On Root / We Meet Again, or Are We Protesting? Variations on the Root 'Ayin-tz-r

A rally in Hebrew cannot lead to anything but social awakening. This is where, etymologically, revelation and revolution meet.

Things are heating up in Israel, both meteorologically and politically. Summer is in the air and the social-justice protests of last year are showing buds of revival. Timed to coincide with similar demonstrations around the world, there was a large rally in Rabin Square on May 13, with thousands in vociferous attendance. But instead of calling it a protest, many called it an 'atzeret, "assembly", from the root 'ayin-tz-r. That root also means stop, prevent or delay.

What's the connection?

As every week, this column will explore Hebrew terms, inspired by current events. We focus on roots and the frequently surprising forms and meanings they can take. Today we shall see transformations of 'ayin-tz-r.

This root is formed of three consonants that may look a little funny in English transliteration. The first is 'ayin, ע, once a guttural sound, now in standard Israeli pronunciation a sort of glottal stop, represented here by an apostrophe. The second consonant is; tzadi, צ, represented here by the two-letter combination "tz". The third is and resh, ר, which is r.

In Hebrew, vowel sounds and consonantal prefixes and suffixes change with the form of the word. These changes follow regular rules that have an inner logic and beauty all their own, as we elaborate below with the very words for "consonant" and "vowel".

The very word consonant, 'itzur, עיצור, is from this same three-letter root, because lips, tongue and teeth stop or detain airflow to make the sounds.

Now, in Hebrew, vowels are not represented by letters but by dots and lines above and below the consonantal letters. The word for vowel is tnu'ah, תנועה, "movement," where the air flows freely. The root there is n-'ayin-h.

If you can move your vowels, you won't get 'stopped up' in a different form of the root 'ayin-tz-r, i.e., 'atzirut, עצירות, which means constipation.' Sorry – was that too much? Just say: 'atzor! עצור!, "oh, stop!".

Tnu'ah also means movement in the social or political sense, which is what the 'atzeret was trying to lehatni'a, להתניע, start up or get going, which is a causative form from that same root for movement: n-'ayin-h.

'Atzeret also refers to the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, also known as the Festival of First Fruits and the Giving of the Torah.

Why is Shavuot called 'Atzeret? Well, like the holiday Shemini 'Atzeret – the eighth day of "assembly" after seven days of Sukkot in the Fall – Shavuot, "the feast of weeks", follows seven weeks after Passover. It makes the assembly at Sinai for the Giving of the Law the completion of the process begun with the Exodus and the liberation from slavery.

Also called Pentecost, meaning fiftieth (not to be confused with the Christian holiday of the same name, 50 days after Easter), it occurs after 7 x 7 + 1 days of counting from Passover.

Fifty in Hebrew is chamishim, ,חמישיםfrom chamesh, חמש, five, which also gives us the Chumash, the Pentateuch, the five books of the aforementioned Torah. This brings us back to meteorology, for this period of time often suffers from the hot, dry wind called the chamsin (Arabic for 50) that reputedly blows for 50 days a year. These winds present a threat to the vulnerable grain crops waiting to be gathered in by Shavuot, which may be one of the sources of the trepidation and anxiety that characterizes this 50-day period of the 'omer, the harvested sheaves, expressed by religious Jews in rituals of semi-mourning.

So from the rites of spring to the onset of summer, both temperatures and memories of last year's social protests are rising. While it was indeed hot in both senses last summer, the many 'atzarot (pl.) in Israel were peaceful, and few protesters found themselves 'atzurim, עצורים, or in ma'atzar, מעצר –under arrest, or in detention (both again from 'ayin-tz-r, "stop"). And there was certainly no talk of 'otzer, עוצר, curfew, as in some other countries.

But what do they want: are they opposing or proposing? Condoning or condemning? Sanctioning, or, well, sanctioning? (The English word 'sanction,' meaning both 'penalize' and 'permit', is a "contranym," a word having contradictory meanings, such as 'cleave' – 'stick to,' and 'split,' or an alarm that 'goes off' – did it stop or start?)

In Hebrew, the words for protest and applaud share a root, m-ch-h מ-ח-ה/א(whether spelled with an 'alef or a heh at the end), meaning strike, or push against, and is thus a sort of contranym. Mocheh beyado מוחה בידוis to protest or prevent someone, literally "restrain their arms," while moche' kaf, or kapayim (pl.), מוחא כף, כפיים, is to clap one's hands together in approval: to applaud.

For many the mecha'ah has indeed been a real mechayeh מחייה - which Yiddish speakers will recognize as refreshing, life-giving, from chai, chayim, "life."

And who knows? Perhaps as we move from the stay awake all-night tikkun study on Shavuot, to the tikkun 'olam (world-repairing) of the renewed social awakening of the summer, we may also discover that revelation and revolution are not so far apart.


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