Tuesday, April 18, 2006


One of the customs during the period known as sefirat ha'omer - ספירת העומר - is not to get a haircut - להסתפר - l'histaper. Is there an etymological connection between the two terms that share the same three letters in their root - ספר?

Jastrow believes that they do, while Klein maintains that they do not. Let's look at various Hebrew words with the root ספר SFR - and see where from where they derive:

1) Throughout the Bible, the root ספר means "to count, number, to recount, tell, narrate". From this root come such basic words as sefer - book, sofer - scribe, mispar - number and sippur - story. Jastrow explains the development of the word as "to cut, to mark, -> to write, to count". We'll see the significance of that order in the following paragraphs. Klein however gives a different explanation. He writes that sefer comes from the Akkadian shipru, meaning letter, which in turn comes from shaparu, meaning "to send." This Semitic root is related to the Arabic word safar - journey, which later gave the Swahili word safari.

2) As I mentioned before, the root ספר can also mean "to cut". Tisporet תספורת - haircut, and misparaim מספריים - scissors are derivatives. Naturally, this fits in rather well with Jastrow's theory above, but Klein says it is related to the word shafra(h) - meaning "large knife, blade of a sword" (he doesn't say which Semitic language.)

3) The word sfar in Hebrew means border, frontier. Jastrow connects it with the previous terms by pointing out that a boundary is marked. (However, he also includes a definition of צפירה as "border", and certainly the tsade and samech could have switched place over time.) Klein says it is related to the Akkadian supuru, meaning "wall, fence" and the Aramaic ספרא meaning "shore".

4) The kabbalistic term "sefira" (meaning "the ten creative divine forces") does not derive from Hebrew, but rather from the Greek sphaira, meaning "ball, globe", and besides giving the English word sphere, is also the second element of such words as atmosphere and stratosphere.

5) In English the noun "super" usually refers to a superintendent of an apartment building, but in Hebrew the noun סופר - super indicates a supermarket.

6) Lastly, the English words cipher and zero derive from from an Arabic root - safira - meaning "void" or "empty". From here it would appear that there is no connection from that root to an existing Hebrew word, but maybe one of the readers here has an idea?

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