Tuesday, May 03, 2016


The Hebrew root עבר is extremely common, and in general means "to pass" or "to pass over". (Despite the similarity to the English word  "over", there is no etymological connection). There are a number of related terms that derive from this meaning:

  • עבר can also mean to impregnate (from the sense of "to pass the seed"). From here we get the word עובר ubar - "fetus" and a leap year is known as a שנה מעוברת - shana meuberet.
  • עברה evra means "anger", and Klein says it's related to עבר in the sense of "carried away by anger". He also provides two alternative etymologies- from  Arabic gharb (passion, violence) or Arabic ghabira (=he bore ill will).
  • עברי Ivri  and עברית Ivrit mean "Hebrew". While there are many theories as to the etymology of Ivri (and because it's a proper noun it's more difficult to track), one of them derives it from the related ever עבר - "side", and therefore literally means "one from beyond (the Euphrates)". Perhaps I'll do a more extensive post on this some day.
The root can have a positive connotation, such as over mivchan עובר מבחן - "pass a test". But today I want to focus on the negative sense - "to transgress". It appears 18 times in the Tanach (a small fraction of the over 500 appearances of the verb alone), and generally refers to a transgression against God. Even-Shoshan in his concordance says it is related to the meaning "pass" in the sense of "avoid, evade", and frequently means "did not fulfill or keep" (the covenant or God's command). The BDB has the passing in a different direction, and says it meant "overstep". This would give a similar sense to the English word "trespass", and in fact the word "transgression" itself has a similar etymology:

late 14c., from Old French transgression "transgression," particularly that relating to Adam and the Fall (12c.), from Late Latin transgressionem (nominative transgressio) "a transgression of the law," in classical Latin, "a going over, a going across," noun of action from transgressus, past participle of transgredi "step across, step over; climb over, pass, go beyond," from trans- "across" + gradi (past participle gressus) "to walk, go"

In Biblical Hebrew, we don't find this root in a noun form. There are other words for sin, such as chet חטא, pesha פשע and avon עון. However, in Talmudic Hebrew, we are introduced to a new noun - aveira עבירה. Avera can also mean "sin", but has a more general sense of "transgression or offence" as in averot between a person and his fellow עבירות בין אדם לחברו. In modern Hebrew it can mean "crime or violation", as in a traffic violation עבירת תנועה - aveirat tenua.

I recently read a fascinating book by Ruth Gruber - Ahead of Time, My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent. Ruth, the Jewish daughter of European immigrants in New York, describes her travels to Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. These were captivating accounts, but one particular passage in her home in Brooklyn in the 1930s caught my eye. She describes the loft, over the garage, that her father suggested she move in to. It had been previously occupied by her brother Harry (a  doctor). She writes:

You entered the loft by climbing a ladder inside the garage and pushing up a latch-door. Once hay had been hoisted up through the big front hatchway for the horses quartered below. Harry had turned part of the loft into his operating lab, the rest was the avayra room

When I first read this, I stopped midsentence (as I'm quoting it to you here). What exactly took place in an "avayra room"? What sins? What crimes?

But then she continues:

for things that were an avayra, a shame to throw out—family portraits, diplomas, clothes to be sent to the relatives in Europe.

After taking a breath of relief, I suddenly realized that I knew this particular sense of aveira already. My great-aunt Mollie, who was born just a few years before Ruth (also to European immigrants, but to Boston instead of New York), used to talk about "aveira fat". This meant the fat you gained by eating things that were a shame (an aveira) to throw out. I'm certainly familiar with this type of weight gain, but I always thought that was a strange turn of phrase (particularly considering that I rarely heard Mollie use any Hebrew or Yiddish words). But now it seems that this was a particular sense of the word aveira, perhaps even specifically used by immigrants to the United States. I'm going to continue using the phrase "aveira fat". It would be a shame to let it go to waste!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

rahut and rahit

Two Hebrew words that seem to have similar roots, but very different meanings are rahut רהוט - "fluent" and rahit רהיט - "furniture" (as in a piece of furniture, the general term for furniture is rihut ריהוט).

Let's look at rahut first. This derives from the Aramaic root רהט, meaning "to run", and it's cognate with the Hebrew equivalent - רוץ. (The letters tzade and tet can switch between Hebrew and Aramaic, as can also be seen in the words tzel צל - "shade" and טלל - "to overshadow", the root of talit טלית). From the meaning "to run", we also get "to flow". This meaning appears in the word rahat רהט meaning "watering trough" in Bereshit 30:38,41 and Shemot 2:16, as well as the word rahut, which is first found in Medieval Hebrew (fluent and flow are related in English as well).

The story of rahit is less clear. It only appears once in the Tanach, in Shir HaShirim 1:17

קֹרוֹת בָּתֵּינוּ אֲרָזִים רַהִיטֵנוּ בְּרוֹתִים

"Cedars are the beams of our house, our rafters (rahiteinu) are cypresses"

Rahit as "rafter" appears in Talmudic Hebrew as well, but only in modern times did the meaning change to "furniture." Why?

In this article (and here in Hebrew), Elon Gilad writes that the synonym used in the verse, kora קורה - "beam" had become much more popular, and so rahit was in danger of being forgotten. So Eliezer Ben-Yehuda rescued the word for the concept of  "furniture", which was no longer an item just for the rich. He was influenced by the Arabic word rihat, which had a similar meaning. Stahl adds that in the Talmud we find the phrase רהיטי ביתו - rihitei beito, which then meant "the rafters of his house", but the early writers of modern Hebrew would find that an appropriate phrase for various articles used in the house.

The only question that remains is, are the two terms related? Klein doesn't say so, but there are some sources that hint to a possibility. The Daat Mikra on Bereshit 30:38 points out that the troughs were made of korot (beams), but doesn't actually say that this indicates a connection between rahat and rahit.  Steinberg, in Milon HaTanach, does say they derive from the same root, but doesn't explain how. Similarly, in this more recent book a connection is made, but I don't quite understand (other than an Aramaic connection).

The best citation I could find that does connect the terms is the BDB, which defines rafters as "strips running between beams." We find that usage in English as well, for a "runner" can also mean something spanning some distance, as in the runners of a sled or a carpet spanning a hallway.

Sunday, April 10, 2016


Not long ago, on Purim, we read Megilat Esther, and in the megila appears the word pitgam פתגם. The word also appears in other late biblical books such as Kohelet, Ezra and Daniel. In Biblical Hebrew the word means "edict" or "decree", but in modern Hebrew the sense is less strict, and means "idiom" or "proverb".

What is the etymology of the word? Klein mentions Aramaic and Syriac cognates pitgama פתגמא meaning "word, command", and writes that they are all

borrowed from Persian. Compare Old Persian pratigama, Persian *patgam, which properly mean 'that which has come to, that which has arrived'

Since Persian is an Indo-European language, I was curious if there were any cognates in English. This site and this book suggest that patgam is cognate with the Greek pthegma which means "(spoken) word", and is found in the English word apophthegm, which more commonly appears in American English as apothegm - meaning "pithy saying" - nearly an identical meaning to the modern sense of pitgam in Hebrew. (I don't have evidence that the Greek sense influenced the modern meaning, but on the other hand, I don't know why there was a change from the Biblical - and Rabbinic - meanings to the modern one).

The Online Etymology Dictionary has this etymology for apothegm:

from Greek apophthegma "terse, pointed saying," literally "something clearly spoken," from apophthengesthai "to speak one's opinion plainly," from apo- "from" + phthengesthai "to utter."

Another word on that site with a common origin is diphthong:

late 15c., from Middle French diphthongue, from Late Latin diphthongus, from Greek diphthongos "having two sounds," from di- "double"  + phthongos "sound, voice," related to phthengesthai "utter, speak loudly."

We've seen the concept of diphthong on Balashon before, even though I didn't use the official term, when we discussed the origins of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The letter "bet" derives from the word bayit בית (house). Some locations in ancient Israel pronounced words with a diphthong - bayit, yayin, zayit and others without - bet, yen, zet. The versions without the diphthong are preserved such cases as the letter "bet" and in the semichut form.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

sipuk and safek

Is there a connection between the words sipuk סיפוק - "satisfaction" and safek ספק - "doubt"? They both appear to have the same root, but no obvious connection springs to mind. Let's take a closer look.

If we look in the Tanach, we notice two things. First of all, the root appears also with the letter sin - שפק. (By Rabbinic Hebrew, however, we only see it with a samech.) Secondly, there is a third meaning - "to strike" or "to clap (hands)". In fact, this meaning is the most common one found (even though it is almost never used in modern Hebrew). According to Even-Shoshan's concordance, it accounts for all seven times the root ספק appears in the Tanach.

Even-Shoshan claims that the root שפק means "to satisfy" three times - twice as a verb (Melachim I 20:10, Yeshaya 2:6) and once as a noun (Iyov 20:22). In modern Hebrew we find many uses of ספק meaning "to be sufficient, to suffice". The piel form - sipek סיפק can mean both "to satisfy" and "to supply". The hifil form hispik הספיק can also mean "to supply", but also can mean "to be sufficient, adequate, enough" and " to enable, to succeed". So if I write הספקתי לכתוב hispakti l'khtov - that means "I succeeded in writing" (usually within a desired period of time). The hitpael form הסתפק histapek means "to be satisfied, content". And of course the exclamation מספיק maspik - means "enough!".

What about safek meaning doubt? It appears frequently from Rabbinic Hebrew onwards, but it's not clear if it is found in Biblical Hebrew as well. The one verse that might have that usage is Iyov 36:18. The verse says כִּי-חֵמָה פֶּן-יְסִיתְךָ בְסָפֶק (this is the form in the Aleppo and Leningrad codices, but many printed variants have בשפק). The Koren Tanach translates the word v'safek using the sense of clapping hands:

"But beware of wrath, lest he take thee away with his clenched fist"

The New JPS translation connects the word to the meaning "to satisfy":

"Let anger at his affluence not mislead you"

A third possibility, that it means "doubt" is mentioned by a number of scholars - Even Shoshan in his concordance (although he does follow this up with a question mark), Klein in his dictionary (quoting "some scholars") and in the notes to Ben Yehuda's dictionary which mentions translators and commentators that explain the word as "doubt or hesitation". Aside from the Malbim (who I doubt they were referring to), I was unable to find which translations give this explanation for safek.

Now back to my original question - do these roots have any connection? Klein does not connect them at all, and even Steinberg in his Milon HaTanach, who frequently makes clever, if not convincing, connections between similar roots, doesn't connect the meanings "satisfy" and "doubt". (He does, however, say that the sense "to strike" and "satisfy, abundance" both derive from a sense meaning "to make a lot of noise" - applying to the sound of the striking, as well as the noise from a home with much wealth.)

I was surprised, however, to find that Even-Shoshan in his dictionary did make a connection. Regarding safek meaning "doubt", he says that perhaps it comes from an earlier sense meaning "bound" - in other words, a thing in doubt is "bound up" until it is solved. This sense of "bound" is found in Talmudic Hebrew, for example in the Mishna (Para 12:1 - although Kehati there says the word has the sense of "adequate"). Even-Shoshan then writes the meaning "to join, attach" is related to the meaning "to suffice" (as does Klein). They don't explain why  - but perhaps when you supply something to a person, or they have a sufficient amount, it is as if that thing is attached to them.

Are you satisfied that the words are related? I'm in doubt...

Sunday, March 27, 2016


The word "frank" (or its cognates) is an interesting one. All over the world, it refers to Westerners (as viewed by locals), but in Israeli slang, it's a derogatory term for Sephardic / Mizrahi Jews (as used by Ashkenazim). How did this happen?

According to this Philologos post, and this Language Hat post, the French were the ones leading the initial Crusades, and so they became known as the standard European foreigner. Philologos mentions the following cognates in many languages - all over the world:

Greek frangos, “Westerner”; Turkish frenk, “European” (frengi in Turkish means syphilis, for which the Turks had Europe to thank); Syriac frang, “European”; Persian ferang, ditto; Amharic frenj, “White Man”; southern Indian farangi or pirangi, “European” or “White Man”; Thai farang, ditto; Cambodian barang, ditto; Vietnamese pha-lang-xa, ditto; Malaysian ferringi, ditto; Indonesian barang, goods sold by a foreign trader; Samoan papalangi, “foreigner.” (Other derivations for papalangi, however, also have been given.)

In fact, the name might even extend beyond our planet. He mentions the Ferengi of Star Trek, whose name might have the same source. (We've seen Star Trek here before).

In Hebrew slang, the term franji פרנג'י means "to dress fancily, in a European style". But this phrase  is not in common use today (in fact, I'm not sure if I've ever heard it myself). However, the pejorative frank (actually better spelled frenk), which sometimes in Hebrew is still spelled in the Yiddish style פרענק instead of the Hebrew פרנק, is still heard (if not in polite company).

Why in this case are the Ashkenazi westerners calling the "local" Sephardim by this term? Ruvik Rosenthal writes here that the usage derives from the Spanish word "Francos", which had the same meaning we've seen before - Western Europeans as viewed by people in the East. In this case it referred to Sephardic Jews who migrated to the land of Israel from Spain and the Balkans. The local Jews referred to them as Europeans, and when the Ashkenazi Jews immigrated to Israel, they referred to all Sephardim as "frenks" - and the sense became much more insulting.

A different form of the root פרנק, which is much more positive, but unrelated to the modern use is found in the midrash. For example in Midrash Tanaim on Devarim 32:2 it says that the words of Torah are מעדנים  and מפרנקים - "refreshing" and "pampering". However this root is simply an expansion of the root פנק - also meaning "to spoil, pamper", and the Midrash Sifrei on the same verse uses מפנקים instead of מפרנקים. The root פנק appears once in the Bible, in Mishlei 29:21 - מְפַנֵּק מִנֹּעַר עַבְדּוֹ  - "a slave pampered from youth". In Modern Hebrew we see the word pinuk פינוק with both the positive connotation of "pampering" and the negative connotation of "spoiling". Like with the previous meaning, what can be fancy and pleasant to some, can be overindulgent and arrogant to others...

Monday, March 21, 2016


I recently discovered that the English word "artichoke" has a Semitic origin:

1530s, from articiocco, Northern Italian variant of Italian arcicioffo, from Old Spanish alcarchofa, from Arabic al-hursufa "artichoke."

Other sites give the original Arabic as al-karsufa, al-haršuf, or from the OED, a combination:

Italian regional (northern) articiocco (16th cent.), apparently < Spanish alcarchofa (1492; now usually alcachofa ) or its etymon Spanish Arabic al-ḵaršūfa < al- the + ḵaršūfa , regional variant (also ḵaršafa , ḵuršūfa ) of classical Arabic ḥaršafa (compare modern standard Arabic ḵuršūfa ), singular form corresponding to ḥaršaf , collective noun (compare modern standard Arabic ḵuršūf ), further etymology unknown.

Despite the ominous "further etymology unknown", I got curious - could there be a connection to a Hebrew word?

First of all, I should point out that the Jerusalem artichoke has nothing to do with Jerusalem. It gets its name from an alteration of the Italian girasole, meaning sunflower. (They are also called "sunchokes" - which is my preferred name for them.)

But what about the "original" artichoke? They do appear in Jewish tradition - potentially very far back. After Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, God cursed them saying they would eat "thorns and thistles" קוֹץ וְדַרְדַּר - kotz and dardar. The midrash (Bereshit Rabba 20:10) identifies them with kinras קינרס and akavit עכבית, but isn't sure which Biblical word matches with which Talmudic one. The gemara in Beitza (34a) points out that they both require effort before they are edible, and Rashi on the verse in Bereshit explains that this is the nature of the curse.

Kinras is cognate with the Latin word cynara - the name of the genus, and the Greek kynára, which may be named for the island Kinaros, or maybe the island is named for the plant. Avshalom Kor here proposes an interesting theory that the Kinneret lake may be named for the artichokes that grew on its shore, and that the Greeks actually borrowed a Semitic word, כינר kinar, that was later reintroduced to Hebrew in Talmudic times as kinras.   .Kinras and akavit refer to artichokes and the related cardoon, both of which do require significant preparation to eat. In fact, the Rambam in his commentary on the Mishna (Uktzin 1:6), which mentions kinras (in some versions as kunras קונרס and even as kundas קונדס, but that seems to be a typographical error), gives the Arabic version as אלחרשף, and says that in the west, it is known as אלכ'רשף. These match up with the etymologies we saw above for artichoke.

In Modern Hebrew the official word for artichoke is churshaf (or charshof) חרשף (derived from the Arabic, and coined in the Middle Ages), but I've only seen "artichoke" ארטישוק used.

So while we can trace the concept of artichoke back to earlier periods, we still haven't answered my question about any Semitic cognates to harsaf. I have a possible lead, but I'm really not sure - and I welcome your input.

The Arabic Etymological Dictionary has the following entry:
hharshaf : fish scales [Akk arsuppu (carp)] Per charshaf borrowed from Ara

The Concise Dictionary of Akkadian has a similar entry, saying the Akkadian arsuppu and ersuppu can mean carp or carp scales, einkorn (wheat) or a kind of apple. (You can see the full entry here, but I couldn't find anything more helpful).

So could the original word refer to an item with scales or thorns? Both of those could apply to the artichoke.

And if that's the case - could this also be the origin of a Hebrew word - kartzef קרצף - "to scrape or scratch"?  Klein says that it's related to an Aramaic root with the same spelling, but the ultimate etymology is unknown.

And here's where it gets a little strange. There's a kind of thistle, the "blessed thistle", known in Hebrew as a kartzaf mevorach קרצף מבורך. I haven't been able to find out where or how this term entered Hebrew (in fact, it's not in any of my dictionaries). But perhaps this too makes a connection between kartzaf and artichoke?

And one more possible theory. The Online Etymology Dictionary gives the following origin of cardoon:

1610s, from French cardon, from Provençal cardon, properly "thistle," from Late latin cardonem (nominative cardo "thistle," related to Latin carduus "thistle, artichoke"

And then going further back, in the entry for "harsh":

originally of texture, "hairy," 1530s, probably from Middle English harske "rough, coarse, sour" (c. 1300), a northern word of Scandinavian origin (compare Danish and Norwegian harsk "rancid, rank"), related to Middle Low German harsch "rough, raw," German harst "a rake;" perhaps from PIE root *kars- "to scrape, scratch, rub, card" (cognates: Lithuanian karsiu "to comb," Old Church Slavonic krasta, Russian korosta "to itch," Latin carduus "thistle," Sanskrit kasati "rubs, scratches").

So could this Indo-European root, *kars be related to kartzaf, which shares a meaning and a similar sound - and could either or both of them be related to the Arabic and Akkadian words we've found?

What do you all think?

Sunday, March 13, 2016


I realized that in my recent post on atar and asher, I left out an interesting cognate. I quoted Klein's etymology for the word osher אושר - "happiness":

Perhaps related to Ugaritic ushr (= happiness), Arabic yasara (= was easy), yassara ( =made easy, prospered)

The English word "hazard" may well derive from that same Arabic yasara. How so?

Klein himself does not make the connection. In his Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, he has the following entry for "hazard":
1) a game played with dice; 2) chance; 3) risk. Old French (= French) hasard, from Spanish azar, 'unfortunate throw at dice, unforeseen accident', usually derived from Arabic al-zahr (pronounced az-zahr), 'the die'. This derivation is rightly doubted by most lexicographers (see e.g. Devic's Supplement to Littre's Dictionnaire de la langue francaise, s.v. hasard, and Skeat's Etymological Dictionary, s.v. hazard), owing to the fact that the word zahr does not occur in the dictionaries of Classical Arabic. According to my opinion Spanish azar derives from Arabic yasara, 'he played at dice'; z is the regular Spanish equivalent of Arabic s. The d in Old French hasard (whence English hazard) is due to a confusion of the ending -ar with suffix -ard.

So we see here that the Arabic word yasara can mean both "was easy" (or prospered) and "played at dice." What possible connection could there be between the two?

In the book Frequently Asked Questions in Islamic Finance, they make the following suggestion, while discussing the cognate game "maisir":
Yasara: affluence because maisir brings about profit;
Yusr: convenience, ease. Maisir is so termed because it is a means of making money without toil and exertion

(For further discussion of the Arabic root, see this post).

So we have an interesting development here. In Arabic, the games of dice and maisir were associated with ease - the element of chance provided an easy way of making money (and the echo of the Hebrew word osher can still be heard). But when the word entered European languages, it took a darker turn. Hazard went from a game of chance, to chance in general, to specifically a chance of harm or risk. I guess it all depends on how the die falls...