Friday, December 07, 2007

avuka and ptil

It's clear by now that my indexing is taking much longer than I originally expected. And there have been a number of "distractions" that have come up during this time period. But I have received a few requests to continue to write even before the index is done. So just so you know that I continue to pay my electric bill (and that I'm still alive), I'll make sure to put up a regular post (although less frequently than before.)

Although I've spent most of my time indexing books and websites that I've used in the past, I have come across some new material. Well, new to me anyway. An amazing book that I picked up a couple of weeks ago is Yad Halashon (1964) by Yitzhak Avinery, the linguist also well known as the author of Heichal Rashi. This 600+ page book has hundreds of articles that Avinery wrote over a course of decades. The English subtitle calls it a "lexicon of linguistic problems in the Hebrew language." I'm sure I'll refer to it regularly, as it provides an important bridge between the Ben Yehuda's dictionary and innovations and the modern Hebrew I speak in 2007. There are not a few entries about words that I've already written about - but it will probably take even longer for me to go back and review them.

Anyway, on to today's post. In a 1949 article, Avinery makes a connection between two words: avukah אבוקה - "torch" and ptil פתיל - "wick, cord" (also ptila פתילה). The etymology of ptil is well known. It derives from the root פתל - "to twist, twine". It also means "to wrestle", and from here we get the origin of the name Naftali (see Bereshit 30:8).

The origin of avuka is less clear. Klein says the origin is unclear. He is probably following Ben Yehuda, who writes that "the origin of the word is not clear, but perhaps it is a shortened form of אבהוקה avhuka, from the root בהק - "to shine, glow".

However, there is an earlier etymology for avuka, as presented by the Ramban in his commentary to Bereshit 32:25 In this verse we find the root אבק as a verb:
וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר

"Yaakov was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn".

It is clear that the word ויאבק means "he wrestled", but what is the etymology? Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi in Chullin 91a provides two different theories:

וריב"ל אמר אמר קרא (בראשית לב) בהאבקו עמו כאדם שחובק את חבירו
"Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: The Torah writes (Bereshit 32:26) 'as he wrestled בהאבקו with him' - as a person embraces - chovek חובק - his friend".

אמר ר' יהושע ב"ל מלמד שהעלו אבק מרגלותם עד כסא הכבוד
"Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: this teaches us that the dust - avak אבק - of their feet went up to the Divine Throne."

Each of these explanations finds expression in the views of the Rishonim. Rashi quotes Menachem as saying that the verb אבק meant "he was covered in dust", because they were kicking up dirt while they were moving. This is in line with the second opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, and is the view of Ibn Ezra and Radak.

Rashi brings a second opinion, saying that the word אבק is of Aramaic origin, and means "he attached himself." Heb brings a few Talmudic quotes where אבק means "attached", and then says that it is the way of two who struggle, for one person to throw the other down, then he grasps him - אובקו - and entwines him - חובקו -in his arms."

By connecting the roots אבק and חבק, Rashi here seems to be following the first opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi.

The Ramban continues in this vein, and points out that alef and chet often interchange, and brings a number of examples. And getting back to the topic of this post, the Ramban writes that the word avuka meant "a bundle of sticks bound together". And here we see the similarity between ptil / ptila and avuka - both may originate from the idea of string or wood bound or twisted together.

Why did Avinery mention all this? Because he noticed that when people were talking about twisting someone's arm, they would say הוא מסובב את היד. But he points out that the root סובב means "to surround" - not "to twist". So he recommends using the verb ovek אובק - and here he is inspired by none other than Rashi, the subject of his major work. For it seems that Rashi coined the kal form of the verb אבק in his commentary we read above. (In Heichal Rashi, Avinery has a list of Hebrew words coined by Rashi.)

So while it would have made a nice Chanukah post to end with a discussion of wicks and torches, I can't leave out an interesting note about the word avak meaning "dust". Klein provides the following etymology:

Together with Aramaic-Syrian אבקא (= dust), probably derived from [the verb] אבק [related to the Arabic abaqa (= he ran away)] and literally meaning 'that which flees or flies.' ... Greek abax, genitive abakos (= a square tablet strewn with dust for drawing geometrical diagrams; reckoning board) is a Hebrew loan word.
So the word abacus may very well come from Hebrew. (See this Philologos article for a theory of how the word entered Greek from Hebrew.)

So maybe we can still connect all this to Chanukah after all. Two concepts which seem very much Greek - wrestling and abacus - both have a strong Hebrew background. Just to show that the relationship between the Jews and the Greeks wasn't always black and white, lightness and darkness...

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