Sunday, October 21, 2018


A podcast I enjoy, The History of English Podcast, had an episode a while back called "The Lion Kings" where the host discussed the etymologies of animals that were exotic to medieval England. One of them was the elephant, which is discussed in minutes 31-36 of that episode.

The host presented a theory that I had always kind of assumed, but never saw written down anywhere. That theory says that the word ultimately derives from the Hebrew elef אלף - "ox" (which I discussed in my post on the letter alef) - or from some Semitic cognate. They are both big mammals, so I assumed that it would be easy for the word to transfer from one to another.

But again, I never saw it anywhere before listening to the podcast. The theories that I had always seen were closer to the one proposed by Klein, in both his Hebrew and English etymological dictionaries, which I'll share with you now.

First of all, it's generally agreed that the English word "elephant" derives from the Greek, as described here:

c. 1300, olyfaunt, from Old French olifant (12c., Modern French éléphant), from Latin elephantus, from Greek elephas (genitive elephantos) "elephant; ivory"

Klein breaks down elephas into two parts. Regarding the first part, "el" he writes that it:

appears also in Hamitic elu, 'elephant', whence probably Persian p-il, Arabic ph-il, Mishnaic Hebrew p-il of same meaning.

In his entry for the Hebrew pil פיל, he adds the Akkadian cognates piru and pilu, and says that elu became pilu due to the Egyptian article "p-" (which according to this article means "the".)

Klein writes that the second component, ephas, is an Egyptian loan word. He adds that it is related to the Middle Egyptian word yb, "elephant", from where the name Yebu (the original name of the Egyptian island Elephantine) derives. This name appears in the Hebrew word for ivory, shenhav שנהב, a Biblical word that appears only twice in the Bible (Melachim I 10:22 and Divrei Hayamim II 9:21), both times in the plural as shenhavim שנהבים. Shenhav, Klein writes, is:

compounded of shen שן (=tooth) and hav הב, also yev יב (=elephant)

He then adds that

From Egyptian ab, abu derives also Latin ebur (=ivory), probably through the medium of the Phoenicians. From Latin ebur, eboris comes the adjective eboreus (=of ivory) whence French ivurie, ivorie, whence English ivorie, ivory.

All this seems pretty convincing to me, but the part I don't get is that both components, the "el" and the "ephas", mean "elephant." Why would the word have two parts with the same meaning? I know there are no rules about how words must develop, and you can find that phenomenon in the English word "likely" (which literally means "like-like") and the Hebrew afilu אפילו -"even if" (which can actually be broken down to something like "if-if-if".) But still it feels strange to me.

Even stranger is a related etymology that Klein provides. He writes that the word "element" ultimately is cognate with "elephant". In his entry for "element" he writes:

Of the many etymologies suggested, the most probable is that which derives the word elementum from *elepantum, 'ivory letter', an ancient Latin loan word from Greek elephantos, elephas ('elephant;ivory'.) The change of *elepantum to elementum is probably due to Etruscan influence.

The "ivory letters" that Klein mentions, according to this book, refers to the letters of the alphabet inscribed in ivory. That's an etymological connection I didn't see coming!

Saturday, October 13, 2018

skeleton and sheled

I just read something interesting in Klein's entry for the Hebrew word sheled שלד:

PBH [Post-Biblical Hebrew] skeleton. 

Syriac שלדא (=skeleton), from Akkadian shalamtu (properly meaning 'the whole' corpse), from shalamu (=to be complete), which is related to Hebrew שלם (=was complete). Greek skeleton (=skeleton) is a Syriac loan word. The explanation of Greek skeleton as used elliptically for skeleton soma (=dried up body) as if skeleton were the neutral verbal adjective of skellein (=to dry up) is folk etymology.

In his CEDEL entry for "skeleton", Klein mentions another Akkadian cognate - shalamdu, and says his source is W. Muss-Arnolt in Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. XXIII, p. 148.

While the theory connecting skeleton to the Greek word meaning dried up is still popular, if Klein's theory is accurate, then it would be possible to connect "skeleton" with both sheled and the words deriving from the root שלם, like shalom שלום - "peace" and shalem שלם - "complete."

Horowitz (p. 261) explains how the transformation between those two Hebrew roots:
Strangely, this word [sheled] comes from the root שלם, whole, complete. The word in Assyrian is שלמתו [shalamtu], meaning "the whole body." In passing through Aramaic the מ [mem] dropped out and ת [tav] hardened to a ד [dalet].


As my previous post mentioned, I'm still occupied with the projects I've been working on, but I'm going to try to put up smaller posts like this one (which require less research). I hope you still find them interesting!

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Balashon is on hiatus

As you may have noticed, I haven't written any posts in Balashon in over a year. While I have not abandoned Balashon, I have put my activity on hold for now, as I am working on a different project.

I hope to finish the project in the next few months, and when it's completed I will let Balashon readers know about it, and hopefully start writing (and responding to Balashon emails) again.

Thanks for checking in!

Thursday, April 13, 2017


I've planned on writing a post about charoset חרוסת since 2006. But every time I started, the etymology offered by Klein seemed so obvious and convincing that I didn't think I had anything to write about:

חרסת - 'haroseth' - a condiment made of fruits and spices with wine and sugar, used to sweeten the bitter herbs eaten on Passover night. [Probably formed from חרס cheres (=clay), in allusion to its claylike color.]

(As I pointed out here, in Biblical Hebrew cheres was spelt with a sin חרש, not with the samech found in later Hebrew).

But this year, I thought I would try again. I took at look at the Ben Yehuda dictionary, and the footnote comments that the charoset is a word found only in Hebrew and the etymology is unclear. It goes on to mention, like Klein, that it is similar in appearance to cheres, and quotes the Arukh, who brings the passage from the Talmud (Pesachim 116a) where the Rabbi Yochanan says that the charoset should be like the mortar (made of mud) that the Israelites used to make the bricks in Egypt. The Ben Yehuda footnote says, however, that this is "only a drash". (The drash seems to be first found in the medieval works Rokeach and Mordechai who quote a version of the Jerusalem Talmud that is not in our printed editions.)

This got me thinking - just a drash? Then what is the real story behind charoset?

A 19th century commentary on the Aruch, the Aruch Hashalem by Alexander Kohut, gives the first clue. Kohut writes that it appears that the Aruch is making a connection between cheres and charoset (which is not explicitly made in the earlier dictionary), but he thinks it is more likely related to "a mix of chopped meat with flour and the like" which was borrowed by the rabbis to "a sauce that has wine or vinegar, mixed with flour", and only on Pesach was flour not added. This has support from a different passage in Pesachim (the Mishna 2:3, or 40b in the Talmud), which forbids adding flour to charoset because the vinegar in the charoset would cause the flour to become leaven. (This charoset was not used to dilute the effects of the maror as on Seder night, but rather as a rather sour sauce for meat during the whole year. Prof. David Henschke has a new book with an interesting theory - that the charoset was originally used for the meat of the Pesach sacrifice in Temple times, but after the destruction of the Temple was transferred to be used with the maror.)

This law has significance to our quest as well, since if charoset was not only used on Pesach, then the etymology would not be associated specifically with something related to Pesach, or slavery in Egypt, and would likely have a more general origin.

An even later commentary on the Aruch, the Tosefot HeAruch, by Samuel Kraus, continues Kohut's approach, and quotes the 13th century work, the Or Zarua, who in turn quotes an earlier French rabbi, Samuel of Falaise, who defined charoset as meaning "things that are mixed and squashed", and added that the Aramaic translation of Shaar HaAshpot (literally the "Garbage Gate") in Nechemia 2:13 is תרעא דחרסית - tara'a d'charsit - "gate of potsherds, broken pieces of pottery." (This translation is likely influenced by Yirmiyahu 19:2, which mentions Shaar HaCharsit שער החרסית, and which Rashi and others identify with Shaar HaAshpot).

Krauss also mentions Rashi's definition of charsit found in Chullin 88a, as "pulverized pottery" and "crushed tiles" in Bava Kama 69a. The common thread in all of these is a sense of "crushing, grinding, squashing" - and that applies to both charsit and charoset.

Ronnie Haffner, of the site Safa Ivrit, suggested to me that perhaps the suffix -et ת- at the end of some Hebrew words means "leftovers after production", so pesolet פסולת - "chips, stone dust" is what is leftover after carving פסל, and nesoret נסורת - "sawdust" is what remains after sawing נסר. So if this pattern holds, charoset could be the potsherds, which are left after breaking pottery.

A parallel approach is mentioned by Jastrow, who in his entry for charoset suggests we also look at his definition of the Aramaic הרסנא harsana - "fish hash." He quotes Jacob Levy, who in his dictionary, like Kohut, says that charoset is of Arabic origin. Harsana, according to this theory, derives from the Arabic root harasa - which Klein says is cognate with the Hebrew haras הרס ("throw down, tear down") and means "he crushed, squashed, pounded." This Arabic root is the source of the spice paste "harissa", due to the crushing of the peppers in a mortar. This is an interesting theory, for if charoset is cognate with haras, then it has no connection with clay at all (since we saw that the Biblical Hebrew form of cheres is חרש, which is not connected to הרס.) Kohut's theory, on the other hand, still maintains a connection between broken pottery and charoset.

The Ben-Yehuda footnote we saw above rejects both Kohut's and Levy's Arabic etymologies, as "they have no similarity to the thing called charoset." While today's sweet charoset is not like fish-hash or harissa, I don't see why charoset couldn't mean a general type of sauce or condiment, and as we saw above, charoset had uses beyond those on Pesach.

Support for these ideas can be found in a much more recent work, the essay, "How do you say haroset in Greek?" by Dr. Susan Weingarten. I recommend reading the entire piece, but here are some key points. She quotes an ancient glossary found in the Cairo Genizah, which

includes the information that haroset in Greek is tribou enbamous, written טריבו אנבמוס...tribou would seem to come from the verb tribo to pound or grind, whence the Greek term for a sauce, trimma. Archestratus of Gela, a fourth-century BCE food writer whose work is preserved by Athenaeus, writes of a dipping sauce made by pounding (tripsas). Enbamous would appear to refer to the Greek word embamma, which is used to mean a sauce used as a dip, deriving from the verb embapto, embaptomai to dip. Later in the same passage of Archestratus, the verb embapto is used for dipping into a pounded sauce. In their commentary on this passage, the editors Olson and Sens describe the verb embapto as ‘the vox propria for dipping food in a side-dish sauce or the like.’ Thus Archestratus uses both terms found in the glossary as an explanation of haroset in his instructions to dip (embapte) food into a sauce made of pounded (tripsas) ingredients.
Weingarten also quotes the Leiden manuscript of the Jerusalem Talmud (10:3) which refers to charoset as dukkeh דוכה (for an extensive discussion of that passage, read this Hebrew article.) The Talmud says that the reason for that name

is because it is pounded [dukhah]. The Hebrew name dukkeh for haroset has survived to the present day. Jews from the Yemen, cut off for many centuries from the mainstream Jewish community, relied on the Jerusalem Talmud as their religious authority, unlike other Jews, for the Babylonian Talmud did not reach them for many hundreds of years. The Yemenite Jews have preserved the tradition of the Jerusalem Talmud, and to this day the Yemenite Jewish community in Israel still calls haroset ‘dukkeh.’ We may also note here the use of the name dukkeh among Palestinian Arabs for a condiment made of pounded hyssop (za’atar) and sesame seeds.

So like dukkeh, while the word charoset is of Hebrew origin, it appears to be a calque, borrowing the Greek concept of a sauce of pounded ingredients. 

Therefore the association with Pesach should not be surprising, as the seder includes many elements (but with significant differences) of the Greek symposium, as we saw in our discussion of afikoman. And like with the afikoman, later scholars who did not live in the Greek and Roman world were not as familiar with the original concept reinterpreted the word and gave it new meaning. So while the connection between charoset and the cheres used to build the bricks in Egypt is a drash, it is not "merely" a drash. For what is more associated with Pesach than reinterpreting and giving new meaning to ancient foods and concepts?

Sunday, April 02, 2017

haggadah and aggadah

Pesach is coming up and we will be reading from the haggada הגדה. What is the connection between haggada and aggada אגדה - the stories found in rabbinic literature?

They both derive from the root הגיד - "he told, narrated", and so, according to Klein, can mean "telling, saying"  or "tale, narrative." Both aggada in general, and the haggada in particular are narratives that expound upon Biblical verses (although aggada has come to mean any non-halachic content in the Talmud and midrashim, regardless of whether or not they are based on a verse.) The haggada of Pesach has a particular connection to the verb, as it appears in the verse commanding the telling of the story of the Exodus -   וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא "And you shall tell your son on that day..." (Shemot 13:8)

But essentially, there was no real difference between hagada and agada, and you can find them used interchangeably. They both meant the same thing, and we find a number of words in Hebrew which are synonymous, but one starts with an alef and one with a heh:

הפליה אפליה - both meaning "discrimination"
החזקה אחזקה - "maintenance"
הזהרה אזהרה - "warning"
הונאה אונאה - "oppression, deception"

While both words are Hebrew, the words beginning with alef have more of an Aramaic influence.

As often happened in Hebrew, when we have two synonymous words, their meanings tend to diverge. So haggada came to be associated almost exclusively with Pesach. In Modern Hebrew, agada has also come to mean "folktale" or "fable", famously in the quote from Herzl (originally in German) - אם תרצו אין זו אגדה - "If you will it, it is no fable [aggada]." And aggadot are used to refer to stories for children. This was cause for opposition by some Haredi writers, who found this secular use showed disrespect for the aggadot of the Rabbis.

The verb הגיד higid comes from the root נגד. Klein that the ultimate meaning of this root is "to rise, be high, be conspicuous." So the verb higid, meaning "he made known, announced, declared, told", originally meant "he placed a matter high or made it conspicuous before somebody." This same root gives us the word neged נגד - "opposite", which again originally meant "that which is high or conspicuous." And the term nagid נגיד - "chief, leader, ruler", cognate with the Arabic najid, can also be understood in this light - "noble". Klein points out that the word nasi נשיא had a similar development  - literally "one lifted up" from נשא - "to lift."  Klein mentions an alternate theory by Barth that nagid originally meant "speaker, spokesman", and perhaps nasi also might have mean "speaker." In Modern Hebrew the title nagid is primarily used to for the governor of the Bank of Israel.

Monday, March 27, 2017


In the post about achsania, I mentioned the word for hotel - malon מלון. I didn't discuss the etymology there, so let's take a look now.

Malon is a biblical word, originally meaning "lodging place" or more specifically "inn." It derives from the root לון, meaning "to lodge, pass the night." Klein points out that the formation of malon is similar to makom מקום - "place", which derives from the root קום - "to stand".

Klein also mentions that the ultimate origin of לון is probably denominated from layl ליל - "night". (The more common form today, layla -  לילה is an extended form of layl.)

There is also an unrelated homonymic root, לון - "to murmur." This is the root of the noun teluna תלונה - "complaint" and the verb התלונן - "he grumbled, complained." Klein writes that it might be cognate with the Arabic lama - "he blamed."

One interesting misunderstanding involving the root לון is related to the upcoming Pesach holiday. There is a requirement, as discussed here, that:

Water to be used in matzah baking must be left to stand overnight (to ensure that it is allowed to cool). This water is then referred to as mayim shelanu (water which has “slept”).

Cool water in matza making is important so as not to hasten the leavening process. The Talmud (Pesachim 42a) after discussing this law, tells the following story:

Rav Mattana taught this halakha in Paphunya. On the next day, the eve of Passover, everyone brought their jugs to him and said to him: Give us water. They misunderstood his expression mayim shelanu, water that rested, as the near homonym mayim shelanu, our water, i.e., water that belongs to the Sage, and they therefore came to take water from his house. He said to them: I say and meant: Water that rested [devitu] in the house overnight.

While the gemara presents this as a curious, and perhaps humorous, anecdote, there are still groups today (as far as I know Hassidic, but maybe there are others) who make sure to use water that they collected themselves for their matza baking. A strange custom perhaps, but it seems that this is the holiday of interesting customs. In fact I know many people whose primary custom is to go to a malon...

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!"