• yehoshua steinberg

Va'etchanan: Beware of Different Kinds of Guarding – Yehoshua Steinberg

Updated: Jul 29



We encounter an unexpected phenomenon in this week's portion: two derivatives of the same root, שמר (guarding), in a single verse, translated with entirely different Aramaic Targumim. Moreover, this phenomenon is repeated consistently in every single occurrence of these two words in the Torah. This article examines the difference between these Aramaic words and the surprising and enlightening lesson to be gleaned from this subtle anomaly.


רַק הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ וּשְׁמֹר נַפְשְׁךָ מְאֹד פֶּן תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר רָאוּ עֵינֶיךָ (דברים ד:ט).

Just beware [הִשָּׁמֶר] for yourself and greatly beware [וּשְׁמֹר] for your soul, lest you forget the things that your eyes have beheld (Deut. 4:9).

This verse contains two words - הִשָּׁמֶרandשְׁמֹר - which are both derived from the root שמר, yet their Aramaic translations are entirely different, with Onkelus rendering themאסתמר and טר, respectively.[1] This is no mere coincidence. Throughout Scripture, whenever the rootשמר appears in theנִפְעַל (simple passive) [2]form, the Onkelus and/or Yonatan render it with the Aramaic root סמר. But when it occurs in קַל(simple active) form, the Targumim employ the cognates of the root נטר in their translations.

For example, when Abraham told his servant Eliezer: Beware[הִשָּׁמֶר] not to return my son there (Gen. 24:6), or when Moses was told to warn the people at Mount Sinai: Beware [הִשָּׁמְרוּ] of ascending the mountain (Ex. 19:12), the verbs used are in נפעל form because they denote passively preventing a given occurrence, rather than actively undertaking to cause something to happen. In these cases, Onkelus renders the words in question as אסתמר and אסתמרו, respectively[3].

By contrast, when the rootשמר appears in the simple active tense (קל, [4]for example, when saying that a person must actively fulfill a commandment), then the Aramaic terms used by the Targumim are derivatives of the root נטר, [5]namely,ויטרון and טר, as in the following examples: Because he commands his children that they shall observe [וְשָׁמְרוּ] the way of God, doing charity and justice (Gen. 18:19),[6] and: Safeguard [שָׁמוֹר] the Sabbath day to sanctify it (Deut. 5:12). [7]

R’ Eliyahu Bachur in Meturgaman (entry נטר) already noted this inconsistency in the Aramaic translations of the Scriptural root שמר. He refers the reader to the entry סמר, which is the Aramaic root for the Targum’s rendering of the passive instances of the Hebrew שמר (as noted above).[8] Nonetheless, the rootסמר also appears in Scriptural Hebrew - both as a noun:מַסְמֵר (nail), and as a verb (where סמר means to bristle).

Examples of the noun include: and he would strengthen it with nails[בְמַסְמְרִים] so that it should not loosen (Isa. 41:7);[9] With nails[בְּמַסְמְרוֹת] and with hammers he fastens them (Jer. 10:4).[10] Instances of the verb form of סמר include: bring up the horse, as the bristling [סָמָר] locust (Jer. 51:27 with Rashi);[11] A spirit brushed my face, causing the hair on my face to stand on end [תְּסַמֵּר] (Job 4:15).[12]

[In his commentary to Ps. 119:120, Metz. Zion explains that the verb form of סמר is derived from the noun form, since a hair standing on end resembles an erect nail.[13] Similarly, the Mishnah (Niddah 9:8) states that just before the onset of menstruation, a woman may be seized by צְמַרְמוֹרֶת (usually translated as shudder / chills). Bartenura (hinting to the phonetic connection between the Rabbinic term צמרמורתand the Biblical סמר[14]), explains that this term is derived from the verse: My flesh shuddered [סָמַר] from dread of You (Psalms 119:120). See also Rambam’s Laws of Forbidden Relations 8:2[15]].

Now, at first glance, there does not appear to be any connection between סמר (the root of מַסְמֵר / nail) and שמר (the root of שְׁמִירָה, protecting / observing / safeguarding). However, we find in Ecclesiastes (12:11): The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails [וּכְמַשְׂמְרוֹת] well-driven are the masters of collections of sayings.[16] Although the word וּכְמַשְׂמְרוֹת is spelled with a שׂ, the plain understanding is that this is simply one of many examples in which Scripture uses the similar-sounding שׂ andס interchangeably. However, the Sages (Midrash Tanchuma [Buber], Beha'alotcha 15) expound the spelling ofוּכְמַשְׂמְרוֹת with aשׂ in this case as an allusion to משׁמרוֹת with aשׁ - from the root שׁמר, protection, as follows: "If you fastened them like a nail, they are preserved מִשְׁתַּמְרִין] (in your memory)], and they protect[מְשַׁמְרִין] you."[17] That is, one must guard the valuable words of Torah wisdom from being forgotten, and those very words of Torah will in turn shield one from harm. Thus, there are two aspects of safeguarding alluded to in the rootסמר .[18]

We suggest that, by interpreting the word as if written with a שׁ rather than a שׂ, the Sages have hinted to a vital link between the rootsסמר and שמר, or more specifically, between the word מַסְמֵר and the verb שׁמר. A nail is capable of serving several purposes: 1) it attaches and reinforces loose parts; 2) encloses and seals up valuable items in a protected location (such as in a container); and 3) it offers protection from any sort of damage, such as we find in Menachot 107a that if one vows to donate iron to the Temple, he must donate enough to cover a square cubit of the Sanctuary roof with protruding nails to prevent the ravens from sitting on it.[19]

Thus, in all three cases, the nails serve to protect from some form of external damage: 1) a loose piece of furniture may collapse and cause damage to itself or someone oblivious to its weak status; 2) one nailing shut a container with valuables seeks to protect them from being stolen; 3) the installation of protruding nails is an attempt to prevent an undesired use (such as ravens when it comes to the Sanctuary).

The example of locking up an item in a container that is nailed shut brings us to a fundamental difference between the various types of protection that are used for disparate purposes. If a person wishes to protect a gold chain from theft, he will lock it up in such a sealed container, and may also bury the container - all in an effort to protect the item of value from the potential threat. By contrast, if his goal is to protect the contents of a bag of milk, such an approach will be to no avail. Granted, these actions may indeed guarantee that the bag of milk is not stolen, but in the meantime, the milk itself will spoil. In other words, in contrast to gold jewelry, the immediate threat to the milk is not an external one, but rather an internal menace, namely, visceral microoganisms. Therefore, the goal of its protection must not be from theft, but rather to preserve its freshness through, for example, refrigeration.

In our article on Parashat Tetzaveh, we cited the view of Menachem, who treats the verbנְטִירָה as one of the subdivisions of the root טר. That subdivision also includes the word תִטֹּר, as in the verse: You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge [תִטֹּר] (Lev. 19:18).[20] Menachem devotes another subdivision of טר to the word טרי. In the verse, He found a jawboneטְרִיָּה of a donkey (Jud. 15:15),[21] Metz. Zion defines the wordטְרִיָּה as moist. Likewise, in the verse, only injury, bruise, and a wound [which is]טְרִיָּה (Isa. 1:6),[22] Rashi quotes Menachem's definition of a moist wound that releases puss.

Herein lies the hidden link between the seemingly unrelated wordsטֹּר and טְרִיָּה. The moisture of a wound that isטרי (fresh, or festering) eventually dries up and naturally disappears as the wound heals. Likewise, when two people have a disagreement or feud over some slight impasse or grudge, the resulting resentment and hatred between them would dissipate naturally over time, until it completely disappears in due course. Thus,לִטֹּר / תִטֹּר (bear a grudge) means to take a deliberate step to sustain (נוֹטֵר) the freshness of the initial schism by actively counteracting the natural tendency of time and forgetfulness to sooth and dissipate such animosity.

In contrast to נְטִירָה, which requires an active intervention, all the aforementioned uses of a מַסְמֵר merely protect the object in a passive manner from some external threat.[23] Thus, the argument can be made that the Aramaic translation equates the Hebrew term שמר, with the Hebrew root סמר, which denotes passive protection, like that of the מַסְמֵר.

This passivity is recognizable in the rootשמר itself, in the context of the word שְׁמָרִים (lees), the sediment from fermenting wine that sinks to the bottom of the cup on its own, as long as nothing is done to actively prevent this from happening. Metz. Zion takes note of this in his comments to the word שְׁמָרֶיהָ in Psalms 75:9.[24]

In light of this, we see that שְׁמָרִים are an ideal symbol of quiet and indifference, as stated in Jer. 48:11 - Moab was complacent from its youth, tranquil on its lees. Metz. David - "ever since becoming a nation, [Moab] sat in tranquility, quietly remaining in his place like wine that rests on its lees."[25] Metz. David also equates this meaning with the expression הִשָּׁמֵר וְהַשְׁקֵט (Isa. 7:4), which Rashi and Radak interpret to mean, "Be calm and still" (sinceהִשָּׁמֵר means to be like theשְׁמָרִים of wine that are calm), whereas Targum Yonatan renders it as אסתמר. According to what we have explained above, the common theme to both of these interpretations is "passivity," since אסתמר is a passive form of guarding.

Hence, the Targum, in using this translation, also means to impart a sense of calming, for that is the plain import of the passage in question - as Isaiah was commanded by God to relax the Judean King Ahaz, in the face of the threats against him from Rezin, King of Aram.

In light of all the above, we can now understand the verse with which we began this essay: Just beware[הִשָּׁמֶר] for yourself and greatly beware [וּשְׁמֹר] for your soul, lest you forget the things that your eyes have beheld (Deut. 4:9) and Onkelus' use of two very different terms, אסתמר and טר, to translate the seemingly similar words הִשָּׁמֶר and שְׁמֹר, respectively. In this case, the Torah commands us to guard (לִנְטוֹר) in our hearts the exalted sights that our eyes had seen at Sinai, lest their impression abate and fade from our memory. This guarding requires a highly active intervention in order to sustain and invigorate – ‘refresh’ – said memories, and make it possible for us to pass them on to our descendants.

As for Onkelus' translation of the expressionהִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ as אִסְתַּמַּר לָךְ, we refer to Abarbanel (Deut. 4:15) who explains that since the people had been issued a severe warning not to forget the breathtaking sights that they had witnessed on the day they received the Torah at Mount Sinai, Moses feared that they might be inclined to make some sort of image/icon that would help them remember what they saw.[26] R’ Bachya adds that the need to exhort them against making any idol, statue or carved image stemmed from the foreign influences of the surrounding nations, some of whom were accustomed to worshipping various animals and figures.[27]

Consequently, God issued two warnings to the Jews: Firstly, they were reminded to stand guard and protect themselves against the infiltration of these foreign influences into their souls. This is the intent of the first expression, הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ, which is therefore translated by Onkelus with the passive אִסְתַּמַּר לָךְ. Secondly, they were warned against internal problems like forgetfulness which might cause them to betray their covenant at Sinai. Like milk locked up and buried, passive protection of such memories would be for naught unless a mechanism for their constant renewal could be implemented. Consequently, the Jews were warned to actively guard and preserve the memory of the awe-inspiring visions that they had seen at Sinai, so that they would be like new revelations on each ensuing day. This is the meaning of the second expression, וּשְׁמֹר נַפְשְׁךָ, which Onkelus therefore renders as וְטַר נַפְשָׁךְ: and actively protect your soul - by keeping the visions therein fresh, טריים.0000

כתוצאה מכך, ה' הזהיר שתי אזהרות ליהודים: ראשית, הם הוזהרו לעמוד על המשמר ולהגן על עצמם מפני חדירת השפעות זרות אלה לנפשם. זו הכוונה של הביטוי הראשון, הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ, אשר תרגם אונקלוס בביטוי "איסְתַּמַּר לָךְ" הפסיבי. שנית, הם הוזהרו מפני בעיות פנימיות כמו שכחה העלולות לגרום להם לבגוד בבריתם בסיני. כמו חלב שנכלא ונקבר, הגנה פסיבית על זיכרונות כאלה לא תועיל, אלא אם כן ניתן יהיה ליישם מנגנון לחידושם המתמיד. כתוצאה מכך, הוזהרו היהודים לשמור באופן פעיל ולשמר את זכר החזונות מעוררי היראה שראו בסיני, כך שיהיו כמו גילויים חדשים בכל יום שלאחר מכן. זו המשמעות של הביטוי השני, וּשְׁמֹר נַפְשְׁךָ, שאותו תרגם אונקלוס כ"טַר נַפְשָׁךְ": להגן באופן פעיל על נפשך - על ידי שמירה על החזונות בה טריים.

May it be the will of God that we remember and observe [נִשְׁמֹר] His decrees, and that we shall install them like a nail [[מַסְמֵר opposite our eyes, that we never forsake them. May their merit protect us [יִשְׁמְרֵנוּ] from every affliction and disease, and from all dire straits. Amen.

[1] דב' ד:ט - רַק הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ וּשְׁמֹר נַפְשְׁךָ מְאֹד פֶּן תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר רָאוּ עֵינֶיךָ; ת"א - לחוד אסתמר לך וטר נפשך לחדא דלמא תתנשי ית פתגמיא דחזאה עינך. [2] יש הקוראים לסוג פועל זה "פועל עומד" - intransitive verb. [3] בר' כד:ו - וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אַבְרָהָם הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ פֶּן תָּשִׁיב אֶת בְּנִי שָׁמָּה; ת"א - ואמר ליה אברהם אסתמר לך דלמא תתיב ית ברי לתמן. דוגמאות נוספות בנפעל: דברים ד:טו - וְנִשְׁמַרְתֶּם מְאֹד לְנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם; ת"א - וְתִסְתַּמְרוּן לַחֲדָא לְנַפְשְׁתֵיכוֹן. שופטים יג:יג - אֲשֶׁר אָמַרְתִּי אֶל הָאִשָּׁה תִּשָּׁמֵר; ת"י - דַאֲמַרִית לְאִתְּתָא תִּסְתַּמָר. ישעיה ז:ד - וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו הִשָּׁמֵר וְהַשְׁקֵט אַל תִּירָא; ת"י - ותימר ליה אסתמר ונוח לא תדחל. [4] יש הקוראים לסוג פועל זה "פועל יוצא" - transitive verb. [5] וכיון ששרש 'שמר' (בבנין קל) זהה עם 'נטר', במקרה היחיד של הופעת שתי המלים ביחד - יונתן אינו מתרגם 'שמר' כלל (כיון שהופעת המלה "ינטור" לא יוסיף דבר להבנת הפסוק): ירמיה ג:ה - הֲיִנְטֹר לְעוֹלָם אִם יִשְׁמֹר לָנֶצַח; ת"י - האפשר דתנטרון ליך רוביך לעלם אם תתקף עלך מחא לאפריש. [6] בר' ד:ט - וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יָדַעְתִּי הֲשֹׁמֵר אָחִי אָנֹכִי; ת"א - ואמר לא ידענא הנטר אחי אנא. [7] דב' ו:כה - נִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת; ת"א - נטר למעבד ית כל תפקידתא הדא. [8] מתורגמן (ערך 'נטר'): כל לשנא שמירה מתורגם בל' נטירה, כמו: שמור את הדבר; נטר ית פתגמא... ומה שיבא בבנין נפעל מתורגם בל' אסתמר. ע' שרש סמר. ושם בערך 'סמר' מובאים תרגומי כל נגזרי 'שמר' בנפעל המתורגמים בנגזרי שרש 'סמר' הארמי, כדוגמאות המוצגות להלן. [9] ישע' מא:ז - וַיְחַזְּקֵהוּ בְמַסְמְרִים לֹא יִמּוֹט. [10] יר' י:ד - בְּמַסְמְרוֹת וּבְמַקָּבוֹת יְחַזְּקוּם וְלוֹא יָפִיק. [11] יר' נא:כז - הַעֲלוּ סוּס כְּיֶלֶק סָמָר; רש"י - סמר - הריציי"ר בלעז, כמו: תְּסַמֵּר שַׂעֲרַת בְּשָׂרִי (איוב ד:טו). [12] איוב ד:טו - וְרוּחַ עַל פָּנַי יַחֲלֹף תְּסַמֵּר שַׂעֲרַת בְּשָׂרִי; רש"י - תסמר - הוא ל' אדם שעמדו שערותיו. [13] תה' קיט:קכ - סָמַר מִפַּחְדְּךָ בְשָׂרִי; מצ"צ - סמר - ענין התקשות כמסמר, כמו: תְּסַמֵּר שַׂעֲרַת בְּשָׂרִי (איוב ד:טו). [14] בחילוף אותיות זסשר"ץ. [15] נדה ט:ח - אשה שיש לה וסת... וכְמִין צְמַרְמֹרֶת אוֹחֲזִין אוֹתָהּ; רע"ב - צמרמורת - לשון: סמר מפחדך בשרי (תה' קיט). ופירש רמב"ם ביד החזקה שהוא הסתמרות השערות: רמב"ם אס"ב ח:ב - וקודם שיבוא הדם... חוששת פי כריסה ושיפולי מעיה ויסתמר שערת בשרה. [16] קהלת יב:יא - דִּבְרֵי חֲכָמִים כַּדָּרְבֹנוֹת וּכְמַשְׂמְרוֹת נְטוּעִים. [17] תנחומא בהעלותך טו - וּכְמַסְמְרוֹת נְטוּעִים (קהלת יב:יא), וּכְמַשְׂמְרוֹת כתיב, אם קבעת אותם כמסמר, הם משתמרין ומשמרין אותך. [18] ראה גם רש"י שהביא דרשה אחרת, והשוה: ירוש' שבת ו:ב, סנהד' י:א., במ"ר יד:ד, פסיקתא רבתי פ' ג'. [19] מנחות קז. - הרי עלי... ברזל... לא יפחות מכליה עורב; רש"י - כליה עורב - מסמרות חדין תוחבין בראש גג ההיכל לכלות העורבין שלא ישבו עליו. [20] וי' יט:יח - לֹא תִקֹּם וְלֹא תִטֹּר. [21] שופ' טו:טו - וַיִּמְצָא לְחִי חֲמוֹר טְרִיָּה. [22] ישע' א:ו - וּמַכָּה טְרִיָּה. [23] אע"פ שמסמר מסוגל לשמש גם ככלי זיין (כגון: "כוואו בשפוד או במסמר" [ב"ק פג:]), ברור שאין זה עיקר שימושו (ואצל יעל [שופ' ד:כא], הכלי מכונה "יתד", להבדיל מ"מסמר"). וכן הדגישו ז"ל (מדרש משלי לא:לח) שיעל לא הרגה את סיסרא בכלי זיין אלא ביתד לקיים מה שנאמר: לֹא יִהְיֶה כְלִי גֶבֶר עַל אִשָּׁה (דברים כב:ה). [24] תה' עה:ט - וְיַיִן חָמַר מָלֵא מֶסֶךְ וַיַּגֵּר מִזֶּה אַךְ שְׁמָרֶיהָ; מצ"צ - שמריה - הוא הנופל בקרקעית הכוס אשר בו המשקה. [25] יר' מח:יא - שַׁאֲנַן מוֹאָב מִנְּעוּרָיו וְשֹׁקֵט הוּא אֶל שְׁמָרָיו; מצ"ד - שאנן מואב מנעוריו - מעת היה לעם ישב בשלוה והיה שוקט ומונח במקומו כיין הנח על שמריו. [26] אברבנאל דב' ד:טו - ונשמרתם מאד לנפשותיכם... לפי שזכר אזהרה רבה שלא ישכחו יום המעמד ההוא מביניהם. חשש אולי יבואו לעשות תמונה מה לזכרונו. [27] רבינו בחיי - ונשמרתם מאד לנפשותיכם... להזהר שלא תעשו שום תמונה, שום פסל... ולא תמונת כל סמל, כי יש מן האומות שהם עובדים ומשתחוים לאיזו בהמה וחיה.

©2020 by Biblical Hebrew Etymology. created by Yosef Chaim Kahn 0548456486