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Marc Zvi Brettler





A Nitpicking Lover in Song of Songs 1:7





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Marc Zvi Brettler





A Nitpicking Lover in Song of Songs 1:7








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A Nitpicking Lover in Song of Songs 1:7

The woman in Song of Songs wishes to know where her lover will be, asking: “Why should I be like an ʿōṭǝyâ (כְּעֹטְיָה).” Translators struggle with this phrase, and suggest meanings as disparate as “be veiled like a prostitute,” “be as a wanderer,” or even “pick at my nits.” How do scholars use ancient translation, cognate words, and content to translate a word in the Bible whose meaning is so obscure?


A Nitpicking Lover in Song of Songs 1:7

Song of Songs (detail), Enrico Salfi, ca. 1900-1930. Wikimedia

The Song of Songs, a book full of images of the spring, is traditionally read in the synagogue on the Shabbat of Passover, the spring festival.[1] The book is a collection of monologues and dialogues, with the main speaker alternating between a young woman and young man who desire each other. One of the earliest scenes offers a playful dialogue between the woman and her lover:

שיר השירים א:ז הַגִּ֣ידָה לִּ֗י שֶׁ֤אָהֲבָה֙ נַפְשִׁ֔י אֵיכָ֣ה תִרְעֶ֔ה אֵיכָ֖ה תַּרְבִּ֣יץ בַּֽצָּהֳרָ֑יִם שַׁלָּמָ֤ה אֶֽהְיֶה֙ כְּעֹ֣טְיָ֔ה עַ֖ל עֶדְרֵ֥י חֲבֵרֶֽיךָ: א:ח אִם לֹ֤א תֵדְעִי֙ לָ֔ךְ הַיָּפָ֖ה בַּנָּשִׁ֑ים צְֽאִי לָ֞ךְ בְּעִקְבֵ֣י הַצֹּ֗אן וּרְעִי֙ אֶת גְּדִיֹּתַ֔יִךְ עַ֖ל מִשְׁכְּנ֥וֹת הָרֹעִֽים׃
Song 1:7 Tell me, you whom I love so well: Where do you pasture your sheep? Where do you rest them at noon? Let me not be aas one who straysa beside the flocks of your fellows. 1:8 If you do not know, O fairest of women, go follow the tracks of the sheep, and graze your kids by the tents of the shepherds. (NJPS)

The overall meaning of the repartee is clear: The woman is looking to find her shepherd-lover, alone, away from the other shepherds, but he brushes her off. Such playfulness, including the uncertainty of whether or not the couple successfully gets together, typifies the Song.

The Unclear Word כְּעֹטְיָה

The NJPS Tanakh translation of the word כְּעֹטְיָה “as one who strays” is surrounded on both sides by a superscript “a,” leading to the most common note found in this translation: “Meaning of Heb. uncertain.” Harry Orlinsky (1908–1992), the editor-in-chief of the NJPS Torah translation, was once asked why it has so many such notes: “Couldn’t you find anyone who knew Hebrew better?”[2]

The questioner’s inability to appreciate the difference between translating a living language and a literary (i.e., dead) language is what makes the anecdote humorous.[3] In reality, all of the NJPS translators knew biblical Hebrew just about as well as possible, yet they were unsure of the meaning of this word, as are many other excellent Bible scholars, have called the term “difficult,”[4] “most difficult,”[5] or “notoriously difficult.”[6]

Sometimes words can be difficult because their grammatical form is anomalous; other words are uncertain because the root is poorly attested in the Bible or even unique, what scholars call a hapax legomenon.[7] But ʿōṭǝ is a standard feminine singular qal active participle[8] from the root ע.ט.י,[9] which appears 17 times in 15 verses.[10] What makes the term ʿōṭǝ unclear here is that the usual meaning of the term does not work in context.[11]

The Problem with “Wrapped”

The standard meaning of root ע.ט.י is “to wrap or cover.” Indeed, this is how the first century C.E. Greek translation of the Song in the Septuagint[12] understands the phrase: “lest I become like one who wraps herself up” (μήποτε γένωμαι ὡς περιβαλλομένη). But what would this mean here? Why should her not knowing where her lover grazes alone, or her meeting him in front of his friends, make her like someone covered or wrapped?

Moreover, wrapped in what? Generally, the verb ע.ט.י is followed by an object specifying what the person is wrapped in. Thus, when King Saul goes to see the necromancer of Endor, she brings up Samuel:

שמואל א כח:יד וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַה תָּאֳרוֹ וַתֹּאמֶר אִישׁ זָקֵן עֹלֶה וְהוּא עֹטֶה מְעִיל...
1 Sam 28:14 [Saul] asked her: “What does he look like?” “It is an old man coming up,” she said, “and he is wrapped in a robe”…[13]

Often, the direct object is something other than clothing. For example, the psalmist describes his foes as wrapped in reproach and disgrace:

תהלים עא:יג יֵבֹשׁוּ יִכְלוּ שֹׂטְנֵי נַפְשִׁי יַעֲטוּ חֶרְפָּה וּכְלִמָּה מְבַקְשֵׁי רָעָתִי.
Ps 71:13 Let my accusers perish in frustration; let those who seek my ruin be wrapped in reproach and disgrace!

Other such usages refer to the person being wrapped in “jealousy” (קִנְאָה, Isa 59:17), “shame” (בּוּשָׁה or בֹּשֶׁת, Pss 89:46; 109:29), or on the positive side, “blessings” (בְּרָכוֹת, Ps 84:7) or “light” (אוֹר, Ps 104:2).[14] The usage in Song of Songs would be anomalous in that it does not specify, unlike all the other uses, either what is covering or what is being covered.

In theory, the use in this verse could be a case of ellipsis, a “construction in which a grammatically required element [here, the covering] is omitted by the speaker of writer, thus creating a structural hole or gap.”[15] As noted already by the Jewish medieval exegetes, ellipsis is common in biblical discourse, especially when the elided word would have been obvious from context.[16] The scholars who take up this position assume that she is covered with a veil,[17] and explain her veiling in two very different ways.

1. Veiled in Modesty

Some argue that she is complaining that when she visits her beloved in the presence of these other men, she must put on a veil for reasons of modesty.[18] A prooftext used for this is the scene in which Rebecca meets Isaac for the first time:

בראשית כד:סה וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אֶל־הָעֶ֗בֶד מִֽי־הָאִ֤ישׁ הַלָּזֶה֙ הַהֹלֵ֤ךְ בַּשָּׂדֶה֙ לִקְרָאתֵ֔נוּ וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הָעֶ֖בֶד ה֣וּא אֲדֹנִ֑י וַתִּקַּ֥ח הַצָּעִ֖יף וַתִּתְכָּֽס׃
Gen 24:65 She said to the servant, “Who is that man walking in the field toward us?” And the servant said, “That is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself.
Lachish Relief detail. Wikimedia

Apart from this verse, however, we have no evidence that ancient Israelite women wore veils. They may have worn head coverings[19]—these are shown for both women and young girls in the reliefs showing the exile of Judahites from Lachish in 701—but these are not veils.

Badeken: A Wedding Veil

Moreover, it is unlikely that Rebecca is depicted as veiled out of modesty. Yet, if wearing a veil was a form of modesty expected of women, it is strange that she doesn’t wear one throughout the trip, despite being with Abraham’s servant and all the other attendant men, but only puts it on when she sees Isaac.

Thus, R. David Zvi Hoffman suggests in his commentary that this is a pre-marriage ritual: בנוכחות החתן על הכלה להיות רעולה “in the presence of the groom, the bride should be veiled.” This custom, called in Yiddish badeken (literally “covering”), which is still practiced in many circles to this day, was common in the ancient world. Hoffmann even notes that the Latin term nūbēre means both “to cover/veil” and “to marry.”

One recent proposal, noting the connection between veils and marriage, suggests that Song 1:7 means that “she fears marrying a man other than her chosen lover.”[20] Yet it seems far-fetched to read her comment as a threat that he had better tell her where he is, or she will go marry one of his shepherd-buddies.

2. Veiled Like a Prostitute

The other interpretation of her complaint using the definition “covered with a veil” is based on the assumption that sex-workers wore veils, and that “why should I be wrapped [in a veil]” means something like “why should I make myself look like a prostitute?”[21] This assumption is based on the story of Tamar’s seduction of Judah, in which her face is covered, presumedly with a veil:

בראשית לח:טו וַיִּרְאֶ֣הָ יְהוּדָ֔ה וַֽיַּחְשְׁבֶ֖הָ לְזוֹנָ֑ה כִּ֥י כִסְּתָ֖ה פָּנֶֽיהָ׃
Gen 38:15 When Judah saw her, he took her for a harlot; for she had covered her face.

This reading assumes that Tamar wore the veil in order to look like a prostitute. Putting aside that sex-workers tend to reveal as opposed to conceal, it seems more likely that he thinks she is a prostitute because of how she has set herself up on the roadside looking for clients, and that the comment about the veil is meant to explain why he doesn’t recognize his daughter-in-law.[22] Thus, the explanation that the woman of the Song is threatening her male lover that he better tell her where he is, or she will end up looking like a prostitute, or “a loose woman,”[23] is very unlikely.[24]

A Wanderer (כטעיה)

Several ancient translations offer a very different understanding of the term that seems to have no relationship to the root ע.ט.י:

  • Peshitta: טעיתא (ܛܥܝ݂ܬܐ), “wanderer”[25]
  • Targum: מטלטלין, “should wander”[26]
  • Symmachus: ῥεμβομένη, ‎“wandering”
  • Aquilas: ἐκβεβλημένη, “cast out”[27]
  • Vulgate: vagari incipiam,“begin to wander”[28]

The scholarly consensus is that (at least most of) these translations are rendering the term כעטיה as if it read כטעיה, i.e., a metathesis,[29] the switching around of two the letters ayin and tet.[30] The root of the word would then be ט.ע.י rather than ע.ט.י.[31]

Typically in biblical Hebrew, this root, meaning “to wander,” is spelled tʿy (תעי) rather than ṭʿy (טעי), but once in Ezekiel (13:10), and in Aramaic and later Hebrew, it is spelled טעי.[32] Given other evidence that (parts of) the Song are late,[33] the spelling כטעיה rather than the more usual כתעיה, is not problematic.

The metathesis could have happened at one of three levels:

1. Parallel Spelling—Several biblical Hebrew words are known in two forms which have identical meanings, though they differ in the placement of consecutive letters: כבשׂ כשׂב; שׂמלה שׂלמה; זעוה זועה; עיף יעף; מלתעות מתלעות; and בהלה בלהה exemplify this,[34] and it is not unusual for letter order for the same word to switch between Semitic cognates. Thus, it is possible that ע.ט.י existed in biblical Hebrew as an alternate form of ט.ע.י, or at least the Greek translator may have thought it was. Such interchanges of letter-order do not follow any well-known phonological principles, but it is unusual, and should not be applied too often when explaining textual difficulties.[35]

2. Different Vorlage—The ancient Hebrew text in front of these ancient translators (what scholars call “the Vorlage,” from German, “to lie in front of”) could have read כטעיה rather than MT’s כעטיה, with the latter version being a scribal error. This is unlikely;[36] the only fragment we have of this section from the Dead Sea Scrolls strongly suggests that the second letter is an ע rather than a ט.

3. Translator’s Error—It is also possible that the translator transposed these letters, either unintentionally or to make sense out of an otherwise inexplicable phrase.[37] This too is possible, but unlikely.

The meaning “wanderer” makes a great deal of sense in context;[38] the woman is asking her male lover where he is staying, saying that she wants him, and him only, and does not want to wander about, joining any of the other shepherds.[39] And yet, it depends on the unlikely, but not impossible metathesis, and needs to be balanced against other possibilities.[40]


Homonyms, i.e., two words with different meanings, but which are spelled and sound the same way,[41] are common in Hebrew because the inventory of Hebrew consonantal sounds is smaller than that of Proto-Semitic, the parent of all Semitic languages,[42] and from which Hebrew is descended.[43] I offer several examples of homonyms below:

צְבִי (tzevi)Hebrew homonyms are created, for example, when the distinct proto-semitic sounds ṣ and ẓ, represented by ص and ظ respectively in Arabic, both merge into the single Hebrew letter tzadi (צ). This leads to the homonym צְבִי (tzevi), which most often refers to a “deer” or “gazelle,” but can also mean “beauty” or “splendor.”[44] The first meaning is related to a word with an original sound, and the second to a word with the original sound; in Hebrew both are not spelled and pronounced identically.

Ear—The phenomenon of homonyms is not unique to Hebrew or even Semitic languages. In English, for instance, the noun “ear” may refer to the organ responsible for hearing, or, “the fruiting spike of a cereal (such as wheat or corn) including both the seeds and protective structures.”[45] While these words have different etymologies, their spelling and pronunciation collapsed into the same word “ear” in English.[46]

כֹּפֶר (kofer)—Biblical lexica (and many dictionaries of other, even modern languages), distinguish between homonyms by assigning different numerals to each basic meaning. The standard modern scholarly biblical lexicon, HALOT,[47] for instance, distinguishes between four meanings of the word כֹּפֶר (kofer):

  1. כֹּפֶר, “open village”
  2. כֹּפֶר, “pitch”[48]
  3. כֹּפֶר, “henna”
  4. כֹּפֶר, “bribe, ransom”

In some cases, scholars may dispute which homonymic root best fits a context, or may propose that the biblical author is purposely playing with homonyms.[49] In other cases, such as with these roots, the meanings are different enough, and context will determine which is appropriate: in no context could “pitch,” “henna” “open village” or “bribe” be confused for one another.

כעטיה (keʿōṭǝyâ)—In the case of כעטיה in Song of Songs 1:7, the BDB[50] and HALOT lexica distinguishes between two homonymic roots:

  1. עָטָה, “wrap or envelop oneself,” connected to the Arabic غَطَو (ġṭw) “cover, conceal”
  2. עָטָה, “grasp,” connected to Arabic عطو(ʿṭw), “take with hands”

Etymologically,[51] these two roots are really different words, but they merged in Hebrew,[52] because the two sounds ayin (ع) and ghayin (غ) in Proto-Semitic, which remain distinct in Arabic, are both reflected in Hebrew ayin. As noted above, the first definition does not work well in context. The second, much less common definition, however, may hold more promise.

To Pick Clean

The second definition of ע.ט.י as “grasp or pick” appears, according to some translators, in two biblical verses: Isaiah 22:17 and Jeremiah 43:12. In both of these verses, the NJPS translates according to its usual meaning, while NRSV, translates it as “to pick clean,” following most commentaries, including the LXX translation (of Jeremiah 43:12) as φθειριεῖ, “to delouse.”



ישעיה כב:יז הִנֵּ֤ה יְ־הוָה֙ מְטַלְטֶלְךָ֔ טַלְטֵלָ֖ה גָּ֑בֶר וְעֹטְךָ֖ עָטֹֽה׃

Isa 22:17 The LORD is about to hurl you away violently, my fellow. He will seize firm hold on you.

Isa 22:17 The LORD is about to shake you severely, fellow, and then wrap you around Himself.

ירמיה מג:יב וְהִצַּ֣תִּי אֵ֗שׁ בְּבָתֵּי֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י מִצְרַ֔יִם וּשְׂרָפָ֖ם וְשָׁבָ֑ם וְעָטָה֩ אֶת אֶ֨רֶץ מִצְרַ֜יִם כַּאֲשֶׁר יַעְטֶ֤ה הָֽרֹעֶה֙ אֶת בִּגְד֔וֹ וְיָצָ֥א מִשָּׁ֖ם בְּשָׁלֽוֹם׃

Jer 43:12 He shall kindle a fire in the temples of the gods of Egypt; and he shall burn them and carry them away captive; and he shall pick clean the land of Egypt, as a shepherd picks his cloak clean [of vermin]; and he shall depart from there safely.

Jer 43:12 And I will set fire to the temples of the gods of Egypt; he will burn them down and carry them off. He shall wrap himself up in the land of Egypt, as a shepherd wraps himself up in his garment. And he shall depart from there in safety.

Over one-hundred years ago, August Frieherr von Gall, best known for his critical edition of the Samaritan Pentateuch, wrote a detailed article on II עָטָה, and concluded that the use in Song 1:7 is related to Jeremiah 43:12, and also means “to delouse.”[53] In context, the woman’s point is that if she doesn’t know where to meet her lover, she will be stuck sitting on her own and “left picking lice.” Engendering much controversy, this was how the phrase was translated in The New English Bible translation (1970).[54]

This understanding has been mocked by several biblical scholars.[55] Perhaps literal delousing of clothing was meant—what more constructive activity could there be for passing time? G. R. Driver, in defense of this reading, notes that this interpretation is contextually appropriate for antiquity: “There is always a risk that those who study and live in the urban centers of the west will fail to appreciate the actual ways of life in the lands of the Bible.”[56]

Alternatively, this might have been an idiom for passing time, and may reflect a semantic development similar to the English phrase “wiling way,” which may have originated from the idea of “using wiles (crafts, schemes) to charm away the time,” a concept expressed in the French phrase ‘tromper le temps.’”[57] Emerton compares it to our use of “twiddling thumbs.”[58] Some of us pass time by nitpicking (either literally or figuratively), while others do so by casting spells, or twiddling our thumbs. But since we really know biblical Hebrew so imperfectly,[59] it is hard to know what its idioms mean, or in some cases, even if a phrase is literal or idiomatic.

At the End of the Day (or Several Days)

This article, meant to introduce the importance of cognates, the ancient versions, and context to interpret difficult biblical words, is about only one word, and yet this took me much longer than a single day to research, think about, and to write up. Moreover, at the end of the day, or days, I am not even certain what interpretation is best.[60] I must admit that for years I objected to “nitpicker,” but now it seems quite possible, especially now that I spend so much time in Israel, where lice are endemic.[61] The bottom line: NJPS was wise to say “Meaning of Heb. uncertain.”


April 13, 2022


Last Updated

May 28, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author of many books and articles, including How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (with Amy-Jill Levine), and co-author of The Bible and the Believer (with Peter Enns and Daniel J. Harrington), and The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (with Amy-Jill Levine). Brettler is a cofounder of TheTorah.com.