Monday, September 04, 2006


Until now, the colors we've discussed have been directly used to describe objects. So while we may not know exactly what color kachol or yarok is, we do know it's a color. But today we're going to talk about a color that never directly appears in Hebrew or even Aramaic, and yet still may be the origin of many common Hebrew words.

In Arabic, achmar (ahmar) means "red." This is the origin of the name of the red palace, the Alhambra, in Granada, Spain:

from Arabic (al kal'at) al hamra "the red (castle)," from fem. of ahmuru "red." So called for the sun-dried bricks of which its outer walls were built.

Klein derives a number of Hebrew words from a root חמר, meaning "to be red":

  • chemar חמר - bitumen, asphalt. "So called in allusion to its reddish-brown color". This view is quoted by Ibn Ezra ("Long Commentary") on Shmot 2:3.
  • chamor חמור - donkey. "These words probably mean lit. 'the red animal'...For sense development cp. Spanish burro (= donkey), from Late Latin burricus, buricus (= a small horse), from burrus (= red), from Greek purros (= flame-colored, yellowish-red.)"
  • yachmor יחמור - roebuck. "Probably lit. meaning 'the red animal."
  • chomer חומר - clay, mortar and later meaning material, matter. "So called in allusion to the color of clay."
Klein provides two more meanings (apparently unrelated, according to him), for the root חמר.
a) To foam up, boil, ferment. From here he derives:
  • chamira חמירא - leaven. This Aramaic word is familiar from the declaration said when burning chametz before Pesach.
  • chemer חמר - wine. Again an Aramaic word, used for example in the halachic concept "chamar medina" חמר מדינה - a drink used in some locations instead of wine.
  • חמרמר - to be in a ferment.
However, there are opinions that connect all three of these meanings to the color red. For example, there are those that claim that fermentation, boiling is related to inflammation - which is related to red. Kaddari and Daat Mikra translate חמרמרו in Iyov 16:16 as "became red". And wine, while certainly fermented, is also red - as seen in Devarim 32:14 וְדַם-עֵנָב, תִּשְׁתֶּה-חָמֶר "They drank the blood (dam) of grapes for wine (chamer)." Radak on Yishayahu 27:2 also comments that "chemer means redness, for the importance of wine is its redness, and red in Arabic is ilchamer."
From all these meanings - wine, be in a ferment - the Academy of the Hebrew language came up with the term chamarmoret חמרמורת - for "hangover".
b) To heap, burden, make heavy, be stringent. From this meaning we get:
  • chamur חמור - strict, and chumra חומרה - stringency. Also chomer of "kal v'chomer" קל וחומר- a fortiori, or major to minor inference.
  • chomer חומר- heap, name of a dry measure.
Kaddari quotes one scholar as saying that this meaning - burden - may be the origin of chamor (donkey), for it serves as a beast of burden. There are those that see Shoftim 15:16 as a play on words in this regard. Rosenthal (here, discussing the root חמר in general) claims that the name chamor may derive from the stubborn nature of the animal (although in his slang dictionary, he says that a chamor is a fool.)

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