Friday, July 13, 2007


Growing up in San Francisco, we used to have a joke about our neighbors to the south:
"What's the difference between Los Angeles and yogurt? Yogurt has an active culture..."
(when I googled this, I found the same joke about the American Bar Association, Canada, New Zealand, Portland, Texas ... )

Would the same joke work in Hebrew? Not exactly, but we'll examine why.

Let's first take a look at the etymology of the English word "culture". From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

1440, "the tilling of land," from L. cultura, from pp. stem of colere "tend, guard, cultivate, till". The figurative sense of "cultivation through education" is first attested 1510. Meaning "the intellectual side of civilization" is from 1805; that of "collective customs and achievements of a people" is from 1867.
We see here the development of the meaning, from gardening to education to civilization - the meaning we are most familiar with today. The Hebrew word for culture - תרבות tarbut - underwent a similar, but independent, development.

The word only appears once in the Bible, in this week's parasha (Matot). Moshe Rabeinu is castigating the tribes of Reuven and Gad, saying that their interest in settling the eastern side of the Jordan is like the sin of the spies a generation before. He says to them (Bamidbar 32:14) -

וְהִנֵּה קַמְתֶּם, תַּחַת אֲבֹתֵיכֶם--תַּרְבּוּת, אֲנָשִׁים חַטָּאִים
The JPS translates as follows: "And now you, a breed (tarbut) of sinful men, have replaced your fathers". Milgrom adds the following note:
Tarbut, from the root r-b-h רבה, "increase," is related to tarbit " (monetary) interest." Like the other nominal form marbit (I Sam 2:33), it carries a derogatory connotation (Ehrlich). Alternatively, it may derive from rav (root r-b-b רבב), "mighty," yielding the rendering "a force" (Meyuhas).

Kaddari, on the other hand, says that the word is related to the Akkadian tarbutu - which he translates as chanich חניך. I assume this means "student", and is therefore similar to the translation of Onkelos, תלמידי גובריא חיביא - "students of sinful men". (The idea being that the tribes of Reuven and Gad were followers of their fathers, the spies.)

In Rabbinic Hebrew, we see tarbut in general being related to education and training. For example, in the Mishna in the first chapter of Bava Kama (15b), we find tamed wild animals being called בני תרבות "bnei tarbut". Both Ehrlich's etymology and Kaddari's fit here - the animals were either grown (raised) in the human's house, or educated there.

But in general, in Rabbinic Hebrew we still find tarbut having a negative connotation, in such phrases as תרבות רעה tarbut ra'ah - "bad manners, depravity".

However, by medieval times, we find examples of tarbut being used in a positive sense, closer to today's meaning of "culture". For example, Rashi on Horayot 12a, s.v. דמתא mentions תרבות יפה - "tarbut yafe". Rabbeinu Gershon (Tamid 27b) discusses the tarbut of Persia, and how it is more modest than the tarbut of Rome. It does seem to mean "manners" in these examples, but in a general enough sense that it can apply to a civilization as a whole.

Early modern Hebrew continued to use the word kultura קולטורה for culture, particularly during the debates over the nature of Zionist culture in the early days of the movement. I'm not sure when tarbut took over as the more popular word, but Ben-Yehuda does seem to push the use of tarbut in his dictionary.

So today tarbut means culture - in almost all its forms. It can mean civilization (tarbut sinit - Chinese culture), manners (a "cultured person" is meturbat מתורבת), and artistic activity ("Let's go to the ballet and get some tarbut").

But the one sense that it doesn't really have to day is that of a culture of microbes - like in yogurt. What's the word for that in Hebrew? Tarbit תרבית - which we saw Milgrom say earlier means "interest". But with modern Hebrew using ribit ריבית for interest, tarbit was freed up for that kind of culture.

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