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In the Haftarah of Shabbos Shirah, Deborah, and Barak sing G-d’s praises for delivering the Canaanite general Sisera into their hands. Towards the end of the shirah, they say, in reference to Sisera’s mother anxiously anticipating her son’s triumphant return: “She gazed through the window (chalon) and she sobbed; Sisera’s mother [peeked] through the window (eshnav)” (Judges 5:28).

This verse contains two words for window: “chalon” and “eshnav.” What, if anything, is the difference between them?

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Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) traces the etymology of “chalon” (which appears 31 times in the Bible) to the two-letter root chet-lammed, which means circular movement and the empty space within a circle. Other words that derive from this root, says Rabbi Pappenheim, include:

1) “chalil” (flute, a hollow musical instrument)

2) “machol” (a type of dance performed by going around in a circle)

3) “chalom” (a dream because it’s a reflection of one’s thoughts going round and round in one’s mind)

4) “chillul” (desecration, which results from a void of holiness)

5) “challal” (a human corpse, emptied of its life-force)

6) “choli”/“machalah” (a sickness that affects the body all around) and

7) “cheil” (a short wall that surrounds a higher wall, effectively creating an empty space between them).

In Yerios Shlomo, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that chalon derives from chet-lammed because a window is essentially an empty space or a hole in a wall. Interestingly, in Cheshek Shlomo, Rabbi Pappenheim adds that “chalon” specifically means a round window, thus connecting the word to both core meanings of chet-lammed.

Grammarians like the Radak and Ibn Janach who do not believe a root can contain just two letters, maintain that “chalon” derives from the triliteral root chet-lammed-lammed (emptiness).

We now turn our attention to “eshnav.” This rather obscure word only appears twice in the entire Bible: once in the above-cited passage concerning Sisera’s mother and once in Proverbs 7:6 concerning a strange woman (a metaphor for strange wisdom) enticing a person through a window.

Rashi (to Judges 5:28), Ibn Janach, and the Radak all define “eshnav” as “chalon.” Others, however, differentiate between the two. For example, Rabbi Yosef Kara (to Judges 5:28) and the Meiri (to Proverbs 7:6) write that “eshnav” is a small window (whereas “chalon” presumably is any kind of window).

Rabbi Yishaya of Trani (1180-1250) writes that “eshnav” is akin to a peephole, in that it’s smaller on the end that opens to the outside and wider on the end that opens to the inside. (Rabbi Yishaya offers a Latin/Italian translation of “eshnav,” which Rabbi Shaul Goldman reads as “balustraria,” a narrow opening or slit from which arrows may be fired.)

The Malbim (to Proverbs 7:6) somewhat cryptically comments that through a chalon, one sees revealed things, while through an eshnav, one sees hidden things. What does that mean?

The Zohar (Toldos 140b) relates that some idolaters used astrology to see things hidden to the naked eye. To do so, they gazed through an enchanted window using some form of witchcraft. The Zohar explicitly states that Sisera’s mother engaged in this sort of witcherous divination when she looked out the window to see if her son was returning from battle.

Similarly, Abimelech using a window to divinate that Rebecca was Isaac’s wife and not his sister (see also Tzror HaMor to Genesis 26:8, Sefer Ikkarim 4:43, and the Abarbanel and Alshich to Judges 5:28). This kind of window, writes the Malbim (to Judges 5:28) is called an eshnav.

(This explanation is somewhat difficult because the Torah reports that Abimelech gazed through a chalon, not an eshnav. Rabbi Shmuel Landiado of Aleppo [d. 1610] in Klei Yakar [to Judges 5:28] actually says the reverse of what the Malbim says: He writes that Sisera’s mother used a chalon – a mirror on the wall – for divination purposes while the eshnav mentioned in the verse was a real window that opened to the street. He explains that Sisera’s mother first consulted her mirror and only then looked out the window to see what was happening outside.)

In his later work, Yair Ohr, the Malbim writes that an eshnav is a window/mirror/lens that makes faraway objects appear closer. As the Malbim notes, fashioning such an item requires somewhat advanced knowledge of optics.

Other commentators take an entirely different approach. Menachem Ibn Saruk (920-970) writes that “eshnav” denotes mesh/lattice openings on upper floors. Rabbi Moshe David Valle (1697-1777) similarly explains that “eshnav” denotes wooden latticework that pampered women would tie to their window to allow them to look outside without being seen.

The Latin term for this sort of apparatus is “gelosia” (which is actually related to the English word “jealous”). Rabbi Valle also posits that “eshnav” ought to be read as an acronym/abbreviation for ishah notenet b’chalonoteha (a woman places [this] at her windows).

The Italian scholar Rabbi Moshe Yitzchak Tedeschi Ashkenazi (1821-1898) writes in his work Hoil Moshe that the root of “eshnav” is shin-nun-bet which is related to shin-lammed-bet (step or layer). He maintains that “eshnav” specifically denotes a window equipped with metal shutters.

The Israeli archaeologist Dr. Shmuel Yeivin (1896-1982) independently came up with this explanation as well. In a 1959 article published in Leshonenu, Yeivin buttresses his opinion by noting that several archeological artifacts have been found across the Levant that depict the motif of a woman looking outwards from the top half of a window. In those ivory images (which were said to depict the Canaanite fertility goddess Ashtoreth), the bottom half of the window was typically closed shut with various forms of mesh or lattice bars. According to him, the Biblical eshnav was a window that was partially blocked with such blinds.

Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) suggests that “eshnav” is derived from the root nun-shin-bet (by way of metathesis), which refers to the wind blowing since opening a window allows wind to blow inside. Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein (1860-1941) agrees, adding that “eshnav” is a window used for cooling.

In modern Hebrew, “eshnav” has been repurposed to mean a service window like you would find in a post office or a bank.

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