Sunday, June 21, 2020

baba ghanoush

Over the past few months, I've been primarily using questions I received by email as inspiration for my posts here. While the volume of mail I get prevents me from responding to everyone, I do appreciate the messages you send. They often send me on quests that I wouldn't have thought to investigate on my own, so they are a benefit to all of us.

Today I got to the earliest post in my inbox. I'm a little embarrassed to say that it is actually from 2008. Here's the question, from the inimitable Benji Lovitt:

Question:  this one I'm dying to figure out.  Only a few years ago did I realize that "babaganush" was not Hebrew or even an Israeli name.  Americans think it's Israeli, Israelis have no idea what we're talking about.  What in the hell is this word and where did it come from?

Any ideas?  : )


It's important to note that none of the other questions in the queue were anywhere near that old. I think I must have kept it there because I didn't have an answer then that had a connection to Hebrew etymology. 

Well, now I do.

To answer the first question, it's true that baba ghanoush isn't a Hebrew word (or technically a Hebrew phrase). It comes from Arabic, and it refers to an eggplant salad that is similar, but not identical with the common eggplant salad found in Israel. Here's how the baba ghanoush Wikipedia entry describes the two:

Baba ghanoush, also spelled baba ganoush or baba ghanouj,is a Levantine appetizer of mashed cooked eggplant mixed with tahini (made from sesame seeds), olive oil, possibly lemon juice, and various seasonings. [...] The traditional preparation method is for the eggplant to be baked or broiled over an open flame before peeling [...] In Israel, it is also known as salat ḥatzilim. Unlike baba ghanoush [however], it is made with fried or grilled eggplants mixed with mayonnaise, salt, lemon and chopped fried onions.

So Americans - likely ones who've visited Israel - conflate the baba ghanoush they find in their supermarkets with the salat chatzilim סלט חצילים they tasted here. That is the source of the confusion (and the fact that the Israeli brand Sabra calls their eggplant spread in English "babaganoush" doesn't help either.)

Now what about the second question - where does the word come from?

There are a number of theories out there. Most agree that the word baba means "father" and ghanoush means something like "pampered" or "flirtatious." This leads to the following suggested etymologies:

  • This site quotes the Oxford English Dictionary as saying that it was named “perhaps with reference to its supposed invention by a member of a royal harem" - the sultan being the "pampered daddy." Although since we're talking about a harem, it could be referring to a "flirtatious papa" or "father of coquetry" as these sites suggest.
  • The Etymology Nerd gives two possibilities:
    • One is similar to the previous idea, saying that it was "invented by a concubine in one of the historical sultans' harems for her master."
    • Another idea references "the old folk tale about a toothless father who had to be fed premasticated food, something that no doubt looked like eggplant puree." This site has a similar theory, saying the dish was from a loving daughter to her pampered father (although she said the eggplants were mashed, not "premasticated.")
  • The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food says that perhaps the "father" wasn't a person, but the eggplant itself, "which is considered the most important (big daddy) of vegetables."
So now we've discussed the origin of the phrase, but as I mentioned earlier, I waited 12 years until I found a connection to a Hebrew word. The cognate word is oneg עונג - "exquisite delight, pleasure" (as well as the practically synonymous ta'anug תענוג). Klein, discussing the root of oneg, ענג, writes that it is cognate with "Arab. ‘anija (= he was coquettish, was amorous)."  The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament concurs, writing that the cognate Arabic verb means "adorn oneself, flirt" and occasionally also "pamper, be ingratiating." So to be a little closer to that Arabic origin, the spelling baba ghanouj is a little better (and it helps to remember that Arabic has a hard ayin that sounds like a "g", giving us Gaza for עזה Aza. So an accurate Hebrew spelling would be באבא ע'נוג'.)

The association of eggplants with culinary delight began in earnest during the "austerity" period at the founding of the State of Israel. Eggplants became a common meat substitute, and remained very popular even when meat became available again. 

However, some prefer a vegetarian lifestyle for ideological, not economic, reasons. One of those, was Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who served as the chief rabbi of the IDF and later chief rabbi of Israel. In the 1980s, he visited Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi, which is a major processed meat manufacturer and also breeds fish. I spent time on Tirat Tzvi in the early 1990s, and have the book Dmut V'Koma, by resident Efraim Yair, who describes Rabbi Goren's visit:

The truth is, that the Shabbat meal on Tirat Tzvi is quite full, with meat and fish, and other delights [as mentioned in the shabbat song, Mah Yedidut], l'hit'aneg b'ta'anugim, barburim u'slav v'dagimלְהִתְעַנֵּג בְּתַעֲנוּגִים בַּרְבּוּרִים וּשְׂלָו וְדָגִים "to savor the delights of fowl, quail and fish" ... [But in the family of Rabbi Goren] they instead sang l'hitaneg b'ta'anugim, chatzilim v'kishuim להתענג בתענוגים חצילים וקישואים "to savor the delights of eggplant and zucchini"...

So we can see that the connection between ta'anug and baba ghanouj runs deep. 

Hope this answers your question, Benji!

Monday, June 15, 2020


I've written about many of the words for directions in Hebrew, but I realized I never wrote about darom דרום - "south."

Darom appears in the bible 17 times. That's less than its synonyms negev / negba נגב / נגבה, which appear around 50 times and תימן teiman (24 times), but more than ימין yamin, which although appears 139 times, but only 8 of those mean "south" (the rest mean "right").

We discussed yamin / teiman here, and the origin of negev is fairly straightforward. Klein writes that it comes from the root נגב meaning "to be dry", so it literally means "the dry land" (which makes sense looking at the Negev desert in the south of Israel. But regarding darom, Klein says that it is "of uncertain origin." Are there any theories we can discuss?

The one serious suggestion I found for the origin of darom is by Gesenius. He suggests that it comes from a root, דרר, "unused as a verb." This root, as explained in the BDB, means "to stream, flow abundantly." This meaning is found also in the Arabic cognate darra - "it ran swiftly." This gives us the word dror דרור, which has three meanings: "sparrow" (since the bird flies quickly), flowing (found in the phrase מר-דרור - "fine flowing myrrh"), and "freedom, liberty" (which the BDB says is like "free run.")

Another related word is דהר dahar - "to gallop". It originally referred specifically to horses, but is also now used metaphorically to describe anyone hurrying or going fast.

And as I mentioned, it also is suggested as the origin of darom. From "flow" it also is said to have the meaning "to give light, shine", presumably from the way light flows. Dar דר  (Esther 1:6) means "pearl" - a shiny stone. So too darom, according to Gesenius, means "the bright region", which makes sense, since in the Northern Hemisphere the southern exposure gets more sunlight, due to the tilt of the earth's axis

This also fits our explanation of tzafon צפון - "north" as the "hidden or dark region."

The English word "south" has a similar etymology:

Old English suð "southward, to the south, southern, in the south," from Proto-Germanic *sunthaz, perhaps literally "sun-side" (source also of Old Saxon, Old Frisian suth "southward, in the south," Middle Dutch suut, Dutch zuid, German Süden), and related to base of *sunnon "sun" (from PIE root *sawel- "the sun").
I would not be surprised if this was the case in other languages as well, but probably only those in the Northern Hemisphere.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

shechinah and scene

The Hebrew word for the Divine Presence is shechinah שכינה.  It derives from the root שכן, meaning "to dwell, settle down," so the shekinah is literally "the dwelling place (of God)." That same root gives us the words shachen שכן - "neighbor", shechuna שכונה - "neighborhood", mishkan משכן - "tabernacle, sanctuary", and maskhanta משכנתא - "mortgage" (from mishkon משכון - "pledge", since a pledge or deposit was "set down.")

Klein writes that the root is the Shaph'el form of the root כון - "to be, set up, be established." In this post we discussed that earlier root, and we also discussed here a possible connection between שכן and the word sochen סוכן - "steward, agent."

But I realized that there was one additional connection that I did not discuss. Nicholas Oster, in his book Empires of the Word - A Language History of the World (which I've recommended before) quotes the scholar C. F. D. Moule, who writes here that the Greek skēnḗ - "tent" may have been influenced by the Hebrew root שכן meaning "dwelling." 

Now that doesn't mean that this is a direct etymology. The Online Etymology Dictionary provides a different derivation:

related to skia "shadow, shade," via notion of "something that gives shade" 

But that doesn't contradict Moule's theory. He writes of "Greek words whose use, or at least frequency, may have been suggested by a certain (perhaps fortuitous) similarity of sound or spelling to certain Semitic words." That certainly could be the case here, and we've discussed many times how this has worked in the other direction - some modern Hebrew words were adopted because of the similarity of sound to foreign words (even if they have ancient Hebrew roots - take maksim מקסים meaning "great" and influenced by "maximum" as just one example.)

As the same OED entry quoted above mentions, the Greek skene gave us the English word "scene":

"subdivision of an act of a play," also "stage-setting," from Middle French scène (14c.), from Latin scaena, scena "scene, stage of a theater," from Greek skene "wooden stage for actors," also "that which is represented on stage," originally "tent or booth"

Scene has expanded its meaning beyond just the acts of play, and can now mean "a place or representation of an incident" or "a specified area of activity or interest." Those meanings aren't actually so far away from our understanding of shechina...

Sunday, May 24, 2020

shevet and matteh

There are two Hebrew words that are very similar: shevet שבט and matteh  מטה. 

They both have the same two non-synonymous meanings: stick (or staff) and tribe. And they both appear in parallel in Biblical Hebrew. How is that so?

Let's first take a look at the etymologies. The origins of shevet and matteh are actually very different, which contributes to the mystery.

Shevet comes from a root meaning "to strike."  It has cognates in other Semitic languages, including the Akkadian shabatu (= to beat, kill, destroy). That, according to Klein, is the root of the Hebrew month of Shevat - literally the "month of destroying rain."

Matteh comes from the root נטה meaning "to stretch out" or "to bend down." That root also gives us such words as mita מיטה - "bed" and mata מטה - "down" (as we discussed here.) Perhaps this is either how a stick or branch stretches out (or comes down) from a tree, or because a stick or a staff is brought down on the ground when walking or pointing.

As I mentioned, both appear in Biblical Hebrew. While they each appear more frequently in some books than others, they do appear in the same books, and sometimes even in the same verse, such as this one:

וְגַם אֶת־אַחֶיךָ מַטֵּה לֵוִי שֵׁבֶט אָבִיךָ הַקְרֵב אִתָּךְ וְיִלָּווּ עָלֶיךָ וִישָׁרְתוּךָ וְאַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ אִתָּךְ לִפְנֵי אֹהֶל הָעֵדֻת׃

You [Aharon] shall also associate with yourself your kinsmen the tribe [matteh] of Levi, your ancestral [literally father's] tribe [shevet], to be attached to you and to minister to you, while you and your sons under your charge are before the Tent of the Pact. (Bamidbar 18:2)

In his JPS commentary here, Milgrom writes that "synonyms are used to avoid monotonous repetition." But he adds, referring to this more detailed article of his, that matteh is more precise (referring specifically to one of the 12 tribes), whereas shevet can be also a smaller group (like in this verse, Aharon's father's family) or to the entire nation of Israel (like in Tehilim 74:2). 

How did these two words with distinct origins come to mean both stick and tribe? And why did "stick" develop into "tribe" (twice)?

There are a number of theories:

  • Some say that between "stick" and "tribe" the term meant "scepter." (The Hebrew word for scepter - sharvit שרביט - may have derived from shevet  as well.) That symbol of leadership became associated with the leader of the tribe itself, and then to the tribe he led. This intermediate stage is found in Bereshit 49:10, for example. Based on how he presents the order of the definitions of shevet, I think this is Kaddari's approach. Since he presents that development for shevet, and not for matteh, perhaps he holds that matteh was influenced by shevet in that regard. (For more detail about how the meanings of the words developed, see this Hebrew article by Athalya Brenner. She finds the "missing link" of shevet referring to the actual leader, but that link is not found with matteh.)
  • Stahl has a similar approach, and points out that the the shevet as a scepter signified the leader's power to beat and punish, which connects back to the etymology of the root.
  • Ben Yehuda says that shevet (as stick) became "tribe" in the way a branch splits off from the main part of a tree. In the same way multiple tribes would be divisions of a single nation.
  • Radak takes a different approach. He says that the "original" word was matteh. He writes that one leans (relies) on a matteh (as implied by the root of the word), and both shevet and matteh as "tribe" refer to something you can rely upon. Perhaps he means that in tribal group everyone helps one another.
  • Gesenius combines some of the above approaches, saying that shevet came to be tribe from the authority of the scepter, and matteh represents the branching out (as Ben Yehuda wrote about shevet). I suppose he viewed the developments of shevet and matteh as parallel, but independent.
Before researching this, I thought that there was a parallel development in English, with the word "staff" meaning both "stick" and "group (of people employed by an organization.) But that was a very late entry into English, first appearing only in 1702. It originally had a specifically military sense, as it came "from the notion of the 'baton' that is a badge of office or authority." 

The early Zionist leader and Hebrew linguist Nahum Sokolow adopted this meaning of staff as a group of military officers, and adopted the word matteh for that purpose. So today, the commander in chief of the Israeli army is the rosh hamatteh haklali ראש המטה הכללי - "the Chief of the General Staff" (frequently abbreviated to רמטכ"ל Ramatkal.)

And while in Modern Hebrew matteh has a primarily military connotation, shevet has much more of a civilian tone, used either for groups in youth movements, or to represent an ethnic or large family group (sometimes in a derogatorily way, similar to the English "tribal.") 

As I've said before, Hebrew just can't handle synonyms...

Sunday, May 17, 2020

yom huledet

The Hebrew phrase for "birthday" is יום הולדת yom huledet. While it's certainly a familiar phrase, it's actually kind of a strange construct. Huledet is the hufal (passive and causative) form. Why not use the simpler יום הלידה yom haleida - "day of birth"?

The phrase yom huledet appears three times in the Bible. The first is in Bereshit 40:20 after Yosef deciphered the dreams of his servants (the other two are in Yechezkel 16:4,5). Here is how the phrase appears in Bereshit:

וַיְהִי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי יוֹם הֻלֶּדֶת אֶת־פַּרְעֹה וַיַּעַשׂ מִשְׁתֶּה לְכָל־עֲבָדָיו וַיִּשָּׂא אֶת־רֹאשׁ שַׂר הַמַּשְׁקִים וְאֶת־רֹאשׁ שַׂר הָאֹפִים בְּתוֹךְ עֲבָדָיו׃

On the third day—his birthday [yom huledet]—Pharaoh made a banquet for all his officials, and he singled out his chief cupbearer and his chief baker from among his officials. 

On this verse, Rashi asks our question above, and mentions the other occurrences of  yom huledet:

יום הלדת את פרעה. יוֹם לֵידָתוֹ, וְקוֹרִין לוֹ יוֹם גֵּינוּסְיָא. וּלְשׁוֹן הֻלֶּדֶת, לְפִי שֶׁאֵין הַוָּלָד נוֹצָר אֶלָּא עַל יְדֵי אֲחֵרִים, שֶׁהַחַיָּה מְיַלֶּדֶת אֶת הָאִשָּׁה, וְעַל כֵּן הַחַיָּה נִקְרֵאת מְיַלֶּדֶת, וְכֵן וּמוֹלְדוֹתַיִךְ בְּיוֹם הוּלֶּדֶת אוֹתָךְ (יחזקאל ט"ז) וְכֵן אַחֲרֵי הֻכַּבֵּס אֶת הַנֶּגַע (ויקרא י"ג), שֶׁכִּבּוּסוֹ עַל יְדֵי אֲחֵרִים:

יום הלדת את פרעה HIS (PHARAOH’S) BIRTHDAY. It is called (Avodah Zarah 10a) “The birthday festival”. The causative passive form (הלדת) is used because the infant is born only by the assistance of others, for the midwife delivers the woman. On this account a midwife is called מילדת a Piel form “one who brings to birth”. This passive form occurs similarly (Ezekiel 16:4) “And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born (הולדת אתך)”. A similar passive form is used in (Leviticus 13:55) “after the plague (הכבס) is washed away”, because the washing is done by others). 

In other words, a better translation for yom huledet would be "the day [he] was delivered" instead of "birthday," even though both phrases refer to the same date. (An alternate suggestion, by Radak and Rabbeinu Bachye, is that this was the day a son was born to Pharaoh.) This can also help us understand why the phrase is yom huledet et paro, where Pharaoh is the object of the phrase, instead of yom huledet paro, which is how we would say it today. Pharaoh was the object - he was delivered on that day. According to this article, the verse describes the historical record of  "a ceremony at which the Pharaoh was born again as far as Egyptian protocol was concerned." 

So this usage could explain why yom huledet is the phrase we use for "birthday." However, there are other phrases used to describe birthdays in the Bible:

  כְּיוֹם הִוָּלְדָהּ k'yom hivalda - "as on the day she was born" (Hoshea 2:5)

 מִיּוֹם הִוָּלְדוֹ - m'yom hivaldo - "than the day of his birth" (Kohelet 7:1)

And in the mishna (Avoda Zara 1:3), we find yom haleida יום הלידה. 

So why didn't any of the above become the standard term for "birthday"?

I couldn't find an proven answer to this question. However, it seems that birthdays weren't a big deal in Judaism until recently. And so there wasn't need for a standard Hebrew phrase for the concept. I didn't find yom huledet mentioned in Rabbinic sources that weren't discussing the verses in Bereshit or Yechezkel until relatively recently.

We can see the trends even better, by looking at this chart of appearances of the phrase yom huledet (with both spellings) in Hebrew books over the last few centuries:


The usage (of the full spelling) really starts spiking around the 1960s. I assume that most of the earlier occurrences were discussing the biblical examples.

But as we saw, there were other choices - yom hivaldo or yom haleida. Why not them? My guess is that people were very familiar with the yom huledet of Pharaoh, due to the weekly Torah reading. And although Rashi gives it a slightly different explanation than "day of birth," that wasn't enough to prevent it from becoming the popular phrase.

Monday, May 11, 2020

po and kan

 Is there any difference between the two Hebrew words for "here" - po פה and kan כאן?

They originate in different strata of Hebrew. Po is of biblical origin, and kan starts appearing in Rabbinic Hebrew. (It derives from a Biblical word, ko כה, which means "so, thus" and can also mean "here.")  They each are part of words meaning "where" - the biblical eifo איפה and the rabbinic heikhan היכן.

What about the meanings? They both mean "here" and are often viewed as complete synonyms, even being the most popular example of two Hebrew words with the same meaning, and define each other in dictionaries. While in English having two synonymous words might not be remarkable, as we pointed out recently, "Hebrew has a hard time hanging on to synonyms."

And yet, a closer look does show differences in uses, even though the translation to the English "here" remains in place. This book does a good job of capturing those differences:

There is, however, a very basic semantic distinction between po and kan which — in my experience — most people take for granted but immediately recognize when it is pointed out to them. The word po is limited to the realm of space on the spatio-temporal-existential cline. It always refers to a specific and concrete place in the immediate or proximate vicinity. The word kan, on the other hand, has gone beyond the realm of space in the universal spatio-temporal-existential cline and may also be used for temporal and existential messages as well. The word kan may refer to specific places and immediate or proximate vicinities (like po), to the present time (the here-and-now), and to general relevant issues and situations (leadken - 'to bring up to date') (lit. 'to-until-here-now'). 

In other words, po is almost always talking about a physical place. Kan, on the other hand, can be about place - but can also be about time (like how far along you are in process), or even purely abstractly (like your understanding of an issue). "Here" captures all of those in English, but the difference in nuance in the Hebrew words are real. If you would say (without context), kan chashavti lehitpater כאן חשבתי להתטפר - "here I thought of resigning", it could mean "in this place" or "at this point in my life." But if you used po instead of kan, it would likely mean "in this physical place."

All that said, this article seems to show a trend in the opposite direction. Collecting examples of spoken Hebrew in the 1980s and 1990s, it found that po was used in the vast majority of cases. And while it recognizes the trend we mentioned above in "classical" Hebrew, it says that in the usages they studied, po actually was used in more varied circumstances than kan. This is how the English abstract describes the study:

The paper traces the fine distinction between two adverbs of location — פה and כאן — frequently regarded as an example of exact synonyms. Data based on a recorded corpus of native speakers are analyzed quantitatively and qualitatively, namely, using semantic and functional methods of sign-oriented linguistics. The findings show פה to be the dominant, unmarked term of the pair, found in 97 percent of the cases. Unlike in their classical use, פה may designate not only location but also temporal concepts, whereas כאן is restricted to locational concepts. Although their denotation is the same, the marginal field of their meaning differs. In certain lexical phrases, כאן carries a submeaning of 'border' or 'end', whereas פה has a submeaning of 'now', and functions as a half-empty prosodic or emotive filler, mainly in the existence (יש) sentence pattern.
While I don't challenge the scholarship of the study, the results have not been my experience. When it comes to a word describing the "physical" here, I haven't noticed a preference for po or kan. And I haven't seen po being used to designate "temporal concepts." It could be that my ear isn't that sensitive, or I'm not in the same social groups as the study, or that things have changed in the past 30 years. I'm happy to hear your experiences as well.

One word I didn't mention was hinei הנה which can also mean "here," but isn't interchangeable with kan and po. As this book puts it: 

It might be translated as "here," but unlike the Hebrew synonyms for "here," "kan" and "po," it cannot occur in a mere descriptive proposition. "Hine" is used only presentationally; that is, I can say "hine hameil," here is the coat, when I point to the coat (hence the translation: "Behold the coat!"), but I cannot say, "Etmol hameil haya hine" (Yesterday the coat was hine) to mean "Yesterday the coat was here"; I have to say "Etmol hameil haya po" or "Etmol hameil haya kan." Thus hine performs the speech-act of calling attention to, or presenting, not describing. 

So now I can state: hinei, the post about the Hebrew words for "here" is kan. (Or should I say po?)

Sunday, May 03, 2020


I've discussed a few times in the past that the root חרט means "to engrave", as in the word charita חריטה - "engraving, chiseling." But I didn't answer the question: is that root related to the words charata חרטה - "regret, remorse" and hitcharet התחרט - "to regret"?

This meaning isn't found in the Bible, but first appears in Rabbinic Hebrew. Jastrow makes the fanciful suggestion that "to regret, feel sorry" is to "scratch one's self."  Ben Yehuda says that the etymology of charata (and the related verb) is unknown and no cognates are found in Semitic languages.

However, Klein does provide an etymology. He has two distinct entries for חרט. After the entry for חרט - "to chisel, engrave", he has חרט as "to repent", and says that it comes from  the Arabic inḫaraṭa  - "he did ignorantly."

This would make it cognate with a common word in Israeli slang - kharta חרטה. It means "nonsense, rubbish", and I actually thought it was a rude word with scatological origins. But no, it just comes from the same Arabic root meaning "lies, nonsense." Related slang words are kharta barta חרטה ברטה - "nonsense, make-believe, baloney" and the verb khirtet חרטט - "to make up nonsense."

Going back to the original question, I expected some linguistic proof that the two forms of חרט are unrelated. This happens not infrequently with words including the Hebrew letter chet. While Hebrew has only one chet, the cognates in Arabic have two different letters - like a hard chet and a soft chet. So sometimes two words in Hebrew will seem to be homonyms, but when compared with Arabic, they will be shown to be unrelated. This was the case, for example, with the words for fat and milk - chalav and chelev. They are spelled the same in Hebrew - חלב - but are unrelated.

But both meanings of חרט have Arabic cognates, and both are spelled with the hard chet. So that can't prove they aren't related.

And in fact, while I don't have direct proof, I think that perhaps they are connected. Let's look another Hebrew root with similar meanings - פסל.

One meaning is "to hew, hew out, carve." From here we get such words as pesel פסל - "carved image, idol" and pesolet פסולת - "chips, stone dust."

The other meaning is "to disqualify, declare unfit." This meaning gives us pasul פסול - "disqualified, defective, unfit." For this sense, Klein provides this etymology:

Aram. פְּסַל (= he disqualified, declared unfit), Arab. fasala (= was ignoble, was valueless). According to several scholars פסל ᴵᴵ represents a special sense development of פסל ᴵ (as if פסל ᴵᴵ would have meant orig. ‘was cut away’, whence arose the meaning ‘was considered useless’). They refer to the sense development of פּֽסֹלֶת (= chips, stone dust), whence ‘worthless matter’. However, according to others פסל ᴵ and פסל ᴵᴵ are two different bases.

So according to the first explanation, which seems reasonable, there was a development from "carving" to "worthless matter." Could the same have happened from charita - "engraving" to kharta - "nonsense" to charata - "regret"?  Doesn't look like kharta barta to me...