Sunday, July 16, 2006


I'm not the only one who noticed the pasuk in the haftara:

מִצָּפוֹן תִּפָּתַח הָרָעָה, עַל כָּל-יֹשְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץ

"From the north shall disaster break loose upon all the inhabitants of the land!" (Yirmiyahu 1:14)

What is the etymology of tzafon צפון - north?

Related to J Aram. צפונא, Ugar. ( = north). Prob. derived from צפן and lit. meaning "the hidden or dark region". Several scholars derive צפון from צוף (= to swim), so that צפון would properly mean "the maritime land".

Kaddari points out that it refers to a number of enemies from the north.

The Assyrians:

כִּי מִצָּפוֹן עָשָׁן בָּא, וְאֵין בּוֹדֵד בְּמוֹעָדָיו (Yishayahu 14:31)

The Babylonians:

כִּי רָעָה, אָנֹכִי מֵבִיא מִצָּפוֹן (Yirmiyahu 4:6)

The Medes (against the Babylonians):

כִּי עָלָה עָלֶיהָ גּוֹי מִצָּפוֹן (Yirmiyahu 50:3)

The Hebrew word for "compass" מצפן matzpen - derives from tzafon as well. Klein writes that the word was coined by David Yellin (1864-1941), and literally means "that which points north". We also find the expression in Hebrew לאבד את הצפון - l'abed et hatzafon -- "to act without discretion, without reason", literally "to lose the north (direction in a compass.)

The word מצפון matzpun - conscience in Modern Hebrew - is indirectly related, as it also derives from the root צפן - to hide. Klein has two meanings, one biblical, and one modern:

1. hidden treasure (a hapax legemenon in the Bible, occurring Ovadia verse 6 in the phrase נִבְעוּ מַצְפֻּנָיו 'his hidden treasures were sought out').

2. conscience. מצפון is a loan translation of Arab. damir (= conscience), from damara (he hid, concealed, kept secret).

To end on a more positive note, north has a good connotation as well. In Bava Batra 25b, Rabbi Yitzchak says: הרוצה שיחכים ידרים, ושיעשיר יצפין "He who desires to become wise should turn to the south, and he who desires to become rich should turn to the north"...

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