Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Root of the Word מבול: A Flood of Possibilities

                      The Root of the Word מבול: A Flood of Possibilities

By Mitchell First[1]  (
            A common assumption is that the word מבול means “flood.” This is how the word is translated in ArtScroll’s Stone Chumash, in the Hertz Pentateuch, and in the Koren Tanakh. But in order to truly understand the meaning of a word, we must determine its three letter root.

           The word מבול has four letters, the first of which is a mem. Usually, a mem at the beginning of a noun is not a part of the root. It is what is added to turn a verb into a   noun. Thus, an initial thought might be that the root of מבול is בול.[2]  

           But there is no evidence for a verb בול in Biblical Hebrew. Therefore, the vav is probably not a root letter here and one of the three original root letters probably dropped out. The dagesh in the bet of מבול also implies that a root letter dropped out. Our task is to determine what that letter was.

           One possibility is that the original root was בלל and that the dropped letter was a  lamed.[3] In this view, the original noun was perhaps מבלול. If the original root was בלל, the fundamental meaning of the word מבול would be “mixture/intermingling/confusion.”

          The fact that the story of migdal Bavel follows shortly after the story of the מבול gives some credence to this approach. The root בלל is a main theme of the migdal Bavel  story (see Genesis 11:7 and 11:9). But the dagesh in the bet of מבול implies that the dropped letter was the first letter of the root.[4]

           Therefore, a more likely possibility for the root of מבול is נבל.[5] The verb נבל has the meaning of “fall, decay, destroy.”[6] The root letter nun often drops as the first letter of the root. In this approach, the original noun was מנבול.

            The problem with claiming that the root נבל underlies the word מבול is that נבל is typically used in the context of a gradual destruction, such as in the context of leaves and flowers.[7] See, e.g., Is. 28:1: ve-tziz novel, Is. 34:4: ki-nevol aleh mi-gefen, and Is. 40:7: naval tzitz. It seems to mean “wither” and “decay,” rather than “destroy.” There is one instance in the Tanakh where the root נבל is applied to the world. See Is. 24:4: navlah ha-aretz…navlah tevel. But even here the implication may be one of gradual decay.[8]

             Radak agrees that the root of מבול is נבל, but takes a different approach.[9] In his approach, the fundamental meaning of the root נבל is “fall.”[10] But the word is not being used to describe the effects of the flood (earthly items falling and being destroyed). The word is being used to describe something that is itself falling from the heavens. In Radak’s view, anything that falls from the heavens (e.g., snow, hail and fire) can be called a מבול.[11]  

             A third approach to the root of מבול is that it is יבל.[12] This seems to be the most likely approach. In this approach, the original noun was מיבול, but the yod dropped.[13]

            Throughout Tanakh, יבל is a root relating to movement and flow.[14] See, e.g., Ps. 60:11: mi yovileini ir matzor (who will lead me into the fortified city?), Is. 53:7: ka-se la-tevach yuval (as a lamb is led to the slaughter), and Is. 55:12: u-ve-shalom tuvalun (and you will be led out with peace).

             Another example of the root יבל relating to movement is in the context of the jubilee year. At Lev. 25:10, we are told: yovel he tiheyeh lachem ve-shavtem ish el achuzatoיובל means “ram” in several places in Tanakh.[15] Based on the statement in Lev. 25:9 that the shofar is blown to proclaim the jubilee year, Rashi believes that yovel must mean ram at Lev. 25:10, and that the reference is to the blowing of the horn of the ram. But the plain sense accords with the view of the Ramban that the meaning of yovel at Lev. 25:10 is “being brought back,” i.e., a time of being brought back to one’s land.[16]

           Also, the root יבל is connected to water in several verses. See Is. 30:25 and 44:4:
מים יבלי (streams of water) and Jer. 17:8: יובל. See also Dan 8:2 (אובל).
           Hayyim Tawil’s An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew contributes to our understanding and supports our suggestion that the root of מבול in Biblical Hebrew is יבל. Tawil points out that there is a word in Akkadian bubbulu, which means something like a flood of water.[17] Most probably, this word is related to the Hebrew word mabbul, since Hebrew and Akkadian are related languages, and m and b often interchange. Since bubbulu is used in the context of water, this suggests that the root of מבול is יבל, and not נבל or בלל.                                                      
           The issue of the root of the word מבול is not just an etymological one. Philosophically, what we are asking is: was the מבול a force meant to cause intermingling/ confusion? a force meant to cause things to fall/decay/be destroyed?[18] or more neutrally, a force of flowing water? Most likely, the root is יבל and the last is correct.[19]
          Interestingly, Rashi conducts practically the same analysis of the word מבול that we did. In his explanation of the word at Gen. 6:17, he writes:     
            she-bilah et ha-kol, she-bilbel et ha-kol, she-hovil et ha-kol min
            ha-gavoha la-namukh…

בלה means “destroy and wear down,” similar to נבל.  בלבל means “mix,” the equivalent of בלל. הוביל means “move” and is from the root יבל.[20] But Rashi seems to believe that the word מבול was purposely chosen to convey all three connotations.

                                                    Additional Notes
        1. Outside of the 12 times the word מבול appears (in various forms) in parshat Noach, the only other time the word appears in Tanakh is at Psalms 29:10: Hashem la-mabbul yashav. Many assume that the meaning here is something like “God sat enthroned at the Flood,”[21] but the prefix la- is difficult in this approach.

           An interesting interpretation is provided by Tawil. He cites a scholar who claims, based on a parallel in Akkadian, that למבול here means “before the Flood,” i.e., “from time immemorial.” The phrase Hashem la-mabbul yashav would then parallel the subsequent phrase va-yeshev Hashem melekh le-olam.[22]

          Many other interpretations of la-mabbul yashav have been suggested.[23] Most creative is the suggestion of Naphtali Herz Tur-Sinai that the reference is to God having dried up the waters of the mabbul and that ישב here is just a methathesized form of יבש![24]

        2. An analysis similar to the one we have conducted on the word מבול can also be conducted on בול, the pre-exilic name for the month of Marchesvan.[25] Is בול named for some activity in the month relating to mixing (בלל)? relating to withering (נבל)? or relating to moving/gathering produce (יבל)? All have been suggested.[26] Because בול may have typically been a rainy month, a derivation from the word מבול has also been suggested. See, e.g., Radak to I Kings 6:38.

              Interestingly, a statement at Midrash Tanchuma, Noach, sec. 11, explains the word מבול as based on the fact that the Flood spanned 40 (מ) days in the month of בול![27]

        3. I focused above on determining the root of  מבולin Biblical Hebrew. If we rephrase the question and ask what the root of the word was in proto-Semitic, the answer changes slightly. The answer would be vav-bet-lamed. The prevailing scholarly view is that most Hebrew roots with an initial yod derive from earlier Semitic roots with an initial vav.[28]

[1] I would like to thank Rabbi Avrohom Lieberman and Sam Borodach for reviewing the draft.
[2] Also, no Hebrew root begins with the two letters mem and bet. See Eduard Yechezkel Kutscher, A History of the Hebrew Language (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1984 ), p. 7:
       It is also  instructive that [in a Semitic language] in the first two positions, not only are
       identical consonants excluded (the patterning AAB being non-existent except in Akkadian)
       but even  homorganic consonants (produced by the same organ) do not occur in this position.  
Mem and bet are homorganic consonants. (Kutscher admits that there are some exceptions to the rule he stated.)
[3] See, e.g., R. Abraham Ibn Ezra to Gen. 6:17, who makes this suggestion. He also suggests נבל as the root.
[4] Of course, all the dagesh really shows is that whoever inserted this dagesh believed that a letter was dropped. But most likely, the vocalization was based on the pronounciation at the time, which presumably reflected a tradition that the word was pronounced mabbul, and not mavul. This suggests that there was once a root letter preceding it.  
[5] See, e.g., Ibn Ezra, Seforno, and S.D. Luzzatto, on Gen. 6:17. Those who take this approach can point to the fact that the word  מבוע (Ecc. 12:6), also with a dagesh in the bet, undoubtedly comes from the root נבע.
[6] Seforno writes that נבל means mapalah ve-hefsed and Luzzatto writes that נבל means nefilah ve-hashchatah. Seforno points to the use of the word משחיתם (=destroy them) at Gen. 6:13 as evidence that mabul probably has this meaning as well.
   Very likely, the roots נבל and נפל are related.
[7] R. Samson Raphael Hirsch argues that this is precisely the point. By using the term מבול, the Torah was implying that on some level the event was only of a mild character. I do not find this argument convincing. Although Noah and his family remained in the Ark for one year and ten days (see Gen. 6:11 and 7:14), the implication of verse 7:23 (va-yimach et kol ha-yekum…) is that every living thing was destroyed decisively in the first 40 days.
[8] See, e.g., the translation in the Soncino edition. The Hebrew root בלה also connotes gradual decay. See, e.g., Deut. 8:4 (clothes), 29:4 (shoes), and Gen. 18:12 (Sarah). It may be related to the root נבל.
   In Akkadian, the root nabulu may have more of a connotation of destruction than the Hebrew root נבל.  See, e.g., the concordance of S. Mandelkern, entry מבול, and Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English (New York: MacMillan, 1987), p. 311. This would give more of a basis to interpret מבול as deriving from נבל.  
[9] In addition to his comm. to Gen. 6:17, see his Sefer ha-Shoreshim, entry נבל.
[10] In rabbinic Hebrew, a נובלת is an unripe fruit that falls off of the tree.
[11] Both San. 108b and Zev. 116a refer to a mabbul shel esh.  Radak also points to the phrase nivlei shamayim at Job 38:37, where the context indicates that the phrase refers to falling rain. But it seems more likely that  נבלי  there means “vessels,” i.e., the clouds that hold the rain.
    It has been suggested that מבול is related to the “vessel” meaning of נבל. In this view, the meaning of מבול is “a receptacle that holds water.” See, e.g., Hayim ben Yosef  Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew  (Jersey City: Ktav, 2009) p. 196, who mentions such a suggestion. Probably, the origin of the “vessel” meaning of נבל is that vessels were often made from the skin of a fallen animal (=a נבלה.)
    נבל also has the meaning “disgusting,” probably because withering and falling things become disgusting. But it seems farfetched to connect מבול with this meaning of נבל.
[12] See, e.g., Moses David Cassuto, Peirush al Sefer Bereshit (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1953), vol. 2, p. 45, Daat Mikra (comm. to Gen. 6:17), Menachem Tzvi Kadari, Millon ha-Ivrit ha-Mikrait (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan Univ., 2006), p. 575, and Tawil, p. 196.
   The Daat Mikra commentary to Genesis 6:17 (p. 177, n. 52) points out that all three sons of Lemekh have a name derived from the root יבל: Yaval, Yuval, and Tuval Kayin. See Gen. 4:20-22.
[13] Some other examples of words whose initial yods dropped are: מצע (Is. 28:10, from יצע) and מסד (I Kings 7:9, from יסד). See Daat Mikra to Gen. 6:17.  There is a dagesh in the middle letter of both of these words.
[14] The word also has the related meaning of “carry.” See, e.g., Psalms 76:12: yovilu shai (carry presents).
     In the Shema, the word יבולה is used to mean the produce of the land. Most likely, it has this meaning because produce must be carried in from the land. (See similarly, the word תבואה, which also means produce, and comes from the root בוא. See Klein, p. 689.) Alternatively, the word יבולה means produce because produce flows from the land.
[15] Yovel means ram at Ex. 19:13 and throughout the sixth chapter of the book of Joshua. (That yovel means ram at Ex. 19:13 is evident from Josh. 6:5. It is also suggested by Ex. 19:16.)
[16] Ramban defines yovel as הבאה. R. Hirsch also takes this approach to this verse. See also the commentaries of R. Saadiah Gaon, Ibn Ezra, and Hizzekuni.
    R. Hirsch also makes the suggestion that when yovel is used in the context of a sound being made, we can translate yovel as “home-calling signal,” based on the verb יבל. Despite the brilliance of this suggestion, a comparison of Ex. 19:13 with Josh. 6:5 suggests that, in the sound contexts, yovel is merely short for keren ha-yovel (=the horn of the ram).
    Is there a connection between the “movement/bringing” meaning of yovel and the “ram” meaning?  R. Hirsch makes the following interesting suggestion:
                [T]he  ram, is the leader of the flock, the one who “brings” them to
                 their pasturage, perhaps quite specially, who goes in front, and the
                 flock following him, “brings them home.”
See similarly Klein, entry יובל (p. 256): “leader of the flock, bellwether.”
[17] Tawil, p. 196. The standard word in Akkadian for flood is abūbu
[18] Or, according to Radak, a force of falling water.
[19] It is interesting to note that in the Septuagint the word מבול was translated as κατακλυσμός = down-cleansing. (The ArtScroll Tehillim commentary to Psalms 29:10, p. 354, refers to the mabul as a “cataclysmic” upheaval. Surely, this is just coincidence!) But the Greek-speaking Egyptian Jews had a very limited understanding of the structure of Hebrew words. Surely, they did not see the root יבל in the word.
[20] For further elaboration, see the Siftei Chakhamim and ArtScroll’s Sapirstein edition of Rashi. The three-pronged interpretation expressed in this Rashi seems to be his own.
[21] See, e.g., the ArtScroll Siddur. See also Rambam, Moreh Nevukhim, part I, chap. 11.
[22] See Tawil, p. 196.
[23] For example, the Daat Mikra commentary to Psalms 29:10 cites a suggestion that מבול here means “throne,” based on a resemblance to a word in Arabic. The suggestion is made by Jacob Nahum Epstein in “Mabbul,” Tarbitz 12 (1940), p. 82. But the Arabic word that Epstein bases his suggestion on is pronounced מנבר; Epstein must assume that there was a switch of resh and lamed. (The Daat Mikra comm. to Gen. 6:17 states that the relevant word is in Akkadian, but this is an error.)
    The Anchor Bible translates: “has sat enthroned from the flood” (=from the time of the flood) and argues that the reference is not to the מבול of the time of Noach, but to some other water-related Divine victory.   
[24] See his Peshuto shel Mikra, vol. 4, part 1 (Jerusalem: Kiryat Sefer, 1967), p. 56.     
[25] See I Kings 6:38.
[26] See, e.g., J. Talmud Rosh ha-Shanah 1:2, Daat Mikra to I Kings 6:38, and Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden-New York-Köln: Brill, 1994), vol. 1, entry בול. (The connection to בלל seems least likely.)
     Of course, because the word בול lacks a mem at the outset, there is less reason to suspect that an initial root letter such as nun or yod was dropped. But the בול of Job 40:20 surely comes from יבול.
[27] See Gen. 7:11-12.
[28] Support for this in our case is that there is a word in Arabic, wabala, to bring down rain. See Cassuto, vol. 2, p. 45. See also Tawil’s reference (p. 196) to the Akkadian word (w)abālu.
   Of course, it is possible that מבול is a non-Semitic word that happened to make its way into the Tanakh and we are completely misguided in our search for its origin and meaning in Biblical Hebrew and the other Semitic languages. But it is a noun that begins with mem and this is a typical Biblical Hebrew form. Moreover, the parallels in the other Semitic languages support our conclusion that the origin of the word   is a Semitic one and that its root is vav-bet-lamed/yod-bet-lamed.

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