Saturday, February 11, 2006


I enjoy food. (Does anyone not?) I think it's likely that food will be a common topic for posts here, particularly since names for food have an interesting way of passing from one language to another.

Today we'll start with the Hebrew word for corn, tiras.

The grain we call corn was first discovered by Europeans in Central America. So why then do some older translation of the Bible translate dagan as corn? See Genesis 27:28 - "plenty of corn and wine".

Well, originally corn meant any grain - which matches well the Hebrew word for grain, dagan. When the settlers to the New World found a crop grown by the Indians - which they called maize (the scientific term is Zea mays.) Europeans still use that term. The British also called maize Indian corn, but the new immigrants to America called it simply "corn." (Read more here.)

Once corn became almost exclusively identified with maize, the Bible translators began to use the word "grain" for dagan. This confusion also had halachic consequences, particularly for those of us Ashkenazi Jews who don't eat corn on Pesach. How did this come about? Rabbi Zushe Yosef Blech explains in Kitniyos in the Modern World:

The cornucopia of new foods from the New World brought new items – such as maize and potatoes – to the fore. Both quickly became staple foodstuffs in the Old World, and although clearly not technically legumes, the question arose as to whether they should nevertheless be included in the category of Kitniyos. As it turns out, maize is generally considered to be Kitniyos whereas potatoes are not. Interestingly, the etymology of the names of these foods may give us some insight into this dichotomy. While the common name for maize (from the Tahino word “mahis”) is “corn” – and in the United States this usage is quite clear –the origin of the word “corn” is something quite different. The word “corn” can be traced back to the ancient Indo-European word “grn”, which literally meant a small nugget. In German, this word became “korn” and in Latin it became “grain”, both of which include any edible grass seed. In practice, these terms refer to whatever the predominant grain happens to be in a given country. In the Americas, it referred to maize. In Scotland, it referred to oats, and in Germany it referred to wheat or rye. Indeed, old English translations of Pharaoh’s insomniac premonitions refer to "seven sheaves of corn". Columbus had not yet discovered America during the time of Pharaoh, so Pharaoh was clearly not dreaming of corn on the cob. The "corn" to which he referred was rather one of the five grains. Yiddish speakers are similarly prone to this confusion, since they often use the term "Korn" to refer to grain. It seems, however, that the popularity of corn – and its resulting assumption of this sobriquet – was sufficient for the minhag of Kitniyos to extend to this new “grain”. Potatoes, on the other hand, were never regarded by people as a grain, and therefore generally considered to have escaped the Kitniyos categorization. [It is interesting to note that the Chaye Adam was of the opinion that potatoes should indeed be considered Kitniyos. Much to our general relief, however, this opinion was definitely not accepted.]

So now the question remains. Why did the Jews in Europe adopt the term tiras for maize/corn?

Rabbi Ernest Klein, in his "Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language" (which I'll be referring to often), has an interesting history:

In the Bible תירס is the name of one of the sons of Japhet. Far and forced is the way in which this proper name came to denote 'maize' or 'corn'. The Talmud renders תירס by בית תרייקי. In the period of the Haskalah (1750-1880) it became customary to identify תרייקי - merely because of the similarity in sound between תרייקי and תורקיה - with Turkey. Furthermore, since maize is called in many languages 'Turkish wheat' (cp. e.g. Ger. turkischer Weizen - whence Yiddish Terkische weiz - It. granturco, Hungarian torokbuza, etc.) תירס was and still is used to denote maize in Hebrew. The identification of תירס with maize on the basis of the above reasoning cannot be accepted. Before all בית תרייקי cannot be identical with Turkey, because the Babylonian Talmud was concluded about the end of the fifth century and the Talmud Yerushalmi, in which תירס is rendered by תרקא, was concluded even earlier, whereas the Turks appear in history for the first time in the thirteenth century. Furthermore, the Biblical name generally used for Turkey is תוגרמה (the modern name is טורקיה). In consideration of all this I suggest to call maize in Hebrew either חטת-טורקיה or חטת-תוגרמה, i.e. 'Turkish wheat', which are a simple loan translation of Ger. turkischer Weizen, etc.

Unfortunately, Klein, who passed away in 1983, did not succeed in his fight for a new Hebrew name for maize. However, the childrens song "bim, bam, bam, tiras cham" would certainly have less rhythm as "bim, bam, bam, chitat turkiya chama"...

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