Friday, June 30, 2006


In this weeks parasha (Chukat) we see that as a punishment God sends: הַנְּחָשִׁים הַשְּׂרָפִים - the serafim snakes (Bamidbar 21:6). What is being referred to here?

According to Ibn Ezra and others, serafim is an adjective for the nahashim (snakes). As Rashi explains, they burn שורף - soref - with their venom. However, we eventually see the saraf taking its place as a noun. First, in the same story where it is placed on a banner. Yeshayahu (14:29, 30:6) refers to a שרף מועפף - a flying saraf (even the classic commentaries say that the snake would jump as if it was flying.) And apparently from the imagery of a flying snake, we get the famous description of the Seraphim angels (Yeshayahu 6:2,6) with their six wings.

The root שרף has a number of related roots, all following the same pattern: a sibilant consonant, followed by resh, followed by a labial consonant. And so we have:

  • צרב - to burn, to scorch. From here we get the word צרבת - heartburn, and the verb לצרוב is used to describe "burning" CDs and DVDs.
  • שרב - to glow, be parched, as in sharav - burning heat (I discussed the similar hamsin here).
  • צרם - Steinberg adds this root, which is understood as originally "to cut", "to grate (on the ears).
  • צרף - to smelt, to refine, and later to attach, to join and to change money. Klein says that the word literally means "to purify by burning." From here we get the word tzrif צריף - meaning according to Klein "a cone shaped hut, literally 'that which is joined together'." Today it is used to describe a bunk - in camp, or in the army.
Steinberg writes that the city Tzarfat צרפת - originally referring to a Phoenician town, but later associated with France - got its name from the glass manufacturing which developed in the region.
Also from צרף we get the English word "silver":
Middle English, from Old English siolfor, seolfor, probably ultimately from Akkadian sarpu, refined silver, verbal adj. of sarapu, to smelt, refine.
Klein points out that the root רצף - "to make continuous" is a metathesis of צרף, the source of ritzpa רצפה - floor. A similar word is the noun רצף retzef - meaning "burning coal". Stahl connects retzef with reshef רשף - "flame"; perhaps this is another metathesis of the previous pattern of "burning" verbs.
Another meaning of שרף is "to absorb, sip, suck, quaff". While Klein does not connect the two meanings, Jastrow associates "sip and absorb" with "consume and burn". Interestingly, Jastrow translates the midrash on נחשים שרפים (Bamidbar Rabba 19:22) which states: השרפים ששורפים את הנפש: "they are called burning serpents, because they burn the life out (with thirst)."
As far as this second meaning, Klein writes that "several scholars connect this base with Arab. sharib (= he drank), sharab (= drink, beverage)." From this root we get a number of English words:
  • sherbet, sorbet - 1603, zerbet, "drink made from diluted fruit juice and sugar," from Turk. serbet, from Pers. sharbat, from Arabic sharba(t) "a drink," from shariba "he drank."
  • syrup - 1392, from O.Fr. sirop (13c.), and perhaps from It. siroppo, both from Arabic sharab "beverage, wine," lit. "something drunk," from verb shariba "he drank"
  • shrub - A beverage made from fruit juice, sugar, and a liquor such as rum or brandy. From Arabic surb, a drink, from sariba, to drink
Lastly, is there a connection between saraf and the English "serpent"? In the entry for שרף meaning "drink", Klein writes "cp. also 'serpent' in my CEDEL and words referred to in that entry."
However, in the CEDEL he lists serpent as coming from Latin serpens, which it says is probably the present participle of serpo, serpere, "to creep." No other serious source I could find connects the two words. I wrote to etymology maven Mike Gerver, and asked what he thought. This is his reply:
This is my guess. His remark about seeing the entry for "serpent" in CEDEL doesn't really make sense under שרף-ii, "to absorb," which is where it is printed. It would make more sense two entries down, under שרף-i (with kametz under the ש and the ר), "serpent." Probably his index cards got out of order (I've seen other places where this seems to have happened), and what he meant by that remark is that שרף meaning "serpent" might have been a loan from Latin or another Indo-European language, rather than deriving from שרף meaning "fiery angel." Or possibly he's saying that the "fiery angel" meaning might have derived from the "serpent" meaning (which itself was borrowed from Latin), rather than from שרף meaning "to burn." Or more likely, maybe he's just suggesting that שרף meaning "serpent" was influenced by Latin, even though the word is really the same as the word meaning "fiery angel." That's the only one of these possibilities that strikes me as reasonably likely.
Anyone else out there have any ideas?

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