The word אמר means to ‘say’. A-mar is different from the word לדבר [li-da-ber] which means ‘to speak’. When you speak you actually utter words. A-mar is much broader, you can say things verbally or non-verbally – indicating, inferring, implying, hinting at – all these meanings are included in Amar. You don’t even need to communicate to another person. You can say a thing to yourself, for even thinking about something is included in this word. Ecclesiastes ponders the meaning of life, and comes to the conclusion: אָמַרְתִּי אֲנִי בְּלִבִּי–אֶת-הַצַּדִּיק וְאֶת-הָרָשָׁע, יִשְׁפֹּט הָאֱלֹהִים … I said in my heart – God will doom both the righteous and the wicked. [Eccl 3:17].
The fact that you don’t need to ‘speak’ in order to ‘say’ something gives us a more nuanced understanding of many biblical stories. Take for example, the story of Ruth. In chapter 3 there is the moving story of Ruth coming secretly at night to lie on the threshing floor with Boaz. At the end of the night Boaz gives her 6 stalks of barley to take home. Six stalks are worthless – and this gift is certainly perplexing.
There are 2 versions of the story in the Bible – the written version – known as the ‘Ktiv’ and the oral version known as the ‘Kri’. In the Oral version, Ruth reports to Naomi what happened:
יז וַתֹּאמֶר, שֵׁשׁ-הַשְּׂעֹרִים הָאֵלֶּה נָתַן לִי: כִּי אָמַר אֵלַי, אַל-תָּבוֹאִי רֵיקָם אֶל-חֲמוֹתֵךְ.
‘He gave me these 6 stalks, and he said to me, do not go home empty handed.’ Boaz actually says to Ruth that he is giving her the gift because didn’t want her to return home empty handed. This is still odd because the gift was so worthless.
The written version is more nuanced. According to this version, when Boaz gave Ruth the stalks of barley he didn’t say anything. When Ruth reports what happened, she uses the word אמר. ‘He gave me these 6 stalks, because he said (כי אמר), do not go home empty handed’.
The word אמר does not mean that he spoke. We need to read the explanation this way: ‘He gave me these 6 stalks of barley, because he must have been thinking, do not go home empty handed’. Everything happens in Ruth’s mind, and we hear how perplexed she is.
Why does Boaz give Ruth the barley? In Jewish law, a man betroths a woman by giving her something of monetary value. It doesn’t need to be worth much. Even if it is only worth one pruta – even if it is only 6 stalks of barley, it is valid. Boaz gives her the barley because he wants to say to her – I love you and I intend to marry you.
Ruth is a stranger in Judea. She doesn’t understand the hidden message and gives her own meaning to the strange gift. But Naomi does understand the hidden message. Her response, when she hears of the strange gift, is to reassure Ruth – ‘Do not worry. The matter will be settled by the end of the day’.
A-mar is a powerful word because it allows us to say big things without even saying them.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner
My Hebrew Word thanks the World Zionist Organisation and Masorti Olami for their support of this Project.