Sunday, March 19, 2017


A reader asked about the origin of the word daysa דייסה - "porridge, gruel." He said that "the word looks and sounds not much Hebrew and seems to hide its roots." Indeed, Klein says that the etymology is unknown, and other sources weren't particularly helpful either. But I think I found a convincing back story. Let's take a look.

First of all, in Sokoloff's A Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, he defines the original Aramaic form, דייסא, as "coarsely pounded wheat or barley eaten or mixed with honey." Jastrow similarly has "a dish of pounded grain (wheat or barley), grit". The common element here is the "pounding", and in that light, the Ben Yehuda dictionary (under the entry dayis דיס, which I suppose was a new Hebrew form by Ben Yehuda that never caught on) suggest that the root would be an Aramaic root דוס, cognate with the Hebrew דוש, "to tread, thresh". (I must point out that I have not found the root דוס in any Aramaic sources that I checked, but that doesn't mean it's not out there somewhere.) So the pounding, threshing action on the grain, led to the name daysa - which can be viewed as a gerund.

The root דוש, or the Hebrew noun disha דישה have a few other familiar related words. The passive form nadush נדוש, which literally means "threshed", has come to mean "trite, banal" - in the sense of "overused."

Also related is the modern Hebrew word for pedal - davsha דושא, although the original Aramaic (as in Shabbat 81b) just meant "treading." This is a good example of modern Hebrew taking somewhat archaic Aramaic words and giving them new life in the revived language.

While the verb dash דש means "he tread", the abbreviation da"sh  ד"ש is unrelated - it is an acronym for דרישת שלום - (sending) regards. However, just like porridge, it is best served warm - so you will frequently hear the request, "please send dash cham ד"ש חם!"

Thursday, March 02, 2017


We are approaching the holiday of Purim, where the megillah is read in most cities on the 14th of Adar, but in walled cities it is read on the 15th. One of the terms for a walled city is krach כרך.

Until very recently, I would have told you that the origin of that word was fairly obvious. The root כרך means  to "bind, wrap, surround." The binding of a book is kricha כריכה, and so an individual volume in a series of books is kerech כרך. In the Pesach seder we read about how Hillel would wrap his matza (clearly not the hard matza eaten by most Ashkenazi Jews today), maror and the sacrificial meat. That wrapping - which today we duplicate by eating matza and maror together - is called korech כורך. From here we get the official word for sandwich in modern Hebrew - karich כריך.

So I assumed (as Klein writes) that a krach is so called because the walls surround it. However, I recently started studying the Talmudic tractate Megilah, and on the first page, Steinsaltz notes that a krakh is a large, generally walled city. He mentions the theory that it derives from the root כרך as we mentioned before, but only as the second possibility. The first possibility I had never heard before.

This theory (also brought first by Even Shoshan) says that krach derives from the Greek charax, meaning a fortification - a location defended by reinforcing walls. There were many places known as Charax in the Greek world, some of which can be found here. The word charax originally meant the pointed stake used to make the walls, and later came to mean the fortification itself. In this way it is very similar to the word palisade, which means a "a fence of wooden stakes forming an enclosure" but originally meant the stake itself. In fact, many translate charax, and even krach, as palisade. (A synonym of palisade is rampart, and after looking that up I now know what that line meant in the Star Spangled Banner.)

A couple of familiar English words are cognate with charax. One that sounds similar, but with an unusual etymology is "character":

mid-14c., carecter, "symbol marked or branded on the body;" mid-15c., "symbol or drawing used in sorcery," from Old French caratere "feature, character" (13c., Modern French caractère), from Latin character, from Greek kharakter "engraved mark," also "symbol or imprint on the soul," also "instrument for marking," from kharassein "to engrave," from kharax "pointed stake," from PIE root *gher- (4) "to scrape, scratch." Meaning extended in ancient times by metaphor to "a defining quality."

A less obvious cognate is "gash":

1540s, alteration of Middle English garce "a gash, cut, wound, incision" (early 13c.), from Old North French garser "to scarify, cut, slash" (Old French *garse), apparently from Vulgar Latin *charassare, from Greek kharassein "engrave, sharpen, carve, cut," from PIE *gher- (4) "to scrape, scratch"

In this case, the foreign etymology of krach seems more convincing to me, although I'm sure most Hebrew speakers would find it difficult to believe. Perhaps to educate them, we can start calling the stake-like toothpick or skewer (used to hold a karich together) a karach?

Monday, February 20, 2017

chofesh and chovesh

A while back we talked about herut חרות - "freedom". But what about the similar word chofshi חפשי - "free" and the related chofesh חופש and chufsha חופשה - which originally meant "freedom" and today have the sense of "vacation, holiday" (the former being more general, and the latter referring to a specific break from school or work)?

The etymology of the root חפש is not clear. Klein mentions an Ugaritic cognate hps - "freeman, soldier", and Kaddari brings the Akkadian hupsu. However, one of the more interesting theories connects it to the root חבש, meaning "to bind" (or in more particular usages - to saddle an animal, to dress a wound or to imprison someone.) From this root we get the word chovesh חובש - "medic" (one who bandages wounds) and machbosh מחבוש - "(military) incarceration." Klein says that perhaps even the Hebrew word for quince, chabush חבוש, has the same origin, due to its "constipating effect."

I found the connection between חפש and חבש first mentioned in the writings of the 19th century writer Isaac Baer Levinsohn, who here suggests that the two related roots are an example of one common root developing opposite meanings. (We've seen examples of such contronyms in Hebrew before.) While certainly most uses of chofesh and chofshi in Biblical Hebrew refer to freedom, there are a couple of examples that Levinsohn brings which would seem to point to the opposite connotation. 
He quotes Tehilim 88:6 -  בַּמֵּתִים חָפְשִׁי כְּמוֹ חֲלָלִים שֹׁכְבֵי קֶבֶר, which the JPS translates as "abandoned [chofshi] among the dead, like bodies lying in the grave". This translation uses "abandoned" which is a sense of "free" - free of all obligations or connections in this world. However, Levinsohn says chofshi here is like chavush - "imprisoned."
Another example is from Melachim II 15:5, where it describes how the king was plagued with leprosy and lived בְּבֵית הַחָפְשִׁית - b'veit hachofshit.  The JPS translates this as "isolated quarters", similar to the translation "abandoned" above. However, the context here is discussing some type of imprisonment, and this is how Levinsohn, and later the Daat Mikra explain the verse - as if it was בית החבשית beit hachavshit - "prison".

He says both senses can be understood via "the idlers who are free [from work, society] but are sealed in their homes."
In light of this, Aveneri (Yad Halashon, pp 197-198) says that overall, chofesh and chofshi have a somewhat negative connotation. It describes a slave being released, but not a state of true freedom. And as we've seen it can describe a leper being sent away or the state of the dead in the grave (whether or not we accept the connection between chofesh and chovesh). This caused some critics to oppose the phrase עם חופשי am chofshi in Israel's anthem, Hatikva, since chofshi here seems to only freedom from obligations, not a particular mission. Judaism generally focuses on commandments and obligations, so they preferred an adjective like kadosh קדוש - "holy" - which implies a higher level of obligation.

I don't think that the negative connotation of chofesh remains in Hebrew today. However, the tension between "freedom from" and "freedom to" certainly exists, as any parent can tell you during the חופש הגדול chofesh hagadol - "summer vacation"...

Sunday, February 12, 2017

chelek and chaklaut

A friend recently asked me a question about metathesis - the rearranging of letters in a word. Let's take a quick look at an example in Hebrew.

The word helek חלק - "part, portion" derives from the verb חלק - "to divide, share" (according to Klein). He does not connect this root to chalak חלק - "smooth", which he says is related to the Arabic halaqa "he made smooth" which is related to halaqa meaning "he created." Klein also mentions halaqa - "he measured, measured off" as a cognate of חלק meaning "to divide", but again, he doesn't connect the roots. Stahl, however, does connect them, saying that "he created" and "he measured" are related. And if I understand the footnote in Ben Yehuda correctly, he says that the meaning "smooth" could have evolved from a sense "to shave", which would have originally been "to cut, to divide." This sense - of shaving, making smooth - is the source of the halaka חלאקה - the Mizrahi version of the Ashkenazi upsherin,  the ceremony of the first haircut for three year old boys.

Chaklaut חקלאות - "agriculture" and chaklai חקלאי - "agricultural"/ "farmer" are modern Hebrew words coined by David Yellin, formed from the Aramaic words chakal חקל and chakla חקלא, both meaning "field." This Aramaic word is a metathesis of chelek - literally "a portion of land." We find chelek being used for a field in many places, such as Bereshit 33:19 - חלקת השדה chelkat hasadeh - "a portion of the field".

Monday, February 06, 2017

hasta and ad

Arnold Schwarzenegger has been in the news recently, so I thought I'd take a look at the first word of his catchphrase, "Hasta la vista, baby". While hasta la vista is used to mean "see you later", the literal meaning in Spanish is "Until the (next) sighting." The word hasta, "until", has its origins in Arabic, coming from the Arabic word ḥattá (or hata) - also meaning "until."

I looked around for a Hebrew cognate to hatta, and if I understand these (1, 2, 3) books correctly, there is an unsurprising one - ad עד - "until" in Hebrew.

Klein says that ad, and its older form adei עדי, come from the root עדה, meaning "to pass by" (found in Iyov 28:8 and Mishlei 25:20). This is also the root of ad meaning "eternity", which Klein says literally means "progress in time".

Ad as "until" is found in a few other words:

  • Biladei בלעדי - "without, apart from". Klein says it is compounded of bal בל (=not) and adei עדי (= as far as, up to). That preposition is the source of the adjective biladi בלעדי - "exclusive"
  • Achshav עכשיו - "now". Klein says it is probably a contraction of "ad kshe'hu" עד כשהוא - literally, "until as it is".
  • Idkun עדכון - "update". This is from the root עדכן, which is a contraction of ad kan עד כאן - "until here, so far."

And lastly we have the word for a Purim carnival, עדלידע (or עדלאידע) adloyada. This is a contraction of the Aramaic phrase found in Megila 7b עד דלא ידע - "until he could not discern (between cursed Haman and blessed Mordechai)." This article describing the word's history says it may have been influenced by the Greek Olympiada - their word for the Olympic games, another kind of celebration.

Now to finish, Arnold has been in the news for contrasting himself to a leader who has been widely criticized. However, since this blog is not political, any parallels to the Purim story are entirely coincidental...

Saturday, January 28, 2017

kerach and kereach

It was frosty here this weekend, so I got to thinking - is there any connection between the homographs קרח kerach - "ice" and kereach - "bald"?

Even Shoshan discusses the verb root קרח (as found in Vayikra 21:5), and says that the meaning is "to pull out hair", and notes that in Arabic the cognate is qara'a - or קרע in Hebrew. In Hebrew this root means "to tear, rend." (Meshullam Klarberg writes here that only in modern Hebrew does kore'a mean to tear by hand, while in Biblical and Talmudic Hebrew it could also mean cutting with an implement.)

As far as kerach ("ice"), a footnote in the Ben Yehuda dictionary points out that the Syriac cognate primarily means "storm", and speculates that this might be a connection between the two meanings: a storm can tear the leaves off of trees (making them bald), and a storm can bring with it cold and snow.

Another theory is proposed by Gesenius, that the common root means "to make smooth", which applies both to ice and to a bald head. That might be a simpler suggestion, but his book was written in 1836, with far less exposure to research into related Semitic languages. So perhaps the evidence here leads to a more complicated conclusion.

What about the name Korach קורח, found first among the sons and leaders of Esav (Bereshit 36:5, 36:16) and most famously the Levite who led the rebellion against Moshe. \Daat Mikra (Bereshit 36:5) says that it probably means a bald man (which stands in contrast to the "hairy" name of Seir - also found in Esav's family).

This made me think: while certainly a bald man might get a nickname referring to his baldness, why would anyone name a baby that? Then of course, I remembered that my kids all entered life rather bald...

Monday, January 23, 2017

ketoret and nectar

The biblical word ketoret קטרת means "smoke, odor of sacrifice, incense." According to Klein, all of the forms of the verb קטר (meaning "to smoke, burn incense, etc.) derive from that noun, and literally mean "to produce ketoret." Most of the words with that root are directly connected to that meaning, such as mikteret מקטרת - "pipe", but other's aren't so clear. Let's take a look.

The only Biblical Hebrew word that may have a different meaning is keturot קטרות, found in Yechezkel 46:22. This word is an adjective describing courtyards. The Mishna (Midot 2:5) says it means "unroofed", and are connected to our root because without a roof, the smoke could escape. However, Radak and others say it means "connected", and this is based on the Aramaic meaning of קטר - "to bind". This meaning is found a few times in the Aramaic section of the Book of Daniel, and is cognate with the Hebrew  קשר - "to bind", as found in the word kesher - "connection".

A word related to ketoret, kitor קיטור - originally meant "thick smoke, vapor", and in modern Hebrew was adopted for the word "steam." The Hebrew word for locomotive, katar קטר, is connected to the idea of a steam engine, but actually has a more interesting story. Stahl, in his Arabic dictionary, describes how the founders of modern Hebrew were trying to come up with a word for "train." Ben Yehuda suggested kitor, and David Yellin offered katar. Katar had the advantage of both hinting to the steam of kitor, but more significantly was parallel to the Arabic word for train - qitar. This Arabic word originally meant a caravan of camels, and is related to the Aramaic sense of קטר we saw earlier - "to bind." In the end, however, the suggestion of Yechiel Michel Pines was accepted - rakevet רכבת, and katar came to mean just locomotive (not the entire train).

Another word that is possibly related to the sense of "bound" is koter קוטר - "diameter". Koter entered Hebrew in the Middle Ages and was borrowed from the Arabic qutr of the same meaning. The Arabic Etymology Dictionary has the following entry:

quttr : area; diameter [Sem q-tt-r (tie), Heb qotter, Syr qttar (fasten, tie), JNA qttr]

The Arabic qattara - "drip" is apparently related to the meaning of "smoke, incense"  (perhaps in the way the incense was prepared), and in light of this, the scholar Lothar Kopf (as quoted in Stahl) connects the two meanings "incense" and "to bind" as deriving from a common meaning "things that follow one another."

One theory says that the name of the country Qatar is also related:
The name "Qatar" may derive from the same Arabic root as qatura, which means "to exude." The word Qatura traces to the Arabic qatran meaning "tar" or "resin", which relates to the country's rich resources in petroleum and natural gas.

Lastly, and most surprising to me, is the English word "nectar". The Online Etymology Dictionary provides an unrelated etymology:

from Latin nectar, from Greek nektar, name of the drink of the gods, which is said to be a compound of nek- "death" (see necro-) + -tar "overcoming"

However, Klein thinks that the word ultimately has a Semitic origin:

nectar, n., the drink of the gods (Greek mythol.) -- L., fr. Gk. nektar, 'drink of the gods', esp. 'wine', which prob. derives fr. Heb. (yayin) niqtar, 'smoked (wine), perfumed (wine)', Niph'al ( = passive form) of the Sem. base q-t-r, 'to make sacrifices, smoke'; qitter and hiqtir, 'he made sacrifices, smoked', are Pi'el ( = intensive form), resp. Hiph'il ( = causative form) of the same base, whence also qetoreth, 'sweet smoke of sacrifice, incense', Talmudic and Targumic Aram. qitra, '(thick) smoke', Ethiop. qetare, 'incense'. From q-t-r, a collateral form of this base, derive Aram. qatara, 'it exhaled odor', (said esp. of roast meat), 'it smoked' (said of fire), qatar, 'vapor, smoke, aroma', Akkad. qutru, 'smoke', qutrinnu, 'incense offering'

We've seen the concept of perfumed and spiced wine before, when we discussed why ancient wine was always mixed with water. While nectar has a much more mild meaning today - "a sugary fluid secreted by plants" - for the Greeks it might have been much more powerful!