Sunday, July 24, 2016


What is the origin of the rabbinic word for "inn" - פונדק pundak?

Klein provides the following etymology:

From Greek pandakion, from pandokos (= innkeeper, host; literally 'all-receiving'), which is compounded of pan (= every), which is of uncertain origin, and dokos, which stands in gradational relationship to dekesthai ( = to receive), from IE base *dek-, *dok- (= to take, receive, accept; acceptable, becoming, good).

More common Greek transliterations are pandocheion and pandokeion.

Kutscher points out that the word entered into Arabic as well as fundaq, and in an interesting turn of events, Crusaders from Europe borrowed the word from Arabic back into European languages as either an inn or a storehouse. So this led to the Romanian fundac, the Italian fondaco, the Portuguese alfandega, and the Spanish fonda.

While it would have been an interesting connection, it does not appear that the surname Fonda is related to the Spanish word for tavern.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

kir, choma, kotel

There are three words in Hebrew for wall - kir קיר, choma חומה, and kotel כותל. What is the difference between them?

All three are biblical, although kotel appears only once (Shir Hashirim 2:9). Let's look at each.

Kir - this is the most common word for "wall" in Modern Hebrew. Ben Yehuda and Even-Shoshan say it might be related to kora קורה  - "beam". Klein says that it is perhaps related to the Akkadian qiru and Arabic qir, both meaning asphalt, and so the original meaning may have been "something paved or painted with asphalt."

Choma is generally used to describe the protective wall around a city. Klein's etymology reflects this sense, as he derives it from the root חמה, "to see, protect". That root is common in Aramaic, and is used in the declaration made when disowning any chametz before Pesach - כל חמירא .. דחמיתה ודלא חמיתה kol chamira ... d'chamitey u'dlo chamitey - "any chametz ... that I saw or did not see".

One interesting verse that uses both kir and choma is Yehoshua 2:15

וַתּוֹרִדֵ֥ם בַּחֶ֖בֶל בְּעַ֣ד הַֽחַלּ֑וֹן כִּ֤י בֵיתָהּ֙ בְּקִ֣יר הַֽחוֹמָ֔ה וּבַֽחוֹמָ֖ה הִ֥יא יוֹשָֽׁבֶת׃

This is the New JPS translation:

She let them down by a rope through the window—for her dwelling was at the outer side of the city wall (b'kir hachoma) and she lived in the actual wall (bachoma). 

That translation has kir meaning "side" and choma meaning "wall."  The JPS commentary on Bamidbar 35:4 expands on this idea and writes:

Hebrew kir, a rare word for a town wall. (The term elsewhere is homah.) It probably refers to the outside surface of the town wall (see kir ha-homah in Josh. 2:15).

Artscroll adjusts the phrasing slightly - "for her house was in a wall of the fortification, and she lived in the fortification." So in this case kir means wall, and choma means fortification. This fits the explanation of Daat Mikra on Yehoshua  2:15, who writes that in order to save on construction material it was common to include houses inside the city wall, and sometimes these houses would share their walls with the city walls.

Kotel likely has Aramaic origins, and Klein points out that the Aramaic cognate כתלא kutla is probably a loan word from the Akkadian kutallu - "back side". It was used frequently in rabbinic Hebrew, but in modern Hebrew it's generally reserved to describe the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount - the kotel hamaaravi הכותל המערבי.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

masorah and musar

Until recently, I would have assumed the words masorah מסורה / masoret מסורת - "tradition" and musar מוסר - "ethics" all derived from the root מסר - "to hand over, deliver." However, a quick look at Klein's dictionary showed me that I was mistaken.

Here is his entry for masorah:

'Masorah' - the system of notes on the external form of the scriptural text of the Bible. [A secondary form of masoret. The word masoret is probably contracted from ma'asoret מאסרת and is formed with instrumental suffix ma_ from אסר (=to bind). Later, however, the word masorah was explained as the summary of traditions concerning the correct writing and reading of the Bible and, accordingly, was regarded as a derivative of the verb מסר (= to hand down, hand over).]

From the root אסר - "bind, tie, imprison", we also get the words asur אסור - "prohibited", asir אסיר - "prisoner" and isru chag אסרו חג.

Musar, however, has a different source. Klein writes that it originally meant "chastisement, discipline, correction" and derives from the root יסר - "to chasten". This is the root of yisurim יסורים - "suffering, affliction" (only found in the plural). He adds that it is probably related to the root אסר (perhaps prisoners were likely to be disciplined, or those disciplined were likely to be bound).

None of the above are related to the word for the cutting tool "saw"  - מסור masor. That derives from the root נסר - "to saw." Both masor and nasar appear in their Biblical form with a sin, not a samech - so in Yeshaya 10:15 we have masor as משור.

Sunday, June 26, 2016


A reader asked me if there was any connection between two meanings of the root גור - "to dwell" and "to fear". As you might imagine, it depends who you ask.

Klein does not connect the various meanings. He provides a number of roots - each with their own etymology:

  • גור meaning "to sojourn, dwell". From here we get the words ger גר (biblically a stranger, in rabbinic and later Hebrew a convert), and migurim מגורים - "residence." He finds cognates in the Arabic jawara (=was the neighbor of) and giwar (= neighborhood). He writes that "the original meaning of this base probably was 'to turn off, leave the way', whence 'to be a stranger, to sojourn.'".
  • גור meaning "to fear". Klein writes that this is a secondary form of the root יגר, which is cognate to the Arabic wajira (=he feared). Derivatives of this root include magor מגור and migora מגורה - both meaning "fear, terror".
  • גור meaning "to attack." Klein finds another Arabic cognate - jara'al (=he acted wrongfully against) and says it is possible related to the base גרה meaning "to excite, provoke, irritate, tease, incite, stir up.". This is the origin of the word גרוי gerui - "irritation".
  • גור - gur: this last meaning is a noun - "cub, whelp". It has cognates in a number of Semitic languages, including Arabic jarw, jirw and Akkadian gerru - both meaning "whelp."
So it seems that Klein does not find any connections. Gesenius, on the other hand, does find ways to connect them.

Like Klein, he says that the original meaning of גור was "to turn aside from the way."  But he manages to see that root in many of the meanings. He writes that גור is cognate to זור - which  Klein also defines as "turn aside, be a stranger" (and is the origin of zar זר - "stranger" and muzar מוזר - "strange".) However, Klein doesn't connect גור and זור, but rather writes that זור is connected to סור - which also means "to turn aside."

In any case, back to Gesenius. The sense "to sojourn, dwell" originally meant "to tarry anywhere, as a sojourner and a stranger." Regarding "fear", he writes "this signification is taken from that of turning aside, since one who is timid and fearful of another, goes out of the way and turns aside from him.". And he provides two theories as to gur meaning "whelp". One is from a separate root meaning "a suckling", but a second theory says it is "so called as still sojourning under the care of its mother." (He does not connect the sense "to attack" to this common root).

Who is right? My gut instinct tells me to follow Klein, since he lived about 100 years later than Gesenius and so had the benefit of hindsight and perspective. But there is still something persuasive in the argument of Gesenius. I'll leave it to you readers to see who convinced you more. You can turn away from the theory you find less convincing, but if you have doubts, don't dwell in fear...

Monday, June 13, 2016

am, goy, leom and uma

There are four different biblical words that all can mean "nation". Since they originate at the same time period, it will be difficult for me to say that they had precise differences back then. However, since that time, the meanings have evolved. Let's take a look:

Am עם: This is by far the most common biblical word. In his concordance, Even-Shoshan lists 1850 uses! Most of them mean "nation", while a fraction mean "crowd or group", humanity, or a group of animals. Aside from this last definition, they can all be included in the general definition of "people".

It's interesting to note that Even-Shoshan has a second, independent entry for am meaning "relative".  This is found in phrases where a person is described as being buried with his am, being punished by being cut off from his am, or the relatives for whom a kohen can become ritually impure to bury. Stahl points out (in his Arabic dictionary) that the Arabic cognate 'amm means "father's brother" and that in Hebrew the original meaning was "father", which later expanded to "family, clan" and eventually "nation". He writes that this explains how the two children of Lot were given parallel names - Moav מואב - "from father" and  Ben-Ami בן-עמי - "the son of my father".

Klein writes that both the meaning "people" and "kinsman" derive from the root עמם - "to join, connect", from where we also get the word im עם meaning "with".

In Modern Hebrew, am has more of an ethnic, and less of a political sense. Am Yisrael, the nation or people of Israel, is not limited to citizens of a particular nation-state.

Goy גוי: In the Tanach, goy also appears frequently (556 times) meaning "nation" (like am it has a couple of appearances meaning a pack of animals). Klein says that it is of uncertain etymology, and is possibly related to gev גו - "body" so originally denoted an ethnic "body". In these occasions goy is often used to refer to Israel (either individually, or as a member of the greater set of world nations). Only in post-biblical Hebrew did goy take on the meaning of "non-Jew" or "Gentile." Radak writes that the reason goy became the term for a non-Jew was because in Talmudic times it was unclear which Biblical nation non-Jewish individuals originated from, so the generic goy, nation, was used.

During the exile, and particularly in Yiddish, the word goy took on a derogatory note, and so today there are more polite alternatives to refer to a non-Jew. In English there is "gentile" (although somewhat archaic) and in Hebrew a better word is nochri נכרי.

Leom לאום: Leom appears far less frequently in the Tanach than the previous two terms - it is found 35 times (and is spelled there without the vav - לאם). Klein doesn't offer an etymology, but finds cognates in the Akkadian li'mu, limu - "thousand", Ugaritic l'm - "people, crowd" and Arabic la'ama - "he gathered together, assembled". Since it did not have the frequency and weight of am or goy, it  was available in modern Hebrew for the new terms related to the modern nation-state and nationalism. Perhaps this usage was influenced by the Talmudic passage in Avoda Zara 2b where a midrash states that אין  לאום אלא מלכות  - leom always means a kingdom.

In Modern Hebrew we find the word used most frequently in the adjectival form - leumi לאומי - "national": Bank Leumi, Sherut  Leumi (national service), Bituach Leumi (national insurance), etc. The noun has migrated to the meaning "nationality", as can be found on identity cards.

Uma אומה:  This is the most infrequent of the four terms in biblical Hebrew. It only appears three times, always in the plural - umot אומות in Bereshit 25:16 and Bamidbar 25:15, and umim אומים  in Tehilim 117:1. The singular is therefore unattested in the Biblical text, but the assumption is that the male and female forms are om אום and uma אומה. Klein isn't sure about the etymology, saying that it is cognate with similar words in other Semitic languages, like the Arabic 'ummah (which actually is more of a religious group, and so the religious leader is the related imam).

In Modern Hebrew it is used for "nation" in cases where neither medina מדינה - "state" nor am are appropriate (and again, leom is generally reserved for adjectives). So an address to the nation will be a נאום לאומה neum leuma and the United Nations are אומות מאוחדות umot meuchadot (generally abbreviated to או"ם um).

Sunday, June 05, 2016

zera and tzaraat

Is there a connection between the word zera זרע - "seed" and the skin affliction tzaraat צרעת - (frequently, although perhaps inaccurately, translated as "leprosy")?

The noun zera derives from the root זרע. In the kal form (zara), it means "to sow" or "to scatter seeds". In the hifil form, hizria הזריע it takes on the meaning "to inseminate." The word z'roa זרוע - "arm", or metaphorically "strength, might" looks like it comes from the same root. However, based on the Arabic cognates,  we can see that they are not related. Zera is cognate with Arabic zara'a, whereas z'roa is cognate with dhira in Arabic.

Klein writes that tzaraat comes from the root צרע - "to become leprous." He says that it is cognate with the Arabic sara'a - "he threw to the ground, threw down" and sar' - "epilepsy". He adds that the biblical word tzir'a צרעה - "wasp, hornet", may also be related to the root meaning "he threw to the ground." He doesn't explain how either tzaraat or tzir'a are related to throwing down, but the BDB elaborates and says that tzir'a may have an original sense of "wounding, prostrating". In the notes in Ben Yehuda's dictionary, a theory is suggested that tzaarat is so named because it cause the person to literally "fall" ill.

Since sowing seeds involves throwing them on the ground, I thought perhaps the two roots might be related. However, I could not find any reliable sources that could prove such a connection, so I won't make such a claim. Another thing I noticed is that a number of Hebrew roots beginning with the letters זר have an association with throwing. Most obvious would be זרק - "to throw", and זרה - "to scatter, winnow". Perhaps one could also include זרם and זרף - both meaning "to flow."  Again, I didn't find any master theory connecting these roots.

What do I do with a theory like this? Throw it away, or scatter the seeds to future readers, hoping that someday I'll be able to reap what I sow?

Sunday, May 29, 2016


Last week we discussed the root דמם, meaning "to be silent". Today we'll take a look at a synonym - the root חרש, which can also mean "to be silent, be mute, be deaf."  This root gives us the words cheresh חרש - "deaf", charisha חרישה - "silence" and even macharish מחריש which means "shout down" or "drown out", but literally means "deafening", so is related to this root. One other possible related word is chorsha חורשה - "thicket, small forest", since based on Shmuel I 23:19 it was a place for hiding, which has an association with silence. But most sources say the ultimate etymology of chorsha is not clear.

Is there any connection between the root חרש as "to be silent" and another root, with the same spelling, meaning "to cut in, engrave, plow"? We actually discussed this back in 2007, quoting Horowitz as saying the too aren't related, and points out that the shin in each root is actually a different letter. The proof of this is that in other Semitic languages (in this case Syriac) we see that the shin in the root meaning "plow" becomes a tav, but not in the root meaning "silent". And indeed, the root חרת in Hebrew also means "to engrave".

As we've mentioned previously, the question of two letter roots in Hebrew is still very much undecided. But whatever the explanation, there are many roots in Hebrew beginning with the letters חר that have a meaning connected to "engrave" or "cut." Let's take a look at some:

  • חרב - cherev חרב means "sword" and Akkadian harbu is a kind of plow. We've seen before that charuv חרוב - "carob" derives from the sword shape of the fruit.
  • חרז - charuz חרוז is a string of beads, which came from the idea of piercing together. Later, charuz came to mean "rhyme", by analogy (influenced by Arabic) with arranging words like pearls or beads, with the rhyming syllables at the end of the verse
  • חרט - a cheret חרט is a graving tool, stylus
  • חרף - charif חריף means "sharp"
  • חרץ - the root means "to cut, cut in" and may be related to the word charutz חרוץ meaning "gold"
  • חרק - this root can mean "to grind or gnash", "to notch, indent" and "to cut, make incisions." This last meaning gave the Hebrew word for insect - cherek חרק, which is a loan translation from the Latin insectum, literally "(animal) cut into"
  • חרר - to make a hole, bore through. This is the root of the word chor חור - "hole."
One word that has a possible connection to this meaning is cheres חרס - "clay, earthenware". The earlier spelling was cheres חרש (with a sin). Klein does say it is related to the Arabic root h-r-sh, "to scratch, to be rough". If this is the case, we can also add to our list of cognates charoset חרוסת - the food eaten on Pesach which is reminiscent of "clay."