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.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Kri and Ktiv - Game #5

Well.... Kri and Ktiv Game #4 finally has a winner! Simon has done it again...

I think this one should be much easier (but I haven't been a very good judge of difficulty in the past.)

a) royalty check
b) if I don't pay the rent

Sunday, June 24, 2007

otzar balum

Last week we had an example of a word that was originally written with a samech, but due to the similarity between that letter and a mem sofit, it began to be spelled with a mem in the end: leistes became listim. Today we'll look at another example.

The phrase otzar balum אוצר בלום means "a storehouse". In Gittin 67a, we find that Rabbi Akiva was called an otzar balum - "a storehouse of knowledge." Rashi translates balum as closez - "compartments" (I think related to the English word "closet"). He derives it from the root בלם meaning "to curb, restrain" - which is the source of the word for "brakes" in Hebrew blamim בלמים. (Although you do hear Israelis use the foreign term brakesim, which is somewhat redundant - a double plural.) Rashi bases this understanding on Avot D'Rabbi Natan, which explains that just like a container can store different types of grain in closed compartments, so Rabbi Akiva would store different types of knowledge.

However, Tosafot point out that a different version of the text reads otzar balus אוצר בלוס - a "mixed" treasure. This too fits along with Avot D'Rabbi Natan, for Rabbi Akiva was a mixture of many types of knowledge. Based on this reading, Avshalom Kor claims that the switch from balus to balum was due to a misreading of mem sofit instead of samech.

Kor mentions another word that would seem to be derived from בלם but is not related: בלימה blima. In the book of Iyov (26:7), God is described as:

נֹטֶה צָפוֹן עַל-תֹּהוּ; תֹּלֶה אֶרֶץ, עַל-בְּלִימָה.

"He it is who stretched out Tzafon over chaos; who suspended earth over emptiness (blima)"

The word blima here is actually made up of two word - bli בלי - "without" and ma מה- "anything". So it means "emptiness, nothingness". And in some editions of the Tanach, we find that the two words are separated with a hyphen: בלי-מה.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

pashat et haregel

In Hebrew, to say someone went bankrupt, we say that he pashat et haregel פשט את הרגל. This literally means "he extended his leg (or foot)", which doesn't seem to have much connection to bankruptcy.

But I happened to be reading a mishna from Masechet Ketubot, and I found the origin of this expression. Chapter 13, Mishna 5 (108b in the Gemara) reads: הפוסק מעות לחתנו, ופשט לו את הרגל

"If a person stipulated to give money to his son-in-law, and he pashat lo et haregel..." We'll explain the origin of the phrase in a minute, but the meaning here is that the father-in-law failed to pay the dowry to his son-in-law. It is easy to understand how the concept was extended to anyone who does not pay money they owe.

As to the strange imagery - it's first of all important to note that the phrase in the Mishna says pashat lo et haregel, he extended the foot "to him", and not as in modern Hebrew just "pashat et haregel" - "he extended the foot" (although this version appears in some manuscripts of the Mishna and Gemara). The idea here is that the father-in-law "stuck it to" his son-in-law.

Different commentaries explain the metaphor as follows:

Rashi: It is a derisive term, and can either mean "Take the mud and dust from my foot" (because that's all you're going to get) or "Hang me by my foot" (and you still won't get money from me.)

Rivan: "You can take my foot" (but I don't have any money to give you).

Rambam: It means the father-in-law fled to another country, "picked up his legs" and left.

Meiri: It is a way of saying the father-in-law died.

Monday, June 18, 2007

gaza and gauze

I was going to write a post about the city of Gaza עזה, if it was related to the word עוז oz - strength, and the theory that the material "gauze" gets its name from Gaza. But it turns out that Lameen Souag already wrote the complete post.

So while I haven't done this before, instead of writing my own piece, I would like to recommend you read:

Ayin-less in Gaza

Thursday, June 14, 2007


It's a good thing that I live in the age of computers. Had I tried writing this stuff in a time where I would need to write by hand - no one would have been able to decipher my handwriting. Usually, my unclear handwriting is only a problem to a small group of people who need to suffer it. But in the past, when everything was handwritten, the impact of an unclear letter could be very significant in determining the meaning of a word. And occasionally, a misspelling could alter the word itself.

That's what we find with the word listim ליסטים (or לסטים). In Talmudic Hebrew we find the word meaning "robber, bandit". According to Avshalom Kor (Yofi Shel Ivrit, ch 32), the word originally was ליסטיס leisteis - from the Greek leistes or lestes meaning "robber".

The Greek lestes does not appear in any common English words, but appears in a number of scientific animal names, usually as a suffix, meaning "predator". For example:

Over time, the final samech of ליסטיס was incorrectly identified as a final mem, and the word began to be spelled ליסטים. I should point out that Steinsaltz writes that listim was an abbreviated form of listesim ליסטסים. However, Kor's view seems to be more widely accepted, and he brings other examples of samech / final mem mix-ups.

It seems that from here, listim came to be identified as a plural due to the -im ending. While I couldn't find an example of a person being referred to as a listi לסטי (as in Ben-Yehuda's dictionary), we do find cases where listim meant plural. Perhaps the most famous was quoted in Rashi's commentary on the first verse of the Torah - לסטים אתם - "You are robbers!".

From this word we find a number of derivatives: לסטם - "to rob" and listiut לסטיות - robbery. But my favorite has to be a word I found in Jastrow, quoting Midrash Shir HaShirim Rabba on Shir HaShirim 6:4. It is the word for a "robbers' retreat, den": ליסטירין - listerine! While the mouthwash Listerine is not connected etymologically (it was named for Joseph Lister, whose surname did not come from our Greek word), one of my favorite comedians, Mitch Hedberg, shows the predatory nature of Listerine:

When you put Listerine in your mouth, it hurts. Germs do not go quietly!

Monday, June 11, 2007

nesher and ayit

Sometimes how you define a word actually "defines" you as well.

For example, let's take the Hebrew words nesher נשר and ayit עיט.

From an informal survey I have taken, most native English speakers (who know Hebrew) will identify the nesher with the eagle, and if they have an answer - the ayit with the vulture.

Israelis, on the other hand, generally reverse the definitions. If they know English - they'll say nesher = vulture, and ayit = eagle. For those that didn't know, I showed them this picture:

The Israelis would usually say that #1 is an ayit, and #2 is a nesher.

Typically, the modern commentaries reflect this division. The JPS translates nesher as eagle, for example in Shemot 19:4, where the translation "on eagles' wings" sounds much more natural than "on vultures' wings" (82,000 hits on Google for the former vs. 7 for the latter.) On the other hand, the Daat Mikra almost always identifies the nesher with the Griffon Vulture.

The dictionaries also know their audience. The Even-Shoshan Dictionary (Hebrew-Hebrew) has the Griffon Vulture as the primary definition for nesher, with eagle as only a secondary option. Even-Shoshan also has eagle for ayit. The Alcalay Dictionary (Hebrew-English) has exactly the opposite order.

But of course, there are always those people who take it upon themselves to correct popular usage and put the masses on the proper path. And here we find two articles - each trying to convince the reader that they should change their initial association.

First we find an article by Rabbi Nosson Slifkin - no stranger to controversy. In his article, The Identity of the Nesher, he tells an English speaking audience why they should think of vultures, not eagles, when they say nesher.

Here are some of his reasons:

  • Rav Saadia Gaon and Ibn Ezra "translate nesher with the Arabic term nesr, which refers to the griffon vulture" (but see below)
  • Despite our association of the eagle as noble and the vulture as loathsome, in ancient times, the vulture was revered
  • The nesher is described as eating carrion (the carcass of a dead animal) in Iyov 39:27-30 and Mishlei 30:17, which fits a vulture, not an eagle
  • The nesher is described as bald in Micha 1:16, which matches the vulture not the eagle. As far as the "bald eagle", Slifkin writes:

    Even the bald eagle is not actually bald; it merely has white feathers on its head (its name comes from the Old English word balde, which means “white”). Besides, it only lives in America, and Scripture would therefore not discuss it.
  • The nesher is described as "the highest flying bird", a title which belongs to the griffon vulture, not the eagle
  • The vulture better fits the Talmudic description of the nesher (Chullin 61a) and Tosfot on 63a (s.v. netz) says that those who say the nesher is an eagle are mistaken (such as the Chizzkuni on Vayikra 11:13)
On the other hand, we have an article by one of Israel's premier linguists, Ze'ev Ben-Hayyim. Ben-Hayyim was one of the founders of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, and its president. In his book, B'Milchamta Shel Lashon (The Struggle for a Language) he has two pieces about nesher and ayit (both originally published in the journal Leshonenu).

He writes (in 1943) that every "Ivri" knows that nesher is eagle and ayit is vulture. But then came those who turned everything upside-down and began teaching the opposite. He says it is clear that when we refer to the Rambam as "HaNesher HaGadol" הנשר הגדול - we are talking about a symbol of royalty, just as the Romans had an eagle for their royal symbol.

So where did this "mistaken" view originate? According to Ben-Hayyim, from two faulty etymologies.

On the one hand, there were those who thought the word nesher derives from the root נשר - "to fall out, to drop, to shed". This would seem to be appropriate for the vulture, who, as we saw above, has more of a bald head - one whose feathers "fell out". But this does not work out when we realize, as Horowitz writes, that shin is "a double letter". Nesher (the bird) in Arabic and Aramaic becomes nesr and nishra נשרא respectively, but the verb "to fall out" is נתר (with a tav) in Arabic and Aramaic.

He also writes that the identification of ayit as eagle is mistaken. This was based on the Greek word for eagle, aetos, which looks a lot like ayit, but isn't connected etymologically. (Gesenius mentions both terms together here.)

(About 20 years after that article was written, a heated debate took place in the Academy between zoologists and linguists. In the end the vote was 12 to 3 to have nesher mean "eagle", followed by a unanimous vote for nesher kerech נשר קרח to be the term for vulture.)

So where do we go from here? Let's start by looking at the word ayit. All seem to agree that it derives from the root עיט or עוט meaning "to rush down, to dart" - the description of a bird of prey. We see this description in Bereshit 15:11, where it says that the ayit descended on the carcasses. - וַיֵּרֶד הָעַיִט, עַל-הַפְּגָרִים.

Onkelos translates ayit as עופא - "birds", indicating that this is a more general term, not referring to a particular type of bird. (Drazin and Wagner in their Onkelos on the Torah, suggest another reason, saying that "Onkelos and Saadiah tone down the biblical "birds of prey descended on the carcasses," which seems a somewhat disrespectful and savage depiction of a solemn occasion.) So while an eagle might fit into the category of "ayit", there is no reason to make an exclusive association. (In fact, at least based on the Bereshit story, it would seem that an eagle is not the best word, since it does not generally eat carrion.)

What about nesher? One of the participants in my survey responded as follows:

Both in Biblical usage and modern scientific parlance, nesher is appropriately associated with the griffon vulture; whereas ayit refers to the eagle. The possible exception to this in Tanach is Yechezkel's depiction of Melech Bavel in Perek 17; as noted by Yehudah Feliks, the depiction of this particular nesher as "full of feathers" suggests an eagle rather than a vulture.
Indeed, even the Daat Mikra (on Yechezkel 17:3) agrees that this verse is likely referring to an eagle. But if we go by the rule that "The Torah speaks in the language of man" (Berachot 31b), then the word nesher in that context must have made sense to the reader. And so, it would seem that nesher as well, refers to a larger group of birds, including both vultures and eagles.

This is the explanation of the Encyclopedia Mikrait as well, who writes that the Arabic term nesr also does not refer to only one species, but to both eagles and vultures (in contrast with Slifkin above.) The EM also says that while most examples of nesher refer to vultures, Mishlei 23:5 is likely referring to the Imperial Eagle, and Shemot 19:4 to the Golden Eagle.

So I think that in the end, both native English speakers and native Hebrew speakers can go on referring to the nesher and ayit the way they always did, but hopefully with a great deal of understanding of the other side.

For further reading:

Tuesday, June 05, 2007


Last month, Treppenwitz, one of my daily reads and a fellow resident of Efrat, wrote a very funny post about how his wife Zahava thought that the word akbar in the Arabic phrase "Allahu Akbar" ("God is Great") meant "mouse" (like the Hebrew achbar עכבר). The Arab worker in the supermarket corrected her and said:

"No... 'Achbar' [with the 'ch sound scraped deep in the back of his throat] meant mouse. Akbar [with the 'k' sound coming percussively from the roof of his mouth] , was... something completely different."
I had enjoyed the story, but hadn't given much thought to the linguistic side of it, until last Friday. In our local library, I found a very important entry in the Encyclopedia Mikrait (Biblical Encyclopedia) called Milim Zarot (Foreign Words in the Bible) by the important Israeli linguist Chaim Rabin. The article mentions dozens of words that may have entered the Bible from neighboring languages, and as you can expect, it has provided me with many ideas for future posts.

While I was familiar with words of Akkadian, Egyptian and even Greek origins, I didn't realize that there were Biblical words that derived from Arabic (actually proto-Arabic or Ancient North Arabian). One of the Hebrew words that Rabin suggests comes from Arabic is none other than עכבר achbar, mouse! He writes that it probably meant "great / big one", in a euphemistic way. It would then very much be related to the Arabic akbar, which is אכבר in Hebrew, from the root כבר - "great". He writes that in certain Arabic dialects in the region it was common to switch between alef and ayin.

From the root כבר we get a number of other words, including the adjective kabir כביר - "great" and perhaps the Greek gods - the Cabeiri.

Two other homonyms to כבר may be related as well. The verb כבר means "to sift", and a kvara כברה is a sieve. Klein suggests a connection:

According to some scholars כבר ( "to be great") is identical with כבר ( "to sift"), the sense development of this base having been "to interturn, twist, make strong". They compare the bases גדל ( "to be great") and גדל ( "to twist, to plait") which seem to have undergone a similar sense development.

Another word with the same letters is kvar כבר - "already". In the Bible it appears only in Kohelet, and in the Gordis book on Kohelet, he writes the following:

It is frequent in Mishnaic Hebrew, but rare in Targumic Aramaic. It occurs also in Syriac, where it usually means "perhaps", though it occurs as "already" in Mat. 11:21; Heb 10:2 and in Mandaic כבאר. Its root is common in all Semitic languages in the meaning "be great", hence כבר = lit. "length of time:, while כברה is "length of land" (Genesis 35:16, 48:7, II Ki. 5:19)
In regards to kivra כברה, Ben-Yehuda does mention the approach that it is related to kabir, but primarily goes along with most other scholars that I read who claim that the kaf in kivra is not radical, and the root of the word should be seen as ברה or ברת.

Sunday, June 03, 2007


Before we get started with today's post, I'm including a built in kri-and-ktiv game - the answer will come at the end. (But I'm still waiting for a solution to the last game - and remember, the winner gets his (or her) name and link on the Balashon sidebar!)

So here goes:

1) From Miriam's sister-in-law
2) A Piano

Now today's word - psanter פסנתר - follows the two previous posts - sudar and kalmar, for it too started as a Greek word that looked like a Hebrew plural and therefore eventually took on a "singular" form in Hebrew. Klein's entry:

New Hebrew: piano. Back formation from BAram פסנתרין or פסנטרין ( = a musical instrument), which was misconceived as a plural. BAram פסנטרין is borrowed from Greek psalterion ( = stringed instrument, harp) from psallein ( = to pluck, twitch the harp), which is cognate with Latin palpare ( = to touch softly, stroke), palpitare ( = to move quickly), palebra (= eyelid)
What's different about psanter(in) is that unlike the other two words, this one comes from a biblical source - the Book of Daniel. For example, in Daniel 3:5 we find:

בְּעִדָּנָא דִּי תִשְׁמְעוּן קָל קַרְנָא מַשְׁרוֹקִיתָא קַתְרוֹס [כתיב: קיתרוס] סַבְּכָא פְּסַנְתֵּרִין סוּמְפֹּנְיָה וְכֹל זְנֵי זְמָרָא

The JPS translates it as follows:

"When you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, zither, lyre, psaltery, bagpipe, and all other types of instruments..."

They translate psanterin as "psaltery" - and as we saw above, they have the same Greek root. So too does the word "psalm":

O.E. salm, from L. psalmus, from Gk. psalmos "song sung to a harp," originally "performance on stringed instrument," from psallein "play on a stringed instrument, pull, twitch." Used in Septuagint for Heb. mizmor "song," especially the sort sung by David to the harp.

While we've been identifying the psanterin with the harp, this site says it might be actually closer to our piano:

Though the Greek psalterion was a harplike instrument, Sendry [Alfred Sendry, Music in Ancient Israel, p. 297] suggests that Daniel's pesantern was more akin to a dulcimer. He further suggests that it had been one of a number of musical instruments originally imported from the east, improved by the Greeks, and re-exported to the east.
And what is a "dulcimer"? From Answers.com:

A narrow, often hourglass-shaped stringed instrument having three or four strings and a fretted fingerboard, typically held flat across the knees while sitting and played by plucking or strumming.

Stringed musical instrument in which the strings are beaten with small hammers rather than plucked.

stringed musical instrument. It is a wooden box with strings stretched over it that are struck with small mallets.
I don't know much about musical instruments, but that seems more "piano-like" than the traditional harp.

Some of the other words mentioned in that verse in Daniel are familiar to us as well. Katros (zither) derives from the Greek kithara, which also gave us the words "guitar" and "zither" (and if we go back earlier, the Greeks got it from the Persians, from where we get the instrument "sitar".) And sumponia (bagpipe) is clearly related to the English word "symphony" - a number of instruments played together (which some say is a better translation than "bagpipe".)

And now back to the quiz we started with. If you haven't figured it out yet, the word is מכושית. Makoshit was Ben-Yehuda's suggestion for a Hebrew word for "piano". A makosh מכוש is a hammer, and was meant to be the key of a piano as well. I suppose that this word was good for Ben Yehuda for two reasons - a) it was of Hebrew origin, not Greek, and b) it better captured the hammering motion of the piano than the plucking of a harp.

But sadly for him, it was not to be, and psanter superseded makoshit as the Hebrew word for piano (I haven't found any source that explains exactly when and how, and if psanter was in use during his life). Today, even the Hebrew Language Academy recognizes psanter for piano.

However, according to here, the word makoshit is still used to describe something musical:

The small metal rod that is used to strike a triangle to produce a musical note is called a BADIT (bet-dalet-yud-tav) MAKOSH (mem-kuf-vav-shin) , by the way, is the little hammer for striking the keys of a xylophone, MAKOSHIT in Hebrew, or MACHOSHIT.
And I can't mention "xylophone" without quoting one of my favorite comedians, the late Mitch Hedberg:

'Xylophone' is spelled with an X. It should be a Z. Xylophone, zzzz. I don't see it. Next time you spell 'xylophone', spell it with a Z. If someone tells you that's wrong, say 'No it ain't.' If you think that that's wrong, then you need to get your head Z-rayed. It's like X didn't have enough to do, so they had to promise it more. 'Okay, you won't start a lot of words, but you will have a co-starring role in Tic-Tac-Toe. And you will be equated with hugs and kisses. And you will mark the spot. And you will make writing "Christmas" easier. And you will incidentally start "xylophone." Are you happy now, you stupid X?'