Translatable but Debatable – לערער l'ar'er

by Mark L. Levinson

Sometimes a place can so fully deserted as to cast doubt on its very placeness. 

עֲזֻבוֹת, עָרֵי עֲרֹעֵר; לַעֲדָרִים תִּהְיֶינָה, וְרָבְצוּ וְאֵין מַחֲרִיד.

Isaiah 17:2 says, in the 1917 JPS translation, “The cities of Aroer are forsaken; they shall be for flocks, which shall lie down, and none shall make them afraid.”  Aroer עִרְעֵר was the name of two different cities east of the Jordan, and my son’s high-school Cassuto Bible considers Isaiah is using the name to refer to the entire Ephraimite territory east of the Jordan.  Smith’s Bible Dictionary, on the other hand, says that Isaiah’s Aroer “if a place at all, must be further north than either of the two already named.”  And the American Standard Version translation doesn’t translate Aroer as a place.  It considers that the word ערער is merely another term meaning “deserted,” added for emphasis, and as its own emphasis it adds forever.  “Her towns will be deserted forever; they will be places for flocks, which will lie down, and no one will make them afraid.”

There is much to call into question.  Apparently sometimes ערער/Aroer is the name of a place; sometimes it has to do with being deserted, going delapidated, or even getting demolished; and sometimes it means to call into question. 

In a bureaucracy, of course, we can appeal a decision that we find questionable, and the verb לערער (l’ar’er) is defined variously at as “to appeal ; to object, to disagree ; to doubt.”  The online Almaany dictionary adds the verbs demur, contest, and deraign.  (That last one is a technical term in legal language.)  Sivan and Levenston’s Galil dictionary includes protest and even bewail.  Prof. Marcus Jastrow’s Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature notes that ערער is used in the Talmud to mean “contest the legality of an action, the legitimacy of a person, his fitness as judge, witness, &c.” as well as “strip, denude; make lonely” (like a ghost town) or “make shaky, loosen” (like a tooth).

Jeremiah prophesies:
חֹמֹות בָּבֶל הָרְחָבָה עַרְעֵר תִּתְעַרְעָר
which the JPS translates “the broad walls of Babylon shall be utterly overthrown.”  King James says “leveled to the ground” and Douay-Rheims says “utterly broken.” 

Jeremiah also uses ar’ar as a noun, in reference to a plant found in desolate territory:
וְהָיָה כְּעַרְעָר בָּעֲרָבָה וְלֹא יִרְאֶה כִּי־יָבֹוא טֹוב וְשָׁכַן חֲרֵרִים בַּמִּדְבָּר אֶרֶץ מְלֵחָה וְלֹא תֵשֵׁב

For the plant, various translations say shrub, brushwood, tamaric (tamarisk), juniper, and heath.  “For he shall be like the heath in the desert, and shall not see when good cometh; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land and not inhabited,” says King James.

The ar’ar in today’s Hebrew is the juniper.

The Even Shoshan Hebrew dictionary proceeds with more quotes about loneliness and emptiness, including the following two:

Psalms 102:17
פָּנָה אֶל־תְּפִלַּת הָעַרְעָר וְלֹא־בָזָה אֶת־תְּפִלָּתָם
King James again, “He will regard the prayer of the destitute, and not despise their prayer.”

Leviticus Rabbah 30
מְנַשֶּׁה מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה שֶׁהָיָה עַרְעָר מִמַּעֲשִׂים טוֹבִים
Can’t find a translation on line, but Menashe, King of Judah, was without good deeds. He was ar’ar of good deeds. I think bereft would be a good word in English.

Destitute. Bereft. Although the linkage may be considered smooth across the continuum from the wobbling of a loose tooth to the delegitimation of somebody’s judicial ruling to the destruction of a city, leaving it in bare desolation, and to a plant or person who is lonely or lacking, some of the dictionaries make a distinction between identically spelled ערער words (and there’s yet another one, which means to gargle).

Avner Greenberg wrote in to Translatable But Debatable suggesting a discussion of ערער in the sense of undermining, questioning, or casting doubt.  It’s never been my favorite verb, because it goes twice over two consonants that we Americans can’t pronounce well.  Even in English, I was never sure whether to pronounce the verb “err” like the first syllable of “error” or like the first syllable of “ermine.”  But what ערער does have in its favor that verbs like undermine or destabilize don’t is its ding-dong, seesaw , shikshukish repetition.  It brings to mind — to my mind, at least — an effort to weaken something by joggling it back and forth.

Besides all the above, additional translation options from the dictionaries are upset, subvert, shake, overthrow, shatter, and lay bare (the three-volume Alcalay dictionary) and erode, undercut, and destabilize (

If matters m’ar’er someone’s sanity, the verb can be madden or derange or unhinge or unbalance or (if someone does it deliberately) gaslight. Or more mildly, just trouble.

Out in the world surveyed by, which consists largely of Hebrew subtitling of English-language TV and cinema, there are interesting examples from dialogue.

On the TV series Smallville, someone ransacks the office of the student newspaper, The Torch.  The dialogue goes: “How are things with Chloe? I went to go talk to her but this whole Torch thing put her over the edge.”  (With “put her over the edge” translated as ערער אותה לגמרי.)

Other Reverso translations in similar situations include derailed, rattled, threw, rocked, and unnerved.  Also knocked him off his game. 

And in a different context, when the Monterey Bay ecosystem is polluted, the Hebrew on Reverso uses ערער where the English picturesquely says the ecosystem was distressed.

If you’d like to add a translation, or challenge any of the ones included (and you can count challenge as a translation of ערער), or otherwise continue the discussion of the particular word, by all means use the space below.  If there’s a different word you’d like to suggest for discussion, please write to me at .  An index of words and phrases discussed so far is here.

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.