Sunday, December 31, 2006


(You may have noticed the layout of this site has changed a bit. For a while I've been trying to figure out a way to make it more readable, and easier to find previous posts. Now that I've switched to the new version of Blogger, I think there's a big improvement. In addition to a different layout, note the expandable monthly archives link, and the new categories section. I'll try to give a "category" to every common type of posting to make it easier to see all of them together. If you have any questions or problems with the new layout, please let me know.)

Peh is the seventeenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The name derives from the word peh פה - "mouth", and this was the original shape of the letter. As we've seen earlier, peh can alternate with bet, vav and mem.

Besides "mouth", peh can also mean "speech", "opening" and "portion" (as in pi shnayim פי שניים - "double".)

Similar to the word yad (hand), peh makes up a number of prepositions:

  • כפי - like, as
  • לפי - according to
  • על פי - in accordance with
  • אף על פי - although

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

chalom and hachlama

Is there any connection between chalom חלום - "dream" and hachlama החלמה - "recovery, recuperation"?

There are a number of different theories.

First of all, Klein makes no connection between the two roots. He also does not connect either of them with chelmon חלמון - "yolk of an egg", chalma חלמא - "a kind of cement", chalmut חלמות - "a juicy plant" mentioned in Iyov 6:6 or chelmit חלמית - "malva, mallow". He does write that according to Ibn Ezra, the vowel cholam חולם (pronounced "o") is connected to the root חלם meaning "be healthy" and means "the strong vowel". He also points out that some scholars connect the stone achlama אחלמה to the same root, and give it the meaning "the stone that has the power of making strong".

Jastrow does connect the two roots and says the common meaning is "to be soft, moist, viscous" and is connected to chalav חלב - milk. Hachlama developed from there in the sense "to have good humors, to be well". Chalom derives from a sense of "to gather humors, to sleep well". He also connects chalma, chelmit, chalmut and chelmon by discussing their connection to liquids.

Steinberg connects both roots by saying they mean "to bind, to be strong" and are related to the root אלם (of a similar meaning.) While the connection to hachlama is clear, I have to admit I don't follow his definition of chalom. He writes:

עניין השם הוא לפי שרשו סבוך הרעיונות במראה בתוך שינה כשהם חופשים ממשלת השכל

I guess that would be best translated as "the meaning (of chalom) is the entanglement of ideas during sleep, when they are free of the rule of the intellect."

He also connects chalmut, chelmit and chelmon (and I would assume he'd put in chalma as well) by saying they have their "stickiness" in common.

Kaddari mentions a theory that shows the development of the two roots as follows: was strong -> became mature -> had "mature" dreams -> dreamt.

Whether or not the roots are connected, the common spelling חלם is used in a number of drashot. In Brachot 57b, it says that dreaming is good for the ill, quoting Yeshayahu 38:16 וְתַחֲלִימֵנִי וְהַחֲיֵנִי - literally "you have restored me to health and revived me", but the drasha has a play on words and replaces "restored me to health" with "made me dream". A similar drasha can be found on Brachot 55a.

One very familiar verse that may be understood differently using a different meaning of חלם is Tehillim 126:1

שִׁיר, הַמַּעֲלוֹת :בְּשׁוּב השם, אֶת-שִׁיבַת צִיּוֹן-- הָיִינוּ, כְּחֹלְמִים.

This is generally translated "When God restores the captivity of Tzion, we shall be like dreamers". However, the Targum on this verse translates היך מרעיא דאתסין "we will be like the sick who have been healed". This view is mentioned by Kaddari and Amos Chacham in Daat Mikra. Shmuel and Zeev Safrai in their Haggadat Chazal write that in the Dead Sea Scrolls the the word appears as כחלומים - "as those that were healed".

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

hikir and hitnaker

The verbs hikir הכיר - "to recognize" and hitnaker התנכר - "to act like a stranger" both stem from the same root : נכר . We find both forms in Bereshit 42:7:

וַיַּרְא יוֹסֵף אֶת-אֶחָיו, וַיַּכִּרֵם; וַיִּתְנַכֵּר אֲלֵיהֶם

"When Yosef saw his brothers, he recognized them, but acted like a stranger to them"

How did one root come up with apparently opposite meanings?

Almagor-Ramon writes that in other Semitic languages the root נכר means a stranger - as in the word nochri נוכרי, for example. Only in Hebrew did a sense develop of recognition - hakara הכרה . This would indicate that the meaning of "stranger" was earlier, and indeed Klein writes that "the original meaning of נכר would have been 'to regard as something strange' i.e. 'to regard intently'."

Almagor-Ramon also points out the similarity here to the example of host and hostile - opposite meanings from a common root. In both cases, we have an initial perception of another - which can turn out to be positive or negative.

Sunday, December 24, 2006


The past couple of weeks we discussed words relating to Chanukah. But there were some really good words in the story of Yosef that we skipped. I'll try to cover them in the next few days.

The word sak שק in Hebrew and "sack" in English have the same meaning, and this is no coincidence. The English word derives from the Hebrew:

"large bag," O.E. sacc (W.Saxon), sec (Mercian), sæc (Old Kentish) "large cloth bag," also "sackcloth," from P.Gmc. *sakkiz (cf. M.Du. sak, O.H.G. sac, O.N. sekkr, but Goth. sakkus probably is directly from Gk.), an early borrowing from L. saccus (cf. O.Fr. sac, Sp. saco, It. sacco), from Gk. sakkos, from Semitic (cf. Heb. saq "sack"). The wide spread of the word is probably due to the story of Joseph.

The American Heritage Dictionary also shows the connection:

Common Semitic noun *saqq-, sack. sac, saccade, sachet, sack1, sack2, satchel; cul-de-sac, haversack, knapsack, rucksack, from Greek sakkos, coarse cloth, article made from coarse cloth, from a Semitic source akin to Hebrew saq, Akkadian saqqu, sack.

In the story of Yosef we find two uses of the words sak.

In Bereshit 37:34 we read וַיָּשֶׂם שַׂק בְּמָתְנָיו - that Yaakov placed sak - sackcloth - on his loins as a sign of mourning.

In Bereshit 42:25 Yosef gave orders וּלְהָשִׁיב כַּסְפֵּיהֶם אִישׁ אֶל-שַׂקּוֹ - to place the brothers money, each in his own sak - sack. (In this section we also find the word אמתחת amtachat - bag or pack. For the differences between sak and amtachat, see here.)

Which meaning came first - that of sak meaning "bag" or sak meaning "sackcloth"?

Both Klein and Kaddari give the meaning of "bag" first in their dictionaries, which would seem to indicate they believe it had the earlier meaning. But certainly mourners were not actually wearing bags (with the arms and legs cut out?).

So it would seem to me that there was an earlier meaning of this term. We can see this meaning by looking at a verse where it is not clear whether sak means sack or sackcloth - Vayikra 11:32 :

וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-יִפֹּל-עָלָיו מֵהֶם בְּמֹתָם יִטְמָא, מִכָּל-כְּלִי-עֵץ אוֹ בֶגֶד אוֹ-עוֹר אוֹ שָׂק, כָּל-כְּלִי, אֲשֶׁר-יֵעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה בָּהֶם

"And anything on which one of them falls when dead shall be unclean: be it any article of wood, or a cloth, or a skin or a sak - any such article that can be put to use..."

The JPS translates sak as "sack", but Levine corrects it to "sackcloth". Onkelos also seems to go in this direction. When sak means "sackcloth" as in the verse above, he translates it with the Aramaic שק, with the letter sin. But when it means sack, bag, he uses the homonym סק, with a samech. In this verse - he translates with שק.

Levine points out - I assume on the basis of Shabbat 64a - that there is a parallel between our verse in Vayikra and that in Bamidbar 31:20 :

וְכָל-בֶּגֶד וְכָל-כְּלִי-עוֹר וְכָל-מַעֲשֵׂה עִזִּים, וְכָל-כְּלִי-עֵץ--תִּתְחַטָּאוּ

"You shall also purify everything woven of cloth,
every vessel of leather, everything made of goat's hair, and every vessel of wood".

Both verses have cloth, wood and leather, but here sak is replaced with things made of goats hair. To me this seems to be the original meaning of the word - sak meant either bags made of goat hair, or the uncomfortable garments of a mourner (or someone repenting or causing others to repent) made of goat hair (like the Christian cilice.) This site tells us that "at Qumran, Masada, and other caves in the Judean desert, articles made of wool, cotton, and goats’ hair were discovered; the latter was usually used for sacks".

Friday, December 22, 2006


We've discussed the Makabim / Maccabees - now what is the origin of the name חשמונאים Chashmonaim / Hasmoneans?

There are a number of theories:

a) According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, Wellhausen this was the name of the grandfather of Matityahu (Mattathias). The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica writes of "Asmoneus, or Asamonaeus (so Josephus), great-grandfather of Mattathias"

b) Some associate the name with the locations Chashmona חשמונה (Bamidbar 33:29) or Cheshmon חשמון (Yehoshua 15:27). According to these theories, the family lived in or near one of these places before moving to Modiin.

c) Another theory connects Chashmonaim to chashman חשמן. It is unclear what the word chashman means - it appears only once, in Tehillim 68:32. Some explanations of the word do not fit a connection to Chashmonaim - for example Ehrlich says it may mean horses or chariots. However, the Septuagint translates it as "ambassador" and other commentaries have "princes". Therefore the name Chashmonaim referred to the status of the family, and the author of Maoz Tzur picked up on this - אזי בימי חשמנים . This approach was adopted by the Radak and the Meiri, but Amos Chacham in Daat Mikra finds it very far-fetched.

From this interpretation, the word chashman developed into the meaning of "an important person", and eventually became the translation for the Catholic "cardinal".

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


The famous jar of oil of Chanukah - the "pach hashemen". Is pach spelled with a chet - פח or with a chaf פך ?

Well, despite over 11,000 hits on Google for פח השמן (!!!) the correct spelling is פך השמן (which sadly only has 3000 more sites on Google.)

What is the cause of the confusion? It seems to me that besides both פח and פך being homonyms to most Israelis, in Modern Hebrew they both can refer to kinds of containers. Let's see how.

The word פך means "flask, jar, cruse". It appears three times in the Bible. Klein writes that the name is probably of imitative origin. Kil mentions this in the Daat Mikra on Melachim II 9:3 - when pouring from the jar it would make a pach-pach-pach sound. In Yechezkel 47:2 we find the phrase מַיִם מְפַכִּים - gushing water, which Kil says indicates the sound as well. (It should be noted that Kaddari and others write that the verb פכה derives from the noun פך ).

What about פח ? It originally meant "a thin plate of metal", and appears twice in the Bible (Shmot 39:3 and Bamidbar 17:3) - where the metal is gold or copper. Stahl writes that perhaps this word too is of imitative origin - from the pach! sound made from hammering the metal.

However, in modern Hebrew the word פח means "tin". I'm not sure how this developed. My first theory was that perhaps this was a misreading of Rashi on Bamidbar who uses the Old French word tenves to describe פחים . The word means "thin", but in Hebrew is spelled טינבי"ש - maybe someone saw the word "tin" in there.

But I've since noticed that the original (and more official?) word for tin is בדיל - b'dil. So perhaps pach went from "thin metal" to tin, in a similar process to the word "tin" in English:

In modern times, the word "tin" is often (improperly) used as a generic phrase for any silvery metal that comes in thin sheets.

From pach as "tin" we get pach as (metal) garbage can, and pachit פחית as (tin) can- even though most garbage cans are made of plastic, and the cans are made of aluminum. But both terms are types of containers, which probably leads to the confusion of spelling פך השמן.

Monday, December 18, 2006


We have written about the customary Chanukah food - the "latke", but what about the Hebrew equivalent - לביבה leviva?

I don't see any mention of levivot in Talmudic Hebrew, so I assume it was a "renewed" word in Modern Hebrew, taken from the Bible. The word only appears in the story of Amnon and Tamar, Shmuel II, Chapter 13:

ו וַיִּשְׁכַּב אַמְנוֹן, וַיִּתְחָל; וַיָּבֹא הַמֶּלֶךְ לִרְאוֹתוֹ, וַיֹּאמֶר אַמְנוֹן אֶל-הַמֶּלֶךְ תָּבוֹא-נָא תָּמָר אֲחֹתִי וּתְלַבֵּב לְעֵינַי שְׁתֵּי לְבִבוֹת, וְאֶבְרֶה, מִיָּדָהּ. ז וַיִּשְׁלַח דָּוִד אֶל-תָּמָר, הַבַּיְתָה לֵאמֹר: לְכִי נָא, בֵּית אַמְנוֹן אָחִיךְ, וַעֲשִׂי-לוֹ, הַבִּרְיָה. ח וַתֵּלֶךְ תָּמָר, בֵּית אַמְנוֹן אָחִיהָ--וְהוּא שֹׁכֵב; וַתִּקַּח אֶת-הַבָּצֵק ותלוש (וַתָּלָשׁ) וַתְּלַבֵּב לְעֵינָיו, וַתְּבַשֵּׁל אֶת-הַלְּבִבוֹת. ט וַתִּקַּח אֶת-הַמַּשְׂרֵת וַתִּצֹק לְפָנָיו, וַיְמָאֵן לֶאֱכוֹל; וַיֹּאמֶר אַמְנוֹן, הוֹצִיאוּ כָל-אִישׁ מֵעָלַי, וַיֵּצְאוּ כָל-אִישׁ, מֵעָלָיו. י וַיֹּאמֶר אַמְנוֹן אֶל-תָּמָר, הָבִיאִי הַבִּרְיָה הַחֶדֶר, וְאֶבְרֶה, מִיָּדֵךְ; וַתִּקַּח תָּמָר, אֶת-הַלְּבִבוֹת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂתָה, וַתָּבֵא לְאַמְנוֹן אָחִיהָ, הֶחָדְרָה.

The JPS translation has:

6: Amnon lay down and pretended to be sick. The king came to see him, and Amnon said to the king, "Let my sister Tamar come and prepare a couple of cakes in front of me, and let her bring them to me."
7: David sent a message to Tamar in the palace, "Please go to the house of your brother Amnon and prepare some food for him."
8: Tamar went to the house of her brother Amnon, who was in bed. She took dough and kneaded it into cakes in front of him and cooked the cakes.
9: She took the pan and set out [the cakes], but Amnon refused to eat and ordered everyone to withdraw. After everyone had withdrawn,
10: Amnon said to Tamar "Bring the food inside and feed me." Tamar took the cakes she had made and brought them to her brother inside.

However, the translation of levivot as cakes doesn't fully capture the meaning of the text. Everett Fox writes in his introduction to his translation of Shmuel, Give Us a King!:

The heart, too, comes into play, particularly in the memorable cycle of stories that recounts Absalom's rebellion against his father David (II Sam. 13-20). The tone is set already in the opening story, the rape of Absalom's sister Tamar. Amnon, the crown prince, pretends to be ill and requests that his half sister make levivot, usually translated as "cakes," for him. The noun occurs four times, and the root appears twice more in verbal form. But as some interpreters have noticed, the homonym (levav) means "heart," and the verbal form of l-v-v occurs in the Song of Songs (4:9, "You have captured-my-heart" [JPS]). So a word connected with seduction in love poetry is appropriate enough in the mouth of the lovesick Amnon, and on this and other grounds (see notes below) we are justified in translating levivot as "heart-shaped-dumplings."
(See this Hebrew article for more about the symbolism of levivot and lev לב - heart.)

The word "dumplings" also fits the Targum's translation חליטה chalita, which Jastrow defines as "a paste made of flour stirred in boiling water, dumpling". Although Rashi says that the dough was first placed in boiling water, then fried in oil. (Ralbag says that in laaz [foreign language - I assume French] the term is קישפי"ל. I don't know what that is, but it doesn't seem to be related to quiche, which comes from German.)

This article says that levivot can be compared to Akkadian akal lebbu and Greek kolouri. From here I see that kolouri (sometimes spelled culuri) is a kind of bagel, and bagels are indeed dough boiled in water (and then baked.) So Chanukah has a connection to both doughnuts and bagels.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


What is the origin of the Yiddish word dreidel?

From this site:

The word "dreidel" is a Yiddish word built on the German word drehen "to spin, turn." This word is related to English "throw," which originally meant "to turn or twist." Albanian tjer "I spin" as well as Latin torquere "to spin," whence our words "torque" and "torment," are also cousins.

In pottery, "to throw" still means "to turn":

the Old English word thrawan from which to throw comes, means to twist or turn. Going back even farther, the Indo-European root *ter- means to rub, rub by twisting, twist, turn. The German word drehen, a direct relative of to throw, means turn and is used in German for throwing. Because the activity of forming pots on the wheel has not changed since Old English times, the word throw has retained its original meaning in the language of pottery but has developed a completely different meaning in everyday usage. Those who say they throw pots are using the historically correct term.

How did throw go from "to turn, twist" into "to project, propel"? The Online Etymology Dictionary suggests that "the sense evolution may be via the notion of whirling a missile before throwing it."

As an aside - the original meaning of the "nun" "gimmel" "heh" and "shin" was not "nes gadol haya sham" נס גדול היה שם. The letters were rather:

a mnemonic for the rules of a gambling game played with a dreidel: Nun stands for the Yiddish word "Nichts" (nothing), hei stands for "Halb" (half), gimel for "ganz" (all), and shin for "steln" (put in).

The Yiddish, in turn, came from a German game, which had the letters N, H, G and S.

Thursday, December 14, 2006


What is the origin of the name of the heroes of Chanukah - the Makabim מכבים - Maccabees?

There are a number of theories.

One theory, popularized by Yosefon (or Josippon), and which is widely viewed as a folk-etymology is that the word מכבי makabi is an acronym of the verse (Shmot 15:11)

מִי-כָמֹכָה בָּאֵלִם יְ-ה-וָ-ה

"Who is like you among the mighty, God"

A less well known acronym, as mentioned here, is:

מתתיהו כהן בן יוחנן

"Matityahu Kohen son of Yochanan"

This site, which discusses the origin of the term, mentions the theory that the name could come from מכבני :

The scholar and poet Aaron Kaminka (1866 - 1950) thinks the name is a corruption of Machbanai, a leading commando in the army of King David (I Chron 12:13). David had 12 commandos from the tribe of Gad, who "separated themselves to David to the stronghold in the wilderness, mighty men of valour, men trained for war, that could handle shield and spear, whose faces were like the faces of lions, and they were as swift as the roes upon the mountains" (I Chron 12:8). David has always been a role model for Jews, and it may be that Judah's father, Mattathias, saw in his son the embodiment of an ancient Davidic hero.

Klein writes that perhaps the correct spelling should be מקבי - which derives from makevet מקבת - "hammer". Klein defines it as:

the name having been given to Judah the Hasmonean, because he struck the Syrians as with a hammer. Compare the name of Charles Martel (689? - 741) ruler of the Franks, from French martel (=hammer) who was so called because he struck the Moslems as with a hammer.
An additional theory, also attributed to Klein here is that:

1375, from L.L. Maccabæus, surname given to Judas, third son of Mattathias the Hasmonean, leader of the religious revolt against Antiochus IV, 175-166 B.C.E., usually connected with Heb. maqqabh "hammer," but Klein thinks it an inexact transliteration of Heb. matzbi "general, commander of an army."

We can connect מצביא and מקבי either through Hebrew/ Aramaic, where tzade and kuf interchange or through Greek / Latin, where the letter C can be either be hard (like K) or soft (like S).

Additional theories can be found in this Jewish Encyclopedia article.

One interesting English word that derives from makabi is macabre:

c.1430, from O.Fr. (danse) Macabré "(dance) of Death" (1376), probably a translation of M.L. (Chorea) Machabæorum, lit. "dance of the Maccabees" (leaders of the Jewish revolt against Syro-Hellenes, see Maccabees). The association with the dance of death seems to be via vivid descriptions of the martyrdom of the Maccabees in the Apocryphal books. The abstracted sense of "gruesome" is first attested 1842 in Fr., 1889 in Eng.

(More can be found about the etymology of macabre here.)

But in Modern Hebrew the word has a much more upbeat connotation. Maccabi is the name of a large sports organization, and Rosenthal offers these words in his slang dictionary:

מכביזם - makabism - the atmosphere attributed to the fans of Maccabi Tel Aviv's soccer and basketball teams, characterized by competitiveness

מכביסט - makabist - a fan of Maccabi Tel Aviv's soccer and basketball teams

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


What is the etymology of latke (or latka) - the potato pancake customarily eaten on Chanukah?

This site provides the following etymology:

In any event, the Yiddish לאטקע (latke) came from the Ukrainian оладка (oldka), which several online dictionaries faithfully translate as pancake, fritter, flapjack, and the like (muffin seems to be in there too for some reason). This is a diminutive of the Old Russian оладья (olad'ya).
Now it gets interesting: this comes from the Greek ελαδια (eladia), plural of ελαδιον (eladion), meaning "a little oily thing", "a little oil", or "a young olive tree". Which proudly paves the way to eladion being a diminutive of elaion, "olive oil", which in turn comes from elaia, the (Ancient) Greek for "olive".

So, centuries later, five languages away, and twice miniaturised, we get our "little tiny things made of (olive) oil" - latkes.

This article in The Forward gives a little more background on the latke:

The distance from the Yiddish latke to the Greek elaion is about as vast as Diaspora itself, but the relationship is interesting because the first latkes were little cakes made from curd cheese and fried in butter or olive oil. (Eating cheese on Chanukah is said to refer to the Apocryphal story of Judith, who fed salty cheesecakes to the Syrian general Holofornes to make him thirsty, and then plied him with wine until he was so inebriated she could chop off his head with a sword; this symbolic connection, though, was not made until many centuries after the first cheese latkes.) As Jews began to migrate eastward into Eastern Europe, butter and oil grew increasingly precious and expensive, and poultry fat became the chief frying agent; this made the use of cheese off-limits, and so by the Middle Ages latkes were most often made not from dairy ingredients but rather with a simple batter made from buckwheat flour (recall the original Russian meaning of "a flat cake made from unleavened wheat flour").

One thing that neither of these articles mentions is that the English words "olive" and "oil" both derive from elaion (as do parts of the words petroleum and Vaseline). So while the custom of eating latkes might not go back to olive oil, certainly the name of the word does...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


It's widely known that there is major disagreement as to the proper spelling of חנוכה in English. Andy Carvin has an interesting article about the different spellings and how Wikipedia has made Hanukkah more popular than Chanukah. And of course Wikipedia deals with the spelling issue in the main article and in the discussion page as well.

A book I picked up a number of years ago - How Do You Spell Chanukah?: A General-Purpose Romanization of Hebrew for Speakers of English by Werner Weinberg recommends Chanukah. Rabbi Josh Waxman in Parshablog suggests Chanukka. I'm partial to Chanuka or even Hanuka, but my wife quotes her fourth grade teacher as saying "The one rule about spelling חנוכה - it must have eight letters." And since shalom bayit (lighting Shabbat candles) comes before the mitzva of publicizing the miracle (lighting חנוכה candles) - see the last Rambam in Sefer Zmanim - I'll stick with Chanukah.

What I didn't realize is just how complicated the etymology of Chanukah is. The complication arises from the multiple meanings of the root חנך. While I am aware that חנך in modern Hebrew can mean "to educate" - as in chinuch חינוך , I always thought that חנך for chanukah meant "dedication". However, this article by Prof. Stefan Reif shows how the basic meaning of the root חנך is "to begin, initiate". Dedicate, on the other hand means "to consecrate to sacred uses" - קדש in Hebrew. He writes that this translation was based on the Latin translation of the Bible - the Vulgate.

One of Reif's proofs is Devarim 20:5, where it says:

מִי-הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר בָּנָה בַיִת-חָדָשׁ וְלֹא חֲנָכוֹ

While the JPS translates it as "Is there anyone who has built a new house but has not dedicated it?", Reif would translate it (as does Tigay in his JPS commentary, based on Reif) as "initiated it" or "started to live in it". Reif quotes an earlier article by Oliver Rankin as saying it means "not removing from the realm of the profane ... to that of the sacred, but the putting to common use." He also points out that no dedication of a private house is found in the Bible or "subsequent Jewish custom" and that "house dedication" is a modern Jewish custom.

He writes that the places where the verb חנך is used in regards to the Mishkan or Beit HaMikdash (Bamidbar 7:10, Divrei HaYamim II 7:5-9) a good translation would be "initation" or "starting upon their course of beneficial service". If "dedication" was intended, the verb should have been קדש or משח.

According to Reif, the reading of חנך as "to train, instruct" comes from a mistranslation of Mishlei 22:6 - חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר, עַל-פִּי דַרְכּוֹ

While the JPS has "Train a lad in the way he ought to go", Reif prefers "Start a boy on the right road."

A number of Rishonim support Reif's approach. Rashi on Bereshit 14:14 writes that "the word חנך signifies introducing a person or a thing, for the first time, to some particular occupation in which it is intended that he should remain". Radak in Sefer HaShorashim follows the same approach.

He concludes with the following:

the later development of the noun חינוך chinuch in the sense of "education" also demonstrates that the rendering "dedication" is inimical to the essential meaning of the stem.

This all seems very convincing. However, Reif does not discuss a very important aspect to the etymology of חנך. Klein writes in that entry:

Denominated from chekh חך ( = palate) and originally meaning 'to rub the palate of a child with chewed dates'. compare Arabic hanak (= palate), hence hannaka (= he rubbed the palate of a child), hanaka ( = he taught, instructed).

So according to Klein, the development is palate -> rubbing the palate -> instruction. It is unclear how we get from there to "dedicate" (as Klein has it) or "initiate" (as Kaddari writes). As Reif wrote, the connection between "education" to "initiation" is stronger than that of "education" to "dedication", but in light of the linguistic evidence, perhaps the order needs to be reversed (i.e. education -> initiation.)

I'm also not sure where the "rubbing dates on the palate" theory first shows up. Jastrow, in his entry for חניכה (surname) writes:

[rubbing the infant's palate with a chewed fig, v. Fl. to Levy Talm. Dict II 206] the name given to the child by the person rubbing his palate

Jastrow is referring to Fleischer's addenda to Levy's dictionary. Fleischer was an expert in Arabic - so it is likely that he based his assumptions on the connection between Hebrew and Arabic. But I haven't seen his entry (and I can't read German in any case) - so I don't know just how convincing it is.

I did find this quote from the Islamic Hadith:

A son was born to me and I brought him to the Prophet, peace and blessings of Allāh be on him, He named him Ibrāhīm, and he chewed a date and rubbed thereby his palate, and prayed for blessings for him and gave him back to me.

with the following note:

The Arabic word is hannaka-hū. The word tahnīk is derived from hanak which means the interior of the upper part of the inside of the mouth, or the palate. The new-born baby is made to taste either a chewed date as in this case, or honey, by some elderly member of the family.
Was this a Jewish custom going all the way back to Biblical times (as it would need to be to be the root of the verb חנך)? I can't say.

However, there is certainly a connection between chekh and chanikhayim חניכיים - gums. As we've seen many times before the nun has a tendency to drop out of Hebrew words, so חך originally must have been חנך.

One interesting point is that the word chanich חניך - which today means "pupil, apprentice, member of youth group" might not be related to the root חנך at all. It appears only once in the Bible, in Genesis 14:14:

וַיָּרֶק אֶת-חֲנִיכָיו

Kaddari, apparently following Albright, claims that it comes from an Egyptian word ha-na ku-u-ka meaning "armed retainers". Others claim that the Egyptian word was borrowed from the Semitic.

Two more articles discussing חנך and Chanukah:

From the Jewish Agency (I'm not sure who the author is - does anyone know?)

By Dr. Joseph Lowin

Monday, December 11, 2006


Over the next couple of weeks I'll be writing posts about Chanukah related words. I have a bunch lined up - but if there are any words you're interested in, please let me know.

Last year, Rabbi Josh Waxman of Parshablog put up the following post on the etymology of sufganiyot סופגניה:

This is admittedly silly, and probably obvious to some, but what is the etymology of sufganiyot (jelly donuts eaten on Chanukka)?

The answer: from sponge, in that it is something which absorbs (oil, I guess). We see this root spg in Hebrew, and in the gemara - one of the more famous examples is sofeg et ha'arbaim, which means that he is lashed 40 (=39) times, that is, he absorbs the 40.

About sponge: According to the American Heritage Dictionary (cited at, the etymology is:
[Middle English, from Old English, from Latin spongia, from Greek spongia, from spongos.]

According to Easton's 1987 Bible dictionary (also cited at, the word
"occurs only in the narrative of the crucifixion (Matt. 27:48; Mark 15:36; John 19:29). It is ranked as a zoophyte. It is found attached to rocks at the bottom of the sea."

What about that n? Shouldn't it be spoge if it is the same root as sofeg? Well, in Greek, doubled gamma is pronounced ng. My favorite example of this is the word angel which is spelled gamma gamma rather than nu gamma.

Josh really covered it, but I have a few points to add:

a) Besides "sponge", spongos (or sphongos) is related to the English words fungus, spunk and punk.

b) Jastrow writes (in his entry for ספוג ) that spoggos "seems to be of Semitic origin", but this site claims that:

The Indo-European root for the fungus-spunk-punk-sphongos-sponge group of words is *panx, a root so very old that it is shared with Uralic, the otherwise unrelated language family of northern Eurasia. Since all the regular sound changes have occurred in both sets of daughter dialects, it is impossible to ascertain whether the loan word was from the Uralic to Indo-European, or vice versa.

c) While the double gamma (digamma) is also attested to here and here, I wonder if the Hebrew ספג wouldn't have been influenced by the tendency of Hebrew to "drop nuns".

d) Perhaps the precursor of the sufganiya was the sufgan סופגן - as found in the Mishna (Hallah 1:4) - also some kind of sponge cake.

e) And of course we can't forget the sufganiya's cousin: sponja ספונג'ה - washing the floor. This entered Hebrew via Ladino - espongar (to clean) with an esponja (a sponge.)

Friday, December 08, 2006


The sixteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet is ayin. The word literally means "eye" and is so called due to the original form of the letter. This letter was borrowed by Greek for their vowels omicron and omega, and became the letter O in Latin (Sacks suggests that there may be a connection between the shape of the letter and the shape of a speaker's mouth when saying "o"). However, ayin is a guttural consonant in Hebrew.

Horowitz writes that ayin "is a twin letter":

Ancient Hebrew had two different ayin sounds. These sounds were represented in our alphabet by the letter ayin. One was a harsh, heavy ayin. This is now lost, and no longer used in Hebrew. The other was a soft, mild ayin. When the Greek Jews translated the Bible into Greek, they had to transliterate Hebrew names having the harsh ayin in it. They used the Greek letter gamma for it - so you can imagine how hard a sound it must have been.

This "ayin gayin" has even come all the way down to English. The Hebrew place names עמורה (amora) and עזה (aza) both of which have this strong ayin were transliterated into Greek as Gommora and Gaza. Didn't the odd forms of these place names in English ever puzzle you?...

Incidentally, Arabic, a close sister language of Hebrew, still pronounces these two ayins differently, and what's more writes them differently.

He then goes on to list a number of pairs of words that would seem to be related based on the letters in their roots, but each originally was based on a different ayin:

עצב sad vs. עצב fashion, shape
עופר deer vs. עפר dust
עור be naked vs. עור be awake

Steinberg writes that there are different alternating letters for the soft and hard ayins. The softer ayin would switch with the other guttural letters: alef (תעב תאב), heh (no example provided) and chet (ענק חנק). The harder ayin switches with gimel (רעש רגש), kaf (עטר כתר) and kuf (ערא קרה). Kuf (as we will see later) can sometimes switch with tzade, so we sometimes have the jump from ayin to tzade as well: רבע רבק רבץ , עוק צוק, ארעא ארקא ארץ.

Klein adds that in some cases, the ayin will fall out of a word, as in רות which may derive from רעות.

From the word ayin (the English word eye has an unrelated etymology) we get ein עין and maayan מעין - meaning "spring, fountain", and according to Klein and others this is a shorter version of עין המים - "eye of the water".

Klein says that the word maon מעון - residence is related to ein, but I don't exactly understand how.

From ayin we get the verbs עין - "to look carefully at", and also "to look askance at" - from which derives the adjective oyen עוין - "hostile".

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


There are a number of explanations for the name Binyamin בנימין ( Bereshit 35:18):

"son of my right hand" (ben yamin - בן ימין , literal translation - although the Binyaminites were left-handed: Shoftim 3:15, 20:16)
"son of the south" (Rashi says south of Aram, Ramban says Aram is east of Eretz Yisrael, but Steg suggests that Binyamin is the southernmost tribe of the children of Rachel)
"son of strength" (Ramban)

All of these meanings - that is, understandings of yamin - are connected. (A different explanation, that the name should be read as בן ימים - " a son of my old age" as proposed by Rashbam, is not connected.)

As we've discussed before, east was forward in the Ancient Israelite culture (as well as others - we still "orient" ourselves to find the way), and so when facing east, south is on the right. From here we get the direction תימן teiman, which leads to the place name as well. However, while the country Yemen (at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula) also derives its name from a cognate of yamin, the Biblical Teiman was in Edom, near Petra. Teiman was also one of the descendants of Esav as well.

The right hand was also considered stronger, and therefore the right side represented dexterity and strength. We see this in English as well, where the word dexterity itself is related to the word right, and of course both meanings of right ("correct" and "opposite of left") are related.

In Arabic, the related yamana means "be fortunate, happy". Yemen was known in Latin as Arabia Felix - "Happy Arabia". Mike Gerver writes:

Arabic maimun, “fortunate one,” is also from the verb yamana. This is the source of the name Maimon, used by Jews in Arabic-speaking countries, including the father of the medieval Jewish philosopher, physician and legal authority, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, known in Hebrew by the acronym רמב''ם, and in English as Maimonides (Greek for “son of Maimon”). In Arabic, maimun also means “ape,” originally a euphemism since apes were considered to devils. It is probably the source, via Spanish mona, “ape,” of English monkey.

This author adds that the the suffix "key" is a diminutive.

Jastrow and Steinberg connect yamin to the root אמן meaning "firm, steady".

Monday, December 04, 2006


The word "sofa" has Semitic origins. From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

1625, "raised section of a floor, covered with carpets and cushions," from Turk. sofa, from Ar. suffah "bench." Meaning "long stuffed seat for reclining" is recorded from 1717.

The American Heritage Dictionary has a similar etymology:

Turkish, from Arabic suffa, carpet, divan, from Aramaic sippa, absolute form of sippeta, mat

It then goes further, and describes the connection to the root צפפ :

ENTRY: spp.

DEFINITION: Also spsp and swp. To press down, cover, overlay. a. sofa, from Arabic suffa, sofa, from Aramaic sippa, absolute form of sippeta, a mat, perhaps akin to sippa, suppa, carded wool; b. Sufi, from Arabic sufi, (man) of wool, from suf, wool, perhaps from Aramaic sippa, suppa, carded wool (see above). Both a and b perhaps from Akkadian suppu, solid, massive, compacted (textile), verbal adjective of suppu, to press down, rub down a horse, derived stem of sâpu.

According to this theory the Hebrew roots צפצפ (meaning "to press", the root meaning "to twitter, whistle" is not related) and צפפ ("to press, crowd") are related to the word tzuf צוף - "bundle of wool" (which is not related to tzuf meaning "honeycomb" or צוף meaning "to float").

Jastrow connects these roots as well, and provides us with an example of the Aramaic cousin of "sofa":

Brachot 25a: חזו הני ציפי דבי רב דהני גנו והני גרסי "look at the mats (tzifei) in the school house, some sleep thereon, while others are studying"

So if the root of "sofa" is with a tzade, why is the Hebrew word ספה sapa?

It seems to be a (mis)reading of Shmuel II 17:28:

מִשְׁכָּב וְסַפּוֹת וּכְלִי יוֹצֵר - "couches, sapot and earthenware"

Most sources interpret sapot as basins. According to Klein, the singular is saf סף (Shmot 12:22, Malachim II 12:14), but we do find sipa ספה for basin in Rabbinic Hebrew.

So why did sapa come to mean sofa? According to Klein and Stahl, this is due to the resemblance between the two words, and the proximity of sapot to mishkav in the verse above.

However, Kaddari in his new dictionary says that sapot does mean something to lie on, and is related to a different meaning of saf סף - "threshold".

Friday, December 01, 2006


The Hebrew preposition ki כי has many meanings. Resh Lakish in Gittin 90a (and other locations) says it has four meanings:

ריש לקיש כי משמש בד' לשונות אי דלמא אלא דהא

These can be translated as "if" (according to Soncino, "or" according to Steinsaltz), "perhaps", "but, rather", and "because". However, there are other possible meanings as well. For further discussion, see (the very long) Rashi here, as well as Tosfot.

What I want to focus on today is ki as an "intensifier or asseverative" as discussed in this article by Prof. James Kugel.

This sense appears with the prefix ha as hachi הכי once in last week's parasha (Toldot) and once in this week's (Vayetze). In Bereshit 27:36, Esav says וַיֹּאמֶר הֲכִי קָרָא שְׁמוֹ יַעֲקֹב .

According to Rashi , hachi is an incredulous question - "Is he not rightly called Yaakov?". However, Ibn Ezra here says that hachi means "truly" - "He is truly called Yaakov". Radak says it is the "ha" that gives it the sense of "truly".

We see a similar discussion on Bereshit 29:15. Lavan says:
הֲכִי-אָחִי אַתָּה, וַעֲבַדְתַּנִי חִנָּם

Based on his commentary here, Rashi would translate the verse as "Is it because you are my brother that you should work for me without charge?", for hachi is, according to him, interrogative. But other commentaries (Radak, Rabbeinu Bachye based on Onkelos) say that hachi shouldn't be viewed as a question, but as an affirmation: "Since you are my brother, why should you serve me for nothing?"

Both interpretations still connect ki, or particularly hachi, to the sense of a superlative - either as "Are you truly?" or "You are truly".

Today in Hebrew, hachi means "most" - as in הכי טוב hachi tov - "the best". Even Shoshan claims it belongs to Modern Hebrew, and it is considered to be less formal than another word meaning "most" - ביותר - b'yoter. However, from what I can tell, the use of hachi precedes that of b'yoter.

We find in Shmuel II 23:19 the phrase מִן-הַשְּׁלֹשָׁה הֲכִי נִכְבָּד . Based on our previous understanding of hachi, we can translate it as "He was truly honorable among the three". But most translations have it as "He was the most honorable of the three" - and the meaning really doesn't change with the adjustment in translation.

While I was able to see the early uses of b'yoter (it seems to be first seen in the Gemara, but not the Mishna), I couldn't really do a similar search for hachi - since it is a very commonly used word in Aramaic. Hachi (or hachei according to Klein) in Aramaic means "so, thus" and according to Jastrow and Klein is a combination of the Aramaic ha הא - this and ki. It is used in such Talmudic phrases as blav hachi בלאו הכי - "without that, in any case", and "in hachi nami" אין הכי נמי - "yes that is the case" (used when conceding a point).