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In the story of Adam, Eve and the snake the word 'עָרוּם' is used in two completely different contexts, yet they feature one pasuk after the other:

Bereishit 2:25 :

וַיִּהְיוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם עֲרוּמִּים, הָאָדָם וְאִשְׁתּוֹ; וְלֹא, יִתְבֹּשָׁשׁוּ

And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed

Bereishit 3:1 :

...וְהַנָּחָשׁ, הָיָה עָרוּם, מִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים

Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made…

Onkelus translate עֲרוּמִּים as ערטילאין (naked) and עָרוּם as חכים (clever/wise/subtle, etc.).

Are there any commentaries that discuss the juxtaposed phraseology?

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Funny, I asked myself the same thing last year, and eventually found an interesting answer in the Hertz Chumash. Hertz comments that:

The same Hebrew root signifies both 'naked' and 'subtle, clever, mischievous'. Seeming simplicity is often the most dangerous weapon of cunning. The gliding stealthy movements of a serpent is a fitting symbol of the insidious progress of temptation.

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While you may not be so satisfied with this answer, I do know of a commentary that discusses the juxtaposed phraseology: the Ibn Ezra. However, he says not to make anything of it, and that it's merely a stylistic device:

ופירוש ערום חכם שיעשה דבריו בערמה ואל תתמה בעבור היות ערום אחרי ערומים והם שני טעמים. כי באלה הצחות בלשון כמו בלחי החמור חמור חמורתים וכן על שלשים עיירים ושלשים עיירים להם

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  • vintage Ibn Ezra! (+1)
    – Baby Seal
    Oct 19 '14 at 17:59
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Targum pseudo Jonathan translates עֲרוּמִּים as wise. The verse reads as follows:

והוו תרווהון חכימין אדם ואנתתיה ולא אמתינו ביקרהון

And they were both wise, Adam and his wife, and they did not remain in their honor.

It is possible, though not evident, that what prompted such a translation is juxtaposition to the serpent's being ערום‏.

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    Also, I always wondered how to translate the Aramiac חכמ, if it only means 'wise' or if it can also mean 'cunning', such as בא אחיך במרמה (Beraishis 27:35), where Targum also uses בחוכמתא, but the Ohev Ger (Shadal) as well as R. Avraham ben HaRambam believe that Targum is deviating from the literal translation there too for the honor of Yaakov, but Nesinah Lager (R. Noson Adler) there disagrees Oct 19 '14 at 15:29
  • FWIW Neofiti sticks with Onkles's ערטלין
    – Double AA
    Oct 19 '14 at 19:35
  • @Matt Jastrow also sticks with wise or knowledgable, you can look it up here: tyndalearchive.com/tabs/jastrow
    – Baby Seal
    Oct 20 '14 at 14:52
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R. David Fohrman in one of his articles on the Aish website from the series called Garden Of Eden comment on this:

The mystery in all this deepens when we ask the question: Are the two meanings of "arom" -- "naked" and "cunning" -- related conceptually in any way? Are these apples and elephants, two entirely unrelated ideas, or is there some essential connection between them?

At first glance, the ideas "naked" and "cunning" don't seem to have much in common. But on reflection, they do seem related in a curious way. Mull the terms over -- "Naked and cunning, naked and cunning..." -- what comes to mind? These words just happen to be opposites of one another.

When someone is naked, unclothed, there is no hiding. That person's "self" is laid bare for all to see. "What you see is what you get". On the other hand, when one is cunning -- he is sly and devious; he "cloaks" his true intentions and hides behind a facade. His true self is not seen.

Fascinating. The two meanings of arom are mirror images of each other. . And this just adds another dimension to our question: Why would the Torah take the same word it uses over and over again to mean "naked", and then, when describing the snake, twist its meaning to convey the very opposite idea -- "cunning"?

Could the Torah possibly be suggesting that -- yes, the snake was of course cunning -- but somehow, he was not just cunning -- but he was "naked" as well? What could that mean?

AN INNOCENT DECEPTION

Biologically, of course, a snake really is naked: It is a reptile, a creature that, unlike most other members of the animal kingdom, lacks fur or hair to cover it. But if we think beyond biology, what would it mean for the snake to be not just "cunning", but "naked"?

If "naked" is really the opposite of "cunning", then it seems to follow that the snake had both, opposite, qualities: He possessed both honesty and stealth. In other words, the snake really is deceptive -- but on another, perhaps deeper, level, he's very straightforward. It all depends at how you look at him. From one perspective, what he's saying doesn't really work for Adam and Eve, so his words are deceptive to them. But from another perspective -- what you see is what you get. He's just telling it like it is -- from a snake's point of view, of course.

And other relevant excerpt:

What the snake is really doing, then, is forcing Adam and Eve to confront what it means for them to be human beings and not beasts. In the end, the snake really is arom -- in all senses of the word. When he asks, "even if God said don't eat, so what?" -- he is being straightforward and honest; "naked", as it were. He was just telling it like it is: "Here's what it is like to be a snake". On the other hand, when we look at the snake's words from our point of view, from the perspective of Adam and Eve -- then, his argument looks cunning and deceptive, the other meaning of arom. What's right for the snake is not necessarily right for us. He may walk, he may talk, he may be smart -- but we are different than he; we hear a voice that is not relevant to him. When all is said and done, we are not snakes.

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The verse in Bereishis 3:1 reads:

וְהַנָּחָשׁ֙ הָיָ֣ה עָר֔וּם מִכֹּל֙ חַיַּ֣ת הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָׂ֖ה יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל־הָ֣אִשָּׁ֔ה אַ֚ף כִּֽי־אָמַ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹ֣א תֹֽאכְל֔וּ מִכֹּ֖ל עֵ֥ץ הַגָּֽן׃

Now the serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say: You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?”

Interestingly, the Provencal Rabbi, biblical commentator, grammarian and philosopher, Radak (Rabbi Dovid Kimche) makes the following grammatical analysis here and notes a difference in the two words which is why they have separate meanings:

היה ערום - clever: Seeing that the word refers to intelligence, it is spelled with the vowel shuruk to distinguish it from the adjective arum naked, which is spelled with the vowel cholam. [in our editions of the Torah both words are spelled with the letter shuruk representing the vowel shuruk. Ed.] Seeing the word occurs in the plural, the letter מ does not have a dagesh, compare מחשבות ערומים in Job 5:12 where it means :“the designs of the crafty ones.” When the word is used to described nudity, the letter מ is written with a dagesh. Compare Job 22:6 ובגדי ערומים תפשיט, “You leave them stripped of their clothing.” When the Torah wrote here היה ערום, it meant that the serpent possessed extraordinary powers of imagination, totally superior to other animals in this respect. Our sages generally describe the fox as crafty, able to scheme, something other animals are not credited with doing. (Berachot 61) This is not the same as possessing didactic intelligence, something reserved for man. When the Torah adds the words מכל חית השדה, it excludes the domestic animals, בהמות as not possessing even a modicum of such powers of imagination, The serpent at that time was superior to the fox in its ability to scheme. אשר עשה ה' אלוקים, even though all these creatures had been constructed out of the same raw material, G-d had given added an advantage to different ones of these creatures. Some had been granted greater physical prowess, others greater power to scheme.

(Sefaria translation)

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  • Re cholam vs. shuruk, it doesn't seem necessary to say that Radak had a different mesorah than ours. He may simply mean that the singular forms of the words have shuruk for "crafty" and cholam for "naked," while the plurals, as he goes on to say, have the same nekudos but differ in the presence or absence of the dagesh.
    – Meir
    Dec 31 '20 at 15:28
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There are times where a shoresh will mean polar opposites. יסף comes to mind where we see it can mean to end or to continue. Rabbi Hirsch points these out many times. It is possible that ערום is used to both mean uncovered as far as clothing goes and also mean covered as far as hiding a sneaky thought process goes.

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    This is a good idea, but the question asks for commentaries so I'm not sure if this counts as an answer. (the translation of יסף as ending isn't agreed upon by everyone; a better example would probably be עקר, which can mean root or uproot) Oct 19 '14 at 15:42
  • @Matt both good points, but this implies that nakedness is the polar opposite of being "clothed" in cunning, which is a very interesting literary juxtaposition, lending itself to somethign similar to the Hertz chumash answer above. Feb 22 '15 at 16:33

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