The paronymic way of interpreting בָּכָא bākā in בְּעֵמֶק הַבָּכָא bə–‘ēmeq ha-bākā (Psalms 84:7) as connected with the root בכי/–ה bky/-h “to cry” is already attested in the Septuagint where the Hebrew phrase is rendered by εἰς τὴν κοιλάδα τοῦ κλαυθμῶνος. 1 This translation paved the way to the emergence of the notion of the Vale of tears as a place of penitence in the afterworld, as in a word-by-word commentary of the verse in the Talmud of Babylon (‘Eruvin 19a):
עוברי: אלו בני אדם שעוברין על רצונו של הקדוש ברוך הוא; עמק: שמעמיקין להם גיהנם; הבכא: שבוכין ומורידין דמעות כמעיין של שיתין; גם ברכות יעטה מורה: שמצדיקין עליהם את הדין ואומרים לפניו: ʾרבונו של עולם, יפה דנת, יפה זכית, יפה חייבת ויפה תקנת גיהנם לרשעים, גן עדן לצדיקיםʽ.
ōvrē: ēllū bənē ādām šə-‘ōvrīn ‘al rəṣōnō šel haq-qādōš bārūk hū; ‘ēmeq: šə-ma‘amīqīm lāhem gēhinnom; ha-bākā: šə-bōkīn u-mōrīdīn dəmā‘ōt kə-ma‘yān šel šītīn; gam bərākōt ya‘ṭeh mōreh: šə-maṣdīqīn ‘alēhem et ha-dīn və–ōmrīm lə-fānāv: ‘Ribōnō šel ‘ōlām, yāfeh dantā, yāfeh zikītā, yāfeh ḥiyyavtā və-yāfe tiqqantā gēhinnom la-rəšā ‘īm, gan ‘ēden laṣ–ṣadīqīm’.
‘Passing’ (‘ōvrē): those are the people who trespass (‘ōvrīn) the will of the Holy one, blessed be He; ‘valley’ (‘ēmeq): because they make the Gehenna deeper (ma‘amīqīn) for themselves; ha-bākā: because they cry (bōkīn) and shed tears like the flowing of the altar pits; ‘the rain also filleth blessings’: because they accept the justice on themselves and they say him: ‘Lord of the universe, you properly judged, you properly acquitted; you properly condemned; and you properly prepared the Gehenna for the wicked and the Paradise for the justs’.
The identification of בְּעֵמֶק הַבָּכָא bə–‘ēmeq ha-bākā with the Gehenna, a place of crying and repentance, goes back to Palestinian Jewish traditions. It is reverberated, for instance, in an old Targum, the Targum Tehillim (“Targum of Psalms”) that is of clearly Palestinian Jewish origin, as shown by the specific blend of Aramaic in which it was written:
רֵשִּׁיעַיָּא דְעָבְרִין עַל עוּמְקֵי גֵיהִנָּם בָּכְיָן בִּכְיְיתָא הֵיךְ מַעֲיָינָא יְשַׁוּוּנֵיהּ; לְחוֹד בִּירְכָן יַעֲטוֹף לִדְתָּיְיבִין לְאוּלְפַן אוֹרַיְיתֵיהּ.
rēši‘ayyā də-‘āvrīn ‘al ‘ūmqē gēhinnām bākyān bikyəitā hēk ma‘āyāinā yəšavūnēh; lə–ḥōd birkān ya‘aṭōf li–də-tāyīvīn lə–ūlpan ōraitēh.
“The wicked who cross over the valleys of Gehenna, weeping — he will make their weeping like a fountain; but those who return to the teaching of his Torah, he will cover them with blessings”.
This interpretation is further reverberated in later commentaries: Rashi (1040–1105) and David Qimḥi ad locum. However, as we will see in the present note, Qimḥi who eclectically compiled various exegetical traditions, also recognizes a botanic term in the noun bākā of ‘ēmeq ha-bākā.
The identification of בְּעֵמֶק הַבָּכָא bə–‘ēmeq ha-bākā with the Gehenna seems to have been conditioned by the etymology of the Hebrew term גֵּיהִנּוֹם gēhinnōm “Gehenna” etymologically or paretymologically related to גֵּיא בֶן הִנֹּם gey ben hinnom “the valley of the son of Hinnom”.2 Since עֵמֶק ‘ēmeq and גֵּיא gēy are synonymous, the phrase בְּעֵמֶק הַבָּכָא bə–‘ēmeq ha-bākā could have been perceived as referring to the infernal valley of גֵּיהִנּוֹם gehinnōm, probably connected to גֵּיא בֶן הִנֹּם gēy ben hinnom, the place where the sacrifices to Moloch were perpetrated (II Kings 23:10) and where Jeremiah prophetized the eschatological massacre of the wicked (Jeremiah 7:32).
However, David Qimḥi suggested an alternative, non-lachrymоse interpretation both for Psalms 84:7 and for II Samuel 5:23–24 where בָּכָא bākā appears in the plural form בְּכָאִים bəkā’īm. The Narbonese commentator influenced by Ibn Janāh’s Kitāb al-’uṣūl suggested to identify בָּכָא bākā/בְּכָאִים bəkā’īm with the term תּוּתים tūtīm “berries”, and more specifically “mulberry trees”. This reading is all the more tempting in that the word תּוּתים tūtīm, not attested before the Mishnah (e. g. Ma‘aśrōt 1, 2), is not genuinely Semitic. It is likelier to be an Iranian loanword in Aramaic and Hebrew rather than an Aramaic loanword in Persian. Indeed, the syllabic structure of Aramaic תוּתָא tūtā with the repetition of the same consonant in the 1st and 3rd positions makes it unlikely to be of Semitic origin.
It seems, therefore, that the concept of “berry” is apparently lacking in Biblical Hebrew unless we accept Ibn Janāh’s and Qimḥi’s equivalence between the Biblical word בָּכָא bākā/בְּכָאִים bəkā’īm on the one hand, and the Mishnaic term תּוּתים tūtīm on the other hand. When Qimḥi proposed such an interpretation of the rare word בָּכָא bākā/בְּכָאִים bəkā’īm, he was probably influenced by his own linguistic background. Indeed, Old Provençal and Catalan baia, Spanish baya and their Latin etymon bāca/bacca may have induced the Languedocian Jew of Andalusian origin Qimḥi to recognize in בָּכָא bākā/בְּכָאִים bəkā’īm a plant name. Ibn Janāh himself could have been influenced by the Ibero-Romance language spoken in Cordova, that is, the Mozarabic dialect (sometimes called romandalusí). The knowledge we have at our disposal about Mozarabic is not sufficient to know what was the Mozarabic word parallel to Castilian baya but it is likely that it was akin to it because all the Romance languages with the exception of Romanian continue Latin bāca/bacca. It is worth noting that in his Tafsir, Sa‘adya Gaon translated בְּעֵמֶק הַבָּכָא bə–‘ēmeq ha-bākā as wādī l-’ijjāṣ “the valley of the pear”. This radical difference between the Gaon of Sura at the beginning of the 10th century and Ibn Janāh approximately a century later, corroborates the assumption that an influence exerted by a Romance surroundings, where the word בָּכָאbākā could have been identified with a Romance continuation of Latin bāca/bacca, has probably triggered this reappraisal of the Biblical term.
Curiously enough, what could be considered a haphazard paronymy motivated by a superficial likeness between the Hebrew and the Latin signifier may rely on a serious foundation inasmuch as in Latin itself, the word bāca/bacca could be a Punic loanword. The connection reverberated by Varro (vinum in Hispania bacca “wine in Hispania <is> bacca”) could corroborate this Semitic etymology of Latin bāca/bacca since the Latin lexicographer did not specifically mention which of the languages in use in ancient Hispania is represented by bacca, a metonymic way to refer to the product of the grape considered a sort of berry.3 Given the strong Phoenician, later Carthaginian, presence in a significant part of the Iberian Peninsula, the Semitic origin of bāca/bacca is very likely. What makes it even likelier is the variation between bāca and bacca at the level of Latin, as well as the fact that Varro gave the form bacca as the name of the wine in Hispania. This form with its geminated <cc> is a quite precise approximation for the dageš before the begedkefat spirantization started to be felt in some of the Northwest Semitic languages, that is, first and foremost in Aramaic, then in Aramaic-influenced Hebrew, and only to a lesser extent in Late Phoenician and Late Punic (c. third century BC). Admittedly, the Latin loanword sūfes/sŭffes < Punic šufeṭ/sufeṭ “judge; magistrate”, parallel to Hebrewשֹׁפֵט šofeṭ, seems to reflect a Late Punic form that underwent the spirantization of [p] to [f]. However, it is possible that the loanword בָּכָא bākā pertains to an older contingent of Semitic loanwords in Latin, words that had been borrowed from Phoenician and not necessarily from its Late Punic development. Lastly, it should be noted that in Latin itself, the sequence -V̄C-permutes with the sequence -V̌CC as in lītera “letter” alternating with lĭttera4. The alternation bāca/bacca could be interpreted in the same way with the only difference that if it is a Semitic loanword, the form bacca is probably older than bāca. In the case of lītera/lĭttera, however, the former precedes the latter, as shown by the archaic form leitera whose diphthong was eventually monophthongized in [-ī–].
Whatever it might be, Qimḥi’s reading of בָּכָא bākā/בְּכָאִים bəkā’īm, as referring to the mulberry tree, remains in clear contradiction with the allegorical/moralizing interpretation of the first hemistich of Psalms 84:7. Incidentally, in his commentary of the Bible, the Narbonese rabbi also suggests an allegorical reading of עֹבְרֵי בְּעֵמֶק הַבָּכָא ‘obrē bə-‘ēmeq ha-bākā whereby he connects the word בָּכָא bākā with the phrase נִבְכֵי יָם nibkē yām “springs of the sea” in Job 38:16. Since the sea is a metaphor for the Torah, he interprets בְּעֵמֶק הַבָּכָא bə -‘ēmeq ha-bākā as
בעמק מבועי החכמה
bə -‘ēmeq məbō ‘ē ha-ḥokmāh
“in the valley of the wells of wisdom”
However, this alternative interpretation, though still adopting the allegorical mode, is not connected at all with the lachrymose understanding of בָּכָא bākā as deriving from the rootה -בכי/bky/-h “to cry”. Anyway, the identification of בָּכָא bākā as “mulberry tree” appears after the allegory of the “springs of wisdom”, as if it came to correct it and to provide the last word. In his concern to put the text he commented in an historical perspective without renouncing the allegoric dimension altogether, Qimḥi anticipates Joseph Kaspi’s ultra-rationalist commentaries of the Bible. 5
David Qimḥi’s return to the literal meaning of the hemistich allows to connect it in a more satisfactory way to the overall context of Psalm 84 that is characterized by the joyous atmosphere pervading the evocation of the Temple starting from verse 2: מַה-יְּדִידוֹת מִשְׁכְּנוֹתֶיךָ mah-yyədīdōt miškənōtēkā “How amiable are thy tabernacles!” (KJV). Admittedly, it has been suggested that in the microcontext of Book III of Psalms (Psalms 84–89), Psalm 84 might express the longing to the destroyed Temple in a postexilic situation rather than the rejoicing provoked by the actual frequentation of God’s dwelling place 6. In this hypothesis, the first hemistich of Psalms 84:7 could indeed involve a pessimistic note. However, such a reading has been likely conditioned by the lachrymose interpretation of the word בָּכָא bākā as connected to the root ה -בכי/ bky/-h “to cry”.
Qimḥi David (1530) Perush Radaq la-Tanakh, Basle, Heinrich Petri.
Varro Marcus Terentius (2019) De lingua Latina: Introduction, Text, Translation, and Commentary, ed. W.D.C. de Melo. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Aslanov C. (2001) Le provençal des Juifs et l’hébreu en Provence: le dictionnaire Šaršot Ha-Kesef de Joseph Caspi. Leuven-Paris, Peeters editions.
Kutscher Y. (1961) Millim u-toldoteihen. Jerusalem, Kiryat Sefer.
Leumann M., Hofmann J. B., Szantyr A. (1926–1928) Lateinische Grammatik (1. Band: Lateinische Laut- und Formenlehre). 5th ed., Munich, C. H. Beck.
Wallace R. E. (2011) “The Narrative Effect of Psalms 84–89”, The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, vol. 11, art. 10, especially 7–8. URL: http://jhsonline.org/Articles/article_157.pdf
Backfish E. H. P. (2019) Hebrew Wordplay and Septuagint Translation Technique in the Fourth Book of the Psalter, London, T&T Clark.
- On wordplay in the Hebrew original Book of Psalms and its rendering in the Septuagint, see Backfish E. H. P. Hebrew Wordplay and Septuagint Translation Technique in the Fourth Book of the Psalter. London: T&T Clark, 2019.
- See Kutscher Y. Millim u-toldoteihen. Jerusalem: Kiryat Sefer, 1961, 66.
- Varro Marcus Terentius. De lingua Latina: Introduction, Text, Translation, and Commentary / ed. W. D. C. de Melo. Oxford: Oxford University Press. VII 87.
- Leumann M., Hofmann J. B., Szantyr A. Lateinische Grammatik (1. Band: Lateinische Laut- und Formenlehre). 5th ed. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1926–1928, 143 (§ 184c).
- On Joseph ibn Kaspi’s historical perspectivism, see Aslanov C. Le provençal des Juifs et l’hébreu en Provence: le dictionnaire Šaršot Ha-Kesef de Joseph Caspi. Leuven; Paris: Peeters Editions, 2001, 118.
- Wallace R. E. “The Narrative Effect of Psalms 84–89,” The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures. 2011. Vol. 11, art. 10, especially 7–8. URL: http://jhsonline.org/Articles/article_157.pdf