Saturday, December 03, 2016


Why is the Hebrew word for "president" נשיא nasi? I'm not entirely sure, but I'll share my ideas with you. Let's start out by looking at the history of the word.

The word appears in the bible 129 times (not including four other cases where it means "rain cloud", but that's unrelated). The Even-Shoshan concordance says it means "head of a tribe, head of a congregation, ruler, etc." One thing I noticed from looking at the concordance was that it shows up in some biblical books, but not others.

Milgrom notes this in Excursus 1, "Some Political Institutions of Early Israel", in JPS Numbers. He defines nasi as "chieftan" or "clan leader", and sometimes the leader of the entire tribe. He then writes:

The term nasi' occurs over one hundred times in the Bible in a striking distribution. It clusters in the first four books of the Torah and in Joshua and again in Ezekiel and the postexilic books. It is totally absent from Deuteronomy, Judges Samuel and all the other prophets.

He continues:

The antiquity of the term nasi' is corroborated by its occurrence only among those non-Israelite societies that are nomadic: Ishmaelites (Gen 17:20, 25:16) and Midianites (Num. 25:14)

Sarna, in his comment to Shemot 22:27 in JPS Exodus makes a similar comment:

Hebrew nasi'  is the title given to the chief of a clan or tribe in the period before the monarchy.

And in his commentary on Bereshit 34:2, Sarna notes that Hamor, is called the nasi of the land, and not a king, as the Canaanite leaders usually are, because "the ruler of Shechem has dominion over rural - that is, tribal - territory as well as the urban center ... Such a complex situation does not permit absolute power. Indeed, Hamor does not act like a king."

So from all this we see that nasi refers to a leader who is not a king, and therefore is absent from many sections of the bible that focus on the monarchy. There are some biblical synonyms for nasi, such as nasich נסיך and nagid נגיד. It might seem, due to their similar sounds that nasi and nasich  are related, but that doesn't appear to be the case. Nasich, while meaning "prince" in current Hebrew, derives from the root נסך, "to pour", and as Klein writes, originally meant "he upon whom the anointing oil was poured". Nagid  (which today is used as "governor", as in "governor of the Bank of Israel") does not share a common root with nasi, but as Klein writes, they share a similar path of development. Here is his entry for the etymology of nasi:

Derived from נשא and literally meaning 'lifted up, exalted'. For sense development, compare nagid (=leader), from נגד, 'to be high'. According to G. Hoffman, nasi literally means 'speaker', and derives from נשא in the sense 'he lifted up (his word)'; compare nagid, which may have also meant originally 'speaker, spokesman'.

Later the term nasi was adopted to mean the head of the Sanhedrin, e.g. Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi. This Encyclopedia Judaica entry describes how it was used even after the end of the Talmudic period:

The title nasi persisted for many centuries and in different lands throughout the Middle Ages, sometimes as the title of a defined head of a Jewish institution, sometimes as an honorific title only, given to important personages and to sons of illustrious families.

But why president? My theory is that there had always been a clear distinction between a king - מלך melech, and nasi. This certainly doesn't mean that the word nasi ever meant a democratically elected ruler before modern times - but in earlier periods, when the role of king had very significant implications (particularly in Jewish law), there needed to be an alternate term for such a leader. And since nasi had been used throughout the generations, it was a natural choice for a translation of "president", when that term began to be used.

Of course, I wouldn't need to resort to conjecture if I could find any source mentioning the coinage of the modern use. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find any such source. As I did when I researched artzot habrit, I turned to the archives of the Historical Jewish Press. The earliest mentions of nasi there meaning "president" appear in the 1860s, describing Abraham Lincoln (there's an interesting Hebrew article here about how Lincoln was covered in the European Jewish press at the time). It's unclear to me if this means that the sense was coined then, or if it had been used earlier, but no one happened to be writing about presidents before that point.

This 1858 article in Hamagid, mentions James Buchanan, but calls him the ראש ממשלה Rosh Memshala of America, a term that today means "prime minister" and sar שר, "minister":

By 1861, the newspaper Hacarmel describes Lincoln as nasi, but puts the term "president" in parentheses to help the reader:

The parentheses are gone by this 1862 article in Hacarmel, although they call him ראש נשיא - rosh nasi:

And the earliest mention I found of "president" in Hebrew was from this 1853 book discussing Napoleon III, who had the title of "prince-president".

As mentioned in this Wikepedia entry, the term "president" has a history going back quite a while before being adopted by the founders of the United States. But those usages weren't so well known, so I can see why I wouldn't be able to find any references to them in Hebrew texts. However, certainly there must have been some awareness of US presidents before Lincoln, even if the Jews were not paying so much attention to the goings on in the States at the time (and their press wasn't as fully developed).

If any of you readers know of earlier uses of nasi or other Hebrew synonyms for "president", or any other sources that discuss the coinage of the term, I'd love to hear...

Saturday, November 26, 2016


The Hebrew word for "prophet" - נביא navi has a surprising number of suggested etymologies. Let's take a look at some of them.

Klein gives the following etymology for navi:

Probably derived from the base נבא (= to call, proclaim); accordingly the original meaning of navi probably was 'the man who calls or proclaims'.

He then has this entry for the root נבא:

Akkadian nabu (=to call, announce, proclaim), Arabic naba'a (= he uttered with a low voice, announced), naba' (= announcement, information), nab'ah (=a low sound).

This article by Daniel E. Fleming quotes Albright as saying that navi

is a noun from a passive form of the Semitic root nb', "to call"... The prophet is therefore "one called" by God.

In the end, he prefers this theory:

The Syrian nabu is best understood as one who invokes the gods, and the noun should be an active participle from the verb nabu, "to name." ... the Hebrew nabi is best explained by the same etymology.

The Ben Yehuda dictionary says that the Arabic verb meaning "to announce, inform," had the sense of someone walking from land to land, and perhaps this sense of walking from place to place was the original meaning, since these kinds of travelers would be the ones to inform.

The same source also suggest another theory, which connects it to a different Arabic root meaning to "wake from sleep", in which someone's heart is suddenly awake with the need to speak about something.

Returning to the Akkadian connection, the Akkadian dictionary has the following entry for nabu:

G. to name (+2 acc.) ; to invoke (a god) ; to nominate ; to decree, ordain D. to lament, wail Š. to cause to proclaim N. to be named ; to be appointed, called upon

This last sense, "to be appointed", calls to mind a suggested etymology by my friend Michael Gerver. He wrote:

Although I have not seen this suggested anywhere, it seems possible that Arabic nawaba, “represent,” “substitute,” is related to Hebrew נוב, “speak,” if the Arabic word originally meant “speak for.” Arabic nawaba is the source of Arabic na’ib, “viceroy,” whose plural nuwab is the source, via Hindi or Urdu, of English nabob

Even if nawaba doesn't mean "to speak for", it could still be connected to nabob via the Akkadian "appoint". Here is the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for nabob:

1610s, "deputy governor in Mogul Empire," Anglo-Indian, from Hindi nabab, from Arabic nuwwab, honorific plural of na'ib "viceroy, deputy," from base n-w-b "to take someone's place." Also used of Europeans who came home from India having made a fortune there, hence "very rich man" (1764).

I also have no proof of this (although as always, I welcome help from readers), but I relish the opportunity to discuss nabob (which can mean "important person" in addition to "rich man"), as it was used so masterfully by my inspiration for this blog, William Safire. When Safire was a White House speechwriter in 1970, he wrote a speech for Vice President Spiro Agnew that used the phrase "nattering nabobs of negativism." It is one of the most famous quotes associated with both Agnew and Safire.

I've always loved the phrase - but until now, had no idea that nabob could be perhaps related to navi...

Sunday, November 20, 2016


Last week we discussed how mistorin מסתורין is a Talmudic era "blend" of a Hebrew root and a Greek word. A more recent blend is the word gaon גאון. Let's take a look.

In Biblical Hebrew, gaon has a few different meanings - "glory, majesty", "pride, haughtiness" and "rising of the waters, tides." All of these meanings show a connection to the source of gaon - the root גאה, which means "to rise up, be proud", and is also the source of the word for pride - גאוה ga'ava.

The word is used in Nachum 2:3 (as well as Tehilim 47:5) in the positive sense of "pride":

כִּ֣י שָׁ֤ב ה' אֶת־גְּא֣וֹן יַעֲקֹ֔ב כִּגְא֖וֹן יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל
"For the LORD has restored the Pride of Jacob, as well as the Pride of Israel"

Gaon Yaakov - "Pride of Jacob" was adopted as the name of a post Talmudic Babylonian yeshiva, and the head of that yeshiva, whose official title was Rosh Yeshivat Gaon Yaakov, was abbreviated to "Gaon". During this period the most important rabbinical leaders were known as geonim, some of the famous including Amram Gaon and Saadia Gaon.

The period of the Geonim ended around 1000 CE, but the title of gaon was continued to be used to describe individuals who had mastered the Torah. Such usage can be found in the poetry of Ibn Ezra and others, and perhaps most famously it was used to describe the 18th century rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna - the Vilna Gaon.

The blend I mentioned above occurred later. Gaon sounds similar to the word "genius" in many foreign languages. In addition to English, we find the German and French genie, Russian гений (geniy), and Yiddish zheni. So in Modern Hebrew gaon came to refer to a genius - indicating inherent intellectual ability, and not just proficiency in the study of Torah.

Within Modern Hebrew the adjective geoni גאוני - "ingenious" developed as well. I'll leave it up to you to decide whether or not this post fits that description!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

seter and setira

The words seter סתר -"hideaway; secret" and setira  סתירה - "contradiction", seem to have the same root - סתר. However, they are not related.

The verb סתר meaning "to hide, conceal", most commonly found in the hifil form - histir הסתיר - "he hid", is found in Biblical Hebrew and has cognates in other Semitic languages such as Ugaritic, Aramaic and Arabic.

Setira, however, derives from a homographic root סתר, which originally meant "to pull down, destroy", and that sense was expanded to mean "contradict, refute." Both these uses are found in Rabbinic Hebrew, but not in Biblical Hebrew. What we do find in Biblical Hebrew, in one verse, is the form שתר (Shmuel I 5:9). where it means something like "break out, burst."

We can see from the Arabic cognates that these are two different roots - the root meaning "hide" is cognate with the Arabic satara, whereas the root meaning "tear down" has a cognate in the Arabic shatara.

While one might assume a connection between seter and the English word "mystery", the latter has an unrelated etymology:

from Anglo-French *misterie, Old French mistere "secret, mystery, hidden meaning" (Modern French mystère), from Latin mysterium "secret rite, secret worship; a secret thing," from Greek mysterion (usually in plural mysteria) "secret rite or doctrine," from mystes "one who has been initiated," from myein "to close, shut" (see mute (adj.)); perhaps referring to the lips (in secrecy) or to the eyes (only initiates were allowed to see the sacred rites).

That said, Klein does write that the Hebrew word mistorin מסתורין - "mystery", is a "blend" of מסתור mistor (a biblical word meaning "hiding place, shelter") and Greek mysterion. What's interesting about this blend is that it is found already in Rabbinic Hebrew  (where it is also spelled מסטורין, showing more Greek influence). I was more familiar with these blends in Modern Hebrew, such as עלית elit - blending the Hebrew עלי ili- "upper" and the French "elite."

So while I might have torn down any ideas you had connecting the roots, at least it is a hidden mystery no more...

Sunday, September 25, 2016


A reader wrote and asked how did keren קרן come to mean both "horn, ray" and "fund"?

Both Even-Shoshan and Klein say there are two possible answers. We'll look at each, but first let's take a look at the two meanings.

The first dictionary entry for keren, is found throughout Biblical Hebrew and has a number of meanings:

  • horn (as in the horn of an animal)
  • a shofar (made from a horn)
  • strength, power (figuratively related to the strength of the horn)
  • ray, beam (a ray protrudes from its source like a horn. A misreading of the Biblical verse describing the rays radiating from Moshe caused many Christians to believe that Moshe, and in fact all Jews, had horns).
  • corner, point (again, related to the idea of "protrusion")
  • container (a horn was used to hold things, like oil, food, etc)
Keren meaning "fund, capital, principal" is a financial term, and is found in post-biblical Hebrew. It always has a distinct dictionary entry.

While as I said, both Klein and Even-Shoshan say that this later meaning of keren might have developed from the earlier one, neither explain how. Horowitz, however, does write (page 63):

Since keren, the horn, was used to store oil it gradually came to mean a receptacle in general, or a place where things are stored. From this usage developed the meaning "a fund".

He doesn't quote any verses, but the usage in Shmuel I 16:13 - keren  hashemen קרן השמן - "the keren of oil" (used for anointing kings) is one example of this usage. So keren went from a horn used to store oil and became a fund used to "store" money.

An alternate explanation says that the two meanings of keren have different roots. For the meaning "fund", Klein provides this etymology, unrelated to "horn":
borrowed from Akkadian qerenu (=heap, pile, stack; threshing floor), qaranu (=he heaped, piled)

This would mean that this sense of keren is cognate to the Hebrew goren גורן - "threshing floor", as both have the same Akkadian root.

Keren as horn, however, has a very ancient etymology, and many sources, such as this one, find cognates in Indo-European languages (and I briefly touched on it in this post).

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

ketev and kotev

In the Bible, we find the word ketev קטב meaning "destruction, plague". It appears in this form in Devarim 32:24, Tehilim 91:6, and Yeshaya 28:2. In Hoshea 13:14 there is a different vocalization - it appears as kotev. In Talmudic Hebrew and later, ketev is also the name of a demon.

A homonym is kotev meaning "axis, pole". This usage began in the Middle Ages. For example, Ibn Tibbon uses it in his Hebrew translation of the Arabic Guide of the Perplexed by Maimonides.

Is there any connection between the two words?

Regarding ketev, Klein follows the Ben Yehuda dictionary and provides the following etymology:

Related to Aramaic קטב (=he cut), Arabic qataba (= he cut off), qutbah (=arrow).

And as is mentioned in the Ben Yehuda dictionary, a connection between arrows and ketev as destruction can be found in the chapter of Tehilim (91:5-6) where ketev is mentioned:

You need not fear the terror by night, or the arrow that flies by day, the plague that stalks in the darkness, or the scourge (ketev) that ravages at noon.

Other Hebrew roots beginning with the letters קט that mean "cut" include קטם,  קטע, קטם, קטף, as well as the related words beginning with קצ (as we discussed here).

Kotev meaning "axis, pole", derives directly from the Arabic qutb, of the same meaning. Klein does not connect qutb - "axis" and qutbah - "arrow", and Ben Yehuda's comment suggests a possible connection but does not elaborate. I could imagine that the straightness of an arrow could lead to a connection with poles or a straight line like an axis. However, I haven't found confirmation of that. Perhaps one of you readers has a source that can help?

Saturday, September 10, 2016


What is the origin of the Hebrew slang word chupar צ'ופר meaning "bonus" or "perk"? Ruvik Rosenthal in his Hebrew slang dictionary offers two suggestions.

The first is that it derives from the Spanish word chupar, meaning "to suck", either via Ladino or perhaps directly from Spanish. He suggest that if this is the case, it might be found in a phrase like "para chuparse los dedos", which is Spanish for  "finger-licking good" (and in fact was used as the slogan for KFC). Chupar, which is of imitative origin (a sucking sound), is also found in the legendary monster, the chupacabra, which literally means "goat sucker."

The other suggestion is that is the Hebrew chupar comes from an altered version of the adjective meshupar משופר - improved. This supposedly began in the Israeli army before the Six Day War, where the soldiers were served manot krav meshuparot מנות קרב משופרות - "improved battle rations", which the soldiers shortened to mechuparot מצ'ופרות, and from that adjective the noun chupar arose.

Another related slang word that came out of the Israeli army is shaptzer שפצר. This root is a combination of שפר - "to improve" and שפץ - "to repair". Together, shaptzer means to repair and improve - i.e. "to renovate."