Tuesday, July 03, 2012

my absence

I realize that I haven't posted on Balashon in several months, and I think I should post an explanation. Here's the story:

When I started the blog, I was writing and posting almost every day. That was partly because my hours at work made it easier to do so, but also because the resources I used in researching my posts were limited - a few books and a small number of web sites. In fact in the first few months, I could publish while traveling by simply taking everything with me!

As time went on, I discovered more and more books, more web sites, and more people to consult with about any topic I was researching (many of them readers of this site - thanks!) And eventually, I discovered how to use the National Library at Hebrew University (which now is pretty close to where I work). And as a perfectionist (if not a particularly effective one), I'm rarely satisfied posting anything unless I've researched it as much as I feel I can. So naturally, that makes more work in writing a post.

Additionally, I've become less satisfied with my earlier posts, where I simply shared a few interesting etymologies. I still do that sometimes, but I prefer to write about a topic where I've discovered something new. I think I've done that with some of my more recent posts, and it's a lot more fun. But again - a lot more work.

Add that to more pressure for time at work and home, and you can see why my posting has become more erratic, to say the least. But I haven't given up on Balashon, nor do I plan to. Actually, since my last post in January, I started working on one of the most interesting and complicated posts I had ever done - the origin and meaning of the phrases "mazal tov" and "b'shaa tova". Dozens of sources, and some really interesting revelations. But I need some serious free time to start putting it all together. And then the new project came.

What new project? Last December I noticed something that I had never paid attention to before: why does the Torah not explain the reason that Avraham (Abraham) was chosen by God? I started looking in to the question just as a curiosity in the beginning, with no idea what this would lead me to. As it happens, this question affects almost every aspect of Jewish philosophy.

Now this has turned into a huge project, which I hope will end up published at the end - perhaps even as a book. Interestingly, this quest has connections to Balashon as well: both to my yet unwritten "mazal tov" post, and about the significance of the Hebrew language in general (something I'm often asked by readers).

I do hope to go back to writing posts on Balashon before I'm done with the Avraham question, but I can't promise when that will be. I do still have all of your emails and comments, and still have my index file with almost 2000 words and the sources that discuss them. But please be patient.

One more note - my old comment system is closing down in October, and you all have written great comments over the years. After trying to import the comments in bulk to the new system (which you currently see on the site), I've determined that to keep them I'll need to copy them manually. This is a tedious process, and is using any of my "Balashon" time that I had at all.

Again, thank you all for continuing to follow the blog - and I hope to be writing again soon!

Sunday, January 01, 2012


In our discussion of dalak דלק - "burn", I didn't mention one derivative - madlek מדלק. That's because you've probably never heard of it. It was Ben Yehuda's attempt to come up with a Hebrew term for "match" - as in a match used to start a fire. In his dictionary Ben Yehuda writes that the word is "used in Hebrew speech in the Land of Israel, and has already been used in newspapers and books."

I first found the word mentioned in this article in his newspaper, HaZvi, in 1897, as well as in this article in the newspaper HaMeliz by Dr. HaEtzioni1. Neither article explains what the word means, so it must have been in use for some time beforehand. In the same article, before using "madlek", HaEtzioni also writes "tzita" ציתה. This was the term suggested for "match" by Rabbi Zeev Yaabetz (1847-1924), based on the root צתת - "to kindle" (a related root is יצת). Another form found is tzitit צתית. (Klausner claims that this is based on Shabbat 119a - רבי זירא מצתת צתותי - Rabbi Zeira would "metzatat tzitutei" - light small sticks of wood.")

And these aren't the only suggested Hebrew translations for match following the development of the modern match in the 19th century (see the Wikipedia article for an interesting history of the match). The earliest ones were two word phrases, mentioning both the wood and the sulfur coating, such as etz-gofrit עץ-גפרית ("sulfur wood") or kesam megupar קיסם מגופר ("sulfur stick") - both used by Mendele Mocher Sforim in his early works -the latter in 1872. (Gofrit  גופרית - "sulfur" is found in Bereshit 19:24, and is cognate with the Akkadian kubritu, and Klein says that it is "probably a loan word from some non-semitic language." It is not related to gofer גופר - the wood used to make Noah's Ark in Bereshit 6:14, although Yaakov Etzion discusses a midrashic connection in his comprehensive article here.)

However, one of the changes from Hebrew of the Haskala to modern Hebrew was the replacement of two word phrases with single word ones (Reuven Sivan lists 57 of them in his essay "חליפות ותמורות בלשון ימינו" in Leshonenu L'Am 31:9-10, 1980). Other one word suggestions (besides madlek and tzita) included madlik מדליק, mav'er מבער, and alit אלית (by Eliahu Sapir, based on the Talmudic phrase in Tamid 29a - מציתים את האליתא).

But the word that stuck was gafrur גפרור,  gofrit. Sivan claims the word was coined by Mendele, and used in his revised 1909 edition of his book HaEmek HaBacha. I found gafrur used (again, without explanation) in this 1905 article in the newspaper HaZman. It is not clear to me if Mendele used, and perhaps popularized a word coined by someone else, or if the article in HaZman was using a word Mendele had coined, but Sivan only noted the later revision of the earlier book as an example.

Klein suggests that gafrur was coined "under the semantic influence of Yiddish שוועבעלע (=match), derived from שוועבל (=sulphur), or of German Schwefelholzchen (= lucifer match) from Schwefel (=sulphur)." This similarity might have helped its popularity.

But it wasn't a smooth road to its adoption. In a 1925 essay (האנארכיה הלשונות - "Linguistic Anarchy"), Klausner writes that different families in Jerusalem use different words for "match".  Agnon made fun of the number of options in his 1941 story לבית אבא (L'Beit Abba - "To Father's House"), where he had a character intentionally use the term gafrir גפריר, even though that was not one of the terms suggested. But in the end, gafrur was - how shall we say? - a perfect match...

1. It appears that this is Dr. Yehuda Holzman HaEtzioni (mentioned here). He was likely related to Shmuel Holzman, who purchased the land for Kibbutz Kfar Etzion in the 1930s, and named it after himself as well ("holz" in German and "etz" עץ in Hebrew both mean "wood".)

Sunday, December 25, 2011


On Chanukah we light the candles - מדליקים את הנרות madlikim et ha nerot. The root of madlik מדליק - is dalak דלק - "burn, kindle", and is familiar from many related words such as delek דלק - "fuel", the verb tadlek תדלק - "to refuel" (the tiphel - like hiphil and shaphel, also a causative form of the verb), and daleket דלקת - which likely meant fever in Biblical Hebrew (Devarim 28:22) and today means "inflammation".

The verb dalak appears nine times in Biblical Hebrew as well, and in about half the appearances it also means "to burn". However in the other half it has a different meaning - "to pursue, chase," such as in Bereshit 31:36 - מַה חַטָּאתִי, כִּי דָלַקְתָּ אַחֲרָי  - "What is my sin that you should pursue me". (In some of the verses there is some disagreement as to which meaning applies, such as Yeshaya 5:11. Rashi and Radak say it means "burning" while Ibn Ezra says "chasing". Kutscher (p. 88) writes that perhaps this is a play on words and both senses are alluded to.)

What is the connection, if any, between "burning" and "chasing"?

Not surprisingly, there are a few opinions on this issue. One opinion is that the original meaning was to burn, and the concept of "chasing" came later - in the sense of "hot pursuit", as we say in English. Kaddari finds a similar development in Akkadian, where hamatu means both to burn and to hasten.

A second opinion is that the first meaning was "to chase", and later came the idea of burning, because of the way the fire chases the wick. This idea can be found in Rashi on Tehilim 7:17, who says that "every delika דליקה is chasing". Shadal on Bereshit 31:36 writes that dalak is related to dalag דלג - "leap" and both mean to ascend, which is why kindling the lamps in Shemot 25:37 is called וְהֶעֱלָה אֶת-נֵרֹתֶיהָ - literally, "raise up the lamps", because the fire ascends (also discussed in his Igrot Shadal, p.14).

The last opinion is that of Ben Yehuda, who feels that the two meanings are unrelated, as they each have separate Arabic cognates (and begin with different letters). Klein follows this approach as well, and says that the meaning "to burn" is cognate to the Arabic dhaliqa (=was sharp), but the sense "to chase" is cognate with the Arabic dalaqa (=he advanced, proceeded).

Whatever the connection - Chanukah is almost over. So make haste, get in hot pursuit, go up - and light those candles!

Friday, November 18, 2011


The word tag תג has some new popular usages: tag mechir תג מחיר - the "price tag" reprisal attacks carried out by extremists in Israel, and "tagging" photographs in Facebook - known in Hebrew as tiyug תיוג. A reader asked - is there a connection between the English word "tag" and the Hebrew one?

The answer is "well, maybe, maybe not".

Let's look first at the Hebrew word tag. Meaning "crown", it is first found in Talmudic Hebrew (also used for the "crowns" on tops of Hebrew letters) - and is borrowed from the Aramaic תגא taga. Taga is related to the Arabic taj, and both were borrowed from the Persian word taj of the same meaning (as appears in the famous Indian building Taj Mahal - the "crown of palaces"). Klein writes that the Persian word comes from the Indo-European base *steg meaning "to encircle, crown". In Greek this root gives us the word stephein (to surround, encircle, wreath), which is the origin of the name Stephen (meaning crown).

The English word "tag" has an entirely different origin. The Online Etymology Dictionary has the following entry:

"small hanging piece," c.1400, perhaps from a Scandinavian source (cf. Norw. tagg "point, prong," Swed. tagg "prickle, thorn") cognate with tack. Meaning "label" is first recorded 1835; sense of "automobile license plate" is recorded from 1935, originally underworld slang. Meaning "an epithet, popular designation" is recorded from 1961, hence slang verb meaning "to write graffiti in public places" (1990). The verb meaning "to furnish with a tag" is from mid-15c. To tag along is first recorded 1900.
So no connection between the two terms. So why was I hesitant earlier?

Because today in addition to the meaning crown, the Hebrew tag also has the same meaning in the word in English - "badge, label". (There is also the related word mutag מותג meaning "trademark, brand"). To me it seems crystal clear that this sense of the word is borrowed from the English. However both Klein and Even Shoshan, while providing the definition "badge" only mention the "taga" etymology. Stahl (in his Arabic/Hebrew etymological dictionary) goes so far as to say that the Hebrew tag used for labels on merchandise and army uniforms comes from the meaning "little crowns". (Mordechai Rosen his new book Sipurei Milim also has a full entry on tag and mutag with no mention of the English word "tag").

So if all these experts are correct, then there is no connection between any of the meanings of tag in Hebrew and "tag" in English. But I'm rather doubtful. Do any you have more information? Tag - you're it!

Friday, November 04, 2011


In our discussion of the word shelet שלט, we said that Targum Yonatan on Divrei Hayamim translated שלטים as "shields". The word used in his translation is תריסין - terisin, or in the singular, tris תריס.

Klein writes that tris as shield comes from the Greek thyreos, meaning shield, which in turn derives from the Greek thyra - "door". (Going back to the Indo-European root, Klein shows that thyra is cognate with the English word "door" as well.) However, the connection between thyreos and thyra is strange to me. He writes that thyreos is a "stone put against the door". I don't see how that means shield.

I have an easier time understanding the entry in the Online Etymology Dictionary for "thyroid", which also derives from thyreos:

1690s (in ref. to both the cartilage and the gland), from Gk. thyreoiedes "shield-shaped" (in khondros thyreoiedes "shield-shaped cartilage," used by Galen to describe the "Adam's apple" in the throat), from thyreos "oblong, door-shaped shield" (from thyra "door") + -eides "form, shape." The noun, short for thyroid gland, is recorded from 1849.
The Hebrew word for thyroid reflects this origin as well - בלוטת התריס balutat hatris.

Another meaning of tris - and unlike shield, this one is still used in modern Hebrew - is "shutter, blind". Here Klein points out that it comes from the Greek thyris - "window", which in turn also derive from thyra - "door".

We also have a verb that derives from tris - התריס - "to contradict, oppose". Klein is not clear about which sense - shield or shutter - led to this verb. First he has an entry for התריס meaning "he shielded, protected", and then figuratively meaning "he protested against, contradicted, debated." His second entry for התריס is defined as "to contradict, oppose", but the etymology is given as "denominated from תריס (=shutter)".

In his dictionary, Even Shoshan agrees with the former, and says it derives from shield, but doesn't explain why. He does, however, say that the great debaters known as baalei terisin בעלי תריסין (mentioned in Berachot 27b), knew how to argue in the "wars of Torah". (According to Rashi; the Aruch says they were literally soldiers). So perhaps this military imagery - Jastrow calls them the "shield bearers" - led to the connection between tris as shield and hitris התריס as "to contradict, oppose".

Yaakov Etsion in this article suggests that perhaps the development went like this: these were people who were willing to shield and defend themselves, and not give in to others. From here the concept progressed to those who took the offensive, and contradicted others when necessary.

Perhaps therefore this is an early version of the adage "The best defense is a good offense". But as comedian Norm Macdonald noted, "The second best defense is a good defense"...

Sunday, October 30, 2011

shalit and shelet

Both before and after Gilad Shalit's release, we've seen many signs related to the campaign.

His surname Shalit שליט means "ruler, leader" in Hebrew. Is there any connection to the word shelet שלט - meaning "sign"?

Let's first look at the word shalit. It derives from the root שלט, meaning "to rule". Klein provides the following etymology:

borrowed from Biblical Aramaic שלט (= he ruled, was master of, had dominion), which is related to Jewish Palestinian Aramaic and Syriac שלט (of same meaning), Ugaritic shlt (=ruler), Arabic saluta (he overcame, prevailed), Akkadian shalatu (=to rule), shaltu, shitlutu (= powerful, mighty), Ethiopian shallata (=he gave power.)

From this root we get the words shilton שלטון - "authority, government", sholtan שָׁלְטָן - "dominion" (note the kamatz katan, as this word that appears in the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur prayers - שהשלטן לפניך - is often mispronounced), and shlita שליטה - "control" (the honorific for living rabbis שליט"א is not related, but is an acronym of שיחיה לאורך ימים טובים אמן - "may he live many long and good days, Amen".)

Another related word is the Arabic sultan. The Online Etymology Dictionary has this entry:

1550s, from M.Fr. sultan "ruler of Turkey" (16c.), from Arabic sultan "ruler, king, queen, power, dominion," from Aramaic shultana "power," from shelet "have power." His wife, mother, daughter, concubine, or sister is a sultana.
What about shelet - "sign"?  The word appears in the Bible six times, always in the plural, and always relating to military matters. The exact meaning, however, is not clear. Some (Rashi on Shir Hashirim 4:4, based on the usage in Yirmiyahu 51:11) say it means the quiver that holds the arrows, and others say it means "shield", perhaps specifically of leather (Ibn Ezra; Targum Yonatan on Divrei Hayamim I 18:7 and Divrei Hayamim II 23:9). Ben Yehuda writes that as a military term, shelet is related to שלט in the sense of power and might.

The German word for shield is "schild", and this apparently led to the word shelet taking on the meaning sign. Klein writes:

Borrowed from שלט shelet = (shield), on analogy of the homophonic German Schild, which has both meanings 'shield', and 'signboard' (however, there the two meanings are artificially differentiated inasmuch as Schild in the sense 'shield' is masculine, in the sense 'signboard' it is neuter).

Philologos, in this interesting article discussing why the Magen David מגן דוד is translated as "Star of David" instead of "Shield of David" notes:

Why did medieval Jews change David’s star to a shield? The obvious answer is that whereas stars have no great resonance in Jewish religious tradition, shields do. In numerous passages in the Bible, God is referred to as the shield of those who trust in Him, including more than a dozen times in the book of Psalms, of which the supposed author was David himself. And in the Songs of Songs we have the verse, referring to the mail-like plates in the necklace of the poem’s beloved, “Thy neck is like the tower of David built for an armory, whereon there hang a thousand bucklers [magen], all shields of [shiltei, the plural possessive of shelet] mighty men.”

It is undoubtedly a pure coincidence that shelet, which is a biblical synonym for magen, sounds very much like the English “shield” and the German and Yiddish Schild, which means both “shield” and “coat of arms” or “sign.” (It was under the influence of Schild, in fact, that shelet came to mean a store or street sign in contemporary Hebrew.) But can it be that the double-triangled hexagon, which was adopted by Yiddish-speaking Prague Jews as the emblem of their flag, was first called by these Jews of Prague a Schild, in the sense of a coat of arms, and then translated into Hebrew as magen and re-interpreted as the warrior’s shield that protected David? I wouldn’t rule out this possibility

So yes, the words shalit and shelet are connected. However, I think it's a good thing that we no longer need to associate Gilad Shalit with the signs requesting his release, but rather with the shielding and protection he finally received. May he live many long and good days, Amen!

Sunday, October 16, 2011


One of the strange sounding words from Sukkot is koshiklach קוישיקלך (or sometimes spelled koishelach קוישלך). It refers to the woven holders used to bind the lulav to the hadasim and aravot. But what is the etymology?

Let's start by taking off the suffixes and then we'll see what's left. The Yiddish suffix -ach indicates a plural, as in rogelach or kinderlach. So removing the -ach leaves us with koishekil (or koshikel)- and "-il" is a diminutive suffix. So koishiklach is the plural of "little koishik". But what's a koishik?

While much of Yiddish comes from German and Hebrew, there's a significant amount that comes from the Slavic languages, and this is where we find the meaning of koishik - "basket". For example, basket in Polish is "koszyk" and in Czech and Slovak - "košík" or "koš". In fact, the Yiddish translation for basketball is koyshbol.

Are there any cognates to these words in English? I think so. The Online Etymology Dictionary provides the following etymology for "chest":

O.E. cest "box, coffer," from P.Gmc. *kista (cf. O.N., O.H.G. kista, O.Fris., M.Du., Ger. kiste, Du. kist), an early borrowing from L. cista "chest, box," from Gk. kiste "a box, basket," from PIE *kista "woven container."

This seems to me likely to be the origin of kos(ik) as being a basket in the Slavic languages as well.