The Foundation Stone

Jewish folk wisdom observes that, whether a rock falls on a pot or a pot falls on a rock, it is always the pot, (kederah) in the Hebrew of the maxim, that gets dented by the rock, in Hebrew (even).

This insight leads to a philosophical question-with a tilt toward Jewish ethics. Is it better to be an (even) or a (kederah) ? It depends on how you frame your answer. Are we talking about victims and oppressors? Or is it a matter of utility versus uselessness? Using the latter criterion, one ought to choose to be a pot. After all, even when dented, a pot still can be used for cooking and, therefore, for sustaining life. As for the (even), what is it good for, one might ask, except for (sekilah), stoning, one of the four judicial death penalties?

The Hebrew word for stone, (even), is found in dozens of expressions a veritable (gal avanim), pile of stones of expressions, that encapsulate the Jewish worldview. God himself is termed (even yisrael). According to tradition, the concrete, primordial foundation stone of the world, labeled (even shetiyah), is found today in the Mosque of Omar on the Temple Mount. And, let us not forget that the Ten Commandments were inscribed on two tablets of stone, (shenei luhot avanim). A game resembling Jacks uses five "stones" known as kugelach in Yiddish and (hamesh avanim) in Hebrew, and is played on the sidewalks of Israel today. It teaches us that the gender of (even) is feminine.

The Torah uses the word (even) twice in one aphorism, teaching us an important lesson in business ethics. A merchant who sells his product by weight may not carry in his pouch (even va-even), that is, one stone for regular transactions and another for cheating. Today the expression (even VA-even) is used for "double standard." The Book of Psalms employs our word to teach a psychological lesson about usefulness. There we are told that the (even ma'asu ha-bonim), a stone that was disdained by some builders, can be used by others as a cornerstone.

In ancient times, the word was used in situations that range from the sublime to the artisanal, and from the legal to the superstitious. Did you know, for example, that one of the earliest instances of a "Lost and Found," a place called the (even ha-to'im), was situated in Jerusalem (perhaps on a rock) during the period of the Second Temple? Because a potter's wheel is made from a pair of stones, it was called (ovnayim), using the (-ayim) ending for things that come in pairs.

The third volume of Rabbi Yosef Caro's Shulhan Arukh, dealing with laws pertaining to women, is entitled (even ha-ezer), using the term for "woman" found in the Creation story. And the Talmud tells us that among the amulets prevalent at the time was the (even tekumah), figuratively, "survival stone," worn to prevent miscarriages.

The word (ovnayim), mentioned above, has a secondary meaning: "birthing stool." It has led to some interesting give-and-take among the founders of Hebrew etymology. Both Rabbi Jonah Ibn Jannakh[1] and Rabbi David Kimhi, the RaDaK,[2] agree that this word does not derive from (even), stone, but from (ben), child. For Rabbi Jonah, it is the place where the baby lands upon emerging; for the RaDak, it is the place from which the baby emerges, i.e., the womb. The RaDak concludes by quoting his father, who held that the word (ovnayim) comes neither from (even) nor from (Ben) but from (binyan), building. Ironically, if not etymologically, this takes us back to the vocabulary of cornerstones and to the idea that as long as they sustain and promote life, both the pot and the rock are desirable utensils.

footnotes [1] first half of 11th century, Spanish Hebrew grammarian and Hebrew lexicographer. Studied medicine which provided him with a livelihood; had an extensive knowledge of both Hebrew and Arabic philology.[Back]

[2] c. 1160-1234, southern France. Wrote a systematic treatise on the textual criticism of the Bible, a grammar book with both a dictionary and a description of Hebrew grammatical rules, and commentaries on several books in the Bible.[Back]

Dr. Joseph Lowin is Executive Director of the National Center for the Hebrew Language (NY). He has written extensively (in both popular and scholarly formats) on Jewish narrative, modern Jewish literature, and Hebrew language.

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