Friday, December 18, 2009


There are many theories as to the origin of the word "shlemiel" - an unlucky, clumsy person. (I'll stick with this spelling over "schlemiel" - although there are as many spellings as there are explanations as to its origin. As Rosten writes in Hooray for Yiddish, page 286, "In Hebrew and Yiddish, the sing letter shin represents the sh sound; to begin an English word with sch is to call for the sk sound, as in 'school' or 'scheme'.")

First of all, it's important to understand how the word entered English. Despite some discussion to the contrary, it's clear that the word entered German from Yiddish, and not the other way around. It became popularized in German via the 1814 story "Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte" ("Peter Schlemihl's Remarkable Story") by Adelbert von Chamisso. However, English apparently adopted the word shlemiel directly from Yiddish, not via German. (It is still used in German, and even the name of the Sesame Street muppet Lefty is "Schlemihl" in the German version).

Now to the Yiddish origins. I'll admit from the outset that I don't know the "true" origin, and I doubt any of us ever will. But I will review the various theories and tell you which seem more or less likely to me.

1) Even-Shoshan suggests that it is a corruption of the similar Yiddish word shlimazel (or schlimazel). Schlemazel is a combination of the German schlim (= "bad, crooked", related to the English "slim" ) and the Hebrew mazal מזל (= "luck").

However, the two words seem to be distinct, and are often paired together, as in the famous saying, "The shlemiel pours soup on the shlimazel" (and in the opening song of "Laverne and Shirley".)

2) Klein (in his entry for the Hebrew equivalent shelumiel שלומיאל) writes that it is "probably a transposition of shelo mo'il שלא מועיל (= useless)."

But a number of objections have been raised to this theory. I found two on the "Mendele: Yiddish literature and language" list archives. One is that while the phrase shelo mo'il is found fairly frequently in Talmudic Hebrew (and later), it "is suited for situations, acts, attempts at correction -- but not people." Another writer points out that

we would expect shelo mo'il to give something like *shloyml or *shlemoyl (the asterisk is used to indicate a form that does not exist).  Since that is NOT what we find in Yiddish, the etymology in question cannot be accepted.
3) The most popular explanation is that shlemiel comes from the Biblical Shelumiel ben Tzurishadai שלומיאל בן צורישדי - the prince of the tribe of Shimon (Bamidbar 1:6, 2:12, 7:36, 10:19).  How did he become associated with the classic unfortunate bungler? There are a number of theories here as well:

a) One theory is based on the Talmud's claim (Sanhedrin 82b) that Shelumiel was one of the five names of Zimri, the prince of Shimon killed by Pinchas for sinning with a Midianite princess. Ignoring the fact that Shelumiel and Zimri lived a generation apart, Zimri doesn't seem "unfortunate" but "bad"! Why should the nickname come from him?

Rabbi Norman Lamm wrote an essay in 1974, called "The First Schelmihl". He claims that the shlemiel is not "hapless, luckless, a constant victim of conspiring circumstances", but rather is "sinister", "egotistical", and "will let no one and nothing stand in his way". While Lamm's homelitcal message is very powerful, it's hard for me to believe that the average person would make that jump, and understand that a real shlemiel is so evil. It just doesn't fit with the the way the word is used.

On the other hand, there are those that say that Zimri was unlucky, because while many were involved with the Midianites, he was the only one to get caught. But as Lamm pointed out, Zimri was clearly of a higher standing than the average person, and as the Talmud itself mentions, Zimri's act was as much of a rebellion against Moses as it was submission to passion.

Another question can be asked: if Zimri, for whatever reason, was the archetypal shlemiel, then why aren't we calling people zimris instead? One suggestion is that this was a private joke of the rabbis, to avoid recalling the improper nature of Zimri's act. Here too, I have difficulty accepting the idea that this kind of "conspiracy" would stick well enough to enter the popular jargon. In any case, the Talmud always refers to the culprit as Zimri, not Shelumiel, even such folksy sayings as "Their deeds are like those of Zimri, yet they ask for reward like Pinchas", so it doesn't seem likely that Zimri is our shlemiel.

b) A different theory suggests a connection between the unsuccessful fate of the tribe of Shimon (they were one of the smallest, didn't succeed in conquering their land) and "shlemiel". But again - it's a nice theory, but why use the name Shelumiel? (Rosten says in The Joys of Yiddish that Shelumiel was a general of Shimon who lost his battles, but then corrects himself in Hooray for Yiddish, choosing to follow the Zimri connection instead.)

c) Perhaps the most plausible Shelumiel theory that I've heard (first from my teacher Mitch Heifetz z"l) is mentioned here:

One suggestion relates to the arcane permutations of the Hebrew calendar. On Hanukkah a different section of Numbers 7 is recited daily, recounting the gifts of the tribal chieftains who each brought a daily offering at the dedication of the Tabernacle (mishkan). On the first day of Hanukkah, the first chieftain’s name appears at the beginning, on the second day the second chieftain’s name, and so on. (On the eighth day, the gifts of chieftains 8-12 are read.)

The exception is the Sabbath during Hanukkah, when the Torah portion is that of the regular weekly cycle and the added maftir reading from a second scroll is the Hanukkah reading beginning with the daily chieftain. Only one day of Hanukkah’s eight never falls on a Sabbath: the fifth day. And which chieftain therefore never stars on the Sabbath, when the synagogue is far better attended than on a midwinter weekday morning? Why, Shelumiel ben Tsurishaddai, of course. Who else?
While this does seem somewhat complicated, I can see how an average person might have noticed the fifth night's bad luck year after year (for a more positive take, see this Treppenwitz post.) However, Werner Weinberg (who taught us how to spell Chanukah here) writes in his Die Reste des Jüdischdeutschen that the first mention of this theory is in Halozebichel (Joke Book) of Rabbi Meir Ohnesorg, Prague 1864, p. 62. I couldn't find that book anywhere, but it seems possible that the whole etymology was just a joke.

d) The last Shelumiel connection isn't a real theory at all, but still is important to mention. Heinrich Heine in his poem "Jehuda ben Halevy" writes that he heard the following "version" of the story from his friend Julius Eduard Hitzig (who, incidentally, was also friends with Chamisso):

But a legend amongst the people
Has been orally transmitted
Which denies that it was Zimri
Whom the spear of Phinehas slew.

And maintains that, blind with passion,
Phineas slew the transgressor,
but another who was guiltless --
Slew Schlemihl ben Zuri Schadday

This is clearly not what the Torah is describing, nor does it appear in any midrash. But it seems to have a lot of influence, and perhaps the very association of Shelumiel and shlemiel began with Heine (or Hitzig).

4) The last theory is presented by Leopold Löw (the father of Immanuel, who I've quoted often) in his book Die Lebensalter in der jüdischen Literatur (page 54). But instead of relating to a somewhat obscure biblical character, he find someone much closer to the age of Yiddish. In the responsa of the Maharil (1365 – 1427), he finds mention of a Rabbi named Shlomil (or perhaps Shlomel, likely a nickname for Shlomo or Shalom) of Enns, Austria, who had an unusual story:

וכן העיד שמה"ר שלומיל מעיר ענש הלך פעם אחת ללמוד למרחקים, ויהי לתקופת י"א חדשים ליציאתו ילדה אשתו והכל מעידין מרוב חסידותה ברור שלא זינתה תחתיו.

"And so testified Rabbi Shlomil of the city of Enns, that he once traveled far to study, and eleven months after he left his wife gave birth. But all know, that due to her righteousness, she clearly did not cheat on him [but rather had an unusually long pregnancy as mentioned in the Talmud, Yevamot 80b]"

Now while the Maharil clearly did not bring this story to make fun of Rabbi Shlomil (he quotes the same rabbi as his teacher in a number of other cases), but it is very possible that others did not view him with the same level of respect. Perhaps he was the classic case of someone who was in "the wrong place, at the wrong time"...

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Growing up in America, one of my clearest memories from Chanukah was getting those foil wrapped chocolate coins - "gelt". Gelt means "money" in Yiddish, and there was an earlier custom of giving actual money on Chanukah (note that in Hebrew it is called דמי חנוכה  dmei chanuka - "Chanukah money). How did this custom develop? There are a number of suggestions:

a) for use when playing with the dreidel
b) it was first associated with giving charity on Chanukah, perhaps to help the poor buy candles
c) it was originally a gift to teachers, because of the connection between Chanukah and chinuch (education)

However, I'm partial to the explanation that the first Jewish coins were produced during Hasmonean times, and the custom to give out money came to commemorate that. Is it historically true - I don't really know. But since my kids happened to find this Hasmonean coin at an archaeological dig in Jerusalem earlier this year, I certainly have an emotional connection!

 What ever the reason - and please read this very funny article by Amy Klein about the development of giving both monetary and chocolate gelt - the custom has certainly become associated with Chanukah.

However, there's a little more to the story. If you had asked me not long ago, I would have guessed that gelt is related to "gold". But as we've seen here many times before, looks can be deceiving. Gelt has the following etymology:
Yiddish geld < MHG (a late-19th-c. borrowing): orig. (16th c.) < Ger or Du geld, but fell out of use except dialectically
Geld (as a noun, the verb has a different origin) appears in English as well, and derives from the German as well:
"royal tax in Medieval England," O.E. gield "payment, tribute" (cf. M.H.G. gelt "payment, contribution," Ger. geld "money," O.N. gjald "payment," Goth. gild "tribute, tax"), from PIE base of yield
Gold has an entirely different etymology - it comes from the Indo-European root *ghel, meaning "yellow".

But we do find more English words related to gelt. For example, guild:
c.1230, yilde (spelling later infl. by O.N. gildi), a semantic fusion of O.E. gegyld "guild" and gild, gyld "payment, tribute, compensation," from P.Gmc. *gelth- "pay" (cf. O.Fris. geld "money," O.S. geld "payment, sacrifice, reward," O.H.G. gelt "payment, tribute"). The connecting sense is of a tribute or payment to join a protective or trade society.
 And there may be a connection to what some might view as a very Jewish word, guilt:
O.E. gylt "crime, sin, fault, fine," of unknown origin, though some suspect a connection to O.E. gieldan "to pay for, debt," but O.E.D. editors find this "inadmissible phonologically.
I found this article about the history of gelt called "Gelt is Good". I assume they were trying to make a pun on "Guilt is Good" (which itself is a take off on the famous movie line "Greed is Good.") But I'm guessing that editor never thought that there was a possible etymological connection between the two words...

Friday, December 11, 2009

treif and taraf

We previously looked at glatt, which went from describing a particular stringency regarding the lungs of cows, to describing extra kosher food in general. A similar example can be found in the word terefah טרפה, which in the Torah (as in Shmot 22:30) refers to an animal whose "flesh (was) torn by beasts in the field." The root טרף means "torn to pieces". In Talmudic Hebrew, the meaning of terefah was extended to mean "a clean animal inflicted with an organic defect, a mortal injury, or a fatal disease" (Sarna on Shmot 22:30, see also Kehati's introduction to Hullin 3:1).  And later, the term expanded to include all non-kosher food, and the adjective taref טרף was adopted (Klein points out that this is a "back formation from terefah, which was regarded as a feminine adjective.) From taref, we got the Yiddish treif, which can mean anything not "kosher", even non-food items.

But as we mentioned above, the original meaning of the verb as "to tear away." In Biblical Hebrew teref could also mean food in general, such as in the phrases טֶרֶף, נָתַן לִירֵאָיו - "He gives food to those that fear Him" (Tehillim 111:5) and וַתִּתֵּן טֶרֶף לְבֵיתָהּ  - "She provides food for her household" (Mishlei 31:15). Certainly neither case is talking about treyf food!

A related sense of טרף is "to mix, confuse". The Talmudic term for a beaten egg is ביצה טרופה - beitza terufa. A person who is mixed up, disturbed, confused is  מטורף metoraf - which in Modern Hebrew means "insane". And just as in English, where the word "mad" means insane, but "like mad" means "with excitement or enthusiasm", so too does metoraf mean in Israeli slang not only "crazy", but "excited, exceptional, unbelievable" and בטירוף b'teruf means "with excitement."

But there's a similar sounding slang term that isn't actually related to the root טרף that we've discussed so far: אטרף atraf. It means "great excitement" (Rosenthal) and Milon Morfix actually defines it as "craziness, insanity; hysteria, stress". However, it derives from an Arabic word meaning "rare" or "interesting". Stahl writes that in Literary Arabic, tarf means "eye", and the verb means "to stare, gaze, glance". From here developed the meaning "to look at something new", and tarif means "new, rare, interesting" (the English word tariff is not related). Another aspect came out of the sense of looking from the corner of the eye, and taraf can mean "periphery, extreme, end, side, coast". From this Arabic word, the Spanish cape of Trafalgar got its name - Tarf al-Gharb (Cape of the West) or Tarf al-Ghar (Cape of the Cave). (The 1805 Battle of Trafalgar is commemorated in London's famous Trafalgar Square.)

This got me thinking - are there any Hebrew words cognate to this Arabic root? It looks like there's a good chance. In Bereishit 8:11, we find the following phrase: וְהִנֵּה עֲלֵה-זַיִת טָרָף בְּפִיהָ. "And there, in its bill, was a taraf olive leaf." Some commentaries, such as Rashi, explain taraf as a verb, meaning "plucked", relating it to our earlier understanding of taraf as "torn". But according to Cassuto, this is a difficult explanation, and we should rather view taraf as an adjective meaning "fresh", which is cognate to our Arabic root meaning "new". Cassuto claims that this is the view of most commentaries, and I have seen it in Ben-Yehuda, Kaddari and Daat Mikra.

So we've gone from an animal with a fatal disease, to a fresh, new leaf. Pretty metoraf, no?

Wednesday, December 09, 2009


We've just discussed mehadrin - now let's look at that other word for "super kosher": glatt.

I once read an article where the writer was unhappy about the phenomenon where children would become more strict in their kosher food requirements than their parents were. This made it difficult for the children to eat in their parents' home. He then complained, "Honoring your father and mother is a Torah law - and glatt is only a Yiddish word!"

Without going into the debate of that article, lets look at that "Yiddish word." It means "smooth" in Yiddish, and refers to the lungs of a cow (therefore it technically does not apply to chicken, or even lamb, and certainly not to dairy food, despite labels like this.) The Sefardim were strict about the "smooth" lungs, whereas Ashkenazi halacha did not require it. This actually explains why the Yiddish term glatt became more popular - only Ashkenazim needed a special word for their extra stringency. The parallel Hebrew word is chalak חלק. However, whereas chalak still refers to the state of the animals lungs, in Hebrew, as in English, glatt has spread to mean "extra kosher".

The Yiddish (and Modern German) glatt come from the Middle High German glat, which in turn derives from the Indo-European root *ghledho, meaning "bright, smooth". From here we get the English word glad, as well as the Latin word for sword - gladius, more familiar by the name of its carrier - the gladiator. However, the gladiator was more concerned that his sword be smooth than the lungs of his victims...

Monday, December 07, 2009

mehadrin and hadran

Today the word mehadrin מהדרין is generally associated with “super” kosher food (or even bus lines…). But the word actually first appears in the laws of Chanukah, in Masechet Shabbat 21b. There it says that if one lights a candle for each member of the household it is considered mehadrin, and if one adds (or subtracts) additional candles each night, it is considered hamehadrin min hamehadrin. There are two explanations to this term (see this article for an explanation of the significance of the two opinions). The one more popularly accepted is that of Rabbeinu Yitzchak in Tosafot, who say that the word derives from the root הדר, connected to the Biblical hadar, glory (cognate to the Akkadian adaru, and related to the Hebrew adir  אדיר - "noble"). According to Rabbeinu Yitzchak, when we add the additional candles, we glorify the mitzva, as we find with other mitzvot – the concept of hidur mitzva (beautifying the mitzva).

But Rashi has a different explanation. He says that mehadrin is related to the Aramaic verb הדר, meaning “to return”. This root is related, through familiar consonant changes, to the  Hebrew roots חדר (to surround, enclose; not actually related to חדר cheder - "room")  and  חזר (to go around, return, court). So Rashi explains that the person who is mehadrin, is "going around", pursuing the mitzvot. (See Brachot 53b for the parallel Hebrew expression - שמחזרים על המצוות - which is actually followed by an Aramaic translation: מהרדנא).

Another word with a similar debate as to its origin and meaning is hadran הדרן – from the passage read at the completion of a tractate of the Talmud: הדרן עלך .. והדרך עלן hadran alach ... v'hadrach alan.  (Eventually the passage itself became known as the "hadran", which led to the modern Hebrew meaning “encore”). Here, the common explanation is that it means “return”, and therefore the phrase means, “we will return to you, and you will return to us” (as mentioned by the Sefer HaEshkol). However, a number of researchers, such as Margolies (Olelot and Nitzotzei Or), Lieberman (Alei Ayin) and Sperber (Minhagei Yisrael vol 1; see an English summary in chapters 19 and 20 here) claim that hadran derives from hadar - “glory”, and so the phrase means, “our glory to you, and your glory to us.” This is both based on explicit mentions by earlier rabbis (such as the brother of the Maharal, Rav Chaim) as well as similar Talmudic passages: in Sukkah 45a it says that at the end of the Hoshanot on Sukkot, they would say to the altar: יופי לך המזבח - "beauty is yours, altar" and in Rosh Hashana 31a, it says that at the end of the Musaf sacrifices they would say הזיו לך - "the splendor is yours" (this phrase is actually included in the "hadran" of the Akedat Yitzhak). A similar phrase is also found in the Shir HaKavod ("Anim Zemirot") - פארו עלי ופארי עליו - "His glory is on me, and my glory is on him". In the end, Sperber concludes that the original meaning may have been "return", and the sense of "glory" was added in the times of the Geonim, so that the phrase intentionally carried both meanings.

One interpretation (Rashi, Kaddari) of the the unique biblical term hadurim הדורים (Yeshayahu 45:2) is that it means "curvy paths" - and is also related to the root הדר as "return, go around". The phrase from that verse -  וַהֲדוּרִים אֲיַשֵּׁר (straighten out the curvy paths, according to the explanation I quoted), is used in conversational Hebrew to mean "iron out the difficulties."

There’s no question about the origin of the word mahadura מהדורה, meaning “edition”. It comes from the Aramaic מהדורא, which is simply the Aramaic form of the Hebrew “machzor” מחזור. Both of which mean a “cycle, period of time”, and derive from the cognates הדר/חזר (see that usage in Bava Batra 157b). However, in modern Hebrew (even predating Ben Yehuda), mahadura came to refer to an edition of a printed work (now it also means a newscast), whereas machzor can mean any recurring event in the calendar, or the prayerbook used on holidays (originally it was interchangeable with siddur, but in time the siddur became designated for daily and weekly use). So you can actually use a particular mahadura of the machzor without the phrase seeming redundant…

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Today I heard on the news a word I wasn't too familiar with: kalgas קלגס. The dictionary definition is "soldier", but the connotation seems to always be a brutal, thuggish soldier. It certainly sounded like it was not of Semitic origin, and Klein confirms that:

soldier, warrior (mostly used in the plural קלגסים). [Latin caliga (= heavy military shoe), whence figurative 'military service'. Related to calx (=heel), calcar (=spur), calceus (=shoe).]

Klein, as well as most sources I checked, doesn't connect calx as "heel" to the Latin calx meaning "lime, pebble", which is the source of such words as calcium and calculation. However, this site suggests that perhaps

The Latin word for heel is calx, calcis. Here we must take another short digression, because the Latin word for lime is also calx. The Century tells us that the underlying Latin means "small stone," and perhaps that is the connection between "lime" and the "heel." Lime, or chalk, begins as a small stone that is eroded while the heel bone can appear, to the eye, as if stone-shaped. The Latin word for shoe is calceus, or something that goes over the heel.
In any case, caliga - the Roman sandals, secured with nails (which made quite a bit of noise) - were apparently frightening enough to give their name to the Roman soldiers in general (pictures here). For example, the Mishna (Sota 8:1) interprets part of the verse of Devarim 20:3 - "Let not your heart faint; fear not, nor be alarmed" - as saying not to fear the noise of the (enemy) troops - שפעת הקלגסין. The notorious Roman emperor Caligula also got his name from those shoes - his name mean "little (soldier's) boot", because as a child he accompanied his father, a general, in military campaigns.

You may have noticed that we don't have many words from the Talmudic period that derive from Latin; far more come from Greek. On the face of it, that seems strange: at the time of the Mishna and later, the Romans were in control of the Land of Israel, not the Greeks. However, Hellenistic culture continued to have significant impact even in the Roman empire, and Greek remained the literary language and lingua franca in the region. The Romans did not enforce their language on conquered areas, so it should not be such a surprise that Latin did not enter Talmudic Hebrew. In fact, a large portion of the words that did enter Hebrew, are related to the military - such as gardom גרדום - "gallows", ligyon לגיון - "legion", pigyon פגיון - "dagger", and of course, kalgas.

Monday, October 12, 2009


Sukkot was last week, and we just put away the last part of our sukkah. So it seems like a good time to finish one last sukkot related word.

During the holiday, we took a tour of the Herodion fortress. The guide told us to meet at the בודקה budke - the little cabin/shack/hut up the hill (the proper Hebrew word is beitan ביתן). I pointed out that maybe the word means "little booth" - since the (originally Russian) suffix "-ke" is used as a diminutive in Yiddish. He hadn't thought of that before, and liked the idea.

However, I was wrong.

While a few web sites propose an English origin of the term, almost all the sources I saw say the whole word entered Hebrew from Yiddish (where the spelling was בודקע). There is an issue for debate, however. Does the Yiddish come from the German bude (or bode) meaning "small house" - which is cognate with the English word "booth" (and according to some - but not all - "abode")? Or does it derive from the Russian будка budka with the same meaning?

Since most Central and Eastern European languages have some cognate to this root, I think it will probably be difficult to prove the origin one way or another. One thing I am a little more certain about is the preferred spelling. Both Even Shoshan and Rosenthal provide budke before butke בותקה - which is how I had previously assumed the word was spelled. However, since both Russian and German use "d" and not "t" - I think the spelling (and pronunciaton) budke is somewhat more authentic.

And now - I can finally file budke away!

Friday, October 09, 2009


On Hoshana Rabbah there is a custom to greet people with the Aramaic expression פתקא טבא pitka tava - for which the Hebrew equivalent is פתק טוב petek tov. In Modern Hebrew petek means note (or the piece of paper the note is written on), so the phrase would mean "good note". What does that mean?

Well, it turns out that the original meaning of petek wasn't "note", but "lot" or "ballot". Klein gives the following etymology:

from Greek pittakion (=tablet for writing on, label, ticket; votive tablet; list of members of an association), which is of uncertain, possibly Thracian origin
(Ben Yehuda points out that while petek is certainly of a Greek origin, there is also a Semitic root פתק meaning "to break, split", and this verb could have become associated with the Greek word, as the Hebrew word for "lot", goral גורל, also originally meant a "small (broken) stone".)

Arabic has a cognate term (also deriving from the Greek) - bitaqa, meaning "ticket". Latin also borrowed the Greek for their pittacium, meaning "label, plaster, patch", which gave us the English word petechia, meaning a skin eruption caused by a minor hemorrhage. The Spanish word pedazo, meaning "piece", also comes from the Latin.

As explained on this site, the Greek pittakion meant "an imperial administrative order in the form of a letter." This seems to be an appropriate understanding of the term for Hoshana Rabbah, as described here:

In the Talmud, Hoshana Rabbah is referred to as a day when everyone comes to the synagogue. Its special character was emphasized during the time of the geonim, who saw it as the day in which each human being receives from heaven a note on which his fate is registered. And so there are those who greet each other on this day with the Aramaic blessing a pitka tava, or in Yiddish gut kveitl.
Since this is a relatively late custom, it is possible that the Yiddish term preceded the Aramaic one. The Yiddish word kvittel is used to describe a written petition of a hasid to his rebbe, as well as the notes placed in the Western Wall. The Yiddish word derives from the German quittung - "receipt". Quittung is cognate to the English "quittance" - meaning

1. Release from a debt, an obligation, or a penalty.
2. A document or receipt certifying such release.
Quittance, in turn, is related to the words "quit", "acquit", "quite" and "quiet" - all reflecting a sense of "free (from war, debts), clear, calm, resting". Together, they sound like a great blessing for all my readers!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

cherem and harem

The Hebrew word cherem חרם is familiar to most of us as a ban, an excommunication. This type of censure developed in Talmudic and Medieval times. However, the Biblical word also means "to ban". Klein says that in Biblical Hebrew it meant to ban, devote, confiscate. (There is a discussion here as to whether the meaning "to destroy, exterminate" has the same origin, for in Arabic the two meanings are spelled differently.)  In Talmudic Hebrew it also began to refer to a type of vow (as we find in the Kol Nidrei prayer.)

Even-Shoshan, in his Concordance, notes that of the 51 occurrences of the Biblical verb, all but three of them have a sense of "to destroy". One (Yishayahu 11:15) means "to dry up" and two (Micha 4:13 and Vayikra 27:28) refer to dedication to God. This meaning is reflected in the Arabic cognate harim - "sacred, forbidden". This root appears in a number of Arabic phrases, such as Al-Haram ash-Sharif - the Arabic name for the holy Temple Mount.

The English word harem also derives from this root:

1634, from Turk. harem, from Arabic haram "wives and concubines," originally "women's quarters," lit. "something forbidden or kept safe," from root of harama "he guarded, forbade."
Another related word is Marrano - the Jews of Spain and Portugal who were forced to convert to Christianity, but secretly observed Judaism. It has a fairly distasteful etymology:

1583, from Sp., lit. "pig, swine," an expression of contempt, from Arabic muharram "forbidden thing" (eating of pork is forbidden by Muslim and Jewish religious law), from haruma "was forbidden".
Because of this origin, the term is not commonly used today. Hebrew uses Anusim אנוסים - those forced to convert. In English, Crypto-Jews has become an acceptable alternative.

Three place names are related to this root as well. Mount Hermon - הר חרמון, Israel's tallest mountain and the only snow-capped one, is generally assumed to derive its name from חרם. Some say that this is due to it being inaccessible, unapproachable, "off limits". Others say that it served as a holy site to the Canaanites who lived in the area (see Shoftim 3:3, where it is called Har Baal Chermon הַר בַּעַל חֶרְמוֹן, indicating worship there). The Ramban, in his commentary to Devarim 3:9 reflects both of these theories. (A third theory is mentioned in the apocryphal book Chanoch (Enoch) I, chapter 6 and quoted in Hebrew here, where it is written that the mountain is called Hermon because the angels took a vow there).

Another location that derives its name from this root is Wadi Haramia ואדי חרמיה, north of Jerusalem (near the towns of Eli and Maaleh Levona.) As described here, it

literately means the valley of the bandits. This narrow passage through two very high mountains leaves no room for detours. As mentioned earlier, this road is historically the highway of the bible. Throughout the ages pilgrims and travelers would pass though this valley on their way to Jerusalem. Local bandits would take advantage of the topography and take their toll from the travelers.
These bandits would "confiscate" the property of their victims. The valley was also the site of an important battle in the time of the Maccabees.

A different type of place name related phrase is the Hebrew  ad chorma עַד-חָרְמָה - meaning "until complete destruction." This phrase is found in Bamidbar 14:45 and Devarim 1:44. However, this actually refers to a Canaanite city called Hormah - about 25 kilometers to the east of Beer Sheva.

Monday, September 14, 2009

solet and semolina

In a previous post, I said I would discuss the difference between solet סולת and kemach קמח. There's a lot of confusion about this issue. Both are ground wheat; and while kemach is consistently translated as "flour", the best translation of each isn't entirely obvious. The most obvious distinction between the two is the granularity, but here too we find uncertainty.  If you go to a supermarket in Israel, the solet you can purchase is coarser than the kemach. However, when I asked a number of people as to whether they thought the "original" (Biblical and Talmudic) solet was more or less coarse than kemach, they generally thought that kemach was coarser. So what's the story?

For now, let's look at the "ancient" solet. There are a number of opinions as to its granularity. The common translation of solet is "fine flour", and this is also found in most dictionaries. (Since the word fine can mean both "of superior quality" and "consisting of very small particles", I'll be using the synonym "powdery" from here throughout this post - except when quoting sources). A number of commentaries insist that solet is coarser than kemach (Radak, Sefer HaShorashim; Rashi, Menachot 66a, s.v. shel garosot1). Of those who agree with these commentaries, they translate solet as "semolina" (which we'll look at later). One of the most prominent ones to do so was Milgrom (Leviticus p.179), who writes:

Solet is identified with grits or, more precisely, semolina, "The grain-like portions of wheat retained in the bolting-machine after the fine flour has been passed through" (Webster)2

How did this significant disagreement arise?
The answer seems to lie in the process of milling and sifting the flour. The one thing that I think almost everyone can agree on is that solet was more precious than kemach, as can be seen in here in Melachim I 5:2

וַיְהִי לֶחֶם-שְׁלֹמֹה, לְיוֹם אֶחָד:  שְׁלֹשִׁים כֹּר סֹלֶת, וְשִׁשִּׁים כֹּר קָמַח

[King] Shlomo's daily provisions consisted of 30 kors of solet and 60 kors of kemach

What made it more valuable? Well, part of it may have been the granularity, but that was a side effect of its purity - how white it looked3. Today we get our white flour white by bleaching, but that wasn't available back then. They used a two part process to remove the bran and germ, and to leave only the white endosperm. If the kernel was ground to a fine powder right away, then it wouldn't be possible to sift out the bran later. So for special occasions, in order to make particularly refined flour, they would grind the kernel coarsely, creating "grits" (or "groats"), sift out the two kinds of coarse bran (subin סובין and mursan מורסן) and the "bran dust"4, which is very powdery and not desirable, and then grind the remainder again. What was left was more white and powdery than what would have resulted from a one-time milling. (In the Temple, they would repeat this process a number of times to get a purer result5).

So actually both those that say that solet was coarse and those that say that it was powdery were correct. In the beginning of the process, solet was coarser than the kemach that would result from a standard milling. But by the end of the process, solet was powdery6, whereas the kemach would have been comparatively coarse. Nahum Sokolow (in Bemarot Hakeshet, pgs 552-4) distinguishes between the two stages, by calling the first one "solet" and the second one "kemach solet"7, which was later abbreviated to simply "solet", adding to the confusion. But in the end, what distinguishes solet from kemach is quality more than granularity8.

All of this helps to explain a well known, but not so well understood passage in Pirkei Avot (5:15): a student is compared to a sieve (napa נפה), which "lets out the kemach and retains the solet":
וְנָפָה, שֶׁמּוֹצִיאָה אֶת הַקֶּמַח וְקוֹלֶטֶת אֶת הַסֹּלֶת

For those who claim that solet is more powdery than kemach, the sentence is difficult to understand - since a sieve retains the coarser material. There have been attempts to force the mishna into this preconception. Kaempf, in his siddur, Siach Yitzchak, emends the text to read "pesolet" פסולת - waste - instead of solet. The Tiferet Yisrael commentary explains that the solet actually refers to the undesired dust (which is more powdery than the preferred kemach), and it is "retained" by sticking to the sides of the sieve. But both approaches miss the point, as the mishna clearly is referring to a good student, who keeps the good and ignores the worthless9. But if we note that the mishna is referring to the beginning of the process, then yes - the coarser solet is retained, and the kemach is discarded (as explained by the Bartenura).

So what's the best definition of solet? The JPS suggests "choice flour"10. Despite Ginsberg's protests (see footnote #2), I think this is the most accurate definition, since it isn't dependent on the variation in granularity found in the different stages of the process. However, I believe I have what might be even a simpler suggestion. As seen here, the English word "flour" was spelled "flower" until the 19th century, and was short for the "flower of meal" - the best (part) of the (ground) meal. This is still the term used in many European languages, such as the Italian fiore di farina11 and the French fleur de farine, as quoted by Ben Yehuda in his translation of solet. Meal is defined as "the usually coarsely ground and unbolted seeds of a cereal grass or pulse" - this seems appropriate for kemach. So maybe the best definition of solet would simply be "flour", and kemach could be translated as "meal".

Of course all this applies to ancient solet - not how it is used in Modern Hebrew. Today solet means semolina, which is indeed coarser than regular flour. But there's more to semolina than its granularity - let's look at why I don't prefer Milgrom's translation of ancient solet as "semolina".

First of all, the meaning of the word semolina as Milgrom suggests is relatively recent (its first mention in the OED is from 1797), but it has a long and interesting history. We've looked at it briefly earlier, but I've since found sources that explain it better, particularly an Italian article by Gabriella Giacomelli entitled "'Semola' in Italia: ambiguità di una parola", which discusses the semantic shift of the word semola. As we pointed out, the Aramaic semida סמידא gave us the Greek semidalis and the Latin simila12. Both are good parallels for solet, as they are generally translated as "fine flour" (although we're still stuck with the ambiguity of the word "fine" - powdery or best?). Giacomelli quotes Pliny and Celsus as saying that the Latin simila (and a similar term similago) wasn't the most powdery of flours - that would be reserved for other terms, such as the Latin pollen (our English word pollen is related) - it was rather of an intermediary granularity, somewhat coarse, although of good quality, and that meaning is still found in some parts of Italy (although the more widespread use is more recent). In the Northern part of Italy and further north into Germany, the derivatives of simila mean "powdery flour" (Italian semola, German semmel, Yiddish zeml, and later the English word "simnel" - cakes or rolls made of fine wheat flour.). But in the rest of Italy, to the south, semola progressed in the other direction, to the coarser "bran"13. From here came the diminutive "semolino" (from which came the English "semolina"14) - little bran, i.e. a coarser flour than the generic Italian word for flour "farina" (although it originally meant "meal"15).

So I think the complicated history of the word and the various definitions of its "ancestors" makes it an awkward choice of a translation. It's particularly disingenuous to hint to semidalis being the Septuagint's translation of solet and the Vulgate using simila16 - the word has gone through so many changes from semidalis and simila to semolina to render the connection almost irrelevant. And if we go back far enough, semida was used by Targum Yonatan as an Aramaic synonym for solet - so a derivative of semida doesn't really describe what solet was17.

However, there's another reason to reject this translation. Since we're focusing on the modern word semolina, we shouldn't limit ourselves to Webster's definition, but we should rather take into account the word's general connotation. Today semolina is not used for preparing bread18 - which solet certainly was during Biblical times. A more comprehensive modern definition of semolina can be found here:

The inner, granular, starchy endosperm of hard or durum wheat (not yet ground into flour); used to make pasta and semolina milk pudding.

That's not a good definition for ancient solet. However, while solet does appear more frequently than kemach in Biblical Hebrew, in later Hebrew kemach is much more prominent. It seems that since Temple times, solet has fallen out of common usage19. Therefore, I don't see any problem with solet becoming the modern word for semolina, which is used for products like couscous and pasta. Modern solet/semolina is more coarse than regular flour, and as we've seen during one stage of the ancient process, solet was more coarse than kemach. And although it does lead to some confusion, it encourages the discussion of the granularity of solet - which is what led me to research this post...


1 In his commentary on Menachot 27a (s.v. misolta), Rashi goes so far as to say that solet and grits (geres) are synonymous: גרש וסולת חד הוא.

2 H.L. Ginsberg defended the translation "semolina" a number of times, such as in his article, The Grain Harvest Laws of Leviticus 23:9-22 and Numbers 28:26-31. There he writes about the word semolina: "This is notoriously the exact equivalent of the Hebrew solet; see G. Dalman, Arbeit und Sitte in Palastina, III, 292-294. I therefore apologize for the pusillanimity that made me yield to the vehement objections of my colleagues on the committee that produced the Jewish Publication Society's translation of the Torah and the Nevi'im, who are such esthetes that they insist on poetry in a recipe; whence that translation's 'choice flour,' which is not very choice." However, I do see that the JPS translates solet as semolina in Melachim I 5:2.

3 In addition to purity, the Roman doctor Celsus (quoted here) felt that the more flour was bolted (sifted) the healthier it was. While modern science certainly says that whole wheat flour is healthier than white flour, "Joe Pastry" correctly points out that the fat in whole wheat flour can cause it to become rancid much sooner, so there were other considerations to sifting flour other than "purity".

4 This is probably the avak  אבק  which rendered the solet for the sacrifices invalid (Menachot 85a).

5 Menachot 76b. See this article by Rabbi Shalom Ohana for a detailed description of the process in the Temple and the various opinions in the commentaries as to how it was performed. He points out that while in general at the time the wheat was wetted before grinding to help the bran separate from the endosperm (as described here), that couldn't be done in the Temple since most of the grain sacrifices were matza (and therefore couldn't have extended contact with water.)

6 Gesenius says that the word solet derives from the root סלל meaning "shaking, sifting", but most other sources (such as Klein and Milgrom) link it to the Akkadian salatu (to crush) and siltu (grits), which would connect it to the connotation of "coarse".

7 This is the phrase found in Bereshit 18:5, where Avraham had Sarah prepare "kemach solet". For a full discussion of the meaning of the phrase there, see this article by Gil Marks. He discusses the disagreement between Rashi, who says it refers to two separate items (not a construct), and the Ramban, who says this means solet that is made from kemach. The Gur Aryeh explains Rashi's approach by saying that you can't say "kemach from solet", because solet is made from kemach (this would of course support the Ramban as well.) However, Onkelos translates the phrase (in some versions) as קמחא סולתא kimcha d'solta - kemach of solet, which would seem to support Sokolow's view that the kemach was made from solet. Note also Rav Saadia Gaon here, who explains the phrase as meaning "powdery solet."

8 Another factor that some discuss is the type of grain. The Sifra, based on Shmot 29:2, points out that only wheat (not barley) can be used for solet. In addition, some sources distinguish between the various kinds of wheat. See the Gil Marks article mentioned above, as well as this blog post.

9 This is clear from the parallel section in Avot D'Rabbi Natan (chapter 40) where it says that the sieve-like student "lets out the bad and retains the good". Neusner makes an interesting point that in this chapter the wicked category is listed last, but I don't see how he can ignore the Avot D'Rabbi Natan.

10 Strangely, the JPS Numbers 28:12 has "choice flour", but the following verse has "fine flour." Everett Fox has "(proper) flour". Another suggestion (found here) is חלב חיטה chelev chita - the "fat of the wheat", i.e. the best of the wheat. It is possible that the cereal "Cream of Wheat" was inspired by this earlier term.

11 This 1820 book describes fiore di farina in a manner that strongly recalls solet: "The flour is divided into three parts, to obtain the kind which is proper for manipulation. The first separated is the coarse and husky part; the next, the white impalpable powder; after which operation remains the fiore di farina, which is neither very finely pulverized, nor remarkably white, and is by far the smallest quantity of the whole mass. This is found to contain the purest part of the wheat, and to make the finest bread."

12 For a detailed description of how the Greeks borrowed the Akkadian samidu (both the term and the product) for their semidalis, as well as what type of wheat was used in both locations, see Robert Sallares, Ecology of the Ancient Greek World, pgs. 317-326.

13 This leads to the strange phenomenon of semola being translated in Italian-English dictionaries (such as Cassell's)  as "bran; fine flour".

However, the more common word for "bran" in Italian is crusca. This led to even more confusion for me in my research, since the name of the Italian Language Academy is Accademia della Crusca!

14 I think that Giacomelli's etymology is much more clear than the popular one: "Alteration of Italian semolino, diminutive of semola, bran, from Latin simila, fine flour."

Why should "bran" derive from "fine flour"?

15 Note that the Vulgate on 1 Kings Chapter 4, Verse 22 has simila for "solet" and farina for "kemach". In Modern Italian, the derivatives have switched connotations.

16 I refer to Ginsberg's comment here, where he writes, "Yet it is my personal opinion that we should have gone farther. Our 'choice flour' is, to be sure, a better rendering of soleth than the conventional 'fine flour,' since the word certainly means in actuality "semolina" (witness, among other proofs, the renderings of the ancient versions), which is not at all 'fine.' I do not see why we could not have said 'semolina,' at least in a great majority of the relevant passages, which are technical descriptions of ritual." [emphasis mine]

17 However, Targum Yonatan was a later translation than Onkelos (who used solta סולתא), and had a lot of Greek influence. So it could be that TY used semida for stylistic reasons - it was an Aramaic word similar to the familiar Greek semidalis.

18 Somewhat complicating the issue is the fact that semolina has a different meaning in British and American English. This book writes: "In the U.K. where Triticum durum wheats are not regularly milled the term 'semolina' is used to describe a coarse intermediate stock produced from the break system, in the milling of flour from T. aestivum wheats. In the U.S.A., where durum, common and club wheats are milled, the term 'semolina' is reserved for the durum product; and the coarse milling intermediate from the other wheats, equivalent to the U.K. 'semolina' is called 'farina'."

19 It appears that not only did the terminology change, but the technology as well. Tosafot (Taanit 9b, s.v. nehila) describes the Talmudic process of creating solet, but notes that it "was not done as we do in our times". The Tosafot were composed in the 12th and 13th centuries, but as this book notes, only around 1300 did the process of advanced sifting return to Europe: "From the 1300s to the 1700s, the sifting process consisted of putting the flour first through a net or sieve to remove the coarse particles, and then through a woolen bolting cloth. The resulting flour [was] the finest white flour of its day...". This description, nearly identical to the Talmudic description of the creation of solet, implies that until then, the wheat was ground whole without significant sifting. However, Ibn Ezra, a contemporary of the Tosafot, notes (Shmot 29:2, extended commentary) that in the Arab lands they still prepare solet, and make the best bread from it.

Update (Jan 8 2010):  In the course of researching pashtida, I found a fascinating insight into the understanding of solet, with real relevance to halacha. The gemara in Pesachim 74b discusses the case of a bird roasted in a coating of dough. If it is made of semida / solet, then it is permitted to eat (even without salting), because the blood will pass through. If it is made of other kinds of flour, then only depending of the color of the dough will it be permitted. The Rambam (Hilchot Maachalot Asurot 6:19) explains that the solet is coarse, and therefore allows the blood to pass through. This makes sense, as the Rambam lived in lands where they still had the technology to produce solet. On the other hand, Rashi (Pesachim 74b, s.v. בחיורתא) writes that they only use other flours (in his time) and not solet. The Shibolei HaLeket (as quoted by the Beit Yosef on Tur, Yoreh Deah 78) says that they are no longer familiar with the different types of flours, and because of this, the Beit Yosef abandons the halacha, allowing only salted meat to be cooked in dough.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

aguna and ogen

In our last post, we discussed the possible connection between almana (widow) and the root אלם - "to bind". Steinberg wrote that one meaning of the root is "restrained, imprisoned, alone" and provided another Hebrew root with a similar meaning - עגן. From this root we get the word agunah עגונה - a deserted woman, a woman whose husband has disappeared, and who is restrained from marrying again.

The root עגן only appears once in the Bible, in Ruth 1:13, when Naomi addresses her daughters-in-law, discussing her future, unborn sons:

הֲלָהֵן תְּשַׂבֵּרְנָה, עַד אֲשֶׁר יִגְדָּלוּ, הֲלָהֵן תֵּעָגֵנָה, לְבִלְתִּי הֱיוֹת לְאִישׁ

"Should you wait for them to grow up? Should you shut yourselves off for them (te'agenah) and have no husbands?"
(Ibn Ezra, perhaps deliberately, notes that the word is unique by writing that it "has no friend".)

Rashi in his commentary on Ruth tries to show that actually the root here is עוג and that the word תעגנה is the feminine plural future form of the verb. His proof for this is that if the nun was part of the root, it should have had a dagesh or appeared twice. He still says the word means "restriction", but gives the example of Honi HaMe'agel who "עג עוגה ועמד בתוכה" - drew (ag) a circle and stood inside it until it rained.

However, Avineri in Heichal Rashi points out that according most grammarians the nun is part of the root (for example the Radak in Sefer HaShorashim), and even Rashi himself in his commentary on Bava Kama 80a (s.v. ha'aguna) connects the word aguna and the verse in Ruth.

Many people connect aguna and the Hebrew word for "anchor" - עוגן ogen. For example, this book: aguna, a woman whose husband for whatever reason cannot be reached for the purposes of a divorce. She is legally married, but she has no husband and yet cannot remarry. (The Hebrew word ogen means "anchor"; the woman is "anchored," tied to a situation from which there seems to be no release.)

There seems to be support for the connection from the gemara in Bava Batra 73a:

משנה: המוכר את הספינה מכר את התורן ואת הנס ואת העוגין...

גמרא: תורן איסקריא ... נס אדרא ... עוגין תני רבי חייא אלו עוגינין שלה וכן הוא אומר (רות א) הלהן תשברנה עד אשר יגדלו הלהן תעגנה לבלתי היות לאיש

Mishna: If a man sold a ship, he sold also the mast, the anchor (ogin)
Gemara: Toren is the mast (iskarya) ... Nes is the sail (idra)...Ogin (anchor) - R. Hiyya taught: these are its anchors, as it said, "Should you wait for them to grow up? Should you shut yourselves off for them (te'agenah) and have no husbands?" (Rut 1:13)
And both Jastrow and Ben Yehuda write that ogen and aguna are related.

But the more recent dictionaries, like Klein and Even Shoshan say that the etymology of ogen is Greek - from the word onkinos, meaning "hook". Why do they reject what seems to be a shared meaning of the two words, the gemara in Bava Batra and the opinion of Ben Yehuda, who they generally follow?

Well, on a linguistic level, some other heavyweights have shown that ogen has a Greek source, such as Fraenkel on page 229 here, Fleischer on page 557 here, Krauss in his Tosafot Ha-Arukh Ha-Shalem, page 155b (although conspicuously not in his dictionary of Greek and Latin loanwords in Rabbinic Literature) and Sperber in his Nautica Talmudica (page 139). They point out that the Yerushalmi version of Bava Batra (as well as a number of manuscripts of the Mishna) has hogin הוגין (with a heh) instead of ogin (with an ayin). This spelling is found frequently throughout Rabbinic literature, such as in Sifrei Devarim 346 and Bereshit Rabba 12:12. They believe this is the earlier spelling, and as such is more likely to come from the Greek than the Hebrew עגן (and it's important to remember that both Jastrow and Ben Yehuda tend to emphasize Semitic origins for words).

It also seems that the original meaning of עגן was not to "tie down" or "hold back", but more to "shut in, imprison", as found in the Arabic cognate ajama - "to lock up". So we have a coincidence of two similar sounding words having a similar meaning, but not a common origin.

So what do we make of the gemara? According to Gabriel Birnbaum in his book "Mishnaic Hebrew as Reflected in the Cairo Geniza", the explanation of the gemara is due to folk etymology, helped along by the admittedly similar meanings, and perhaps as well by the Babylonian difficulty distinguishing between the guttural letters (see here, note 165.)

But I'm willing to cut them a little more slack. If we look at the other terms in the gemara, we see the following pattern:

Hebrew word -> explained with "foreign" word (Aramaic with Greek origin)
So if R' Chiya was familiar with the Greek origin of ogen, it would make sense that he'd reverse the order:

foreign word -> explained via Hebrew word (by asmachta - where a verse is given as "proof", even though the author knows the verse may be referring to something else)
By the way, if we look at the Greek word onkinos (as well as the related Greek word onkos and the Latin uncinus, all of the same meaning) we find some interesting cognates. They all seem to derive from the Indo-European root *ang-/*ank, meaning "to bend":

  • ankle - ME ancle, ancleou from OE ancleow (& ? ON ǫkkla) from IE base *ang-, limb, var. of *ank-, to bend > angle, angle, Gr ankōn, elbow, ankylos, crooked
  • oncidium (type of flower) - New Latin Oncidium, genus name : Greek onkos, barb, hook (from the shape of its labellum) + New Latin -idium, diminutive suff. (from Greek -idion)
  • angle - both the verb (to fish):

    Middle English angelen, from angel fishhook, from Old English, from anga hook; akin to Old High German ango hook, Latin uncus, Greek onkos barbed hook

    and the noun (intersecting lines):

    from L. angulum (nom. angulus) "corner," a dim. form from PIE base *ang-/*ank- "to bend"
  • Angles: a modern English word for a Germanic-speaking people who took their name from the cultural ancestral region of Angeln, a modern district located in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. The region got its name due to"its hook-like shape". When the inhabitants of that region together with the Saxons (and Jutes) invaded Britain, they gave it the name "England" and the language "English".
  • and of course the word anchor: O.E. ancor, borrowed 9c. from L. ancora, from or cognate with Gk. ankyra "anchor, hook"
Over the course of researching this post, I kept saying words like onkinos, ankylos and ankle, and had a hunch that perhaps the name of the famous convert and translator Onkelos was also related. And indeed, according to these two sources - his name did derive from Greek and probably meant "crooked" - possibly alluding "originally to some physical imperfection". (I won't get into the question of whether Onkelos and Aquila were the same person - for more read the sources linked to above.)

I wonder if perhaps an Eastern European immigrant to America ever thought he heard "Onkelos translation" when someone mentioned an "English translation" to the Torah. Certainly Onkelos didn't know English, but their names might actually be related...

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Previously we discussed the word "omer", and I mentioned that one of the definitions is "sheaf". Someone wrote to me with the following request:

One suggestion: most English speakers, myself included, do not have a clue what the word "sheaf" really means--in English. A word or two explaining what on earth a "sheaf" is would be helpful!
Fair enough. So according to the American Heritage Dictionary, a sheaf is:

A bundle of cut stalks of grain or similar plants bound with straw or twine.
This may actually would be even a better definition for aluma אלומה than for omer עומר. Why? Because as we discussed, the word omer may be related to "handful" or "armful". But the word aluma clearly is related to "bind/bundle", as we see in Yosef's description of his dream (Bereshit 37:7)

וְהִנֵּה אֲנַחְנוּ מְאַלְּמִים אֲלֻמִּים, בְּתוֹךְ הַשָּׂדֶה

"There we were binding (me'almim) sheaves (alumim) in the field"

Onkelos translates both the noun and the verb with the root אסר, and the Targum Yerushalmi uses the root כרך (see Rashi on Bava Metzia 21a) - both of which mean "to bind".

There are a number of other words that have the root אלמ - and various authorities connect them. Let's look at a few:

  • אלם - ilem: mute, silent. Klein writes that is usually explained as meaning "bound in one's speech".

  • אלמוני - almoni: anonymous. It is always found in the Bible as part of the phrase פלוני אלמוני ploni almoni - "an uncertain man". Klein derives it from the root אלם - "to be silent" and says it literally means "one whose name is unknown". (The etymology of ploni is unclear.)

  • אלים - alim: Originally meant "strong", in Modern Hebrew "violent". Eliahu Netanel, in his column in Shabbat B'Shabbato writes that the root אלם had different, but related, meanings in the various Semitic languages: in Arabic - pain, Aramaic - strength, Syriac - anger. He feels that binding is related to strength. This is also the opinion of both Jastrow and Steinberg, who both connect the root to an earlier two-letter root א-ל, meaning "strength". (We discussed that root in the post about ilan.) However, Klein feels that the Arabic and Syriac roots mentioned are not related to the Hebrew root meaning "to bind". He says the root אלם - "to be strong" is related to the root עלם - "to be mature".

  • אלמנה - almana: widow. Jastrow says this is connected to our root by the associated meanings "to be tied up, excluded, lonely, mute". Steinberg points out the verse in Shmuel II 20:3 where it describes women who:

    וַתִּהְיֶינָה צְרֻרוֹת עַד-יוֹם מֻתָן, אַלְמְנוּת חַיּוּת
    "remained in seclusion (tzerurot) until the day they died, in living widowhood (almenut)"
    The root צרר also means "to bind". The Ritva on Ketubot 10b writes that the almana is like someone who is mute, for no one defends her. (The gemara there has a drasha to prove a a halachic point.) This is also the opinion of many of the Medieval Hebrew grammarians.
    However, many sources say that almana is not related to the root אלם. For example, Klein quotes Barth as saying that the base is רמל, related to the Arabic words murmil, armal, meaning "needy, helpless." He also quotes Noldeke and Ruzicka as connecting the word with the Arabic alima - "he felt pain" (which we've already seen that Klein does not connect to the meaning "to bind".)

  • אולם - ulam: Jastrow says the word means "in front of, opposite", and from there "entrance, hall". He says it also derives from the root אלם, but doesn't explain how (perhaps he feels there's a connection between "in front of" and "surround / bound". In any case, no one else connects the terms, but I was surprised to see that the two meanings of ulam - "but, however" and "porch, vestibule, hall, parlor" are accepted by most as deriving from the Akkadian ellamu - "in front of, opposite."

Monday, May 11, 2009


With the Pope visiting Israel, we hear the unusual Hebrew translation for pope - afifyor (or apifyor) אפיפיור. What is the origin of the word?

It appears once in the Talmud, in Avoda Zara 11a, in a story describing Onkelos the convert, and how the Emperor (his uncle) sent Roman soldiers to arrest him. However, Onkelos was able to convert them as well, by presenting arguments to them. One the arguments was the following:

אמר להו אימא לכו מילתא בעלמא ניפיורא נקט נורא קמי (א)פיפיורא (א)פיפיורא לדוכסא דוכסא להגמונא הגמונא לקומא קומא מי נקט נורא מקמי אינשי אמרי ליה לא אמר להו הקב"ה נקט נורא קמי ישראל דכתיב (שמות יג) וה' הולך לפניהם יומם וגו'

He said to them: 'Let me tell you just an ordinary thing: [In a procession] the torchlighter carries the light in front of the afifior, the afifior in front of the leader, the leader in front of the governor, the governor in front of the chief officer; but does the chief officer carry the light in front of the people [that follow]?' 'No!' they replied. Said he: 'Yet the Holy One, blessed be He, does carry the light before Israel, for Scripture says. "And the Lord went before them … in a pillar of fire to give them light" (Shmot 13:21)
Onkelos was demonstrating God's "humility" as compared with the Roman leader's pride.

From this story we can see that afifyor had no religious standing, but was a type of dignitary or high official (so explain both the Arukh and Rashi). This Aramaic word is generally assumed to come from Greek. Krauss says that it derives from the Greek papias - which Ben Yehuda explains as "torch bearer", Klein as "keeper or janitor of the palace" and Steinsaltz as "the official responsible for the gates". (This book says that the Greek noun papias means "porter, conductor or guide".)

Even-Shoshan says that perhaps the word derives from the Greek epiphoros. I couldn't find an exact match for that word, but I do see that epiphero and phoros can mean "carrier" or "bearer". This would fit Jastrow's definition of apifior as "litter carrier, chief lecticarius" (see my post on apiryon for a description of this position). Phoros can also refer to a tribute or tax, so maybe the word describes someone who collects or receives tribute.

Kohut in the Arukh Hashalem quotes the Maharif (Rabbi Yaakov Feraji Mahmah?) as saying that afifyor derives from the Greek purphoros - meaning "torch bearer".

Kohut then goes on to mention the Christian Hebraist Johannes Buxtorf, who in his important Talmudic dictionary says that afifyor means "Papa, Pontifex Romanus" - i.e. the Pope. Kohut correctly points out that this was clearly not the meaning in the Talmudic passage. But by Medieval times (see examples here), this was the term Jews used to refer to the Catholic Pope.

Why was this obscure word chosen? Ben Yehuda offers a few suggestions.

It may have been due to a similarity to the Greek title "papas" (father) for the Pope, or a longer title: "papas hiereus" - chief priest or "papas hieros" - holy father. (Even Shoshan's transliteration papas ieros seems to perhaps be in error.)

He quotes Berliner as claiming that the word comes from "avi pior" - Father (avi אבי in Hebrew) and Pior (Peter in Italian, the first pope). Similarly, Meir Wiener, in his German translation of Emek HaBacha says that afifyor comes from "epi Pior" - after (epi in Greek) and Pior (Peter) - the Pope is Peter's successor.

The question still remains - why use this unusual word, instead of a direct translation? Ben Yehuda suggests that the Jews were avoiding saying the Pope's title ("papa") directly (the Pope generally wasn't such a good friend of the Jews). I'm sure that the Jews living in those times could never have imagined that the Pope would be hosted by a Jewish state, and that the visit of the afifyor would be the top of the news...

Friday, April 24, 2009

orez and orzo

When I was researching the meaning of the word "omer", I found that Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman quoted Shadal as saying that the word in Vayikra 23:10 probably means "sheaf". In my copy of Shadal's commentary on the Torah he doesn't discuss that there, so I contacted someone who has a copy of Shadal's translation of the Torah into Italian (with notes.) He wrote to me:

Although Shadal has no comment on Vayikra 23:10, his Italian translation is apparently what R. Hoffman was referring to. Here it is:

"...recherete al sacerdote un manipolo [secondo la tradizione: farina d'orzo della misura d' un Omer] delle primizie della vostra messe."

In English: " shall bring to the priest a sheaf [according to the tradition: barley flour of the measure of an Omer] of the first fruits of your harvest."
When I first read this, I was confused. I saw the word "orzo" and thought it meant rice, like the Hebrew orez אורז. It made sense, since "orzo" in English means "rice shaped pasta". But it turns out there's no connection.

Let's first look at orez. It derives from the Greek word oryza - from where the European words for rice also derive:

rice - 1234, from O.Fr. ris, from It. riso, from L. oriza (cf. It. riso), from Gk. oryza "rice," via an Indo-Iranian language (cf. Pashto vrize, O.Pers. brizi), ult. from Skt. vrihi-s "rice." The Gk. word is the ult. source of all European words (cf. Welsh reis, Ger. reis, Lith. rysai, Serbo-Cr. riza, Pol. ryz).
(See here for the words for rice in even more languages).

Professor Yehuda Feliks, in his article אורז בספרות חז"ל - "Rice in Rabbinic Literature" (Bar Ilan, Vol 1), writes how the Greeks were exposed to rice (oryza sativa) when Alexander the Great reached India, and that rice spread to the Land of Israel at the end of the Second Temple period. By the times of the Mishna, it had become a very important crop, and there were many discussions amongst the Tannaim as to the halachic status of rice - what blessing should be made on it, what is the status of rice on Pesach, how do we relate to rice in terms of the various agricultural mitzvot (chadash, terumot and maaserot, shemita, gifts to the poor), etc. (See also the Encyclopedia Talmudit entry on orez for further discussion.)

The Medieval commentators have some disagreement as to the identification of orez. Rashi, for example, in Berachot 37a, says orez is "mil" - meaning millet, probably specifically proso millet (this site points out that Rashi probably never saw rice, as it was only introduced to his area of Europe in the 15th century). Tosfot there disagrees, and says that orez is rice. In any case, both based on the description of orez in Talmudic literature, and the etymology of the word (orez and oryza), Feliks says there is no doubt at all that orez refers to rice, and this is also the position of the Aruch HaShulchan (Orach Chaim 208:21).

Orzo, on the other hand, in Italian means "barley" (where they make an espresso type drink called caffé d'orzo from ground roasted barley.) It derives from the Latin hordeum meaning barley (and isn't connected to oryza), as offered by the Oxford English Dictionary:

Italian orzo, lit. ‘barley’ (1231-62; c1200 as orzeo; hordeum barley: see HORDEATE n.), in allusion to the shape of the pasta.]

A variety of pasta formed in small pieces shaped like grains of barley or rice.

1917 J. CUSIMANO Econ. Ital. Cookbk. 7 Take two pints oysters..boil them ten minutes..into this add half pound No. 39 Orzo, boil twenty minutes.

1952 N. TSELEMENTES Greek Cookery 110 Simmer for 15 minutes and add the kritharaki (orzo).

1983 J. FAMULARO & L. IMPERIALE Joy of Pasta x. 165 We have filled whole tomatoes with orzo and crabmeat and we have used tomatoes, basil, and garlic to fill giant pasta shells.

1994 Mod. Maturity July-Aug. 59/1 This morning in my supermarket I counted 53 different pasta shapes. Six were the tiny variety used in soups or as side dishes: stelline, acini di pepe, farfalline, tubettini, orzo and ditalini.
I'm not sure when orzo took on the meaning of "rice shaped pasta" in English. It probably first meant "barley shaped pasta" (whole barley looks much more like rice than the pearl barley we usually eat). As far as the references in the OED, I'm not so sure about the first two. The 1917 reference comes from an Italian cookbook, so perhaps it's talking about actual barley (the Italians call rice shaped pasta "risi" or "risoni"). And the Greek word kritharaki, mentioned in the 1952 quote, does mean "rice shaped pasta" today, but I found a couple of sources that say that kritharaki refers to barley as well. The earliest quote I could find that confirmed that orzo meant a rice shaped pasta was from this 1968 magazine article:

Orzo, sometimes called manestra, is a pasta sold in Greek stores which resembles rice in appearance.
It then appears fairly infrequently (usually mentioned as a specialty item) until the 1990s - which is when I first encountered the terms, working in a rice and pasta factory in Massachusetts. In fact, that's probably where I first made the connection between orez and orzo.

In Israel, we also find a rice shaped pasta, but it's not actually orzo (or called that). These are rice shaped petitim פתיתים (related to the Hebrew word pat פת). These were created by the Osem company during Israel's austerity period in the 1950s (when rice was scarce), and received the nickname "Ben Gurion Rice". Later, they developed round petitim that imitate couscous. Recently, these have become trendy in the West, and are known as "Israeli couscous".

What's the difference between orzo and couscous on the one hand, and Israeli petitim (whatever the shape) on the other? Orzo and couscous are made from solet סולת (semolina), whereas petitim are made from kemach קמח (flour). What's the difference between kemach and solet? That will be dealt with in an upcoming post...