Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
The two forms חמס (hamas) and חמץ (hamas) are homophones (or so we surmise; there are no sound recordings from Biblical times) and their meanings are quite adjacent. Scholars break the form חמץ (hamas) apart into three separate verbs, but all this categorizing may be rather artificial; all the below words may derive off one verb that has to do with a pervading contamination:
The verb חמס (hamas) means to do wrong or violate; to manipulate into a wrong direction. HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament makes the useful observation that this verb "is used almost always in connection with sinful violence. It does not refer to the violence of natural catastrophes or to violence as pictured in a police chase on modern television".
In other words: this verb does not primarily refer to action, it primarily refers to enforcing a deviation from a proper standard upon others — and with "proper standard" we mean the purpose that God had in mind when he created them: "He who finds me finds life, and obtains favor from YHWH. But he who sins against me violates his own soul; all those who hate me love death" (Proverbs 8:35-36).
Our verb occurs a mere eight times in the Bible, but is extended by means of its primary noun: a doing or bringing about of violation. The agents of our verb would stretch from the subtle influence of a whisper or pervasive rumor (Job 21:27, Ezekiel 22:26, Zephaniah 3:4), to violent oppression and murder (Jeremiah 22:3).
The derivatives of our verb are:
- The masculine noun חמס (hamas), meaning violation or a wrong. Just prior to Noah's flood, the Lord observed how the earth was filled with violation (Genesis 6:11), and this covers a wide range of oppressive actions: The violation of the seventy sons of Jerubbaal meant they were murdered by Abimelech (Judges 9:24) but Sarah's violation consisted of Hagar's mocking her (Genesis 16:5). The prophet Jeremiah was violated by Babylon, both in person and in the flesh (Jeremiah 51:35), and Habakkuk noted how the army of the Chaldeans were typically equipped for violation (Habakkuk 1:9). David cheered how the Lord saves from violation (2 Samuel 2:22), but Habakkuk cried "Violation!" and the Lord did not rescue (Habakkuk 1:2). Merchants who use corrupt scales are full of violation (Micah 6:12) and religious people who merely make stuff up fill the temple with violation (Zephaniah 1:9). Great cities store up violation because they don't know how to do it right (Amos 3:10), yet one day violation will no longer be heard of (Isaiah 60:18). Our noun is used in several proverbial constructions:
- נאות חמס, from plural of נוה (naweh), meaning abode; a nexus of violation (Psalm 74:20, comparable to Amos 3:10, Ezekiel 7:23 and next).
- שבת חמס (shebet hamas), the seat of violation (Amos 6:3).
- כלי חמס (keli hamas), implements of violation (Genesis 49:5).
- חמס בכפי (hamas bekapi), violation in my/their [hand-] palm (Jonah 3:8, 1 Chronicles 12:17, Isaiah 59:6) and חמס ידיכם (hamas yadikem) violation in your hands (Psalm 58:2).
- ער חמס ('ed hamas), witness of violation (Exodus 23:1, Deuteronomy 19:16, Psalm 35:11, also see Psalm 27:12).
- שנאת חמס, from שנא (sane') to hate; the hate of violation (Psalm 25:19).
- איש חמס ('ish hamas); man of violation (Psalm 18:48, 140:11, Proverbs 3:31, 16:29), and איש חמסים; man of violations (2 Samuel 22:49) or violating men (Psalm 140:2, 140:4).
- יין חמס (yayan hamas); the wine of violation (Proverbs 4:17).
- The masculine noun תחמס (tahmas), which denotes some kind of unclean bird (Leviticus 11:16, Deuteronomy 14:15). It's not clear what bird this word describes but most translations take it to be an owl or an ostrich (the same word means ostrich in Arabic).
The verb חמץ (hamas I) means to leaven, or more general: to wholly pervade something with an agent that alters the consistency of the thing. This would be the same as creating a violation from within, and is not very far removed from the verb חמס (hamas), meaning to violate. Our חמץ (hamas I) occurs four times:
Just prior and just after the Exodus, the Israelites had dough that wasn't leavened (Exodus 12:34, 12:39), because even though they had helped themselves to enormous quantities of Egypt's life stock, clothing, jewelry and even fellow slaves (Exodus 12:36-38), they were strongly prohibited from bringing along any of Egypt's leaven (שאר, se'or).
Leaven is a fungus that requires only a small initial residue to grow throughout a whole batch of dough. Sometimes this is a good thing (bread and beer become bubbly and more tasty because of leaven, and Jesus even likes the kingdom of heaven to leaven; Matthew 13:33), but most of the time this leaven-like behavior is exhibited by vices such as gossip and propaganda, misinformation, boasting and arrogance (Mark 8:15, Galatians 5:9, 1 Corinthians 5:7-8).
The prophet Hosea likens lying and adulterating people to dough in which leaven multiples until the baker puts it in the oven (baking leaves the bubbles but kills the leaven; Hosea 7:4) and the Psalmist speaks of his "leavened" heart, that is a heart invaded by troubling sentiments (Psalm 73:21).
Our verb comes with the following derivations:
- The masculine noun חמץ (hames), meaning something leavened. This collective word occurs almost only in prohibitions. Nothing leavened was to be in people's houses during Pesah (which probably served to remind people that they should periodically let go or critically review their hypotheses and paradigms and start afresh; Exodus 12:15, 13:3, Deuteronomy 16:3), and nothing leavened was to be sacrificed (Exodus 23:18, 34:25, Leviticus 2:11, 6:10). Two exceptions to the latter rule are (most tellingly): the peace offering (Leviticus 7:13) and the first-fruit offering at Pentecost (50 days after Pesah; Leviticus 23:17).
- The masculine noun חמץ (homes), meaning vinegar. Vinegar was a common condiment (Ruth 2:14) but on the Nazarene's list of forbidden foods (Numbers 6:3). Vinegar may appear like water, but not to someone who's dying of thirst (Psalm 69:21). Vinegar as a condiment is pleasant, but pure it's like smoke to the eyes or a lazy employee on an errant (Proverbs 10:26). A shot of vinegar on soda creates an effervescence of carbon dioxide, the same gas that leaven produces in bread and beer (hence the bubbles; Proverbs 25:20).
- The adjective חמיץ (hamis), meaning seasoned (and this probably with salt or a salty herb; the adjective itself merely denotes the adding of an agent that permeates and changes the whole; Isaiah 30:24 only).
- The feminine noun מחמצת (mahmeset), meaning anything leavened (Exodus 12:19-20 only).
The verb חמץ (hamas II) is thought to mean to be or make red, but here at Abarim Publications we doubt that. Our verb occurs twice:
In Isaiah 63:1 the author asks about someone coming with garments hamased. Why are this man's garments red (אדם, 'adam; Isaiah 63:2), like he's been trampling out grapes? It seems to us that our verb does not say the same thing as the word אדם, 'adam in the next verse, but rather describes a being drenched and stained with an agent that changes the appearance of these clothes wholly. It's the same verb as the previous one.
Psalm 68:23 expresses something similar (albeit with a touch more Hebrew flair), namely the wish that the addressed may drench and stain (and not simply dye red) his foot in the blood of the tongues of the dogs of his enemies. Most translations read rather lamely that he might dab or dip his foot in the blood, which obviously fails to convey what's going on. The blood from the tongues wasn't available for the foot to dip in, prior to its brute landing on and bursting these tongues. The action of the verb is in both texts the same, namely a wholly pervading and coloring.
Note that the word for unleavened bread is מצה (massa), which is similar to the verb מצה (masa) which means to drain out, which is the verb that also describes the draining blood from a freshly slaughtered animal (Leviticus 1:15).
The verb חמץ (hamas III) is thought to mean to be ruthless, and BDB Theological Dictionary timidly proposes that it might be a by-form of חמס (hamas). It only occurs in Psalm 71:4, where the poet entreats YHWH to rescue him out of the hand of the wicked (רשע, rasha') and the palm of the unjust (עול, 'awwal) and חומץ (hamas).
This verb's sole derivative is the masculine noun חמוץ (hamos), which occurs only in Isaiah 1:17, "Learn to do good, seek justice, reprove חמוץ (hamos), judge the orphan, contend for the widow".