By Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

A few weeks ago, I received an inquiry from my friend and noted author Rabbi Shmuel Botnick (whose eloquent words grace Mishpacha Magazine week by week). My esteemed interlocuter wanted to know about the difference between the words terumah and tenufah. Both of these terms are used in reference to the act of “waving” ritual sacrifices, but do these two words refer to the exact same act, or is there some nuance between them that makes them not synonyms? This question and more will be discussed in the following paragraphs.

The Torah stipules tenufah for the breast of a peace-offering which is given to a Kohen (Lev. 7:30, 7:34, 10:14–15, Num. 6:20), for the Omer offering (Lev. 23:11–12), the two loaves of bread offered on Shavuot (Lev. 23:20, plus the two lambs brought with the breads), for the ram of the milluim and its accompanying meal offerings (Ex. 29:24, Lev. 8:27), the breast of said ram given to Aaron (Ex. 29:26–27, Lev. 8:29), the Levites when they are inaugurated as the officiants in the ritual service (Num. 8:11, 8:13, 8:15, 8:21), the guilt offerings and accompanying oil for the purification of a leper (Lev. 14:12, 14:24), the meal offering of a suspected adulteress (Num. 5:25), the cooked shank of the Nazirite’s ram (Num. 6:20), and possibly bikkurim (see Mishnah Menachot 5:6).

On the other hand, the Torah stipulates terumah for the right thigh of a peace-offering that must be given to a Kohen (Lev. 7:32, 7:34, 10:14–15, Num. 6:20) and the thigh of the millium ram given to Aaron (Ex. 29:27). Other verses state that both the breast and the thigh of the peace-offering must undergo tenufah and terumah (Ex. 29:27, Lev. 10:15, 9:21). In fact, the rabbis (in Torat Kohanim, Tzav Parshata 11) derive from this mixing of instructions that everything that requires tenufah also requires terumah and vice versa. But what exactly are tenufah and terumah?

The Mishnah (Menachot 5:6) implies that of the two terms terumah and tenufah, one refers to a vertical movement (up-down) and one means horizontal movement (back-forth). Maimonides’ son Rabbi Avraham Maimuni writes in his commentary to the Torah (to Ex. 29:24) that tenufah itself means waving back-and-forth, as well as up-and-down. This seems to be based on the idea that in practice, whatever sacrifices require tenufah also require terumah, as mentioned above, so ultimately tenufah entails waving along both axes. However, this understanding does not really help us define the words tenufah and terumah vis-à-vis each other.

Rashi (to Ex. 29:26-27, Lev. 7:34, 10:15) writes that terumah refers to up-down waving, while tenufah means back-forth waving. Ibn Ezra (long commentary to Ex. 29:27) also seems to agree with this assessment. Rashi (to Ex. 29:24, following Menachot 62a) further elaborates on the meaning of these two acts of waving: The horizontal movement of tenufah in the various cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west) alludes to the fact that all four directions of the world belong to Hashem, while the vertical movement of terumah alludes to the notion that Hashem’s sovereignty applies to the heavens and the earth. Rashi (there) also explains that tenufah wards off punishments and “bad winds” that move along the horizontal axis, while the vertical movement of terumah wards off “bad dew/rains” which descend from above.

Peirush HaRokeach and Baal HaTurim (to Lev. 7:30) find an allusion to this paradigm by noting that in the pericope concerning the peace-offering (Lev. 7:28–38), inflections of the word tenufah appear four times (technically, three times but the extraneous hey in one of those instances is counted as an extra appearance), and inflections of the word terumah appear twice. This hints to the idea that tenufah entails waving something in the four lateral directions, while terumah involves simply waving something in two directions (up and down).

In reacting to the rabbinic rule that everything requiring tenufah also requires terumah, Rashi (to Lev. 10:15) writes that he does not know why sacrificial breasts are specifically associated with tenufah, while the sacrificial thighs are associated specifically with terumah, as both the breast and the thigh are supposed to undergo both tenufah and terumah.

Peirush HaRokeach (to Ex. 29:27, Lev. 7:34) attempts to alleviate this problem by explaining that when it comes to the breast, which is considered a wide flank, it is more appropriate to refer to tenufah which refers to waving something widthwise, while when it comes to the thigh, which is viewed as upright and erect, it is more appropriate to refer to terumah, which refers to waving something up and down. [See also Nachmanides to Lev. 10:15.]

Another approach may be gleaned from Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor (to Ex. 29:24), who writes that terumah and tenufah are synonyms, but that the Torah uses the two terms in tandem in order to avoid being repetitive. According to him, tenufah is said about the breast and terumah is said about the thigh as a mere matter of linguistic elegance, but that there is no real deeper significance in these word choices.

Rabbi Shmuel Botnick noted in his original question that Targum Onkelos (to Ex. 29:24) actually uses an Aramaic cognate of terumah when translating the Biblical Hebrew term tenufah said regarding the ram of the milluim. This would mean that tenufah means “elevating/lifting,” not “waving horizontally.” Yet, specifically regarding that passage, Rabbi Yaakov Zev Lev in Me’at Tzari (to Ex. 29:24) notes that Targum Onkelos disagrees with Rashi’s definition of tenufah as back-and-forth, instead defining tenufah as referring to up-and-down, just like he would define terumah. Although it might be tempting to say that Targum Onkelos simply follows Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor in seeing tenufah and terumah as synonymous, the truth is that Rabbi Lev (to Ex. 29:27) points out that Onkelos translates the word terumah said about the millium ram’s thigh as meaning “separating,” not as “lifting.”

This leads us to discussion of another meaning of the term terumah besides “waving up-and-down/elevating/lifting”: In the beginning of Parashat Terumah, the Torah uses the word terumah in reference to “donations” given towards the Tabernacle. In that context, Rashi (to Ex. 25:2) explains that terumah means “separation.” Rabbi Yehuda Kalats (in Miseach Ilmim there) explains Rashi’s intent by noting that terumah in this case cannot refer to the sort of terumah we have been discussing until now (“lifting” something up), because no physical act of “lifting” is required when giving a donation. Moreover, he explains that terumah in this context cannot refer to trei mi’meah as it does elsewhere in reference to the tithes (see below), because there is no specifically prescribed amount that was supposed to be donated for the Tabernacle. This is why Rashi clarified that in that context, terumah simply means “separating” a portion of one’s wealth for the sake of donating it to the Holy Tabernacle. [See also Ex. 35:22, where tenfuah also refers to donation.]

Terumah is also the name of a certain tithe given to the Kohen. How much from one’s produce must one give for this tithe? The Mishnah (Terumot 4:3) states that the generous person will give one-fortieth, the average person will give one-fiftieth, and the stingy person will give one-sixtieth. In line with the average position on this sliding scale, the Zohar (Korach 179a), Maimonides (in his commentary to the Mishnah there), and Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah #507) explain that the very word terumah can be exegetically parsed as a portmanteau of the phrase trei mi’meah (literally, “two from one-hundred,” which equals one-fiftieth).

When the Torah commands offering Two Loaves of Bread on Shavuot, it refers to those loaves as Lechem Tenufah (Lev. 23:17). Rashi (there) explains that to mean Lechem Terumah, because he interprets that verse as referring to the sanctified nature of those two loaves (i.e., they are “lifted” to a higher plane of holiness), as opposed to the physical act of “waving” the breads.

Let us now turn to the etymologies of the words terumah and tenufah, as that will help us differentiate between the core meanings of these two terms. In both cases, the initial tav is radical to the core root, as the roots in question are really reish-(vav)-mem and nun-(vav)-peh, respectively. Nonetheless, as both Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach (in his introduction to Sefer HaRikmah) and Maimonides (in his commentary to the Mishnah Terumot 1:1) have noted, in Rabbinic Hebrew the tav of terumah is viewed as part of the root, so verbs associated with the act of taking terumah (like torem) are conjugated thusly.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau explains that the root reish-(vav)-mem begets a bevy of words, all of which relate back to the core meaning of that root “height/esteem.” Some of those words include ram (“exalted,” i.e. somebody viewed as “above” the rest), marom (“lofty” place), re’em (a sort of “tall” animal), ramah (a type of “upward shooting/throwing” in a curved way), mirmah (“trickery,” i.e., a non-straight, curved way of acting), rimah (“worm,” a creature that appears as though it hovers “above” the ground), and rimmon (“pomegranate,” i.e., a fruit which is especially susceptible to infestation by a rimah). In the same way, terumah refers to “lifting” something up from amongst the rest of one’s possessions, in order to give it as a tithe or gift for a higher purpose. [For a discussion of whether the word armon (“palace”) also derives from this root, see “Castle in the Sky” (Nov. 2020).]

The issue gets more complicated when we realize that the etymology of tenufah follows a similar trajectory as that of terumah. As noted earlier, tenufah derives from the Biblical Hebrew root nun-(vav)-peh, whose core meaning Rabbi Pappenheim defines as “upward movement.” Other words derived from this root include l’hanif (“to lift,” especially in the context of lifting a sickle for harvesting produce), l’nofef (“to wave”), nafah (“sifter”), nof (“the top branch of a tree,” although in Modern Hebrew it refers to a “panoramic view” usually sighted from a vantage position), anaf (a form of “anger”), anafah (a type of bird), and niuf (“licentious promiscuity”).

If terumah refers to “lifting” something and tenufah refers to “lifting,” then what—if anything—is the difference between them?

Rabbi Pappenheim resolves this question by explaining that terumah refers specifically to waving something along the up-down axis, while tenufah is a more general term which can refer to waving either up-down or back-forth. This idea is borne out in the word nafah, which refers to the vessel used for sifting flour. To use that implement, one places coarse flour above the sifter’s filter and then moves the sifter back and forth such that only the finest flour falls down through the filter’s holes. In this way, the word nafah itself refers to both “back-and-forth” movement and “up-and-down” movement. See Rabbi Meir Simchah of Dvinsk’s Meshech Chochmah (to Ex. 29:27) and Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg’s HaKtav VeHaKabbalah (to Deut. 23:26) who make very similar points.

In explaining some of those other terms, Rabbi Pappenheim writes that anaf refers to an intense form of “anger” in which one’s body begins to shake and tremble, causing movements which can be viewed as tenufah-like. He likewise explains that anafah refers to a type of bird that can be easily angered, and thus be provoked into anaf, or a type of bird whose movements in the air resemble tenufah. Finally, he explains that niuf likewise involves engaging in “funny movements,” and is therefore also related to tenufah. [For more about the word anaf and other words for “anger,” see “Anger Issues” (July 2021).]

By the way, the word anaf that we just discussed is spelled with an initial aleph, so according to Rabbi Pappenheim’s system of etymology, that aleph can be viewed as radical to the core root. But there is also the word anaf (“branch”) spelled with an initial ayin, which Rabbi Pappenheim does not discuss here because in his system the letter ayin in a word must be part of the core root. That said, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ps. 48:3) seems to relate tenufah to this anaf, in the sense that an anaf spreads out to the sides of a tree’s trunk (but not upwards from there), just like tenufah refers to back-forth movement (but not necessarily upwards or downwards movement).

The Biblical Hebrew term nofet refers to “flowing-honey,” and also seems to be related to the root nun-(vav)-peh. Its most famous occurrence in the Bible is when the Psalmist describes the Torah as “sweeter than honey and flowing-honey [nofet tzufim]” (Ps. 19:11). Rabbi Pappenheim explains that nofet relates to the word nof because the nectar that bees use to make honey is typically found at “the top” of a tree branch or plant. Alternatively, he explains that it relates to tenufah because honey was once used to scent rooms, especially by putting honey on glowing coals and “waving” the good smell around so that it spreads in all directions (see Rashi to Prov. 7:17).

Additionally, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Carpentras (an 18th century grammarian and dayan) writes in Aholei Yehuda writes that nofet relates to tenufah in the sense that flowing-honey is considered a highly-regarded substance, such that on account of that esteem it is metaphorically “lifted” above other foodstuffs. Similarly, he writes that ramot (Job 28:18)—related to the same root which gives us terumah—refers to a type of precious gem that is so rare and important that it too is figuratively “lifted” above the rest. According to modern linguists, that gemstone may refer to black corals, mother of pearl, or some specific type of sea shell.

Speaking of ramot, that word leads us into our final discussion for this essay. As mentioned above, the root from which terumah derives is related to “heights,” and the word ramot as “heights” in the topographical sense appears many times in the Bible in the placename Ramot Gilead (sometimes spelled with a silent aleph after the reish). It is, of course, related to modern Israeli placenames like Ramot (a series of neighborhoods in Jerusalem), Ramat Eshkol, Ramat Bet Shemesh, Ramat HaSharon, and more.

On the other hand, I am not aware of any Biblical Hebrew placenames that are derived from the same root as terumah’s counterpart tenufah. The closest example I know of is the Egyptian city Memphis, which is once spelled Moph (Hos. 9:6) in the Bible, but is more commonly written with a nun as Noph (Isa. 19:13, Jer. 2:16, 44:1, 46:14, 46:19, Ezek. 30:16, 30:13). Nonetheless, it does not seem that the name of this city has anything to do with the root in question, as it is more likely just a Hebrew adaptation of a foreign name.

Similarly, the same is true of personal names. While the root reish-(vav)-mem has been adopted into personal names that are used in the Bible, by contrast—as far as this writer knows—the root nun-(vav)-peh is not used in any personal names that appear in the Bible or elsewhere. One appearance of the former root in personal names includes the name Ram (Ruth 4:19, I Chron. 2:9, 2:25), borne by the great-grandson of Judah who was the great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of King David. Similarly, that root has also been joined with theophoric elements (i.e., references to Hashem’s names) in personal names, as in the names Yirmiyahu (“Jeremiah,” which is comprised of an initial yod, then the reish-mem element, and then a theophoric element comprised of three letters from the Tetragrammaton) and Yoram (“Joram,” which is comprised of two letters from the Tetragrammaton and then the reish-mem element).

Interestingly, Rabbi Yehoshua Steinberg (of the Veromemanu Foundation) suggests that the name Remaliyahu (borne by the father of Pekach, king of Israel) is comprised of the root reish-mem (“exaltedness”), plus the grammatical lammed (“to”), followed by three letters of the Tetragrammaton. Others have argued that that personal name derives from the otherwise unattested triliteral root reish-mem-lammed. n

Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein is an author and freelance researcher based in Beitar Illit. He studied in Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and Beth Medrash Govoha of America in Lakewood, and received semichah from leading rabbis. He also holds an MA in Jewish Education from Middlesex University/London School of Jewish Studies. Rabbi Klein authored two popular books that were published by Mosaica Press, as well as countless scholarly articles published in various venues. His articles on Hebrew synonyms are commissioned by Yeshivas Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem and have appeared on their website since 2016.


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