Hapax Legomenon: a word that occurs only once within a context, either in the written record of an entire language, in the works of an author, or in a single text.
On the door in my parent’s garage hangs one of my favorite pieces of art. A pencil sketched cartoon from the likes of the New Yorker displays a man, back to the frame, wearing a stereotypical jumpsuit and holding a clipboard. Standing in front of his Ark is a stern faced Noah, speech bubble hovering overhead, announcing, “I don’t care what OSHA says, God said just one door!”
And so it is, God tells Noah to build an ark of ‘gopher’ wood, pitched inside and out. It was to be 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits tall. It was to have three levels and made with, as our cartoon Noah so precociously proclaims, just one door. There is also one other God given instruction – to make a צֹהַר (Tzohar). This directive is much harder for us to understand as it is indeed, a hapax legomena! (as a side note: this is also the only time the Torah uses the term gopher wood).
Without other points of reference to help derive meaning, we are left with only context and our imagination to decide what God meant. Indeed the entire rabbinic project is and has always been about exactly this – carefully reading so that we may paint for ourselves and for each other as vivid a picture as possible.
The rabbis float a range of plausibilities. Connecting our mysterious צֹהַר to צהריים – the word for afternoon (the time of day when light is ‘doubled’), some say it is an opening through which light enters to illuminate the cabins below. Reading in the rest of the phrase, “until it is one handbreadth wide at its finish,” others conjecture our puzzling word as describing an A framed roof. I.e. the boat walls should be 30 amot high, at which point they slant towards each other until they are separated by one hand breadth. There, Noah was to place a ‘capping plank’ called a צֹהַר. Later in the story Noah sends out the raven and dove through a חלון (window). Noticeably lacking from God’s original instructions, further opinions simply understand the צֹהַר to be a window. The most “out there” suggestion (which is obviously my favorite) offers that the צֹהַר is nothing less than a light emitting stone.
With these ideas the classic commentators cover the basic possible categories of explanation: grammatical, contextual, intertextual, and imaginative speculation. In doing so, they also pull back the veil on their personal motivations. In other words, those who love the imagination of the midrash (Rashi) clearly talk of the צֹהַר as a light emitting stone, while the grammaticians (Ibn Ezra) gravitate towards the skylight explanation.
Every reader will inevitably have to decide for herself the essence of the true instruction. Whatever it was, I like to think that Noah got an OSHA-approved second egress* in the end.
*Egress – a way to get out of a place. All OSHA approved living spaces require a minimum of two. (if you just read this, I apologize for the missed joke)