Notes by Autumn Light

On Hebrew, English, translation, editing, and more—by Jonathan Orr-Stav

Do Samson’s riddles rhyme in Hebrew?

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AFAIK, Samson riddled only one riddle:

מֵהָאֹכֵל יָצָא מַאֲכָל וּמֵעַז יָצָא מָתוֹק

which phonetically goes roughly as follows:

meha’okhel yatza ma’akhal, ume’az yatza matoq

meaning (King James translation): “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.”

As you can see, there is no rhyme, but biblical Hebrew poetry rarely rhymes anyway. The hallmark of poetic biblical Hebrew is the use of tiqbolot (plural of tiqbolet, which in English goes by the ungainly name of parallelism)—i.e. a repetition of theme in consecutive clauses of the same sentence.

There are various types of tiqbolot, the primary ones being:

  • synonymous (where the same idea is repeated in different form)
  • antithetic (where the second clause states the opposite of the first)
  • complementary (where the second complements the first)

Samson’s riddle is a complementary parallelism, with a measure of alliteration (méha’okhel – ma’akhal; méaz – matoq) and a pinch of antithesis (az – matoq[strong – sweet]).

As poets go, he was no Koheleth (and generally more noted for brawn than for brains), and the riddle had no integral logic but based entirely on a particular experience of his, but the language does have a poetic quality to it, which is why the second clause in particular has become a turn of phrase that exists to this day (albeit with a different meaning: today, me’az yatza matoq means “something good has come out of adversity”).

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Author: יונתן אור-סתיו | Jonathan Orr-Stav

Hebrew-English translator, editor, author. מתרגם עברית–אנגלית, עורך באנגלית, וסופר.

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