Saturday, June 10, 2006


Here's something that even new speakers of Hebrew should know. Tapuach תפוח = apple. Simple, right? Well, if you're a regular reader of Balashon, you should know that nothing's simple. (Or at least what I choose to write about.)

The fruit known as tapuach appears a few times in the Tanach, mostly in Shir HaShirim. Klein writes of the word's origin:

According to most lexicographers a derivative of base נפח (= to blow; to scent), and properly meaning 'the scenting fruit'. However, it is more probable that תפוח derives from תפח ( = to swell, to become or be round).

Amos Chacham in Daat Mikra on Shir HaShirim (2:3) identifies tapuach as Pirus malus - what we consider an apple today. However, there are other opinions. Harold N. and Alma L. Moldenke wrote in their book "Plants of the Bible":

The identity of the apple has perplexed scholars for years. According to the authors, the Hebrew word used is tapuach. "The apple tree of the Scriptures was a tree which afforded a pleasant shade. Its fruit was enticing to the sight, sweet to the taste, imparting fragrance, with restorative properties, and of a golden color, borne amid silvery leaves," they say.

Many scholars, they continue, have argued in favor of the common apple, Malus pumila. But most botanists agree that it is not native to the Holy Land. It was only comparatively recently that the "poor wild fruits of the common apple have been so improved by selection and cultivation as to bring them to a form which would fit the description in the Biblical quotations," the Moldenkes write.

Other writers have supposed the "apples of gold" were oranges, Citrus sinensis. But the fruit is native to China. The Seville orange, Citrus vulgaris, also suggested by some, is a native of eastern India, not introduced into the Holy Land until 1000 C.E., the authors add.

Other plants that don't meet the criteria include the citron, Citrus medica and the quince, Cydonia oblonga. Neither is "sweet to the taste."

The Moldenkes conclude the only fruit that meets all the requirements is the apricot, Prunus armeniaca. With the exception of the fig, it is the most abundant in the Holy Land, referring to Canon Tristam's "Natural History of the Bible." Tristam maintains the plant, originally from Armenia, was introduced to the Holy Land around the time of Noah (about 2950 BCE)."The apricot is a round-headed, reddish-barked tree growing to 30 feet tall," write the Moldenkes.

And what of all the discussion of the identity of the "Forbidden Fruit" in the Garden of Eden? In English it is generally translated as an apple, but while Jewish tradition gives a number of possible names for the fruit, tapuach isn't one of them. There are those that try to reconcile this by pointing out that one of the Rabbinic traditions claims that the forbidden fruit was an etrog, and that Tosfot (Shabbat 88a) quotes the Targum on Shir HaShirim as translating tapuach as etrog. But as Moldenke points out, the etrog isn't sweet.

But all this effort is unnecessary. The original meaning of the English word apple was "a generic term for all fruit, other than berries but including nuts, as late as 17c., hence its use for the unnamed 'fruit of the forbidden tree' in Genesis". So the translation as an apple was correct - it just didn't mean tapuach.

In French, there was a similar development, where pomme once meant general fruit and now means apple. From here arose the French term for potato - pomme de terre, meaning "earth apple". German has a similar word for potato - erdapfel. From the French and German terms arose the Hebrew word for potato - תפוח אדמה tapuach adama.

In the 1940's Yitzchak Avi-Neri coined the modern Hebrew word for orange - tapuz תפוז, an acronym of "tapuach zahav" תפוח זהב - "golden apple". (Tapuchei zahav actually appears in Mishlei 25:11, but is referring to a kind of jewelry.)

Kutscher describes the development of the various "tapuach" terms here:

A similar method of word formation is the fusion of two words in one. Tapuakh-zhav (lit. "golden apple" - "orange") has become tapuz. There is also tapuakh-adama (lit. "ground-apple" a loan-translation of the German Erdapfel). These two have given rise to another compound tapuakh-etz (lit. "tree-apple") - a tautologous form, as in the Bible tapuakh plain and simple, means "apple." But in Israel a generation ago tapukhim were rare and expensive, while the other two varities were plentiful. So Hebrew speakers influenced by the tapukhei-zhav and tapukhei-adama coined tapukhei-etz to specify what they were referring to.

Which leads me to a funny story. On a kibbutz I was on a number of years ago, they had the foreign volunteers work in the dining hall. One of their tasks was to write a note describing the main course on the food cart. This day the main course was potato burekas. The volunteer, who had come to the kibbutz to learn Hebrew, mistakenly wrote בורקס תפוח - burekas tapuach - "apple burekas". A kibbutz member corrected her and told her that she should write tapuach adama - potato. So she corrected the sign to read בורקס אדמה - burekas adama -earth/soil burkeas...

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