Believe it or not, there is a whole bevy of words in the Hebrew language that all mean “corner.” There are so many, in fact, that I decided to split this article into two parts. In Part 1, we will discuss the words peah, keren, and zavit. In Part 2, we will tackle the words pinah, miktzoa, katzeh, atik, and demeshek.
Let’s get straight to it!
The word peah (plural: pe’ot or peyot) is the most common word in the Bible for corner, appearing approximately 85 times. In most of these instances, where peah refers to a cardinal direction – like which sides of the Tabernacle should have a curtain (Exodus 27:9) or that a city must have clearance on all four sides (Numbers 35:5) – the word peah appears alongside a specific direction (e.g. north, south, east, or west). In contrast, when the Bible says “Do not round-cut the peah of your head, and do not destroy the peah of your beard” (Leviticus 19:27) or “Do not finish the peah of your field in your harvesting” (19:9, 23:22), the word peah literally means “corner.”
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) offers two theories as to the etymology of the word peah. In Yeriot Shlomo, he explains that peah comes from the biliteral root pey-hey, the primary meaning of which is “mouth.” This relates to a “corner” by way of analogy, for just as the mouth is the place for food to enter the body and for words to exit the body, so too a corner is the place within a larger area through which one enters or exits that space. In his work Cheshek Shlomo, Rabbi Pappenheim traces the word peah to the biliteral pey-aleph, who primary meaning he sees as “wide corner.”
Rabbi Pappenheim explains that Moabite noblemen are called pa’at (Numbers 24:17, Jeremiah 48:45) because their eminence separates them from the rest of the nation and places them at the proverbial corner of society. He also notes that they are called so because they serve as the figurative cornerstones upon which the rest of Moabite society stands.
Similarly, Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) explains that peah does not necessarily denote something physically located in the corner but can refer to something that is isolated and cut off from the rest – metaphorically “in the corner.” Based on this, he clarifies that even though the Torah calls for leaving the peah of one’s field unharvested so that the poor may glean from there (Leviticus 19:9, 23:22), peah need not be physically located in the corner of one’s field but can even be in the middle (see Mishna Peah 3:1).
The word keren in the Bible not only refers to an animal’s horn but also to horn-like protrusions at the four corners of an altar (Exodus 38:2, Leviticus 8:15, Ezekiel 43:20). In the Mishna, the word keren expands to refer to any corner, but also maintains the Biblical meaning of an altar’s corner (see Kilayim 6:7, Yoma 5:5, Zevachim 5:3, 6:2, 6:5, 11:3, Tamid 2:5, 4:1, 7:3, Middot 3:2-3, 4:3, 4:5, Keilim 17:9-10).
Rabbi Pappenheim traces the word keren to the two-letter root kuf-reish, “strong impact.” Words derived from that root denote the forceful collision that results from great weight or velocity, including korah (“wooden beam”) and tikrah (“ceiling”) – the horizontal beams’ weight weighs down on a building’s support and creates a point of “impact.” Similarly, kir (“wall”) refers to wooden beams that are positioned vertically, which bear the weight of a structure. In the same vein, the word keren as corner also relates to the concept of an impact because it refers to the meeting place of two sides.
The way Malbim explains it, the primary meaning of the word keren is “horn” in the sense of the protrusion that bulges out from the head of an animal. In a borrowed sense, however, it refers to anything that projects outwards from a specific source. For example, a ray of light is called a keren because it projects outward from the sun. Rabbi Mecklenburg in HaKtav VeHaKabbalah (to Exodus 27:2, Leviticus 4:7) makes a similar point; and Radak even draws a connection between the Hebrew keren and the Latin cornu (from which the English word corner is derived via French).
The word zavit appears twice in the Bible. In one case, the Psalmist lauds the beauty of Jewish daughters as akin to the hewn “corners” (zavit) of a palace (Psalms 144:12). In the other, the prophet Zechariah foretells that the Jewish People will successfully defeat their enemies and will drink “like the corners (zavit) of the altar” (Zechariah 9:15).
The exact meaning of this imagery is subject to dispute. It could mean, as Rashi posits, that as a result of the Jews’ victories they will be blessed with all sorts of goodies among the spoils of war – they will be overflowing with abundance just like the corner of the altar overflows with wine. Alternatively, the prophet could mean that in defeating their enemies the Jews will figuratively “drink” their blood, which will be spilled in abundance on par with the abundant wine overflowing from the corners of the altar (see Radak and Mahari Kara there).
Rabbi Pappenheim relates the word zavit to the word ziv (“splendor,” “radiance”), and he offers two different ways of explaining the connection between the passages. His first approach, as explained by Rabbi Yehoshua Steinberg of the Veromemanu Foundation, seems to say that zavit in the sense of “corner” invokes the idea that when you are walking and then you turn a corner, you have essentially changed directions. This relates to ziv because shininess also causes one to change direction when it draws one’s attention to a specific object. In a separate discussion, Rabbi Pappenheim seems to give a slightly different explanation: When light bounces off of a shiny object and comes towards one’s eye, it travels in an angular direction, thus producing a “corner,” another way of seeing the connection between zavit and ziv. Rabbi Pappenheim also claims that the month of Iyyar was originally called Ziv (I Kings. 6:1) because in that month the sun turns a corner (perhaps by introducing the new season of spring?).
The Talmud often uses the expression “keren zavit” to denote a “corner.” For example, the Talmud (Brachot 53b) states that one may not recite the blessing over benefiting from a fire on Motzei Shabbat unless one can see the actual fire and can use its light at the same time. In explaining this ruling, the Talmud clarifies that it is possible for one to be able to use the light of a torch without seeing the actual fire, if he and the torch are on opposite sides of a keren zavit. Similarly, the term appears when the Talmud (Kiddushin 66a) relates that at some junctures in history, the Torah was so neglected that it was relegated to a mere keren zavit and anyone who wanted to take it, may do so.
Dr. Avi Hurvitz, a veteran linguist and expert philologist, notes that the term keren zavit found in rabbinic literature is actually a semantic redundancy: the word keren already means “corner” and the word zavit already means “corner,” so each word on its own already conveys the same idea as the compound term.
However, Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg (1910-2012) once related that over a century ago, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzenski (1863-1940) already noted the redundancy in the phrase keren zavit and explained that it refers to a “corner of a corner.” He said that in the second example given above, the Talmud was describing a time in history when the Torah was so marginalized that it was not even given an entire corner to occupy – it was consigned to just a small corner within a corner. According to this, the phrase that uses two words for “corner” is not a redundancy but is used for emphasis. (Nevertheless, this explanation was said in a polemic context at a political rally so it should probably not be taken as an actual linguistic analysis.)
(To be Continued)