Monday, February 01, 2016

kasher and kosher

One of the few Hebrew words that most English speakers know is "kosher". When used to describe food, it means that it conforms to the regulations of Jewish dietary laws, and in the more general sense it can mean "legitimate, genuine, correct." The word kosher clearly comes from the Hebrew כשר kasher (the pronunciation and spelling kosher is from the Ashkenazic and Yiddish influence), but the Hebrew kasher and its associated words have many more meanings. Let's take a look.

As I've discussed before, I listen to a lot of podcasts. However, in that previous post I didn't mention one podcast that would be of particular interest to readers of Balashon. In each episode of the podcast StreetWise Hebrew, host Guy Sharett takes a Hebrew root, and shows its various forms and uses in Modern Hebrew, accompanied by clips from news broadcasts, commercials, songs and more. Each podcast is only 10-15 minutes, and it's great for both those learning Hebrew for the first time, as well as more veteran fans of the language (like me). I highly recommend it.

In his episode on the word kasher, Guy discusses many words that are related to that root. In addition to kasher - which, similar to "kosher" in English, also means "fit, valid, reliable" (besides its association with food), he also provides the following  words:

kashir – Capable – כשיר
kishurim – Qualifications – כישורים
hechsher – “Kosherizing,” authorization – הכשר
hachshara – “Kosherizing” meat; training – הכשרה
lehachshir – To render something kosher, to train, to prepare, to authorize – להכשיר
muchshar, muchesheret – Talented – מוכשר, מוכשרת
kosher – Fitness, ability, capability – כושר

You should notice that all the words listed have something to do with either being fit, or preparing to make fit. Only a few of them have to do with food - and those that do are related to the preparation of the food, not the supervision. If you understand this, the term "kosher salt" will make more sense - it's not that this kind of salt is permitted according to Jewish law (all salt is), but that it is used in the preparation of meat, according to Jewish law.

Another interesting point here is that Hebrew also has the word "kosher", but it refers to physical fitness, not food you can eat. Probably a healthier approach...

One thing that Guy does not usually discuss is etymology. So let's look at the background to this root.

The root only appears a few times in the Tanach, mostly in the later books. Esther (8:5) has the adjective kasher, and Kohelet has the verb form twice (10:10, 11:6) as well as the related kisharon כשרון - "talent, skill" (2:21, 4:4, 5:10). The appearance in these books is generally attributed to an Aramaic influence where the word is commonly used, and Klein finds cognates in the Ugaritic ktr (=fit, suitable) and Akkadian kasharu (= to succeed).

Two other biblical words, which each appear only once in the Tanach, and may be related to the root are kosharot כושרות  in Tehillim 68:7 whose meaning is unclear, and might mean "prosperity" (although the Radak and other say it might derive from the root קשר - "to bind"), and kishor כישור - "distaff " in Mishlei 31:19. Klein says that the etymology of kishor is uncertain, and the BDB suggests that perhaps the origin is in the root ישר - "to make straight".

Yaakov Etzion discusses the etymology of the root further in this post. He points out that kasher is used often in the Aramaic targumim of the Hebrew Tanach as a translation of yashar ישר - "right, just", and is found - in various forms - very frequently in Rabbinic Hebrew (which had much influence from Aramaic).

He focuses on the interesting word machshir מכשיר - which in Modern Hebrew means "tool, device, instrument". Guy didn't discuss it in his podcast. How is it related to the senses of "preparation" or "fitness"?

Jastrow defines the term as it appears in Talmudic Hebrew as "preparatory means, preliminary acts", and the eponymous tractate of Mishna meant "things which make an object fit for levitical uncleanness". (Etzion points out that we see from these examples and other similar ones that the root kasher is not always used to mean something prepared for a positive use).

As Hebrew began its renewal as a spoken language, machshir was adopted in a number of compound phrases (much more common in that period than now), but still maintaining the sense of things that are "preparatory". So Etzion gives the examples of machshirei seuda מכשירי סעודה as "things needed to prepare a meal" (like a tablecloth and silverware) and machshirei ketiva מכשירי כתיבה - "things needed for writing" (like pen and paper). But over time the sense of "preparatory, necessary" was dropped and it just became a word for tool, instrument (a synonym for keli כלי). So for example, machshirei chashmal מכשירי חשמל are electric devices, with no sense of "preparation" for electricity.

So I hope I've prepared you to use the root kasher properly. And now I need to go for a walk, listen to  my podcasts, burn off all this kosher food I just ate, and get into kosher!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

tefila and pelili

Let's take a look at the root פלל. It is appears both in the verb hitpalel התפלל - "prayed" and the adjective plili פלילי - "criminal". Is there any connection between the two?

Let's look at the latter sense first. The root פלל in this context originally meant "to judge", and we find this meaning a number of times in the Tanach (for example Shemot 21:22 and Shmuel I 2:25). From here developed the modern sense of criminal - someone (or something) that is judged.

Klein says that some scholars claim that this base originally meant "he cleft, split, decided" and is cognate with the Arabic falla - "he cut, broke". He points out that a similar sense development can be found both in the Hebrew root פסק which means both "split, divide" and "decide", and the English word "decide" itself, which derives from the Latin caedere, meaning "to cut".

What of the other meaning of פלל - "to pray"? Klein gives a few possible suggestions. One goes back to his derivation of the first meaning of פלל from "he cut", this meaning meant "he cut himself in worship." He says that a more probable explanation would connect this sense to a different root - נפל "to fall", and so it meant "to prostrate himself in prayer". However, his last suggestion connects the two meanings of "judge" and "pray", saying that the original meaning of this sense was "to invoke as a judge".

The noun form of this root - tefila תפילה - "prayer" and the associated tefilin תפילין (so called because they are worn in prayer - in the Torah they are called totafot) are easy derived from פלל. But why is the verb form hitpalel, in the reflexive, hitpael, form? That usually means something you do to yourself, such as hitlabsesh התלבש - "he dressed himself". However, prayer is directed to someone else - so why that form, and that form only?

There are a number of explanations for this as well.

Gesenius says that the hitpael form isn't always fully reflexive as I mentioned above, but can mean an "action less directly affecting the subject and describes it as performed with regard to or for oneself". So while we don't pray to ourselves, we pray for ourselves, and another example of this type of hitpael verb is hitnatzel התנצל - "apologize", where we apologize not to ourselves, but for ourselves.

This author suggests linking the meaning back to the earlier sense of "to judge" and gives this explanation (which fits the grammar in the previous suggestion): "to seek a judgment for oneself".

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, in his book Horeb, has a slightly different take on this, saying it means "to deliver an opinion about oneself, to judge oneself". While this explanation might be more on the level of drash, it may fit well with a suggestion in Ben Yehuda's dictionary, that the root פלל originally had a connotation of forming a covenant, and so the hitpael form reflects a sense of each side's responsibility towards the other.

I can't say which of any of these explanations is most convincing. However, it is important to distinguish between etymology and meaning. Just the meaning of words evolve over time, to reflect the understanding and usage of the speakers, so to does the concept of prayer itself. Our prayer today can include all of the various meaning described, and can therefore be a much richer experience.

Thursday, January 21, 2016


A friend asked why the verb עולה oleh means both "to go up" and "to cost". Let's look at the various, but related, meanings of that root.

The most basic meaning of עלה is indeed, "to go up, ascend".

From here we get the noun aliya עליה - which can refer to someone being called up to the reading of the Torah, or moving "up" to the Land of Israel. This concept was first used in the Torah in describing travel from Egypt to Israel, later to describe the return of Jews from Babylon to Israel, and today all immigration to Israel is known as aliyah. (The proper phrase in Hebrew is oleh l'aretz, עולה לארץ, but as Philologos describes here, the more comfortable phrases in English - "go on aliya" or "make aliya" have made their mark on modern Hebrew, and so you more and more frequently hear in Hebrew oseh aliya עושה עליה.)

Other words deriving from that meaning include elyon עליון - "most high, supreme" and maalit מעלית - "elevator".

Klein suggests that the next meaning is "it sprang up, grew, shot forth". From this meaning he derives the etymology of the Hebrew word for "leaf" - aleh עלה.

The next sense is more metaphorical - "to rise, surpass, excel". This may be familiar from the Eshet Chayil song, originally from Mishlei, where the woman of valor is praised, "Many women have excelled, but you surpassed them (alit) all" - רַבּוֹת בָּנוֹת עָשׂוּ חָיִל וְאַתְּ עָלִית עַל-כֻּלָּנָה (Mishei 31:29). This sense is used commonly today in the word me'uleh מעולה - "excellent".

And from here we finally get to the answer to the question. In post-biblical Hebrew, we find a newer meaning - "was reckoned, counted in, considered." This is a development from the previous meaning, since something that excelled would be counted in and considered (for some reason this is bringing up painful memories of being chosen last in gym class in elementary school...). And because the price of something is how it is reckoned or considered, we get to the meaning "to cost".

So thanks for the question, Jenn, and I hope your aliya is excellent, and doesn't cost too much!

Tuesday, June 02, 2015


Reader Gavriel asked about the history and etymology of the word androlomusia אנדרולומוסיה (or אנדרלמוסיה) meaning "chaos, confusion, disorder".

Klein writes that the meaning of chaos and confusion is only from Modern Hebrew, whereas the original (i.e. post-biblical) meaning was "pestilence". He provides the following etymology:

Greek androlempsia, for androlepsia (=seizure of men in reprisal of the murder of a citizen abroad), compounded of aner, genitive andros (=man), and the stem of lambanein (=to take).

Andros as "man" should be very familiar as the root of words like android and anthropology, and the second half of the word, "-lepsia" also appears as "take, seize" in the word epilepsy, literally "a seizure". (Even-Shoshan proposes an alternate etymology: androloimos - "plague, annihilation". However, I have not been able to find any source for this, or even any mention of this Greek word anywhere).

The connection between Klein's definitions and etymology of androlomousia is somewhat confusing. First, what does pestilence have to do with androlepsy, and second, what do either have to do with confusion and chaos?

Regarding pestilence, I haven't found a source that explicitly describes andralomusia as such. It has a much more general sense in the midrashic sources that I've seen, such as this quote from Vayikra Rabba 23:

אמר רב שמלאי: כל מקום שאת מוצא בו זנות אנדרולומוסיא באה לעולם והורגת יפים ורעים.
Rabbi Simlai said: every place where you find lewdness, androlomusia comes to the world, and kills the good and the bad.
This midrash is discussing the flood, and so isn't referring specifically to pestilence, but general disaster and catastrophe. The additional note of killing "the good and the bad", fits nicely with the concept of androlepsy, where citizens were seized (and killed) regardless of their guilt. This type of situation, whether the actual example of androlepsy, or the analogous divine punishments mentioned in the midrash, besides being horrific, was surely chaotic as well. So we can see how the word took on its more modern sense.

In current spoken Hebrew, androlomusia is not used very frequently. It's a bit antiquated - maybe even ostentatious. Israelis prefer the much shorter balagan בלגן. I hope this put an end to the confusion...

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

makhn a lebn

The modern Hebrew phrase le'asot chayim לעשות חיים literally means "to make [a] life", but has the sense of "to live it up" or "have a good time". According to Rosenthal, the phrase originates in the Yiddish מאכן ע לעבן - makhn a lebn, which also literally means "to make a life".

When I read that Yiddish phrase out loud, it sounded a lot like the English expression "to make a living". The English version is different than the Hebrew - it means to earn enough money to support oneself. And while all of the words are clearly English, to me it sounded like it could have been influenced by Yiddish, like the phrases "go figure" or "get lost". It has a real Yiddish ring to it, like in this joke:

Mr. Cohen falls and is laying in the road. A lady gets a pillow from her car and lays it under his head until the ambulance arrives.
"Are you comfortable?" she asks.
"Ah vell," he says "I make a living." 

However, the phrase "make a living" in English predates Yiddish influence. The American Heritage Idioms Dictionary says it first appears in English in 1632, and the Online Etymology Dictionary has "living" in the sense of "action, process, or method of gaining one's livelihood" going back to 1400.

But I still think there might be a case made for a connection to makhn a lebn. Take a look at the Google Ngram Viewer for the phrases "make a living" and "making a living" from 1700 to 2000:
While there certainly are examples of early use, the phrases shoot up in the late 1800s and in the 20th century - precisely when the Yiddish influence on English began to grow dramatically.

Coincidence? You tell me! I have to go make a living, and if there's any free time - maybe also le'asot chayim...

Friday, May 01, 2015


Hard to believe, but this is Balashon's 500th post! Since I started the site in February 2006, there have been many fluctuations in post length and depth, and the frequency of posting has also varied considerably. But my interest in the subject of etymology hasn't changed, and I'm very grateful that you have continued to read and follow me for so long. I'm also particularly appreciative to those of you who click on the Google and Amazon ads and links - that small amount of income has allowed me to reinvest in resources. Just recently with that revenue, I was able to purchase a book I was interested in for a very long time, Michael Sokoloff's A Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic. This book, which was published in 2002, is a fantastic resource for researching Aramaic words from the Babylonian Talmud (of which many influenced later Hebrew words) and has in-depth etymologies as well.

For today's post, I thought I'd look at the methodology of Sokoloff, as well as a number of his predecessors, and hopefully you'll get some insight into how I do the research for Balashon. The word I'm looking at is alunka אלונקה - "stretcher, litter". Looking at Talmudic dictionaries is helpful, since the word appears in the Talmud, Beitza 25b, although in a slightly different form: אלונקי alunkei.

So let's start looking in Jastrow's dictionary. This is his entry:

In the preface to his dictionary, Jastrow explains his motivation in his etymologies - to regain words "from foreign origin for Semitic citizenship" and "unless conditions of importation are apparent, the presumption should be in favor of the home market." If possible, he will always prefer a Semitic origin to Talmudic words. He accused Krauss of "proclivity to find Latin and Greek in words indisputably Semitic" and said that "led the author into a labyrinth of fatal errors." However, in many cases, by sticking with his approach, Jastrow seems lost in a parallel labyrinth.

He makes two claims in this entry which support this approach. First of all, he states that the word alunkei is of Hebrew or Aramaic origin, coming from a compound of על-ענקא, al-anka, on the neck. We've previously looked at anak, and while it did originally mean neck, and led to other words, Jastrow uses anak very frequently, in etymologies which are rather far fetched (I didn't even quote his etymology for my entry on arnak, which he said originally meant "merchant's bag suspended from the neck".)

His second claim regards the word phalange. According to "Sm. Ant" - the book  A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (William Smith)  - it has a similar meaning in Greek to alunkei - "poles used to carry burdens". Jastrow adds that is "of Semitic origin", presumably from alunkei. I haven't found anyone else who makes that claim, and I can't think of another example where an aleph in Hebrew became a "ph" in Greek. More likely is the explanation in the Online Etymology Dictionary, in the entry for phalanx:

1550s, "line of battle in close ranks," from Latin phalanx "compact body of heavily armed men in battle array," or directly from Greek phalanx (genitive phalangos) "line of battle, battle array," also "finger or toe bone," originally "round piece of wood, trunk, log," of unknown origin. Perhaps from PIE root *bhelg- "plank, beam" (source of Old English balca "balk;" see balk (n.)). The Macedonian phalanx consisted of 50 close files of 16 men each. In anatomy, originally the whole row of finger joints, which fit together like infantry in close order. Figurative sense of "number of persons banded together in a common cause" is attested from 1600 (compare Spanish Falangist, member of a fascist organization founded in 1933).

A source with a bias to a different language is the Aruch Hashalem by Jastrow's contemporary, Alexander Kohut. Kohut has a preference for Persian origins to Talmudic words, and in his entry for alunkei, we find it as well:

The abbreviation ל"פ means לשון פרסית - "Persian Language". (I can't read the non-Hebrew script following that - if any readers can, please let me know). Many of Kohut's Persian etymologies are rejected by modern scholars. However, in this case, Persian is the generally accepted theory.

Steinsaltz on Beitza 25b has the following note:

He writes that some claim that the word derives from the Persian aurang, meaning "throne", and that word has entered Arabic as well. Aurang, or an alternate aurand, can additionally mean "glory" or "beauty" (not clear to me which meaning is earlier).

Klein has a different Persian etymology:

While he doesn't point it out here, this entry bears a great similarity to his entry for "palanquin" (also meaning "litter") in his CEDEL:

The "Old I" in the first entry, and the OI in the second, refers to "Old Indian" (Sanskrit), and so both the Hebrew/Aramaic and Portugese/Javanese words derive from palyankah / paryankah.  (See this Balashon entry for more on the root of "peri-" and this one for more on the root of "angle"). The Online Etymology entry has a similar entry for palanquin (he frequently relies on Klein's CEDEL), but with an interesting twist at the end:

"a covered litter," 1580s, from Portuguese palanquim (early 16c.), from Malay and Javanese palangki "litter, sedan," ultimately from Sanskrit palyanka-s "couch, bed, litter," from pari "around" + ancati "it bends, curves," related to anka-s "a bend, hook, angle," and meaning, perhaps, "that which bends around the body." Some have noted the "curious coincidence" of Spanish palanca, from Latin phalanga "pole to carry a burden."

If you recall, we saw mention of phalanga in Jastrow's entry. I think a possible source of the noting of the "curious coincidence" is the 19th century Hobson-Jobson dictionary of Indian terms. Here is the relevant section for the entry on palanquin:

The two words - palanca (phalanga) and palanquin are certainly similar in both meaning and sound. Perhaps the Portuguese form was influenced by both the Asian and the European roots during their time in India, or maybe there was even earlier contact between the languages. No one seems to be sure, and doubt is not a bad thing in etymology - I certainly prefer it over unjustified confidence. 

In the Hobson-Jobson entry, I happened to notice footnote #1, and I'm glad I did. The author notices:

This is referring to the word אפריון apiryon in Shir HaShirim - which I wrote about back in 2007 and had forgotten to look up now! Apiryon also means palanquin or litter, and I discussed a number of different etymologies, including one from the BDB, which says that apiryon might actually derive from this same root we've seen before:

So if this is true - then while alunka might not have a Semitic grandfather, it could very possibly have a Hebrew cousin - apiryon!  As I once wrote, the real search for roots - in genealogy or etymology - can often be more rewarding and fascinating than playing a linguistic version of "Separated at Birth".

But as I wrote in the beginning of this post, I'm most excited about my new Sokoloff dictionary - and not for the reason you might think. Let's look at his entry:

The first suggestion he mentions, abrang, seems to be related to Steinsaltz's suggestion of aurang (see here). I can't find any cognates regarding the second suggestion. So why is this entry so exciting? It's less interesting than Klein's proposal, and what I discovered based on it. But what Sokoloff provides, which none of the books I've quoted until now did - is the sources for the etymologies! That's so important, and yet until I acquired his book, I had no idea how much it was missing. I'm sure Klein, Steinsaltz and the others did research and had reasons for their theories. But without documentation, it all just seems like speculation. So I'm hoping that I will benefit from my future research with this new book, and I hope you will as well.

You might be asking one last question. Why didn't I quote Ben Yehuda? It turns out - there's no entry for alunka in his dictionary. He began work on it in 1908 and continued until his death in 1922 (the final editing continued after he died). I found use of the word alunka in newspaper articles beginning in 1915, and books from the 1920s. These were without explanation, so it's likely the word was used in speech for a while previous to its appearance in print (it's unclear to me who started using the Hebrew alunka instead of the Aramaic alunkei). Why did Ben Yehuda leave it out? Probably because he believed it was of foreign origin, and he generally avoided including words of that nature. And while Jastrow might have disagreed - it seems that Ben Yehuda was right!

Monday, April 27, 2015


A friend recently asked me why Hebrew used the same word - tik תיק - for both "bag, satchel" and "file, dossier, portfolio". This is one of those cases where knowing the etymology helps.

The word tik has been around in Hebrew for a long time, going back to the mishna (Shabbat 16:1 mentions a tik for a torah scrolll and tefillin, meaning a case or box). However, the Hebrew word was borrowed from the Greek theke, meaning "receptacle, that which is placed". So a tik is something you place things in - which applies to both files and bags. We find almost the same sound and meaning in the English word ticking, for which the Online Etymology Dictionary has the following entry:

"cloth covering (usually of strong cotton or linen) for mattresses or pillows," 1640s, from tyke (modern tick) with the same meaning (mid-14c.), probably from Middle Dutch tike, from a West Germanic borrowing of Latin theca "case," from Greek theke "a case, box, cover, sheath"
Another related word is bibliothek, deriving from the Latin word for library:

Old English biblioðece "the Scriptures," from Latin bibliotheka "library, room for books; collection of books," from Greek bibliotheke, literally "book-repository" (from biblion, see Bible, + theke "case, chest, sheath," from root of tithenai "to put, place"

From tik, we also get the verb תיק, meaning "to file", and the related word tikiya תיקיה. While sometimes the suffix -ya is a diminutive (as in the word lachmaniya לחמניה,  a roll, is a diminutive of lechem לחם, bread), in this case the suffix either means a place to put things, or a collection of, like sifriya ספריה - "library", is a place to put a book - sefer ספר. So a tikiya is a filing cabinet. But in today's computerized world, we're less likely to use the word for an actual cabinet, but a place to put our computer files, i.e. a folder.

And if we've already mentioned the word library twice, I'll go for the hat-trick. In Hebrew the word sifriya can mean, in addition to "library", also a computer directory. In both English and Hebrew the question arises as to which is the proper term for the collection of files: directory/sifriya or folder/tikiya. According to this site, both are acceptable, but directory is more appropriate for command line interfaces (like MS-DOS or Linux), and folder is better for graphical interfaces like Windows.