. 32:32, Isa. 16:8, and Hab. 13:17) consistently explains that shdeimah denotes a field in which grains are grown. However, in explaining Deut. 32:32, Rabbeinu Bachaya (1255-1340) writes that the Torah uses a double verbiage to mean the same thing, arguing therefore that shdeimah and gefen are synonyms. Ibn Janach (Sefer HaShorashim), Ibn Ezra (to Isa. 16:8), and Radak (in Sefer HaShorashim and in his comments to Isa. 16:8) agree and maintain that shdeimah is synonymous with gefen.

Rabbi Pappenheim explains shdeimah as referring simply to any ground that is especially conducive for nourishing flora. He traces this word to the biliteral root shin-dalet, whose core meaning is “abnormality.” Derivatives of this core root can be broken up into three groups:

One group of words includes shoded (pirating or commandeering), which involves accruing property in an unusual way or appropriating something for a purpose other than its normal, intended use.

Another group of words derived from this root include sheid (demon), which is an evil spirit that is said to disrupt the natural order. Rabbi Pappenheim also includes the terms shidah and shidot (Ecc. 2:8) in this category, explaining that they refer to women who were “expert dancers,” such that they could move as swiftly as sheidim.

Thirdly, Rabbi Pappenheim traces shad/shadaim (“nipples”) to this core root, noting the bizarre nature of the mammary glands that secrete nourishing milk as a departure from the normal function of other body parts.

Ohalei Yehuda and Shoresh Yesha argue that shdeimah refers to a lower-quality field, explaining the word’s etymology as a portmanteau of sadeh (field) and mah (what), and seemingly invoking the interchangeability of the shin and sin.

They also adduce the negative aspect of shdeimah by noting that the letter mem can be interchanged with a peh, thus associating the root shin-dalet-mem with shin-dalet-peh (“wind-blasted”).

Finally, our last word for grapevine is sorek. Targum Yonatan (to Isa. 5:2 and Jer. 2:21) translates the Hebrew word sorek into Aramaic as gafna/gefen bechira – “a choice grapevine.” Ibn Janach (in his Sefer HaShorashim) and Radak (in his Sefer HaShorashim, as well as in his comments to Isa. 5:2, 16:8) write that sorek refers to the choicest type of grapevine, with Radak adding in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak Ibn Ghiyyat (1030-1089) that this refers to vines that yield grapes that do not have pits.

Rashi offers two more explanations of sorek, writing that it refers to shoots of a grapevine that are especially good for planting as trunks in their own right (Rashi to Isa. 5:2), and also writing that it refers to a grapevine’s especially long tendrils (Rashi to Gen. 49:11). Elsewhere, Rashi (to Jer. 2:21) seems to follow the approach cited earlier by explaining sorek as shoots from a “good gefen.”

An earlier explanation of sorek is proposed by Rabbi Shmuel ben Chofni Gaon (998-1034), who wrote in his commentary to Gen. 49:11 that sorek refers to the softest branches of a vineyard, noting that this is the meaning of the word al-sarik in Syrian Arabic (possibly Sirac/Syrac grapes, which are now known as Syrah/Shiraz grapes).

Menachem Ibn Saruk in Machberet Menachem defines the word sorek as sarig, possibly based on the interchangeability of the letters kuf and gimmel. The word sarig appears but twice in the Pentateuch (Gen. 40:10, 40:12), both of them when Pharaoh’s disgraced butler dreams of a grapevine (gefen) that had three sarigim (“tendrils”).

The word is used one more time in Tanach (Joel 1:7), and seems to be related to the root sin-reish-gimmel (used in Job 40:17 and Lam. 1:14), which means entangling. Ibn Saruk also defines shdeimah as a sorek – so go figure. Perhaps all of these explanations of sorek are somehow actually describing the same thing.

A srak tree in Mishnaic Hebrew refers to a non-fruit-bearing tree (Kilayim 6:3, 6:5, Sheviit 1:3, Sotah 8:3, Bava Batra 2:7, and Bechorot 4:8). In describing the future abundance with which the Holy Land will be blessed in Messianic times, the Talmud (Ketubot 111b) expounds the word sorekah (spelled with an initial sin) in Gen. 49:11 as though it were related to srak (spelled with an initial samech).

A literal reading of the Talmud as it appears before us reads that in the future, even non-fruit-bearing trees in the Holy Land will bear fruit. But this has seemingly nothing to do with grapevines, so why is this related to the word sorekah?

Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555–1631), better known as Maharsha, explains that in this case, the rabbis expounded on the word sorek as though it were spelled with a samech in an allusion to a srak tree, even though he concedes that the simple reading of the verse that the Talmud expounds speaks about grapevines and not other types of trees.

Alternatively, Rashi’s son-in-law Rivan (there, see also Shitta Mekubetzet there in the name of Rashi) explains the Talmud as saying that even grapevines that would otherwise be considered “barren” will still yield a plentitude of grapes.

Correction: In last week’s essay, I wrote: “Cognates of kor appear three times in the Bible: once when listing an annual cold season called kor (Gen. 8:22), and twice when describing “cold water” as mayim karim (Jer. 18:14, Prov. 25:25).” However, several observant readers pointed out to me that this is inaccurate, because there are another five instances of the word in Tanach, including in Nah. 3:17, Prov. 25:20, Job 37:9, 24:7, and last but not least, Ps. 147:17). I came to this error because I was using Even Shoshan’s concordance and only saw three verses listed under the root kor. I apologize for this oversight. The lesson to be learned is not to rely too heavily on the Concordance.

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Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes The Jewish Press's "Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh" column.