Word of the Day Tzav: Yet Again Slow and Steady Prevails, Despite the Toad

How a biblical word for 'covered wagon' morphed into today's turtle.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

Hebrew doesn't distinguish between turtles and tortoises. Both are both called tzav (pl. tza-vim).

The word is ancient indeed. It appears in the Bible, as an non-kosher animal that the people of Israel must refrain from eating. “These also shall be unclean unto you among the creeping things that creep upon the earth; the weasel, and the mouse, and the tortoise after his kind.” (Leviticus 11:29)

While the translators of the King James Bible translated tzav as tortoise, this wasn’t the case with many other translators in the past. Aramaic translations of the Bible from Hebrew rendered tzav as khardona, this being a kind of lizard. Translators into Arabic did the same as the Aramaic ones, choosing dhab – another lizard.

The Greek translation, the Septuagint, went with krokodilus, and the Latin translation - the Vulgate - followed suit with crocodillus. Both mean large lizard.

The Talmud makes it clear that at the time it was written the word, tzav was still in use and meant “lizard.” This identification of the tzav with a lizard continued well into the Middle Ages, which begs the question: What brought on the change?

Circle your lizards?

To answer that, we must return to the Bible again. “And they brought their offering before the Lord, six covered wagons, and twelve oxen; a wagon for two of the princes, and for each one an ox: and they brought them before the tabernacle.” (Numbers 7:3)

The "covered wagons" in this passage appear in the Hebrew as eglot tzav. Clearly, what is meant is not "lizard wagons," so that it was generally understood that tzav in this case had a different meaning.

The Septuagint and Onkelos both rendered the phrase eglot tzav as "covered wagons” in Greek and Aramaic respectively. This was the interpretation that stuck, with eglot meaning "wagons"; therefore, tzav meant "covered."

And come the Middle Ages, it isn't surprising that scholars tried to find a connection between the two homonyms. And if one is a covered wagon well, the second must be a covered animal, and what is a covered animal if not a turtle.

It seems that the idea arose in Greece. The first reference we know of the tzav being identified as a turtle is the Midrash Lekakh Tov - an exegesis on the Pentateuch written by Rabbi Tuvia Ben Eliezer of Greece in the 11th century.

It seems that from there the idea spread slowly but determinedly, appearing in the writings of another Greek rabbi, Rabbi Meyuchas Ben Eliyahu in the 12th century, and then later in the 13th and 14th centuries in France and Yemen respectively.

Meanwhile, in southern France of the 11th century, Rashi came up with a different interpretation: the tzav wasn’t a lizard nor a turtle but rather a toad, he wrote. This was picked up by several other scholars including Rabbi David Kimchi (14th century France).

But by the 19th century, both the ancient interpretation of the tzav as a lizard and Rashi’s interpretation that it was a toad were forgotten. As in Aesop's fable, the slow and steady turtle won the race. In fact, in Judah Leib Gordon’s version of the Turtle and the Hare (1859), he uses the word tzav. And so today, we all use tzav to mean turtle and have other words for toad and lizard, but those are words for another day.

This is a turtle, which is one of the many species that modern Hebrew-speakers call "tzav."Credit: Moshe Gilad
A crocodile at the Israeli croc farm Hamat Gader. This is no longer what "tzav" is taken to mean.Credit: Nir Kaminsky

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