Chicago Chesed Fund

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Rhotacism in Hebrew and Aramaic

We are all familiar with words that are common to Aramaic and Hebrew which interchange certain letters.

Common changes, from Hebrew to Aramaic, are z to d, such as זהב-דהבא and tz to ayin, such as ארץ/ארעא and צפרדע to עורדעניא. 

More generally, there is this, that groups similar and often interchanged letters together:

עיצורים הנחתכים בשפתיים: ב',ו', מ', פ'

עיצורים הנחתכים בשיניים:ז', ס', שׁ', שׂ', צ'

עיצורים הנחתכים בחיך הקדמי ובלשון: ד', ט', ל', נ', ת', ר'

עיצורים הנחתכים בחיך האחורי: ג', י', כ', ק'

עיצורים הנחתכים בסדק הקול ובלוע: א', ה', ח', ע'

The Ramban in Breishis 41:47 discusses these at length.

(I should mention the ibn Ezra's firm opinion  in בראשית ח:ג that there is no such thing as letters that interchange other than the letters אהוי, and shin with samach.)

I understand most of them, In college, my Jewish communist professor made sure to remind us of his fluency in Mandarin or Cantonese by pointing out that the Chinese Newspaper was variously called Jenmin Jibao and Renmin Ribao. But I have a hard time with the change from Hebrew N to Aramaic R.  They are so very different that I can not see why that would ever happen. L to R? Yes. But N to R? I don't get it.  How can the quintessentially nasal consonant shift to a back of the throat letter? But there are numerous such cases.

(1) בן/בר

(2) נבודכדרצר /  נבודכדנצר (Yirm 21:2, 26:7)

Medrashim give drush reasons for the change, such as ב"ר מ"ה, ילקוט שמעוני ירמיהו רמז שלג:, but this shift is found elsewhere. For example, you have Rashi in Erchin 33a, on the passuk 

 (הושע ו, יא) גם יהודה שת קציר לך בשובי שבות עמי:

Rashi says  (3)

קציר - קצין דנו"ן מתחלפת ברי"ש כדכתיב נבוכד נצר נבוכד ראצר:

and Onkelos in Shemos 23:11, (4)

והשביעת תשמטנה ונטשתה 

who is metargeim natash/ratash. 

וּשְׁבִעֵתָא תַּשְׁמְטִנַהּ וְתַרְטְשִׁנַהּ

which is also evident in Hoshea 10:14, בני אם על בנים רטשה, which is the same as נוטשה, as Rashi says there 

רוטשה. נבקעה וכן נערים תרטשנה (ישעיהו י״ג:י״ח) ועולליהם ירוטשו (שם ט'ז) ל"א רוטשה עזובה כמו נוטשה:

and Malbim on דברי הימים א ב:ז who applies it to (5)  עכן/עכר

ובני כרמי. כלל זה יהיה בידך בכל הספר, שעזרא העתיק ספרו מספר היחוס הגדול, ששם היו נמצאים יחוסי כל משפחה ושריגיה וענפיה מראש עד סוף, עזרא לא העתיק רק הצריך ורק אנשים מסוימים, ושם היה כתוב ובני זמרי וחשב כל בני זמרי שהיו רבים ובתוכם כרמי, ואחר כך היו כתובים כל בני כרמי ובתוכם עכן, ועזרא דלג על הבלתי צריך ולא העתיק רק ובני כרמי ודלג עד עכן, והעתיק עכר עוכר ישראל. ולכן כתב ובני בלשון רבים, כמו שהיה כתוב בס' היחוס, ששם הזכיר בנים רבים. וקראו אותו עכר ע"ש שעכר את ישראל, שהרי"ש והנו"ן מתחלף בשמות, כמו נבוכדנצר נבוכדרצר:

Rav Reuven Margolios, in his Margolios Hayam on 44b, finds two more. In his own words - 

ולמה נקרא שמו עכן בדה"י ב' ז נקרא עכר עוכר ישראל אשר מעל בחרם שחלופי למנ"ר מצויים בתנ"ך ע' ערכין ל"ג א עה"פ גם יהודה שת קציר לך בשובי שבות עמי וברש"י קציר קצין דנו"ן מתחלפת ברי"ש כדכתיב נבוכדנצר נבוכדראצר, וראה מגילה י' ע"ב נין זה מלכות שזהו מלשון והשארתי ניר לדוד עבדי, ובחז"ל במדות פ"ג מ"ג רבובה כמו נבובה ע' רע"ב שם.

One is in Megilla 10b, where it says that the word נין means royalty.  Rashi there says

נין - לשון ממשלה וכן ינון שמו (תהילים ע״ב:י״ז) ימשול ויגדל:

Rav Margolios says this is because ניר means royalty in Melachim I 11:36, (6)

ולבנו אתן שבט אחד למען היות ניר לדויד עבדי 

and Rashi there says 

"ניר" - ממשלה וניר לשון עול

so it is a case of r/n, נין/ניר

His second one is from Middos 3:3,  (7)

ורבובה היתה לו במערבו, ששם היו נותנים פסולי חטאת העוף

where the Rav says

רבובה. כמו נבובה, לשון נבוב לחות:

And one more (8)- ('רחום (עזרא ב' ב') נחום (נחמיה ז' ז

So you have Rashi pointing out that this change can be expected, that it is just a quirk of languages, and we have the EIGHT examples that I listed.  So what is the pshat?

Pshat is, that it is a factual phenomenon that has been observed in other languages, and it is called Rhotacism.  Wikipedia, of course, has a piece on it, but its Aramaic examples are pretty stingy (only two) compared to mine. I have eight.

So now we can give it a name, and we must recognize that it is scientific fact in language. But if the N and the R are what we know them to be, I still find it hard to understand. 

The only way I can understand this is to postulate that the letter R was sometimes pronounced similar to the letter L. That is not unusual at all, both in Tanach and in our personal experience. If the R was somewhat like L, it is understandable that the L might shift into an N.

In a remarkable coincidence, today, the day this was posted, on February 21, 2021, Reb Abbie Jakubovic, after a four year silence on his blog Emunas ha"ish, posted a new discussion- and the topic is interchangeable letters! Please see his post at  

Additionally, Reb Abbie showed me that Rav Baruch Epstein in vol I of his Mekor Baruch (on page 156-7) discusses this r/n interchange, and brings examples. He then suggests (קרוב לודאי!) that in Ki Seitzei, Devarim 23:14, when it says ויתד תהיה לך על אזנך   and everyone scratches their head wondering what אזנך means, it is simply another case of interchange, and על אזנך is another way of saying על אזורך, on your belt.
This volume is not available online in a form amenable to OCR, so you'll have to look at it inside at the link to Hebrewbooks.



    1. Interesting you posted on this topic just now. In my first post in a very long time, I discussed an example of R and L interchanging. See also Ramban in Shemos on Ki Yephateh

    2. Definitely remarkable! And Yasher Koach on your post. I hope Rabbi Oppenheimer sees it.

    3. He’s seen it. It was the fruits of some discussions I had with him offline. (He was my rebbi in 10th grade in 2006)

  2. There are a number of references to the interchangeability of the letters למנר. I once tried to search for a reason why these might be interchangeable, and found somewhere (I can’t remember where at the moment, but maybe Mekor Baruch?) that these four letters are אותיות השטף הנוגעות בקצה הלשון. The paucity of my understanding of phonetics renders that comment entirely incomprehensible to me, but maybe it will help someone else...

    As an aside, I notice that you group ר with the דטלנת letters. Isn’t it traditionally grouped with the sibilants - זסשרצ? (Not that I understand how any of the variant pronunciations of ר are really sibilant...)

    1. I agree. That's why they don't make sense as interchangeable! I suspect that as the languages were pronounced, the n and r were closer together, but I would need a real expert to explain how that can be.

    2. It’s in מקור ברוך חלק המבוא פרק ו

  3. Wow, that's nice. He has some good examples, and his suggestion about על אזנך is definitely clever, if not convincing. I put it into the post. Thank you!