Little by Little: Mandrakes, Water and a ‘Few’ Biblical Phrases
As the 1950’s song says, little things mean a lot. And this includes the many Hebrew words that describe littleness. Among the 8,674 biblical Hebrew root words in lexicographer James Strong’s concordance of the Bible, there are no fewer than 102 Hebrew words in which the root מ-ע-ט (mem, ayin, tet), fewness, appears. Adopting a rabbinic dictum using that root, תָּפַשְׂתָּ מוּעָט תָּפַשְׂתָּ (tafasta mu’at tafasta), “Take on only as much as you can handle,” this column will focus on just a few of these biblical iterations, לְמַעֵט (le-ma’et), excluding, for example, potentially politically charged modern words like מִיעוּטִים (mi’utim), minorities.
Chapter 24 of Genesis uses our root with lyrical daintiness, telling how forefather Abraham sent his servant in search of a wife suitable for his son Isaac. The servant, encountering a bevy of young women who had come to draw water for their flocks, singles out Rebecca. Approaching her at the well, he intones, using diction worthy of romantic poetry: “Kindly let me sip מְעַט מַיִם (me’at mayim), a bit of water, from your pitcher.” When she offers hydration to both the man and his 10 camels, he recognizes through her generosity that she is the woman for his master’s son.
Later, the root finds its way into a transaction between our foremothers Rachel and Leah, sisters both married to Jacob. When Rachel, who is barren, tries to steal Leah’s aphrodisiacal mandrakes, a distraught Leah begins a haranguing response, …הַמְעַט (ha-me’at), “Was it not enough [for you to take away my husband, that you would also take my mandrake love-flowers]?”
In Exodus, Moses, fed up with the backbiting of the disgruntled Israelites he has brought out from Egypt, approaches God to ask to be relieved of his commission to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land, pleading, עוֹד מְעַט וּסְקָלוּנִי (od me’at u-sekaluni), “It’s only a little time before they stone me.”
There is לֺא מְעַט (lo me’at), a lot more, that לְפִי מִיעוּט דַעַתִּי (lefi mi’ut da’ati), in all modesty, one might glean from the Bible’s remaining 99 uses of the root. According to a rabbinic tradition that has remained with the Jews since Talmudic times, when one coats the walls of one’s house one should, in memory of the destruction of Jerusalem, leave a דָבָר מוּעָט (davar mu’at), little patch, unpainted. Let us follow a modified version of the customs of our forebears and stop here, having, perhaps, only enough space to cover a מְעַט מִזְעָר (me’at miz’ar), infinitesimally small, exploration of the root.
Joseph Lowin’s columns for Hadassah Magazine are collected in the books HebrewSpeak and HebrewTalk.