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."

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

domeh and dumah

Is there any connection between the Hebrew homographs domeh - "similar" and dumah - "silence", both spelled דומה?

Let's look at domeh first. The root is דמה, meaning "to be like, resemble, to be equal in value." The verb's meaning progressed from "likened" to "compared" to "considered" to "imagined".  From this root, with the various meanings, we get quite a few common words, including:

  • demut דמות - in Biblical Hebrew it meant "likeness" or "image". In modern  Hebrew it primarily means "personality."
  • dimyon דמיון - It only appears once in Tanach (Tehilim 17:12), with a similar meaning to demut, with the meaning "similarity", which it still has today. In modern Hebrew it also has the meaning "imagination" - perhaps in a similar way that "image" and "imagination" are related in English.
  • tadmit תדמית - This word means "image" or "perception", particularly how one is perceived by others.
  • demai דמאי - This is a halachic term for "produce not certainly tithed".While there are a number of folk etymologies for the word, Klein derives it from our root דמה and says it literally means "seeming, apparent".
  • damim דמים - Klein says this post-biblical word meaning "money, value, price" is probably derived from the root דמה meaning "to be like", in the sense "to be equal". (There are, however, many drashot that connect damim as money to dam דם - "blood").
Dumah,  however, meaning "silence" has a different root - דמם. It appears once in the Tanach (Yechezkel 27:32), and has a cognate synonym in demama דממה. Other related words are domem דומם - "inanimate matter", and דמדם - "to be in a daze, confused", which gives the word dimdum דמדום - "dim light".

This root, דמם, "to be or grow dumb or silent" has cognates in many Semitic languages, such as Ugaritic, Aramaic, Arabic and Ethiopian.

You might have noticed that the English word "dumb", originally meaning "silent" has a similar sound to the Hebrew root. However, they are not related. All research I could find says that the English word "dumb" comes from the Indo-European root *dhumbh, which is (as Klein writes) "a nasalized form of base *dhubh or *dheubh, 'to fill with smoke, to cloud darken; to be dumb, dull, or deaf.". Cognate words in English may include deaf, dove, typhus and stove.

Now, I know that the Hebrew and English words sound similar. And they both have similar meanings - both "mute" and "confused". But while this is a good example of using your dimyon, they don't have the same roots. Remember the helpful Hebrew phrase דומה אך שונה - "similar, yet different."

Monday, May 16, 2016

yakar and makor

A reader asked if there is any connection between yakar יקר - "precious" and makor מקור - "source". As far as I can tell there is no relationship between the two, but that's no reason not to take a quick look at the etymology of each.

Yakar originally meant precious or honored, and over time came to mean "costly" as well. It has cognates in many other Semitic languages. In modern Hebrew, the related term yukra יוקרה - "prestige" was coined.

Makor has a more complicated story. It has biblical origins, and Klein points out that the earliest meaning was "spring, fountain" (as in Yirmiya 2:13), and only later did it gain the more general meanings of "source" and "origin" (and "original"). He writes that the root of the word is קור, meaning "to dig".

A homograph is makor meaning "beak". This was originally a Talmudic word meaning "millstone, chisel", but Ben Yehuda gave it the new meaning of beak, on the basis of the Aramaic makora מקורא. This makor has a different root נקר - "to pick, peck, pierce." (Another difference is that the plural of makor as "source" is mekorot, and the plural of makor as "beak" is makorim.)

However, Klein points out that the root נקר also means "to dig" and is related to the root קור we saw above. From נקר we get many related words such as nikur ניקור - "gouging" and nikra נקרה - "cave, grotto" (as in Rosh Hanikra). This root has Arabic cognates as well, and one of them may be the source of the word "nacre", meaning "mother of pearl", which has the following etymology:

1590s, "type of shellfish that yields mother-of-pearl," from Middle French nacre (14c.), from Italian naccaro (now nacchera), possibly from Arabic naqur "hunting horn" (from nakara "to hollow out"), in reference to the shape of the mollusk shell. Meaning "mother-of-pearl" is from 1718.

The root קור appears only twice in the Bible (Melachim II 19:24 and Yeshaya 37:25) meaning "to dig for water." This leads me to an interesting etymological connection that I'm not entirely sure about.

In his entry for קרר, the root of kar קר meaning "cold", Klein writes that it is possibly related to Arabic qarara, meaning "depth of a well". Would that mean that kar is also related to the words we've discussed meaning "dig"? Any readers out there with more knowledge of Arabic than I have that could help?

Monday, May 09, 2016

lama and madua

A reader asked about the origin of and difference between the two Hebrew words lama למה and madua מדוע, both generally translated into English as "why". Let's take a look.

Madua appears in biblical Hebrew (but is not found in rabbinic Hebrew). Klein provides the following etymology:

Contraction of מה ידוע ma yadua (=what is known? i.e. 'for what reason').

And reflecting that etymology, it refers specifically to the cause (in the past) of a thing, event, etc.

Lama has a wider background and usage than madua, and is used more frequently today (madua is considered much more formal). Lama is also found in biblical Hebrew but appears in rabbinic Hebrew as well. It also can refer to the cause of a thing, but can also ask "what is the purpose, aim". Its etymology shows that flexibility, for it is a contraction  of ל-מה "for what". Lama asks about cause in Bereshit 4:7, 12:18 and about purpose in Shemot 5:22 and Iyov 30:2.

In this way, lama is indeed similar to the English "why", which contains both aspects - past and future. In other languages, there are different words for each meaning. For example, German has warum for "cause" and wozu for "purpose", and the same phenomenon can be found in other European languages.

Creating a dichotomy between lama and madua (even if it's not always faithful to the biblical lama, as we have seen), allows for some powerful interpretations about how we understand the world.

For example, in this fascinating video, Rabbi David Fohrman confronts the question that Moshe asks God after the sin of the golden calf (Shemot 32:11) לָמָה ה' יֶחֱרֶה אַפְּךָ בְּעַמֶּךָ - "Why (lama), God, should you be angry at your people?" Rabbi Fohrman asks:

What is he talking about? Why should you be angry at your people? They are  supposed to be accepting the Torah, and they are dancing around a golden calf, an idol that they have made with their very own hands, and you have the chutzpah to ask God, ‘Why should you be angry with your people?’ What is he talking about?

But then later he answers:

So here you have to understand the crucial distinction between the two Hebrew words for ‘why’, lamah and madua. Why would one language have two words for ‘why’ unless they didn’t mean the same thing? Madua, from the word mada, is the scientific ‘why’. It means what happened in the past to cause the present state of affairs? When Moses looked at the burning bush, madua lo-yivar hasneh, what is it about this bush that causes it not to burn? It is a question about the past that would explain the present. But that is not the only kind of ‘why’ that you can ask. You can ask a different kind of ‘why’. A lamah kind of ‘why’. Lamah is a contraction of ‘le mah’, to what, for what, for what purpose. It is a question about the future.

Yes, I understand what happened to make you angry, God. That’s not my question, we all get that. The question is, where will this anger take you? Let’s read the rest of the words. Lamah yechereh apcha be’amecha. Moshe says, ‘why should you be angry with your people?’ Don’t say it is my people, it is your people. You are attached to them whether you like it or not.
In that case, by using the word lama, Moshe was challenging God - and in the end was successful. A different case, where we need to make sure we ourselves are asking lama and not madua is found in this powerful story:

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I found myself on the uptown campus of Yeshiva University. As it was for the entire country and for much of the world, initial reactions to the attacks on the World Trade Center were little more than shock and disbelief. Particularly for those located so close to the disaster, it was difficult to absorb what transpired that morning.

In response to the events of the morning, student leaders at Yeshiva quickly organized an outdoor Mincha and Tehillim rally. The main speaker at this rally was Rabbi Norman Lamm … There is one thought that he stressed that I have not forgotten. David Hamelech exclaims in Tehillim "keili keili lama azavtani?".  [“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”]  Rabbi Shimshon Rephael Hirsh explains that in Hebrew, one can ask "why" with the use of the word madua or of the word lama.  The word madua means why in its purest sense, wanting to know the reason behind something, what caused it to happen. On the other hand, lama comes from the words "le ma," literally "to what," trying to figure out not what caused something to happen, but rather what is the purpose that is meant to come out of the occurrence. And so when David Hamelech feels deserted by Hashem, he does not ask madua. It is not his place to question the causes of the actions of Hashem. Rather he asks lama. What is meant to come out of the actions of Hashem? What responsibilities do they place upon me? 
This must be our response to tragedy as well, explained Rabbi Lamm to the hundreds of students and faculty assembled on the lawn outside of Rubin Hall. It is futile to try to understand the reasons or causes for such a horrible occurrence. What we can do, however, is to try our best to figure out the ends to which events such as the attacks of September 11th are meant to bring about in our lives.

In general on this site, I focus on the "madua" - why words came to take the meanings they have. But it is important not to forget the "lama" - what purpose words can have. In the week between Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) and Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day for Israeli soldiers and victims of terror), this is indeed a very appropriate message.