Sunday, August 07, 2016


The Hebrew word for waiter is meltzar  מלצר  (feminine meltzarit מלצרית). But Klein has the following definition and etymology:

guardian [Probably from Akkadian massaru (=guardian).]

The Akkadian massaru is probably cognate with the Hebrew root נצר, also meaning "to guard" (which we discussed here).

How did meltzar get from guardian to waiter?

The word only appears twice in Biblical Hebrew, both in the first chapter of the Book of Daniel. The book begins with the king of Babylon calling for some Israelites (including Daniel) for training, to eventually enter the king's service.

The king allotted daily rations to them from the king’s food and from the wine he drank. They were to be educated for three years, at the end of which they were to enter the king’s service. (verse 5)

Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the king’s food or the wine he drank, so he sought permission of the chief officer not to defile himself, and God disposed the chief officer to be kind and compassionate toward Daniel. The chief officer said to Daniel, “I fear that my lord the king, who allotted food and drink to you, will notice that you look out of sorts, unlike the other youths of your age—and you will put my life in jeopardy with the king.”    (verses 8-10)
We here (verse 11) see the first appearance of the word meltzar:
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר דָּנִיֵּ֖אל אֶל־הַמֶּלְצַ֑ר אֲשֶׁ֤ר מִנָּה֙ שַׂ֣ר הַסָּֽרִיסִ֔ים עַל־דָּנִיֵּ֣אל חֲנַנְיָ֔ה מִֽישָׁאֵ֖ל וַעֲזַרְיָֽה׃
Daniel replied to the guard [meltzar] whom the chief officer had put in charge of Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah

And then we see the word once again in verse 16:

“Please test your servants for ten days, giving us legumes to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the youths who eat of the king’s food, and do with your servants as you see fit.” He agreed to this plan of theirs, and tested them for ten days. When the ten days were over, they looked better and healthier than all the youths who were eating of the king’s food. So the guard [meltzar] kept on removing their food, and the wine they were supposed to drink, and gave them legumes. (verses 12-16)

So since this guard was occupied with bringing and removing the food from Daniel and his friends, it's easy to understand how one might assume he was a waiter, not a guard. Rashi on verse 11 says that a meltzar is someone who organizes the portions of food and the dishes. He translates with a French word of which there are various versions. The scholar Moshe Katan says that Rashi most likely wrote מיישטר"א, which would make it a form of the Old French maistre - "master". That would make it related to the term maître d', which is an abbreviation of maître d'hôtel, meaning "the head of the house."

It is difficult to say if Rashi reflected this understanding of the word, or because of his influence made that the common meaning. Ben Yehuda defines the word as "steward", a person in charge of the affairs of the house, etc. This meaning contains both concepts presented in Rashi - someone who organizes the food (think of a steward or stewardess on an airplane), as well as master of the house.

However, as Elon Gilad writes here, Ben Yehuda did not want the word meltzar used for "waiter" in Modern Hebrew. He preferred dayal דייל (feminine dayelet דיילת). He coined dayal on the basis of the Talmudic Aramaic word dayala דיילא - "attendant", which in turn derives from the Greek word for slave or servant - doulos. Doulos is also the root of the English word doula, which literally means "female slave".

However, as happened on more than one occasion, Ben Yehuda's plans did not win out, and people continued referring to waiters as meltzarim. But his word dayal was eventually redeemed - when El Al airlines was founded in 1948, they needed a specialized word for someone attending to passengers - and so a few years later, dayal became the Hebrew word for steward. Quite the journey for these words!

Monday, August 01, 2016

nachash, nichush and nechoshet

Is there any connection between the Hebrew words nachash נחש - "snake", nichush ניחוש - "guess" and nechoshet נחושת - "copper"? They all appear to have the same root. However, it doesn't appear very likely that they are connected with each other. Let's take a closer look.

Nachash is the biblical word for snake, and Klein doesn't say much about its etymology other than that it is likely related to the Arabic word for serpent - "hanash". This is clearly an example of metathesis, but he doesn't say which form is likely the original form of the word. Horowitz, in How the Hebrew Language Grew, provides the following anecdote:

The little children were playing at the edge of the clearing in front of their house. Suddenly their mother, horror struck, saw a snake near them, with lifted head, poised to strike. She hissed out to them sharply the warning sound חש (chash) imitating the very hiss of the snake. The children heard. They understood and ran to safety.

From this warning syllable chash arose the Hebrew word for snake nachash.

It's a bit fanciful, but I think it's reasonable to claim that nachash might have onomatopoeic origins. Other words ending in -chash also relate to sounds, like lachash לחש - "whisper"and rachash רחש - "rustle".

Nichush (and the verb נחש) did not originally mean "guess". In biblical Hebrew it meant "divination" and was associated with magical practices. Only in modern Hebrew was it "secularized" to mean "guess." Klein points out that it is cognate with the Arabic nahisa and nahusa   - "was unlucky". The Arabic form entered Hebrew slang as nachs נחס - "unlucky" or "bad".

Regarding the etymology, Horowitz does connect nichush to nachash, saying that the divination was apparently done with snakes. However, Stahl, Klein and Kaddari all say that nichush is more likely related to lachash, since the diviners would whisper when reciting their incantations.  The BDB mentions a theory that nichush derives from nachash, but rejects it because Aramaic has nichush, but does not have nachash meaning snake.

Our last term is nechoshet which Klein translates as brass or copper (BDB adds bronze), and while he provides cognates in a number of other Semitic languages, he doesn't connect it to either nachash or nichush. One derivative of that word is nachush נחוש, which meant "brazen" in Biblical Hebrew, in the same way that the English word brazen derives from brass:

Old English bræsen "of brass," from bræs "brass" + -en. The figurative sense of "hardened in effrontery" is 1570s (in brazen-face), perhaps suggesting a face unable to show shame.

In modern Hebrew the word nachush does not always have the negative connotation, and instead can also mean "decisive, firm, steadfast."

If you're wondering about the phrase נחש נחושת - nachash nechoshet found in Bamidbar 21:9, referring to a "copper snake", please take a look at my post from a few years ago about ish and isha. What we have here is a play on words, a pun - not any proof of an etymological connection.

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).