Thursday, November 04, 2010

The meaning of Padan Aram

Summary: Is the Aramaic or Arabic etymology better?

Post: Towards the beginning of parashat Toldot, we read:

20. And Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebecca the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Padan Aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean, to himself for a wife.כ. וַיְהִי יִצְחָק בֶּן אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה בְּקַחְתּוֹ אֶת רִבְקָה בַּת בְּתוּאֵל הָאֲרַמִּי מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם אֲחוֹת לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה:
Rashi writes:

of Padan-Aram: Because there were two Arams, Aram-naharaim and Aram-zobah, it is called Padan [meaning“pair”], an expression of a pair of oxen, which in Aramaic is פַּדַּן תּוֹרִין. Others interpret “Padan-aram” as “the field of Aram,” because in Arabic, a field is called“fadan.”מפדן ארם: על שם ששני ארם היו ארם נהרים וארם צובה, קורא אותו פדן, לשון (שמואל א' יא ז) צמד בקר, תרגום פדן תורין. ויש פותרין פדן ארם כמו (הושע יב יג) שדה ארם, שבלשון ישמעאל קורין לשדה פדן:

Actually, it is not clear that Rashi in fact proposes this second, Arabic, etymology. The defus rishon of Rashi does not have it, and I wonder at the phrasing of ויש פותרין, indicating commentary from other people, as well as why it is not simply put as a davar acher.

While it is unclear if Rashi suggested this second etymology, it is clear that Ibn Ezra does suggest it:
[כה, כ]
מפדן -
וכן בלשון ישמעאל.

I'd like to discuss the relative merits of these two proposed etymologies. Both Aramaic and Arabic are Semitic languages, so it makes sense to look for etymologies there, where one does not find any explanation in Hebrew itself.

The Aramaic etymology is nice because we are after all discussing Padan-Aram. Presumably, in Aram, they would speak Aramaic, rather than Hebrew or Aramaic. So it is not just looking to the close language to Hebrew, where we can get proof from Torah-sources, in the form of citing Onkelos. Padan means both "plough" and "plough-share", and as that second value, it accounts for both Arams -- Aram Naharayim and Aram Tzobah. This would then be a description encompassing the more general area.

In favor of the Arabic etymology of fadan, I would note that the meaning of words shifts over time. Just because we happen to see the word in this usage in Arabic does not mean that it did not have this meaning, of field, in Aramaic as well. After all, they are both Semitic languages.

Chizkuni gives an additional proof in support of this second etymology, of fadan:

in Hoshea 12:13:
יג  וַיִּבְרַח יַעֲקֹב, שְׂדֵה אֲרָם; וַיַּעֲבֹד יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּאִשָּׁה, וּבְאִשָּׁה שָׁמָר.13 And Jacob fled into the field of Aram, and Israel served for a wife, and for a wife he kept sheep.

Indeed, the place where Yaakov fled was Charan, the same place his mother Rivkah came from. It makes for quite a nice parallel. I would add that, as place names go, Sdei-X seems common. Consider:
בראשית פרק לב
  • פסוק ד: וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו, אֶל-עֵשָׂו אָחִיו, אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר, שְׂדֵה אֱדוֹם. 

As well as in the beginning of sefer Rut:

א  וַיְהִי, בִּימֵי שְׁפֹט הַשֹּׁפְטִים, וַיְהִי רָעָב, בָּאָרֶץ; וַיֵּלֶךְ אִישׁ מִבֵּית לֶחֶם יְהוּדָה, לָגוּר בִּשְׂדֵי מוֹאָב--הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ, וּשְׁנֵי בָנָיו.1 And it came to pass in the days when the judges judged, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Beth-lehem in Judah went to sojourn in the field of Moab, he, and his wife, and his two sons.

Shadal puts forth a few of these, in one place:
פדן ארם -- שדה ארם (הושע י"ב י"ג ) פדן בל' ערבית שדה ובסורית מחרישה, ובערבית וארמית צמד בקר, (רש"י , ראב"ע).

Thus, first giving Sdei Aram (perhaps) quoting the parallel in Hoshea. The etymology is that in Arabic, a fadan is a field, while in Syriac it is a plough, and in Arabic and Aramaic it is a ploughshare.

If I had to choose, I would side with Arabic fadan and thus sdei Aram.

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