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.

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...