Thursday, August 31, 2006


Now that we've covered the basic colors, we'll look at a few words in Hebrew based on colors in related Semitic languages. As we've seen before, אוכמה means black in Aramaic. From here we get the word uchmanit אוכמנית - blackberry. All nice and good, except that I always learned that uchmanit meant blueberry! Well, it turns out that uchmanit means both blueberry and blackberry in Hebrew. Although this may be due to the fact that the Academy of the Hebrew Language does not know what a blackberry is. If you look up uchmanit, they say blackberry, but give the Latin name Vaccinium Myrtillus, which is defined as a bilberry, a type of blueberry. The blackberry is from the genus Rubus, which the Academy of the Hebrew Language translates as פטל petel (which is more commonly known as raspberry, but that's another species in the same family.)

So you'd think that blackberries should be called uchmaniyot, and blueberries called something else - due to their blue color. But before we rush to judgment, I'll end off with this classic quote from George Carlin:

Why is there no blue food? I can't find blue food - I can't find the flavor of blue! I mean, green is lime; yellow is lemon; orange is orange; red is cherry; what's blue? There's no blue! Oh, they say, "Blueberries!" Uh-uh; blue on the vine, purple on the plate. There's no blue food! Where is the blue food? We want the blue food! Probably instores immortality! They're keeping it from us!


After several days of writing about colors, I found this very interesting article in the Jewish Encyclopedia on "Color". It deals with many of the same issues I've discussed, with some new insights (for me) into the identity and etymology of the the words for colors in Biblical and Rabbinic Hebrew. One particulary interesting question raised is why there are so few words for colors in Hebrew. The authors write:

The scarcity of color-names found in the Bible and other ancient literatures has been differently accounted for by various scholars. All that can with certainty be said of the ancients in this respect is that their color vocabulary was undeveloped.
To the psychological reasons for such an undeveloped state among all nations of antiquity (compare Wundt, "Völkerpsychologie: Die Sprache," ii. 513, 514) was added, in the case of the Israelites, the religious prohibition of idolatry at a period of history when painting, like other arts, was largely, if not altogether, in the service of idolatry. Needlework in colors, as well as dyed stuffs, was indeed known in Israel in very early times, but the coloring was in all probability of a simple kind.

That provides a significant contrast to the ideas mentioned in my original color post, from which one could conclude that the lack of color names pointed to lack of progress in a society.

In the section "Degrees of Darkness", the article gives the following explanation for chum חום:

"hum" (literally, "hot," then "dark," "brown") is used of the wool of sheep (Gen. xxx. 32 and passim).

The text quoted here is the story where Yaakov claims from Lavan the chum colored sheep.
Klein provides a similar etymology:

Probably from חום (= to be warm), which is related to חמם, hence lit. meaning 'resembling in color to something burned'.

However, there is a debate amongst the commentaries as to the identity of the chum referred to in Bereshit 30. Rashi says chum means ros, similar to red. Rav Saadia Gaon, Ibn Ezra and Radak (quoting Arabic) identify chum with shachor, black. Ramban agrees with Rashi, saying that if Yaakov had claimed the black sheep, Lavan would not have agreed, for this is a very common color for sheep. (Kaddari quotes Ludwig Koehler as saying that chum might not be a color at all, but meant "in heat" - מיוחם meyucham.)

Well, how do we resolve this disagreement in the Rishonim? And from where do we get the color brown, if the opinions presented are red and black? Split the difference. Even-Shoshan in his Concordance, translates chum as "reddish-black" and Kaddari suggests "red and black?".

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


The color white in Hebrew is lavan לבן, and not surprisingly, we find many words that are directly related to this root:

  • levana - לבנה - a poetic form of "moon", as appears in Yeshayahu 24:23, 30:26 and Shir HaShirim 6:10. Literally, "the white one".
  • Levanon (Lebanon) - לבנון - named after the snow-capped, white mountain range
  • leben - לבן In Arabic, laban means milk, and a form of coagulated sour milk (like yogurt) is called leben in Hebrew, and a cheese made from leben is called labaneh.
  • levona - לבונה - frankincense. Klein writes that it is so called from its white color.
  • livneh - לבנה - Styrax, birch. According to Klein, it literally means "the white tree", which is also the origin of "birch".
  • the verbs ללבן and להלבין mean, in addition to "be white" or "make white", to make white hot (libun ליבון), to launder (also money laundering - halbanat hon הלבנת הון), to clarify, and to embarrass (להלבין פני חברו - literally "to make his face white").
One word with the root לבן that is not connected to "white" is levenah לבנה - brick. In fact, we find a brick of sapir (sapphire) in Shmot 24:10. From levenah we get the word malben מלבן - rectangle, from the shape of the brick, or the shape of the mold the brick was formed in (Nachum 3:14).
Steinberg does connect levenah and lavan, by saying that the root לבן means "to burn". This can lead to the creation of bricks on the one hand, and the color white on the other.
Rosenthal mentions levanim in Modern Israeli slang having the association of Ashkenazim, soldiers in the Navy, and (not in Rosenthal) undergarments. And if I'm already mentioning undergarments, here's a great story from a friend about mixing up the meaning of lavan:
For Chanukah, all the parents in my son's gan were asked to send "garbayim lebanot". My husband and I read the note he brought home and quickly realized that we didn't need to do anything - only the girls needed to bring a pair of socks. The next day at the gan I was reprimanded for not sending socks with my son to gan - Oh, I quickly realized, all the kids needed to bring in a pair of girl's socks. So I sent my son to gan with a pair of pretty pink socks with lace around the top. When I picked him up the next day, I was again reprimanded - "the socks have to be white so they glow in the dark - why did you send pink?" "Oh garbayim LEVANOT" How was I supposed to know?
I told the story to a friend of mine who is an ulpan teacher, whose son is in the same
gan and she said that it was a natural mistake - socks are masculine so they should have asked me to send "garbayim levanim". I'm not sure that this would necessarily have helped me - I would probably have sent a pair of blue tube socks the first day.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


Is shachor (shahor) שחור - "black" related to shachar (shahar) שחר - "dawn"? The best way to tell would be to see if there are common or divergent etymologies.

Klein, who tends to be more conservative in these questions, shows different derivations. Shachor, he writes, is related to Syrian שוחרא shuchra and Akkadian shuru, meaning "coal". On the other hand, shachar is related to Moabite שחרת, JAram שחרא, Arabic sahar, Akkadian sheru and shirtu - all meaning "dawn".

Steinberg also provides different etymologies. He writes that shachar is related to צחר, צהר and זהר - all meaning "to shine", whereas shachor is the Shaph'el form of חרה - "to burn". For an example, he writes that the Targum for Iyov 30:30 offers שחם for שחר - also Shaph'el of חם, "to be warm".

However, there are those that disagree, and find a connection. Almagor-Ramon writes that there is a phenomenon in Hebrew and other languages, where when there is a root that has words which approach the limit of that meaning, from that limit they have a tendency to switch meanings. For an example, she writes that at night, everything is black (shachor), and toward the end of the night, on the limit, when there is already more light than black, we still refer to that period as shachar - dawn. This concept is used in word games called "synonym chains" as described here.

This site quotes a couple of Rabbinic sources:

Immediately before the rise of the morning star, the night is at its darkest...(Midrash Shocher Tov)
Shachar---"morning" or "dawn"---is related to shachor---"black"---because the moment immediately preceding the dawn is the blackest, darkest part of the night. (Vilna Gaon, Avnei Eliyahu)

It even goes so far as to suggest that the expression "It is always darkest before the dawn" has its origins in the connection between shachar and shachor. Curiously, even Klein gives three definitions to shachar: 1) dawn, 2) daybreak 3) the blackness preceding the dawn (emphasis mine).

One verb that everyone connects is שחר - "to seek, to search". Klein writes:

Probably derived from שחר ( = dawn), whence arose the meaning 'to rise early in the morning; to go out early in the morning and seek', whence 'to turn toward'.

Jastrow offers "to break through, dig, to search, seek" - and from here to the break of dawn.

Other derivatives of shachar are shacharit שחרית (the time of, and the name of the morning prayer) and shocher שוחר - a fan, a friend, as in שוחר שלום - "a lover of peace".

Shachar can also mean "meaning, sense, significance". This derives from Yeshayahu 8:20 - אֲשֶׁר אֵין-לוֹ שָׁחַר - which literally meant "with no dawn", for no light will be shone upon it. Today the expression often refers to rumors "that have no foundation".

Whether or not shachar and shachor are connected, there is one word that people derive from one or the other. In Kohelet 11:10, we find the pairing of הַיַּלְדוּת וְהַשַּׁחֲרוּת - childhood and youth (shacharut). Ibn Ezra connects shacharut to dawn, the beginning of a person's life. The Targum indicates that shacharut means youth due to the darkness of hair (יומי דאוכמות שער).

As we've done with the other colors, we should also ask: does shachor only mean black? Kaddari writes that there are times when shachor means the color black (VaYikra 13:31), and other times where it means "dark" (Shir HaShirim 1:5-6).

In Modern Hebrew slang, shachor can refer to the Haredim, the black market, and members of the Tank Corp in the army.

Sunday, August 27, 2006


Katom כתום - orange - is also a "new" color, coined for the first time in Modern Hebrew. Klein writes that it derives from ketem כתם - gold. Of ketem, he writes:

Of uncertain etymology. Perhaps borrowed from Akkadian. cp. Akka. kutimmu ( = goldsmith), which derives from Sumerian kudim, of same meaning.

This word for gold appears a number of times in the Tanach. The Daat Mikra consistently suggests that there are opinions that ketem is the name of the land where the gold comes from. They point out that in Egyptian writing the term "nb-n-ktm" is found, meaning "gold of ketem", perhaps from Nubia.

Kaddari mentions both of the above theories as to the etymology of ketem, but then quotes Driver as saying that it is related to an Arabic word (I can't really make it out, but it looks like the parallel consonants of כתם) meaning "a plant used to die hair black", and connected to the word ketem meaning "stain, dirty" in Rabbinic Hebrew.

Klein does not connect the two forms of ketem - he relates the meaning of "stain" to the Akkadian katamu - "to cover". Others, however, do connect the two. Steinberg, for example, says both meanings - "gold" and "stain" - of ketem are connected to an earlier meaning of "to write". Etymologically, this is done through a connection between כתם and כתב. The one instance of כתם meaning "to stain" in the Tanach, appears in Yirmiyahu 2:22, where it says נִכְתָּם עֲו‍ֹנֵךְ לְפָנַי - "your guilt is ingrained (stained) before me". Steinberg (and later Kaddari) compares this to Yirmiyahu 17:1 - חַטַּאת יְהוּדָה, כְּתוּבָה בְּעֵט בַּרְזֶל - "The guilt of Yehuda is inscribed with a stylus of iron".

As far as the connection between gold and writing, Steinberg claims that ketem refers to choice gold, and was so named because it was marked to indicate its value (see a similar opinion here). He makes a similar connection between the name of another type of gold - charutz חרוץ - and engrave חרץ (also חרט). From this meaning - writing - we can understand the name of the biblical poem michtam מכתם - which is the title of many of the chapters of Tehillim.

In this article, Moshe Zipor writes (my translation):

The noun ketem in the Tanach is synonymous with gold, particularly reddish-gold. From here we see that the verb נכתם (from Yirmiyahu 2:22) does not simply mean "stained", but "stained with the color red". In post-Biblical literature, ketem refers exclusively to the signs of niddah (menstruation) blood. (Other stains were called רבב).

Jastrow also defines ketem as "a dark red stain". As we have seen (and will continue to see) there are many words in Hebrew for "gold". I wonder if those who coined katom for "orange" did so due to the idea that ketem has a combination of gold (yellow) and red...

While Rosenthal does not give a slang association to katom, it became the color associated with those opposed to the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, and even now, those on the Right are still called ketomim.


Unlike the colors we've discussed previously, sagol (not segol) סגול - purple/violet was created in Modern Hebrew. Klein writes that the name of the color comes from another new word - segel, meaning the flower violet. The word segel, in turn, derives from the Aramaic sigla סיגלא - which appears in Sanhedrin 99b, Shabbat 50b and Berachot 43b, and Steinsaltz identifies it with the sweet violet.

Klein writes that sigla is probably related to the Aramaic segola סגולא, meaning cluster of grapes. He doesn't explain the connection - Jastrow suggests that sigla means "a bunch of violets". This term appears in Yerushalmi Peah 7, and Steinsaltz writes that it is an Aramaic variation of eshkol אשכול - also meaning a cluster of grapes. It appears in Targum Yonatan on Bamidbar 14:23 as a translation to eshkol. From segola we get the name of the vowel segol סגול - which also looks like a cluster of grapes.

What about the meaning of segula סגולה as treasure? Could the phrase am segula עם סגולה - mean "a purple nation"? While this site tries to establish a connection, I think it's not very likely. In fact, we have already seen that segula is related to the Akkadian sugullu - herd of cattle.

Rosenthal does not suggest any slang associations with the color sagol.

Thursday, August 24, 2006


An Israeli once asked me, "Isn't it difficult to write in English about Hebrew words?". I unknowingly paraphrased Salman Rushdie, who wrote "The only people who see the whole picture are the ones who step out of the frame." This seems to be nowhere more true than in my posts describing colors. Take yarok ירוק for example. While in Modern Hebrew it means "green", there are those who say it once meant yellow or gold. Now how would I write that sentence in Hebrew? היום ירוק פירושו ירוק, אבל פעם ירוק היה צהוב או זהב? Yarok means yarok?

This is not only a challenge for those who write about colors in their own language, but it makes researching the issue difficult as well. For at some point, yarok does mean yarok, and kachol does mean kachol. But it becomes very hard to determine when that change happens. We've seen the ambiguity with some of the earlier colors, and we'll see it here with yarok as well.

Yarok appears only once in the Tanach - Iyov 39:8, but it is not clear from there exactly what color is being mentioned. A different form of the color - ירקרק yerakrak - appears three times: twice in Vayikra (13:49, 14:37), talking about tzaraat (like tzahov) and in Tehillim 68:14. Let's look at the latter.

The verse mentions בִּירַקְרַק חָרוּץ which we'll translate (for now) as "greenish gold". But the question here is really: is the gold yerakrak (and therefore different than common gold), or is the yerakrak gold (and is all yarok gold)? There is much evidence that yarok actually meant a goldish, yellow color. In Ugaritic yrq meant gold, and in Southern Arabic warq ורק still does.

We also have Rabbinic sources that connect the two. Tosfot (Sukkah 31b s.v. HaYarok) lists a number of such sources: Hullin 47b says yarok is like the yolk of an egg, and Tosefta Negaim 1:3 says it is the color of wax. Tosfot also mentions a very interesting Midrash, on Bereshit 14:14, where it says that Avraham וַיָּרֶק אֶת-חֲנִיכָיו - literally, he sent out his men. But Bereshit Rabba gives a number of explanations, all with the idea that וירק means "he made them shine (like gold)." (See Torah Shleimah Bereshit 14, #67 for a full explanation of the Midrash.)

(As far as the meaning of yerakrak vs yarok, it would seem that Ibn Ezra could be in trouble once again. The Sifra explains yerakrak, as ירוק שבירוקין - the most, strongest yarok. Ibn Ezra writes that the doubling indicates a weakening, so yerakrak would mean a pale yarok. In this case, Modern Hebrew seems to have taken the side of Ibn Ezra, for words with the last two letters of the root repeating - אדמדם, ירקרק - mean a less full version of that color.)

However, there are also Rabbinic sources that identify yarok with green - the above Tosfot mentions them. The Tosefta in Negaim writes that Sumchus said that yerakrak was like "the wing of a peacock." I had thought that was a sign of yarok meaning green, although this site takes an approach I had not yet seen (original Hebrew here):

What the sages called "green" is today called "tzivoni," meaning "colored." For example, the RAMA wrote, "What is called 'blue' is included in the category of green" [Yoreh Dei'ah 188:1]. The Tosefta compares the strongest green and the strongest red, asking: "What is the greenest of the green?" The answer given by Sumchus was, "like the tail of a peacock." In fact, a peacock has 365 different colors, with all possible colors, except red (Tanchuma, Tazriya) ... In principle, "yarok" is any color that is not red, and this led the Maharam of Rotenberg to write in response to a question, "All the colors blue, yellow, and green are included in the color 'yarok', green."

In any case, today yarok means only green. Perhaps it was through the influence of the words ירק and ירקות - meaning vegetables, or in English, "greens". Klein says that yerek derives from yarok, and many plants and vegetables are green, particularly the leaves. In Arabic, the related waraq means "leaf".

According to Steinberg, the etymological development should be reversed. He says the root ירק means "to empty out, to force out" and is related to the word reik ריק meaning "empty". From here the word ירק meaning "to spit" derives. A plant is called a yerek because it "comes out" from the ground. For sense development, he offers the German sprietzen - "to sprout" and spritzen - "to spray".

Rosenthal gives five meanings of yerukim in Israeli slang: a) environmentalists, b) soldiers from field units (due to their uniforms, as compared to Air Force and Navy), c) Border Police, d) dollars, and e) fans of Maccabi Haifa.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Unlike the other two primary colors we've discussed so far, kachol כחול (blue) does not appear in the Torah at all. In fact, the only appearance of any form of the root כחל is in Yechezkel 23:40: כָּחַלְתְּ עֵינַיִךְ - "you painted your eyes." The verb כחל meant exactly that - painting of the eyes (eyelids). We find it mentioned for cosmetic purposes (this is the source of the expression בלא כחל ובלא שרק - meaning "without additions". It literally means "without any makeup" and in Ketubot 17a, was used as praise for the bride - she would be beautiful even without any makeup.) The word מכחול - painters brush, has its origins here. The word kohl still has the meaning of "a cosmetic preparation, such as powdered antimony sulfide, used especially in the Middle East to darken the rims of the eyelids."

It was also used for medicinal purposes for the eyes, as found in Shabbat 78a. Stahl writes that the Arabic word for optometrist - כחאל - derives from this sense of the word.

Most of the sources I have read simply (Klein, for example) say that the color used in the eye makeup was blue, and from here we derive the name of the color kachol. I'm not fully convinced of this. While I can't really use Jastrow as a full concordance of the Talmudic literature, in none of his examples does he identify kachol - or any of its cognates - with "blue". He does, however, give a few examples where it actually refers to another color. For example, he identifies the stone כוחלין as carbuncle, which is red (see more about that here.) He also says that the origin of the Hebrew word for a cow's udder - כחל - is due to its reddish color. (Steinberg also says that the root כחל is related to חכל - which everyone agrees means "red"**.)

Jastrow also identifies the stone כוחלא (Kiddushin 12a, Bava Batra 4a) as being black. Perhaps he is being a bit biased here. In Bava Batra, while Rabbeinu Gershon does define כוחלא as black, Rashi suggests kachol - which clearly meant to him "blue". But even if Jastrow for some reason is choosing to deliberately ignore the possibility that כחל could mean blue, there are still a lot of open questions. My guess? I think probably כחל originally only meant "to paint", and later - at least by Rashi's time - kachol fully meant blue.

One interesting etymology that comes out of this word is that of the English word alcohol. Klein writes:

Arab. alkohl, vulgar pronunciation of alkuhl, from al (= the) and kohl, resp. kuhl (= antimony used for painting the eyelids), which is related to Hebrew כחל (= he painted the eyes with antimony). Its modern sense ('highly rectified spirits') is due to the analogy of the fitness of this powder.

Others say that the process of producing the makeup was similar to that of producing alcohol - hence the name.

According to Rosenthal, in Modern Israeli slang, k'cholim refers either to police officers or soldiers in the Air Force - both based on the blue color of their uniforms.

** After publishing this post, I have found a notable source that disagrees. The Ramban on Bereshit 49:12 says that חכלילי means kachol, not red. However, it does not seem that he meant "blue" but rather "dark". For more information, see the Daat Mikra on the verse, and this article by Prof. Aaron Demsky: here in English, and here in Hebrew. There is an interesting archeological discovery with a First Temple jar saying "wine kachol". (A picture can be found in the Daat Mikra).

Tuesday, August 22, 2006


Tzahov (tsahov) צהוב - yellow - is similar to adom אדום. Both follow the common vowel pattern for colors (see also shahor, kachol, yarok, etc) and appear a limited number of times in the Torah. Tzahov appears in VaYikra 13:30,32,36 describing the hair of someone suffering from tzaraat (I guess that's why The Living Torah offers the translation "blond".)

Targum Yonatan, and the Sifra both identify tzahov with a type of zahav זהב - gold. The Malbim and the Torah Temima both explain that identification by the similarity between the two words. Klein also writes that the two are related.

Rav Saadia Gaon and the Ibn Ezra give a different explanation for tzahov. Rav Saadia Gaon translates אצהב, and Ibn Ezra explains that in Arabic this is a very light color, approaching white. The Or HaChaim, who also knew Arabic, has a very hard time accepting the Ibn Ezra's approach, and is unwilling to reject the Sifra's explanation of zahav. He goes so far as to say that explanations such as these are what caused the Ibn Ezra to be not taken seriously by the rabbis over the generations.

The verb צהב means "to be bright, to shine". Interestingly, two other verbs beginning with the same two letters have the same meaning - צהל and צהר, but I have not found anyone who connects the three.

According to Rosenthal, besides having an association with yellow journalism, tzahov also indicates fans of Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Monday, August 21, 2006


I'm starting a new series of posts today: a discussion of the Hebrew words for colors. Colors are particularly interesting to discuss from a linguistic point of view. First of all, it is logical that the names for colors should be connected to objects of the same color (I suppose "violets are blue" would be the exception, so I'll stick with "Violet, you're turning violet, Violet!"). Secondly, there have been many studies about how the awareness of colors develop with the progress of civilizations. (See Cecil Adams' classic article here, and for a Jewish point of view, see this post by Rishon Rishon and this discussion on the Avodah list.) So we can see the colors used in the Tanach, the Talmud and then in Modern Hebrew. I'll start by reviewing colors used in Modern Hebrew (of course some of them have more ancient roots). Today we'll discuss adom אדום - red.

I'm sure many people have noticed the connection between the words adom, adam אדם - man, dam דם blood and adama אדמה - soil / ground. Klein writes that they are indeed related, and provides the following development.

The first, most basic word is dam. Klein writes that it is "one of the few biradical nouns in Hebrew." (We've also seen delet and keshet among others.)

From dam we get adom - according to Klein meaning "the color of blood".

Adama (ground, soil, earth, land) derives from adom - originally meaning "the red arable ground".

Lastly, adam, Klein writes, properly means "the one formed from adama אדמה, the ground." He points out there is a similar development in Latin, where homo (man, source of "human") is related to humus (ground) - the source of exhume (to take out of the ground) and humble (lowly, "on the ground").

From adom, we get such words as odem אודם - lipstick, maadim מאדים - Mars (the red planet) and the nation of Edom.

According to Rosenthal, the term adumim has two meanings in modern Hebrew slang: a) fans of the teams belonging to the sports association HaPoel, or b) a slightly old-fashioned term for leftists.

Stahl - Arabic Etymological Dictionary in Hebrew

I'm very excited to write that I recently acquired a new book (actually a two-volume set) by Avraham Stahl:

מילון דביר דו-לשוני אטימולוגי לערבית מדוברת ולעברית

Bilingual Etymological Dictionary of Spoken Israeli Arabic and Hebrew
(Dvir, 1995)

This really helps my library of etymological resources. The book has around 7000 entries for Arabic words, and etymological background for most of them. This helps understand the development of words in modern Hebrew (particulary slang) and to find Hebrew cognates for Arabic words that entered English.

Stahl is also the author of Motza HaMilim, which I often refer to. In general, I will refer simply to "Stahl", but when necessary, I will mention which book provides the information.

Friday, August 18, 2006


Unlike the other Hebrew letters, I have not been able to find a Hebrew word that the letter tet (or teth) is based on. I found some theories as to the shape it represents: wheel, spindle, urban town, basket. Klein's entry for טית says "name of the ninth letter of the Hebrew alphabet [of uncertain origin]".

(After preparing this post, I found that this site claims that Klein derives tet "from טוה (twh 794), spin, and renders teth to knot, knot together, to twist into each other, to interweave. The letter teth indeed looks like a little vortex or spiral." I don't know if the author has a different source for Klein, or perhaps is talking about a different person named Klein.)

Steinberg writes that טית (tet) in Arabic means a skin bottle, like a wineskin or a waterskin. I have not found that word mentioned in any other source, nor have I been able to find a Hebrew cognate.

Tet can switch with tav (תעה and טעה) and in the hitpael form of verbs whose root begins with tzade (הצטדק - not הצתדק). It can switch with dalet and zayin, as I've wrote about earlier. And it can also alternate with tzade (חטב and חצב).

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Melamed - Aramaic-Hebrew Dictionary

I don't use Rabbi Ezra-Zion Melamed's Aramaic-Hebrew Dictionary of the Babylonian Talmud very often, but I certainly should try to more. It is limited in that it only has words from the Babylonian Talmud (unlike Jastrow, who includes the Midrashim and Targumim). But it does have notes with etymological information for many of the entries. Maybe what's putting me off is that if the word is from Persian or Greek, he writes the original word in the actual script, which I can't read (yet).

Almagor-Ramon - Rega Shel Ivrit

Ruth Almagor-Ramon, the language adviser at Israel Radio, is the editor of the radio feature "Rega Shel Ivrit." In 2001, a book was published based on these segments, and is reviewed here:

Ruth Almagor-Ramon. A Moment of Hebrew (Rega shel Ivrit). Tzivonim Publishing. Jerusalem , 2001

Everyone who listens to the radio in Israel recognizes the dulcet tones of Menahem Peri, the fellow who comes on for one minute a day to tell us about words newly sanctioned by the Hebrew Language Academy , older words whose meanings may be lost on us, and words and expressions that have tickled the fancy of Ruth Almagor-Ramon, the editor of Kol Yisrael's program Rega shel Ivrit. If you've ever longed for a copy of the script of these pieces, then you're in luck. Slightly edited for the printed page, this new book contains the text of 300 of these programs. The selections are brief enough to be read when you have only a moment to spare. They are meaty enough to stay with you the whole day. By the way, as Almagor-Ramon reminds us, that one minute a day is, as they say, "not exactly." At times it means, "the blink of an eye"; at others it means "as long as it takes to say the word "rega." On the radio it means "as long as it takes to perform a segment of Rega shel Ivrit. And then there's Sallah Shabbati, the fictional character who made famous the expression for "Hold it a second," Rega, hoshvim.

While much of the book focuses on prescriptive grammar and pronunciation, there is a good deal of etymological information as well.

Even-Shoshan - Dictionary and Concordance

Abraham Even-Shoshan published two very important works in the field of linguistics:

"A New Concordance of the Bible" and "HaMilon HaIvri" - a Hebrew-Hebrew dictionary.

While the Concordance certainly is a helpful way to find all the locations of a word in the Tanach, it may seem to only be of technical use. However, Even-Shoshan does provide brief definitions of the words, and creates groups of words based on connotation and meaning. While the information he provides may be subtle, it is possible to learn about the connection (or lack thereof) between words based on a listing in the concordance.

As far as the dictionary, the full six-volume edition is full of etymological information, but unfortunately, I don't have it (yet). But even in the one volume abridged edition, there are symbols to indicate whether the origins of words are Biblical, Talmudic, Medieval, Modern or Foreign.

JPS Torah Commentary

The JPS Torah Commentary is an English language, excellent source of information about the five books of the Torah.

From the JPS site:

Written by four outstanding Torah scholars, the JPS Torah Commentary represents a fusion of the best of the old and new. Utilizing the latest research to enhance our understanding of the biblical text, it takes its place as one of the most authoritative yet accessible Bible commentaries of our day.

The JPS Torah Commentary series guides readers through the words and ideas of the Torah. Each volume is the work of a scholar who stands at the pinnacle of his field.

Every page contains the complete traditional Hebrew text, with cantillation notes, the JPS translation of the Holy Scriptures, aliyot breaks, Masoretic notes, and commentary by a distinguished Hebrew Bible scholar, integrating classical and modern sources.

Each volume also contains supplementary essays that elaborate upon key words and themes, a glossary of commentators and sources, extensive bibliographic notes, and maps.

The scholars are:

Nahum Sarna - Genesis and Exodus
Baruch A. Levine - Leviticus
Jacob Milgrom - Numbers
Jeffrey H. Tigay - Deuteronomy

Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud

One of the nice features of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud are the side notes on various subjects - biographies, animal and plant identification, geographical notes, historical and archaeological information, and of course for me - language notes.

Many difficult or unfamiliar words, particularly from Aramaic, are explained on the page of the Talmud. A short etymology is also usually given.

Each tractate has an index in the back of all the words explained, called "Luach Lashon". My only wish would be of a master index of words mentioned in all tractates to date, because it can be difficult to know where to find a particular entry.

Daat Mikra

The Daat Mikra series on all the books of the Tanach provides an excellent source of etymological material. Each book's commentary is written by a different scholar:

Yehuda Kiel - Bereshit, Yehoshua, Shmuel, Melachim, Hoshea, Ovadia, Mishlei, Daniel (with Shmuel HaCohen), Divrei HaYamim

Amos Chacham - Shmot, Yishayahu, Yoel, Amos, Tehilim, Iyov, Shir HaShirim, Ester

Mordechai Zer-Kavod - Hagai, Zecharia, Malachi, Mishlei, Kohelet, Ezra, Nechemia

Menachem Bula - Vayikra, Yirmiyahu, Nachum, Habakuk, Tzefania

Yechiel Tzvi Moskowitz - Bamidbar, Yechezkel, Eicha

Elyakim Ben-Menachem - Yona

Feivel Meltzer - Rut

Yehuda Elitzur - Shoftim

Moshe Zeidel - Micha

Aharon Mirsky - Devarim

One thing that's always impressed me about the Daat Mikra series is the way they've made all the commentaries fit well, even though they're by different authors over the course of many years. When I'm trying to find the meaning or origin of a word, I'll often look at the Daat Mikra commentary on every instance of the word. I can't recall one example where I could say that one author had approach A, and a different author had approach B.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


Another kosher animal mentioned in our parasha (Re'eh) is the tzvi צבי - gazelle. ("Gazelle" also has Semitic roots, coming from the Arabic ghazal, but other than this guess, I haven't found any Hebrew cognate.) Is there a connection between the gazelle and the Land of Israel - as in the phrase Eretz HaTzvi?

Horowitz, in his section on how some Hebrew consonants are actually two different letters writes that tzvi - "delight, ornament" and tzvi - "gazelle" are not related. He writes:

For centuries scholars, believing there was only one root here, connected the two meanings by saying that the gazelle was a thing of beauty, a delight. But actually these two words are from different roots; the צ 's are different.

Klein also shows two different roots. For the tzvi meaning gazelle, he writes:

Related to Aram-Syr טביא, Arabic zaby, Akka. sabitu (= gazelle).

He also mentions that this is the origin of the name Tabitha.

As for the meaning of "beauty", he connects it to the root צבה - meaning "to wish, desire". This verb is found in Aramaic Daniel 6:18, in the Aramaic translations to Biblical Hebrew words such as חשק, חפץ and רצון (all meaning will or desire), and in the Talmud as well (Yoma 86b, 87a). Therefore a translation of Eretz HaTzvi could be "a desirable land", which would pair up well with the phrase ארץ חמדה - Eretz Hemda, which means the same thing.

From this root we also get the Hebrew word צביון tzivyon, which originally meant "will or desire", later became "beauty", and in Modern Hebrew means "character, nature".

However, all that said, I don't think we need to entirely disconnect "gazelle" from "beauty". While they come from different roots etymologically, the gazelle is certainly a beautiful animal. In fact, in Shir HaShirim it is used often as a metaphor for the beloved. I would assume that Shir HaShirim was using two commonly known words in a poetic way to make an association between one another.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Rosenthal - Dictionary of Israeli Slang

Review in Hebrew

Rosenthal, a columnist for the newspaper Maariv, has put together a very comprehensive dictionary of Israeli slang. Each term has examples with citations, and when possible an etymology is provided as well.

Stahl - Motza HaMilim

Google Books Link

This Hebrew book by Avraham Stahl ("The Origin of Words") was published in 1999 shortly before his death the following year.

The book is divided into sections (food, clothing, recreation, etc) with a running text - this is not a dictionary - discussing the origins of the Hebrew words and phrases of that type. There are no direct sources for each claim, but there is an extensive bibliography.

Horowitz - How the Hebrew Language Grew

Amazon link

Edward Horowitz wrote this book in 1960. I don't know much about his credentials - he was a teacher of Hebrew in junior and senior high schools in New York. And the book can be read by such students. It therefore isn't really a research book - no sources, no index.

But he does have some interesting ideas, and most seem to make sense. It's a nice light read, and does give a good background to the development of Hebrew words in general.

Jastrow - Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Bavli, Talmud Yerushalmi and Midrashic Literature

Marcus Jastrow (1829-1903) was a rabbi in Philadelphia. Despite the fact that there have been new discoveries in linguistics since his time, and that he was a Reform rabbi, his work is still widely used, even in Orthodox circles.

One of his main points is that many Aramaic words have Semitic origins, and are not borrowed from Greek (as others claim).

Amazon link

Kaddari - Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew

Description from Eisenbrauns:

The is the first book of its kind - a comprehensive academic dictionary of Biblical Hebrew written in modern Hebrew. Until today no such dictionary has been published in the Hebrew language, thus forcing Hebrew-speaking students and scholars to rely on English or German dictionaries.

This book will appeal to a broad educated public interested in the Bible as the foundation of Jewish culture, and especially to students and teachers of Biblical Studies and Semitic languages including Hebrew. They will benefit particularly from the comparison of biblical words with their parallels in other Semitic languages, as well as the clarification of difficult, seemingly irregular forms in biblical Hebrew. All this enables the student to discover the simple meaning of the text: What did the author mean and why did he choose a particular form of expression? The entries are accompanied by copious notes commenting on the etymology and the roots of words and presenting opinions of biblical and linguistic scholars on grammatical issues.

Prof. Menachem Zevi Kaddari is one of today's leading scholars in Hebrew Linguistics, and has specialized in the study of the Hebrew language for close to 50 years. His research encompasses all periods from biblical to modern Hebrew, and deals with most aspects of linguistic study: syntax, semantics, diction and stylistics, lexicography and stylistics. (One of his special interests is in defining the principles underlying the process of the internal organization of today's language.)

Klein - Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language

Official book description:

A clear and concise work on the origins of the Hebrew words and their sense development. Each of the c. 32,000 entries is first given in its Hebrew form, then translated into English and analysed etymologically, using Latin transcription for all non-Latin scripts. An indispensable source of biblical, Jewish, modern Hebrew and Near Eastern studies.

Amazon link
This very important dictionary was complied by Ernest Klein (1899-1983), a rabbi who was born in Romania and later moved to Canada. It is one of the primary sources I use for my research.


In this week's Parasha (Re'eh) we see the shor שור - ox listed among the kosher animals. In Aramaic shor becomes תור tor (also note Ugaritic thor, Akkadian shuru, Arabic thowr). According to many scholars (Klein, Steinberg, Horowitz and Philologos) - the Greeks borrowed from the Semitic tor/shor for their taurus, also meaning "ox". From here we get the term toreador - bullfighter.

Monday, August 14, 2006


A few days ago Ari Kinsberg asked me how to say plum in Hebrew. Here is our discussion:

Ari -

A plum is a shazif שזיף.


I thought shazif is a prune.

So when King David says "sheshzafatni ha-shamesh" he is saying he is tanned from the sunned, i.e., all dark and wrinkled like a prune. But I guess you can be dark like a plum too.

Ari Kinsberg

After researching this a bit, I realized we both made some assumptions. Let's take a look at the whole story. First let's look at the verse Ari quoted above. It's from Shir HaShirim (1:6) -

אַל-תִּרְאוּנִי שֶׁאֲנִי שְׁחַרְחֹרֶת, שֶׁשְּׁזָפַתְנִי הַשָּׁמֶשׁ

The 1917 JPS translation has a translation similar to Ari's: "Look not upon me, that I am swarthy, that the sun hath tanned me". But the New JPS translation is different: "Don't stare at me because I am swarthy, because the sun has gazed upon me". So what does the root שזף mean - "to tan, to scorch" or "to gaze"?

In the other two instances where the root שזף appears, in Iyov 20:9 and 28:7, it clearly means "to look". Amos Chacham on Shir HaShirim writes that the meaning, even in our verse, means "to gaze". Kaddari also writes that the sense of "burned" in Shir HaShirim is "borrowed" from the meaning "to gaze".

However, the Even Shoshan dictionary says the borrowing is in the other direction - first the root meant "to burn", then later "to look". Steinberg takes the same approach, and says the later sense means "a sharp burning stare".

Klein seems to follow both opinions. On the one hand, he writes in the entry for שזף:

to catch sight of, look on; to blacken, brown, tarnish; to become sunburnt. [For sense development, cp. Arab. laha ( = came in sight, became visible; it parched, scorched, tanned - said of the sun).

On the other hand, he says that שזף is related to שדף - a term meaning "to blast, blight, scorch" - and with no connection to sight or gazing.

I have to say, I am a little confused. It would seem to me that every occasion of שזף in the Tanach means "to gaze". I can't even find any later Talmudic sources where it means "to scorch", other than midrashim on the same verse in Shir HaShirim, where the meaning "scorched" is certainly influenced by the first half of the verse quoted - "I am black". Maybe a reader with access to a large database can tell me where the earliest sources are where שזף clearly means "to scorch".

Let's move on to our second assumption. Is shazif שזיף related to שזף?

I could not find any mention of shazif in the Talmud. This page mentions that shazif is Talmudic:

PLUM (Prunus microcarpa) "shazif" First mentioned in the Talmud and there are three varieties listed, including a fresh and dried fruit: dormaske (Damascus), ‘ahonit (tart cherry plum) and pega (European)

But I think the source might be in error. I found reference to dormaske דורמסקין - Bava Kama 116b and Brachot 39a (the English word damson has the same root) and pega פגעין - Shabbat 144b. (Interestingly, Rashi in all three sources translates the fruit as פרונ"ש - prunes. More about that a bit later.) And the Yerushalmi (Berachot 6) mentions achvanaya אחונייא (the spelling "ahonit" above was mistaken - it should be read אחוונית ahvanit). But no shazif.

We do, however, find another fruit. The mishna in Kilayim (1:4) mentions the שיזף - shizaf (or sheizaf). The Yerushalmi on the mishna says that the shizaf is a cross between an olive and a pomegranate. However, it is much more commonly associated with the jujube tree. Klein writes that shazif originally meant jujube as well and that shizaf is another form of shazif. He adds that only in modern Hebrew did it become associated with the plum. (I'd be very interested to see the first reference to shazif at all in Hebrew, let alone with the meaning of "plum".)

The connection between shazif/shizaf and jujube is etymological as well as botanical. Klein writes about shazif:

The word שזיף was borrowed by the Greeks, in whose language it became zizyphon, whence Late Latin zyzyphus (= jujube tree). The word jujube itself is a loan word from French jujube, which is ultimately borrowed from Greek zizyphon.

If that's a little hard to see, just notice the pattern of two sibilant letters and a bilabial.

And what of the shazif - שזף connection? Klein denies it. He says shazif is a foreign word, and that the connection between shazif and the "blackish color of the plum" is a folk etymology.

So far we've established that שזף didn't (perhaps) originally mean "to blacken, scorch", and shazif wasn't originally a plum. What is our third mistaken assumption?

This one actually is related to English, not Hebrew. Our distinction between "plum" and "prune" is somewhat artificial. Notice how Rashi translated the Hebrew terms for plums using the French word "prune". Well, both "plum" and "prune" derive from the same source - the Latin prunum. The switch from "pr-" to "pl-" happened in German (and later English), but in French prune still means "plum".

However, in today's English, the distinction between plum and prune does exist. In fact, William Safire writes in The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time that due to the negative connotation of "prune", the California Prune Board changed their name to the California Dried Plum Board. While this change proved rather controversial in Safire's article (particularly the contradiction in terms "dried plum juice"), in Hebrew it's no big deal: prunes are shzifim meyubashim שזיפים מיובשים - dried plums.

Saturday, August 12, 2006


Last week we got our son a kick scooter - in Hebrew a קורקינט korkinet. What is the origin of this word in Hebrew? Korkinet is a corruption of the French trottinette - which also refers to the same kind of scooter. Trottinette is related to the English word "trot", in the sense of "moving forward". Almagor explains that the corruption was probably via children, who heard "kro-" instead of "tro-", and from "kro-" they changed it to "kor-".

What is the official Hebrew word? Galgilayim גלגלים.

Thursday, August 10, 2006


In this week's parasha (Ekev) we see Eretz Yisrael described as a land whose "stones are iron" - אֶרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲבָנֶיהָ בַרְזֶל (Devarim 8:9). What is the origin of the Hebrew word for iron - barzel ברזל?

Kutscher writes that names for metals have a tendency to "wander" from land to land, and therefore it is difficult to place their origin. I found this quote discussing barzel (I recommend reviewing the entire thread):

There is an article by G. Rendsburg in Scripta Mediterranea 3 (1982), pp.54-71 (Toronto):
Semitic przl/brzl/brdl, "Iron"* Rendsburg starts off stating that the etymology is most obscure. He eventually proposes an original *br, borrowed from some non-semitic proto-language, meaning copper or metals in general, from which came *brz which he took to be an early word for iron. The addition of -l to make brzl came later in Canaanite, Akkadian and Ugaritic which were probably borrowing from each other (p.55; fig.1, p.58). Rendsburg also links *brz with Indo-European bronze/brass.

Stahl writes that barzel derives from ברז, meaning "to drill, bore". In Aramaic we have the word birza ברזא - a hole in a barrel, which became the source of the modern Hebrew word for spout, faucet - ברז berez.

(Berez also gives us the Hebrew slang phrase: דפק לו ברז / שם לו ברז dafak lo berez / sam lo berez, which means "to not show up", and the verb להבריז - "to ditch (abandon)". Almagor writes here that there is disagreement as to why a berez is an obstacle: some say the closed berez prevents the water from running, others say the water from an open berez causes the problem. However, Rosenthal writes that in North African Arabic, birez means "to slip out of one's hand".)

To return to barzel, Klein writes of the etymology:

A loan word from Hittite barzillu, whence also Akkadian parzillu, Moab. and Phoen.ברזל, Ugar. brsel, Aram. and BAram parzel פרזל ( = iron). Arabic firzil is an Aramaic loan word. Latin ferrum (= iron) is a Semitic loan word. According to my opinion the loss of the Semitic ending -el, resp. -illu, is probably due to its having been mistaken for the Latin dimin. suffix -ellus, -illus, and consequently dropped.

Kutscher agrees that the word barzel does not seem and sound Semitic in nature. As far as the connection to the Latin ferrum (the source of the symbol Fe for the element iron), he provides an interesting piece of evidence. There is an ancient iron mine in Italy, on the "route of the iron", called Fursil (near the Castle of Andraz) whose name is remarkably close to parzel. Perhaps this place preserves the original Latin form of the word.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


I had malawah (malawach, melawah) מלוח (also מלוואח) for lunch today. It's a Yemenite dish, a kind of flat, fried bread. Here's a recipe in English and here's one in Hebrew. According to Stahl, the name derives from the flat shape - lauh is "tablet, board" in Arabic, and is cognate to the Hebrew word לוח luach, with the same meaning.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


Let's look at the news outside of the Middle East. Did you know it is monsoon season in India? Now of course there is a Semitic etymological connection. What is it?

The American Heritage Dictionary gives the following etymology:

Obsolete Dutch monssoen, from Portuguese monção, from Arabic mawsim, season, from wasama, to mark

That seems like a reasonable etymology. But from there, it links to the Semitic root "wsm" and writes:

To be(come) fitting, suitable. 1a. mazuma, from Medieval Hebrew mezumman, fixed currency, from Mishnaic Hebrew mezumman, fixed, passive participle of zimmen, to arrange, arrange a meal, invite, denominative from Hebrew zeman, appointed time, season, from Aramaic zeman, time; b. Sivan, from Hebrew sîwan, a month name. Both a and b from Akkadian simanu, season, time, name of a month corresponding to parts of May and June, from (w)asamu, to be(come), fitting, suitable. 2. monsoon, from Arabic mawsim, season, from wasama, to mark, wasuma, to be(come)beautiful

This is a bit of a balagan, to say the least! While mezuman and Sivan are connected to the Hebrew root זמן, what does wasamu have to do with it? Unless I can find a better explanation, I'll assume that the editors of the dictionary made a mistake.

Does wasama have a Hebrew cognate? It seems to be connected to the word for "name", שם shem. As Robert R. Ratcliffe writes here:

The CA verb yasimu/wasama "mark, distinguish" was possibly derived at an earlier period from a noun meaning "name" (CA /ism/) which can be reconstructed as a two-consonant stem for both Proto-Semitic and Proto-Afroasiatic.

After listing cognates for shem in other Semitic languages, Klein writes the following:

Some scholars connect the above names with Arab. wasama (= he branded cattle,
stamped, marked, branded), wasm (= branding cattle, stamp, mark, brand).

We see a sign of this root in the Aramaic and Hebrew word for "wart, mole, mark" = shuma שומא/ שומה (see Niddah 46a, Ketubot 75a). Jastrow also connects this meaning of shuma to the sense of שום, meaning "to value, estimate" and the source of the word shamai שמאי - assessor. Klein, however, says that sense of שום comes from a different Semitic root, meaning "to buy".


The word for peach in Hebrew is afarsek אפרסק. Klein's etymology:

A loan word from Greek Persikon ( = peach), short for Persikon melon (= lit.: 'Persian apple'). The א in אפרסק is prosthetic.

Indeed, the form פרסק (or פרסיק) appears numerous times in Talmudic literature (e.g. Bava Metzia 116b).

The English word "peach" derives from the same source:

from O.Fr. pesche (O.N.Fr. peske, Fr. pêche), from M.L. pesca, from L.L. pessica, variant of persica "peach, peach tree," from L. malum Persicum "Persian apple," from Gk. Persikon malon, from Persis "Persia."

Sunday, August 06, 2006


Yesterday we discussed chetz חץ - arrow, so today we'll discuss keshet קשת - bow. The word also can mean arch and arc, and a kashat קשת is a bowman or archer. Steinberg, as we've seen in the past, claims that קשת comes from an earlier two-letter root קש, which means "strong and taut", and appears in other words like kashe קשה - hard, and kashuach קשוח - "rigid, cruel".

However, Kutscher takes a slightly different approach. Similar to his explanation of the word delet, he writes that keshet actually has only two letters in its root - only the letters קש are radical. He claims that in Hebrew the tav serves to make the word feminine, but in Arabic a vowel was added to give the root three letters - קוס kaus. We find this root in the names of stars composing the constellation Sagittarius - the Archer: Kaus Media, Kaus Borealis, Kaus Australis.

Aramaic followed a path similar to Hebrew. We find that קשת means "to shoot an arrow" - e.g. the Targum to Yechezkel 21:26. But we also find a slightly different form: קשט, with a tet instead of a tav. An example can be found in Yerushalmi Taanit 69b, and perhaps in Tehillim 60:6.

But we are also familiar with the root קשט having another meaning: truth. We find this meaning in Hebrew once in the Bible, in Mishlei 22:21. But it is very common in Aramaic. Is there any connection between the two meanings?

Jastrow provides one possible explanation. He writes that the original meaning of קשט was "to be straight, strong", and it developed to "to go in a straight line, to shoot forth". He also gives "straightness" as a synonym for "truth".

Steinberg has a somewhat different approach. He writes that the basic meaning of קשט is "to be prepared". An arrow is made ready, drawn in a bow. In Hebrew we find the word nachon נכון - meaning "prepared" and also "correct", and from here "truth". He gives the example from Shabbat 153a - where the guests for a meal prepared themselves: שקישטו את עצמן לסעודה.

It would seem that from this sense of "to prepare", "to arrange (according to Klein)", we get the more modern sense of לקשט meaning "to decorate" and kishut קישוט meaning decoration.

Klein writes that the word for jewelry - תכשיט tachshit - is "a doublet of תקשיט" and also originally meant "decoration".

Saturday, August 05, 2006


The letter chet (also spelled het/ heth/ khet /kheth /cheth) is the eight letter of the Hebrew alphabet. There are two theories as to the etymology of the letter. One (as mentioned here and here) claims it is related to the Hebrew word chut חוט - meaning thread. The second theory (mentioned in the above sources, as well as cited by Sacks and Steinberg) is that the name of the letter derives from the word chayitz חיץ, meaning "fence, partition", and Steinberg writes that in Arabic and Syrian heth is the cognate of chayitz. This explanation seems to make more sense to me, particulary based on the shape of the letter, and can still be seen in the current Hebrew ח and the English letter H, which developed from chet.

The word chayitz derives from chutz חוץ - outside (also "except"), which also gives us the word chitzon חיצון - external.

We also find a root חצה - meaning "to divide". While I can't find a source that discusses it explicitly, I feel that חוץ and חצה are likely closely related - a fence (chayitz) divides (chotze) and leaves something outside (chutz). From the root חצה, we get such words as chetzi חצי - half and chatzot חצות - midnight. From the related root חצץ - also "to divide, to make a partition" comes the word mechitza מחיצה - partition.

As far as the etymology of חצה, Klein writes:

Phoen. and Moabite חצי (= half), Arab. hazwah (=fortune), OSArab חטי (= favor). These words show that base חצה is connected with {chetz} חץ ( = arrow). Accordingly, the original meaning of חצה probably was 'to divide by casting arrows or lots'.

Friday, August 04, 2006


Why a post about "massage" right after Tisha B'av? Read on and see.

There are two opinions as to the etymology of massage. One opinion (quoted by Klein as well as others) is that it comes to English from French, via the Arabic massa, meaning "he felt, touched". This Arabic word is related to the Hebrew משש, also meaning "to touch". Some derivatives of this root are mishosha משושה - antenna (of an insect) and the verb למשמש - also meaning "to touch or feel".

However, another opinion claims that the Arabic root is masaha - "to stroke, anoint, rub". This root is cognate to the Hebrew משח, the root of the Hebrew word mashiach משיח - and the English Messiah (and the connection to Tisha B'av as well, for legend says that the Mashiach (Moshiach) will be born on Tisha B'Av). There is a similar sense development in Indo-European languages as well, for the words "cream" and "christ" are also connected (see here, about the middle of the page).

Steinberg connects both משח and משש to a group of words starting with the two letters מש, all of which meaning "to pass a hand over, or move with a hand". In addition to the ones already mentions, he adds:

  • משה - to pull, to draw (from water, hence the name Moshe), according to some opinions the word for silk meshi משי - also comes from this root, for the worms pull the threads through their bodies.
  • משך - to pull, also meshech משך - duration
  • משק - to direct, to lead (originally "to pull"), from here the word meshek משק - economy. Steinberg claims that the original name of Damasek דמשק (Damascus) was Darmesek (as appears in Divrei HaYamim). He gives the etymology of Darmesek as דר-משק "dar meshek" - a place of commerce.
  • מוש - to remove, to pass. Steinberg derives the word for "last night, the night that passed" אמש - emesh, from this root as well.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006


On Tisha B'Av we will be reading kinot קינות (plural of kina קינה, although we also find the plural kinim קינים used) - lamentations, dirges. What is the origin of the word?

Klein states that the root of kina is קין (Radak claims it derives from קון), and writes as follows:

to fit together, fabricate [Whence Arab. qana ( = he fabricated, forged), qayn (= craftsman, worker in steel or another metal smith), Aramaic קינאה, Syr. קיניא, Akkadian qinay ( = metal worker), Hebrew קין {kayin} (= spear), קינה (= elegy, dirge), Syr. קינתא (of same meaning), קינה (slave girl who is a singer), Ethiopian qene (= song), Syr. קנקן ( = he sang), JAram קנקניתא (=musical instrument).

For sense development cp. Greek poietes (=poet; lit. 'a maker') from poiein ( = to make, produce).]

Cassuto explains that the name Kayin (Bereshit 4:1) also derives from the sense of קין as "to make, to form, to give shape," and so his name meant "creation".

Kaddari points out that while in Hebrew kina has a sense of mourning, in most Semitic languages it refers to singing in general.

What kind of singing is found in a kina? The last mishna in Moed Katan (3:9) defines a kina as:

When one leads and all respond after her. As it is said: And teach your daughters wailing and one another [each] lamentation (Jeremiah 9:19).

However, the mishna continues:

But as the future [days] to come, [the prophet] says: "He will destroy death for ever and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces. (Isaiah 25:8)"


In the book of Eicha we find the following description of the time of the destruction of Jerusalem:

נָעוּ עִוְרִים בַּחוּצוֹת, נְגֹאֲלוּ בַּדָּם

"They wandered blindly through the streets, defiled with blood" (4:14)

What is the origin of the word iver עיוור - "blind"? The BDB connects iver with or עור - skin, "whence blindness as cataract", or as here "through the idea of a film over the eyes".

Klein does not provide an etymology per se, but provides the cognates in other Semitic languages:

Aram. עויר, Syr. עויר (=blind), עור (= he blinded), Arab. 'awira (=was one-eyed), Ethiop. 'ora (= was blind), 'ewur (= blind), Akka. turtu (=blindness).

From the Arabic 'awira (or awar) we get a very common English word. Mike Gerver writes (and see also here):

Hebrew עור, “blind,” is from the same Semitic root as Arabic awar, “one-eyed,” hence “damaged.” The Arabic word is the source, via French, of the English word average, which originally referred to the tariff that had to be paid on imported goods, taking into the account the average fraction of goods that would be expected to be damaged.