Tuesday, April 24, 2007

pras and prize

There is much talk of "prize" and pras פרס - "award, prize" in the air lately. First of all, on Yom Haatzmaut, Israel Independence Day, the prestigious Israeli Prizes פרסי ישראל are awarded. And in the blogging world, voting has begun for the JIBs - Jewish and Israeli Blog Awards.

In a comment on this post, reader Phil writes:

I couldn't help but notice the similarity between 'pras' and 'prize.'
(A similar question was posted on the Take Our Word For It site.)

Well, before we discuss whether pras and prize are related, we first should check if indeed they are actually synonyms. The most familiar source where pras would seem to mean prize, is Avot 1:3 -

אנטיגנוס איש סוכו קיבל משמעון הצדיק. הוא היה אומר, אל תהיו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב, על מנת לקבל פרס, אלא הוו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב, על מנת שלא לקבל פרס; ויהי מורא שמיים עליכם.

Antigonus Ish Socho ... would declare: "Do not act as servants who serve their master on the condition of receiving pras; instead, act as servants who serve their master not on the condition of receiving pras, and let the fear of Heaven be upon you."
Now, generally, pras is translated here as "reward". This is based on the commentary of the Rambam, who writes that (Kehati summary):

Peras is a gratuity bestowed upon a person to whom nothing is owed; it is given out of sheer generosity, as an act of kindness and grace.
The Rambam says this is the difference between sachar שכר and pras - sachar is payment, and is deserved, and pras is a reward, a gratuity.

However, the Rambam's commentary, while teaching important messages about the worship of God, does not seem to fit the literal meaning of the word pras. As this article by Elias Bickerman shows, pras originally meant "payment, salary". It specifically referred to the daily bread of the slave. (The Meiri on Avot 1:3, and the Maharsha on Avoda Zara 19a concur with this point.)

For example, in Eruvin 72b we see that those who are still dependent on their parents for food are considered mikablei peras מקבלי פרס. The continuation on 73a says that slaves receive pras from their master, and wives receive from their husbands. This is clearly not talking about a gratuity.

(Additionally, the Rambam himself in Hilchot Teshuva 10:5 uses sachar as a synonym for peras.)

The Hebrew root פרס means "to split, divide, break", and a pras therefore originally meant "a half of something", "a portion". Klein points out that there are scholars who derive the word פרנס - -"to maintain, support" and parnasa פרנסה - "livelihood" as coming from פרס, with an added letter nun.

According to this understanding of the word pras, the entire mishna has a different meaning. Instead of being instructed not to hope for extra honor, we are told to worship God without any expectations at all - even to survive. Bickerman believes this is due to Antigonos living at the time of the pre-Chanukah persecutions, when many Jews may have asked why should they continue to serve God with all these difficulties. I think that perhaps the end of the mishna shows what Antigonus thought our motivation should be - not desire for reward, not even from love of God - but from fear.

So while the Rambam's interpretation of the mishna certainly influenced our understanding of the word peras, how did it come to mean almost exclusively "award, reward" today? Ben Yehuda writes this meaning gained its prominent role due to influence from the similar sounding European words - the German "preis", the French "prix" (think Grand Prix) and of course the English "prize". And this is therefore a very important lesson to amateur linguists (like me) - when you want to see if two words from different languages are related, you first must know what their earliest meanings are.

And in regard to that, where does the word "prize" come from? Well, here's Take Our Word For It's answer to the question above:

Both price and prize derive from the Latin pretium, "price" via Late Latin precium and Old French pris. Middle English (from the 1200s) used pris (or priis or prijs or priys or pries or prys or pryys - they weren't great sticklers for spelling) to mean "price, value, honor, prize, or praise". Later, this word became three separate words: price, prize and praise. The earliest example of prize is in The Merchant of Venice: "Is that my prize, are my deserts no better?", Shakespeare (1596). The use of price to mean "honor" is now completely obsolete, but we occasionally encounter the Biblical expression "a pearl of great price" in which price still means "value".

While the more ancient roots of these words are obscure they are most certainly Indo-European, not Semitic. It is suggested that the root of pretium is *per- "to traffic in, to sell" as the root, with one of its forms being *pret- although there is a minority opinion that it might be from *preti- "back" (the notion being that one gets something "back" or in payment or barter for an object or service).

So we see not only did pras not always mean prize, even prize didn't always mean prize! In fact, according to the OED: pretium meant "price, value, wages, reward" - so there seems to be a common trend from words meaning "wages" to words meaning "honor". Reminds me of how more and more restaurants automatically add the gratuity to the bill...

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