What’s the Hebrew meaning of ‘Keshe Oref?’


We all know the famous term ‘stiff-necked’ – the idiomatic phrase to describe someone who is stubborn, but what are the origins of this commonly used figure of speech?

Well, we can find this phrase a couple of times in the Hebrew Bible, mainly in the Torah in the Book of Exodus and the Book of Deuteronomy. Here is one reference:

“Furthermore, the LORD said to me, ‘I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people.” (Deuteronomy 9:13)

In fact, to be more specific, the original Hebrew phrase ‘Keshe Oref’ {קשה עורף}(Hebrew for ‘stiff-necked’) appears in the Torah ONLY in the context of the sin of the Golden Calf. This connection led to the {wrong} assumption that it relates to the action the animal (calf) does when it does not want to carry weight – it stiffens (shakes) its neck. However, unlike the English translation of this idiom, the original Hebrew word ‘Oref’ (עורף)does not mean ‘neck’ but rather ‘nape’ (in Modern Hebrew it is used also to describe the ‘home front’).

This means that the whole notion about the neck of the animal is not valid based on the original Hebrew.
Luckily, we do not need to go far in order to understand the origins of this figure of speech because we can learn from Jeremiah:

“Yet they did not listen or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck, that they might not hear and receive instruction.” (Jeremiah 17:23)

In other words, the act of stiffening the ‘neck’ – which is actually nape in the original Hebrew – is the OPPOSITE of inclining the ear and that is the actual origin of this figure of speech.