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.

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