Tuesday, June 26, 2007

dir balak

Many years ago, when I was first exposed to Israeli slang, I came up with the following joke:

"How did Bilaam start the letter he gave to the messengers?" "Dear Balak..."

For those who aren't familiar with the term, dir balak דיר באלכ is an Arabic phrase meaning "pay attention", and is often used in Hebrew in the sense of "Watch your back! Pay attention (that this doesn't happen)!"

We can break up the phrase into two parts. Dir is a form of the Arabic verb dar, meaning "to turn around". Hebrew has the cognate דור - also meaning "to go in a circle." Stahl and Klein both list a number of derivatives, including:

  • dira דירה - house, originally "buildings surrounding a court"
  • dor דור - generation
  • doar דואר - mail. davar דוור is the mail-carrier, one who goes around from house to house
  • kadur כדור - ball. Klein writes that some experts "explain the word is formed from prefix כ (= as) and דור (= circle)."
But what about balak? Stahl points out that it is a form of the Arabic word bal ( באל ) meaning "sense, mind, attention". Besides in dir balak, it is used in a number of Arabic phrases:
  • aja a-balo - he thought of it
  • tawal balo - be patient
  • rach min balo - he forgot
After doing a little digging, I was able to find an Aramaic cognate to the Arabic word, and with luck, it appears in the book of Daniel. In verse 6:15, we find the following:

אֱדַיִן מַלְכָּא כְּדִי מִלְּתָא שְׁמַע, שַׂגִּיא בְּאֵשׁ עֲלוֹהִי, וְעַל דָּנִיֵּאל שָׂם בָּל, לְשֵׁיזָבוּתֵהּ; וְעַד מֶעָלֵי שִׁמְשָׁא, הֲוָא מִשְׁתַּדַּר לְהַצָּלוּתֵהּ

"Upon hearing that, the king was very disturbed, and he set his heart upon saving Daniel, and until the sun set made every effort to rescue him" (JPS translation).

Now the word bal בל appears only here in the entire Tanach. Rashi admits that he does not know what it means, but can figure it out from context. However, the commentators who lived in Arabic speaking countries (Rav Saadia Gaon, Ibn Ezra) were familiar with the word, and noted that the Aramaic bal has an Arabic cognate meaning "thought", and so the phrase means "to pay attention". There is a similar phrase in Hebrew - sim lev שים לב, also meaning "pay attention", literally "set his heart". The similarity between the Aramaic bal and the Hebrew lev led some commentators (Radak, Ralbag) to conclude that the two words are related - just the letters switched places.

When I looked in the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon, I found additional references to the Aramaic word bal, including some potentially interesting articles. However, I'm not familiar with the abbreviations used on the site, and I don't have access to the books and articles mentioned:

bl, blʾ (bālā) n.m. mind

1 mind Com.
2 in verbal and quasi-verbal expression: be mindful of BA, Jud, Man. --(a) w. סים, יהב: to pay attention BA, Jud. --(b) יהב בל מן: beware of Jud. --(c) plus pron. suffixes: pay attention! Man.
3 condition Man.
4 preoccupation Man.

LS2: 62.

CAL JPA dictionary search for bl N

        בל n.m. sense (CPA \f7bl\f1 LSp 23, Mal bo:la Berg, Gl 12) only in phrase:
יהב בל pay attention, be aware sg. לכון מיניהx{א}ב +ו<ב>ה
pay attention to him RH 59a(31); (אבא לכון בייתא text:) הבו בלכון מיני
Dem 23a(5)

On phrase יהב בל, v. Lieb, Greek 132+; id., Tarbiz 20(1960):111;
LSp 80, s.v. \f7yhb\f1, mng. 3.

So if anyone can help out with any of this, particularly access to the Tarbiz article or the Lieberman book, I'd be grateful.

No comments: