Sunday, January 26, 2020

erusin and eres

I was recently asked if there was any connection between the root of the Hebrew word for engagement (i.e. betrothal) - ארוסין erusin (the root being ארס) and eres ארס - "venom, poison."

Even before I could look at a dictionary, I told him that it wasn't likely, since I remembered that while erusin  with the letter samech is the form in Rabbinic Hebrew (and followed in Modern Hebrew as well), in Biblical Hebrew it is spelled with the letter sin - ארש.

But when I looked at Klein's entries for the two of them, I discovered some information I did not know previously.

Here is what he writes for ארש (having noted in the entry for ארס that these are variant spellings), with the meaning "to betroth":

Among the many attempts to find the origin of this word the most probable is the one which connects it with Akka. ērishu (= bridegroom), irshitu (= betrothal), which, according to Haupt, derive from Akka. erēshu (= to desire) ...  cp. also Arab. ‘arus (= bridegroom).

He then connects this root to the word areshet ארשת. I knew the word areshet well from the prayers on Rosh Hashana, sung after the shofar is blown. But I'm a little embarrassed to say I didn't actually know what it meant. Here's what Klein writes:

expression (a hapax legomenon in the Bible, occurring Psalms. 21:3 in the phrase אֲרֶשֶׁת שְׂפָתָיו, which is usually rendered by ‘the request of his lips’. Most Jewish commentators, however, render אֲרֶשֶׁת שְׂפָתָיו by ‘expression of his lips’. [Prob. related to Akka. erēshu (= to desire), erishtu (= desire, request).] 
While erishtu meaning "desire" is similar to the Greek erasthai meaning "to love, desire", and is the origin of the word "Eros", I have not found any sources that connect the Greek and Akkadian words. I also have not found any sources that connect the root to the Arabic ars, which meant "pimp", and entered Hebrew slang as a derogatory term meaning someone low-class and sleazy.

Stahl, in his Arabic etymological dictionary, in the entry for arus (bridegroom) says that this root might be related to arisut אריסות - "tenant farming, sharecropping" and aris אריס - "land tenant", since the transactional nature of leasing land was similar to the dowry involved in marriage. However, Klein provides a different etymology, connecting it to the Akkadian erēshu (= to till the soil). That makes it cognate with the Hebrew kharash חרש -  meaning "to plow."

And what about eres meaning venom or poison? Here is Klein's interesting entry. He says it was a post-biblical word:

From earlier אִירָס. Of uncertain origin. Perhaps, together with Syr. ‘irsā (of s.m.), a blend of Gk. ios (= poison) and L. vīrus (= poison).

Eres and "virus" are so similar, I'm surprised I never thought of a connection before.

Sunday, January 19, 2020


Today I was thinking about the word teiva תבה. In the entire Bible, it only appears twice: as the word for Noah's ark and for the baby Moshe's basket.

Here is Klein's entry for teivah:

1 ark, box. 
NH 2 Holy Ark (in the synagogue). 
PBH 3 word. 
[Prob. a loan word from Egypt. tbt (= chest; coffin). Arab. tābūt (= box, case, chest, coffer), is a Heb. loan word.]

I can easily understand how the word progressed from meaning 1 ("box") to meaning 2 ("Holy Ark in the synagogue" - although the word for the Ark that carried the Tablets of the Law in the desert is aron ארון.)  But how did teiva come to mean "word"?

This was surprisingly difficult to research. First of all, the dictionaries that I thought would help me - Ben Yehuda, Jastrow, Klein, Even-Shoshan - all mentioned the various meanings, including "word", but didn't explain the shift in meaning.

Secondly, since the meaning is "word", searching online is really challenging. If I'm looking for a web page or article, I often search for the the term and include the various meanings. That will usually pull up something helpful. But since the meaning is "word" - well, that appears on probably every page. Not really beneficial.

So I had to try a little harder. I did find some discussion of it in the dictionary Aruch Hashalem by Alexander Kohut. He says that some claim that teiva meaning "word" comes from a different source - an Arabic root meaning "to cut." And therefore, teiva means a word "cut and separate" from other letters in the text.

He then compares teiva to a common word for "word" - mila מילה.  This word is familiar from the phrase brit milah ברית מילה - "circumcision." So according to this theory, both teiva and mila come from the sense "to cut."

However, this theory is problematic. From their uses in Rabbinic Hebrew (where teiva first means "word"), mila refers to spoken words, and teiva to written words. This also fits the etymology of mila.  Klein points out that mila meaning circumcision comes from the root מול - "to circumcise", whereas mila meaning "word" comes from מלל - a root meaning "to speak, to say."

So while "cut" could be still be an origin of teiva, the parallel to mila doesn't hold up.

Kohut then provides a second theory, saying that in a teiva, the letters are connected as if they were in a box. This seems like a more reasonable theory - it keeps the various meanings of teiva with the same origin, as all of the dictionaries I checked claimed.

A further expansion on this idea is found in the Hebrew Wiktionary entry for teiva. The entry provides five meanings found in Biblical and Rabbinic sources:

  1. boat (Bereshit 7:13, Shemot 2:3)
  2. box (Mishna Tahorot 8:2)
  3. ark (closet) that holds the Torah scrolls (Mishna Taanit 2:1)
  4. a rectangle or square; the rectangle that one word is written in (Talmud Yerushalmi Eruvin 5:1, Talmud Bavli Menachot 30a)
  5. a word with a space before and after it (Talmud Bavli 30a)
There is a note there saying that meaning 5 derived from meaning 4. This works well with Kohut's second theory. The only issue is that neither example provided in 4 are particularly convincing. The source from the Jerusalem Talmud says, "How did did the Israelites march in the desert? Like a teiva." This means they formed a square (in contrast with the other opinion, which says they marched in a column, like a beam.) That doesn't really mean that teiva meant "rectangle", but only that a rectangle is like a teiva, because of the shape. 

The second example, from Menachot 30a says that when writing a Torah scroll, the space between one teiva and another teiva must be the size of one small letter. While I suppose it's possible that teiva there could mean the rectangle that contained a word, the simpler meaning is that it just meant the space between one word and the following word. And the Wiktionary entry itself provides a quote from the same page in Menachot where teiva clearly means "word"!

Now, if I could find some evidence that all words were enclosed in rectangles, there would be more support for this theory. I'm not a scribe, so I can't speak from personal experience, and I couldn't find any mention of that in the sources I checked. And the nature of Wiki editing prevents me from contacting the person who wrote this theory. But if any of you out there have any proof, or even suggestions, one way or another - please let me know!

Sunday, January 12, 2020


Chafifa חפיפה can mean both "shampooing" and "overlapping" (often used when two people are overlapping at a job, and one needs to train another). Is there a connection between these two Hebrew homonyms?

From every reliable source I've seen, they come from two homographic, but distinct, roots: חפף.

Let's look first at the root that gives us "overlapping." In this case, חפף means "to surround, cover." By extension, it can also mean "to protect" or "to be congruent" (this is the sense that leads to "overlap.") A related root is חפה.

From this root we get a number of familiar words:

  • chupah חופה - the wedding canopy (which covers the bride and groom)
  • chof חוף - "coast" (which surrounds the land)
  • chipui  חיפוי - covering (or suppressive) fire, used in a military context to prevent an enemy from attacking
The other meaning of חפף is "to rub." From there developed the sense of "to cleanse the head by rubbing", i.e. shampooing.  This type of cleanliness is extended to a general sense of being clean, pure - and so it also gives us the word חף chaf - "innocent", often used in the phrase chaf m'pesha חף מפשע - "innocent of crime."

According to some sources, the word yachef יחף - "barefoot" also derives from a cognate of this root. The idea is that removing shoes is like rubbing or peeling them off. 

All of the roots above have Arabic cognates as well. Ruvik Rosenthal points out that there are two more Arabic roots, which have similar spellings, but aren't cognate with the ones we've discussed before. They gave us two Hebrew slang words (and I haven't been able to find any earlier Hebrew cognates).

One is the word chafif חפיף. In Arabic it means "light", "nimble" or "agile." When it entered Hebrew it came to mean "lightweight", "wishy-washy" or "sloppy", and a chafifnik is a "slacker." 

The other word is a verb - התחפף hitchafef. When talking in the past tense it means "took off", and in the imperative, it means "scram" or "get lost." While Rosenthal says it is a fourth, distinct root, this Wiktionary entry says it comes from the same root as chafif - something light as air can easily "disappear", "go away."

Monday, January 06, 2020

pelishtim and palash

I've discussed previously how I like to listen to language podcasts, particularly those with a focus on etymology. One that I somehow forgot to mention is Words for Granted by Ray Belli. The podcast usually deals with the history of a particular English word, telling its story.

Recently, he dealt with the history of the word "Philistine." Here's his abstract of the episode:

In common usage, a "philistine" is a derogatory term for an anti-intellectual materialist. The word derives from the ancient Middle Eastern Philistines, a people best known as an early geopolitical enemy of the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible. The historical Philistines were far from "philistines" (note the lowercase P). The circumstance by which the latter derives from the former can be traced back to a murder in the 17th century German city of Jena. (Yes, actually.)

I recommend giving it a listen. In it, he describes how the Philistines went from being a people living on the southern Mediterranean coast of Canaan, with uncertain, but probably Aegean origin, to the enemy of the Israelites, and eventually disappearing after the Babylonian conquest. The Greek historian Herodotus called the region previously under Philistine control Palaistinē, and then after they conquered the entire area, the Romans called it Palestine. He does his best to avoid the political discussion of the name "Palestine", and then moves on to the interesting story of why "philistine" became a term to describe a person who doesn't appreciate arts and culture.

The one point that I would like to add on to was his brief discussion of the origin of the name Philistine itself. He claimed that derived from whatever name the Philistines called themselves. Since the Philistines likely were of Greek origin (as we discussed here when talking about the origin of the Hebrew words seren and lishka), that name would not have Semitic roots.

However, I always assumed that the name actually came from Hebrew. In Hebrew the people are called Pelishtim פלשתים and the land is known as Peleshet פלשת. These words would appear to come from the root פלש palash - which in Modern Hebrew means "to invade." As the Philistines were considered to be invading sea-peoples (in both Biblical tradition as well as according to recent scholarship), I thought that this was one of those frequent cases where the name of a people was given to them by others (an exonym).

Well, first of all, my understanding of palash wasn't entirely accurate. It did take on the meaning of "invade" in post-Biblical Hebrew. But in the Bible, it meant "to roll (in dust)". That said, Klein connects the two meanings. He says the original meaning of the Biblical usage was "to burrow into", and so is ultimately identical with the other meaning - "to open through, penetrate, invade." And he brings a number of cognates from other Semitic languages where it has that meaning, including Ethiopian, which gave the word falasha for the Ethiopian Jews. (But since that term - whether it meant "wanderer" or "invader" is considered derogatory, the term Beta Israel is preferred.)

And yet, Klein doesn't claim Peleshet comes from palash. I did find some sources that do make that claim, but from what I can see the question remains unanswered (probably due to the lack of written material from the Philistines). Maybe the people called themselves something like Pelishtim or maybe it was an exonym.

However, I do think that an association between the two terms was likely understood even back in the times of the Israelites - even as a folk etymology. And this could help explain something Belli mentioned in the podcast.  He pointed out that in the Septuagint (the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), some occurrences of the word Pelishtim was translated not as "Philistines" but as allophuloi - "foreigners." This translation may very well be from an ancient understanding that Pelishtim derived from palash.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

zechut and zechuchit

Let's take a look at root that has some unexpected derivatives (at least I didn't expect them).

This interesting root is זכה and the secondary form זכך. They both mean "to be clear, clean, pure." One fairly obvious related word is zakh זך - "pure, clean" as in shemen zayit zakh שמן זית זך - "pure olive oil."

A noun that I didn't realize was related is zekhukhit זכוכית - "glass". It only appears once in the Tanach (Iyov 28:17) - and while the glass back then wasn't transparent like it generally is today, it was certainly more clear than other solids.

From the literal "pure" and "clear" in Biblical Hebrew, the root took on more of a metaphorical sense in Rabbinic Hebrew. Just like we say in English that an innocent person has been "cleared" of charges and has a "clean" record, the verb זכה means "to make someone innocent", and that innocent person is zakai זכאי - "innocent."

An innocent, pure person is considered "worthy" and even "deserving" (of goodness). And so another meaning of the verb זכה is "to deserve, to attain." This leads us to the noun zekhut זכות - which according to Klein has 5 different meanings:

  1. privilege, benefit
  2. legal right, title
  3. favor, advantage
  4. merit, virtue
  5. credit side of an account, asset
In English there is a clear distinction between rights and privileges. In Hebrew there is discussion of the difference between zekhut and chova חובה - "obligation", but I'm not sure how you could contrast rights and privileges without using a foreign word for privilege like פריבילגיה. 

From zekhut comes the word zakaut זכאות - "entitlement." But since zekhut can have different connotations, it doesn't necessarily carry the negative associations that "entitlement" can have in English today. 

There are two other Hebrew roots that are likely related to זכה/זכך. One is זגג - it is the Aramaic equivalent of זכך, and is found in Hebrew as well.  The zag זג is the skin of the grape (Bamidbar 6:4), and Klein says it is probably "allusion to the transparency of the skin of the grape." In Rabbinic Hebrew, a glassmaker is a zagag זגג, and today if you need to get the windows on your car replaced you go to a zagagut זגגות - "glazier(y)."

The other related root, according to Klein, is זקק. This verb means "to purify, to refine." Distilled water is mayim mezukakim מים מזוקקים, and batei zikuk בתי זיקוק are "refineries."  

The other meaning of זקק - "to bind, force, compel" (as in זקוק zakuk - "in need of") is not related to this one, and neither is the root זיק meaning to "to spark, to sparkle" (as in zikukim זקוקים - "fireworks"). But I think we found plenty of words that are related, we are not zakukim for more..

Monday, December 23, 2019

gizbar and geniza

Let's take a look at two Hebrew words: gizbar גזבר and geniza גניזה. They're actually related, and have a similar story.

Geniza is familiar to many of us a place to dispose of sacred books and papers, so they won't be simply tossed in the trash. The most famous was the Cairo Geniza, where hundreds of thousands of Jewish documents were found, some over 1000 years old. But before geniza had that specific meaning, it meant "storage" or "hiding." It derives from the root גנז, which appears a few times in the later books of the Bible (Esther, Yechezkel and Divrei Hayamim), with the meaning "to hide, conceal, store away."  Klein says it ultimately comes from the Persian words ganz(a) and ganj, meaning "treasure."

Gizbar means "treasurer", and comes from the same root. It also appears in a late Biblical book - Ezra. Klein provides this etymology:

Together with JAram. גִּזְבָּרָא, Syr. גֵּזַבְרָא, גִּיזַבֽרָא (= treasurer), Mand. גאנזיברא (= high priest), borrowed from Pers. ganzabara (= treasurer), from ganj̄ (= treasure)

The bara of ganzbara is cognate with the English word "bear" meaning "to carry", so the gizbar is one who carries (= is responsible for) the treasure (or treasury).

The Persian ganz may have made its way into a couple of English words as well.

There are many theories as to the etymology of the word "gazette", meaning a newspaper. One theory says that it comes from the Latin word gaza, which meant "treasury", so that a gazette is a little treasury of news. The Latin gaza derived from the Greek gaza, which in turn came from the Persian root ganza, all meaning "treasure." A different theory says that the cost of the newspaper was a "gazeta" - a half penny, and the coin was a diminutive of the Latin gaza, so it meant "of small value" (literally "a little treasure"). And as we saw, gaza can be traced back to the Persian ganza.

The cold Spanish soup "gazpacho" might also have the same origin. One suggested etymology is:

From Spanish gazpacho, perhaps via Mozarabic *gazpelağo from Latin gazophylacium (“treasure-chest in a church”), alluding to the diversity of its contents.

That's quite a treasure of etymologies!

Sunday, December 15, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes

As you might imagine, I have quite a few books about Hebrew.

Dozens of dictionaries, books that discuss the history of Hebrew, books about etymology and linguistics, and more. I've often thought - if I wanted to make a book based on Balashon, what would it look like?

Well, thankfully, I don't have to ponder that question any more. I recently received the book Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes by Dr. Jeremy Benstein. This book does the two things that any book on Hebrew that I'd want to write would need to do: discuss the significance of Hebrew (both throughout history and in today's society), and present many stories of Hebrew roots and words.

Dr. Benstein, like me, is a immigrant from the United States, who was (according to the acknowledgements in the book), like me, influenced by Edward Horowitz's How the Hebrew Language Grew. Unlike me, he has BA in linguistics from Harvard, as well as advanced degrees in Judaic studies and cultural anthropology. (He's also the managing editor of 929 English, a very important project where a chapter of the Bible is studied daily, and I'm thrilled to have recently begun contributing). His expertise in these fields really shows, as he seamlessly navigates between Biblical texts, Jewish life throughout the millennia, and the heart and soul of Modern Israeli culture (amongst all the various populations and sub-cultures.)

He has chapters that talk about such topics as "Hebrew and Other Languages", "Ben Yehuda's Crusade for Spoken Hebrew", "God: Name, Names and 'The Name'", and "Hebrew Time: Sacred and Otherwise." Throughout these chapters, are interspersed what he calls "Wordshops" - a deep dive into a Hebrew root, from the beginning of its usage until today, with examples of the various verbs, nouns and other words that derive from that root. He explains how the development and meanings of those roots and words reflect the concepts and trends that have followed Hebrew and the Jews over the ages.

The book was a real pleasure to read. It somehow managed to enthrall a Hebrew word-nerd like me, and yet I could recommend it to anyone, even those with little or no background in Hebrew. And it was often laugh-out-loud funny, which is not what I usually get from my books about the history of Hebrew.

So if you like Balashon, get this book - you'll really enjoy it. And to Jeremy - thanks for all the hard work that must have gone into a project like this, and I sincerely thank you for writing it. Now I don't need to wonder and worry what my book on Hebrew will be. It really is a relief! (However, my books on Kohelet, and why Avraham was chosen, still need my attention...)