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Hebrew Thoughts

rô’sh - ראשׁ (Strong's #7218)
Head, chief

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"And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became four heads." (Genesis 2:10, JPS)

The word ראשׁ rô’sh "head, chief, top, beginning" (Strong's #7218, x598) occurs nearly 600 times and is common to most semitic languages including Akkadian, Arabic, Canaanite, Ethiopic, Moabite etc. It is translated predominantly by "head" in about half of its near 750 uses (including derivatives), both literally and figuratively, as in its first use of the four sources or river-heads in the biblical garden of Eden.

The twentieth letter of the Hebrew alphabet is called רֵישׁ rêysh and is essentially the same as רֵאשׁ rê’sh (Strong's #7217, x14), the Aramaic for "head". The ancient Hebrew and Phoenician symbol or pictograph for the letter looks like a capital P turned backwards with the top closed circle representing a head on a stick body. Both Greek and Russian still use P for 'R'. See for more on the letter shape's ancient evolution.

It is most well known in the Jewish Hebrew phrase ראשׁ הַשָּׁנָה rô’sh hashShanah meaning "head of the year" or New Year, celebrated around late September. Here "head" means "beginning", and is only used once in the Bible to describe the beginning of the year, per se, in Ezekiel 40:1.

So "head" is both the meaning visually, literally and metaphorically. It is translated some 350 times as "head", another 90 odd as "chief", then "top" x73, or as "beginning" x14. Some 10 times we have "captain" or "first" x6 and "principal" x5, elsewhere some other 44 miscellaneous variations, but the meaning is pretty much the same, only the context determines which is the best word to use.

As "top" of a body or a mound it could mean "head" or "summit" (Exodus 17:9). It covered everything from the "head"/"top" of a column to that of an ear of corn (Job 24:24), from the top of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:4) to that of Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28:12).

As "head" of a family, tribe or military body it could mean "chief" or "captain", "leader", "ruler" or "priest". Curiously, it is rarely applied to the chiefs of Gentile nations.

About 9-10 times it is used for "sum" (Exodus 30:12, Numbers 1:2) where the idea is clearly that of a "head-count" or census.

By inference that the top or first of something was superior somehow, it came to also mean the "choicest" or "best". Somewhat similar to the more modern expression "top of the milk", since the best part, the cream, rises to the top. Also, there is the apparently Irish-origined phrase, "top of the morning", going back a few centuries meaning "the best of the morning", i.e., "have a good day", on which see Hebrew lacks a direct way of saying "the best" and often resorts to euphemisms or repeating a word to indicate its heightened quality.

It could even mean "the worst" when combined in הַראשׁ כֶּלֶב harô’sh keleb "the head of the dog", 2 Samuel 3:8, since a dog was an unclean creature, so the best dog might be seen as the most unclean. A dog's dinner, in modern idiom, to describe something that is inferior.

It is used in contrast to זָנַב zânabh "tail" (Strong's #2180, x11) in Isaiah 9:14 to describe God's cutting off both "the head and the tail", and synonymously "the branch and the leaf" in the next phrase - we would probably say a "root and branch" clear out.

Again, here, there is a hint at ראשׁ rô’sh meaning not only "head" in the sense of "top" or "leader" but also as in "source". Whether the source of a river, the progenitor of a family, or the "head" of a woman, the latter of which has led to much theological discussion over male headship. In the NT Jesus is seen as the "head" or the Church, but again, in what sense? Chief or source, first or primary branch from which all other leaves grow and have their origin?

ראשׁ rô’sh is the root of the word רֵאשִׁית rê’shîyth "beginning" (Strong's #7225, x51), part of the phrase that opens the Bible, indeed the very first word רֵאשִׁית composed of the preposition בֵ be "in" and the רֵאשִׁית rê’shîyth. For more on this word, see the Hebrew Thoughts wordstudy on it.

Another derived word is רִאשׁוֹן ri’shôwn "first, primary, former" (Strong's #7223, x185) usually rendered "first" or "beginining" of a sequence or series, or oldest in time.

Often considered a secondary unrelated meaing, ראשׁ rô’sh (Strong's #7219, x12) can be translated as "poison" or "bitter" in a dozen biblical passages, perhaps due to an ancient reference to a plant-head that was poisonous or bitter. Some have suggested something like wormwood to which it is compared in Deuteronomy 29:17 or even to the opium poppy, well known for its "head" as flower or seed pod.

It occurs, also, as the proper name of one of the sons of Benjamin, Genesis 46:21, ראשׁ rô’sh (Strong's #7220, x1). In Isaiah 66:19; Ezekiel 38:2,3; 39:1, there is some confusion as to whether ראשׁ rô’sh (Strong's #7220b, x4) is a proper name of a nation, a prince, or the word "chief" as qualifying prince. "Son of man, set thy face toward Gog, of the land of Magog, the prince of Rosh (NAS/NKJV) / chief prince (JPS/KJV) of Meshech and Tubal, and prophesy against him" (Ezekiel 38:2).

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