I am aware that, in Biblical Hebrew, לֶ֫חֶם (lechem) properly means "bread," but by extension can mean "food" in general. In Judges 13:16 for instance, it seems that a young goat is referred to as lechem. And in 1 Samuel 14:24, Saul forbids his people from eating lechem, and Jonathan seems to transgress this order by eating honey.

But does Biblical Hebrew have other words for generic "food?" If so, how often are they used, and what are the subtle differences between the words?


2 Answers 2


You can use a (English/..)-Hebrew dictionary for questions like this. The appendix to Gesenius' 18th edition lists for Speise:

  • אֲכִילָה
  • אֹ֫כֶל
  • בָּרוֹת
  • בָּרוּת
  • בִּרְיָה
  • לֶ֫חֶם
  • מַאֲכָל
  • מָזוֹן
  • מַכֹּ֫לֶת

Of course, some of these come from the same roots and besides אכל and לחם I don't think any occurs frequently.

It should be noted that "bread" is not the core meaning of לחם. Across the Semitic languages, this root denotes basic food items and it depends on the geographical environment what that concretely is. Thus, in Hebrew, לחם is "bread", Arabic laḥm is "meat", Ethiopic laḥm is "cow", Soqoṭri leḥem is "fish". See Gluck, 1976, 'The root lḥm in Hebrew and in the Semitic languages', OTWSA 19(1): 41–43, for discussion.

  • +1 Very interesting! I didn't know that "food" was actually the more fundamental meaning of לחם instead of "bread!" Sep 4, 2018 at 20:32

Yes: there is אֹ֫כֶל 'okhel, probably the most generic term since it comes from אכל '-k-l "to eat".

Between lekhem and 'okhel, I expect the main difference is no more than that lekhem can mean bread if desired, and often does. In any case, lehkem certainly is general enough a term for "food" that we can see it in a doublet in 1 Kings 21:4, for example:

וַיִּשְׁכַּב֙ עַל־מִטָּת֔וֹ וַיַּסֵּ֥ב אֶת־פָּנָ֖יו וְלֹֽא־אָ֥כַל לָֽחֶם

[Ahab] lay on his bed, turned his face [to the pillow?] and did not 'akhal any lekhem.

Sometimes the meaning of lekhem is ambiguous. For example, in Genesis 18, Abraham says he'll get the visitors a smidgen of lekhem (פַת־לֶחֶם), but then kills a choice calf and brings meat, curds, and milk. He hospitably over-delivers on the promise, that's clear; but was his promise for food (surprise of quantity) or for bread (surprise of dish as well)? Maybe the guests didn't know any more than we do. But in either case, he didn't tell them he was serving veal. :)

There's also the seemingly rare מָזוֹן mazon, from זוּן z-w-n "to feed". One intuitive reason this would be rare is that Hebrew prefers to apply causative binyanim to verbs like '-k-l (cause to eat → feed).

If others have more detailed analyses, I'll add them (or they can free to write another answer).

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