Sunday, April 30, 2006


Since we're in the midst of counting the Omer, over the next several days let's learn a bit about the Hebrew numbers from one to ten.

The Hebrew word for one is echad אחד. The feminine form is achat אחת. How did this unusual transformation occur? Rav Yehoshua Steinberg, in his Milon HaTanach, explains. The "proper" feminine form would be achadt אחדת, but that would be very difficult to pronounce. We see this in Shmuel I 4:19 - הָרָה לָלָת "was pregnant; about to give birth". The word appears as lalat ללת instead of ללדת laledet, because the dalet is "swallowed up" by the tav. Try saying achadt, and you'll see how easily that happens.

Klein points out that אחד is related to yachad יחד and lechud לחוד. These related words lead to a large number of adjectives with similar but distinct meanings. As I often get confused between them, I thought this would be a good place to list all the ones I can think of, and their translations. (Please feel free to add additional ones in the comments.)

  • echad אחד - one, single
  • achid אחיד - unified, uniform
  • meuchad מאוחד - united
  • ke'echad כאחד - jointly, like one
  • yachad יחד - together, in unity
  • yachid יחיד - sole, individual
  • yechidi יחידי - alone, singular
  • yechidai יחידאי - unique
  • yichudi יחודי - exclusive
  • meyuchad מיוחד - special
  • lchud לחוד - apart, singly

Friday, April 28, 2006


Many people who don't know Hebrew find it hard to imagine reading a language without vowels. Yet young children master it easily and adult students of Hebrew also find it not terribly challenging after some study. However, there are still some occasions where I end up misreading a word due to the lack of vowels.

For example, yesterday there was a headline in the newspaper that read:

כל גרוש שלישי מתחמק ממזונות

I first thought it meant that "every third coin (grush) escaped alimony". Only after a second reading did I realize that it meant "every third divorcee (garush) avoids paying alimony".

For some reason this root - גרש - leads to occasional misunderstandings, and that's what I would like to explore today.

The Hebrew root גרש means "to expel, to drive away". An related meaning is "to divorce". Divorce is gerushin גירושין and a divorcee is a garush גרוש. The connection between expulsion and divorce led to some humor during the protests over the Gaza disengagement. A popular bumper sticker read: יהודי לא מגרש יהודי - "A Jew does not expel another Jew". But someone read the sticker to me and said, "I thought it was the Catholics that don't divorce..."

Another connected term is migrash מגרש - a plot of land. Klein explains the origin as "orig. meaning 'pasture land', i.e. 'the place whither cattle are driven'." Evyatar Cohen has a different explanation. He points out the verse in Moshe's blessing of Yosef (Devarim 33:14):

וממגד תבואת שמש וממגד גרש ירחים "With the bounteous yield of the sun, and the bounteous crop (geresh) of the moons"

Geresh here is a hapax legomenon - it only appears once in the Bible. Therefore the meaning of the word is hard to define, and the translation of "crop" is based on the parallel tevuah תבואה - yield. Driver defines geresh as "that which the earth thrusts forth or tosses up". Cohen sees a parallel between tevuah and geresh - what is brought in (תבואה from בוא) and what goes out (גרש). He therefore concludes that the root גרש can mean both coming in and going out. This provides him with a different explanation as to the origin of migrash. A migrash is the area near a city or a house, also known in Hebrew as a mavo מבוא - entrance, deriving from the root בוא, coming in. (We used the fact that migrash and migaresh are homographs to make an Emily Litella type skit in a Purim play last year.)

Another meaning of geresh is apostrophe; gershayim גרשיים is two, and means quotation marks. While in modern Hebrew they are used as punctuation marks, their origins are in the taamei ha-mikra, the Biblical cantillation marks. While the origins of some of the teamim are clearly due to their shape or their sound, Klein says the etymology of geresh is unknown. While I could not find any other explanation, the etymology of the English word apostrophe might be helpful:

from M.Fr. apostrophe, from L.L. apostrophus, from Gk. apostrophos (prosoidia) "(the accent of) turning away," thus, a mark showing where a letter has been omitted, from apostrephein "avert, turn away," from apo- "from" + strephein "to turn"

Certainly the Hebrew meaning of גרש - to turn away is rather similar. It is also important to note the difference between gershayim and merchaot מרכאות. Both refer to the punctuation mark ", but according to this Hebrew expert:

Don't confuse Hebrew gersayim and merchaot - they have different meaning, different uses, and when using high quality typesetting - look differently. Gershayim is used for acronyms. Merchaot is used for quoting sentences. Similarly, geresh and single quotes aren't the same thing. Geresh is used for abbreviations, single quotes are just a typographical variant of merchaot (used when you have merchaot inside merchaot, for example).

So geresh is used only to break up a word or indicate an abbreviation. Therefore apostrophe is an appropriate translation, and perhaps the etymology is the same. I'd be happy to hear from anyone who can confirm (or deny) this theory.

What about the term grush that I quoted in the beginning of this post? A grush is a very small coin, but in modern Hebrew slang doesn't refer to any specific denomination. Ein lo grush אין לו גרוש - means he has no money at all, and shaveh kol grush שווה כל גרוש means worth every penny. The term originates in Yiddish, but there are cognates in many European languages - Russian groš, Polish grosz, the Czech grosh, and more. This site gives the following etymology:

The word is adopted from Latin (Denarius) Grossus: lit. "A thick coin" where grossus being "thick"

You can find additional discussion about the nature of the term grush here.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

help with greek and arabic

While I have a decent number of Hebrew and English resources available for research for this site, I have found that one limitation I have is the lack of ability to read Greek and Arabic. I don't think - at this stage - that I need to learn Greek and Arabic grammar and vocabulary. But often etymological dictionaries for English, Hebrew and Aramaic will refer to a Greek or Arabic cognate, and I would like to know how to accurately transliterate them into Latin or Hebrew letters. And as far as Arabic is concerned, if each Arabic letter is cognate to a Hebrew one, I would like to learn about how that works as well.

If anyone is familiar with any relevant resource - book or website, in Hebrew or English - please let me know by email or in the comments.

balagan and blech

This is actually not the story of a Semitic root, but rather of an Indo-European one - and maybe two. But since this is Balashon, we will examine the root via Hebrew and Jewish words. defines a blech as:

A blech (from Yiddish) is a sheet of metal used by many observant Jews to cover stovetop burners on Shabbat (The Jewish Sabbath), as part of the precautions taken to avoid violating the halakhic prohibition against cooking on the Sabbath.

What is the origin of the term? In German, blech means "sheet metal". This site points out that the origin is the Indo-European root bhelg or bhleg, meaning “sparkle” or “shine" - I suppose because of the shiny nature of sheet metal. This root is the source of dozens of words including bleach, bleak, blind, blond, blank, blush, blue and even black (shine leads to burn, and burnt leads to black).

Another Hebrew word that comes from an Indo-European root is balagan. It entered Hebrew from Russian, and means a chaotic mess. According to this site, the etymology is as follows:

"balagan" is Hebrew/Yiddish/Polish "mess" - Russian/Turkic "wooden house" - Persian balakhaana "external room". But "balakhaana" can be derived from OIE (Old Indo-European) *bhelg which means "wooden plank". This ancient word's direct descendant in English is "bulk". And from this same root we have the Polish word "belka" (direct decendant) and the English "balk" (came via Old-Norse) - both have the meaning of "wooden beam", "girder", "tie-beam", "rafter" - (compare "fulcrum" which is a Latin relative to these two words).An even more interesting, the English word "balcony", Polish "balkon" (which came to both our languages from Old Italian (to Polish via French) where it came from Old Germanic, and which means "wooden platform", "scaffold". Although the word "balcony" does not come directly from the Parsian "balakhaana", but it is a similar type of derivative in another ancient language belonging to the same family, and nowadays it still keeps the similar sound and meaning.

So bhelg/bhleg can mean both "shine" and "plank or beam". Perhaps they are two separate roots that appear very similar. Or maybe burning wood leads to shine and glow? (This site - s.v. Fulginiae - maybe hints that it does.) Does anyone have any decisive information one way or another?

Monday, April 24, 2006


As I mentioned yesterday, the word jacket also has its origins in Hebrew. Horowitz points out that the English word jacket derives from the French jacquette. Jacquette is a diminutive of the common French name Jacques, which was used to refer to Frenchmen in general, and Horowitz mentions that the jacquette was worn by French soldiers and peasants. Jacques is the French version of the English Jacob, which of course derives from the Hebrew Yaakov יעקב.

Stahl presents another theory where the name Jacques and Jack actually derives from John (which comes from Yochanan יוחנן). John became Jack via the nickname Jankin, but as often happens in both Hebrew and English, the middle letter "n", dropped out in time.

Stahl presents another theory, also mentioned in the Online Etymology Dictionary:

possibly associated with jaque (de mailles) "short, tight-fitting coat," originally "coat of mail," from Sp. jaco, from Ar. shakk "breastplate."

Stahl points out that the Arabic root is שכה - I assume related to the root סככ - meaning to cover.

In German jacket was known as Jacke. Stahl explains how this later became the nickname for German Jews - yekke. The German Jews adopted Western dress before the Eastern European Jews, and this included shorter jackets than were previously worn. Originally this term was derogatory, but after the Shoah, it was not viewed appropriate to call Jews from Germany "German", the way Jews from other countries were called (Russians, Moroccans, Yemenites). From that point the term Yekke lost its derogatory edge.

Sunday, April 23, 2006


According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the root of the English word cotton is from a similar sounding Semitic one:

cotton, from Arabic qun, quun, cotton, perhaps akin to Akkadian qatnu, to be(come) thin, fine (of textiles)

Yechezkel Kutcher in his book "Milim V'Toldotehem" explains that the earlier Hebrew name for cotton was tzemer gefen צמר גפן, because cotton leaves looked similar to grape leaves. In the Talmud (Shabbat 105a), there is a distinction between wide and fine strings, and the fine ones are called קטיני katinei in Aramaic. Prof. Kutcher claims that the term katinei went from the specific meaning of fine strings to the meaning of strings of cotton in general. He also says that the word migrated, as did many others from Aramaic to Arabic.

So if cotton is related to katan קטן - small, why is the Hebrew word for cotton, kutna, spelled כותנה?

Klein says that the spelling was influenced by the Aramaic kitan כיתן - flax, linen and Hebrew kutonet כתנת - coat (and "coat" doesn't seem to be connected, although we'll get to "jacket" in a future post.)

Jastrow claims that kitan derives from the root כתת, meaning to crush or pound, since this is how the flax was prepared (see Yoma 71b).

Kutonet itself originates from the same Semitic source according to Klein, and therefore originally referred to a linen garment. Kutonet was borrowed by Greek for their word chiton and by Latin for tunic (with a switch of letters.)

Klein also points out that the German word kittel (meaning frock, but adopted by Yiddish for the white cloak worn on certain religious occasions) also has its roots in the Arabic qutun.

Friday, April 21, 2006


In my post about Hebrew words with the root ספר, I forgot one of the most important ones for anyone interested in linguistics - the gem ספיר - sapir. According to Klein, the Hebrew word sapir is cognate to the Sanskrit sani-prijam, meaning "dear to Saturn". The word prijam derives from the Indo-European root pri, meaning "to love", and is also the source of such English words as free, friend and Friday.

The Greeks took this Semitic root and returned it to the Indo-European family, by changing sapir into their sappheiros, which became the Latin sapphirus, and finally the English sapphire. This is still the basic translation for sapir, although it is also translated as Lapis Lazuli. It is also the origin of the surname of language columnist William Safire.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


One of the customs during the period known as sefirat ha'omer - ספירת העומר - is not to get a haircut - להסתפר - l'histaper. Is there an etymological connection between the two terms that share the same three letters in their root - ספר?

Jastrow believes that they do, while Klein maintains that they do not. Let's look at various Hebrew words with the root ספר SFR - and see where from where they derive:

1) Throughout the Bible, the root ספר means "to count, number, to recount, tell, narrate". From this root come such basic words as sefer - book, sofer - scribe, mispar - number and sippur - story. Jastrow explains the development of the word as "to cut, to mark, -> to write, to count". We'll see the significance of that order in the following paragraphs. Klein however gives a different explanation. He writes that sefer comes from the Akkadian shipru, meaning letter, which in turn comes from shaparu, meaning "to send." This Semitic root is related to the Arabic word safar - journey, which later gave the Swahili word safari.

2) As I mentioned before, the root ספר can also mean "to cut". Tisporet תספורת - haircut, and misparaim מספריים - scissors are derivatives. Naturally, this fits in rather well with Jastrow's theory above, but Klein says it is related to the word shafra(h) - meaning "large knife, blade of a sword" (he doesn't say which Semitic language.)

3) The word sfar in Hebrew means border, frontier. Jastrow connects it with the previous terms by pointing out that a boundary is marked. (However, he also includes a definition of צפירה as "border", and certainly the tsade and samech could have switched place over time.) Klein says it is related to the Akkadian supuru, meaning "wall, fence" and the Aramaic ספרא meaning "shore".

4) The kabbalistic term "sefira" (meaning "the ten creative divine forces") does not derive from Hebrew, but rather from the Greek sphaira, meaning "ball, globe", and besides giving the English word sphere, is also the second element of such words as atmosphere and stratosphere.

5) In English the noun "super" usually refers to a superintendent of an apartment building, but in Hebrew the noun סופר - super indicates a supermarket.

6) Lastly, the English words cipher and zero derive from from an Arabic root - safira - meaning "void" or "empty". From here it would appear that there is no connection from that root to an existing Hebrew word, but maybe one of the readers here has an idea?

Sunday, April 16, 2006


The weather in Israel at this time is often characterized by hot winds. In Hebrew the more "proper" name is sharav שרב - but the popular name is the Arabic hamsin (or khamsin). The name hamsin has nothing to do with the Hebrew word cham חם - hot.

The word hamsin in Arabic actually means fifty. This derives from an Arabic tradition that there are 50 days of these hot winds. Judaism has a similar tradition. To understand this, it's important to note that despite Hebrew words for the four seasons known in English, the climate in the Land of Israel really only includes two seasons - summer and winter. Between each season there is a transitional period that is a very sensitive time for agriculture. Untimely heat, rain or winds can cause great damage to the crops. As part of the prayer for a successful transition, both periods include mitzvot that involve waving in all the directions of the wind. The Rabbis explain both the waving of the lulav and the omer as connected to a prayer that the winds be favorable.

The transition from winter to summer is longer than the one six months later, and therefore is more sensitive. Prof Jacob Milgrom notes:

that counting betrays anxiety. The spring harvest coincides with the end of the rainy season but also with the onset of a period when Israel is often buffeted by the hot, dry east wind called Sirocco, blowing across Egypt. The contemporary Israeli name for this feared phenomenon is Hamsin, which derives from the Arabic word hamsun and is related to the Hebrew cognate hamishim, all meaning 50. The Mishna preserves the ancient angst: "At Passover the world is judged in terms of the grain harvest." Hence, from April to June (roughly a 50-day period), the earth's bounty stands in jeopardy of being depleted by the withering winds of a Hamsin.

Each day counted therefore constitutes both thanks to God that the previous days passed without damage to the crops, and a prayer that the remaining days will be successful.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


The word chametz (or hametz) derives from the root חמץ - meaning "to be sour, to ferment, to be leavened". Jastrow claims that perhaps the original meaning was "to be hot", which led to another meaning - the color red. Jastrow gives the example from Moed Katan 23a, where they mention בחימוצתא רומיתא סומקתא - which he translates as "Roman dyed red garments".

Other words that derive from the same root חמץ include hometz (or chometz) חומץ - vinegar, and its derivative humtza חומצה - acid. One example of hometz in the Tanach is in Megilat Rut (2:14), where Boaz tells Rut to: וְטָבַלְתְּ פִּתֵּךְ, בַּחֹמֶץ - "dip your bread in the vinegar". This sounds like an unusual dip for bread, and the Daat Mikra suggests that perhaps hometz here meant sour milk.

I have heard however a different explanation that has more linguistic significance. The Arabic term for chickpea dip - commonly known in English as hummus - has the same root as hometz - חמץ. In the Talmud, there is reference to a legume known as himtza חימצא (or חימצי). So perhaps Boaz was suggesting something a little more tasty - bread with hummus.

Does himtza also derive from the same root as chametz? Klein says that it probably does. I'm not 100% sure - in Aramaic chametz is chamiya חמיעא. Horowitz (p. 108) teaches that the letter tsade is a "triplet letter" - having once had three different pronunciations. Aramaic acts as a mirror into the original Hebrew pronunciation. He points out that sometimes Aramaic preserves the current sound of tzade - צרח is the same in Hebrew and in Aramaic. Occasionally tsade has the sound of tet - נצר in Hebrew is נטר in Aramaic. And then there are cases where tsade is like ayin - ארץ in Hebrew is ארעא in Aramaic. So while the Aramaic word himtza חימצא preserves the tzade, chamiya חמיעא - has it replaced with an ayin. This could very well point to different origins.


While I expressed gratitude that I do eat gebrochts on Pesach, I regret that I can't say the same about kitniyot (or kitniot) - קטניות. Jastrow defines kitniyot as "small fruit, pulse, beans, peas", and states that the term derives from the word katan קטן - small. This term appears in Talmudic literature far before the medieval prohibition of eating it on Pesach.

As often happens, an etymology can often help to better understand the nature of a term. Richard Israel did so in this essay in regards to kitniyot:

In general, kitniot are those small (kitniot - from katan) seeds or beans which look a little like grains and which need to be cooked to be eaten. Though frequently translated as legumes, aside from peas and peanuts, they are NOT legumes. And some legumes, like alfalfa leaves which can be used for salad, ARE NOT kitniot. Legumes are plants whose root nodules make nitrogen. Since "teensy-weensies" or "tinies" are not translations that are very likely to make it into ordinary English parlance, the most appropriate translation for kitniot, it seems to me, is kitniot.

Now obviously an understanding of kitniyot as being small enough to look like grain has an impact on what could or should be considered to be included in the prohibition. But that's beyond the scope of Balashon...

Monday, April 10, 2006


Some Jews will not eat anything cooked with matza on Pesach - including matza meal. (I'm not included in that group, BH.) They refrain from eating any food that is gebrocht. (The Hebrew term is matza shruya, but since this custom originated in Eastern Europe, the Yiddish name is used much more.) When I asked about the etymology of the term, someone guessed that perhaps it was related to bracha - blessing. That's not correct, but we'll get back to that association later.

The term gebrocht means broken - as one would break matza into soup. As this site explains, "The past participle of Yiddish verbs is formed by adding the prefix ge- and the ending -(e)n or -t to the base of the verb." So gefilte fish is filled (stuffed) fish: "ge-fill-t". And broken matza is "ge-broch-t". Since German and English are closely related languages, we can easily see how these words developed.

A slang term for bankrupt is "broke", and this leads to a question that appears on those list of silly questions floating around the internet: Why the man who invests all your money is called a broker?

Take Our Word For It explores the origins of the term broker:

One school connects it with tapping into or broaching a wine cask in order to sell the wine - in fact, this school claims that broker derives from the same source as broach. Both words supposedly come from French broche "awl" (from Latin broccus "projecting"). The Latin derives possibly from Gaulish, as there is an apparent Gaelic cognate: brog "awl". Incidentally, even if broker does not derive from the French broche, the word brooch (which was spelled broach until quite recently) certainly does.
Another school propounds the theory that the word comes ultimately from an Arabic source. The Anglo-Norman form of the word is thought to have been brocour, and a variant was abrocour. There was a Spanish word alboroque "sealing of a bargain" as well as Portuguese (one of the most interesting sources of English words) alborcar "barter", both likely coming from Arabic (with the al representing the Arabic definite article). Earnest Weekley notes that we see the Spanish word as early as 1020 and that its derivation from Arabic (or Hebrew) is supported by the fact that many brokers in the Middle ages were Arabs or Jews.
Weekley notes another possible explanation (though he favors the Arabic source): Anglo French broucour "one who broaches a wine cask and sells the wine". There was a variant, abroucour, whose Medieval Latin equivalent was abbrocator, and this may have been confused with or influenced by Medieval Latin abbocator "a broker" or literally "one who brings a buyer and seller mouth to mouth", boca being Latin for "mouth".

What Arabic root are they referring to? The American Heritage Dictionary gives the following etymology:

Middle English, from Anglo-Norman brocour, abrocour; akin to Spanish alboroque, ceremonial gift at conclusion of business deal, from Arabic al-barka, the blessing, colloquial variant of al-baraka : al-, the + baraka, blessing, divine favor (from braka, to bless)

So you can see there is at least one theory that provides a connection between a word sounding like "broke" in English, and bracha in Hebrew.

Here's one more, although I'm not sure whether I believe it. There are those who think that the origin of the term "break a leg" (a way to wish luck to someone before a performance) is in Hebrew.

How so? There are a number of explanations out there - here's the one from World Wide Words:

Germans say Hals- und Beinbruch, “neck and leg break”, as ways of wishing someone good luck without any fear of supernatural retaliation. It is sometimes said that the German expression is actually a corruption of a Hebrew blessing hatzlakha u-brakha, “success and blessing”, which may have been borrowed via Yiddish. Whatever its source, the most plausible theory is that Hals- und Beinbruch was transferred into the American theatre (in which Yiddish- or German-speaking immigrant Jews were strongly represented) sometime after World War I.

Doesn't sound too likely to me, but I'll buy it before I stop eating gebrochts...

Sunday, April 09, 2006


There are two theories about the etymology of matza (or matzah) מצה.

Some say that it comes from the root נצה - meaning "to hasten", and therefore matza would mean "that which was made in haste." While Klein doesn't mention it, I assume there is a connection to the root אוץ - which also means to hasten, and is the root of such words as מאיץ and תאוצה (acceleration).

The other more popular theory is that matza derives from the root מצץ, meaning "to squeeze, to suck, to drain out". According to this approach, matza receives its name from its dry nature. This root also is the source of the word mitz מיץ - juice, tamtzit תמצית - essence, and mitzui מיצוי - originally squeezing, but later took on a sense of "getting as much as possible out of something". This led to a nice linguistic drasha, that appears here (among other places):

The Hebrew word Matza has the same root as Mitzui (realization of potential), while the Hebrew word Chametz (leaven) has the same root as Hachmatza (missing an opportunity).

As an aside, Onkelos translates matza as פטיר or פטירא (patir or patira). Jastrow explains that term as "free from admixture" - in the case of matza, free of leaven.

Thursday, April 06, 2006


Karpas and "carpet" have something in common - and no, carpet is not the Sefardi pronunciation.

We all know karpas כרפס is the vegetable - often parsley or celery - eaten as a sort of appetizer at the Pesach Seder. What is the origin of the word?

There are those that claim it comes from the Persian word karafs (or karats, according to Klein), meaning parsley. Others claim that it derives from the Greek karpos, meaning "fruit of the soil." Karpos originates in the Indo-European root kerp, meaning "to gather, to harvest." Other words from the same root include "harvest", and "carpet", because it was made of unraveled, "plucked" fabric.

One very similar word that does not appear to have any etymological connection (some interesting drashot notwithstanding) is the word karpas appearing in the Book of Esther (1:6), meaning "fine cotton or linen". I won't go into detail about that meaning of karpas, since a big post on cotton should be coming up soon. However, Mar Gavriel presents an interesting theory here, that the pronunciation of karpas the vegetable was influenced by karpas the fabric:

According to Prof. Guggenheimer (in his book The Scholar's Haggadah), the words karpas (fine white linen) and karafs (celery) are both Farsi. Whoever provided the vowel-points for the mediaeval song "Qaddêsh u-Rechatz" only knew the consonants KRPS from the Meghilla, so he vocalized them as he had found them there.

Obviously this only fits the theory that כרפס the vegetable derives from the Persian and not Greek, but it's interesting in any case.


The afikoman אפיקומן is perhaps the most misunderstood part of the seder meal. The Mishna in Pesachim (10:8) states:

ואין מפטירין אחר הפסח אפיקומן

Which can be loosely translated as "After the Pesach (sacrifice) one should not end with afikoman". To this there are two major questions. One, what is this afikoman? And two, isn't the afikoman actually the last thing we eat at the seder?

First, let's find out what afikoman means. While there are a number of midrashim and folk-etymologies, the most commonly accepted answer is that it comes from the Greek word epikomion, meaning the "festal procession after the meal". Epi means "after" (as in epilogue), and komos means "banquet, merrymaking" (and is the root of the word "comedy").

Professor Eliezer Segal explains here the development of this understanding of afikoman:

The reference is to a custom known as epikomion, a Greek word meaning "after dinner revelry" ... Normally this would involve going off to someone else's house, whether or not you have been invited, and indulging in another party.
What the Mishnah is saying is that, in spite of some of the apparent similarities between the seder and a pagan banquet, one should not treat it light-headedly as the Romans and Greeks would their own feasts. This meaning was understood by the Rabbis of the Palestinian Talmud, who lived under Roman rule. By contrast, the Babylonian Talmud (whose authors lived farther away from the Greco-Roman world) came to understand the afikoman as a "dessert," translating the Mishnah as "One should not eat anything after the Passover Afikoman."

So now the question remains, even if we accept the Babylonian Talmud's understanding that we are not supposed to eat after the afikoman, why do we call the last piece of matza we eat "the afikoman"?

It was accepted by most halachic authorities that in order to fulfill the intention of the above mishna, the last thing eaten at the seder should be a quantity of matza. In the times of the Geonim, there was no mention that this piece needed to come from the broken and hidden piece of the middle matza. But by the time of the Rishonim (Rashi, Rashbam and others), it was emphasized that the last piece of matza eaten should come from the broken and hidden piece. This is the origin of the siman (step) tzafun צפון - meaning "hidden".

Then, starting in the time of the Rishonim (Machzor Vitri, Sefer Rokeach, and others), the afikoman began to refer to the piece of matza eaten during tzafun.

So the meaning afikoman changed from a forbidden act of revelry, to a dessert, to a required piece of matza during the meal. Anyone who could have guessed that really deserves an "afikoman present"...

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


The etymology of maror מרור (in the Tanach, it never appears in the singular but rather as the plural merorim מרורים) is simple - it means "bitter herbs", from mar מר - "bitter".

What English word also derives from the same Hebrew root? The spice myrrh gets its name from the Hebrew word mor מור. This spice was burned at the altar in the Temple, and appears numerous times in Shir HaShirim. Rashi (Bereshit 22:2), following Onkelos, explains the etymology of Har HaMoriah as coming from the spice mor. While other explanations are given, Shir HaShirim (4:6) does mention Har HaMor.

This of course leads to the question: why would such a central spice be named after something so bitter? This site seems to give the answer:

Myrrh is a gum resin produced by trees and shrubs of the family Burseracea, most notably Commiphora myrrha, Commiphora abysinica, and Commiphora schimperi. The resin is obtained from Arabia and adjacent Africa, and is taken from the small, prickly gray-barked trees. Pearls of myrrh are brown, red or yellow, with an oily texture, becoming hard and brittle with age. It has a pleasing fragrance, very much like balsam, and a lasting, bitter, aromatic taste, hence the name mor, which signifies bitterness.

I'm sure there's a nice drasha that can be made about how mor is sweet to smell but bitter to taste. If someone knows of one, please let me know; otherwise feel free to write your own...

Monday, April 03, 2006


A number of years ago I was working on a kibbutz, helping to prepare the kitchen for Pesach. One of the tasks was to rinse the vessels and utensils in boiling water - known as hag'alat kelim - הגעלת כלים. When someone asked me what I was doing, I said ani mag'il אני מגעיל - which also means "I am disgusting." While the story would have been funnier if I had not known the meanings of both words, the question remains - what is the connection between rinsing in boiling water and disgust/rejection? Does the root געל have one meaning or two?

Klein seems to indicate that there are two meanings, but doesn't fully explain the etymology of each. If I recall correctly, one of the kibbutznikim offered me a convincing explanation. Both words indicate repulsion. When something disgusts me or someone rejects me - I am repelled away. When I do ha'galat kelim - I repel, remove, the chametz from the vessel.

Sunday, April 02, 2006


Many people are surprised by the violent answer to the wicked son in the Haggadah, when we are told to "hit him in the teeth". However, that is a mistranslation. The text says הקהה את שיניו - "blunt his teeth" - not הכה את שיניו - "hit him in the teeth." What is the meaning of the verb hakheh?

The root קהה means to "be blunt, be dull." The connection to teeth appears In Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) 31:28-29: אָבוֹת אָכְלוּ בֹסֶר; וְשִׁנֵּי בָנִים, תִּקְהֶינָה - "Parents have eaten sour grapes and children's teeth are blunted." This blunting of teeth is referring to the opposite of the ideal state - healthy teeth are assumed to be sharp. The midrash in Yalkut Shimoni (Eicha) describes Yitzchak as הבן שנתן לו בקהיות שנים למאה שנה - "the son that was given to (Avraham) when his teeth were blunt (i.e. he was in his old age), when he was one hundred years old." Jastrow provides a number of examples of the use of the root קהה - and while they differ, they all derive from the same meaning - dull or blunt.

The root קהה seems to be connected to the similar sounding root כהה - which means "to grow dim, faint" and later "to become dark". Both קהה and כהה are according to one theory the root of a word that many strongly associate with Pesach - coffee. The American Heritage® Dictionary claims that coffee comes from the Arabic word qahwa meaning "dark stuff", and is related to the Arabic word kahiya, "to be(come) weak", which is connected to both קהה and כהה.

This is certainly not the only theory. Many others say that the word coffee comes from the Ethiopian region of Kaffa. Stahl and others say that qahwa originally referred to a type of wine. Now, imagine how awake you'd be after four cups of coffee at the end of the Seder!

Saturday, April 01, 2006


It might seem that the etymology of the word Pesach is so obvious that it doesn't deserve an entry here. Pesach = "pass over", no? Well, until I started researching it, I would have agreed. However, it turns out that the origin and meaning of pesach is one of the most complicated topics I've dealt with yet.

It is clear that Pesach is connected to the verb pasach פסח. But what does pasach mean?

Both pesach and pasach appear for the first time in Shemot (Exodus), chapter 12:

יא וְכָכָה, תֹּאכְלוּ אֹתוֹ--מָתְנֵיכֶם חֲגֻרִים, נַעֲלֵיכֶם בְּרַגְלֵיכֶם וּמַקֶּלְכֶם בְּיֶדְכֶם; וַאֲכַלְתֶּם אֹתוֹ בְּחִפָּזוֹן, פֶּסַח הוּא לַהשם.

יג וְהָיָה הַדָּם לָכֶם לְאֹת, עַל הַבָּתִּים אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם שָׁם, וְרָאִיתִי אֶת-הַדָּם, וּפָסַחְתִּי עֲלֵכֶם; וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה בָכֶם נֶגֶף לְמַשְׁחִית, בְּהַכֹּתִי בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.

In order not to influence your understanding of pasach, I won’t translate the phrases, but in short, verse 11 states that “you will have a pesach to God” and in verse 13, God says that “I will pasach over (or “on”) you.”

There are three main explanations to the word pasach – “to have compassion”, “to protect” or “to skip over.”

Let’s review each of the opinions.

To skip over - לדלג: This is the most commonly known definition. How did it become so popular? According to Nahum Sarna in Exploring Exodus (page 87), this translation became predominant because the Latin Vulgate version translates pasach as “pass over” – transire in Latin. (Interestingly, it was the 16th century Christian scholar William Tyndale who coined the term Passover. Previously pesach was translated by Christians as paschal or pask.) This understanding explanation was adopted by the Septuagint, Josephus, Rav Yoshaia in the Mechilta (who connects פסח with פסע) Rashbam, and Rashi brings it as one of the options (כל פסיחה לשון דלוג וקפיצה).

To have compassion לחוס : This is the translation provided by Onkelos, an unnamed source in the Mechilta (אין פסיחה אלא חייס) and Rabbi Yonatan in the Mechilta (פסחתי עליכם – עליכם אני חס) and is also offered by Rashi (פסחתי – חמלתי). Sarna feels this is the oldest and most reliable. Dov Rappel and others suggest that Onkelos translated פסח as חוס because it would not be respectful to describe God as “jumping”.

To protect להציל, להגן: This explanation appears in Tosefta Sota (Chapter 4), Targum Yonatan, the Mechilta, and is supported by Yishayahu (Isaiah) 31:5:
כְּצִפֳּרִים עָפוֹת--כֵּן יָגֵן ה' צְבָאוֹת, עַל-יְרוּשָׁלִָם; גָּנוֹן וְהִצִּיל, פָּסֹחַ וְהִמְלִיט.
“Like the birds that fly, even so will the Lord of Hosts shield Jerusalem, shielding and saving, protecting (פסח) and rescuing.”
There is certainly a strong connection between to protect and to have compassion, and one understanding might have developed from the other.

A word from the same root is piseach פיסח - meaning lame. Amos Chacham in Daat Mikra (Shmot) (and earlier the Radak in Sefer HaShorashim) quotes the verse in Yishayahu (35:6):

אָז יְדַלֵּג כָּאַיָּל פִּסֵּחַ, וְתָרֹן לְשׁוֹן אִלֵּם:
“And the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing out loud”
Chacham goes on to say that perhaps the sacrificial lamb itself is called “pesach” because it jumps and skips. However, Samuel Loewenstamm in The Tradition of the Exodus in Its Development rejects that explanation based on the same verse. He points out (page 86) that the verse describing a miraculous state, but it is not the way of the piseach to jump, just as the deaf do not usually sing. (A neighbor of mine suggested that perhaps piseach is related to pasach (to jump), but is used to describe a lame person in a euphemistic way.)

Loewenstamm mentions an Arabic root connected to pasach which means to expand. (He brings the root in Arabic, but unfortunately I can’t read Arabic.) He states that the same verb also has the meaning “to save” (and therefore is another proof for him that the translation “to protect” is the most authentic.)

Rav Uri Dasberg in Shabbat B’Shabbato quotes the same Arabic root to explain a difficult passage in the Hagada Shel Pesach. The Seder opens with the invitation:
כל דצריך ייתי ויפסח
This is generally translated as: “anyone who needs it may partake of the Pesach sacrifice.” However, the law states that the sacrifice is distributed only to those who reserved a portion before it was slaughtered. Once the seder has begun, it is too late to add participants.

Dasberg explains that the entire “invitation” is intended for non-Jewish foreigners. The Talmud states the Jews of Babylon were required by law to invite soldiers of the king into their homes in times of crisis. This is a reason that the invitation is in Aramaic. In order to avoid the prohibition of cooking for a non-Jew on a holiday, the invitation was extended after the meal had begun (since no more food could be added.)

According to Dasberg, perhaps the meaning of ויפסח was to make room (like the Arabic root), so the invitation said “we will make room for anyone who needs” and did not refer to the Pesach sacrifice at all.