Friday, May 30, 2008


Back in December, I started a series of words, but never finished them. Do you remember the series? I'll give you a hint...

I was discussing the words that make up the acronym PaRDeS, and I had already reviewed the word peshat. Today we'll look at the word remez רמז, meaning "hint".

Klein says the verb רמז means "to wink, beckon, hint, allude, make signs", and is related to the Arabic ramaza - "he winked with the eyes". Stahl points out that the Arabic name Ramzi, meaning "symbol" derives from this root. In Modern Hebrew we have the word ramzor רמזור, "traffic light", which is a compound of רמז - "he made a sign" and אור or - "light".

only appears in post-Biblical Hebrew. However, many feel that a metathesized form of the word appears in the Tanach. The problem is it only found once, in Iyov 15:12

מַה-יִּקָּחֲךָ לִבֶּךָ; וּמַה-יִּרְזְמוּן עֵינֶיךָ.

This is in the section where Eliphaz is criticizing Iyov's attitude toward God. The classic commentaries (Rashi, Ibn Ezra) as well as Klein in his dictionary say that the root רזם here means wink, and is a form of רמז. They would therefore translate the verse as:

"How your heart has carried you away, and what do your eyes wink / hint at."
This article says that perhaps the Talmudic name murzema, cognate to the Arabic mirzam, meaning "flamingo", might derive its name from remez as "hint", as a euphemism for the bird's loud call.

Kaddari, however, thinks that the two roots are not necessarily related. He says that רמז is borrowed from Aramaic and Syriac, but רזם appears in the Lachish letters.

Ben Yehuda also claims the roots are not related, but he goes further, and says that the root רזם means "to weaken", and only in the Middle Ages was the root used as a synonym for רמז. It would seem that if רזם means "weak", it might be related to the root רזה, meaning "thin, lean". This is the New JPS Translation as well, "how your eyes have failed you", although they do note that "meaning of Hebrew uncertain".

In the footnote for Ben Yehuda's entry on רזם, he refers us to the commentary of Tur-Sinai on Iyov (actually it was probably Tur-Sinai himself doing the referring, since he was the editor of the volume.) Tur-Sinai disagrees with Shadal, who emends the verse in Iyov to read ירומון instead of ירזמון. (See footnote 25 here, and here for a full discussion of Shadal and textual emendation. Tur-Sinai was no stranger to emendation - his Biblical commentary seems to suggest one for every difficult verse.)

Shadal's suggestion of ירומון - "how you have raised your eyes" or "why are your eyes lifted up" does make sense in the context. "Raised eyes" - עינים רמות - enayim ramot, is a common biblical image for pride (see Mishlei 6:17, 21:4, Tehillim 18:28, 101:5). Eliphaz is criticizing Iyov for excessive pride. He asks him, "Were you the first man born ... Have you sole possession of wisdom ... What do you know that we do not know?" So certainly it would make sense that he was accusing Iyov of pride - perhaps more so than winking or failing eyes.

However, in this case, I think Shadal might have relied on something more than the contextual meaning. The Septuagint translates ירזמון as ephnegkan - επηνεγκαν, which means "carry, lift up." The root of this word is pherein - "to carry", and is the source of the words infer, aquifer and fertile (and we've also seen it in the Hebrew word apiryon אפריון).

But if Shadal's emendation was based on the Septuagint, I might have a suggestion that would not require changing the text. We've mentioned the theory that רזם might mean "weak" based on an Arabic root. But רזם in Arabic can also refer to a "bundle or package". Maybe "carrying (a bundle)" was the meaning of רזם that the Septuagint was trying to convey?

Stahl writes that the word ruzmeh (or rizmah) went from the general meaning of "bundle" to the specific meaning of "bundle of paper". From here we get the English word "ream (of paper)":

from O.Fr. reyme, from Sp. resma, from Arabic rizmah "bundle" (of paper), from rasama "collect into a bundle." The Moors brought manufacture of cotton paper to Spain. Early variant rym (1470s) suggests a Du. influence (cf. Du. riem), probably during the time of Spanish Hapsburg control of Holland.
The American Heritage Dictionary has a similar entry for the Semitic root rzm:

Arabic root, to bundle. ream, from Arabic rizma, bundle, from razama, to bundle.
In the end, with the word ירזמון only appearing once in the Tanach, we may never really know. But these kinds of words leave a lot open to interpretation, which is why the Tanach has so many levels - one of which is remez (allegory)...

Thursday, May 15, 2008

balashon logo

I'd like to add some sort of logo or graphic to Balashon, that I could use to represent the site, and use to dress up the site a bit. I have no real graphic skills, so if any of you readers out there would like to try to come up with something, it would be great. I was thinking maybe something with the word בלשון with each letter in a different Hebrew script (Ivri, Ashuri, Rashi, etc), but I'm open to ideas. A link to my email is in the sidebar. Thanks...

*** Update: Thanks to Joel Nothman, I've updated the page header. As always, I'd appreciate your feedback on any issues of layout...

why not in hebrew?

(This post is explaining why this site is not written in Hebrew).

לפעמים שואלים אותי, "אם אתה כותב על לשון העברית, למה האתר לא בעברית?"

יש שתי סיבות:

א) למרות שאני אוהב ללמוד על עברית, ויש לי נסיון בכתיבה בעברית, יש לי עדיין הרבה טעויות, בדקדוק ובאיות. אני חושש שהשגיאות האלה יסיחו את דעתו של הקורא מתוכן המאמר.

ב) אני כותב הרבה על השינויים של משמעויות של מילים בעברית במשך הדורות. קשה מאד לעשות את זה בכתיבה בעברית, כי אז לא ברור אם אני מדבר על המילה או על המושג. קחו את המאמר הזה לדוגמא. אני טוען שמה שקוראים "חורף" היום זה בעצם סתיו, ו-"סתיו" הוא חורף.

הרבה יותר קל לעשות את זה באנגלית, שבה אני יכול להגיד ש:

While today stav means "autumn", originally it referred to winter

בעברית זה היה "היום סתיו זה סתיו אבל במקור היה חורף"

רואים את הקושי?

אז אני מתנצל לאלה שקשה להם באנגלית, אבל אני מניח בסוף גם הם ילמדו משהו על העברית...

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Degel דגל is an interesting word. Ask any Israeli - or any Hebrew speaker for that matter - and they will tell you that it means "flag". That certainly is the uncontested meaning in Modern Hebrew. But I imagine that only a precious few will know the meaning the word had in Biblical Hebrew (do you?). And as far as when that meaning changed? I'm still working on it myself...

In the Tanach, the word degel primarily appears in the beginning of the book Bamidbar, in the section describing the arrangement of the camp. Verse 1:52 says:

וְחָנוּ, בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, אִישׁ עַל-מַחֲנֵהוּ וְאִישׁ עַל-דִּגְלוֹ, לְצִבְאֹתָם

The JPS translation is: "The Israelites shall encamp troop by troop, each man with his division and each under his standard". The translation of degel here is "standard", which originally meant a "flag or other conspicuous object to serve as a rallying point for a military force".

Similarly, verse 2:2 -

אִישׁ עַל-דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם, יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: מִנֶּגֶד, סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל-מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ.

is translated, "The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance"

However Milgrom, in his (JPS) commentary on Bamidbar, disagrees with the translation of degel as "standard". On 2:2 he writes:

Hebrew degel possibly originally meant a military banner. This is supported by the Akkadian dagalu, "to look", and diglu, "sight". The meaning "banner" was later extended by association to include the army division, just as shevet and matteh, the two terms for "tribe", were probably derived from the "rod" that served as the official tribal insignia (cf. 1:45; 14:17-18). The meaning "unit" better fits the context here, as verse 3 shows, and is supported by the Targums and the Septuagint as well as by Aramaic usage as evidenced from the Persian period by an ostracon from Arad (no. 12) and the papyri from Elephantine. It comprised a garrison of 1,000 men that lived together with their families and, as attested by the Aramaic documents of the Persian period, was an economic and legal unit as well as a military one. This situation corresponds closely to the makeup and function of the Israelite tribes in the wilderness, as depicted in the Book of Numbers. The meaning "military unit" is also present in the War Scroll from Qumran.
Verse 3 that Milgrom refers to says:

וְהַחֹנִים קֵדְמָה מִזְרָחָה, דֶּגֶל מַחֲנֵה יְהוּדָה לְצִבְאֹתָם

The JPS translates it as "Camped on the front, or east side: the standard of the division of Judah, troop by troop." But Milgrom notes that the translation should read

Rather, "camped ... the unit". The verb "camped" renders the translation of degel
more likely as "unit" than "standard"
(As an interesting side note, there are those who claim that the Akkadian word dagalu can be traced even further than its Semitic roots, and is related to the Indo-European root *deik, meaning "to show", and is the source of many English words including "teach" and "diction". My friend Mike Gerver, who is more familiar with this theory than I am, recommended that I add "a caveat that it is highly speculative (but still respectable).")

Moskowitz in the Daat Mikra on Bamidbar also agrees that "unit" is the meaning of degel here. He writes that this was the meaning not only in the Tanach, but in Rabbinic Hebrew as well, as in the Midrash (Shmot Rabba 16:7) - אין דגלים אלא צבאות "Degalim means none other than troops". He writes that the word is related to the Arabic dajjalah - "a large crowd". Unlike Milgrom, he claims that the meaning of "flag" is secondary, and derived from the original meaning of "division, unit".

Either the development from "flag" to "the unit under the flag", or from "unit" to "the flag representing the unit" is easy to accept. However, most scholars say that throughout the Tanach, degel meant unit. (The other instances - a few in Shir HaShirim and one in Tehillim, are often translated as if degel means "flag", but are explained by the Daat Mikra and others as either relating to sight or to a military unit). In Talmudic Hebrew, all the examples of degel that I could find were discussing or quoting the section above from Bamidbar. (The word digla דגלא appears in Beitza 30a and Bava Metsia 83a, but other manuscripts have the word appearing with a different spelling.)

So it would seem that the adoption of degel as flag happened in the post-Talmudic period. Rav Saadia Gaon on 1:52 translates degel as מרכז merkaz - which Kapach says means "the designated place that a soldier is assigned" - i.e. a military unit.

If we go even further, we get to Rashi. Rashi writes on 2:2 -

כל דגל יהיה לו אות מפה צבועה תלויה בו

Before I continue, I'd like to note that I often get asked why I don't write this site in Hebrew. Aside from the fact that my inevitable mistakes in Hebrew grammar would distract from my content, I think there's an inherent difficulty in writing about a language in that language. This Rashi is a good example of that. I'm sure Rashi knew exactly what he meant when he wrote the word degel. But it is not as clear to his readers, and so I have found two different translations of Rashi, each with an entirely different meaning of degel.

The first is the Metsudah edition of Rashi, as quoted here. They translate the commentary as:

Each banner shall have [as] its insignia a colored cloth hanging from it
They translate degel as "banner", which is certainly the popular understanding of the word. However, it does not make much sense in this context - why would a banner have a cloth hanging from it?

Judaica Press, brought here, changes the translation, so that degel means division:

Every division shall have its own flag staff, with a colored flag hanging on it
They translate ot אות, as "flag staff", which is likely to having a flag hanging from it. (This site says that degel actually means flagpole. This would be a fitting parallel to shevet and matteh, which Milgrom mentioned above - however, I have not found their source. Perhaps it's their own interpretation of Rashi.)

Artscroll also offers "division" for degel, with a slight variation in translation from Judaica Press:

Every division shall have for itself a sign, namely, a colored sheet of cloth hanging in its midst.
The main difference is how they translate ot - Artscroll says that the ot was the cloth. In their notes on Rashi on 1:52, they write:

Unlike other commentators, who understand דגל as "flag", Rashi sees it as "division, disposition of forces, military formation." This is indicated by his comments to 2:2 ... See Rashi to Isaiah 5:26, s.v. נס לגוים, where he describes a flag in detail, yet never once uses the word דגל. See also his comments to Psalms 20:6, Song of Songs 2:4 and 5:10
Who are these "other commentators"? Probably the earliest one I could find is Ibn Ezra, who on 2:2 writes that "the insignia were on every degel" and goes on to describe the images on the degel of each tribe (he's also the earliest example given by Ben-Yehuda). By the 19th century, Shadal needed to write that

degel didn't originally mean banner or flag, because that is the meaning of ot, as in "each with his degel, under the banners (otot)". But rather it is like Onkelos and all the early translations, "an ordered grouping" ... and you will see that throughout the section degel refers to people, not banners ... But after time, the word was borrowed for the meaning "flag", since every degel had a flag...
And in the end, as I mentioned above, Ben-Yehuda writes that today, in both speech and literature, the only meaning of degel is "flag".

So we've seen a word transform from referring to an actual group of people, to a flag that symbolizes them. My father often quotes the Polish-American philosopher Alfred Korzybski, who said that "the map is not the territory". (We've already noted that the English word map comes from the Hebrew word mapa - meaning banner.) The idea here is not to confuse the description of something with the thing itself.

And in a way, that concern is mentioned in the official song for the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel (click here for the song with Hebrew subtitles). In this great song, which blogger Esther Kustanowitz describes as follows:

Subliminal's collaborating with the legendary Israeli band Givatron, creating a new version of their song "Bat Shishim" (sixty years old) in commemoration of Israel's 60th birthday this spring. The song, written 26 years ago for Russian olim to Israel, now gets reborn as part folk, part hip-hop.

we find the following lyrics:

כי אמיתית היא ולא סמל ולא דגל ולא אות העבר מאחוריה היא צופה אל הבאות

which Esther translates:

For she is true, and not a symbol, nor a flag, nor a sign.
The past now behind her, she looks forward to what is coming.

So all I can add is that maybe the State is much more real than a degel according to its current meaning, but I hope (by looking to the past?) that we are becoming a chevra mesuderet חברה מסודרת - "organized society" - as Shadal wrote...

Monday, May 05, 2008


Israel celebrates its Independence Day this week - Yom HaAtzamaut. And in recent years, one of the most widespread symbols of the day, perhaps even competing with the flag, is the mangal מנגל - Israel's barbeque. What is a mangal - and where does the word come from?

A number of years ago, David Bogner of Treppenwitz asked the same question. In the end he was less concerned about the etymology than he was about how much he enjoyed manning the grill for the soldiers in the area. Some of his readers suggested that the origin was Turkish. Another veteran blogger, Allison Kaplan Sommer, agreed, and wrote:

I made my little etymological discovery this year on my vacation in Istanbul, Turkey. I was touring one of the palaces, and they were showing us the little portable stoves that would be moved from room to room so that the sultans and their families could enjoy fresh tea anywhere. And the stoves were called....Mangals! So I guess the term is leftover from the Ottoman Empire days.

The best English translation for mangal is brazier, as defined here:

1. A metal pan for holding burning coals or charcoal.
2. A cooking device consisting of a charcoal or electric heating source over which food is grilled.

In Ottoman Turkey the mangal was primarily used for heat, and cooking over it was a secondary function. I found a number of sources from the 19th century describing the mangal (see here, here and here). The last one, from 1868, describes the mangal as follows:

The "mangal" is a large dish of live charcoal, and on the introduction of this into the room or ward they are dependent for warmth.
Other regions under Ottoman rule also borrowed the word, and so we find in Romanian, Albanian and other regional languages that mangal means "charcoal". In modern Hebrew, mangal came to mean almost exclusively a stove for grilling, and now refers also to the barbecuing event itself.

However, where did the Turks get this word? According to an article by Amnon Shappira of the Hebrew Language Academy (Leshonenu Le'Am 45:3), the Turks borrowed it from the Arabic word mankal (מנקל) - also meaning stoves. Where did the switch from mankal to mangal occur? Shapira brings up the theory that it could be from Bedouins or even Yemenite Jews, who substitute "g" for "k". However, he writes that the use of the mangal was not as common on the Arabian peninsula, but more likely entered Turkish via Persian, which makes a similar consonant switch.

What does mankal mean in Arabic? The root of the word is נקל, which means "transport, transmit, convey". So as Allison wrote, the "little portable stove" became known as mankal. (The Hebrew acronym for CEO - מנכ"ל, is not related).

This Arabic root is the source of the word nagla נגלה - which originally meant "load" (as in donkey-load) and took on the meaning "round" or "trip" in Modern Israeli slang. In this case, according to Stahl, the switch from nakla to nagla is via Bedouin pronunciation.

Another word deriving from the same root is the game mancala (also mankala / manqala). This game (popular with my kids, although I haven't actually played it yet), involves transferring stones around a board.

There is actually one classical Hebrew word that might be cognate to the Arabic. That is the word makel מקל - meaning "staff" or "walking stick", and it is found in the Tanach (although far less frequently than the words mateh מטה and shevet שבט, of similar meaning.) The etymology of the word is unclear, and Ben-Yehuda lists many theories. One of them is that it is related to נקל. Stahl says this because the stick was used to move animals from place to place, as in Bamidbar 22:27:
וַיַּךְ אֶת-הָאָתוֹן בַּמַּקֵּל "and he struck the donkey with his stick"

I think perhaps another verse that could show a connection would be Bereshit 32:11, where Yaakov says "with my staff I passed over this Jordan" - כִּי בְמַקְלִי, עָבַרְתִּי אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה

However, in the end, both Klein and Even-Shoshan say that makel might actually derive from the Egyptian word ma-qi-ra.

Let's end on a slightly more patriotic note. The official Hebrew word for mangal is matzleh מצלה, and nagla is masov מסוב. I haven't heard one yet for mancala...