Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
Dictionaries commonly list a small cluster of homonyms and pseudo-homonyms of the forms פרס and פרש but here at Abarim Publications we are pretty sure that all these words express the same idea, namely that of the sudden spreading out of some previously concealed medium or entity into the full view of careful observers.
The two roots פרס (paras) and פרש (paras) probably sounded similar to ancient Hebrew authors, which is how in several instances the spelling is פרש while most scholars agree that the meaning is פרס (see below). Some commentators hold that this mix-up is due to the errors of sleepy scribes, but this bizarre stance is short lived in the contemplation of the most stringent rules that surrounded the production of texts in the Jewish literary tradition, which, we might add, is arguably the greatest and most skilled literary tradition the world has ever seen. The Hebrews were the only people who had a text instead of an effigy at the central part of their central temple.
The letters ס and ש are often found to alternate in Hebrews words — for instance in the masculine noun חרשׂ (heres), meaning earthenware and its feminine plural counterpart חרסות (harsit), or the words פשה (pasa) and פסה (pissa), both meaning to spread. Why this alternation of letters occurs can today only be guessed at, but it certainly had a deeply profound function.
In the Middle Ages, that is a thousand years after the Hebrews Scriptures were finalized, the Masoretes began to add symbols to the text with the intention to preserve its pronunciation. So doing they made two letters out of the one ש, namely שׂ (sin, with the dot to the left), and שׁ (shin, with the dot to the right). When modern dictionaries began to be produced, it had been forgotten that the Masoretes had made their contributions well in the modern era and the dots were interpreted as original. To this day, ש-words which the Masoretes dotted as שׂ-words are listed before and separate from שׁ-words, but the modern reader should remember that to the original authors and the first thousand years of their readers, no distinction between שׂ and שׁ existed (and note that your progressive friends at Abarim Publications proudly revert back to pre-Masoretic notations and word order).
Scholars identify one root פרס (paras), one root פרשׂ (paras) and a whopping four separate roots פרשׁ (parash), but it takes little semantic gymnastics to fold them all into one. Also note the similarities between our root(s) פרס (paras) and פרש (paras), and פרר (parar), meaning to break, split or divide and פרץ (paras), meaning to break (through). Moreover, the verb פרד (parad) means to divide or spread out, whereas the noun פרד (pered) means mule.
The root פרס (paras) means to break in two or divide, and occurs as such also in Arabic and Syriac. This verb is spelled, and (according to the Masoretes) pronounced the same as the Hebrew word for Persia, the proverbial two-fold Medo-Persian empire (see our article on that name for more details).
Our verb appears only a few times in the Bible: Isaiah 58:7 and Jeremiah 16:7 speak of breaking bread, and Leviticus 11:3-7, 11:26 and Deuteronomy 14:6-8 of splitting hoofs (that is the reduplicate term: פרס פרסה; the actual word for hoof comes from this same root, see below). Psalm 69:32 uses this verb in the sense of having a hoof or being hoofed (literally: being a splitter). Micah 3:3 speaks of the breaking of bones and Lamentations 4:4 of bread, and both these instances use the alternate form פרש.
From our verb derive the following:
- The masculine noun פרס (peres), which denoted some kind or class of unclean bird (Leviticus 11:13 and Deuteronomy 14:12 only). Most commentators appear to assume that this kind of bird was known for tearing or breaking its prey (eagles, vultures and pretty much every other carnivore) but here at Abarim Publications we surmise that this word covers the class of bird that has a distinctive cloven hoof-like foot, namely the ostrich, the only didactyl (two-toed) bird in the world.
- The feminine noun פרסה (parsa), meaning hoof. Oddly enough, this word covers split hoofs (Exodus 10:26, Ezekiel 32:13, Micah 4:13) and non-split ones (horse-hoofs; Isaiah 5:28, Ezekiel 26:11, Jeremiah 47:3). This indicates that any kind of hoof was known as a splitter or divider but it's not clear why. But the pattern is pervasive as the noun פר (par), meaning bull, comes from a root פרר (parar), which also has to do with breaking and splitting.
Here at Abarim Publications we surmise that our verb פרס (paras) primarily denotes a quantification or portioning (hence the "breaking of bread with the poor", as mentioned in Isaiah 58:7, denotes the dividing of food into equal portions). The noun פרסה (parsa) thus doesn't literally denote an ungulate's extreme digit but rather the animal as unit of a larger herd, which would be marvelously equivalent with our modern but much more arbitrary term "head". In Exodus 10:26, for instance, Moses informs Pharaoh that "no hoof" would be left behind, and that obviously isn't meant to bring to mind three-legged cows.
The association between herd and animal is really quite similar to that between the animal and its legs, and it requires no giant verbal leap to see how the word for quantum-of-herd could become applied to the animal's feet. Why Artiodactyla (even toed ungulates) are generally clean while Perissodactyla (odd-toed ungulates) aren't has never been very clear and is subsequently much discussed by scholars.
Here at Abarim Publications we ultimately hold that the biosphere and the mental sphere are self-similar, and classes of animal correspond with classes of human mentality. We surmise that Israel's dietary laws were also designed to condition the people into intuitively knowing which kinds of thinking were good to assimilate from surrounding cultures and which weren't. Bringing up the cud could correspond with thinking and rethinking certain knowledge before it's finally accepted, and standing on divided hoofs perhaps corresponds to a critical and discerning approach. But perhaps the somewhat minor difference in hoof is really the outward sign of the major difference by which Artiodactyla and Perissodactyla digest their food: the clean guys have several, specialized stomachs, whereas the unclean guys merely have a huge bowel tract.
The verb פרש (by the Masoretes interpreted as פרשׂ, or paras) means to spread or spread out.
This verb occurs sixty-nine times in the Old Testament; thirteen times it describes the protective spreading of the wings (כנף, kanap) of the cherubim of the Ark (Exodus 25:20, 1 Kings 6:27), or those of God (Deuteronomy 32:11, Jeremiah 48:40), nine times it describes the spreading of a net (רשת, reshet; Ezekiel 12:13, 19:8), and eighteen times it describes the spreading of one's hands in prayer (thirteen times כף, kap, denoting the open palm, and five times יד, yad, denoting a clenched fist; Exodus 9:29, Job 11:13, Ezra 9:5).
From this verb derives the masculine noun מפרש (mipras), denoting either a spreading out or a thing spread out (Ezekiel 27:7, Job 36:29). In Job 26:9 occurs an otherwise unused word פרשז (parsez), which is assumed to be an unusual form of our verb, and is commonly translated as "he spreads".
The verb פרשׁ (parash I) means to declare with precision, make wholly obvious or fully explain. It occurs less than half a dozen times in the Bible. Leviticus 24:12 states that a blaspheming culprit is to be placed under guard until the will of YHWH is made clear. Something similar occurs in Numbers 15:34, but in regard to a Sabbath violator. Nehemiah 8:8 says that Ezra and assistants read aloud the Book of the Law of God in a clear/clarifying way, and explained the meaning of the reading. Ezra 4:18 is in Aramaic but uses the same form as Nehemiah 8:8 (namely מפרש), when it speaks of a letter declared and read aloud.
There is obviously very little difference between the act of spreading something out and declaring it in an obvious way, and the artificial verbs פרשׂ and פרשׁ are really one and the same dotless verb פרש. This verb's only derivative is the feminine noun פרשה (parasha), meaning a precise statement (Esther 4:7 and 10:2 only).
The verb פרשׁ (parash II) was called into existence due to a single poetic statement, namely Proverbs 23:32, where the author speaks of the last gulp of a wine drinking binge, which bites like a snake and פרשׁ like a viper. Most translators seem to believe that the serpentine last swig stings or pierces the merry inebriate, but read our article on the word יין (yayan), in which we show that wine is literally a mind-changer: the viper suddenly pops up to show itself in great painful detail to the drunk.
Note that the here used word for viper, namely צפע (sepa') is similar (and comes from an identical root צפע sp'), as the noun צפיע (sapia'), meaning cattle dung (Ezekiel 4:15 only). This is not an accident, as we will see with the next root:
The verb פרשׁ (parash III) isn't used in the Bible, but in Aramaic this same verb is used to describe the bursting forth of a snake's brood. In Arabic and Syriac this verb exists with the meaning of to rip open a stomach and scatter the contents (flopping intestines obviously resemble slithering snakes). In the world of winos this is a familiar occurrence, and certainly on a par with the verb of full divulgence (parash I).
Note that this root's core idea of sudden and full revelation does not describe what precisely is produced in full, only that something is. This verb's derived masculine noun פרש (peresh) means fecal matter (Malachi 2:3) or the exposed bowels of a sacrificial animal (Exodus 29:14, Leviticus 4:11, Numbers 19:5).
Root פרשׁ (parash IV) does not occur as verb in the Bible, and it's a mystery what it might have meant (that is, if it's indeed its own root and not simply part of our über root). Its sole extant Biblical derivative is the word masculine noun פרש (parash), which occurs fifty-seven times (fifty-four times in plural) and denotes either horses (Isaiah 28:28 Ezekiel 27:14, Joel 2:4) or horsemen (Genesis 50:9, Jeremiah 4:29, Nahum 3:3).
Its more common semi-equivalent is the noun סוס (sus), meaning horse, but the difference is that סוס (sus) mostly describes the signature swift action of the animal, while פרש (parash) falls in line with the previous verbs in that it denotes a military unit or army-quantum, and particularly that part of the army that could suddenly appear from over the horizon in full and horrifying display.
The noun פרשגן (parshegen) is said to be an Aramaic-Persian loanword. It occurs only in Ezra 7:11, and is commonly translated with "copy", which, whether by accident or design, obviously reflects root פרשׁ (parash I).
The valiant judge thrust his sword into Eglon's belly, and while the fat closed around the entry point, something evacuated the פרשדנה (parshedona). Whatever it was that came out, it caused Eglon's men to think their master was defecating, and scholarly estimates to the identity of that which came out range from Eglon's bowel content to Ehud's sword (linking our word clearly to roots 1 and 3).
Our noun פרשדנה (parshedona) necessarily denotes the exit, but it isn't clear whether it describes an exit wound or natural cavity. Though rather Tarantinian, Ehud's crafty defeat of Eglon is deliberately comedic (a delightful and clarifying quality which uninspired translating sadly obscures) and our word may very well be a flippant fabrication specifically evoked to describe Eglon's whopping keister.