People who love language, delight in discussing the nuances of word choice. And while it may seem trivial to some, the subtle difference in choosing one particular word over another may have profound implications. Two of the most important words in the study of Torah are words that could have the same translation, but, according to tradition, have very different meanings. The two words (in their infinitive form) are la’goor and layshev, both of which may be translated as “to dwell,” but are more specifically defined as “to sojourn” and “to settle.”

There is a famous statement in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a) attributed to Rabbi Yochanan noting that whenever the verb layshev is used, trouble follows shortly thereafter. Rabbi Yochanan cites several examples, including Israel’s settling in the Land of Egypt when they had initially come down to escape the famine and to reunite Jacob and Joseph.

“Settling” is related to the word sitting, both of which reflect a similar lack of movement. Those who “settle” put down roots and assume a specific future. Those who “sojourn,” however, intend, sooner or later, to continue on to someplace else.

Although Rabbi Yochanan’s comment was made regarding the scriptural use of the word “to settle,” one might see his comments as a message for every generation. From one point of view, those who settle have no need to try to grow spiritually, whereas those who only sojourn hope to move forward.  One might also compare the question of “settling” verses “sojourning” regarding the basic Jewish belief in the imminent arrival of the Messiah. While one need not shun acts of settling (establishing a career, buying a house, etc.), one should always remember that the Messianic era may be only a moment away.

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