Friday, December 24, 2010

misken, sakana, and sochen

In the beginning of Shemot, the Israelites were forced to build arei miskenot ערי מסכנות - "storage cities" (Shemot 1:11).

The root סכן is found in a number of Hebrew words going back to Biblical times - some still in use today, some less so. Let's first look at the different meanings, and then try to see if they are connected.

1) The verb סכן (in the kal form) can mean "was useful, benefited". This sense is found in Iyov 15:3, 22:2, 34:9, 35:3.

2) In the hifil form (הסכין), it means "was accustomed, was used to". This form appears in Bamidbar 22:30, Tehilim 139:3, and Iyov 22:21.

3) The familiar word sakana סכנה - "danger" does not appear in the Tanach (it appears frequently in Rabbinic Hebrew). But it does appear as a nifal verb once in Kohelet 10:9  יסכן - "will be harmed". In Rabbinic Hebrew we find the piel form, meaning "to expose to danger". Derivatives include sikun סיכון - "risk" and misukan מסוכן - which in the Talmud meant "in danger" but by Medieval Hebrew meant "dangerous".

4)  The noun sochen סוכן is found in Yeshayahu 22:15, and as sochenet סוכנת in Melachim I 1:2,4. It is usually translated there as "steward" or "attendant". In Modern Hebrew, sochen means "agent" and sochnut סוכנות is "agency".

5) The word misken מסכן means "poor, miserable", and appears in Kohelet 4:13;9:15-16.  The noun, miskenut מסכנות - "poverty" is found in Devarim 8:9. Klein (in his CEDEL) points out that the word "mesquin", defined as "mean, sordid" has its origins in this word:

French, from Italian meschino, from Arabic miskin, (in VArab. pronunciation meskin), 'poor, wretched, miserable', which is borrowed from Hebrew or Aramaic misken or Syriac mesken, 'poor', which are perhaps loan words from Akkadian mushkenu, 'beggar, needy'.

6) As I mentioned above, miskenot means storehouses. In addition to Shemot, the word also appears in Melachim I 9:19, and Divrei HaYamim II 8:4,6; 16:4;17:12 and 32:28.

So what are the connections between the words? Let's start with Klein. Without explaining why, he puts verbs 1 and 2 in the same entry. I assume that if one is good at something, he is both "useful" and "becomes accustomed". He says it is related to the Akkadian phrase sakanu ana as found in the Tel Amarna letters, which means "to care for". Based on this, he connects this root to sochen, who cares for people.

However, he also mentions that some scholars (possibly Kutscher, who has a chapter about it) say that sochen "is related to Akkadian shaknu (governor of a province)", which is connected to segan סגן - in Biblical Hebrew a government prefect, and later in Rabbinic Hebrew a deputy. He says that shaknu comes from shakanu, meaning "to lay, set, appoint", and is cognate with the Hebrew שכן - "to settle down, dwell". Both verbs he writes are

Shaph'el forms of כון (=to be, be set up, be established), hence literally mean 'to cause to be, cause to be set up, cause to be established'.
(Others disagree and say that shaknu ultimately has a Sumerian origin.)

Klein claims that miskenot is also related to שכן, and gives the following etymology:

Probably a loan word from Akkadian mashkanu (=storehouse, magazine), from shakanu (= to lay, place deposit, store up), which is related to the Hebrew שכן (= he dwelled, abode).
However, he doesn't connected misken or sakana to any of the others.

The Daat Mikra on Devarim 8:9 connects (5) and (6) by pointing out that storehouses are needed when food is not plentiful, and needs to be rationed, like with a poor person.

Steinberg connects all the meanings under the general header of "concerned about the needs of his master". This concern causes one to try to do his best job to help (1), and to be very careful about doing things (2), and to be aware of danger (3). Naturally, this is the role of the sochen, a poor person is concerned about food, and the storehouses stored food for a country concerned about famine in the future. He rejects the unnecessary complications of Gesenius and Furst, when it is clear to him that the words are related. His explanation is certainly clean and inviting. But I think in a way, it's a bit too clean, and language doesn't usually develop just like that. So I'm inclined to accept the opinions of the later scholars who show various sources for the different meanings of the root.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010


I hadn't really noticed before, but the Hebrew word for Greece, יוון yavan, is related to the name of one of the ancient Greek tribes, the Ionians. As Klein writes:

A blend of יון, name of a son of Shem son of Noah (see Genesis 10:2) and orig. Greek Iaon, gen. Iaonos contracted into Ion, gen. Ionos (=Ion), ancestor of the Ionian race. 

The gemara (Yoma 10a) identifies a number of Noach's descendants with peoples of the region (such as Tiras with Thrace, and Madai with Macedonia), but says that Yavan is the (understood) meaning - e.g. Greece.

In addition to the mention in Bereshit, the word also appears in Yeshayahu (66:19), Yoel 4:6), Yechezkel (27:13, 19), Zecharya (9:13), Divrei Hayamim I (1:5,7) and Daniel (8:21, 10:20, 11:2).

The Ionians crossed the Aegean sea and settled the west coast of Asia Minor, in today's Turkey. Besides Hebrew, many other languages to the east of the Greeks (Akkadian, Sanskrit) used a form of Ionia to refer to Greece, since this was the first tribe they encountered.

Friday, November 26, 2010


This week, in Bereshit 37:3, we read about Yosef and his ketonet passim כתונת פסים. We've already discussed how ketonet means "coat" (and is related to tunic). But what does the additional word passim mean? It appears only here, and in Shmuel II 13:18 in the phrase ketonet passim, so we can't guess based on other contexts.

Perhaps influenced by the play Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, most English speakers probably assume that it was "coat of many colors". Israelis, on the other hand, would probably say "striped coat", since passim means "stripes" (among other similar words, like track and strip). Who's right?

Well, perhaps neither. Sarna in the JPS Genesis writes that

Radak took passim to mean "striped". The Septuagint and Vulgate rendered the Hebrew "a robe of many colors".

However, he also adds that

In 2 Samuel 13:18-19 the garment is mentioned as the distinctive dress of virgin daughters of royalty. Josephus describes it as "a long-sleeved tunic reaching to the ankle." In Aramaic and rabbinic Hebrew pas means the palm of the hand and the sole of the foot.

The Living Torah shows how the debate continued within the commentaries:

The word passim can be translated as 'colorful' (Radak; Septuagint), embroidered (Ibn Ezra; Bachya; Ramban on Exodus 28:2), striped (Ibn Janach; Radak, Sherashim), or with pictures (Targum Yonathan). It can also denote a long garment, coming down to the palms of the hands (Rashbam; Ibn Ezra; Baaley Tosafoth; Bereshith Rabbah 84), and the feet (Lekach Tov). Alternatively, the word denotes the material out of which the coat was made, which was fine wool (Rashi) or silk (Ibn Janach).

Drazin and Wagner, in Onkelos on the Torah, explain Radak's position as being based on "the plural form of the word" which would indicate the robe was made of patchwork. They quote Ehrlich as saying that

Jacob gave Joseph such a royal garment, one that was unsuitable for shepherds, because Joseph was exempted from work. 

This would seem to support the theory of a long sleeved garment, as Shadal also wrote:

The length of one’s clothing is a sign of liberation and prominence, [indicating] that one does not have to do manual work.

Klein, although saying the phrase probably means "tunic composed of variegated stripes", notes that according to most commentators it means "tunic reaching to the palms and the soles".  He connects both pas meaning "stripe, strip" and the Aramaic pas meaning "palm of the hand" (Daniel 5:5) to the root פסס - "to be broad, spread". This root also gives us פיסה pisa, which in Talmudic Hebrew also meant "stripe, strip" but by Medieval Hebrew took on the current meaning of "piece", and perhaps payis פיס - "lot", as well.

While Klein (and earlier Jastrow) indicate that the meaning "strip, stripe" goes back to Talmudic times, Tur-Sinai (in a note in Ben Yehuda's dictionary) says that this sense is not found in those sources at all. He feels that this meaning came from foreign influence, via the Slavic "pas" (like in Polish), which made its way into Yiddish, and from there to Hebrew.

Whether pas פס as strip/stripe came from the Radak or from Polish, everyone agrees that the use of pas as a document that lets a soldier get a vacation from the army comes from the English "pass"...

(The Daat Mikra on Shmuel II gives this picture from the paintings in Beni Hasan in Egypt as an example of ketonet passim.)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

kipod and dorban

Last week, when leaving work in Jerusalem, a friend and I spotted an animal that looked like this (I wish we had a chance to take a picture of it):

He asked me what it was, and I said it was a kipod קיפוד, thinking that was the Hebrew word for "porcupine", but when I got home and looked it up, I discovered the correct word was dorban דרבן. Kipod means "hedgehog", which look like this (I've seen them in the Jerusalem area as well):

Klein writes that kipod derives from the root קפד and "literally means that which rolls itself together". The root קפד developed from "be drawn together" to "be angry" and "be strict", and from here we have the common verb הקפיד hikpid - "was strict, was pedantic".

The porcupine and hedgehog are clearly different animals - both in size, shape and biological classification. How much of a mistake did I make by mixing up the names?

According to a fascinating article by Prof. David Talshir (Leshonenu 70), I wasn't the first to think a porcupine was a kipod.

Talshir explains how the word kipod appears in the Tanach in a few instances: Yeshayahu 14:23, 34:11 and Tzefanya 2:14. The kipoz קפוז of Yeshayahu 34:15 is likely the same animal, with the zayin replacing the dalet (Talshir rejects the JPS translation which distinguishes the kipoz as "arrow-snake", who he points out doesn't live in the Middle East). However, based on the context of these verses, the kipod/kipoz is most likely referring to a bird of prey. Despite this, the various ancient translations and Targumim translate kipod as "hedgehog". Rashi does the same in his biblical commentary (in most cases), as well in his Talmudic commentary, where he identifies the kupad קופד as a hedgehog as well (e.g. Shabbat 54b). Rashi also writes, in his commentary to Vayikra 11:30 (based on Onkelos there, and see also his commentary to Bava Batra 4a) that the animal listed as anaka אנקה also referred to a hedgehog. (Most scholars today say it was likely a gecko lizard.)

However, since no separate identification is given to the porcupine, it is likely that in some of the cases in the Talmud, the kipod / kupad referred to porcupines instead of hedgehogs (for example Kilayim 8:5, and the commentary Malechet Shlomo). Many languages in the area used the same word for both. Rashi's almost absolute identification of the kipod with the hedgehog (excluding the two mentions in Yeshayahu 34, where he understandably identifies it with a bird) must be viewed in light of the fact that there were no porcupines in Europe in his time - only hedgehogs (this is my observation, not Talshir's).

From Rashi's time until the beginning of Modern Hebrew, there were a number of attempts to give different names in Hebrew to both the hedgehog and porcupine. When in 1862, Mendele Mocher Sforim concurred with Rashi, and called the hedgehog a kipod (over the alternative anaka), the name stuck permanently.

However, the final name for porcupine, dorban, was only coined in 1915 by the zoologist Yisrael Aharoni. While a common translation for porcupine in Arabic is kunfud (likely related to kipod), Aharoni chose a different Arabic word for porcupine to come up with his Hebrew version: derban. I was surprised to learn that the Arabic word is not actually cognate to the Hebrew דרבן dorban - meaning "spur" or "goad". However, Aharoni certainly was influenced by the spur-like quills on the porcupine when choosing that name.

The Hebrew dorban (goad) has an Arabic cognate in the root drb meaning "to train", and as Klein points out we have a similar development within Hebrew where malmad מלמד - "goad" derives from למד - "to teach, learn". The Arabic word for porcupine, however, is related to ḍarb, meaning "a beating" (which is the origin of the English word "drub" - "to beat with a stick".) According to Stahl, it can express painful actions like shooting and stinging, so I suppose that is how it became associated with porcupines. Personally, I would imagine that "beating" and "goading" are very similar, and so the two Arabic roots might be connected. But Talshir and the Academy point out that the letter Arabic letter ḍ is cognate with the Hebrew tzade, not dalet, so I'll accept their authority.

Talshir argues for a distinction between darban (porcupine) and dorban (goad). However, in a decision shortly after Talshir's article, the Academy of the Hebrew Language decided, based on popular usage, that דרבן dorban (with a kamatz katan) is the official word for porcupine.

Friday, September 24, 2010

teva and tabaat

A word that in some ways is equivalent to olam עולם - "world" is teva טבע - "nature". The word is very common in Hebrew today, and is known to people worldwide via the companies Teva Pharmaceuticals and Teva Naot (the sandal manufacturer). Therefore, many assume that the word is ancient - but when viewed in the long history of the Hebrew language, it's rather new.

Teva as "nature" - i.e. the natural world - begins to appear in Ibn Tibbon's translation of the Rambam's Moreh Nevuchim. In the section on the foreign words used in the book, Ibn Tibbon writes (from this translation):

Nature [teva'] is a term that has many meanings, especially in our language, especially since I use it in place of two different Arabic terms, which themselves have different meanings. The one is tabi'a, and the other tab'. ... The philosophers already explained these two terms and the meanings each possesses. What we need to mention here are only the following: One says 'teva' with reference to the principle of any change, persistence or abiding ... any power that exists in a thing always, without changing, is called 'teva'.

The broader sense of "form, shape, character, essence" appears occasionally in Talmudic Hebrew, where it also is the name of a coin, with the value of half a sela. Jastrow provides one example of the meaning "element" from Bamidbar Rabba 14, and then untypically adds "in later Hebrew: nature, character; Nature." The general word for coin - matbe'a מטבע - is related (coins were made by impressing a design on a piece of metal), and it too can also mean "type, formula".

Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon points out in this article in the Forward, an interesting change in the connotation of teva:

Today, the connotation of “teva” has flipped, as the omnipotence of God has receded in the face of science and technology. “Natural” no longer stands opposed to “divine,” but to “artificial.” Teva is wild and free, like gurgling brooks and rushing rivers; its opposite is human-built, like the network of pipes that brings fresh water to our homes.
This certainly seems true. I imagine that if you were to perform a survey of Israelis today, and ask them whether the adjective tiv'i טבעי means "with form" or "without form", they'd overwhelming choose the latter.

Both teva and matbe'a derive from the Biblical root טבע - "to sink, drown", which can also mean "to impress, stamp, coin."  Klein writes that the name of the Hebrew month Tevet טבת may derive from this root as well: originally from the Akkadian tebetu, "it means perhaps literally 'month of sinking in' (i.e. muddy month)".

But what about the Biblical word taba'at טבעת - "ring"? Is it also related?

Most authorities think so. Their assumption is that taba'at originally meant "signet ring", which was used to impress a seal on wax or clay. (Others say that taba'at derived from the Egyptian d.'bt or gb'.t meaning "seal", and therefore may not be related to טבע). This type of ring was used as a signature, and so if the taba'at of the king was given to someone (e.g. Pharoah to Yosef in Bereshit 41:42, Achashverosh to Haman and Mordechai in Ester 3:10, 8:2), it was a sign of transfer of authority.

However, we also find taba'at with the more general meaning of "ring", in the description of the utensils of the Mishkan, for example in Shemot 25:12. (Certainly these rings were not signet rings, although such rings were donated to the Mishkan, as in Shemot 35:22 - see Cassuto's commentary there.) This seemed difficult to me, for I would assume that first plain rings (not signet) were invented (for jewelry or other purposes) and only later signet rings. The same - in my mind - would apply to the development of the word as well. Some try to explain this difficulty by saying that the root טבע in taba'at didn't refer to impressing the seal, but rather the ring was made by "pressing in". But that explanation is hard to accept, since even the verse discussing producing rings for the Mishkan uses the verb יצק - "to pour", not "to press".

I think a better explanation may be that everything used in the Mishkan was "special" (or perhaps "royal"). We see use of materials like techelet תכלת, which have special religious significance, and even the "holy" shaatnez שעטנז, is frequently found in the garments and other utensils in the Mishkan. So perhaps from "signet ring", taba'at came to mean "special, royal ring" - and that is why it was chosen over some other, more common synonym.

Thursday, September 02, 2010


In the prayers of Rosh HaShana, we say hayom harat olam היום הרת עולם. Artscroll translates this phrase as "today is the birth(day) of the world", and offers the following comment:

The phrase is in the present tense, for on Rosh Hashanah of each year the Creation is renewed in its entirety...Although the root הרה usually refers to conception, it it sometimes is used to mean birth. This is its meaning here. Alternatively, according to Rabbeinu Tam, Creation took place on two levels: in Tishrei God decided that He would create the world, and in Nissan He did so. Thus Rosh Hashanah is literally the day on which the world was conceived in God's plan.

I'm more inclined to accept Rabbeinu Tam's explanation (and therefore would prefer a translation like, "today the world was conceived"). I discussed the root הרה here, and I found no examples where it meant birth. (For a more in-depth discussion of the background of and imagery in this piyyut, see these Hebrew articles by Sara Friedland Ben Arza and Yael Levine.)

However, the phrase harat olam has an origin with a very different meaning. It is found in Yirmiyahu 20:17, where the prophet, living at the time of the destruction of the Temple, is cursing the day he was born:

אֲשֶׁר לֹא-מוֹתְתַנִי, מֵרָחֶם; וַתְּהִי-לִי אִמִּי קִבְרִי, וְרַחְמָה הֲרַת עוֹלָם
Because He did not kill me in the womb, so that my mother might be my grave, and her womb pregnant forever. 
Aside from the negative connotation (which is clearly in contrast to the Rosh Hashana prayer), what stands out here is an entirely different meaning of olam. In Yirmiyahu it means "forever", and in the prayer it means "world". (Note that clearly in the verse here, the root הרה cannot mean "birth", although "pregnancy" is more appropriate than "conception".)

This transformation took place in the passage from Biblical Hebrew to Rabbinic Hebrew. Many authorities say that all usages of olam in the Bible mean "eternity" or "always". Others find a few examples (Tehillim 89:3, Mishlei 10:25, Kohelet 3:11) where "world" would be a better translation, or at least that the more popular understanding of the verse. Klein mentions that olam might derive from the root עלם, "to hide", meaning "the hidden, unknown time".

It seems that in between the two meanings was a third one - "age, era", parallel to the Greek aeon (the root of the English word "eon"), which had similar meanings, as described here:

Following Biblical Aramaic, 'lm (or similar forms) occur in numerous more recent Semitic languages (Nabatean, Jewish Aramaic, Christian Palestinian Aramaic, Samaritan, Syriac, Mandaic, Ethiopic, Palmyrene, Egyptian Arabic, Arabic). Beginning approximately in the 1st Century A.D., several of these languages start using 'lm in a meaning different from that of the OT, namely, as "world" or "aeon".
(The same book describes how the post-Biblical book Ben Sira  "stands clearly in a transitional situation with regard to the development of the term olam, with traditional meanings continuing, new ones announcing themselves, and many texts clearly hovering between the old and the new and thus eluding unequivocal determination.")

As suggested here (in Doing Jewish Theology: God, Torah & Israel in Modern Judaism by Neil Gillman), I think this sense is reflected in the Hebrew phrases olam hazeh עולם הזה and olam haba עולם הבא. "This age" or "the age to come" might explain the concepts than the more popular "this world" and "the world to come".

So I think the progress went something like this: "always, eternity" to "long period of time, age"1 to "realm, domain" to "the (entire) universe". (The English word "world" had a similar development.)

We can see the tension between the meanings of olam in this Mishna in Berachot (9:5):

כל חותמי ברכות שבמקדש היו אומרים: עד העולם. משקלקלו הצדוקין ואמרו אין עולם אלא אחד התקינו שיהו אומרים מן העולם ועד העולם

At the conclusion of the benedictions said in the Temple they used at first to say simply, “forever.” When the Sadducees perverted their ways and asserted that there was only one world, it was ordained that the response should be "from world to world” [i.e., two worlds].
This phrase, מן העולם ועד העולם, is originally found in Divrei Hayamim I 16:36, and is quoted in the Pesukei Dizimra prayers. The different meanings of olam are shown in the various translations. The JPS Tanach has "from eternity to eternity" reflecting the Biblical meaning, the Artscroll adopts the mishna's conclusion with "from This World to the World to Come", and the Koren-Sacks tries to split the difference with "from This World to eternity".

Similarly, the familiar phrase melech olam מלך עולם, when found in the Tanach (Yirmiyahu 10:10, Tehillim 10:16) means "everlasting King", but when adopted into the blessings, becomes "King of the World".

I opened with a criticism of Artscroll's translation, but in the spirit of the season, I think this post is very important. Dr. Marc Shapiro starts with a similar approach, criticizing Artscroll for their translation of Adon Olam as "Master of the Universe"2, when he thought "eternal Lord" was more fitting. But in the end, he realized that Artscroll was actually correct. The prayer was written - like the Rosh Hashana prayer - in post-biblical times, and so the poets were thinking of "world", not eternity, when they chose the word "olam".

1. The idea that olam did not always mean "eternity", but rather a limited period of time, is found in a number of Medieval Jewish writings. See Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim 2:28, and Albo, Sefer HaIkkarim, 3:16.

2. See this fascinating article by Philologos, where he discusses how the cartoon "Masters of the Universe" maybe was influenced by the Hebrew Ribbono Shel Olam רבונו של עולם, via Fiddler on the Roof.

Friday, July 30, 2010


In the previous post, we mentioned se'ora שעורה - "barley", so this is a good opportunity to finish the discussion of the five grains of the Land of Israel. There's not much to say about the etymology of se'ora other than to quote Klein who says that it's related to se'ar שער - "hair", and literally means "the hairy or bearded (grain)".
Chita חיטה - "wheat" also has a fairly simple explanation. Klein points out that it probably derives from the root חנט, meaning "to ripen" (with a dropped nun). And we've already discussed shibolet shual שבולת שועל - "oats" and shifon שיפון - "rye" (at least according to their use in modern Hebrew.) What's left? Kusemet כוסמת.

As with shibolet shual and shifon, the identity of kusemet isn't clear. The word appears in the Bible (Shemot 9:32, Yeshayahu 28:25, Yechezkel 4:9) and in the Talmudic literature. The medieval rabbis generally identified it as spelt, but the current scholarly opinion is that it was more likely emmer wheat (unlike emmer, spelt has not been found in Egypt and the Land of Israel in archeological excavations of biblical sites). The name probably comes from the root כסם - "to shear, clip", and "the names derives from the short hairs of the ears which look as though they have been cut" (Encyclopedia Judaica, "Wheat"). However, with kusemet there's an added twist: in Modern Hebrew the word means "buckwheat". Unlike shibolet shual and shifon, there's no halachic opinion that buckwheat is one of the five grains (with all of the laws relating to them). So how did this come to be?

I couldn't find any clear answers, but after a lot of research, I believe I have a possible theory.

First of all, it's important to note that this wasn't an invention of Ben Yehuda. In fact, his dictionary doesn't mention the identification of kusemet with buckwheat at all (even to reject it). I did find it in three different sources from 19th century Haskala writers. Mendele Mocher Sfarim in 1862 (Toldot HaTeva) and Moshe Studentzky in 1853 (Orchot Chaim) both use the word kusemet as buckwheat in “scientific” definitions, as well as an earlier use by a Jewish convert to Christianity, Aaron Pick, in 1845.  I have no reason to believe they were all influenced by one common contemporary source - and if it exists, I couldn't find it.

So I think it was probably more likely that these various sources were all inspired by common usage (Jewish or non-Jewish). Here the trail goes cold, but I think there are certain hints about what might have led them to this translation.

If we go all the way back to the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, we see that kusemet was translated as "far". Interestingly, far, at the time, could mean either spelt or emmer (the confusion continues to this day). But later, far came to mean grain in general. The Vulgate was the main influence for pre-Lutheran bibles, written in Low German, which weren't known for their scholarship. Some of them translated kusemet as boekwete, the German word for buckwheat. (Luther translated kusemet as spelt, and his translation became the standard in Germany after his Reformation, and supplanted those earlier bibles.)

Low German is closely related to Dutch, and here we get a few more clues. There are two legends in Holland about buckwheat. One is that buckwheat was first brought to Europe from the Holy Land by Joos van Ghistele in 1485, and the other is a folk etymology mentioned in a number of sources, such as Bert Greene in The Grains Cookbook (page 56):

It was the Dutch who gave buckwheat its rightful name. In 1549 the officially dubbed it boek weit (book wheat) to honor the Scriptures whose auspices, they claimed, brought it to flower on their shores.

Neither of the above is likely true (buckwheat was never found widely in the Land of Israel, and the correct etymology is "beech wheat", since buckwheat seeds and beech seeds look similar). But that's not terribly relevant to our search - if people in that area thought that buckwheat was a biblical grain from the Holy Land, then it makes sense that when they found a strange word in the Bible, which they understood as just meaning "grain", they would connect the two. And so therefore kusemet could go from far to boekweit, and if this association continued for a few more centuries, then Jews could make buckwheat into kusemet.

And this is apparently what happened, for in addition to the Haskala sources I found, the Aruch HaShulchan (Orach Chaim 208:181) writes in the 19th century that most people knew that buckwheat was not one of the five grains. The fact that he needed to point that out is a sign that there was already wide use in Europe of kusemet as buckwheat.

As we mentioned, Ben Yehuda made no reference to this usage. And in halachic literature, kusemet continued to refer to spelt. But even heavyweights such as these didn't have control over the living language of Modern Hebrew. And the language seemed to come up with a solution of its own, and a strange on at that. Kusemet continued to be used for buckwheat, but the plural, kusmin כוסמין, was reserved for spelt - and you can actually find the two next to each other in the supermarket, even produced by the same company.


1. See also Igrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah, 2:25 and Kehati's commentary on Hallah 1:1 for more recent halachic responses to the confusion regarding the meanings of kussemet.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

shiur and shaar

In the previous post, I mentioned how achuz אחוז means "percent", while shiur שיעור means "percentage". However, you might be more familiar with another meaning of shiyur (also pronounced in Yiddish, via reduction, as shi'er or shir) - "lesson, class". This leads to a cute joke my son told me:

למה פאה וביכורים משחקים בחצר? כי אין להם שיעור
Why were Peah and Bikkurim playing outside during school?
Because they don't have a shiur...
(based on Peah 1:1, where shiur means "fixed measure")

The meaning "measure" came first, and only in medieval Hebrew did shiur come to mean lesson - "a set measure of learning" (that sense is preserved in shiurei bayit שיעורי בית - "homework"), followed by the modern Hebrew sense of "class". The word shiur derives from the root שער meaning, "to calculate, to estimate, to measure". The verb form only appears once in Tanach, in Mishlei 23:7. The noun form also only appears once, but for me in a surprising location, Bereshit 26:12

וַיִּזְרַע יִצְחָק בָּאָרֶץ הַהִוא, וַיִּמְצָא בַּשָּׁנָה הַהִוא מֵאָה שְׁעָרִים
Yitzchak sowed in that land and in that same year found meah she'arim

Meah shearim is a sign of blessing, and gave its name to one of the oldest neighborhoods in Jerusalem outside of the Old City. I had always thought that she'arim here meant gates (from sha'ar שער - "gate") and the meaning was poetic - "100 gates." But nearly every translation and commentary I've found said the phrase means "hundredfold" - literally "one hundred measures" - or "one hundred estimates". (Tur Sinai in his commentary Peshuto Shel Mikra, follows the Septuagint, and understands Onkelos in the same vein, and says that the word actually was se'orim שעורים - "barley". However, the footnote in Ben Yehuda's dictionary - which I believe were generally written by Tur Sinai - rejects this approach).

Is there a connection between שער - "measure" and shaar - "gate"? Horowitz (page 107) says no - that this one of those cases where "shin is a twin letter". He points out that while in Aramaic shaar meaning "price" (deriving from the root meaning "measure") is spelled with a shin, the Aramaic cognate for shaar meaning "gate" is תרעא - spelled with a tav.

Klein mentions this theory, but then mentions an alternate one:

However, Zimmern sees in the Aramaic words like Jewish Palestinian Aramaic שערא (=market price), etc., Hebraisms, and derives שער from שער, so that the original meaning of שער would be 'the price established at the towngate', the place where the markets were usually held, whence the meanings 'market place', 'price', 'value', 'measure' would have developed gradually.

I don't know where Zimmern wrote this (I don't actually know who Zimmern was, but I'm guessing it was probably the Orientalist Heinrich Zimmern, 1862-1931). I imagine that one possible source for this theory was the usage in Melachim II, 7:1

כָּעֵת מָחָר סְאָה-סֹלֶת בְּשֶׁקֶל וְסָאתַיִם שְׂעֹרִים בְּשֶׁקֶל--בְּשַׁעַר שֹׁמְרוֹן
This time tomorrow, a seah of choice flour shall sell for a shekel, and two seahs of barley for a shekel, at the gate (shaar) of Shomron

Here we see price and gate being used together. 

While in most cases it's clear whether shaar means "gate" or "price", I did find one set of phrases which are confusing:
  • הבקיע שער - to score a goal (shaar, "gate" can mean "goal", in soccer)
  • הפקיע את השער  - to profiteer, raise the price

I imagine that in the recent World Cup games, both of those phrases were appropriate...

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


While discussing machoz, we mentioned Klein's theory that it is a derivative of the root אחז. This is a common root in Biblical Hebrew, generally with the meaning of "to seize", "to hold" or "to grasp". (Steinberg goes further and connects a number of other roots beginning with אח meaning "connecting two things", such as אחד  - "to unite, one", and אח - "brother".)  From אחז we get a number of familiar words and phrases:

  • achuza אחוזה - "possession, property, estate, mansion"
  • ma'achaz מאחז-  "stronghold, outpost" (I won't get into the political ramifications of the difference between the above two)
  • beit achiza בית אחיזה - "handle, hold" (noun)
  • achizat eynayim אחיזת עיניים - "deceit, delusion" (literally, "closing of the eyes", not letting the viewer see what is really happening. See the Mishna, Sanhedrin 7:11).
However, there is one derivative that is harder to understand - achuz אחוז - "percentage". What does that have to do with the root as we've seen it so far?

The word actually comes from this week's parasha, Matot. We find a description of how the spoils of war should be distributed, with the soldiers and civilians each taking one half, and then 1/500th of the soldiers' take goes to the high priest, and 1/50th of the civilian share goes to the Levites. That levy is described in Bamidbar 31:30

וּמִמַּחֲצִת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל תִּקַּח אֶחָד אָחֻז מִן-הַחֲמִשִּׁים, מִן-הָאָדָם מִן-הַבָּקָר מִן-הַחֲמֹרִים וּמִן-הַצֹּאן--מִכָּל-הַבְּהֵמָה

And from the half-share of the other Israelites you shall take one seized (achuz) from every fifty human beings as well as cattle, donkeys and sheep - all the animals;

The same usage of achuz appears in Divrei Hayamim I 24:6. From here, the word was reinvented in modern Hebrew, apparently by the rabbi and linguist Zeev Yavetz, as "rate, proportion" (although this article finds an earlier usage), and percentage was created as achuz l'mea אחוז למאה - "a portion of 100". This is the usage described by Ben Yehuda - I'm not sure why they didn't use the biblical "achuz m..." אחוז מן, but rather "achuz l...". As time went on, I suppose with global mathematics becoming more integrated in Israeli culture, achuz began to be used on its own, meaning only "percentage" - 1 of 100. (Interestingly, Klein, whose dictionary was compiled in the 1960s or 1970s, doesn't mention the modern usage, only the sense that Ben Yehuda described.)

The Hebrew Wikipedia article for achuz points out that achuz should only be used for a specific number (e.g. achuz echad אחוז אחד 1%, shelosha achuzim שלושה אחוזים 3%). But if one wants to say percentage in general, as in "the percentage of students who passed the test has increased", the word shiur שיעור, should be used instead of achuz.

Friday, July 02, 2010

machoz and chozeh

In our last post, we showed how the Hebrew word for port, namel נמל, comes from Greek (and perhaps earlier from Egyptian.) But how could it be that Biblical Hebrew didn't have its own word for port?

Well, it turns out that it probably did. Kutscher (pgs 41-44), based on ancient translations, cognates in Arabic, and Bar Kochba letters, writes that the Biblical word for port was machoz מחוז. It appears once in Tehillim 107:30, a psalm describing travel at sea:

 וַיִּשְׂמְחוּ כִי-יִשְׁתֹּקוּ;    וַיַּנְחֵם, אֶל-מְחוֹז חֶפְצָם.
They rejoiced when all was quiet, and He brought them to the port they desired.

He writes that the word derives from the Akkadian maxazu, meaning "city". He claims the Hebrew word maoz מעוז, which also may have meant "port" (Yeshayahu 23:4), influenced the adoption of machoz from Akkadian; so the word went from "city" to "port city" to "port". (For further discussion, see this interesting article.)

Klein agrees that the Biblical machoz meant "harbor", but offers a different etymology. After mentioning Kutscher's theory, he writes:

However, it is more probably related to Ethiopian me'hez (=frontier place), which derives from 'ahaza (= he seized), so that מחוז would be a derivative of אחז
But in modern Hebrew machoz means "district". How did this come about? It appears to be from influence from Rashi (and others) who translate machoz in Tehillim as "border", based on the dictionary of Menachem ben Saruq1.

Yet there is something unusual about how Rashi (and Menachem) come to this conclusion. Rashi quotes Yeshayahu 28:15 which uses the word chozeh חוזה:

כִּי אֲמַרְתֶּם, כָּרַתְנוּ בְרִית אֶת-מָוֶת, וְעִם-שְׁאוֹל, עָשִׂינוּ חֹזֶה
For you have said, "We have made a covenant with death, concluded a chozeh with Sheol"

In every other verse in the Tanach, chozeh means "seer" or "prophet". But that clearly is not the meaning here. In modern Hebrew chozeh in this context means "contract", Ben Yehuda translates it as "stipulation", and the JPS uses "pact". But here too Rashi, based on Menachem, explains the word as "border" (from a root unrelated to "seer". Many others have tried to connect the two meanings of the word - see here for example.) To me, it certainly seems strange that Rashi explains one unique word in Tanach by using another unique word as a proof (and vice versa.) In any case, Modern Hebrew accepted Rashi's understanding of machoz, while rejecting that of chozeh.


1.  See Menachem's dictionary here, page 3. The dictionary also quotes the unusual root חזה in Iyov 8:17, and in the footnote mentions that Rashi quotes Malachim I 7:4 where we find the word מחזה (this word does not appear in any manuscripts of Menahem, despite the fact that Rashi quotes him on it.) All of these words are very unusual and unique, and as the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament points out here, "the text is so uncertain that it is impossible to use them for the meaning of the root and its history".

Friday, June 25, 2010


We've discussed boats and planes - now lets see where they dock. The Hebrew word for "port" or "harbor" is namel נמל. There's no connection to nemala נמלה - "ant", and we know this due to the etymology. While nemala is a Biblical, Semitic word with cognates in Akkadian, namel has a more complicated history.

Klein provides the following etymology:

Formed through metathesis from Greek limen  (=harbor, haven), which is related to limne (=marsh, pool, lake), leimon (=a moist, grassy meadow), and probably cognate with Latin limus (= slime, mud, mire). See 'slime' in my CEDEL.

In his CEDEL (Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language) he has the following entry for "slime":

slime, n. -- ME. slim, fr. OE. slim, which is rel to ON. slim, Dan. slim, Du. slijm, MHG. slim, G. Schlein, 'slime', OHG. slimen, 'to make smooth', fr. I.-E. base *(s)lei-, 'slime, slimy, sticky, dauby, slippery', whence also Russ. slimak, 'snail' (lit. 'the slimy animal'), OSlav. slina, 'spittle', OIr. sligim, 'I smear', MIr. slemum, W. llyfn, 'smooth', Gk. leimax, 'snail' (whence L. limax, of s.m.), limne, 'marsh, pool, lake', L. limus (for *slimus), 'slime, mud, mire', lima, 'file', limare, 'to file, polish', linere, 'to daub, besmear, rub out, erase',  Gk. alinein (Heschylus), 'to anoint, besmear'. See lime, 'birdlime', and cp. loam. Cp. also delete, illinition, leio-, levigate, lientery, Limicolae, limnetic, limno-, Limonium, liniment, litotes, loam, obliterate, Prayala. Cp. also sleek, slick, slide, slight, slip, slowworm.
However, Meir Lubetski, in this fascinating article, proposes that both the Greek and Hebrew terms derive from an earlier Egyptian word for port - mni. He writes:

The Hellenistic period saw the Greeks arriving at the ports of Palestine and Syria and utilizing the word limen for the various port cities. They were not, however, introducing a brand new expression, but were rather employing an old Egypto-Semitic term which had made its way to them in the pre-Amarna era.

Since Rabbinic literature, composed during the Hellenistic period, borrowed many Greek words, it was easily assumed that it had also appropriated limen from the Greeks, but even if this was so, it was only using an Egypto-Semitic word adopted long before by the Greeks. 
(I've noticed this Semitic-Greek-Semitic pattern before, for example with the word semida.)

Lubetski provides a number of linguistic proofs for his theory, but also shows that there are "figurative connotations" found in the Egyptian mni and the Semitic למין - but are absent in the Greek limen. For example, in both Egyptian tradition and Jewish midrashim we find the metaphor of a port as "death, the harbor of eternal life." Also, associations between port and "custom house" and "rule" are found in Egyptian and Hebrew sources, but not Greek.

As we mentioned earlier, the Greek limen was transformed by metathesis to namel. This process however, occurred in Babylon, whereas in Eretz Yisrael - in the Yerushalmi Talmud and Midrashim - we find the form למין, which is much closer to the Greek. (The form נמל is found in the Mishna Eruvin 4:2, but many manuscripts have the more likely למן.)

Until now, I've been been transliterating נמל as "namel". But how do I know that it isn't "namal" - a pronunciation found frequently in Israel today? First of all, in addition to נמל, we also find the form נמיל (which would be a fuller metathesis of לימן). Ben Yehuda quotes the 10th century poet Shlomo HaBavli who rhymes נמל with גומל - gomel as evidence of the correct pronunciation. Avshalom Kor writes in Yofi Shel Ivrit (pgs. 95-98) that נמל should be considered like זקן: namel / zaken. Only in the construct state (semichut) do we find nemal - as in Nemal Haifa - the Haifa port.

So why is it so common to hear nemal (without semichut) or namal today? Kor writes that this is due to the influence of the famous poem by Leah Goldberg about the Tel Aviv port, where she rhymes נמל with גל gal - "wave" and מעל me'al - "above". However, there apparently is still some discussion about the proper pronunciation as mentioned in the Wikimilon page and on Safa-Ivrit.

So we've seen how namel has been a powerful image in mythology and poetry for centuries. However, when it comes to air traffic instead of sea voyages - not so much. While in conversational Hebrew we usually refer to an airport as sde teufa שדה תעופה, that actually refers to (literally) an "airfield", which is smaller than an "airport" - נמל תעופה nemal teufa. And so Israel's main airport is officially Nemal Teufa Ben Gurion - the Ben Gurion Airport. But that's a mouthful, so when printed, it's abbreviated to נתב"ג. The problem starts when that abbreviation is pronounced, and even worse spelled NATBAG (in English!) on signs. Clearly, no tourist would be able to guess that this acronym means "airport". But of course if it wasn't for NATBAG, we couldn't have the NATBAG problem, and with it all of the crazy signs here (and with it my wife's blog...)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

matos and aviron

Previously we discussed two words for ships - sefina and oniya. However, unlike that pair, where both words have biblical origin, and in modern Hebrew they define different size boats, the pair we'll look at now - matos מטוס and aviron אוירון - are both modern and refer to the same item: an airplane.

Why are there two different words? Pretty simple - they were coined by two different people. Aviron was coined by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (some say his son Itamar Ben-Avi) in 1909, on the basis of the Talmudic word avir אויר - "air" (borrowed from the Greek aer.) Rosenthal suggests that the French word for airplane - avion - might have also influenced aviron.

Ben Yehuda also suggested the participle me'ofef מעופף, from the root עוף, "to fly", would refer to both the passengers (and pilot) as well as the action of the plane.

The poet Chaim Nachman Bialik preferred for mechanized flight the root טוס, also meaning "to fly", and from here came up with matos, as well as tayas טייס - "pilot", and tisa טיסה - "flight."

Today matos is almost exclusively used by Hebrew speakers for airplane, with the exception of young children, and some who use a more archaic Hebrew (such as those who haven't lived in the country for many years.) Nissan Netzer in Hebrew in Jeans (pg. 52) writes that matos might have overcome aviron due to it being a shorter word, with stronger consonants (a phenomenon he notes happens frequently when a foreign slang word becomes more popular than a native Hebrew one, like shok שוק (shock) instead of helem הלם or speed ספיד instead of mehirut מהירות.)

Thursday, June 03, 2010

oniya, sefina and sira

Sailing vessels have been in the news quite a bit recently. There are at least three different words used in Hebrew for ships and boats - oniya אניה, sefina ספינה, and sira סירה (as well as the general term klei shayit כלי שיט, literally "sailing vessels".) What are the differences between the words?

Let's look at oniya first. It means "ship", and appears 31 times in the Bible. The related word oni אני, meaning a fleet of oniyot, appears seven times. Klein says that oniya dervies from oni, and both come from a root אנה, which in a number of Semitic languages means "vessel". He points out that in other languages as well, such as English, the word vessel means both "container" and "ship".

Sefina, however, appears only once in the Tanach - Yona 1:5. Despite the explanation by many that sefina and oniya are synonymous, the fact that both words appear in that verse seems to belie that argument:

וַיִּירְאוּ הַמַּלָּחִים וַיִּזְעֲקוּ אִישׁ אֶל-אֱלֹהָיו וַיָּטִלוּ אֶת-הַכֵּלִים אֲשֶׁר בָּאֳנִיָּה אֶל-הַיָּם לְהָקֵל מֵעֲלֵיהֶם וְיוֹנָה יָרַד אֶל-יַרְכְּתֵי הַסְּפִינָה וַיִּשְׁכַּב וַיֵּרָדַם.

In their fright, the sailors cried out, each to his own god; and they flung the cargo of the oniya overboard to make it lighter for them. Yona, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the sefina where he lay down and fell asleep.

This site explains the difference between the terms in the verse:

The noun סְפִינָה (sÿfinah) refers to a “ship” with a deck (HALOT 764 s.v. סְפִינָה). The term is a hapax legomenon in Hebrew and is probably an Aramaic loanword. The term is used frequently in the related Semitic languages to refer to ships with multiple decks. Here the term probably functions as a synecdoche of whole for the part, referring to the “lower deck” rather than to the ship as a whole (R. S. Hess, NIDOTTE  3:282). An outdated approach related the noun to the verb סָפַן (safan, “to cover”) and suggested that סְפִינָה  describes a ship covered with sheathing (BDB 706 s.v. סְפִינָה).

The "outdated" approach is the one suggested by Klein, who writes that it "probably derives from ספן (= to cover, panel) and literally mean "covered, overlaid, with deck".)

Sira also appears only once - in Amos 4:2. There are those that explain it to mean there as "small fishing boats", but most say this is a misreading of the verse (see Daat Mikra), and it should be instead understood as "hook" or "thorn". Ben Yehuda does not even include the meaning of boat in his dictionary, but proper understanding of the verse or not - this is the only meaning still used in Modern Hebrew.

In Mishnaic Hebrew, we find almost exclusive use of the word sefina for ship. Based on this, Joseph Klausner wrote that Modern Hebrew should adopt sfina instead of oniya, for it is the later (i.e. more recent) term. This was a constant battle for Klausner - which he generally lost, as Biblical Hebrew was usually preferred over Mishnaic. In this case, though, both words were used, with the distinction being that an oniya was larger than a sefina (similar to "ship" vs "boat"). Klausner seems particularly frustrated that oniya is used in Modern Hebrew, when sefina is a much "richer" word for creating related forms like סיפון sipun - "deck" (originally "ceiling" - see Melachim I 6:15), ספן sapan - "sailor", and מספנה mispana - "dock".

But as we pointed out earlier, oniya and sefina were clearly not synonymous (see also this article), so it makes sense that Modern Hebrew would distinguish their uses. And in fact, the meanings are even established by law:

oniya - a vessel, powered by a motor, whose maximal length is at least 24 meters

sefina - a vessel that is not an oniya, whose maximal length is between 7 and 24 meters

sira - a vessel that is not an oniya or sefina, with a length of up to 7 meters

So I don't know if this will make it easier to understand the events in the news, but at least we can all know the difference between the terms...

Friday, May 21, 2010


The word tichon תיכון is of biblical origin, but the precise biblical usage isn't found much today. It means "middle", from toch תוך (midst, interior), in the same way that chitzon חיצון - "external" derives from chutz חוץ (outside). In the Bible, it is mostly used in describing construction, as in Shemot 26:28  -  וְהַבְּרִיחַ הַתִּיכֹן בְּתוֹךְ הַקְּרָשִׁים  - "the middle bar in the midst of the boards".

However, today the word is found mostly in three Modern Hebrew phrases. Let's take a look at them:

a) Yam Ha-Tichon ים התיכון. This phrase refers to the Mediterranean Sea. It's a little frustrating that this is what the sea is called in Modern Hebrew, because Biblical Hebrew has no shortage of names for it: Yam HaGadol ים הגדול - "the great sea" (Bamidbar 34:6, etc.), Yam Pelishtim ים פלשתים - "sea of the Philistines" (Shemot 23:31), and Yam HaAcharon ים האחרון - "the Western sea (literally "rear" sea, as they oriented themselves to the east.)" (Devarim 11:24, etc.)

So where does Yam HaTichon - the "middle sea" come from? Not actually from "Mediterranean", which literally means "midland". Rather it is a translation of the German Mittelmeer, which means "middle sea".

b) Mizrach Ha-Tichon מזרח התיכון. This is a direct translation of the English "Middle East", which we all know refers to the countries of southwest Asia and northeast Africa. Except that it's not entirely true. As Joel Achenbach writes in his book Why Things Are:

Q: Why do we always hear about the Far East and the Middle East but never the Near East?

A: The Near East is the Middle East; there isn't a Near East anymore. We start in the Middle, then go to the Far.

For centuries the term Near East referred, sensibly enough, to everything from Morocco to the Persian Gulf. The Middle East extended from there to Southeast Asia. The Far East included the nations along the Pacific. When World War II broke out, Britain transferred its Middle East military command from India to Egypt, to be closer to the action. The new station kept the old name. Gradually almost everyone picked up the new British nomenclature.

This of course includes Hebrew, where mizrach hatichon is the name almost exclusively given to the region.

c) Beit Sefer Tichon בית ספר תיכון. This is the most confusing of the three - I'm still not sure I've tracked down the etymology fully. Today it certainly refers to "high school", but as you might have guessed, the literal translation means "middle school." At first glance, one might assume (and I've seen a number of websites who claim) that high school is placed in the middle of elementary school and university. However, the senior Hebrew linguist Yechezkel Kutscher wrote:

The German “Mittelschule” – “high school” was first translated literally bet sefer benayim and today bet sefer tikhon.

This translation is rather old - Ben Yehuda mentions it in his dictionary, and when searching historic Hebrew newspapers, I found mention of "beit sefer tichon" as far back as 1895, but no mention of Kutscher's earlier phrase - בית ספר ביניים beit sefer benayim.

What did mittelschule originally refer to?  Apparently, it was an "intermediate school" for the "middle ranks" or "middle class", as described here:

Parallel to the Volksschule was the Mittelschule, intended for the middle classes.

Or also here:

The tripartite secondary school system, with the Gymnasium or Oberschule for the children of the educated class, the Mittelschule for the middle ranks, and Hauptschule (main school) for the ordinary workers

I'm not familiar enough with either the German educational system or the early Zionist / Israeli educational system to fully described the influence of the former on the latter, but clearly it existed. For example, two of Israel's oldest high schools - the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium and the Hebrew Reali School, took their names from the German Gymnasium and Realschule respectively. In addition, as the Safa Ivrit website points out, the unusual nicknames for the high school classes: the 12th graders are called shministim שמיניסטים - "eighters", 11th graders are in shviit שביעית - "seventh", etc., is based on the German system, where secondary education would begin in fifth grade for eight years. This was the case in Israel as well until 1968, when the junior high schools - chativat beinayim חטיבת ביניים - were established, leaving high schools with only three or four years.

Monday, May 17, 2010

parashat hashavua categories

For anyone who is looking for a linguistic connection to Parashat Hashavua, I've indexed and labeled all the posts by parasha. Look for the parshiot in the sidebar!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

tuval kayin and volcano

The volcano is in the news again, and its cloud may even be getting close to Israel. But are we close to an etymological connection between the word "volcano" and a Hebrew root?

Let's start by looking at the word "volcano". It gets its name from the Roman god Vulcan(us):

1610s, from It. vulcano "burning mountain," from L. Vulcanus "Vulcan," Roman god of fire, also "fire, flames, volcano" (see Vulcan). The name was first applied to Mt. Etna by the Romans, who believed it was the forge of Vulcan.
There is an interesting etymology that tries to connect "Vulcan" with the Biblical Tuval Kayin from Bereishit 4:22

וְצִלָּה גַם-הִוא יָלְדָה אֶת-תּוּבַל קַיִן לֹטֵשׁ כָּל-חֹרֵשׁ נְחֹשֶׁת וּבַרְזֶל וַאֲחוֹת תּוּבַל-קַיִן נַעֲמָה.

And Tzila, she bore Tuval-kayin, who forged all implements of copper and iron. And the sister of Tuval-Kayin was Na'ama.
Both based on the similarity of sound between (tu)val-kain and vulcan, and the fact that Tuval-Kayin was a smith (we've discussed the connection between Kayin and craftsmen and smiths here) there is an assumed connection between the two.

This is a very old theory, with perhaps Walter Raleigh being the first person to make the connection between the two figures. He wrote of Tuval Kayin:

whence came the name of Vulcan by aphaeresis of the two first letters

Many others promoted and developed this theory, and thousands of mentions can be found on the internet and in other sources. For example this 1825 book provides a number of "proofs":

M. De Lavaur, in his Conférence de la Fable avec l'Histoire Sainte, supposes that the Greeks and Romans, took their smith-god Vulcan, from Tubal-cain, the son of Lamech. The probability of this will appear —

1. From the name, which, by the omission of the Tu and turning the b into v, a change frequently made among the Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans, makes Vulcain or Vulcan.

2. From his occupation, he was an artificer, a master smith in brass and iron.

3. He thinks this farther probable from the names and sounds in this verse. The melting metals in the fire, and hammering them, bears a near resemblance to the hissing sound of צלה tsillah, the mother of Tubal-cain; and צלל tsalal, signifies to tinkle or make a sound like a bell, 1 Sam. iii. II, 2 Kings xxi. 12.

4. Vulcan is said to have been lame: M. De Lavaur thinks that this notion was taken from the noun צלע tsela, which signifies a halting or lameness.

5. Vulcan had to wife Venus the goddess of beauty: Naamah, the sister of Tubal-cain, he thinks, may have given rise to this part of the fable, as her name, in Hebrew signifies beautiful or gracious.

6. Vulcan is reported to have been jealous of his wife, and to have forged nets in which he took Mars and her, and exposed them to the view of the whole celestial court; this idea he thinks was derived from the literal import of the name Tubal-cain; תבל tebel, signifies an incestuous mixture of relatives, Lev. xx. 12. and קנא kana, to burn with jealousy ; from these and concomitant circumstances, the case of the detected adultery of Mars and Venus might be easily deduced.

He is of opinion that a tradition of this kind might have readily found its way from the Egyptians to the Greeks, as the former had frequent intercourse with the Hebrews.
Even Shadal makes a connection, and I've heard (but not found) that Cassuto may have as well.

So with this long and impressive list - am I convinced? Not really.

Why not? First of all, Klein in his entry for  וולקני (the Modern Hebrew word for "volcanic" - even though the word for volcano, הר געש, har ga'ash, has an adjective, געשי, ga'ashi, for some reason the adjective vulkani is much more common) does not mention the theory, only saying that the name Vulcan probably has an Etruscan origin. And Avineri (Yad Halashon p. 343) also says he's very reluctant to accept the theory.

But mostly, although the theory seems attractive externally, it doesn't seem to make much sense historically. We've discussed many times how the Greeks borrowed words from their Semitic neighbors to to the East - including even one of their gods, Adonis. But the Romans had far fewer exchanges of this kind, and the names of their gods, who they adopted primarily from the Etruscans would be even more ancient. (There's much similarity between Greek and Roman mythology, but the Etruscan/Roman names predate the connection between the two.)

A discussion of more reasonable etymologies appear in this book:

Vulcan is the god of fire. The etymology of the name is difficult to determine. G. Dumezil (Fetes romaines d'ete et d'automme [Paris 1925], pp. 72-76) reviews all the principal attempts to elucidate it and shows how precarious they are. They include a comparison with the the Cretan welchanos; an explanation by way of the Ossetic noun (Kurd-alae)-waergon; and an Etruscan hypothesis based on the abbreviation Vel from the Piacenza liver, which is arbitrarily completed to yield Vel(chans), whereas the Etruscan homologue of Hephaestus is Sethlans. Dumezil prefers a derivation from the Vedic varcas ("brightness," or "flash," one of the properties of Agni, the god of fire), but as a good comparativist, he hastens to point out the difficulty: "no verbal or nominal derivative of this version of the root exists in Latin" (ibid, p. 74.).
While there may not be a Semitic origin to "volcano" or "Vulcan", the word does appear in Israel today - the Vulcan factory got its name from the Roman god of fire, and from the factory we get the nearby Tzomet Vulcan intersection. (The Volcani Institute of Agricultural Research is not related - it was named for its founder, Yitzhak Elazari Volcani, who Hebraized his name from Vilkanski.) Let's hope that this is the only volcanic impact in our area...

Friday, April 23, 2010

artzot habrit

The relationship between the United States and Israel is in the news often lately, so I thought I'd take a look at the Hebrew term for the United States - artzot habrit ארצות הברית, frequently abbreviated as ארה"ב. Where does the term come from?

Rubik Rosenthal writes here that at the time of the renewal of the Hebrew language, a number of terms were used to translate "United States", including some that seem to be a more precise translation: מדינות מאוחדות and ארצות מאוחדות - medinot me'uchadot and artzot me'uchadot (me'uchadot means "united"). He claims that the "freer translation" artzot habrit was coined by Mendele Mocher Sforim in chapter 17 of his 1868 novel "The Fathers and Sons" (האבות והבנים):

כי עברו איי אמריקה וראו, וארצות-הברית שלחו והתבוננו מאד
The sentence is a paraphrase of Yirmiyahu 2:10 (thanks ADDeRabbi!) so it would mean something like: 

Just cross over to the isles of America and look, and send to artzot habrit and observe carefully
However, as this article writes, Mendele wasn't the first to use the term:

The United States is called "Lands of the Covenant" (Artzot Habrit) in Hebrew.

It is commonly thought that this name was given in order to avoid confusion with the Hebrew name for the United Nations.

IMRA asked Israel Radio's "Moment of Hebrew" program for the source of the name.

They find that the term appears in Hebrew papers as early as 1857 - in the Hamagid L'Israel weekly.
I searched the archives of Hamagid, and found the 1857 quote, along with many more before Mendele's novel was published. I have a number of conclusions:

1) Since the paper was only founded in 1857, it doesn't seem likely that the author or editor of Hamagid was the one to coin the phrase, particularly because its first use doesn't have any explanation as to the meaning.

2) I have read in a few locations (such as this one) that there's significance to the use of the word brit ברית - and that therefore the phrase should be translated as "Lands of the Covenant." That seems to me to be a bit of a stretch. First of all, the word artzot ארצות is used frequently in Hamagid with the meaning of "countries" or "states". And brit is used as well -  for "treaty". In the second use of the phrase artzot habrit, there is a parenthetical comment (in Yiddish) explaining the phrase as meaning literally, "the United States". So I don't think it was trying to be a more "free" translation, or to be one more laced with meaning.

3) It turns out that in 1859, the phrase artzot habrit is mentioned in Hamagid to describe an entirely different entity - the German Confederation:

So perhaps Artzot Habrit Shel America wasn't even the first use of the phrase.

There's one remaining curiosity about the term. We often find headlines like this in the newspaper:
This literally means, "The United States voted." However, the word artzot is plural, whereas the verb for "voted" - הצביע - is singular! This trend started in the 1950s (Hamagid and Mendele both refer to Artzot HaBrit as a plural), and it seriously bothered linguist Yitzhak Avineri (Yad Halashon, pg. 55). He claims this is due to influence from English ("United States" is singular), and is foreign to the spirit of Hebrew. However, despite all his efforts to turn back the tide, it was to no avail; artsot habrit is singular. By 1969, only seven years after Avineri's last column on the subject, another prominent linguist, Reuven Sivan writes that using artzot habrit in the singular is perfectly legitimate. He brings an example from Yirmiyahu 48:41, where a place called Keriyot, which should technically be a plural, is considered one place and referred to in the singular: נִלְכְּדָה הַקְּרִיּוֹת.

Without getting into politics, it would be nice if the only disagreement Israel had today with the United States was whether it should be considered a singular or plural...

Friday, April 16, 2010


Tomatoes are so ubiquitous in Israeli cuisine that you might think that the Hebrew word for them, agvania עגבניה, is as old as the language itself. But the word is much more recent, and the story is actually so interesting that the linguist Reuven Sivan wrote a booklet about it in 1971 for the Academy of the Hebrew Language.

He begins by pointing out that the tomato was first brought to Europe from its native South America in the 16th century, but the Europeans didn't eat it at first. Some thought that it might contain poison like many of its relatives in the nightshade family, or that it had aphrodisiac effects like its cousin the mandrake. So it was primarily used for decorative purposes until the 19th century. The Italians were the first Europeans to eat it extensively, and from there it spread throughout Europe and the Middle East. Philologos discusses in more detail about how Eastern Europe received the tomato later, with the Jews maintaining a high degree of suspicion about them. In fact, they called them "treyf apples" - as if they weren't kosher at all (this concern reappeared in more recent times). Sivan says that one of the reason for this title was a concern that they contained actual blood. There was no taboo against tomatoes in Eretz Yisrael, and he provides a number of entertaining stories about individuals (including rabbis) who came to Israel in the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century and had serious concerns about eating tomatoes, but the locals convinced them they were fine. Some of them later came back to Europe and either had to eat their new favorite food privately or were castigated for eating it in public.

How the tomato was viewed affected its name as well. While the English word "tomato" comes from the Aztec name, the European names tended to describe the fruit. As Philologos writes:

One of the tomato’s effects was thought to be aphrodisiac; thus, already in the 16th century we find it referred to in English as a “love apple,” a term echoed by the now equally archaic German Liebesapfel and French pomme d’amour. But the first-known botanical description of the tomato, published in Latin in 1544 by the Italian Piero Andrea Mattioli, called it, because of its yellowish-red color, not a “love apple” but a “golden apple,” malum aureum. ... Malum aureum was then translated into Italian as pomo d’oro, which became pomme d’or in French and passed from French into Polish as pomedor.
An alternate theory (which Sivan rejects) is that the tomato was first known in Italian as a "Moor apple" - pomo dei Mori " (they were brought from Africa), and then became "pomi d'amore" - "love apple", and finally "pomodoro" - "golden apple."

Whatever the origin, the name pomodoro became bandora in Arabic, and from here Ben Yehuda suggested giving the name badura בדורה as the Hebrew version. However, this was one of the linguistic battles that Ben Yehuda did not win. A different name was coined in 1886 by Rabbi Yechiel Michel Pines, and promoted by his son-in-law Dr. David Yellin. Instead of using a word like badura which ultimately had a non-Semitic origin, they preferred a Hebrew word that reflected the European "love apple" - agbanit עגבנית, which later shows up as agbaniya, and now as agvania. The root עגב means "to love, desire", is the root of the Hebrew name for syphilis agevet עגבת, and according to Klein, perhaps ugav עוגב - "flute" as well:

Probably derived from base עגב, hence literally meaning 'instrument of love', and so called in allusion to its insinuating tunes. 

Ben Yehuda found this rather vulgar, and tried unsuccessfully  to prevent its use, as Robert St. John describes in Tongue of the Prophets:

Generally the Ben Yehuda "army" won its word battles, and most of the father's creations or discoveries were accepted, but some few words were so completely rejected that as years went by the only people who ever used them were the lexicographer himself and members of his own family. One such word was the one he introduced for "tomato." The common word already in use was agbanit, from a root which meant "to love sensuously." Ben Yehuda felt that a better word was needed, so he went back to colloquial Arabic and coined the word badurah.

After it had been announced in the paper, "the army" received its marching orders. Henceforth, if any Ben Yehuda went into a shop to purchase this vegetable, he was to ask for a badurah, and if the shopkeeper seemed perplexed, he was to be given a little lesson in modern Hebrew and was to be introduced formally to badurah.

Such tactics generally succeeded, but after many years of proselytizing, the only shoppers in Jerusalem who ever called a tomato a badurah were members of the Ben Yehuda family.

Sivan notes that other, less "explicit" names were suggested at the time: sumkaniya סומקנייה (from sumak סומק - "red"), ahavaniya אהבנייה (from ahav אהב - "love") or tama תמה (not sure about this one, perhaps from תם - "perfect" or תמה - "amazed".) In any case, none of these were adopted either.

Sivan mentions that the tomato doesn't actually have any aphrodisiac properties. However, the European sailors were likely lacking in vitamin C, so eating the healthy tomato may have returned some of their strength, leading to their mistaken conclusion. In any case, we do see that both the fruit, and its Hebrew name agvaniya proved to be so seductive that they both won out over strong opposing forces...