Hendiadys in the Pre-Shofar Acrostic Prayer: An Introduction to an Overlooked Principle of Biblical Interpretation

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Mitchell First


Before we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, we recite six verses that generate the acrostic kera satan – tear up the [evil decrees of the] Satan. The first verse (with initial letter ק) is Eikhah 3:56: “Koli shamata, al ta’ilem aznekha le-ravhati le-shav’ati.”

The first five words are easily translated: “You have heard my voice. Do not hide Your ear.”  The last word, le-shav’ati, means “to my cry.”[1] But what about that word le-ravhati?

The root of this word is resh-vav-het. A little background on this root is necessary.

In Genesis 32:17, we are told that Jacob instructed that a revah be placed between each of his flocks. From the context, it is evident that revah means “space.”

Another use of this word is found in the book of Esther. There (4:14), Mordekhai tells Esther that if she refuses to help, revah and hatzalah will arise for the Jews from another place. The word revah there is usually translated as “relief.” This expands its original meaning “space”, as confinement causes distress.[2]

There is also the word ruah, which has meanings such as “breath,” “air,” and “wind.” It contains the same consonants as revah but is vocalized differently.[3]

Now let us return to our word le-ravhati.

The Jewish Publication Society of America 1917 translation of Eikhah translates this as “at my sighing.” Many others take this approach, including the 2000 edition of the Koren Tanakh.  This translation bases itself on the “breath” meaning of the word ruah. A “sighing” of distress would nicely parallel “my cry.”  But le-ravhati is vocalized in a manner that indicates that it is from the word revah, and not the word ruah.[4] In Tanakh, the word revah always means either “space” or “relief.”[5] So we must reject the “at my sighing” translation or anything akin to it.[6]

But translating le-ravhati as “relief” is also difficult.  “Do not hide Your ear to my relief, to my cry” is a very strange phrase. The word “relief” does not fit well at all. We would expect that God’s ear might hide from a “cry” or “voice,” but not from “relief.” Moreover, “to my relief” is not a good parallel to “to my cry.”

Some propose emending the text and adding an initial yod to le-shav’ati so it becomes li-yeshuati.[7] Yeshuah means “salvation,” and is a better parallel to “relief.” Nevertheless, neither “relief” nor “salvation” fits well following, “Do not hide your ear.”

Another approach is to understand “my relief” as “my prayer for my relief,” which the ArtScroll Tanach (1996) proposes.[8] ArtScroll translates le-shav’ati (after a comma) as “to my cry.” But still it is difficult to justify adding in “my prayer for,” as it is not really in the text.

An alternative and in my view superior approach is the one adopted by Adele Berlin in her commentary on Lamentations.[9] She suggests that what we have here is an (atypical) hendiadys. ‘Hendiadys’ is a Latinized form of a Greek phrase that means “one through two,” and has been defined as “the expression of one single but complex concept by two separate words. … The important aspect of hendiadys is that its components are no longer considered separately but as a single unit in combination.”[10] An example is yad va-shem (Isaiah 56:5). If this is a hendiadys, which is likely, the two words together do not mean a yad (monument) and a shem (memorial) but a yad that will serve as a shem. Another example is ger ve-toshav. This should be understood as ger toshav (a ger – a foreigner, who is a toshav – a resident).

If our phrase is a hendiadys, then it is to be read as one concept and can mean “my plea for relief.” Berlin prefers this translation.[11] Even though there is no vav between the two words, making it atypical, Berlin and others are willing to interpret our phrase as if it were a hendiadys. Although the typical hendiadys has two nouns with a vav between them, it occurs with other forms of words as well.[12]

Hendiadyses are not just found in Hebrew, but in other ancient Semitic languages like Ugaritic and Akkadian. It is also found in Greek, Latin, and English. For example, Macbeth in Shakespeare’s famous play says, “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” “Sound and fury” is a hendiadys, offering a more striking image than “furious sound,” but meaning the same thing.

When involving two nouns, hendiadys results in extra emphasis, instead of a noun with a modifying adjective. This is one of hendiadys’ primary purposes, and what we see in the Shakespeare example. But a hendiadys has other functions as well, such as producing assonance or rhyme or preserving rhythm.[13]

Even if those last two words of Eikhah 3:56 are not a hendiadys,[14] it is a style used many times in Tanakh that needs to be better publicized. Some scholars believe that there are only a small number of hendiadyses in Tanakh, but most believe there are many.[15]  For example, already in Genesis 1:2 we have tohu va-vohu, which many believe to be a hendiadys meaning “formless void.”

When first proposed by Christian Hebraists in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, here are some of the hendiadyses that were suggested:[16]

  • Genesis 19:24: gafrit va-esh, literally “sulfur and fire.” If a hendiadys, it is one concept that means either “burning sulfur” or “sulfurous fire.”
  • Genesis 23:4: ger ve-toshav, literally “foreigner and resident.” As noted, this is to be understood as ger toshav, i.e., a ger who is a toshav.[17]
  • Jeremiah 22:3: mishpat u-tzedakah, literally “judgment and righteousness.” Perhaps it means “righteous judgment.”
  • Job 4:16: demamah ve-kol, literally “silence and voice.” If a hendiadys, it means “low voice.”[18]

Limiting ourselves to the first half of the book of Genesis, here are some others that have been suggested in recent centuries:

  • Genesis 1:14: le-otot u-le-moadim – as signs to mark seasons
  • Genesis 1:22: peru u-revu – be abundantly fruitful
  • Genesis 2:15: le-avdah u-leshamrah – for the task of tending it
  • Genesis 3:16: itzvoneikh ve-heironeikh – your pain in childbearing
  • Genesis 4:12: na ve-nad – restless wanderer
  • Genesis 11:4: ir u-migdal – towering city
  • Genesis 12:1: mei-artzekha u-mi-moladetekha – from your native land
  • Genesis 13:13: raim ve-hataim – wicked sinners
  • Genesis 22:2: et binkha et yihidekha – your only son

The following occur several times in Tanakh: hesed ve-emet, toshav ve-sakhir, and yayin ve-shekhar (“wine that makes one inebriated”).

Hesed ve-emet, appears many times, significantly in Exodus 34:6 in the first of the two verses where the thirteen Divine attributes are specified. The complete phrase here is ve-rav hesed ve-emet. Almost all commentators count hesed and emet as separate attributes. But if hesed ve-emet is a hendiadys here, these words amount to only one attribute, and this is one of the ways Daat Mikra understands the phrase.[19]

To conclude, it is ironic that a style often meant for emphasis is little known today, resulting in various biblical passages being misunderstood. This might be what happened to le-ravhati le-shav’ati. Thus, it is important to look out for hendiadys when reading Biblical passages.[20]

[1] Perhaps le-shav’ati is best translated as “cry for relief,” as it may derive from the root yod-shin-ayin (help, save, deliver). See E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English (1987), 646.

[2] See, e.g., the comments of S.D. Luzzatto on Exodus 8:11 where the related noun harvahah is used.

[3] In words derived from the root revah, there is no dot inside the vav. In words derived from the root ruah, there is a dot. Almost certainly, the “space” meaning of revah and these meanings of ruah have a related origin, but the exact nature of the relationship is still at issue. One suggestion is that the “space” meaning originally referred to the air between two things. See, e.g., Klein, 610.

[4] Even if the vocalization was le-ruhati, I am aware of no other time in Tanakh where ruah means “sigh” or something similar. Therefore, such an interpretation would be farfetched. Of course, Tanakh includes expressions such as marat ruah (bitterness) and ruah nishbara (broken spirit). But in expressions such as these there is another word that clarifies the state of the ruah.

[5] The root revah occurs in Tanakh in Genesis 32:17, Exodus 8:11, 1 Samuel 16:23, Job 32:20, Jeremiah 22:14, and Esther 4:14.

[6] Another widespread similar translation that suffers from the same issues is: “to my groans.”

[7] See, e.g., D. Hillers, Lamentations (The Anchor Bible) (1992), 118. Many precede him with this suggestion.

The argument has been made that the Septuagint supports this reading.

[8] In 1986, the ArtScroll Rosh Hashanah Machzor translated differently: “my prayer for my relief when I cry out.”

[9] Lamentations: A Commentary (2002).

[10] W. Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry (1986, 2d ed.), 324–25.

[11] Berlin, 81 and 83. See also 4 where she writes that she adopts this approach “even though the conjunctive ‘and’ is lacking and so this may not be a true hendiadys.”

Berlin was not the first to cite hendiadys as an explanation for our two words, as Watson (p. 328) preceded her. Our phrase is cited as one of the many possible examples of hendiadyses in Tanakh in the dissertation cited below, at 583.

Without using the term hendiadys, Soncino, in its commentary, had offered the translation: “my cry for relief.”  Daat Mikra also understands the phrase in this manner without mentioning hendiadyses or an equivalent term in Hebrew. R.B. Salters, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Lamentations (2010), 267–269, points out several others who give such an interpretation without stating explicitly that they view the two words as a hendiadys. (Salters himself disagrees and disputes our present text.)

The interpretation “my cry for relief” is also found in some of our traditional sources. See, e.g., Radak, Sefer Ha-Shorashim.

[12] There are other phrases in Tanakh without a vav between them that many argue are hendiadyses. For example, koli tahanunai (Psalms 116:1). This may mean “my supplicating voice.” Salters mentions some Biblical manuscripts which have a vav between our two words in Lamentations 3:56, but the vav was likely a later addition.

[13] Watson, 328.

[14] If one rejects the hendiadys approach in Lamentations, one can read the verse as a plea to God not to hide His ear from the pleader’s “relief” and “cry,” and just accept the fact that “ear” does not fit well with “relief.”

[15] Rosmari Lillas, Hendiadys in the Hebrew Bible (Univ. of Gothenburg, 2012), is a dissertation available online that discusses hendiadys extensively and itemizes many possible hendiadyses throughout Tanakh.

[16] I am not claiming that Rishonim and early Aharonim did not interpret the individual verses below in a manner that achieves the same result. But I do not think they discussed something like hendiadys as a general principle.

[17] There are a few other verses with ger ve-toshav. Interestingly, in Leviticus 25:47, we have ger ve-toshav and ger toshav in the same verse.

[18] The related kol demamah appears in 1 Kings 19:12.

[19] See similarly Daat Mikra to Genesis 24:27 and the comments in the Conservative movement’s Etz Hayim Torah commentary (Exodus 34:6): “The Hebrew words hesed v’emet appear frequently together to express a single concept …. When used together, the two words express God’s absolute and eternal dependability in dispensing His benefactions.”

[20] For further reading, see E.Z. Melamed, Shenayim She-Hem Ehad (EN  ΔIA  ΔYOIN) Ba-Mikra, Tarbitz 16 (1945), 173–189; R. Gordis, The Word and the Book (1976), 40–43; W. Watson, Classical Hebrew Poetry (1986, second ed.), 324-328. I would like to thank Rabbi Menahem Meier for introducing me to the concept of hendiadys after he read an article I had written about the meaning of the Biblical phrase yad va-shem when I was unaware of the concept. I would like to thank my wife Sharon for getting me interested in the root resh-vav-het. I would like to thank Sam Borodach and Mike Alweis for their feedback as I was writing this article.

Mitchell First is an attorney. He has authored five books, including Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (2015), Links to Our Legacy: Insights into Hebrew, History, and Liturgy (2021), and Words for the Wise (2022), those three published by Kodesh Press. He can be reached at