Friday, September 29, 2006


A common blessing / greeting before Yom Kippur is gmar chatima tova - גמר חתימה טובה (or occasionally gmar tov גמר טוב ). I'm not sure of the origin or development of the expression, but Passing Phrase does a good job of explaining it:

Literally: A good final sealing
Idiomatically: May you be inscribed (in the Book of Life) for Good

"Gmar" comes from the root word that means to finish. Although it's not biblical, it appears quite a bit in the Talmud (Avot 2:16 Yevamot 12:6). Chatimah is also talmudic and can mean a signature or a sealing (Pessachim 104). The word "chotemet" or stamp (the ink kind, not the postal kind) is a derivative of "chatimah." Of course "tova" means good. The days of repentance are divided into two parts: The first the inscribing begins on Rosh Hashana and finishes Yom Kippur when the final "sealing" (chatima) of our fate takes place. Many sages give us a second chance - an extra 12 days until a really final sealing on Hoshana Rabba (the 7th day of Sukkot).

That is why many people finish their correspondence during this time of year by writing or saying Ktivah V'chatima Tova - "may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year." On or right before Yom Kippur, people modify that and wish "Gmar Chatima Tova." Technically you can say it means 'may your finished sealing be good' - which would be fine if you are redoing your apartment, but for the rest of us may you all have a healthy peaceful and fulfilling year.

I would add that the root גמר does appear in the Bible with the meaning of "to complete, finish, end" - see Tehillim 12:2, 138:8. We have also seen earlier that גמר is related to גמל in the sense of "to ripen, to wean" - certainly connected to the meaning "to complete". From this meaning of the root we get the words לגמרי legamrei - "completely" and the term v'gomer - וגומר , usually abbreviated as 'וגו - meaning "the conclusion (of a verse)".

The root גמר also means "to learn", and from here we get the word Gemara גמרא (also גמרה).
Klein offers a development of the meaning that works well in English as well: he finished, he concluded, he deduced, he learned.

An unrelated term that also uses the root גמר is the word גומרה gumra - "live coal", and the related verb means "to burn spices on coal." The spices placed on the coals are called mugmar מוגמר , and the Mishna in Brachot 6:6 says that after a meal they would bring the mugmar, to perfume the house. A blessing was recited on the mugmar - בורא עצי בשמים - and from here the expression "לברך על המוגמר" l'varech al hamugmar, which today means "to bring a task to a successful completion". The more common meaning of גמר replaced the less common one.

Thursday, September 28, 2006


We're now up to the third term of forgiveness - kapara (or kapparah) כפרה. This is the most complicated of the three for a number of reasons:

  1. Unlike selicha and mechila, there are a number of different words in the Tanach that share the root כפר , and it is not always clear if they are related.
  2. The meanings of selicha and mechila were fairly clear - the debate was over the etymologies. With kapara, there is much disagreement amongst the rabbis and modern scholars over the actual meaning of the root and words.
  3. The root כפר is the base of Yom HaKipurim יום הכיפורים - and therefore receives much more attention, and many more drashot about the root come in to play.
With so much discussion about kapara it will be hard to cover everything in one post. I will make an effort to be comprehensive, but I will recommend checking out "inside" the sources and links I present.

Here are some of the words with the root
כפר :

  • כופר - kofer: pitch, asphalt (hard to believe this is the third time I've discussed asphalt on this site)
  • כופר - kofer: ransom
  • כפורת - kaporet: the cover of the Holy Ark
  • כפור - kfor: frost
  • כפיר - kfir: a type of lion
  • כפר - kfar: village
  • כפירה - kefira: to deny
And of course there is the root כפר - which is variously defined, as we shall see.

Ronen Ahituv discusses the opinions of Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Ramban as to the meaning of
כפרhere (and here in the original Hebrew):

While awaiting the encounter with his brother Esau, our father Jacob sent him an offering. It is explained with these words:
For he reasoned, "If I propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him, perhaps he will show me favor. And so the gift went on ahead, while he remained in the camp that night. (Bereishit 32:20-21)
The expression propitiate [akhaprah panav] appears here in Scripture for the first time. The commentators disagreed about its meaning. Rashi writes: "propitiate - I will end his anger,... it seems to me that the word kaparah when conjoined with avon [transgression] and het [sin], and panim [face] - all are expressions of wiping away, and they are Aramaic... Scriptural language also refers to the holy fountains as kipurei zahav, since the priest cleans his hands in them, in the lip of the fountain." Rashi explains kaparah as wiping out anger. The gift is intended to wipe out Esau's anger.
Ibn Ezra interprets it differently: "The meaning of akhaprah panav is I will cover-up and hide." It is not a matter of ending the anger permanently, but rather of temporarily hiding it, and especially, canceling its destructive outcome. Esau's anger and enmity are not cancelled; instead, they will be temporarily held off by the gift, saving the lives of Jacob and his household for the time being.
The RaMBaN takes pains to reopen the discussion of the meaning of kaparah and disagrees with Rashi:
The connotation of "wiping away" attached to forgiveness [kipur] is not valid in the Sacred Language but rather in the Aramaic tongue... for the word kaparah is never used in association with sin [het], meaning wipe away, but instead Scripture says: lekhapeir [to make atonement] for your souls (Shemot 30:15); lekhapeir for him, and he shall be forgiven (Bamidbar 15:28), i.e., for his soul. And Scripture also says: akhaprah [I shall make atonement] for your sin (Shemot 32:30). All of them are related to the expression, Then shall they give every man kofer for his soul (Shemot 32:12), which means a ransom. (Chavel translation)
According to the RaMBaN, the Hebrew language does not contain the concept of kaparah for a sin, but rather only kaparah for a soul. Kaparah is ransom for a soul, a replacement for death. Jacob is saying that he himself deserves to die upon seeing Esau, and the gift is being given in exchange for his life.

So we have three options for כפר : wiping, hiding/covering, and atonement/ransom. However, I have found a fourth explanation, which I find very convincing. Rav Menachem Leibtag explains in this article how
כפר always means "protection". The article is too long to quote here, but it discusses how protection is an accurate definition for most of the words I quoted above, and also offers an explanation of the meaning of Yom HaKippurim. Take a minute and read the article.

However, while there is disagreement as to the meaning of
kapara, it is less of an issue in regards to the etymology. As Klein writes:

The meanings 'to wash away, wipe off, cover, expiate' are interrelated, and, accordingly, etymologically connected.

I would add protection to the above list as well. (By the way, the English word "cover" is not related to
kofer - it actually is a compound of two seperate roots.)

However, it should be noted that Levine, in the JPS Leviticus (4:20) sides with Rashi above, and claims there is a real difference between "wipe off" and "cover". He writes:

The Akkadian verb kuppuru, which corresponds to Hebrew kipper, means "to wipe off, burnish, cleanse". In cultic terms this means that expiation is conceived of as cleansing, as wiping away impurity, contamination, and, by extension, sin itself. This interpretation differs from the concept endorsed by many scholars that the verb kipper means "to cover, conceal" the sin or impurity from God's view. Such an idea is of course well known in the biblical literature, as it is in most other religious traditions, but is not the idea conveyed by the verb kipper.

What about some of the words that Leibtag does not discuss? Klein writes that
kfir perhaps is related to the meaning "to cover" and denotes "a lion already covered with a mane".

Steinberg suggests that
kfar means "a place covered with tents in a field".

Klein does not offer an etymology for
kefira, but Jastrow writes that it means to wipe out the truth, and this site, discussing the cognate Arabic term kuffir, suggests "to cover or to conceal" the truth.

A related question: why is
kippurim found in the plural in the Torah, and why do we more commonly say Yom Kippur (in the singular)? EMC gives the following answer:

Kippurim is a tantum plurale ("only plural") in Biblical Hebrew, a word occurring only in the plural. Pluralia tantum are often used in Hebrew to denote abstract notions, like "atonement," alumim, "youth," tanhumim, "consolation." etc. They are less frequent in later forms of the language, which might account for the eventual changeover to the singular in yom kippur.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Unlike selicha, which refers specifically to sin, mechila (or mechilah) מחילה has more a more secular meaning as well. The root מחל first appears in Rabbinic Hebrew where it can mean "to remit (a debt)" or "to forgo (one's honor)". It also does carry the sense of "to forgive, to pardon".

Klein states that the etymology is unknown, but Jastrow, Steinberg and others connect it to the root מחה. The complication here is that מחה has many meanings, which may or may not all be connected (for example see Malachim II 21:13, where different meanings of the root play on one another).

The meaning of מחה that most likely led to מחל is "to wipe, wipe out", which also has the sense of "to blot out, destroy". We see this sense in the famous commandment תִּמְחֶה אֶת-זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק - "wipe out the memory of Amalek".

Another meaning of מחה is "to strike upon". Kutscher points out that this root is related to three other Hebrew and Aramaic roots: מחא , מחק and מחץ . This site summarizes Kutscher's Hebrew article:

There are also genuine Aramaic words which have passed into Hebrew, sometimes in several forms. The Hebrew makhatz (“crush”) is found in the Bible (Judges 5:26), while its ancient Aramaic form is מחק (makhak). In a subsequent period, the same Aramaic root was taken over again into Hebrew in a later form מחא (macho – “to clap hands”), and finally re-entered Mishnaic Hebrew, changing both form and meaning as מחה (machot – “to protest,” actually by clapping the hand). Thus one finds in Israeli Hebrew a single Semitic root in four variations ….

We see that the root מחק also has the meaning "to rub out, erase". The author of the Avinu Malkeinu prayer seemingly noticed the connection between three of these roots:

אבינו מלכנו, סלח ומחל לכל עונותינו
אבינו מלכנו, מחה והעבר פשעינו וחטאתינו מנגד עיניך
אבינו מלכנו, מחוק ברחמיך הרבים כל שטרי חובותינו

"...forgive and pardon all our iniquities"
"...wipe away and remove our willful sins..."
"...erase through Your abundant compassion"

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Leading up to Yom Kippur, we'll discuss the three common terms for forgiveness in Hebrew. Today we'll begin with selicha (or slicha) סליחה. The root סלח appears in the Tanach numerous times, always meaning "to forgive".

According to Klein, the word is related to Akkadian salahu, meaning "to sprinkle." We see a similar root in Rabbinic Hebrew - זלח , which also means "to sprinkle, to pour, to drip". According to Klein, זלח is also related to זלג - which again "to drip, to flow" - often referring to tears. The word for fork - mazleg מזלג - is also related to this root. Klein writes that it is related to Arabic zalaja - "he glided" and mizlaj - "sliding bolt".

According to this site, Gordis points out that:

The word selichah comes from the Akkadian word salachu which means to sprinkle water. Water, of course, is a universal symbol of purity, and sprinkling is used in many purification rites. Selichah, then, acts as a kind of deodorizer, not removing sin, but making the reality of it easier to bear.

I think this makes sense. Unlike mechila (which we'll look at tomorrow), selicha is only used in relation to sin (and perhaps exclusively granted by God), so a sense of "purification" for the word is appropriate.

Interestingly, the Arabic word sulha, meaning "reconciliation" is not related to selicha. The Arabic root salah means, according to Stahl, "to fix". He hints that it is perhaps therefore related to the Hebrew root צלח - meaning "to succeed."

Monday, September 25, 2006


Is there a connection between tzom צום - "a fast" and tzama צמא - "thirst"? Klein makes no connection between the two, yet he does not provide etymologies for either - only related words in Semitic languages. Steinberg, however, makes an interesting case for a two letter base root - צמ - that creates many words with similar meanings. They all appear to be related to the sense of "to draw together, to bind together, to contract". We find:

  • צום - to fast. Steinberg describes fasting as "wrapping oneself in hunger, abstaining from eating food", as in Tehilim 107:5. Jastrow offers "to restrain one's self."
  • צמא - to be thirsty. The tongue and throat contract from lack of water.
  • צמד - to join, couple. Klein here says that the meaning is "he bound up, bound together". From here we get the words tzemed צמד - pair, and tzamid צמיד - bracelet, which according to Klein means "that which is bound on the wrist."
  • צמה - lock or braid of hair, also a veil. The hair is drawn together.
  • צמצם - to press, reduce, contract. From here, according to Klein, Rashi coined the word tzimtzum צמצום - restriction, limitation, which was later adopted by the Kabbalah.
  • צמק - to shrink, shrivel. Raisins in Hebrew are צימוקים tzimukim.
  • צמת - one meaning is "to join, attach, contract". From here the word tzomet צומת - juncture. Another meaning is "to oppress, subdue, destroy". Steinberg associates the pressure with the sense of contraction we see in other words with this root.
  • צמח - to grow, to sprout. Steinberg connects this meaning as well, although I fail to see how. His only explanation is the somewhat cryptic comment: מיסוד צם - צמוק והתגשם

Friday, September 22, 2006


After discussing shofar, we'll now talk about a synonym - yovel יובל. We find yovel being used as another term for a shofar in Shmot 19:13:

בִּמְשֹׁךְ, הַיֹּבֵל, הֵמָּה, יַעֲלוּ בָהָר - "When the yovel sounds a long blast, they may go up the mountain."

How do we know that yovel refers to a ram's horn? We see in Yehoshua chapter 6 that the yovel is an animal. And Rabbi Akiva in Rosh HaShana 26a says:

"When I visited Arabia I discovered that there they call the male ram 'Yovela'"

Steinsaltz points out that the word yovela does not appear in Arabic. However, it does appear with that meaning in Phoenician and Punic (for example in the
Punic Marseilles Tariff, line 7.) Kutscher points out that the region called "Arabia", actually meant Arabia Petraea, whose capital was the famous town of Petra, where they spoke a dialect of Aramaic-Hebrew.

Klein writes that yovel's meaning of ram derived from the root יבל, meaning "to bear, carry" and therefore the word originally meant "leader of the flock, bellwether".

So yovel at first meant "ram", and the meaning was later limited to "ram's horn". The word's meaning developed even further. In Vayikra 25 we have the description of a special year of emancipation, held every 50 years. The advent of the year was proclaimed by the sounding of the shofar (Vayikra 25:9), and was called the yovel (25:10). So, as Kutscher points out, when the Torah discusses the yovel, it really means "[the year of the blowing of the] yovel." (For further discussion, see Ibn Ezra and Ramban on 25:10).

The Hebrew word made its way into Greek - iobelos and iabelaios - and from there to Latin - jubilaeus. From here we get the English word jubilee, which was influenced by an unrelated Latin word - jubilare (source of jubilant), meaning "to call to someone" and later "to shout for joy". Kutscher writes that the later meaning of jubilare might have been influenced by the joyous nature of the yovel year, but certainly the word jubilee has a festive connotation, due to convergence of two similar sounding words. From Latin the word entered European languages with a meaning of "celebration of an anniversary" - often 50 years, but not always (as discussed here.) Modern Hebrew has adopted the European sense of the word, and a yovel can mean the marking of any anniversary.

On a personal note, our son was born in 1998 - the 50th year of the founding of the State of Israel. We considered naming him Yovel, but figured that without nikkud, he would be more often called by the popular Hebrew name Yuval. At the time, I didn't think Yuval was related to yovel, but in researching this post, I have found a connection. Yuval was the son of Lemech, and was known as "the ancestor of all who play the lyre and the pipe" (Bereshit 4:21). The Daat Mikra mentions a number of theories as to the origin of his name. One of them makes a connection between Yuval and yovel - an early musical instrument.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


We're all familiar with the shofar (or shophar)- שופר - the ram's horn blown on Rosh HaShana. What is the origin of the term?

Philologos dealt with this in a column in 2004:

"Shofar... Judaism: A trumpet made of a ram's horn, blown by the ancient Hebrews during religious ceremonies and as a signal in battle, now sounded in synagogue during Rosh Hashanah and at the end of Yom Kippur. Etymology: Hebrew shofar, ram's horn; akin to Akkadian sapparu, sappar, fallow deer... from Sumerian segbar, fallow deer." (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.)

Akkadian and Sumerian are two long-extinct languages once spoken, in the millennia before the Common Era, in what is now called Iraq and historically known as Mesopotamia or Babylonia. Akkadian belonged to the Semitic family. Until recently, Sumerian was considered one of those rare tongues, like Basque, for which linguists were unable to find relatives at all. Since the 1970s, however, an impressive body of evidence has accumulated, linking it to the Dravidian languages of southern India, such as Tamil. We are told, then, that our shofar derives its name from the Sumerian word for a fallow deer. This may not seem like much of a problem to you, but having looked into it, I can assure you that it is. The fallow deer, Cervus dama, is a medium-sized ruminant, originally native to West Asia and the Mediterranean region of Europe, which stands about a meter high at the shoulder and has broad, palmate antlers. In a photograph, these look like two narrow branches that end in large, spiky leaves. You could make drummer's sticks from the branches and bone cymbals from the leaves, but I doubt whether you could make a shofar from either. How, then, did the segbar get to be the shofar's etymological ancestor?

My research suggests two possible answers, one taking us westward from Babylonia to ancient Palestine, the other eastward to India. The westward path is the simpler one. We have in biblical Hebrew the word tsafir, meaning a male goat. Since the horns of goats, as of rams, make excellent shofars, it seems logical to connect tsafir
with shofar; to derive both from Akkadian sapparu, and to assume that in the course of time and distance, as often happens when words age and change languages, the Sumerian-Akkadian word for "fallow deer" came to designate in Hebrew first a goat, then a goat's horn and then a ritually used ram's horn. Indeed it's even possible, as we shall see, that Sumerian segbar already meant "ram" in ancient Babylonia.

Yet traveling eastward suggests another possibility, too. This has to do with Cervus unicolor, the sambar or sambur, a wild deer found widely in India and elsewhere in Asia. The sambar is a large animal, much bigger than the fallow deer, and it is likely that its name, traced to Sanskrit sambara, ultimately derives from, or is connected to, Sumerian segbar.

Does the sambar have horns suitable for shofars? Not at all. Its antlers are branched like the fallow deer's, though without the latter's palmate endings, and could not easily be turned into wind instruments. The sambar does have something else, though: a distinctive warning or distress call, described as an "alarming foghornlike noise," which is sounded upon the detection of predators. Its most dangerous Asian enemy is the tiger, and sambars are valuable aids, used by Asian safari guides, for locating tigers, since they most frequently voice their alarm when one is in sight.

Can the Sumerian segbar, then, have been not the fallow deer but the sambar, its name given to the shofar because of its unusual warning blast? Scholars could have told us more about the segbar had they recovered from the ruins of an ancient Sumerian temple in Ur, dated to about 2200 BCE, the sculptures or drawings spoken of by the priestess Enhudu Anna. The priestess described them in a hymn, the text of which was found at the site. One line of this hymn goes, E an-se seg-bar ki-se dara-mas, translated by the Indian Sumerologist K. Loganthan as, "Temple [i.e., the sculptures or drawings in this part of the temple are]: at the top, a wild ram; at the bottom, a deer." Langanthan renders segbar as "wild ram" because he takes it to be a cognate of Tamil cemmari, "sheep," while relating dara-mas to Tamil taaraimaan, "striped deer." Yet had he chosen to compare segbar with Sanskrit sambara, he might have reached a different conclusion. Alas, the drawings or sculptures to which the hymn referred are lost, so that we never will know just what a segbar was. (The German Semiticist B. Landsberger, in his Die Fauna des alten Mesopotamien, guessed that it was a Thar or Hermitragus jemlahicus, a magnificent goatlike creature of Asia with eminently shofarike horns.)

At any rate, the shofar you hear blown this Rosh Hashanah almost certainly will have been made from the horn of a domestic male sheep - unless, that is, you attend a synagogue frequented by Yemenites, whose shofar traditionally comes from an antelope called the kudu. Kudus are much more like fallow deer and sambars than like sheep... but let's not get started all over again!

Klein connects shofar to Akkadian shapparu, but he translates it as "wild goat", which is obviously an easier animal to identify the shofar with than a fallow deer. Moreover, Klein does not derive tzafir צפיר - he-goat from sapparu, but instead relates it to the Arabic dafara - "he leapt" - therefore it would literally mean "the leaping animal."

Klein provides two derivates of shofar - shfoferet שפופרת and shafir שפיר. In Talmudic times, shfoferet meant a pipe or a tube, and in modern Hebrew it also means a receptacle, or receiver - like the handset of a phone. Interestingly, while Klein and others derive shfoferet from shofar, the RaN on Masechet Rosh HaShana reverses that etymology. He brings a halachic proof (brought down also in Orach Chaim 586:1) that a shofar must come from a hollow horn (as opposed to a deer's antlers for example) because shofar derives from shfoferet, which indicates hollowness.

Shafir means the amniotic sac, which surrounds the developing embryo (and later fetus), and mei shafir מי שפיר refers to the amniotic fluid. The word derives from shofar from its tube like function.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

kivnei maron

I was going to research and write a post about the phrase "bnei maron" as in appears in the Mishna in Rosh HaShana (1:2) -

בראש השנה, כל באי עולם עוברין לפניו כבני מרון

But then I found this comprehensive article by Prof. Golinkin, which deserves being quoted in its entirety:

The most moving piyyut or liturgical poem of the High Holy Day liturgy is entitled "Unetaneh Tokef." The middle of the poem reads: "Behold, the Day of Judgment!"... All who enter the world You will cause to pass before You kivnei maron [like b'nai maron]. As a shepherd examines his flock passing his sheep beneath his staff, so do You make pass, count, enumerate and remember every living soul, decreeing the measure of every creature's life and writing their verdict..."

The question is: what does "kivnei maron" mean? The phrase is taken from the Mishna (Rosh Hashana 1:2), but there, too, the meaning is unclear: The world is judged at four seasons: At Pessah – for grain; at Shavuot – for the fruit of the trees; on Rosh Hashana – all who enter the world pass before Him kivnei maron; and on Succot – for water.

The Babylonian Talmud (Rosh Hashana 18a) gives three different explanations for kivnei maron: (1) Here [in Babylonia] they translate: "like b'nai imrana"; (2) Resh Lakish said: like the ascent of Beit Maron; (3) Rav Yehuda said in the name of Samuel: like the troops of the House of David.

LET'S EXAMINE each of these explanations. What does "like b'nai imrana" mean? Rashi says: "Like sheep who are counted in order to give a tithe, and they go out one after the other through a narrow opening where only one can pass through." Even someone who did not grow up on a kibbutz has seen in the Westerns how they count cattle: They pass them through a narrow opening in order to count them one by one.

In the 19th century, a number of scholars explained that in Syriac, a Christian dialect of Babylonian Aramaic, there is a word "emruna," which means young sheep. Therefore, in Babylonia they explained that on Rosh Hashana we pass before God like the sons of sheep and He counts us one by one.

Now let us examine the second explanation found in the Talmud: "Resh Lakish said: like the ascent of Beit Maron." Resh Lakish, who lived in Eretz Yisrael (ca. 250 CE), is no doubt referring to a specific place in Israel which was well known to his listeners. According to the manuscripts of the Talmud and the medieval commentators, this sentence should read "like the ascent of Beit Horon", and, indeed, "the ascent of Beit Horon" was a well-known place for more than 1,500 years.

It is mentioned in the Book of Joshua (10:10-11), II Chronicles (8:5), I Maccabees (3:13-26), Josephus (Wars 2,19,2) and Eusebius (ed. Melamed, 1950, p. 212), but the most important source for our purposes is found in Sanhedrin 32b: "Two camels who are going up the ascent of Beit Horon meet each other. If they both ascend, they both fall off; if they ascend one after the other – they both ascend." In other words, the ascent of Beit Horon is such a narrow path that two camels cannot pass each other going up or down. If they ascend side by side, they will both fall off, but if they ascend single file, they will both ascend successfully.

Now, the words of Resh Lakish are entirely clear: God counts us on Rosh Hashana just as people climb up the ascent of Beit Horon, one at a time.

And now let's examine the third explanation: "Rav Yehuda said in the name of Samuel [ca. 220-250]: like the troops of the House of David." Samuel does not explain himself, but we can surmise that God counts us on Rosh Hashana as soldiers are counted in the army.

TO SUMMARIZE the Talmudic passage, the Amoraim explained kivnei maron in the Mishna in three ways: (1) like sheep who pass under the staff of the shepherd, (2) like the ascent of Beit Horon, (3) like the soldiers of the House of David.

All three apparently mean the same thing, but we still have not clarified the exact meaning of the expression kivnei maron. Indeed, for hundreds of years, rabbis tried to explain this expression without success, until Nehemiah Brull published a suggestion in his Jahrbuecher fuer Juedische Geschichte und Literatur in 1874. He suggested that perhaps kivnei maron is a corruption of ki[vi]numeron, like a numeron, and numeron is a Greek (and Latin) word which means "a cohort, a legion, a troop of soldiers." In other words, the Mishna says that God counts us on Rosh Hashana as soldiers are counted, one at a time.

Nehemiah Brull gave his explanation as a suggestion (vielleicht, in German "perhaps"), when Jewish scholars still had no access to Mishna manuscripts and such a suggestion was simply a guess. Now we can prove that Brull was absolutely correct on the basis of manuscripts of the Mishna, Tosefta, Babylonian Talmud and piyyut. In the Kaufmann manuscript of the Mishna (Italy?, 11th-13th centuries?), which was only published in a facsimile edition in 1929, it says very clearly in our Mishna: kivno meron with vowels. There is still a space between the words, but there is no doubt that it was originally one word, as we shall presently see.

Our Mishna also reads "kivnu maron" in the first edition of the Palestinian Talmud (Venice, 1523-1524, fol. 56a), while Tosefta Rosh Hashana reads "numeron" in the Vienna manuscript (ed. Lieberman 1:11, p. 307).

And now we can add new proof for Brull's theory from my book Ginzei Rosh Hashana, which was published in 2000. It is a collection of all the Geniza fragments of the tractate of Rosh Hashana in the Babylonian Talmud. In Manuscript G1, which was copied in the east between the 10th and 12th centuries, it says very clearly "kivnu maron."

We have progressed from the piyyut to the Mishna and from the Mishna to the Tosefta and from the Tosefta to the Talmud. If we return now to the piyyut, we shall discover that the original reading in "Unetaneh Tokef" was also "kivinumeron."

This was proved by Prof. Naphtali Wieder (1906-2001) in an article published in the Journal of Jewish Studies in 1967. He showed that the reading "kivinumeron" is the original reading in the piyyut "Unetaneh Tokef" as found in a number of manuscripts, and one of them even has vowels. Furthermore, Wieder quotes a number of lesser-known piyyutim which also contain the word "kivinumeron," including a geniza fragment of the piyyut "Hayom Harat Olam" which we sing three times during the Musaf service.

In other words, the correct reading of the word "kivinumeron" has been preserved not only in manuscripts of the Mishna, Tosefta and Talmud, but also in manuscripts of "Unetaneh Tokef" and other medieval poems.

What can we learn from this detective story?

It shows us how the academic or scientific approach to Jewish studies can help us to arrive at the peshat (simple meaning) of our sacred texts. We now know that, according to the Mishna and "Unetaneh Tokef," on Rosh Hashana, all who enter the world You will cause to pass before You kivinumeron – like a cohort of soldiers (being counted).

Now, as we enter the Days of Awe, it is up to all of us to engage in teshuva, tefilla and tzedaka – in repentance, prayer and acts of lovingkindness.

The same author also wrote this article, which is similar and contains additional footnotes.

Steinsaltz also mentions the kivinumeron explanation, however, he does not think Resh Lakish is referring to Beit Horon, but rather the mountain of Meron, which is the highest in the Galil.

What about the etymology of imar אימר - Aramaic for "sheep"? Steinberg provides two theories. The first one (also mentioned by Jastrow) is that it is related to amar עמר - Aramaic for wool. In Hebrew the ayin switches to a tzade, and we get the word tzemer צמר. Interestingly, the gemara in Eruvin 53b mocks the Galileans for not differentiating between alef and ayin, and therefore mixing up the words imar and amar.

Steinberg's second theory is based on the idea that the root מר means "to send out". He derives the word אמר - "he said" - from the meaning "he put words out of his mouth". Therefore imar can mean sheep in the sense of "animals driven out", and he says there is a similar etymology to the word tzon צאן - it comes from the root יצא, "went out". We have seen earlier a connection between migrash מגרש - field and גרש - to expel.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


I'm going away for a few days - I'll be back home on September 19th. I might post something while I'm gone, but it will probably be a little different than the more researched posts that I usually do. Please feel free to continue to comment on earlier posts - but know that if I need my books to answer you, it might wait for a few days.

In the meantime, I'd like to take advantage of this downtime to get your feedback on this site. What would you like to see more of? What needs change or improvement? I'm particularly interested in hearing what you think of the look and feel of Balashon. What do you think of the text and background colors? What about the fonts? Should they be larger? Do you prefer serif? How about the Hebrew font? Should there be more white space? Different graphics?

I'm not a big expert in web design, but I'll be happy to try to improve the site based on your response.

Thursday, September 07, 2006


Is the Hebrew word ta'arif תעריף related to the English word "tariff"? Well, of course it is. Not only do they have the same meaning, but the Hebrew actually derived from the English (or one of the European counterparts - French tarif, Italian tariffa, Spanish tarifa).

The English word tariff, however, does have Semitic roots. It comes from Arabic:

from It. tariffa, M.L. tarifa "list of prices, book of rates," from Arabic ta'rif "information, notification, inventory of fees to be paid," verbal noun from arafa "to make known."

When I first saw this, I thought - hey, maybe it's related to the Hebrew word oref עורף, meaning "neck", or the root ערף meaning "to drip" (and the source of arafel ערפל - cloud, fog). But one of the advantages of my acquiring Stahl's Arabic etymological dictionary is that I don't have to guess. And he clearly states that there is an Arabic root ערף meaning "to know".

Stahl doesn't connect the Arabic ערף to either of the Hebrew roots, and I imagine that if he could have, he would have. He does, however, mention that in Medieval Hebrew, ma'aruf מערוף meant "customer, clientele", from the Arabic root. In modern Hebrew slang, ma'aruf means "a favor", as in "do me a favor". This meaning is also taken from Arabic, and Stahl suggests that the development might have been from "to know" to "befriend" to "do a favor".

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


The tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet is yod (or yud or yodh). The origin of the letter's name is clear - it looks like a yad יד - arm or hand (see here and here.) It is the smallest of the Hebrew letters, and due to its size the Greek version of the name - iota - came to mean "a very small amount" and from iota came the word jot, which later meant "to make a short note of."

Yad is a very common word in the Tanach - Even Shoshan gives 1617 listings. So it is a bit beyond the scope of this post to deal with every nuance of the word. Besides hand or arm, it can also mean: handle, stem (of a fruit), monument / place, power / strength, part / portion, side, pointer (some Biblical examples here.) It is part of a large number of prepositions in Hebrew:

  • ביד - by, through
  • כיד - according to the power of
  • ליד - near
  • מיד - immediately
  • לידי - to
  • מידי - from
  • על יד - next to
  • על ידי - through
There is also a verb derived from yad - ידה - meaning "to throw, hurl, cast". Throwing of stones is יידוי אבנים - yidui avanim. The commentary Haketav Vehakabbalah on Vayikra 5:5 says that the verb והתוודה - "he will confess" derives from ידה - he throws away the sin. In this sense, vidui וידוי (confession) is identical with tashlich תשליך - both mean "throwing away." (I was planning on talking about vidui closer to Yom Kippur, but we're in Elul, so it's close enough.)
But while Haketav Vehakabbalah tries to explain how vidui is different than hodaah הודאה - praise (which would seem to be from the same root), Steinberg connects all three meanings. First of all, he writes that vidui is identified with bowing, prostrating oneself, throwing oneself on the ground - as in Nechemia 9:3 - מִתְוַדִּים וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים and Ezra 10:1 - וּכְהִתְוַדֹּתוֹ, בֹּכֶה וּמִתְנַפֵּל.
He then goes on to write that the verb הודה - to give praise, thanks (and the root of todah תודה - "thank you") - was also connected with bowing. As a proof, he shows how the Targum translates Shmuel II 16:4 - הִשְׁתַּחֲוֵיתִי as מודינא. He writes that only once in the Tanach is הודה used towards a person - יְהוּדָה, אַתָּה יוֹדוּךָ אַחֶיךָ - "Yehuda, your brothers will praise you" (which is a play on words on the name Yehuda.) In all other places, the verb is used towards God, where bowing and prostration are very appropriate. This concept was carried forward in to the Amida prayer, where we bow when we say מודים אנחנו לך.
From the Daat Mikra on Yoel 4:3, it would seem that perhaps there is a connection between ידה - to throw away - and נדה - the root of nidah נידה and nidui נידוי, both referring to a person cast away. But it's not entirely clear from that source, and the other sources I've checked are ambiguous at best. (For example, Klein says that נדה is related to Akkadian nadu ("to throw"), but doesn't connect it back to ידה.)
Lastly, just in case you were wondering, Philologos shows that yad is not connected to "yadda, yadda, yadda."

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


Reader Yoel asks:

Do you know anything about the word גלידה? (glida , ice cream). Was it totally made up or based on some actual precedent in Hebrew?

For those parasha sheet readers in Israel, this question has been addressed a couple of times in Torah Tidbits. But I'll try to give a little more detail here.

According to Klein, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda coined the term glida for ice cream from the word גליד glid - meaning ice, on the analogy of leviva לביבה - pancake. Glid appears in Hebrew in the Mishna (Ohalot 8:5, Mikvaot 7:1) and an Aramaic form - גלידא glida - is used as a translation of kerach קרח - ice by Onkelos on Bereshit 31:40.

Glid, in turn, derives from the root גלד, meaning "to freeze, congeal, to gel." Klein writes that this root is probably denominated from geled גלד skin, and originally meant "it was covered with skin." The verb הגליד means "it formed a crust, formed a scar". Geled appears once in the Tanach - Iyov 16:15.

Stahl adds that there are two roots in Arabic which mean "to freeze": ג'לד and ג'מד. In Semitic languages lamed and mem can alternate. In Hebrew גמד means "to contract, reduce", and in Modern Hebrew a gamad is a dwarf. (The word gamadim גמדים appears in Yechezkel 27:11, but is referring to the name of a nation. The Daat Mikra says they're related to Gomer גמר, with a switch of dalet and resh. Kaddari says they came from the city Kumidi. However, the Vulgate translates Pygmaei - which fits the modern idea of "dwarfs".) Stahl suggests that the growth of a gamad is "frozen".

What about the phrase פעם שלישית גלידה paam shlishit glida? It is well described here:

Literally: The third time, ice cream.
Idiomatically: We meet again!
Without knowing what this is talking about, one would really wonder... It is referring to chance meetings between people. If you have run into someone by chance and then once again by chance, at that point, you might say "pa'am shlishit glida." This means "the next time we meet, we sit down for ice cream."
The question that always comes to my mind with this phrase is who gets to pay? There is no implication in the phrase about being the one to buy the ice cream, so you don't have to worry about any obligation by saying it. On the other hand, there is one opinion that says that s/he who hears the phrase will be the one buying it.
By the way, this phrase is not literal. It is NOT an Israeli custom that upon meeting for the third time people immediately find the nearest cafe/kiosk and sit down for ice cream. Or the converse: When you see two people enjoying ice cream together, do not assume it is because they ran into each other three times by chance.

Rosenthal has a couple of suggestions as to its origin. One is that it comes from the English phrase "third time a lucky charm" or "third time lucky". But the problem here, as pointed out in this thread, is that it "contain(s) the assumption that the first two tries were unsuccessful." Rosenthal also tries to derive it from "next time ice cream" - a mistaken version of "next time I scream", or as this site has it, "third time I'll scream". Problem is, that no one actually says "next time I scream" or "third time I'll scream".

One more reasonable option, as mentioned in the above thread:

In German we say, "nächstes Mal gibst du mir einen aus", i.e. "next time you'll have to buy me a drink". Meant as a jocular suggestion that such a coincidence must be celebrated - but, to be sure, at the expenses of the other person.

However, this still doesn't explain the "third time" aspect in Hebrew. Maybe a reader can help us out?

Monday, September 04, 2006


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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 02, 2006


When discussing yarok and katom, I mentioned a word for gold - charutz חרוץ ( or harutz / haruts / charuts). The root חרץ has two other meanings - "to cut" (source of the word charitz חריץ - crack) and "to be alert, diligent". Outside of Steinberg (who I mentioned in katom), no one connects charutz as gold with the other two meanings (although Kaddari does quote one source as saying that the two verbs are related.)

On charutz, Klein writes:

Related to Phoen. חרץ, Ugar. hrs, Akka. hurasu (= gold; lit. the yellow metal). cp. Aram.-Syr. חרץ (to be yellow). cp. also Mitanni hiaruka ( = gold) which is a Semitic loan word.

Kutscher writes that charutz is the source of the Greek chrysos, also meaning gold. From chrysos we get such words as chrysalsis and chrysanthemum (but not Chrysler).