The first legal case one studies in Talmud class reads like a rather contemporary allegory. It involves two litigants invoking the principle of “finders, keepers.” Each petitioner, claiming ownership, grasps onto the same talit and asserts, אֲנִי מְצָאתִיהָ (ani metsatiha), “I found it [first].”
Among the more than 400 instances of the root מ‑צ‑א (mem, tsadi, alef), “to find,” in Scripture, one finds similarly familiar stories. God, unable לִמְצוֹא (limtso), to find, a suitable helpmate for Adam, goes back to the drawing board to create Eve. Noah’s dove, after the flood, לֹא מָצְאָה (lo mats’ah), was unable to find, a place to rest her feet. When Abraham bargains with God for the souls of Sodom, God assents, saying, אִם אֶמְצָא (im emtsa), “should I find [10 righteous people there, I will spare the city].” In a less well-known episode, Joseph, searching for his missing brothers, is himself “found” by a stranger—וַיִּמְצָאֵהוּ אִישׁ (va-yimtsa’ehu ish), a mysterious man “comes upon” him, offering help.
Of King Saul it is said jokingly that when as a youth he went looking for his father’s asses, וַיִּמְצָאֵהוּ מַלְכוּת (va-yimtsa’ehu malkhut), kingship found him. The Talmud reports a joke of questionable taste that plays on our root. At weddings, it was customary to ask about the bride: מָצָא א מצֵא (matsa o motse?), Is the bride, as described in Proverbs, “a good find?” Or should we apply the misogynistic words of Ecclesiastes, who “finds woman bitter”? The Talmud uses the relative clause מַה מָצִינוּ (mah matsinu), “that we have found,” when it wants to ascribe similarity to a new situation.
In 1903, Hayyim Nahman Bialik lamented in his poem “On the Slaughter” that after the Kishinev Pogrom he looked for “a path to God,” but, he moans, לֹא מְצָאתִיו (lo metsativ), “I did not find it.”
Today, the root is used in idiomatic expressions, e.g., מצֵא חֵן בְּעֵינַי (motse hen be-enai), I like it, literally, it finds favor in my eyes. One who מִתְמָצֵא (mitmatse), is familiar with, his surroundings finds himself comfortable there. The English equivalent of מַמְצִיא (mamtsi) is inventor, from invenire, Latin for, to find. Is it מְצִיאוּתִי (metsi’uti), realistic, to look for both הָרָצוּי וְהַמָּצוּי (ha-ratsu’i ve-ha-matsu’i), what is desired and what is easily found? Everybody with a little Yiddish likes to find a מְצִיאָה (metsi’ah), bargain. If it is not on the shelves, ask about the store’s מְצַאי (metsai), inventory.
Look for the similar but different root מ‑צ‑ה (mem, tsadi, heh) in the upcoming Passover issue. At the Seder, when you find the afikoman, don’t add confusion by yelling, אֲנִי מְצָאתִיהָ (ani metsatiha), “I found [the matza]!”