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In describing how one might inadvertently kill somebody, the Torah says: “and if, with suddenness (peta), without enmity, [the murderer] pushed [his victim] or he threw an instrument upon him…” (Numbers 35:22).

Peta” appears only seven times in the entire Bible, often accompanied by its apparent synonym “pitom,” which also means suddenly and appears 25 times in the Bible.


The Talmud (Kritut 9a) states that “peta” connotes shogeg (by mistake), while “pitom” could connote oness (by accident), meizid (on purpose), or shogeg. The Midrash (Sifrei to Numbers 6:9) disagrees. According to Rabbi Yoshiya, “peta” connotes shogeg and “pitom” connotes oness, while Rabbi Yonatan maintains that “peta” connotes oness and “pitom” connotes shogeg.

Rashi (to Numbers 35:22, Proverbs 6:15, and Makkos 7b) writes that “peta” is an expression of closeness and immediacy. Thus, it denotes something sudden, happening so close to the moment before that one couldn’t have possibly been careful about preventing it. (The word “haftaah” [surprise] in modern Hebrew is derived from “peta.”)

Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenuro (Amar Nakeh to Numbers 6:9) writes that “peta” connotes oness because the letter peh is often interchangeable with the phonetically similar bet, so that we can view the root of “peta” as bet-tav-ayin, which is a permutation of bet-ayin-tav (startled or frightened – see Esther 7:6 and Jeremiah 8:15). (The Arabic word “baghta” is cognate of this root and means unexpected event.)

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) explains that bet-ayin-tav is actually derived from the two-letter root bet-ayin, which refers to something that reveals itself from beneath the surface. Thus, he explains that “bua”/“avabua” (Exodus 9:9-10, Isaiah 64:1) means boils, which bubble up on the surface of one’s skin. This root later came to mean fear, which is often accompanied by goose bumps on the surface of one’s skin.

Rabbeinu Efrayim ben Shimshon of Regensburg (to Numbers 12:4) parses the word “pitom” as a portmanteau of the words “peh” (mouth) and “toem” (fitting or matching). Something that happens pitom happens so quickly and suddenly that it resembles the speed at which words exit one’s mouth.

Rabbi David Golomb (1861-1935) writes similarly that the tav-aleph-mem element in “pitom” denotes fitting or matching. A person may have been experiencing a calm serene moment (in which everything was in sync and fit together) when suddenly something happened to disrupt the idyllic situation.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Genesis 9:27 and Numbers 6:9) writes that “pitui” (convincing or seducing) essentially recalls a state in which a person is easily swayed by external impressions and influences. “Pitui” is related to “petach” (open) because for one to be convinced by another, one must be open – and thus susceptible – to the influence of external stimuli. Thus a peti, a simple-minded fool who can be easily deceived or talked into doing things.

In this spirit, Rabbi Hirsch explains that “peta” refers to a surprise that a person could have foreseen if he had simply thought about the likely outcomes of a given situation or course of action. Hence the connection between “peta” and shogeg. If the inadvertent sinner had been a bit more mindful, he could have avoided sinning.

In contrast, “pitom” connotes a surprise occurrence that no amount of analytics or forecasting could have predicted. The surprise element and lack of foreknowledge renders one akin to a peti, who couldn’t have anticipated or prepared for this sudden event. In clarifying the difference between “peta” and “pitom,” Rabbi Hirsch writes that “peta” denotes a subjective surprise while “pitom” denotes an objective surprise. (Interestingly, Rabbi Pappenheim says precisely the opposite.)

The Ibn Ezra (to Numbers 35:22) seems to say that “peta” and “pitom” means the exact same thing. Rabbi Avraham Menachem Rappaport (Minchah Belulah to Num. 12:4) seemingly agrees, as he suggests that “peta” and “pitom” are etymologically-related because the letters ayin and aleph can be interchangeable.


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