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The Piercer and the Pierced?

Robert Milch of Stony Brook, N.Y., inquires:

“In an article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine on June 19, a Christian minister is quoted as saying: ‘The Hebrew words for male and female are actually the words for the male and female genital parts. The male is the piercer; the female is the pierced.’ His observation would seem to hold true for the Hebrew word for female or feminine, nekevah, but is there anything to it in regard to the word for male or masculine, zakhar?”

Both zakhar and nekevah are words used in the biblical account of Creation, in which we read, “So God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created him.” Yet even in regard to nekevah, a biblical and still common word that comes from the verb nakav, to pierce or to hollow, our minister is only partially correct. In the first place, nekevah is not Hebrew for the “female genital part”; it denotes a human or animal female in her totality and not her sexual organ, for which there are other words. And second, it does not mean “pierced,” which would be, in its grammatically feminine form, nekuvah. The form nekevah has a more generalized lexical function so that in all likelihood, the word originally meant something like “a creature with hollows.” (Compare ba’ar, to burn, and be’erah, a fire; ganav, to steal, and genevah, a theft; shadaf, to wither, and shedefah, a crop that has withered, etc.)

Still, there is no doubt that nekevah does have to do with the female sexual orifice. Observant Jews who recite Shaharit, the daily morning service, are familiar with its opening prayer, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who created man wisely and made in him many orifices [u’vara vo nekavim-nekavim]….” This prayer refers, of course, to all the orifices of the human body and not just to the female ones.

The biblical word for masculine is even more problematic. If one wishes to derive it from a verb (many, though by no means all Hebrew nouns have verbal antecedents), the most obvious candidate would be zakhar, to remember — and indeed, it has been suggested that masculinity and memory in Hebrew are connected because it is the male progenitor whose name is perpetuated in his lineage. Yet it also has been suggested that zakhar, a masculine noun, is related to dakar — to stab or to pierce — and this is clearly what our minister has in mind.

How plausible a hypothesis is this? It is true that in western Semitic languages, the sounds “z,” “d,” “th” and “t” have a history of changing into each other, as do “k” and “kh.” Thus, for example, the Hebrew verb zavah., to slaughter an animal for a sacrifice, also turns up as the Hebrew tavah., Aramaic d’vah., and Arabic thabah.a — all meaning to slaughter — while the Hebrew zakhar, to remember, is the Arabic zakara. And in Aramaic, the Hebrew word for masculine is d’khar.

It is not impossible, therefore, that the noun zakhar is indeed related to the verb dakar, to pierce. Yet the possibility is lessened by the fact that the “k” in dakar is not a kaf — a “k” sound made, like our English one, against the hard palate, which turns into a fricative khaf at the end of syllables. Rather, it is a kuf, a sound that was in biblical times articulated against the soft palate at the back of the throat, although it later became frontalized into a kaf. Even though there are cases of the biblical kuf becoming frontalized, too, these are rare. Our minister probably has embraced an incorrect linguistic theory.

At any rate, no connection between zakhar and dakar ever seems to have been made in Jewish biblical commentaries. The rabbis were struck more by the conformity of the Hebrew words for man and woman, ish and ishah, which also appear in the account of Creation, than they were by any antimony between zakhar and nekevah. In a commentary on ish and ishah in the ancient midrashic anthology of Bereshit Rabba, they imaginatively depict the original Adam as androgynous, a man and a woman in a single body that was later divided by the creation of Eve. Another passage in the same place argues that the fact that the word for woman in Hebrew is the same as the word for man, with the addition of a feminine suffix, proves that Hebrew was the original language in which God created the world. “Have you ever heard,” this midrash asks, “of anyone saying gyné [the Greek word for woman] in the masculine or anthropos [Greek for man] in the feminine?”

The point Bereshit Rabba is making is that because God created woman and man from the same body, both sexes are essentially similar, and only in Hebrew is this fact linguistically recognized. Although the ancient rabbis were hardly feminists in their outlook, this is a very different position from our Christian minister’s claim that the words zachar and nekevah illustrate a view of the female as a creature radically different from the male. The language of Creation does not bear this out.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to




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