Engagement with Rabbinic Literature in Qimhi’s Sefer ha-Shorashim

Careful analysis of all entries in R. David Qimhi’s (Radak) Sefer ha-Shorashim demonstrates that he quotes rabbinic traditions differently from the way the earliest Hebrew linguists did. While his very early predecessors, such as R. Saadia Gaon (882-942) and Judah ibn Qurayish (second half of ninth century), quoted rabbinic literature exclusively for the purpose of linguistic comparison, in his Shorashim, Radak often considers not only the language but also the content of rabbinic teachings, whether halakhic, haggadic, or exegetical. Of more than seven hundred (700) references to rabbinic traditions in Radak’s Shorashim, approximately one hundred and sixty (160) discuss the content of rabbinic teachings, as outlined in a recently published paper (Grunhaus, 2020). Even though his quotation of rabbinic traditions expands significantly upon the practice of earlier linguists, he is not breaking entirely new ground–for R. Jonah ibn Janaḥ (990-1050), a more recent predecessor of Radak, had already exhibited a similar, although less focused, interest in the content of rabbinic literature. Radak, however, took this tendency to a new level, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

Scholarly studies of medieval Hebrew linguistics have concentrated on the linguistic aspect of Radak’s quotations of rabbinic traditions, paying little attention to his interest in the content of rabbinic literature as well (Netzer, 1988, 1991). In contrast, in this essay we will explore his extensive references to rabbinic teachings and their conclusions; this tendency sets Radak apart from his predecessors and colleagues in the linguistic field and aligns him more closely with colleagues in the field of biblical exegesis.

Radak’s linguistic summaries are commonly characterized as marking the completion of the “dissemination” phase of medieval Hebrew linguistic study (See, e.g., David Téné, et al, “Linguistic Literature, Hebrew”), but his use of rabbinic literature in the Shorashim more correctly supports a new characterization of that book as not only a linguistic work. Proper evaluation of the Shorashim leads to the conclusion that albeit it summarizes prior linguistic works, but the additional material shows that Radak was already thinking like an exegete. We can support this thesis by the awareness that in his Shorashim, Radak quotes rabbinic exegesis, halakah, and haggadah in distinctive constructs, all of which follow the same formats and mirror the distinctive constructs he would later employ in his commentaries when presenting rabbinic material (See Grunhaus, 2013).

Before analyzing Radak’s innovative use of the content of rabbinic teachings, it will be useful to provide a brief overview of the way grammarians had usually quoted rabbinic literature for linguistic comparison heretofore: Biblical language (by definition) includes terminology only for topics discussed in the Bible. In quite a few instances, a biblical word or root appears only once (hapax legomenon) or very few times. The meaning of these hapax legomena and rare words is therefore often unclear. Facing the challenge of this incomplete biblical vocabulary and inspired to expand the scope of the biblical lexicon and establish correct interpretation, the earliest medieval Hebrew grammarians compared biblical Hebrew to related languages, such as Arabic and Aramaic, and to the Hebrew and Aramaic vocabularies employed in rabbinic literature.

The following example from Radak’s Sefer ha-Shorashim illustrates the standard quotation of rabbinic traditions in medieval Hebrew grammars for the purpose of defining biblical words: At root עגם, Radak considers the sole biblical instance of the root עגם at Job 30:25, and explains that עגמה in the verse means דאבה (“grieved, languished”). For an intra-biblical definition of a hapax legomenon, the linguist would need to study it in context or compare it to some other similar biblical word. In this case (and often also in cases where the word is not a hapax legomenon), Radak prefers to examine an extra-biblical definition, turning to rabbinic literature for comparable usage of the root. He quotes a rabbinic passage from b. Meg. 28a which employs the root עגם, לא יתלוש מפני עגמת נפש (“one should not uproot it because it inspires grief”), thereby confirming the meaning of the biblical root עגם to connote grief. Even though the biblical word עגמה is a verb and the rabbinic word עגמת is in nominal form, medieval Hebrew grammarians accepted the validity of this type of comparison, viewing it as a way to release the lone verb from its “only-ness” and find a “companion” for it in rabbinic literature.

In his Shorashim, Radak offers numerous new linguistic comparisons to rabbinic vocabulary, which are important as evidence of further expansion of the prior method, even when these comparisons are not substantively different from the comparisons offered by his predecessors. However, his quotations of rabbinic exegesis, halakah, and haggadah are especially significant because they differ so markedly from most comparisons to rabbinic literature in linguistic literature.

We will now analyze one example of Radak’s inclusion of rabbinic traditions in his Shorashim, which demonstrates his new interest in the content of rabbinic literature. In this case, Radak appends the rabbinic tradition as an addendum to his peshat interpretation. This inclusion of a rabbinic dictum in the form of a tangent, which he does in both halakic and haggadic contexts, is noteworthy as it shows his fondness (or his capitulation to his audience’s fondness) for rabbinic traditions and his substantial interest in them. His earliest linguistic predecessors did not include these types of supplemental quotations, but he favors them often in the Shorashim.

At root כיר, Radak compares different types of basins to interpret the word כיור (“basin”). He then quotes a rabbinic conversation from b. Zebaḥim 19b, in which the rabbis describe the method used in the temple for hand and foot washing—the priest would place his right hand over his right leg/foot and his left hand over his left leg/foot and wash them simultaneously. Although the talmudic tradition assumes (as does Radak) that the water was poured out of spouts, whether and how the water covered the priest’s extremities all at once is in no way relevant to the structural form of the word כיור or to the dictionary entry. Thus, Radak’s attaching this rabbinic tradition to his discussion–even though it is tangential and unnecessary for the definition–demonstrates his tendency to rely not only on rabbinic word usage, but also on rabbinic content.

Most likely, ibn Janah’s example inspired Radak to quote rabbinic traditions for the purpose of exegesis. Nevertheless, he moved significantly beyond this important predecessor in his inclusion of rabbinic traditions in a linguistic work. Moreover, our results suggest that we should not view the Shorashim and the commentaries as representing two distinct fields of Radak’s endeavors—language studies and exegesis. Rather, it seems more appropriate to consider that in his own intellectual development, the linguistic Shorashim is a prelude to his writing commentaries. Indeed, the Shorashim adumbrates his readiness to expand his understanding of biblical texts beyond the simple explanation of linguistic nuances.

In the wake of R. Saadia Gaon’s and others’ linguistic and exegetical discoveries, the need for systematic biblical commentaries became progressively more evident. Apparently, this fuelled ibn Janaḥ’s and Radak’s decisions to include the content of rabbinic teachings in their writings. Precisely because of the burgeoning attention to commentaries, Radak was more concerned about exegesis than were his linguistic predecessors.

Ever mindful of his audience’s needs and his own familial training (in a range of fields, including linguistics as well as exegesis), Radak no doubt realized that the readers of his linguistic works were different from ibn Janaḥ’s (and other linguists’). Although in earlier generations there might have been a need for purely linguistic study, Radak evidently came to view linguistic study as a foundation for exegesis, even when he himself was authoring a linguistic work.


Grunhaus, Naomi. The Challenge of Received Tradition: Dilemmas of Interpretations in Radak’s Biblical Commentaries. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

——. “Radak’s Engagement with Rabbinic Literature in his Sefer ha-Shorashim: Innovations in Light of his Predecessors’ Approaches.” In From Scrolls to Traditions: A Festschrift Honoring Professor Lawrence H. Schiffman. Stuart Miller, Michael Swartz, et al, eds. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2020. 276-95.

Netzer, Nissan. “Terumato shel Radak le-Pitron Milim Yeida’iyot-Shoresh ‘al Pi Leshon Ḥakhamim,” HUCA 59 (1988): 1–11 (Hebrew section);

——. “Terumato shel Radak le-Pitron Milim Miqra’iyot Yeḥida’iyot be-Tsurah o be-Shimush le-Orah shel Leshon Ḥakhamim,” in Meḥqarim be-Sifrut Am Yisrae’l uve-Tarbut Teman: Sefer Yovel le-Professor Yehudah Razhabi, ed. J. Dishon and E. Chazan (Ramat-Gan: Bar Ilan, 1991), 35–44.

Téné, David, Maman, Aharon, and Barr, James. “Linguistic Literature, Hebrew.” In Encyclopedia Judaica 13: 29–61.

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