Tuesday, October 31, 2006

bamah and bimah

In my synagogue, they recently fixed up the בימה bimah. That made me think that I should probably write a post about the difference between bimah and במה bamah.

Bamah is a biblical word, meaning a "high place". It is found often in the books describing the First Temple period, where it refers to altars in the open - not in the Temple. Because the Temple at that time was the only legitimate place for sacrifices, it gained the sense of "pagan altar". The word apparently comes from an earlier word meaning back - as in the Ugaritic bmt- "back of a person or animal", and it maintains that meaning in a few places in the Tanach as well (Tehilim 18:34, Yeshayahu 14:14).

Bimah is a post-biblical word meaning "platform, pulpit". Klein derives it

"from Greek bema ( = pace, step, platform, stage) which derives from the stem of bainein ( = to go), whence also basis (a stepping, pedestal)."
However, the important archaeologist William Albright believed that the Greek word was borrowed from the Semitic root, via Phoenician.

Both words mean "stage" in modern Hebrew, although in the synagogue, only bimah is used.

There seems to be some disagreement as to the origin of the word for "director" - במאי bamai. Almagor-Ramon writes that it is related to bimah, whereas Klein writes that the word was coined by A. Shlonsky from the word bamah. However, Klein feels this was in error, for the base of bamah is בום not במה.

Monday, October 30, 2006


No, this isn't a post about the interesting blog LAMED, but about Hebrew's 12th letter. The letter lamed originally referred to an ox-goad or taming whip - see the noun malmad מלמד in Shoftim 3:31. However, the more familiar root is למד - meaning to learn or to teach. Klein writes that lamed got that association from being the "rod of the teacher", and the verb meant "to prick, sting, incite, goad".

Kaddari provides a long note with various theories as to the etymology of למד. Some say it comes from "to accustom an animal to carry a load"; other have "to connect, to bind".

Lamed alternates with resh ( שלשלת and שרשרת ) and nun ( לחץ and נחץ ). Additionally, as Jastrow writes "lamed as first radical letter often rejected in inflection" - the root לקח becomes קח . On the other hand, as Klein notes, "the lamed sometimes appears at the end of nouns as an additional consonant, as in גבעל ( = stalk, stem), כרמל ( = garden land.)"

Friday, October 27, 2006


In this weeks parasha (Bereshit 6:16), Noach is commanded to "make a tzohar in the ark" צֹהַר תַּעֲשֶׂה לַתֵּבָה

The word tzohar (or tsohar) appears only here in the Tanach and there are a number of explanations for the meaning:

  • window (Onkelos, Rashi, Ibn Ezra) - based on tsohorayim צהרים - noon. The light of noon is compared to the light entering the ark via the window. Also related to zohar זוהר - brilliance. This may be the window mentioned in 8:6.
  • lamp, or oil for a lamp (Menachem, Radak, Chizkuni)- based on yitzhar יצהר - oil.
  • roof (Shadal, Cassuto, Kaddari) - via Arabic zahr, Akkadian seru, Ugaritic zr - meaning "back, top".
  • luminous stone (Rashi) - based on a Midrash
Klein connects the first three interpretations. He offers a root צהר , meaning "to be bright, clear". He translates yitzhar as "fresh oil" and says it means either "that which newly appears" or "that which shines". He also writes that the Arabic zahara means "appeared, became visible", and this is connected to the roots meaning "back, top". Therefore tzohorayim means "culminating point, zenith". Stahl explains it somewhat differently, by saying that at noon, the sun begins turning away from us.

Based on the root צהר Ben Yehuda coined הצהיר - to declare, from the sense of putting something for all to see, in the light of day (the Biblical verb הצהיר - Iyov 24:11 - meant "to make yitzhar".) Apparently the coinage of Ben Yehuda (who died in 1922) caught on quickly, for the Balfour declaration (in 1917) is known as הצהרת בלפור - Hatzharat Balfour, and not הכרזת בלפור - Hachrazat Balfour which would have used the older verb הכריז.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


After discussing bilui בילוי - recreation, let's look at a similar word: bidur בידור - entertainment.

The verb בדר originally meant "to scatter, to disperse". According to Stahl, entertainment disperses your boredom and scatters your worries. The English word "sport" has a similar background. Sport derives from the word disport, whose origin is:

from Anglo-Fr. disporter "divert, amuse," from O.Fr. desporter, lit. "carry away" (the mind from serious matters), from des- "away" + porter "to carry," from L. portare "to carry"

You may have noticed that בדר resembles בזר and פזר - which also mean "to scatter". This makes sense, for we have seen that bet interchanges with peh, and dalet interchanges with zayin.

However, Stahl goes further, and suggests that בדר is part of a collection of roots that start with the letters בד. Steinberg, Jastrow and Horowitz all agree - and point out that these words all mean "single, separate (either as an adjective or a verb)".

Lets look at some examples:

  • בדד and לבד - alone
  • בד - bad - fabric. Klein writes that it may be related to בד meaning "part, portion".
  • בדה - to invent, concoct. While the English word "fabricate" derives from "fabric", this doesn't seem to be the case here. However, Jastrow writes that this verb originally meant "to take out (a piece of dough)" and from here "to shape, to form".
  • אבד - lost
  • בדל - separated. This is the root of havdala הבדלה .
  • בדיל - tin, alloy. Horowitz writes this "originally meant that which is separated from the precious metal".
  • בדק - The word bedek originally meant "a breach" - something broken off (Malachim II 12:6). From here the verb developed to mean "to mend, repair", and Klein says that most scholars say that from that meaning came the sense "to examine, inspect".

Monday, October 23, 2006


Today I was asked why do we say to someone wearing new clothes ! תתחדש - Titchadesh! The blessing is parallel to "Wear it in good health", but it literally means "renew (yourself)". How did this phrase come to be?

The Rama mentions in Orach Chaim 223:6 that there is a custom to say to someone wearing new clothes תבלה ותתחדש - tibale v'titchadesh. Other sources (quoted here and here) have תבלה ותחדש (this seems to me to be the more logical, perhaps the original.) The meaning of this phrase therefore means ''May you wear out (this garment) and buy a new (one).'' It is therefore a wish for long life.

Interestingly, the Rama writes that there are those that say that this blessing should not be said on shoes or clothes made of leather, because it is not proper to wish the death of another animal.
The verb בלה - to wear out - is the source of the term bilui בילוי - "recreation, pastime". How did we go from "waste" to "recreation"?

In Iyov 21:13 we find the phrase יבלו בַטּוֹב יְמֵיהֶם. Iyov is complaining about the wicked and how "they spend (waste) their days in happiness". The kri is יְכַלּוּ בַטּוֹב יְמֵיהֶם - "they will end their days in happiness". The verse has a negative connotation, but the phrase - through a misreading according to Amos Chacham in the Daat Mikra - has gained a positive sense, "recreation". I agree that there is certainly a linguistic change here, but I think perhaps more significantly over the years there has been a major shift in society's view of "free time". The entertainment industry could not have been contemplated not so long ago, before industrialization freed up so much of our time.

Saturday, October 21, 2006


In my previous post I wrote:

Stahl writes that the spelling איד was probably influenced by another meaning of איד : "calamity, misfortune"
Klein writes that this meaning of איד derives from a Hebrew root אוד , meaning "to bend, to oppress". While he doesn't provide any examples of verbs with this root, he does say it may be the source of the phrase "al odot" על אודות meaning "because of, concerning". He writes:

Several scholars derive it from base אוד ( = to bend, turn, enclose) appearing in Arabic 'ada ( = he bent), SArab אוד ( = around, about). Compare Hebrew בגלל ( = on account of), which is related to גלל (= he rolled) and Medieval Hebrew סבה ( = cause) from Biblical Hebrew סבה (= a turn), from סבב ( = he turned, enclosed.)

As a side note, I find it interesting that Hebrew websites use the term אודות where English ones use "about". The meanings aren't exactly identical, but they have the same number of letters and a similar sound. It wouldn't be the first time English has influenced Hebrew this way (as we saw here.)

Steinberg goes even further than Klein. He gives the same definition to the root אוד ( to surround, to turn over) and agrees that איד and אודות derive from it. He also adds two more Hebrew words that have the same origin.

The first is ed אד - "vapor, steam" that we saw in last weeks parasha (Bereshit 2:6). He says that an ed is cloudlike, and the plant galgal גלגל also makes a cloud (Yeshayahu 17:13, Tehilim 83:14). Therefore there is a connection between ed and "to surround, turn over".

The other word that Steinberg connects is ud אוד - "firebrand, firestick". He writes that the fire is surrounding the stick. Amos Chacham in the Daat Mikra on Yeshayahu 7:4, while not discussing the etymology of ud writes that the purpose of an ud was to "turn over the wood and the coals in the oven in order to increase the flame". This also fits in with Klein and Steinberg's understanding of the root אוד .

Ben-Yehuda, in his dictionary (which I don't have regular access to unfortunately - it's a great resource), writes that there are those that derive ud from "to bend" while others connect it to the Arabic word for wood - also ud. This is the opinion of Klein and Stahl.

The connection between these various words is not clear. However, there is an interesting development from the Arabic word 'ud - "wood". From the meaning "piece of wood" came the musical instrument oud, whose name entered English. Additionally, the English word "lute" also derives from the same Arabic word:

from O.Fr. lut, from O.Prov. laut, from Ar. al-'ud, the Arabian lute, lit. "the wood" (source of Sp. laud, Port. alaude, It. liuto), where al is the definite article.

English seems to have a problem with "a" or "an" as a definitive article in foreign words, as we saw earlier with the word apron.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

eid ul-fitr

Next week the Muslim world will celebrate Eid ul-Fitr - the holiday marking the end of the month of Ramadan. The name Eid ul-Fitr literally means "the feast of the breaking of the fast". Not surprisingly, both "eid" and "fitr" have Hebrew cognates.

Hebrew has two related words meaning festival - עיד and איד . Both refer to non-Jewish holidays, and the first Mishna of Avoda Zara what business practices are permissible for Jews in the days leading up to those days. While our version of the Mishna says אידיהן - their festivals, the Gemara (2a) says that there are those that say the word in the Mishna should be עידיהן , and both versions are correct. Steinsaltz notes that this may be seen as a proof that the Mishna was not originally written down, but passed over orally.

According to Klein and others , the word eid עיד is related to the word od עוד - whose basic meaning is "repeat" or "do again", and therefore eid means "that which returns (every year)". From עוד we get a number of words: ed עד - witness, "someone who repeats what he says, i.e. affirms that it is true" and idud עידוד - encouragement, "do it again!". However, as Mike Gerver points out:

Hebrew מועד, “festival,” in spite of its similarity in meaning and spelling to Arabic ‘id, is not related, but literally means “appointed time,” and comes from the word יעד, “appoint.”

Stahl writes that the spelling איד was probably influenced by another meaning of איד : "calamity, misfortune", and was used derogatively towards the non-Jews, or referred to the difficulties the Jews had during those festivals. Gloating in Hebrew is שמחה לאיד - joy at someone else's misfortune.

Fitr is related to a more recognizable Hebrew root - פטר . The basic meaning of the root is "to break" - and from here the name of the Muslim holiday. In fact, the Arabic word for the breakfast meal in the morning is ftor. From פטר we get a number of words:

  • peter פטר - "first-born", the child that breaks through, opens the womb
  • pitria פטריה - fungus, mushroom. Stahl writes that the name comes from the way the pitria "breaks out" from the ground or the tree.
  • לפטר - to dismiss, release from the sense "to break away"
  • פטור patur - exempt, released from an obligation
  • נפטר niftar - died, originally from the phrase נפטר מן העולם - departed this world
  • התפטר - he quit, released himself
  • הפטרה haftara - the reading from the Prophets after the reading of the Torah. From the meaning "to release" developed a meaning "to conclude", and so it referred to "a conclusion from the Prophets"
Steinberg writes that פטר is related to the the root with similar sound and meaning: בתר - "to cut off".

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


We've recently discussed yad יד and kaf כף - two Hebrew words meaning "hand". Now lets look at another Semitic root meaning "(palm of the) hand". The Semitic Etymology database provides a number of related words:

  • Akkadian: rittu
  • Ugaritic: rḥt
  • Arabic: rāḥat
as well as many other Semitic languages that I've frankly never heard of.

The Arabic rahat developed into the English "racquet" (but not the unrelated "racket" meaning "noise"). From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

c.1500, "device used in tennis, etc.," probably originally "tennis-like game played with open hand" (c.1385), from Fr. requette "racket, palm of the hand," perhaps via It. racchetta or Sp. raqueta, both from Arabic rahat, a form of raha "palm of the hand."
Klein points out that an early form of tennis was called in French "jeu de paume" - "game of the palm (of the hand.)"

What about Hebrew? We find one related word in the Tanach: rachat רחת in Yeshayahu 30:24. There it means "winnowing shovel". In modern Hebrew rachat means spatula, which goes along with Rashi's commentary on Yeshayahu. He offers the Old French pele, which in the related English "peel" means "a shovel-like tool used by bakers".

There is one issue that is not entirely clear to me. Klein connects rachat to the other Semitic cognates meaning "palm of the hand". That makes sense both in terms of the structure of the word, and also in regards to the similarity of shape between a winnowing shovel (a kind of pitchfork) and a hand.

However, Klein also follows the Radak (and later Jastrow and Steinberg) who claim that rachat is related to ruach רוח wind. This also makes sense, for winnowing means "to separate the chaff from (grain) by means of a current of air", and the English word winnow derives from "wind".

But I don't understand Klein's statement, where he says that the Semitic words for palm of the hand "probably derive from רוח ( = wind)." Other than perhaps waving, what is the connection between hands and wind?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Yesterday we wrote that the two roots כפף and גבב are related to each other and both have a meaning of "bent".

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, one of these roots may be the source of a common word in English.

Here they provide the etymology of jumper:

1. A sleeveless dress worn over a blouse or sweater. 2. A loose, protective garment worn over other clothes. 3. A child's garment consisting of straight-legged pants attached to a biblike bodice. Often used in the plural. 4. Chiefly British A pullover sweater.
ETYMOLOGY: Probably from jump, short coat, perhaps from obsolete jup, bodice, from obsolete French juppe, from Old French jupe, jube, from Italian giuppa, giubba, from Arabic jubba, long garment with wide open sleeves, from jabba, to cut. See gbb in Appendix II.

And under gbb they continue:

Also kpp. To be(come) bent, curved, to cut

I'm not actually sure of the connection between "bent, curved" and "cut". Perhaps they are referring to the root קבב . Klein provides two entries for that verb. The first means "to utter a curse", and he says perhaps it is related to נקב - "to pierce". The second means "to be bent, crooked", and is probably related to גבב. He connects both entries with the meaning "to hollow out" - maybe this is somehow related to "cut".

Rosenthal writes that the Hebrew slang for money - juba ג'ובה - comes from the Arabic jubbah as well, although he also mentions jeb, Arabic for pocket.

Monday, October 16, 2006


The 11th letter in the Hebrew alphabet is kaf (or kaph): כ

The letter gets its name due to its similarity to the shape of the palm of a hand: כף היד kaf hayad. Besides meaning "hand, palm of the hand", kaf can also mean "sole of the foot", "pan, censer", branch (of a palm tree - כפות תמרים kapot tamarim, the Torah's name for lulav), handle, scale, spoon. The word kfafa כפפה - glove, kapit -כפית - teaspoon, and kafkaf כפכף - "wooden shoe, clog", all come from kaf. According to Klein, "all of these words derive from base כפף and literally mean 'that which is bent'".

From כפף - "to bend, be bent" and the related verb כפה -"to force, compel" we get a number of words:

  • kfifa - כפיפה - wicker basket, perhaps called so because of a bent shape. When two people can't work together, it is said they can't live בכפיפה אחת - "in the same basket".
  • kfia - כפיה - compulsion. A big issue in Israeli politics is always kfia datit כפיה דתית - "religious coercion."
  • kippah כיפה - originally meaning "arch, vault, dome" and later "cap, skullcap"
However, the Arabic headdress keffiyeh gets its name from the town of Kufa, Iraq, where it was originally manufactured.

Kaf alternates with kof (qof) and gimmel - as can be seen by Stahl, Klein and others who say that כף is related to קב and גב - all having meanings related to "bend".

An interesting etymological side note: kaf means both the "palm" of the hand and the branches of "palm" trees. In English, the two meanings of "palm" are related, but they derive from an earlier root meaning "spread out, flat", whereas the Hebrew kaf means "bent".

(A less interesting, non-etymological side note. After my post on uchmanit, I have received a number of hits that seem to come from people looking for information about Blackberry devices in Hebrew. Am I going to get similar ones for people looking for information about Palm Pilot handhelds in Hebrew?)

Saturday, October 14, 2006

isru chag

The day after a yom tov is known as isru chag אסרו חג. Where does the name come from?

Many of us are probably aware that the phrase occurs in Hallel. The verse (Tehillim 118:27) says:

אִסְרוּ-חַג בַּעֲבֹתִים--עַד קַרְנוֹת, הַמִּזְבֵּחַ.

which can be translated as, "Bind (isru) the festival offering (chag) to the horns of the altar with cords" (and remember we saw earlier that the word chag can refer to the sacrifice brought on a holiday.)

The verse is a request from those visiting the Temple to the kohanim.

The gemara in Sukkah (starting on 45a) brings a number of drashot on this verse. The first is a halachic one, that describes how the sacrifice should be prepared on the altar. The second drasha says that anyone who binds the lulav with the hadas is as if he built an altar and brought a sacrifice.

The third drasha says:
כל העושה איסור לחג באכילה ושתיה
"anyone who makes an isur for the chag with food and drink" is as if he built an altar and brought a sacrifice.

What does it mean to "make an isur with food and drink"? Jastrow translates it as "he who creates a circle [makes a band, related to "binds" - isru] for the festival with eating and drinking, i.e. social pleasures." This is the first of Rashi's two explanations. Rashi's second explanation is that "there are those that say 'the day after the chag'." In regard to this explanation, Jastrow writes "Others explain: he who makes an addition to the number of festive days."

The Rama (Orach Chaim 429:2) quotes this second opinion in Rashi, and from here we have the custom to eat and drink a bit more on the day after a holiday.

Friday, October 13, 2006


After Sukkot comes שמיני עצרת Shmini Atzeret (or Shemini Atseret or some similar spelling). We find the term first in Bamidbar 29:35:

בַּיּוֹם, הַשְּׁמִינִי--עֲצֶרֶת, תִּהְיֶה לָכֶם
"On the eighth day you will have an atzeret"

Similarly we find it mentioned in Vayikra 23:36:
בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי מִקְרָא-קֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם ... עֲצֶרֶת הִוא--כָּל-מְלֶאכֶת עֲבֹדָה, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ
"On the eighth day you shall observe a sacred occasion ... it is an atzeret; you shall not work at your occupations"

The last day of Pesach is called atzeret in Devarim 16:8:
וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי, עֲצֶרֶת
"On the seventh day, an atzeret"

Additionally, in Rabbinic Hebrew, the holiday of Shavuot is known as Atzeret.

What is atzeret? It probably won't surprise you to read that there are a number of opinions:

a) Assembly, gathering: In Yeshayahu 1:13, we find the word atzara עצרה which has this meaning. Onkelos translates the word as כניש kenish - "gathering", which is related to the word בית הכנסת - beit haknesset, literally "house of gathering".

b) Stoppage of work: The gemara gives this explanation in Hagiga 9a and 18a: עצרת - עצור מעשיית מלאכה - "atzeret - stop doing work". This is the opinion of Ibn Ezra and Sforno.

c) Delay: This is Rashi's explanation, based on the Midrash where God asks us to stay with him just one day more. Radak in Sefer Hashorashim takes a similar approach, and says that those that went up to Jerusalem for Sukkot were delayed there for one more day. Rav David Tzvi Hoffman writes that while the earlier meanings are found in other books of the Bible, in the Torah עצר only means "to delay, to restrain". The modern Hebrew verb לעצור - "to arrest, to detain" is related to this meaning.

d) Conclusion: This is how the Septuagint translates the word into Greek: exodion, meaning "finale" (and related to the word "exodus".) Bula in Daat Mikra Vayikra says this meaning applies well to the last day of Pesach and Shavuot - which concludes the period of the Omer. Jastrow defines the term as "a festive gathering for the conclusion of a festive season, concluding feast".

Of the more modern scholars, Steinberg and Klein agree with "stoppage of work", while Kaddari offers "assembly".

The concept that atzeret has more than one explanation can help us understand a difference in the text of the Yaaleh V'Yavo prayer (as discussed here and here). When mentioning Shmini Atzeret, Nusach Ashkenaz says:
ביום השמיני חג העצרת הזה
while Nusach Sefard has:
ביום השמיני העצרת החג הזה

The Nusach Ashkenaz version refers to the chag of atzeret - a holiday on its own, which fits with the definitions of "assembly" or "stoppage of work".

The Nusach Sefard version, however, has "the atzeret of the chag", where chag would seem to refer to Sukkot. Therefore the atzeret mentioned would be either be the conclusion of Sukkot, or one additional delay after the seven days of Sukkot.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

chatan torah

Even though it's been discussed in blogs before, and I'm going to quote the text of another, I can't let Simchat Torah go by without mentioning Avraham Yaari's explanation of the origin of the term chatan torah חתן תורה (or hatan torah). From Bloghead:

In the runup to Simchat Torah I've been skimming through bits of Avraham Ya'ari's classic history of the festival, 'Toldot Chag Simchat Torah' ('The Origins of the Festival of Simchat Torah,' pub. in Hebrew by Mossad Harav Kook). Whilst we often pride ourselves on / lament (depending on who you are...) the unchanging nature of our tradition, this history shows how enormously fluid some of our traditions actually are. Among the fascinating points:
  • Simchat Torah originated in Babylon and was not celebrated in Israel until the end of the Gaonic period (ie. - totally Diaspora festival!). The reason is that in Babylon, the Jews had the same one-year cycle for reading the Torah we do today, whereas in Israel they finished the Torah every three / three and a half years, and not always on the same date. When the EY communities finished the Torah, they would hold a festive meal, but no 'Simchat Torah' as we know it.
  • The festival originally did not involve reading from Bereshit, but merely finishing Devarim. Hence, the original term was not 'chatan Torah' but 'chatam Torah' -- sealer of the Torah. There was, of course, no chatan Bereshit.

  • I read about חתן תורה / חתם תורה in Sperber's Minhagei Yisrael, where he quotes Yaari, and provides additional sources.

    While I've talked about chatan before, I don't know if the expansion of chatan to "prizewinner, laureate" - as in chatan pras yisrael חתן פרס ישראל , Israel Prize Laureate - developed from the terms chatan torah and chatan bereshit.

    Tuesday, October 10, 2006


    We've explained the origin of the term regel רגל for a festival. Well, the Torah provides a synonym for regel only a few verses away. In Shmot 23:14 we see:

    שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים, תָּחֹג לִי בַּשָּׁנָה

    and in verse 17 we see:

    שָׁלֹשׁ פְּעָמִים, בַּשָּׁנָה

    Both are talking about "three times a year", and on that basis we can view regel as being equivalent to פעם pa'am - both mean "time, occasion". However, while everyone seems to agree that the original meaning of regel was "foot", there is disagreement about paam. Some view the original meaning also as foot (I think it can be seen in Kaddari's Dictionary and in the commentaries on Shmot of both Nachum Sarna (Chapter 27, note 34) and Amos Chacham (on 23:17) . This can be seen from such verses as Shir HaShirim 7:2: מַה-יָּפוּ פְעָמַיִךְ בַּנְּעָלִים - "How lovely are your feet in sandals" and Yishayahu 26:6 פַּעֲמֵי דַלִּים - "soles of the poor". And as Chacham points out, while paam mostly lost its meaning as "feet", regel kept its meaning as feet, but became less associated with "occasion".

    (The association of paam with feet makes for some nice biblical imagery, but creates some strange phrases in Modern Hebrew. For example, foods that want to sound "classic" or "old-fashioned" claim to have a taam shel paam טעם של פעם , as in Treppenwitz's "shamenet shel pa'am". However, the idea of sour cream coming from feet isn't so appetizing.)

    However, others, such as Klein, Steinberg and Almagor-Ramon, say that the earlier meaning was "to strike, to beat". From here the meaning went to "step" (both verb and noun), and from there both to "foot" and to "occurrence, time". The meaning of "to strike, to beat" is maintained in such verbs as התפעם - "was disturbed, troubled", peimot פעימות "heartbeats" or "strokes/ strikes" (who remembers the peimot promised after the Wye Agreement?) and paamon פעמון - bell.

    Monday, October 09, 2006


    Sargel סרגל in Hebrew means "ruler" (as used for measuring and drawing straight lines.) Klein offers the following etymology:

    Probably Saph'el formed from Latin regula ( = straight piece of wood, ruler, rule) which derives from regere ( = to keep straight, lead, direct, rule) ... Some scholars compare Syriac מסרגדנא ( = ruler), a word derived from סרגד ( = he traced or wrote lines), which is dominated from סורגדא ( = line, verse).

    In this article, Raphael Jospe discusses this issue and adds the following:

    The identification of סרגל with regula appears first in Nathan ben Yehiel's Arukh, ed. Kohut 6:131-132. Avraham Even-Shoshan's המילון החדש (Jerusalem, 1967), 4:1843 lists regula as the probable derivation of סרגל , but posits the Aramaic root סגל as another possibility. Jastrow (Dictionary 2:1023) suggests that סרגל is the saf'el form of the root רגל (and thus means to lead the writer in ruling or drawing lines); this view is shared by M. Z. Segal in his note in Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, Dictionary, 8:4203-4204, n. 1, who adds "some derive it from the Latin regula." Samuel Krauss (Grieschische und Lateinische Lehnworter im Talmud, Midrash, und Targum 2:412b-413a) also derives סרגל from regula, but Immanuel Low rejects this view in his note and in the index (p. 683a) and posits instead a Syriac origin for the term. I have been unable to substantiate Low's view in the Syriac dictionaries which I consulted. Payne-Smith (Thesaurus Syriacus, pp. 2728-2729) offers "regula" as the meaning of מסרגדנא, but this has nothing relating to סרגל.

    I certainly will not try to determine which expert is correct about the etymology of sargel. However, we can see from here the similarity between the Hebrew word regel רגל (as we discussed yesterday) and the Latin regula.

    Jospe's article focuses on a famous story where the similarity between the two words comes to play. This is the abstract of the article:

    The late Mordecai M. Kaplan suggested that the term רגל mentioned in the story in BT (bShab 31a) of Hillel's conversion of a Gentile to Judaism "while I stand on one foot" (על רגל אחת) may be a bilingual pun, if רגל is understood as the Latin regula, rather than literally as the Hebrew word for "foot." The term regula could have been known to first-century Jews through both Greek and Latin usage. Although a literal reading of רגל as "foot" here is certainly justified, and gives the story much of its charm, there are also literary, if not historical or etymological, grounds for Kaplan's reading of the story. First, the Latin connotations of regula might make sense to a Gentile speaker. Second, Hillel is associated in several rabbinic passages with formulating seven hermeneutic "rules" (מדות), and this association could underlie our story's portrayal of Hillel as interpreting the Torah in terms of one basic rule (regula) of behavior. Third, in addition to the metaphoric usage of "foot" as a principle or foundation of the Torah in our story, "standing" may also be employed metaphorically. Other rabbinic statements refer to basic principles on which the world "stands," i.e., the ethical foundations of the world. Fourth, our story clearly contrasts Shammai, who angrily rejects the challenge posed by the Gentile and pushes him away with his builder's cubit, whereas Hillel welcomed the challenge and employed his regula (= מדה = rule, ruler, or rod) to bring him to the Torah.

    Again, I don't claim to know whether Kaplan's theory (or even Jospe's article) is based in fact or not. But Jospe does provide evidence that it was likely the Rabbis were aware of the word regula (perhaps via Greek, which borrowed it from Latin in some examples he provides.)

    Could the Latin regula and the Hebrew regel have some common origin? Mike Gerver writes:

    Although the l in regular and the ל in רגיל, meaning “customary,” are surely not related, the Indo-European root reg, meaning “move in a straight line,” seems like a good candidate to be related to Hebrew רגל, “foot,” which as a verb means “to go about,” as seen for example in the word מרגלים, “spies.” The meaning “to go about” is not a late derivative of the basic meaning “foot,” but is found also in Arabic words from the same Semitic root. The Indo-European and Semitic words do not have the right sound shifts to come from a common Nostratic root, but might represent an early loan in one direction or the other between Semitic and Indo-European. I have not seen this suggested anywhere, however.

    And Steinberg writes that רגל is related to other words beginning with the same two letters: רגע , רגז , רגן and רגש ). But we're heading back very early in history, and aren't likely to find any solid proof one way or another.

    However, in more modern times the association between regel, and its derivative רגיל ragil and regula and its derivative "regular" is very clear. As we discussed yesterday, ragil means "usual, common, customary, and also experienced, trained". But there is a difference between customary and "regular". And yet in Israel today people will order "plain pizza" as "פיצה רגילה" pizza regila. I am certain this is from the influence of the similar sounding, English word "regular".

    Sunday, October 08, 2006


    Another name for the pilgrimage festivals is regalim רגלים , or in the singular רגל regel. While this meaning is used extensively in rabbinic literature, it appears only once in the Tanach, and had a different connotation. As Klein writes:

    The literal meaning of שלש רגלים is 'three feet, three steps', whence arose the meaning 'three times'. From שלש רגלים in the verse Exodus 23:14 שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים, תָּחֹג לִי בַּשָּׁנָה ('Three times you shall keep a feast unto me in the year') developed in post-Biblical times the meaning of שלש רגלים as 'the three festivals of pilgrimage' (first used in this sense in the Mishnah), whence - through back formation - the singular רגל was also used in the sense of festival of pilgrimage.

    While there are examples in the Rabbinic literature which connect the concept of regel as pilgrimage and the more basic meaning of regel as foot (see the first mishna in Chagiga), it is clear from the story of Bilaam that regel could mean "(a) time" without direct connection to feet. There, Bilaam's donkey asks "What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times (shalosh regalim)?" So we have an exact parallel with the verse in Shmot where we are commanded to have a feast "three times". (Milgrom in JPS Numbers quotes a source that perhaps the expression always used the number three.)

    Since regel - foot - is a very basic word in a language, it is not surprising that a number of other meanings derive from it.

    For example, the verb רגל means "to slander" or "to spy", just as a spy - a meragel מרגל - walks about on foot. A related verb is רכל - which means "to go about from place to place (for trade or gossip.)" From here we get the word markolet מרכולת - but not makolet מכולת .

    Another meaning of רגל is "to be accustomed to, to be used to". Klein explains this as originally meaning "to go on foot", and from there "to go about frequently". From this meaning we get:

    • הרגיל - to train, to make familiar
    • התרגל - to become accustomed to
    • תרגל - originally meaning "to teach to walk" in Hosea 11:3, now means "to train, to drill"
    • רגיל - ragil - usual, common, customary, and also experienced, trained (as in the prayer before Mussaf on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur - כתפילת זקן ורגיל - "the prayers of an experienced elder".
    The star Rigel also gets its name from here - via the Arabic rijl - as it is the foot of Orion.

    Friday, October 06, 2006


    The word chag חג has a number of meanings: a holy day (holiday) in general, one of the three pilgrimage festivals, or when used with no additional classification, it refers to Sukkot (both biblically - e.g. Yechezkel 45:23 - and throughout Rabbinic literature. I have not yet found the source of the famous saying "simply chag refers to Sukkot" - and will be grateful to any reader who can point me in the right direction.)

    It also can refer to the sacrifice brought on that festival, as in Shmot 23:18. In Rabbinic Hebrew this is known as חגיגה chagiga.

    The root of the word is חגג , for which Klein offers a number of definitions: "to make a pilgrimage, to celebrate a feast, to dance, to reel, to be giddy". Arabic uses a cognate for their pilgrimage - the hajj.

    Klein also writes that the origin of the root "was perhaps 'to leap', 'to dance' cp. base חוג ". This root means "to make a circle" or "move in a circle". While in Israel today it is an anachronism, the "dialing" of phones is called חיוג chiyug, and an area code is an ezor chiyug אזור חיוג . From the idea of a "circle of people" we get the word חוג chug, meaning "club" or "class".

    If we replace the guttural chet with the guttural ayin, חוג becomes עוג , which also means "to draw a circle." From here we get the word for a (round) cake עוגה uga and the diminutive עוגיה ugiya - cookie. However, the famous children's song "uga uga" עוגה עוגה is not talking about cake, but about dancing in a circle.

    Thursday, October 05, 2006


    Based on a section of the Zohar, it is customary for people to welcome in Biblical guests known as ushpizin אושפיזין into their sukkah. The root אושפיז has a number of meanings in Talmudic Hebrew: an אושפיז or אושפיזא means "a lodging place, an inn" (Megila 26a, Yoma 12a) and אושפיזכן is an innkeeper or host (Sotah 37a, Zevachim 18b). Klein writes that the meaning of "guest" only began in Medieval Hebrew - hence the Zohar quote. In Modern Hebrew, the verb אשפז means "to accommodate" or perhaps more commonly "to hospitalize".

    What is the origin of the word? Klein writes:

    Med. Gk. hospition, hospetion (=inn), from L. hospitium (=inn; hospitality), from hospes, gen. hospitis (=host; guest), which stands for *hosti-potis and originally meant 'lord of strangers'.

    Steinsaltz, on the other hand, says it comes from the Persian asfanj or aspanj, also having the meanings of "inn" and "innkeeper".

    This site claims that from Persian the word made its way to Latin and Greek, but I haven't seen any other evidence of that. I think if the Latin and Persian roots are connected, it is more likely that they share a common Indo-European root - ghos-ti or ghostis.

    This root, particularly in its development in Latin (and from there to English and other languages) has a number of interesting phenomenon associated with it. First of all, as you may have noticed, this is one of the words that went from Latin to Greek, instead of the other way around. According to this site, this was common during the Koine period. (An earlier Greek root that came from the same IE root was xenos, as in xenophobic.)

    Also interesting, is the number of seeming opposites that derive from this root. For example, both the English "host" and "guest" have their origins here. Even more striking, there are words with a positive connotation - hospitable, hospice and hotel, but also negative ones - hostile, hostage and host (as in an army). This was due to a tension in relation to guests: on the one hand they were to be treated kindly, but on the other hand they were strangers and to be viewed with suspicion.

    While Judaism had (and has) a very positive attitude toward guests (e.g. hachnasat orchim הכנסת אורחים and the minhag of ushpizin), and we are commanded to love the ger גר - stranger), there are also sources where we are warned to be careful of those wishing to convert. But on Sukkot - I'd say it's better to be hospitable than hostile.

    Wednesday, October 04, 2006


    In the Torah, we are commanded to take פרי עץ הדר - the fruit of the hadar tree. However, today we all know this fruit by a different name - אתרוג etrog (or ethrog or esrog). What is the etymology of this name?

    Klein writes:

    a loan word from Persian turnuj, whence also Arabic turunj, utrunj, utrujj

    He adds that this is the root of the Spanish word toronja, meaning "grapefruit".

    Mike Gerver elaborates on Klein in this Mail-Jewish discussion:

    Etrog, on the other hand, is listed in the same book as borrowed from Persian turung or Mandaic trunga. (The form "etrunga" is found in Kiddushin 70a.) The Persian word, according to Chaim Rabin's article "Lexical Borrowings from Indian Languages as Carriers of Ideas and Technical Concepts" (in "Between Jerusalem and Benares: Comparative Studies in Judaism and Hinduism", page 25, edited by Hananya Goodman, SUNY Press) comes from Tamil, and is related to "matulankam" and "matulai" which mean pomegranate or lemon. (In modern Tamil, pomegranate is "matulanpazham," where "pazham" means ripe fruit.) Rabin says that there is no similar word in Sanskrit, suggesting that etrogs were originally found only in southern India where Tamil and other Dravidian languages are spoken, and only spread to northern India and Persia in a later period (after Sanskrit). I'm not sure what this implies about the question of whether "pri etz hadar" always meant only the etrog, and whether the "etz hadaat" could have been an etrog. It is quite possible, of course, that "trunga" did not mean an etrog, but a different kind of fruit, at the time the word was borrowed from Dravidian, and that it was this other fruit that was only found in southern India. The "kam" at the end of "matulankam" (and hence the "nga" at the end of "trunga") are presumably related to "kaay" meaning "fruit" in modern Tamil. The same root is apparently found in the Persian word "naranga" (source of "naranja" in Spanish and hence "orange" in French and English), which was also borrowed from a Dravidian language. In modern Tamil, "naru" means "smelly," so "naranga" could mean "fragrant fruit." (Words that mean "fragrant" tend to evolve to mean "smelly" in any language.) Oranges are thought to have come to the Middle East and Europe from northern India, according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, and to there from southern China and Indochina, so the question arises as to why the word would be borrowed from a Dravidian language. One possibility is that the word dates back to the period before the Indo-European conquest of India, when Dravidian languages were spoken in Northern India as well. So the "g" in etrog would be cognate with the "g" in orange.

    The Gemara that Mike quotes is a fascinating one for those interested in language. It contains a dialogue between Rav Nachman and Rav Yehuda, where Rav Nachman insists on using "fancier" words, instead of the more commonly used ones. For example, Rav Nachman calls a fence a גונדריתא gundarita. Rav Yehuda asks, why couldn't you use the Biblical מעקה ma'akeh or the Rabbinic מחיצה mechitza? Similarly, Rav Nachman uses the term etrunga אתרונגא , and Rav Yehuda accuses him of being snobby for not using either the Rabbinic etrog or the common Aramaic etroga אתרוגא. Whatever your opinion of Rav Nachman's linguistic approach (and I'm sure many of us know people who like to do the same), he certainly seemed to use a word closer to the original Persian. And in the Yerushalmi (Gittin chapter 3, and Sukkah chapter 3) actually uses the term תרונגא trunga.

    Monday, October 02, 2006


    While most people use the night after Yom Kippur to begin building their sukkah, I prefer to begin by hammering out posts relating to the upcoming holiday. I have a bunch of topics planned, but if you have any Sukkot related language questions - please post them in the comments.

    The verse where we receive the mitzva of lulav (Vayikra 23:40) says:
    וּלְקַחְתֶּם לָכֶם בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן, פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר כַּפֹּת תְּמָרִים, וַעֲנַף עֵץ-עָבֹת, וְעַרְבֵי-נָחַל

    "On the first day you shall take ( u'lkachtem ) the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook"

    Kutscher asks an important question. If the verb in the verse is לקח - why is the blessing על נטילת לולב - al netilat lulav? Why is the root נטל used instead of לקח? Both would seem to mean "to take".

    His explanation is that while in Biblical Hebrew לקח meant "to take", by the time the Rabbis coined the blessing, the verb - from Akkadian influence - meant only "to buy". And the halacha is that one need not buy the lulav - it can come from hefker (i.e. have no previous owner) or be received as a gift. (I recently heard from Prof. Moshe Bar-Asher that Kutscher heard this idea from a high school student of his, who later became a famous rabbi - Mordechai Breuer).

    What is "taken" in the ritual washing of the hands known as "netilat yadayim" נטילת ידים ? Kehati offers two possible explanations in his introduction to Masechet Yadayim:

    a) Netilat yadayim refers to the taking of the water in the utensil used to wash the hands, and therefore refers to washing hands with a utensil. Kehati here quotes the Tosfot Yom Tov and Malechet Shlomo. Mark Steiner explains this approach here:

    On the expression netilat yadayim: the expression seems to me to be elliptical for "netilat mayim leyadaim" (what is taken is water, not the hands). In Tractate Yadayim, the object of the verb "netila" is always mayim [water], not the hands, as in Yadayim 1:1 "natal [mayim] leyado ahat", Yadayim 1:2 "natal [hamayim] harishonim lemakom ehad," etc. In short, netalat yadayim is simply an elliptical expression for "taking water FOR the hands."

    b) The action netilat yadayim comes from the Aramaic word natla נטלא - the vessel used for washing hands. The word natla, in turn, comes from the Greek antlion (bucket). Klein rejects this etymology of natla, and says it derives from נטל and should be viewed literally as "that which is lifted" or "that which is taken". A description and picture of a Greek antlia - machine for raising water - can be found here, and from this Greek root we also get the name of the constellation Antlia.