Photo Credit: Jodie Maoz

One of the stops that the Jews made in their forty-year sojourn through the wilderness was at a place called Etzion Gever. (Num. 33:35–36, Deut. 2:8). This city is later mentioned when King Solomon stationed his navy there (I Kgs. 9:26, II Chon. 8:17), and when King Jehoshaphat’s ships broke down there (I Kgs. 22:49, II Chron. 20:26).

Targum Yonatan (to Num. 33:35) translates the name Etzion Gever as “The City of the Rooster.” Similarly, the Mishnah (Yoma 1:8, Sukkah 5:4, Tamid 1:2) uses the term “the call of the gever” three times to refer to daybreak. (See Yoma 20b).

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In addition, three more Hebrew terms refer to chickens: gever, sechvi, ziz sadai, and tarnegol.

While the word gever can mean “rooster,” it more often means “man/male” and seems to be a cognate of the word gevurah (“power” or “strength”).

The Talmud (Brachot 7a) teaches that every morning there is a moment when G-d is especially angry and one who can identify that moment can harness G-d’s wrath to curse other people. Rabbeinu Efrayim writes that Balaam called himself a gever because he was able to figure out the exact moment when G-d would be angry enough that a curse would be effective. Interestingly, a 2021 paper by Dr. Jessica L. Lamont of Yale University demonstrates that chickens were particularly associated with curse rituals in Ancient Greece.

Siddur HaRokeach adds that just as the rooster closes one eye when G-d is angry, so was Balaam blind in one eye, and just as the rooster stands on one foot when G-d is angry, so was Balaam lame in one foot. Rabbeinu Bachaya (to Num. 24:3) adds that just as the rooster crows seven times (see Perek Shirah, ch. 4, which attributes seven songs to the rooster), so did Balaam receive seven prophetic oracles.

Peirush HaRokeach explains that Etzion Gever was so called because in that city lived people who were especially good at giving advice and had intuitions that resemble the rooster’s ability to intuit the time of day. Rabbi Menachem Tziyoni (1340–1410) similarly writes in the name of the Kabbalists that some of Etzion Gever’s inhabitants were fluent in a form of esoteric wisdom called “The Knowledge of the Chicken.”

Another word for rooster, sechvi, appears only once in the Bible: “Who places wisdom in the kidneys and who gives understanding to the sechvi?” (Job 38:36).

But what is a sechvi? The rabbis report that in some foreign places the word referred to a rooster. The Babylonian Talmud (Rosh HaShanah 26a) identifies that place as Kennesrin (in North Syria); the Jerusalemic Talmud (Brachot 9:1) identifies it as Rome; and the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah §25:5), as Arabia. Either way, the rabbinic assumption is that sechvi means rooster, and the Talmud (Brachot 60b) rules that when one hears the rooster’s crow in the morning, one should recite the blessing, “Blessed are You… who gave the sechvi understanding to discern between day and night.”

Nonetheless, most commentators understand that the word sechvi means “heart” – or at least heart as well as rooster. Siddur HaRokeach explains that sechvi refers to a neshama (“soul”).

Rashi explains that sechvi is related to socheh (“seeing”/“gazing,” see Targum to I Sam. 17:42 and Isa. 21:8), referring to the “heart” as the machine that tries to “see” the future results and repercussions of a given action, or to the “rooster” who has a special ability to “see” (things that are far away – Abudraham). Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785–1865) clarifies that the “seeing” in question refers to an intellectual seeing. He connects sechvi to the words hasket (which means to “listen” in an intellectual way, as opposed to the simply hearing) and maskit (attention-grabbing pictures engraved on a stone).

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740–1814) understands sechvi to mean “skull.” He traces the word to the two-letter root samech-chet (“covering” or “barrier”). This root gives us such words as sukkah (“hut”), a covered enclosure; nesech (“pouring,” “libations”), covering a given spot with liquid, and sichah (“smearing,” “anointing”), layering something with oil. In that sense, sechvi refers to the “skull” which covers over the brain and serves as a protective barrier to shield that important organ.

This meaning is also related to various forms of idol worship in that the Assyrian conquerors of the Kingdom of Israel brought Mesopotamian foreigners to the area, and these people imported their native deities and idols to the Holy Land. The Babylonians brought their god Succoth Benoth, while the people of Cutha made images of their god Nergal (II Kgs. 17:30). The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 63b) relates that Succoth Benoth was an idol in the shape of a hen, while Nergal was a rooster-shaped idol. Based on this, Rabbi Chaim Futernik surmises that the term sechvi as “rooster” actually relates to the name of the Babylonian god Succoth Benoth.

Another possible biblical Hebrew term for “chicken/rooster” is ziz sadai, which appears twice in Psalms (Ps. 50:11, 80:14), where it clearly refers to some sort of bird. The Targum (there) always translates this term as tarnegol bara (“wild chicken”). Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Felix (1921–2004) points out that tarnegol bara also refers to the duchifat bird (Lev. 11:19), commonly identified as the hoopoe bird (see Gittin 68b).

Our fourth rooster-related word, tarnegol, appears only in post-biblical sources. The esteemed etymologist Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein (1899–1983) reveals that it is borrowed from the Akkadian tar-lugallu (“cock”), assuming the interchangeability of nun and lammed. This Akkadian term is itself a portmanteau of the Sumerian words tar (“bird”, similar to the Hebrew tor, “pigeon”) and lugal (“king”), perhaps an allusion to the rooster’s crest which resembles a king’s crown.

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