Jewish weddings conjure a variety of Hebrew words: ahavah (love), shidukh (matchmaking), chatunah (wedding), chatan (groom), kalah (bride), mazal tov (good luck), mishpachah (family), and many more. At this juncture I would like to explore two Hebrew words for family: mishpachah and pamalia.
The word Mishpachah is derived from the root s.p.ch meaning add, join together or attach. In the Bible the word mishpachah appears over 300 times and has several meanings. Mishpachah means a nation, as in the phrases mishpachot haamim (the families of nations) (Ps 96:7) and mishpachot haadamah (the families of the earth) (Gen 12:3). Mishpachah also points to different species of animals as indicated by the story of Noah’s ark (Gen 8:19). And mishpachah can also refer to a group of people of the same profession as the family of scribes who lived in Jabez (I Ch 2:55). In modern Hebrew mishpachah is also used to indicate a group of values as well as a family of languages derived from a common source.
In the Bible most of the time, the concept mishpachah is used in terms of a household, a group of people joined together by common ancestry, marriage or contractual arrangement. It included parents, children, grandchildren and extended relatives. And, since they were attached, whether by genetics or by law, they had a responsibility for one another to extend mutual support and care. Moreover, biblical society included women who served a family as an integral part of the mishpachah. Indeed the term shiphchah, the maidservant, is derived from the same root as mishpachah. The best example illustrating this connection is found in the Abraham, Sarah and Hagar story (Gen 16). When Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to be a surrogate mother, Hagar was called a shiphchah. But, when Sarah decided this attachment was detrimental to the family and demanded that Abraham send her away, Hagar was called ama, a different word for woman slave. Hagar was still a servant, a mother of Abraham’s child, but in Sarah’s mind she was no longer attached to the family, the mishpachah.
Another word in Hebrew for family is pamalia. This word entered the Hebrew in rabbinic times and is derived from the Latin famul or famulus meaning slave. The slave in the Roman family, like the shiphchah in the Hebrew family, belonged to the household. Hence, in Roman society all those attached or belonging to the core group were familia, out of which the English word ‘family’ is derived. The Hebrew language, which borrowed the term from the Latin, gave the word a twist in meaning. Here, the pamalia is a group attached to one another with clear obligations in the meaning of an entourage. Thus, we have the phase pamalia shel maalah, literally, the family or the entourage of Above, in reference to the angels who serve God. Another phrase is pamalia shel melekh, the entourage of the king and, yet another, pamalia shel maatah, literally, a family of below, to indicate a group of wise people or common men on earth.
Hence, we see that both words for family, mishpachah and pamalia, entered the Hebrew language from different cultural milieus and, thereby, infer different shades of meaning to the core institution of the family. Indeed, when we celebrate a Jewish wedding we think of the biblical word mishpachah when people are joined in marriage, attached by love and contract, and are responsible to each other. We do not think of the post biblical word pamalia, which infers an obligatory entourage.
And so, in the way of Jewish tradition I wish all newlyweds a Mazal Tov. I hope their mishpachah continues the biblical tradition of care and mutual support and that they will be blessed by the Pamalia shel Maalah with health and contentment.