Wednesday, May 31, 2006


In honor of Shavuot, lets look at a staple dairy food: chemah (or chem'ah) - חמאה. In Modern Hebrew this always refers to butter, but in Biblical times that wasn't necessarily the case. In Bereshit 18:8, Avraham is going to serve chemah to his guests. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, in The Living Torah, translates chemah as "cottage cheese", and writes:

Chemah in Hebrew, usually translated as curd. It is something that can be eaten alone; see Isaiah 7:15, 7:22; cf. Proverbs 30:33. Others interpret it to denote a kind of leben or yoghurt. According to Rashi, the word chemah denotes cream. (cf. Targum and Judges 5:25). The Septuagint, on the other hand, translates it as butter. Indeed, in Middle Eastern lands, it was the custom to eat butter alone.

So we see a pretty wide range of dairy products as possible translations. Klein says that the word chemah is related to the Arabic hami'a - "it was turbid". According to this site:

As the word chemah, here translated butter, signifies disturbed, agitated, probable that buttermilk is intended. The Arabs form their buttermilk by agitating the milk in a leathery bag

This fits in well with the parallel given in Mishlei 30:33 -
כִּי מִיץ חָלָב, יוֹצִיא חֶמְאָה-- וּמִיץ-אַף, יוֹצִיא דָם;וּמִיץ אַפַּיִם, יוֹצִיא רִיב.
"'The churning of milk brings forth butter, the wringing of the nose brings forth blood, and the forcing of anger brings forth strife"

The connection of "turbid", "agitated", and "anger" may give us a clue to the origin of the word. It may be related to the Hebrew chema חמה - "anger". (There is also likely a connection between both חמה and חמאה and the word for heat - חום chom. When one is angry, he is "heated up". But it does not seem to be that chemah חמאה directly derives from "heat".)

This gives an etymological connection to a strange association I have every year at Purim. When I hear Ester 3:5 -- וַיִּמָּלֵא הָמָן, חֵמָה, I can't help thinking of Haman (maybe hamantaschen?) filled with butter....

The Hebrew word for compliment - מחמאה machma'ah, derives from chemah. However, there's more to it than just a parallel to the English "butter up". As this article explains, the word machma'ah was formed from a misreading of Tehillim 55:22 -

חָלְקוּ, מַחְמָאֹת פִּיו-- וּקְרָב-לִבּוֹ:רַכּוּ דְבָרָיו מִשֶּׁמֶן; וְהֵמָּה פְתִחוֹת.
The translation of the verse should properly read "his talk was smoother than butter", which is parallel to the second half "his words were more soothing than oil". In this case, the mem in machmaot indicates "greater than". But if one were to think that the mem was used in the sense that forms abstracts nouns (like מדע, מערכה) then it might seem that the opening phrase meant "distributed compliments" or "the compliments were smooth". (This is further complicated because of the use of the mem's use of the vowel patach instead of tzere).
In any case, Blue-Band took advantage of this play on words, and created a margarine that tastes like butter, calling it מחמאה machma'ah:

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