Thursday, November 08, 2018


In Bereshit 11, the Torah provides an etymology for the name of the city of בבל Bavel (Babylon in English, the capital of Babylonia). It is found at the conclusion of the famous "Tower of Babel" (Migdal Bavel) story. The people on earth all spoke the same language and began to build a city and a tower to prevent their being scattered. To prevent this scheme from succeeding, God causes them to speak different languages so they could not communicate with each other:

הָבָה נֵרְדָה וְנָבְלָה שָׁם שְׂפָתָם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ אִישׁ שְׂפַת רֵעֵהוּ׃
"Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.”
וַיָּפֶץ ה' אֹתָם מִשָּׁם עַל־פְּנֵי כָל־הָאָרֶץ וַיַּחְדְּלוּ לִבְנֹת הָעִיר׃
Thus the LORD scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city.

עַל־כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמָהּ בָּבֶל כִּי־שָׁם בָּלַל ה' שְׂפַת כָּל־הָאָרֶץ וּמִשָּׁם הֱפִיצָם ה' עַל־פְּנֵי כָּל־הָאָרֶץ׃ 
That is why it was called Babel, because there the LORD confounded the speech of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
(Bereshit 11:7-9, JPS translation)

It is generally accepted that this story, and particularly the etymology, is a polemic against Babylon. The Babylonians viewed their city, and their ziggurat temples (which the story of the Tower reflects) as the gateway to the gods, and that is reflected in their etymology for their city's name. As the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for Babel writes:

from Hebrew Babhel (Genesis xi), from Akkadian bab-ilu "Gate of God" (from bab "gate" + ilu "god"). The name is a translation of Sumerian Ka-dingir.

The Akkadian bab is cognate with the Aramaic bava בבא (which we discussed here) and the Arabic bab, both meaning gate or gateway.

However, despite the theory above that bab-ilu is a translation from the Sumerian, others believe that this is also a folk etymology. Sarna writes in Understanding Genesis (p. 69):

Babylon, Hebrew Babel, was pronounced Babilim by the Mesopotamians. The name is apparently non-Semitic in origin and may even be pre-Sumerian. But the Semitic inhabitants, by popular etymology, explained it as two separate Akkadian words, bab-ilim, meaning "the gate of the god." This interpretation refers to the role of the city as the great religious center. It also has mystical overtones connected with the concept of "the navel of the earth," the point at which heaven and earth meet. The Hebrew author, by his uncomplimentary word-play substituting balal for Babel has replaced the "gate of the god" by "a confusion of speech," and satirized thereby the pagan religious beliefs.

So we therefore have two folk-etymologies: one positive and one negative.

But there is one problem with the Biblical one. The root balal בלל, as we discussed here, means "to mix" - that is to mix different things together in one new mixture, as in the Biblical belil בליל or the Post-Biblical belila בלילה, meaning "mixture" or more specifically today, "batter." Yet, as Prof. Yonatan Grossman points out in his article, "The Double Etymology of Babel in Genesis 11" this is a difficult use of balal. After providing more examples of biblical words where balal means mixing distinct entities, he writes:

If this is the case, it is strange to find this verb used to characterize a city in the sense of »scatter«: rather than blended or mixed, the people of the city are geographically scattered in every direction, and culturally-linguistically separated by language. Here, the verb לבלול  [balal] seems to function in an antithetical sense to its usual meaning, a sense which is also antithetical to the objective of the story: at the beginning, its people were fully integrated together, but by its end, the uniform mixture has been scattered and separated.

He adds that this problem is

is evident in biblical dictionaries that use two separate entries for the definition of the verb בל"ל : one referring to the sense of mixture, which appears throughout the Bible, and the second, which refers only to the Tower of Babel narrative: »there is a divine call for the mixing (›confuse‹ and ›confused‹) of the languages.

So why then does the Torah provide an etymology that doesn't seem to fit the story?

According to Grossman, this requires additional knowledge of Babylonian history. He notes that "according to Enûma Eliš, Babylon was founded to serve as a gathering place for the gods" and that "Babylon and Esagila are presented as the place where all the gods assemble, reside, and receive offerings." And so the root balal serves as a second polemic:

While the Babylonians hold that their city and temple represent the place where the gods gather – where the 300 gods of the heavenly pantheon convene with the 600 gods of the underworld – the biblical narrator counters that Babylon was not a place of divine assembly but a place of human dispersion. The name is not based on a stirring motion that brings things together, but a frantic, chaotic stirring motion that drives them apart.

The essay goes into much more detail about these issues - I highly recommend reading the entire thing to fully understand the meaning behind this short but significant biblical story.

What was surprising to me was that until I read Grossman's theory, I had never heard anyone mention the problem with balal in this context before. I assume that is because the Hebrew root בלבל bilbel, which Klein says is related to balal, does mean to confuse. For example, in this Mishnaic passage:

וְכִי עַמּוֹנִים וּמוֹאָבִים בִּמְקוֹמָן הֵן. כְּבָר עָלָה סַנְחֵרִיב מֶלֶךְ אַשּׁוּר וּבִלְבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאֻמּוֹת
"And are the Ammonites or Moavites still [dwelling] in their own place? Sancheriv, king of Assyria, already arose and confused [the lineage of] all the nations." (Yadayim 4:4)

This refers to the Assyrian king, Sancheriv, who after conquering a nation would resettle its inhabitants in other regions of his empire. And although Assyria was a Mesopotamian kingdom like Babylonia, his story is the opposite of the story of the Tower. In the Tower story, God took people speaking the same language and caused them to speak many different languages so they wouldn't be able to cooperate, Sancheriv took people of different linguistic backgrounds and mixed them together to assimilate under one unified identity.

Oh, and one last thing, since if I don't write about, I'm sure to be asked. Is there any connection between the English word "babble" and the Hebrew words that we've discussed so far?

The Online Etymology Dictionary says that babble does not have Semitic roots:

mid-13c., babeln "to prattle, utter words indistinctly, talk like a baby," akin to other Western European words for stammering and prattling (Swedish babbla, Old French babillier, etc.) attested from the same era (some of which probably were borrowed from others), all probably ultimately imitative of baby-talk (compare Latin babulus "babbler," Greek barbaros "non-Greek-speaking").

However, the same entry does go on to quote the OED as saying that "No direct connection with Babel can be traced; though association with that may have affected the senses." So origin, no - but influence, possibly.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

behemoth and behema

There is no question that the English word "behemoth", referring to a huge creature, comes from the Hebrew word behemot בהמות. But where does the word behemot come from?

It only appears once in the Bible, in Iyov 40:15

הִנֵּה־נָא בְהֵמוֹת אֲשֶׁר־עָשִׂיתִי עִמָּךְ חָצִיר כַּבָּקָר יֹאכֵל׃

Take now behemoth, whom I made as I did you; He eats grass, like the cattle.

This is the opening verse of a section describing this mighty beast (continuing until 40:24). At first glance, it might seem that behemot is the plural of behema בהמה - "animal, beast." And in fact, behemot as the plural of behema appears in 14 other biblical verses.

The problem is that in this case, in Iyov, the word refers to a single animal, very likely the hippopotamus, not a collective of animals. So what's happening here?

There are two theories.

One is that behemot does derive from behema, in what Klein calls "plural extensivus" . This is a phenomenon in many languages, including Hebrew, where to indicate an extension or increase in size or scope, a plural is used when referring to a singular object. We discussed a similar phenomenon here (referring to the names of God), and here explaining why Yom Kippurim is in the plural. According to Fox (here),  a good translation would be something like "super-beast."  This is also the position of Kaddari, who doubts that the behemot refers to a hippopotamus due to the mention of a large tail (like a cedar) in Iyov 40:17.

The other theory is that despite the obvious similarities between the words, behemot and behema are not cognate. This is mentioned in the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for behemoth:
late 14c., huge biblical beast (Job xl.15), from Latin behemoth, from Hebrew b'hemoth, usually taken as plural of intensity of b'hemah "beast." But the Hebrew word is perhaps a folk etymology of Egyptian pehemau, literally "water-ox," the name for the hippopotamus.

This is also the position of Steinberg in his "Milon HaTanach", BDB, and Tur-Sinai in Ben Yehuda's dictionary, who finds support in the commentaries of Ibn Ezra and Ralbag.

But Klein writes that "the assumed connection of Hebrew behemoth with Egyptian p-ehe-mau, 'ox of the water', was justly rejected by W. Max Muller."

And yet, Slifkin, in Sacred Monsters, writes that "it seems overwhelmingly likely that the account of the behemoth in the book of Job refers to the hippopotamus" (p. 185) and in response to those like Kaddari who have a problem with the mention of the tail, writes that "that it stiffens its tail, which is only likened to a cedar in terms of its stiffness, but not in its overall dimensions. The hippo's tail is less than a foot long, but it is broad and stiff" (p. 187).

So who's right? I know it's cliché, and I sound like the rabbi in that old joke, but I think they're likely both right on some level. Gesenius wrote that "it is probable that the form בְּהֵמוֹת [behemot] really conceals an Egyptian word, signifying the hippopotamus, but so inflected as to appear Phœnicio-Shemitic." In other words, when the speakers of Hebrew first encountered a huge animal called pehamau, and thought it sounded very similar to their existing word behema - they connected the two. This happens all the time when languages meet. (We saw a similar case in our discussion of hodu.) 

So while perhaps if we had a time machine we could find a more precise explanation of the development of the word, but until one is invented, I think both explanations are legitimate.

Sunday, October 21, 2018


A podcast I enjoy, The History of English Podcast, had an episode a while back called "The Lion Kings" where the host discussed the etymologies of animals that were exotic to medieval England. One of them was the elephant, which is discussed in minutes 31-36 of that episode.

The host presented a theory that I had always kind of assumed, but never saw written down anywhere. That theory says that the word ultimately derives from the Hebrew elef אלף - "ox" (which I discussed in my post on the letter alef) - or from some Semitic cognate. They are both big mammals, so I assumed that it would be easy for the word to transfer from one to another.

But again, I never saw it anywhere before listening to the podcast. The theories that I had always seen were closer to the one proposed by Klein, in both his Hebrew and English etymological dictionaries, which I'll share with you now.

First of all, it's generally agreed that the English word "elephant" derives from the Greek, as described here:

c. 1300, olyfaunt, from Old French olifant (12c., Modern French éléphant), from Latin elephantus, from Greek elephas (genitive elephantos) "elephant; ivory"

Klein breaks down elephas into two parts. Regarding the first part, "el" he writes that it:

appears also in Hamitic elu, 'elephant', whence probably Persian p-il, Arabic ph-il, Mishnaic Hebrew p-il of same meaning.

In his entry for the Hebrew pil פיל, he adds the Akkadian cognates piru and pilu, and says that elu became pilu due to the Egyptian article "p-" (which according to this article means "the".)

Klein writes that the second component, ephas, is an Egyptian loan word. He adds that it is related to the Middle Egyptian word yb, "elephant", from where the name Yebu (the original name of the Egyptian island Elephantine) derives. This name appears in the Hebrew word for ivory, shenhav שנהב, a Biblical word that appears only twice in the Bible (Melachim I 10:22 and Divrei Hayamim II 9:21), both times in the plural as shenhavim שנהבים. Shenhav, Klein writes, is:

compounded of shen שן (=tooth) and hav הב, also yev יב (=elephant)

He then adds that

From Egyptian ab, abu derives also Latin ebur (=ivory), probably through the medium of the Phoenicians. From Latin ebur, eboris comes the adjective eboreus (=of ivory) whence French ivurie, ivorie, whence English ivorie, ivory.

All this seems pretty convincing to me, but the part I don't get is that both components, the "el" and the "ephas", mean "elephant." Why would the word have two parts with the same meaning? I know there are no rules about how words must develop, and you can find that phenomenon in the English word "likely" (which literally means "like-like") and the Hebrew afilu אפילו -"even if" (which can actually be broken down to something like "if-if-if".) But still it feels strange to me.

Even stranger is a related etymology that Klein provides. He writes that the word "element" ultimately is cognate with "elephant". In his entry for "element" he writes:

Of the many etymologies suggested, the most probable is that which derives the word elementum from *elepantum, 'ivory letter', an ancient Latin loan word from Greek elephantos, elephas ('elephant;ivory'.) The change of *elepantum to elementum is probably due to Etruscan influence.

The "ivory letters" that Klein mentions, according to this book, refers to the letters of the alphabet inscribed in ivory. That's an etymological connection I didn't see coming!

Saturday, October 13, 2018

skeleton and sheled

I just read something interesting in Klein's entry for the Hebrew word sheled שלד:

PBH [Post-Biblical Hebrew] skeleton. 

Syriac שלדא (=skeleton), from Akkadian shalamtu (properly meaning 'the whole' corpse), from shalamu (=to be complete), which is related to Hebrew שלם (=was complete). Greek skeleton (=skeleton) is a Syriac loan word. The explanation of Greek skeleton as used elliptically for skeleton soma (=dried up body) as if skeleton were the neutral verbal adjective of skellein (=to dry up) is folk etymology.

In his CEDEL entry for "skeleton", Klein mentions another Akkadian cognate - shalamdu, and says his source is W. Muss-Arnolt in Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. XXIII, p. 148.

While the theory connecting skeleton to the Greek word meaning dried up is still popular, if Klein's theory is accurate, then it would be possible to connect "skeleton" with both sheled and the words deriving from the root שלם, like shalom שלום - "peace" and shalem שלם - "complete."

Horowitz (p. 261) explains how the transformation between those two Hebrew roots:
Strangely, this word [sheled] comes from the root שלם, whole, complete. The word in Assyrian is שלמתו [shalamtu], meaning "the whole body." In passing through Aramaic the מ [mem] dropped out and ת [tav] hardened to a ד [dalet].


As my previous post mentioned, I'm still occupied with the projects I've been working on, but I'm going to try to put up smaller posts like this one (which require less research). I hope you still find them interesting!

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Balashon is on hiatus

As you may have noticed, I haven't written any posts in Balashon in over a year. While I have not abandoned Balashon, I have put my activity on hold for now, as I am working on a different project.

I hope to finish the project in the next few months, and when it's completed I will let Balashon readers know about it, and hopefully start writing (and responding to Balashon emails) again.

Thanks for checking in!

Thursday, April 13, 2017


I've planned on writing a post about charoset חרוסת since 2006. But every time I started, the etymology offered by Klein seemed so obvious and convincing that I didn't think I had anything to write about:

חרסת - 'haroseth' - a condiment made of fruits and spices with wine and sugar, used to sweeten the bitter herbs eaten on Passover night. [Probably formed from חרס cheres (=clay), in allusion to its claylike color.]

(As I pointed out here, in Biblical Hebrew cheres was spelt with a sin חרש, not with the samech found in later Hebrew).

But this year, I thought I would try again. I took at look at the Ben Yehuda dictionary, and the footnote comments that the charoset is a word found only in Hebrew and the etymology is unclear. It goes on to mention, like Klein, that it is similar in appearance to cheres, and quotes the Arukh, who brings the passage from the Talmud (Pesachim 116a) where the Rabbi Yochanan says that the charoset should be like the mortar (made of mud) that the Israelites used to make the bricks in Egypt. The Ben Yehuda footnote says, however, that this is "only a drash". (The drash seems to be first found in the medieval works Rokeach and Mordechai who quote a version of the Jerusalem Talmud that is not in our printed editions.)

This got me thinking - just a drash? Then what is the real story behind charoset?

A 19th century commentary on the Aruch, the Aruch Hashalem by Alexander Kohut, gives the first clue. Kohut writes that it appears that the Aruch is making a connection between cheres and charoset (which is not explicitly made in the earlier dictionary), but he thinks it is more likely related to "a mix of chopped meat with flour and the like" which was borrowed by the rabbis to "a sauce that has wine or vinegar, mixed with flour", and only on Pesach was flour not added. This has support from a different passage in Pesachim (the Mishna 2:3, or 40b in the Talmud), which forbids adding flour to charoset because the vinegar in the charoset would cause the flour to become leaven. (This charoset was not used to dilute the effects of the maror as on Seder night, but rather as a rather sour sauce for meat during the whole year. Prof. David Henschke has a new book with an interesting theory - that the charoset was originally used for the meat of the Pesach sacrifice in Temple times, but after the destruction of the Temple was transferred to be used with the maror.)

This law has significance to our quest as well, since if charoset was not only used on Pesach, then the etymology would not be associated specifically with something related to Pesach, or slavery in Egypt, and would likely have a more general origin.

An even later commentary on the Aruch, the Tosefot HeAruch, by Samuel Kraus, continues Kohut's approach, and quotes the 13th century work, the Or Zarua, who in turn quotes an earlier French rabbi, Samuel of Falaise, who defined charoset as meaning "things that are mixed and squashed", and added that the Aramaic translation of Shaar HaAshpot (literally the "Garbage Gate") in Nechemia 2:13 is תרעא דחרסית - tara'a d'charsit - "gate of potsherds, broken pieces of pottery." (This translation is likely influenced by Yirmiyahu 19:2, which mentions Shaar HaCharsit שער החרסית, and which Rashi and others identify with Shaar HaAshpot).

Krauss also mentions Rashi's definition of charsit found in Chullin 88a, as "pulverized pottery" and "crushed tiles" in Bava Kama 69a. The common thread in all of these is a sense of "crushing, grinding, squashing" - and that applies to both charsit and charoset.

Ronnie Haffner, of the site Safa Ivrit, suggested to me that perhaps the suffix -et ת- at the end of some Hebrew words means "leftovers after production", so pesolet פסולת - "chips, stone dust" is what is leftover after carving פסל, and nesoret נסורת - "sawdust" is what remains after sawing נסר. So if this pattern holds, charoset could be the potsherds, which are left after breaking pottery.

A parallel approach is mentioned by Jastrow, who in his entry for charoset suggests we also look at his definition of the Aramaic הרסנא harsana - "fish hash." He quotes Jacob Levy, who in his dictionary, like Kohut, says that charoset is of Arabic origin. Harsana, according to this theory, derives from the Arabic root harasa - which Klein says is cognate with the Hebrew haras הרס ("throw down, tear down") and means "he crushed, squashed, pounded." This Arabic root is the source of the spice paste "harissa", due to the crushing of the peppers in a mortar. This is an interesting theory, for if charoset is cognate with haras, then it has no connection with clay at all (since we saw that the Biblical Hebrew form of cheres is חרש, which is not connected to הרס.) Kohut's theory, on the other hand, still maintains a connection between broken pottery and charoset.

The Ben-Yehuda footnote we saw above rejects both Kohut's and Levy's Arabic etymologies, as "they have no similarity to the thing called charoset." While today's sweet charoset is not like fish-hash or harissa, I don't see why charoset couldn't mean a general type of sauce or condiment, and as we saw above, charoset had uses beyond those on Pesach.

Support for these ideas can be found in a much more recent work, the essay, "How do you say haroset in Greek?" by Dr. Susan Weingarten. I recommend reading the entire piece, but here are some key points. She quotes an ancient glossary found in the Cairo Genizah, which

includes the information that haroset in Greek is tribou enbamous, written טריבו אנבמוס...tribou would seem to come from the verb tribo to pound or grind, whence the Greek term for a sauce, trimma. Archestratus of Gela, a fourth-century BCE food writer whose work is preserved by Athenaeus, writes of a dipping sauce made by pounding (tripsas). Enbamous would appear to refer to the Greek word embamma, which is used to mean a sauce used as a dip, deriving from the verb embapto, embaptomai to dip. Later in the same passage of Archestratus, the verb embapto is used for dipping into a pounded sauce. In their commentary on this passage, the editors Olson and Sens describe the verb embapto as ‘the vox propria for dipping food in a side-dish sauce or the like.’ Thus Archestratus uses both terms found in the glossary as an explanation of haroset in his instructions to dip (embapte) food into a sauce made of pounded (tripsas) ingredients.
Weingarten also quotes the Leiden manuscript of the Jerusalem Talmud (10:3) which refers to charoset as dukkeh דוכה (for an extensive discussion of that passage, read this Hebrew article.) The Talmud says that the reason for that name

is because it is pounded [dukhah]. The Hebrew name dukkeh for haroset has survived to the present day. Jews from the Yemen, cut off for many centuries from the mainstream Jewish community, relied on the Jerusalem Talmud as their religious authority, unlike other Jews, for the Babylonian Talmud did not reach them for many hundreds of years. The Yemenite Jews have preserved the tradition of the Jerusalem Talmud, and to this day the Yemenite Jewish community in Israel still calls haroset ‘dukkeh.’ We may also note here the use of the name dukkeh among Palestinian Arabs for a condiment made of pounded hyssop (za’atar) and sesame seeds.

So like dukkeh, while the word charoset is of Hebrew origin, it appears to be a calque, borrowing the Greek concept of a sauce of pounded ingredients. 

Therefore the association with Pesach should not be surprising, as the seder includes many elements (but with significant differences) of the Greek symposium, as we saw in our discussion of afikoman. And like with the afikoman, later scholars who did not live in the Greek and Roman world were not as familiar with the original concept reinterpreted the word and gave it new meaning. So while the connection between charoset and the cheres used to build the bricks in Egypt is a drash, it is not "merely" a drash. For what is more associated with Pesach than reinterpreting and giving new meaning to ancient foods and concepts?

Sunday, April 02, 2017

haggadah and aggadah

Pesach is coming up and we will be reading from the haggada הגדה. What is the connection between haggada and aggada אגדה - the stories found in rabbinic literature?

They both derive from the root הגיד - "he told, narrated", and so, according to Klein, can mean "telling, saying"  or "tale, narrative." Both aggada in general, and the haggada in particular are narratives that expound upon Biblical verses (although aggada has come to mean any non-halachic content in the Talmud and midrashim, regardless of whether or not they are based on a verse.) The haggada of Pesach has a particular connection to the verb, as it appears in the verse commanding the telling of the story of the Exodus -   וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא "And you shall tell your son on that day..." (Shemot 13:8)

But essentially, there was no real difference between hagada and agada, and you can find them used interchangeably. They both meant the same thing, and we find a number of words in Hebrew which are synonymous, but one starts with an alef and one with a heh:

הפליה אפליה - both meaning "discrimination"
החזקה אחזקה - "maintenance"
הזהרה אזהרה - "warning"
הונאה אונאה - "oppression, deception"

While both words are Hebrew, the words beginning with alef have more of an Aramaic influence.

As often happened in Hebrew, when we have two synonymous words, their meanings tend to diverge. So haggada came to be associated almost exclusively with Pesach. In Modern Hebrew, agada has also come to mean "folktale" or "fable", famously in the quote from Herzl (originally in German) - אם תרצו אין זו אגדה - "If you will it, it is no fable [aggada]." And aggadot are used to refer to stories for children. This was cause for opposition by some Haredi writers, who found this secular use showed disrespect for the aggadot of the Rabbis.

The verb הגיד higid comes from the root נגד. Klein that the ultimate meaning of this root is "to rise, be high, be conspicuous." So the verb higid, meaning "he made known, announced, declared, told", originally meant "he placed a matter high or made it conspicuous before somebody." This same root gives us the word neged נגד - "opposite", which again originally meant "that which is high or conspicuous." And the term nagid נגיד - "chief, leader, ruler", cognate with the Arabic najid, can also be understood in this light - "noble". Klein points out that the word nasi נשיא had a similar development  - literally "one lifted up" from נשא - "to lift."  Klein mentions an alternate theory by Barth that nagid originally meant "speaker, spokesman", and perhaps nasi also might have mean "speaker." In Modern Hebrew the title nagid is primarily used to for the governor of the Bank of Israel.