Nekev, A Hole in (More Than) One
What do flutes, pores, pierced ears, mallets, curses and train conductors have in common? They are all related to the root נ–ק–ב (nun, kof, vet), to perforate. In Hebrew, a נֶקֶב (nekev), hole, covers a wide spectrum. There is the Talmudic נֶקֶב הַמַּחַט (nekev ha-mahat), eye of the needle, through which one pushes an elephant—symbolizing convoluted
reasoning. To make music with a recorder, one’s fingers play on the instrument’s נְקָבִים (nekavim), holes. Other nekavim, perforations, on the lungs of a slaughtered animal, render it unkosher. There are holes on human skin, נַקְבּוּבִים (nakbuvim), pores, through which one excretes impurities. In the Asher Yatsar blessing, recited on emerging from the lavatory, one praises God for having created human beings with נְקָבִים נְקָָבִים (nekavim nekavim), many apertures, necessary for bodily functions.
Other types of holes can be traced to our root, like a נִקבָּה (nikbah), tunnel. On the train, the conductor uses his מַקָּב (makkav), hole-puncher, to acknowledge your ticket. For some, נִיקּוּב אֺזְנָים (nikkuv oznayim), ear piercing, is a rite of passage. Remember the holes of IBM punch cards at college registration? In Hebrew, the procedure was called נַקְבָנוּת (nakvanut), key punching. A carpenter’s tool that gouges wood is a מַקֶּבֶת (makkevet), mallet. Some say this word explains why Judah, the hero of Maccabean fame, is called הַמַּקַּבִּי (ha-makkabi), the Hammer.
The root appears in a biblical allusion to the creation of the two genders, זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה (zakhar u-nekevah), masculine and feminine. A midrash declares that this refers to one body, created with corresponding male and female parts.
The verb נַקָב (nakav) often indicates outrageous speech. The Talmud characterizes Moses, normally sympathetic, as callous in rendering justice, attributing to him the enigmatic expression יִקֺּב הַדִּין אֶת הָהָר (yikkov ha-din et ha-har), “Let justice make a gash in the mountain.” The verb also designates another form of outrageous speech, blasphemy. Leviticus prescribes the death penalty for one who ’נֺקֵּב שֵׁם ה (nokkev shem ha-shem), curses God’s name. In Numbers, to justify his refusal of Balak’s summons to curse the Israelites, Balaam asks, מָה אֶקֺּב לֺא קַבּ אֵ–ל (mah ekkov lo kabo e-l), “Why should I curse whom God has not cursed?” The verb is also used in naming. After 14 years of service, Jacob asks for wages from his father-in-law, whom לֺא נִיקב בְּשֵׁם (lo nikov be-shem), we shall not name. Deviously, the scoundrel proposes ָנָקְבָה שְׂכָרְך (nakvah sekharkha), “Name your price.” That a canny Jacob defeats this shady dealmaker remains a cause for optimism today.