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Beshalach (Shmot 17:6):

... you shall strike the rock (tzur) and water will come forth from it ...

Chukat (Bamidbar 20:8):

... speak to the rock (selah) before their eyes and it shall give its waters ...

Is the difference between the words tzur and selah significant here?

I heard these two episodes contrasted and discussed at length but no one ever mentioned that the Hebrew words for rock used in these two passages are different, and when I asked the speakers about it, they had nothing to say off hand.

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The Chizkuni on Chukas says "Some explain that this episode is the one in B'shalach, but this is nonsense, as the episode with the tzur took place in Chorev whereas this sela episode took place in Kadesh near Edom". Since he didn't say "since that was with a tzur and this with a sela", perhaps we can infer that either they're synonyms or one is a hyponym of the other. Tol'dos Yitzchak (Karo) on B'shalach says the two episodes occurred with the same rock, in fact. None of this answers your question, though. +1, in any event. – msh210 Aug 16 '13 at 5:16
An interesting side note:The Gra uses the expression milah bsela shtuka mtrein(a word is worth a sela but silence is worth two,from masheches megillah)to hint to hitting the rock.He says that Eldad and Meidad were prophesying that Moshe won't enter Eretz Yisrael because he hit the rock,so he explains the expression to mean milah bselah( a word to the rock),shtuka mtrein(would have silenced the two,Eldad and Meidad). – sam Aug 18 '13 at 20:27
Related: english.stackexchange.com/q/21335/2396 – WAF Dec 22 '13 at 13:22
up vote 8 down vote accepted

The Rebbe Maharash (Toras Shmuel 5632 vol. 2 pg. 377) notes this discrepancy between the two terms used for "rock", and explains it based on a Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni Chukas Remez 763):

והכיתם לא נאמר, א"ל כשהנער קטן רבו מכהו ומלמדו כיון שהגדיל בדבור הוא מיסרו, כך אמר הקב"ה למשה כשהיה סלע זה קטן הכית אותו שנאמר והכית בצור אבל עכשיו ודברתם אל הסלע שנה עליו פרק אחד והוא מוציא מים מן הסלע

"Speak to the rock, do not strike it. G-d told Moses, 'when a child is young, the educator may [at times] hit the lad in order teach it. When the child grows into adulthood, however, the educator must rebuke him only verbally. Similarly, when the rock was but a 'small child,' I instructed you to strike it; but now [after 40 years when it has grown larger] you must only speak to it. Teach it a chapter of Torah and it will produce water."

He continues to explain how these two concepts correspond to two levels of Jewish souls. The incident in Parshas Beshalach occurred shortly after the leaving Mitzrayim, when the Jewish nation were still considered "young" and likened to a צור. However, the story in Parshas Chukas was after 40 years of the Jews being in the desert, and had by then reached the level of a סלע. Thus, Moshe erred by treating them in a manner that was appropriate for a צור.

See the original discourse at length, or here adapted in English by Rabbi YY Jacobson (thanks @Menachem).

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Is Tzur a young rock and Sela an old rock? – Double AA Aug 16 '13 at 4:49

The Malbim explains this as follows:

A צור refers to a hard rock that most certainly does not contain any water within. There was no problem hitting such a rock to cause water to come out, as this was undeniably a miracle. However a סלע is a type of rock that naturally has water inside. Moshe was therefore commanded not to strike such a rock, as Hashem wanted to prove that the water came out miraculously. Hitting such a rock to produce water may not have been looked at as a miracle, and therefore Moshe was told to bring the water out through speaking to it, thereby making it clear to all that this was a miracle.

[It's noted (see footnote 3 here) that this is hinted to in the spelling of the word סלע - samach, lamed and ayin. When you spell out the letter samach fully, the middle letter will be mem. When you spell out the letter lamed, the middle letter is mem. Finally, when you spell out ayin, the middle letter is yud. Together they make up the word mayim - water, alluding to the fact that within a סלע is מים].

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Do rocks naturally contain water? – Jim Thio Oct 4 '13 at 4:55
@JimThio Some do en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aquifer – Double AA May 14 '14 at 14:22

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