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Words of the root חלצ seem to have contradictory meanings. On the one hand it is used in the sense of "removing," as in בית חלוץ הנעל and כי חלצת נפשי ממות. On the other hand, warriors are called חלוצים because they are "girded" with weaponry. So which one is it?

(There is also an apparent third sense in the verse ועצמותיך יחליץ, which Artscroll translates "stengthen." But that might be a metaphorical use of the "girded with weaponry" definition.)

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It's not unusual for Hebrew roots to have opposite meanings in different binyanim. That said, two opposing meanings you cite are both in kal. – msh210 Jun 27 '11 at 21:09
There are similar words with contradictory meanings in English. "Cleave" for example once meant both to cut in two (the modern usage) and to fuse or join together (hence the King James rendering of Bereishit 2:24 as "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh." – technorav Nov 6 '11 at 17:11
@technorav, welcome to the site; I hope you stick around and enjoy it. – msh210 Nov 6 '11 at 18:52

Contradictory meanings within a single root is fairly common occurrence amongst Semitic languages. The phenomenon repeats itself consistently in Arabic and Aramaic, so there's no reason why it wouldn't be the case here.

1) Jastrow's dictionary has all three definitions listed, although he lists Hilutz earlier. According to him, the definition of "strengthening or girding one's self" only occurs in Hif'il, Pi'el and Pa'al.

2) I'm not sure what the Alkalai Hebrew Dictionary says, but since it's one of the most authoritative, I wouldn't be surprised if it gives both definitions. The Modern Hebrew dictionaries I looked at all give the definition of "removing" rather than that of "strength" or "girding yourself with weapons". If someone could verify that, that would be great.

3) There is no direct cognate in Arabic, although a similar sounding root, Khalasa, retains both meanings in verb forms 10 and 2.

Based on this, it seems that both definitions are acceptable, although the one of "girding one' self" is less common. The alternative is a ugly borrowing situation that I don't believe to be possible in which either the Aramaic (if there is a similar word) or Arabic word was incorporated into Hebrew and later on the confusion of /Kh/ and /h/ lead to the words being merged into one.

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Thanks. I was hoping to find some underlying thread that would unify the two definitions, but that's probably just wishful thinking, I guess. – Dave Jun 28 '11 at 5:13
The only way I can think of unifying the definitions is that girding yourself for war or "in strength" is in some way the equivalent of separating yourself or removing yourself from a group of people. – Zvi Jun 28 '11 at 16:52

For native Hebrew speakers, the meaning carried by the various forms of the חלצ root are all variants of "extract" or "remove". The word חלוצים is better translated as "pioneers" - e.g. those extracted first from the camp. See ואנחנו נחלץ חושים לפני המחנה and the other forms of this root in the passage in Numbers 32:1-32.

The Parshanim have given some additional meanings to the word יחליץ you mention from Isaiah 58:11 - including "strengthen", "girden with weapons", "save", and "rest" (as used in the רצה והחליצנו passage of the ברכת מזון in Shabbat). However, I would venture that the linguistic source of this case also lies around the "extract" meaning, perhaps in a sense that has evaded these parshanim.

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