Tuesday, June 02, 2015


Reader Gavriel asked about the history and etymology of the word androlomusia אנדרולומוסיה (or אנדרלמוסיה) meaning "chaos, confusion, disorder".

Klein writes that the meaning of chaos and confusion is only from Modern Hebrew, whereas the original (i.e. post-biblical) meaning was "pestilence". He provides the following etymology:

Greek androlempsia, for androlepsia (=seizure of men in reprisal of the murder of a citizen abroad), compounded of aner, genitive andros (=man), and the stem of lambanein (=to take).

Andros as "man" should be very familiar as the root of words like android and anthropology, and the second half of the word, "-lepsia" also appears as "take, seize" in the word epilepsy, literally "a seizure". (Even-Shoshan proposes an alternate etymology: androloimos - "plague, annihilation". However, I have not been able to find any source for this, or even any mention of this Greek word anywhere).

The connection between Klein's definitions and etymology of androlomousia is somewhat confusing. First, what does pestilence have to do with androlepsy, and second, what do either have to do with confusion and chaos?

Regarding pestilence, I haven't found a source that explicitly describes andralomusia as such. It has a much more general sense in the midrashic sources that I've seen, such as this quote from Vayikra Rabba 23:

אמר רב שמלאי: כל מקום שאת מוצא בו זנות אנדרולומוסיא באה לעולם והורגת יפים ורעים.
Rabbi Simlai said: every place where you find lewdness, androlomusia comes to the world, and kills the good and the bad.
This midrash is discussing the flood, and so isn't referring specifically to pestilence, but general disaster and catastrophe. The additional note of killing "the good and the bad", fits nicely with the concept of androlepsy, where citizens were seized (and killed) regardless of their guilt. This type of situation, whether the actual example of androlepsy, or the analogous divine punishments mentioned in the midrash, besides being horrific, was surely chaotic as well. So we can see how the word took on its more modern sense.

In current spoken Hebrew, androlomusia is not used very frequently. It's a bit antiquated - maybe even ostentatious. Israelis prefer the much shorter balagan בלגן. I hope this put an end to the confusion...

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

makhn a lebn

The modern Hebrew phrase le'asot chayim לעשות חיים literally means "to make [a] life", but has the sense of "to live it up" or "have a good time". According to Rosenthal, the phrase originates in the Yiddish מאכן ע לעבן - makhn a lebn, which also literally means "to make a life".

When I read that Yiddish phrase out loud, it sounded a lot like the English expression "to make a living". The English version is different than the Hebrew - it means to earn enough money to support oneself. And while all of the words are clearly English, to me it sounded like it could have been influenced by Yiddish, like the phrases "go figure" or "get lost". It has a real Yiddish ring to it, like in this joke:

Mr. Cohen falls and is laying in the road. A lady gets a pillow from her car and lays it under his head until the ambulance arrives.
"Are you comfortable?" she asks.
"Ah vell," he says "I make a living." 

However, the phrase "make a living" in English predates Yiddish influence. The American Heritage Idioms Dictionary says it first appears in English in 1632, and the Online Etymology Dictionary has "living" in the sense of "action, process, or method of gaining one's livelihood" going back to 1400.

But I still think there might be a case made for a connection to makhn a lebn. Take a look at the Google Ngram Viewer for the phrases "make a living" and "making a living" from 1700 to 2000:
While there certainly are examples of early use, the phrases shoot up in the late 1800s and in the 20th century - precisely when the Yiddish influence on English began to grow dramatically.

Coincidence? You tell me! I have to go make a living, and if there's any free time - maybe also le'asot chayim...

Friday, May 01, 2015


Hard to believe, but this is Balashon's 500th post! Since I started the site in February 2006, there have been many fluctuations in post length and depth, and the frequency of posting has also varied considerably. But my interest in the subject of etymology hasn't changed, and I'm very grateful that you have continued to read and follow me for so long. I'm also particularly appreciative to those of you who click on the Google and Amazon ads and links - that small amount of income has allowed me to reinvest in resources. Just recently with that revenue, I was able to purchase a book I was interested in for a very long time, Michael Sokoloff's A Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic. This book, which was published in 2002, is a fantastic resource for researching Aramaic words from the Babylonian Talmud (of which many influenced later Hebrew words) and has in-depth etymologies as well.

For today's post, I thought I'd look at the methodology of Sokoloff, as well as a number of his predecessors, and hopefully you'll get some insight into how I do the research for Balashon. The word I'm looking at is alunka אלונקה - "stretcher, litter". Looking at Talmudic dictionaries is helpful, since the word appears in the Talmud, Beitza 25b, although in a slightly different form: אלונקי alunkei.

So let's start looking in Jastrow's dictionary. This is his entry:

In the preface to his dictionary, Jastrow explains his motivation in his etymologies - to regain words "from foreign origin for Semitic citizenship" and "unless conditions of importation are apparent, the presumption should be in favor of the home market." If possible, he will always prefer a Semitic origin to Talmudic words. He accused Krauss of "proclivity to find Latin and Greek in words indisputably Semitic" and said that "led the author into a labyrinth of fatal errors." However, in many cases, by sticking with his approach, Jastrow seems lost in a parallel labyrinth.

He makes two claims in this entry which support this approach. First of all, he states that the word alunkei is of Hebrew or Aramaic origin, coming from a compound of על-ענקא, al-anka, on the neck. We've previously looked at anak, and while it did originally mean neck, and led to other words, Jastrow uses anak very frequently, in etymologies which are rather far fetched (I didn't even quote his etymology for my entry on arnak, which he said originally meant "merchant's bag suspended from the neck".)

His second claim regards the word phalange. According to "Sm. Ant" - the book  A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (William Smith)  - it has a similar meaning in Greek to alunkei - "poles used to carry burdens". Jastrow adds that is "of Semitic origin", presumably from alunkei. I haven't found anyone else who makes that claim, and I can't think of another example where an aleph in Hebrew became a "ph" in Greek. More likely is the explanation in the Online Etymology Dictionary, in the entry for phalanx:

1550s, "line of battle in close ranks," from Latin phalanx "compact body of heavily armed men in battle array," or directly from Greek phalanx (genitive phalangos) "line of battle, battle array," also "finger or toe bone," originally "round piece of wood, trunk, log," of unknown origin. Perhaps from PIE root *bhelg- "plank, beam" (source of Old English balca "balk;" see balk (n.)). The Macedonian phalanx consisted of 50 close files of 16 men each. In anatomy, originally the whole row of finger joints, which fit together like infantry in close order. Figurative sense of "number of persons banded together in a common cause" is attested from 1600 (compare Spanish Falangist, member of a fascist organization founded in 1933).

A source with a bias to a different language is the Aruch Hashalem by Jastrow's contemporary, Alexander Kohut. Kohut has a preference for Persian origins to Talmudic words, and in his entry for alunkei, we find it as well:

The abbreviation ל"פ means לשון פרסית - "Persian Language". (I can't read the non-Hebrew script following that - if any readers can, please let me know). Many of Kohut's Persian etymologies are rejected by modern scholars. However, in this case, Persian is the generally accepted theory.

Steinsaltz on Beitza 25b has the following note:

He writes that some claim that the word derives from the Persian aurang, meaning "throne", and that word has entered Arabic as well. Aurang, or an alternate aurand, can additionally mean "glory" or "beauty" (not clear to me which meaning is earlier).

Klein has a different Persian etymology:

While he doesn't point it out here, this entry bears a great similarity to his entry for "palanquin" (also meaning "litter") in his CEDEL:

The "Old I" in the first entry, and the OI in the second, refers to "Old Indian" (Sanskrit), and so both the Hebrew/Aramaic and Portugese/Javanese words derive from palyankah / paryankah.  (See this Balashon entry for more on the root of "peri-" and this one for more on the root of "angle"). The Online Etymology entry has a similar entry for palanquin (he frequently relies on Klein's CEDEL), but with an interesting twist at the end:

"a covered litter," 1580s, from Portuguese palanquim (early 16c.), from Malay and Javanese palangki "litter, sedan," ultimately from Sanskrit palyanka-s "couch, bed, litter," from pari "around" + ancati "it bends, curves," related to anka-s "a bend, hook, angle," and meaning, perhaps, "that which bends around the body." Some have noted the "curious coincidence" of Spanish palanca, from Latin phalanga "pole to carry a burden."

If you recall, we saw mention of phalanga in Jastrow's entry. I think a possible source of the noting of the "curious coincidence" is the 19th century Hobson-Jobson dictionary of Indian terms. Here is the relevant section for the entry on palanquin:

The two words - palanca (phalanga) and palanquin are certainly similar in both meaning and sound. Perhaps the Portuguese form was influenced by both the Asian and the European roots during their time in India, or maybe there was even earlier contact between the languages. No one seems to be sure, and doubt is not a bad thing in etymology - I certainly prefer it over unjustified confidence. 

In the Hobson-Jobson entry, I happened to notice footnote #1, and I'm glad I did. The author notices:

This is referring to the word אפריון apiryon in Shir HaShirim - which I wrote about back in 2007 and had forgotten to look up now! Apiryon also means palanquin or litter, and I discussed a number of different etymologies, including one from the BDB, which says that apiryon might actually derive from this same root we've seen before:

So if this is true - then while alunka might not have a Semitic grandfather, it could very possibly have a Hebrew cousin - apiryon!  As I once wrote, the real search for roots - in genealogy or etymology - can often be more rewarding and fascinating than playing a linguistic version of "Separated at Birth".

But as I wrote in the beginning of this post, I'm most excited about my new Sokoloff dictionary - and not for the reason you might think. Let's look at his entry:

The first suggestion he mentions, abrang, seems to be related to Steinsaltz's suggestion of aurang (see here). I can't find any cognates regarding the second suggestion. So why is this entry so exciting? It's less interesting than Klein's proposal, and what I discovered based on it. But what Sokoloff provides, which none of the books I've quoted until now did - is the sources for the etymologies! That's so important, and yet until I acquired his book, I had no idea how much it was missing. I'm sure Klein, Steinsaltz and the others did research and had reasons for their theories. But without documentation, it all just seems like speculation. So I'm hoping that I will benefit from my future research with this new book, and I hope you will as well.

You might be asking one last question. Why didn't I quote Ben Yehuda? It turns out - there's no entry for alunka in his dictionary. He began work on it in 1908 and continued until his death in 1922 (the final editing continued after he died). I found use of the word alunka in newspaper articles beginning in 1915, and books from the 1920s. These were without explanation, so it's likely the word was used in speech for a while previous to its appearance in print (it's unclear to me who started using the Hebrew alunka instead of the Aramaic alunkei). Why did Ben Yehuda leave it out? Probably because he believed it was of foreign origin, and he generally avoided including words of that nature. And while Jastrow might have disagreed - it seems that Ben Yehuda was right!

Monday, April 27, 2015


A friend recently asked me why Hebrew used the same word - tik תיק - for both "bag, satchel" and "file, dossier, portfolio". This is one of those cases where knowing the etymology helps.

The word tik has been around in Hebrew for a long time, going back to the mishna (Shabbat 16:1 mentions a tik for a torah scrolll and tefillin, meaning a case or box). However, the Hebrew word was borrowed from the Greek theke, meaning "receptacle, that which is placed". So a tik is something you place things in - which applies to both files and bags. We find almost the same sound and meaning in the English word ticking, for which the Online Etymology Dictionary has the following entry:

"cloth covering (usually of strong cotton or linen) for mattresses or pillows," 1640s, from tyke (modern tick) with the same meaning (mid-14c.), probably from Middle Dutch tike, from a West Germanic borrowing of Latin theca "case," from Greek theke "a case, box, cover, sheath"
Another related word is bibliothek, deriving from the Latin word for library:

Old English biblioðece "the Scriptures," from Latin bibliotheka "library, room for books; collection of books," from Greek bibliotheke, literally "book-repository" (from biblion, see Bible, + theke "case, chest, sheath," from root of tithenai "to put, place"

From tik, we also get the verb תיק, meaning "to file", and the related word tikiya תיקיה. While sometimes the suffix -ya is a diminutive (as in the word lachmaniya לחמניה,  a roll, is a diminutive of lechem לחם, bread), in this case the suffix either means a place to put things, or a collection of, like sifriya ספריה - "library", is a place to put a book - sefer ספר. So a tikiya is a filing cabinet. But in today's computerized world, we're less likely to use the word for an actual cabinet, but a place to put our computer files, i.e. a folder.

And if we've already mentioned the word library twice, I'll go for the hat-trick. In Hebrew the word sifriya can mean, in addition to "library", also a computer directory. In both English and Hebrew the question arises as to which is the proper term for the collection of files: directory/sifriya or folder/tikiya. According to this site, both are acceptable, but directory is more appropriate for command line interfaces (like MS-DOS or Linux), and folder is better for graphical interfaces like Windows.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015


During the Pesach vacation, we visited the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Bet Shemesh. It's a really interesting museum, with live animals, and a guided tour that exhibits animals from the time of the Tanach, and explains both their religious and scientific background. I found particularly fascinating the cases where the the biblical word for an animal now refers to something else.

One of the surprises for me was the tzav צב. In Modern Hebrew, that word unquestionably refers to the turtle. But in the museum, we instead found a large lizard. How did this happen?

First of all, let's see why it originally meant a kind of lizard. This is relatively easy to determine, as we have the Arabic cognate dabb, meaning lizard. Kaddari says it refers to a large lizard from the Agamidae family, and the Daat Mikra on Vayikra 11:29 (the only mention of the tzav in the Tanach), more specifically identifies it with the Egyptian dabb lizard (also known as the Egyptian Mastigure), Uromastyx aegyptia, known in Arabic as dhab. It is found in the desert areas of this region, and is eaten by Bedouins (although this is prohibited to Jews in that verse in Vayikra).

In Hebrew, this family of lizards is the chardon חרדון family, and this is how Targum Yonatan translates the word. Rav Saadia Gaon explicitly identifies the tzav with the dabb lizard.

So why today does tzav mean turtle?

The Encyclopedia Mikrait says that this may be due to confusion with the only other appearance of the word tzav in the Torah in Bamidbar 7:3. That verse is describing the offerings the princes gave at the dedication of the Tabernacle, and mentions that their offerings consisted of שֵׁשׁ-עֶגְלֹת צָב - six eglot (wagons) tzav. The meaning of tzav here is very unclear. The midrashim in Sifrei on the verse and  Bamidbar Rabba 12:17 mention various opinions amongst the rabbis, including "fully equipped", "beautifully decorated", or "the color of the sky". Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi says that it meant קמירות kamirot - "vaulted, covered" (deriving from the Greek kamara - "vault, arched roof", and ultimately the source of the English word camera.) Onkelos also says that tzav here means "covered", 

Rashi writes that the "only" meaning of tzav is covered, and his decisiveness here may have caused later writers to view the turtle as the likely "covered" reptile. (In most editions of Rashi, he actually identifies the tzav in Vayikra as froit, Old French for frog or toad. However, Moshe Katan in his explanations of the foreign words in Rashi, printed in the introduction to the Daat Mikra, writes that some manuscripts of Rashi have the word tartuge, meaning "turtle".)

Over the years there have been some attempts to use the word shalchufa שלחופה for tortoise (based on the Arabic), but it has never caught on.

So now when you read Parashat Shemini, where it mentions the tzav, you'll have a better idea of what is referring to. But don't worry if you didn't pay attention last week, during Parashat Tzav - that's a different spelling (צו) entirely...

Monday, March 23, 2015

nitzul, hatzala and hitnatzlut

In Israel's last election cycle, there was much mention of the word hitnatzel התנצל - to apologize. This is the hitpael form of the root נצל. In its other forms, the root has very different meanings. The piel form nitzel ניצל, means "to exploit" or "to utilize". And the hifil form, hitzil הציל, means "to rescue, save". Considering how loaded with emotions those words are, it's understandable the desire to make a connection. For example, in this blog post, Avidan Freedman writes:

And if the word for apologizing (lehitnatzel) wasn't a reflexive form of the word for ‘taking advantage of’ (lenatzel), implying that someone who apologizes is essentially taking advantage of himself, (thus transgressing the 1st commandment of Israeliness ‘Thou Shalt Not Be A Freyer”), perhaps “No More Apologizing” would be a less attractive slogan.

(For more on freier, see my post here). After challenging his initial assumption, he then later he takes a different view:

If this is so, then the root of apologizing is not a way to take advantage of ourselves, but a way to bring ourselves salvation.

This was a very nice drasha on the words, connecting all three meanings, but let's take a deeper look at the etymology.

All three verbs are connected, and originate in an earlier meaning, pervasive in the Tanach, but not found in modern Hebrew. The root נצל, originally meant "to take away, tear away, remove". We can see that meaning in Hoshea 2:11 וְהִצַּלְתִּי צַמְרִי וּפִשְׁתִּי - "I will snatch away My wool and My linen", or in Shemot 33:6 -  וַיִּתְנַצְּלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-עֶדְיָם  - "So the children of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments".

With that understanding, the hifil form - hatzala הצלה - "rescue", becomes easy to understand. When you rescue someone, you take them away, remove them from danger. So a lifeguard is a matzil מציל, and a survivor is a nitzol ניצול.

What about nitzul ניצול "exploitation" or "utilization"? The verb originally meant "to strip, to spoil" - in other words, to take something from someone else. We find this verb mentioned in regards to what the children of Israel did to Egypt (Shemot 3:22, 12:36) -  וַיְנַצְּלוּ אֶת-מִצְרָיִם - "they despoiled the Egyptians". Only in modern Hebrew did the word take on the more general sense of "exploit, take advantage of", and apparently the even less specific "utilize" came later, as it does not appear in Ben Yehuda's dictionary.

And now to hitnatzlut התנצלות - "apology". This too is a later development, first found in Medieval Hebrew. Klein says the verb first meant "he excused himself" and later "he apologized". Ben Yehuda (and later Even Shoshan), gives a slightly different explanation: "he made an effort to remove his guilt."

So we can see that the meanings of the word have changed significantly over time. So if you didn't know the original meaning before, no need to apologize. My pleasure to rescue you, and feel free to utilize my site in the future...

Wednesday, March 18, 2015


A reader asked if there is any connection between the Hebrew word for wallet or purse - ארנק arnak, and the French word arnaque - "to swindle" (perhaps due to antisemitic associations between Jews and money).

That doesn't seem to be the case (not that there's no precedence for antisemitism in language, years ago I heard about how the ASL sign for "Jew" was the same as the one for "stingy"). Arnaque derives from arnaquer, which in turn comes from a German word for harness - "harnacher". This Wikipedia page describes the etymology as follows: harnacher, arnaquer "to amuse, swindle" < harnacher "to harness, equip, disguise".

Arnak is originally a Talmudic word, appearing as ארנקא (Bava Batra 8a, Berachot 19a) or ארנקי (Yerushalmi Kiddushin 61a). Klein provides the following etymology:

Back formation from Aramaic ארנקי, which is borrowed from Greek arnakis (= sheepskin coat), a feminine noun probably formed through haplology from arno-nakos, a compound formed from aren, genitive arnos (=sheep) and nakos (=fleece).

Arnakis may also be the source of the plant name Arnica.

Nakos comes from a Greek root meaning "press, squeeze", and so has a cognate in the word nastic, a botanic phenomenon where one side of a plant moves because it's being pressed or squeezed from another. Wallet and squeezing? I can feel a connection...

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

tzachor and sahara

We've discussed a number of Hebrew colors in the past - let's take a look at one less commonly used: tzachor צחור.

In the Even-Shoshan concordance, there are two appearances of the root צחר. Once he lists it as an adjective meaning "white"-  in the phrase רֹכְבֵי אֲתֹנוֹת צְחֹרוֹת (Shoftim 5:10) - so he would translate it as "riders of white donkeys". The second phrase, from Yechezkel 27:18 has the word צחר tzachar as a noun in the phrase וְצֶמֶר צָחַר, which he defines as "and wool of white".

A similar word is the name Tzochar צחר, who is both the father of Efron (Bereshit 23;8, 25:9) and one of the sons of Shimon (Bereshit 46:10, Shemot 6:15). Kil, in the Daat Mikra commentary (on 46:10), quoting the verse from Shoftim, says the name is related to the concepts of whiteness and light. He says that the root is related to the root צהר - "to shine" (see our discussion here) and to the root זרח (which we discussed here), with the last two letters switched. A proof of a connection between צחר and זרח is that in Bamidbar 26:13, Shimon's son is listed as Zerach instead of Tzochar1.  (We also mentioned in this post that Steinberg connects the roots שחר, צהר, זהר and צחר as all meaning "to shine", but he can be a bit liberal with his association of roots, so we should be cautious about accepting them).

The word tzachor appears once in the Talmud, in Berachot 31b. The gemara is discussing Hannah's prayer for a child, and Rav Dimi states that Hannah prayed that her son not be too conspicuous and that he be:

 לא ארוך ולא גוץ ולא קטן ולא אלם ולא צחור ולא גיחור ולא חכם ולא טפש
Neither too tall nor too short; neither too small nor too fat, neither too white [tzachor] nor too red [gichor], neither too smart nor too stupid. 
Strangely, Rashi says here that tzachor means red (צחור = רו"ש, using the Old French word for red, ros) and that gichor means exceedingly white. This is despite the fact that Rashi in his commentary on Shoftim and Yechezkel identifies tzachor as "white", and in his commentary on a later passage in Berachot (58b) writes that gichor means "red". The Masoret Hashas, along with other commentaries, says that the two terms were mixed up in Rashi's commentary to 31b due to a printing error.

However, perhaps even more peculiar is the fact that Jastrow also translates tzachor as reddish. When I read that, I thought this is an interesting way to end the post - I've found an error in Jastrow. But it's not that simple. There's actually a lot more to this story. Let's continue.

Until now, we've said that tzachor means "white". This is the opinion of Rashi, and following him Even Shoshan and Daat Mikra. Perhaps the earliest source is the Targum on Yechezkel 27:18, who translates the phrase as ועמר מלת כבינא, Ibn Janach here says that the word כבינא means "white", as found in Shabbat 54a, and mentioned explicitly by R' Sherira Gaon.

But at some point, linguists noticed that tzachor had Semitic cognates that did not mean "white". In his entry for צחר, Klein writes:

Arab. s-h-r (=dried up, became yellow), ashar, f. sahra (=yellowish-red), whence used as a noun, as-sahra (=the yellowish-red land, desert, the Sahara), 
And again, in his entry for the word Sahara:

Fr. Arab, sahra', 'desert', prop. fem. of the adj. asharu, 'yellowish red', used as a noun

Kaddari says tzachor means "yellowish-brown", and quotes a Syriac cognate meaning "to become red". And Gesenius, while defining tzachor as "white", says that the donkeys in Shoftim are actually "reddish with white spots". Following this, many newer translations of Shoftim (such as JPS) have the word tzachor in Shoftim as "tawny", meaning "orange-brown or yellowish-brown color".

So how should we understand Jastrow? Well, he quotes a different version of the gemara, which has "לא אוכם ולא צחור", so he translates it as "neither dark [ocham] (ugly) nor reddish [tzachor] (exceedingly handsome)". Here the contrast is not between white and red, but rather dark and red, which allows him to remain more faithful to the modern understanding of the word (since otherwise gichor and tzachor would be very close in meaning).. In the entry for tzachor in Ben Yehuda's dictionary, Tur-Sinai is quoted as going even further, by bringing yet another version of the gemara, that has "לא אוכם ולא חיור" (neither dark nor pale - chivver),  saying the inclusion of tzachor at all was a printing error.

So how do we resolve this issue? Are the donkeys red or white? In fact, this isn't even the only time where it's unclear whether a biblical Hebrew word can mean red or white - see this page for further examples. I think the answer can be found on footnote 38 in this book, which quotes Hartley's book The Semantics of Ancient Hebrew Colour Lexemes. Hartley says the donkeys were "shiny light grey, possibly with a tint of red",  but more importantly writes that "the term here many denote luminosity rather than hue".  So the question of white or red isn't that relevant - the word tzachor perhaps originally meant "shiny, glittering, gleaming".  This fits the verses we quoted above, and best fits the related roots of צהר and זרח. Sometimes it could mean white, sometimes red - both those colors shine much brighter than the darker hues.

The problem, of course, is that this explanation doesn't lend itself easily to translations of the Tanach. It's possible that the verses did refer to one color or another, but no translation can be consistent and still succinct. However, luckily for you dear readers, I have no such limitations!


1, Yaakov Etsion, in his extensive article here about tzachor (in Hebrew) quotes one of my favorite responsa of the Rashba (1:12), where he uses the substitution of Tzochar and Zerach, as well as others (including those in the Ten Commandments!) as proof that the Torah is more concerned with concepts than with words.

Monday, March 02, 2015


On Shabbat, a friend asked me if there was any connection between the word miluim מילואים used in describing the construction and service in the tabernacle (mishkan) and the word miluim used in modern Hebrew for the army reserves.

Well, there certainly is a connection, but it isn't so obvious. Let's take a look.

The word is the gerund form of  the root מלא, meaning "to fill" or "to be full", and is only found in the plural. It appears in two separate contexts. The first (Shemot 25:7; 35:9, 27) describe the settings of the stones in the ephod and the breastpiece -  אבני מלאים - avnei miluim. Daat Mikra, following Rashi (on 25:7), says that these gems fill the grooves in the gold (or other material), so they are literally "filling stones". The Ramban disagrees, and following Onkelos, focuses on a different sense of the root מלא - "full, complete, perfect". He writes (Chavel translation):

But the sense of the word milu'im is that the stones be whole as they were created, and that they should not be hewn stones which were cut from a large quarry or from anything which has been chipped off. ... This is why Onkelos translated [avnei milu'im - avenei] ashlamutha (stones of perfection).

The other use of milium in the Torah is for the initiaton, inauguration or consecration of the kohanim (priests), as mentioned in Shemot 29:22,26,27,31,34 and Vayikra 7:37;8:22,28,29,31,33. Levine, in the JPS commentary on Vayikra 8:22, where the איל המלאים ail hamilium - "ram of ordination" is discussed, writes:

The Hebrew term millu'im, "ordination," literally means "filling" the hands, a symbolic act that transfers or confers status or office. Further on, in verses 27-29, we read that parts of the offerings were actually placed on the palms of Aaron and his sons, who raised them in a presentation to God. The biblical formula mille' yad, "to fill the hand," is limited to the appointment of priests and cultic officials.
We see the connection between filling the hands and milium in Vayikra 8:33 -
עַד יוֹם מְלֹאת יְמֵי מִלֻּאֵיכֶם  כִּי שִׁבְעַת יָמִים יְמַלֵּא אֶת-יֶדְכֶם.
"until the day that your period of ordination [miluim] is completed, for your ordination [literally,he will fill your hands] will require seven days."

In his dictionary, Ben Yehuda writes that in modern Hebrew, the word miluim is used to mean "supplement", again going back to the root meaning "to fill", but here with the sense of "filling in" something. (The Netziv in his commentary to Vayikra 7:37 explains the usage of miluim as "supplement" here as well, as explained in this article). This is a possible origin of the term miluim for the army reserves, as they supplement the soldiers in the standing army.

However, Yaakov Etzion in this article (which discusses many of the points I mentioned above), points out that at the period of the founding of the State of Israel, miluim was synonymous with the older, Talmudic word melai מלאי meaning "merchandise, stock" and was used to mean "reserves" (perhaps this is also related to the meaning Ben Yehuda quoted, but neither he nor Etzion say so). With the founding of the IDF, Ben Gurion called these forces the atudot miluim עתודות מילואים (atudot also meaning "reserves"). But today the two terms have split, with atuda עתודה generally referring to an academic program where the soldier studies in a university prior to his military service in the field of his study, and milium applies to the reserve duty citizens do periodically after they've completed their compulsory army service.

Zuckermann, who feels that the "replacement" of the priestly service in the Temple with military service in the reserves has much more of an ideological motivation than I've described, points out an interesting coincidence. He notes that the mention of the miluim regarding the ordination of the kohanim is found in the parashot of Tzav and Shmini, and that

In Israeli , tsav shmóne ‘Ordinance 8’ is the document informing one of upcoming (often emergency) reserve service, i.e. of miluím. But this is mere serendipity!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015


A reader asked about the origin of the word dagesh דגש - the grammatical term for the dot put in Hebrew consonants, either to "harden" some of them (the letters ב ג ד כ פ ת) or to denote the reduplication of the sound. He pointed out he could not find that root (nor the verb form) in either a biblical concordance or Jastrow's dictionary (which covers Talmudic and Midrashic Hebrew and Aramaic). So when did it enter Hebrew?

The word dagesh is first found in the medieval works of Hebrew grammarians (follwoing the Tiberian Masoretes). It was not borrowed from Aramaic (at least not the Aramaic of the Targumim, or Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds), but from the related Syriac language. In Syriac, the verb דגש means "to pierce", and has a cognate in the Akkadian dakasu (see the entry here in the Chicago Akkadian Dictionary, and the article included here - "Use of Akkadian DKS") of the same meaning.1

We do find a Babylonian Aramaic form of dagesh - דיגשא digsha, but this is later (from the Babylonian Masoretes, who placed the dot above the letter), and not found in Talmudic literature.

Why "pierce"? Apparently, this is due to the dot "piercing" the page, and we find a similar relationship between the English (and earlier Latin) words "punctuation" and "puncture".

Gesenius, in his Hebrew Grammar (page 55), suggests that since dagesh might have also meant "to sharpen", perhaps the word was chosen not because of the mark in the letter but due to the "sharpening" of the sound:

The root דגשׁ‎ in Syriac means to pierce through, to bore through (with sharp iron); hence the name Dageš is commonly explained, solely with reference to its form, by puncture, point. But the names of all similar signs are derived rather from their grammatical significance. Accordingly דגשׁ‎ may in the Masora have the sense: acuere (literam), i.e. to sharpen a letter, as well as to harden it, i.e. to pronounce it as hard and without aspiration. דָּגֵשׁ‎ acuens (literam) would then be a sign of sharpening and hardening (like Mappîq מַפִּיק‎ proferens, as signum prolationis), for which purposes a prick of the pen, or puncture, was selected.

It is unclear to me whether Latin grammar influenced this choice of a word, or whether they developed in parallel. I had the same question here about the relationship between the word geresh גרש and "apostrophe", and I still have not found an answer.

Today the verb דגש in the hifil form - הגדיש hidgish - means to emphasize or highlight anything, not just a consonant. But this usage is very new - it doesn't even appear in Ben Yehuda's dictionary.


1. I did find two sources that seem to preserve this earlier meaning.

a) Targum Yonatan on Mishlei 12:18 translates  יֵשׁ בּוֹטֶה כְּמַדְקְרוֹת חָרֶב "there is one who speaks like the piercing of a sword" as אית דאמריה ספסירא רגשא. But the Syriac translation (the Peshitta) translates it as אית אמרין ספסירא דגשא. My guess is that the Targum רגשא is a misreading of the more logical דגשא - "piercing".

b) The Torah Shleimah here quotes the medieval collection of midrashim Sechel Tov saying that God  "מכה ומדגיש כל גאה ורם" - "smites and madgish מדגיש the proud and haughty" - I assume that madgish here means to stab, or better, the Syriac meaning "to beat".)

Sunday, February 22, 2015

kimu v'kiblu

In the Book of Esther, it says that the Jews "established and accepted" (the laws of Purim) - קִיְּמוּ וְקִבְּלוּ kimu v'kiblu. Are those two words Biblical Hebrew?

On the most simple level, of course they are Biblical Hebrew, since the Book of Esther is a biblical book. But I don't think it is actually that simple. The two verbs - קים - "fulfill, ratify, preserve", and קבל - "accept, receive" - occur so frequently in post-biblical Hebrew, and so infrequently in biblical Hebrew that I think it makes sense to put them in the category of at least "late Biblical Hebrew" or perhaps to put them in a new category that would cover the transition period.

Let's take a brief look at the history of each of these words.

The verb קים is the piel form of the verb קום - "to stand, stand up, arise". That kal form appears hundreds of times in the Tanach, Besides meaning to stand on one's feet, it can also refer to permanence - "to remain, to be fixed, to be valid". It can also mean "to stand up to someone", "to oppose" or "to attack". From here, we get the noun komimiyut קוממיות - "independence" (which literally means "to stand up straight", but also has the connotation of "standing up for one's rights".)

The piel form, influenced by Aramaic, along with the related hitkayem התקיים - "took place", gives us the adjective kayam קיים - "existing, enduring", and in modern Hebrew the noun kayamut קיימות - "sustainability". In Aramaic, the verb קום is קאם, which was shortened to קאי, further shortened to ka קא, and that even becomes a prefix - ka ק. That prefix is used very frequently in the Talmud before verbs, and while is difficult to define, has a similar meaning to "did" in English.

The root קבל in earlier biblical texts did not mean "receive", but rather "to be opposite", or "before, in front of". From the sense of "opposite" comes the meaning of makbil מקביל - "parallel" or "corresponding", as found in the description of the loops of the tabernacle (Shemot 26:5). As with the previous verb, קבל was also influenced by Aramaic, and so in the later books of the Tanach, came to mean "receive", since a person receiving stands opposite the person giving. From the verb קבל, we get the noun kabala קבלה - meaning "receiving". Zuckermann describes the development of that word here:

Mishnaic Hebrew קבלה [qabbålå], lit. ‘that which is received, tradition’, refers to ‘the doctrines a disciple receives from his master’, ‘oral teachings not recorded in Scripture’. Later, the term becomes associated with a particular type of received tradition, the mystical doctrines known as the Kabbalah.
The ‘Kabbalah’ meaning is still current in Israeli, but the primary sense has been lifted from the religious arena of received doctrine to the commercial world: kabalá means both ‘receipt’ and ‘(hotel) reception’. Israeli שעת קבלה shat kabalá, lit. ‘hour-CONSTR receipt’, means ‘office hour’ and מבחן קבלה mivkhán kabalá, lit. ‘exam:CONSTR receipt’, is ‘entrance exam’.

Is it possible that there was no word for "receive" in earlier biblical books like the Torah? No - there was a word - lakach לקח. Lakach meant both "take" and "receive" and the similarity between those two meanings (with sometimes the only difference being in the thoughts of the person performing the action) makes it occasionally difficult to tell which one the verse meant. (For examples where lakach more likely meant "receive", see Bamidbar 3:50, 5:25; Devarim 26:4).

This multiple meaning of one word is what likely led to the change in a number of words in post-biblical Hebrew. As we saw in this post, lakach (under Akkadian influence) came to mean "to buy"), leaving natal נטל for "take" and kibel קיבל for "receive". The biblical word meaning "to buy" - kana קנה - took on, in post-biblical Hebrew, a more specific sense of "to acquire possession (by a symbolic act)". As this book points out, in Modern Hebrew, lakach and kana returned to their meanings in biblical Hebrew, kibel still has its post biblical sense, and natal is not used frequently any more.

Just as in the story of Esther - it was necessary for the Jews to accept the new laws for them to have full validity, so too with language - the "prescriptive" only becomes established when accepted by the speakers.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

keter and koteret

In the discussion of the word kaftor כפתור, I presented a theory that it derives from the word keter כתר - "crown". Let's take a look at the word keter.

In Biblical Hebrew, the verb כתר precedes the noun, historically. It means "to surround, encircle". (In post-biblical Hebrew we find the verb also meaning "to crown" - i.e. to make someone king or queen). The noun keter as "crown" first (and only) appears in the book of Ester (and actually never for the king - only for his queens or his horse). Previously in the Tanach we find the words atara עטרה or nezer נזר for "crown".

However, we do find a related word to keter frequently in earlier books - koteret כותרת. A koteret is the capital of a pillar (Klein writes "literally that which surrounds or crowns the top"). And if you look at our earlier post, that was a meaning of kaftor as well. Since the koteret is at the top of the amud עמוד - and amud can mean both pillar and page (originally a "column" in a scroll) - in later Hebrew koteret was used for the top of the page, or what we call today, a headline. From koteret we get the word kotar כותר - the title of a book (particularly as used when looking up a book in a library catalog.)

The Arabic word for the head of a town - mukhtar - is spelled in Hebrew מוכתר, but isn't actually related to keter. It comes from a separate Arabic root meaning chosen or good (khayr), and so should be really spelled מוח'תאר.

The Greeks likely borrowed from the Semitic keter for their words kitaris or kidaris, meaning a crown or tiara (used by Persian kings), and from the Greek it entered Latin as cidaris. This Latin root was used to name a genus of sea urchins - and it does kind look like they are wearing crowns...

Sunday, February 15, 2015


In the description of the menorah in Shemot 25:31, we see mention of the word kaftor כפתור. The word is translated in various translations as knop (an ornamental knob), calyx, sphere, or bulb. In Amos 9:1 and Tzefania 2:14, it refers to the capital of a column. However, none of those fit the meaning in modern Hebrew - "button". Where did that sense originate?

Avineri, in Yad Halashon (page 341), says that while in biblical Hebrew kaftor meant a kind of ornament, the sense of button came from influence from German and French. In those languages, knopf and bouton (respectively) meant both "knob" and "button", and this usage in Hebrew began to feel so natural that it almost seems hard to believe that it was an innovation.

Where does the word originate? Klein and Cassuto both say it's an expansion of the word keter כתר - "crown". Cassuto says that keter "denotes in general anything round", and Klein, who gives the meaning "capital (of a pillar)" before "knob", seems to indicate that the keter was the crown of the column. Stahl quotes a different theory that kaftor is an expansion of the root כפת - "to bind, tie", and Gesenius says it appears to him to be a compound of the roots כפר - "to cover" and כתר - "to crown".

The reason so many theories are presented is the fact that kaftor has a four letter root, which is atypical to biblical Hebrew, certainly a word found all the way back in the Torah. Often times in these cases, we look for a word borrowed from a foreign source. In this case, Sarna in his commentary on Exodus has an curious suggestion:

Hebrew kaftor appears as an architectural term in Amos 9:1 and Zephaniah 2:14, where it designates the capital of a column. Since such were ornamented with a florid design, kaftor most likely refers to the calyx motif. Elsewhere in the Bible, Caphtor denotes the isle of Crete, where this type of ornamentation may have originated. Interestingly, Menahot 28b compares the shape of the kaftor to "Cretan apples."
In his commentary on Genesis (10:14), discussing the Capthorim, Sarna writes:

This corresponds to kaptaru in Akkadian texts, kptr in Ugaritic, and probably also to keftiu in Egyptian, all generally identified with the isle of Crete and its environs in the eastern Mediterranean.

So if this the word kaftor (knob) was borrowed from the place Kaftor - then it could easily have arrived from any of those ancient languages.

Kaddari also quotes the gemara in Menachot: כפתורים למה הם דומין? כמין תפוחי הכרתיים, and points to a 1928 article in Leshonenu by the botanist Ephraim Hareuveni (the father of Noga Hareuveni, the founder of Neot Kedumim) that identifies these "Cretan apples" with the gallnuts of a species of the genus Salvia (Hebrew marvah מרווה) native to Crete (likely Salvia fruticosa or Salvia pommifera - for the difference, see here). In fact, in the booklet put out by Neut Kedumim, (for the article in English, see here) on the cover we see a species of salvia which looks very much like the menorah:

Hareuveni concludes that "We frequently find among early civilizations that countries were named for one typical plant growing there ... and so it might have been with the island Kaftor." That's certainly one more possibility...

Friday, February 13, 2015

speel or shpeel?

In my post on the word spiel, I suggested that the while the word likely entered English originally through German, the current pronunciation "shpiel" indicates more recent Yiddish influence. I received a number of comments pointing out to me that the German pronunciation is also shpiel. So why did I associate it with Yiddish?

First of all, perhaps I'm wrong. That's the impression I get from Gold's book that I quoted. On page 568 he writes:

They etymological pronunciation of all the English words we have dealt with here is with /š/ (which is the only one I have ever heard in American English). The second edition of Oxford English Dictionary also shows a pronunciation with /s/, which results both from English spelling pronunciation and from the tendency of allolingual word-initial preconsonantal /š/ to become /s/ in English.
If I understand the end of what he wrote correctly, he's referring to the fact that it's rare for foreign words (allolingual) that entered English to maintain their "sh" sound before certain consonants (p, t, or k). So if what Gold says is true, then the word was always pronounced "shpiel" in English (going back to its German roots, which Gold argues for). But is that really the case?

Bryan Garner in his Dictionary of Legal Usage, writes on page 836:

spiel (= a set monologue or rehearsed oral presentation) is pronounced /speel/, not in the mock-Yiddish fashion that has become so common (/shpeel/).

In the 2003 edition, he writes that /shpeel/ is "jocular". Charles Harrington Elster, in his book The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations, expands on Garner and writes  (page 445):

Spiel, says Garner (2003), "is best pronounced /speel/, not in the mock-Yiddish fashion that has become so common (/shpeel/), which is jocular."
Both the verb to spiel ("to talk glibly, to patter or pitch") and the noun spiel ("a glib speech, harangue, or voluble sales pitch") entered English in the late 19th century, borrowed from the German spielen, to play, and Spiel, play, game. The German pronunciation, as Kenyon & Knott (1949) note, is SHPEE-ul, but from the outset dictionaries recorded only the anglicized pronunciation SPEEL. Whence, then, this "mock-Yiddish"SHPEEL? Is it jocular, or is it justified?
For an answer I turned to the distinguished lexicographer Sol Steinmetz, who has edited more than thirty dictionaries and many reference books and is coauthor of Meshuggenary: Celebrating the World of Yiddish (2002). "I remember doing an informal poll on that very question during my editorship of the Random House dictionaries," Steinmetz replied. The "rather surprising" result was that preferences were divided along ethnic lines. "My Jewish respondents invariably pronounced the word as SHPEEL" he told me, "whereas gentile subjects pronounced it SPEEL.
"Since both the German and the Yiddish etymons are pronounced SHPEEL," Steinmetz went on, "SPEEL is an Anglicization which Jewish speakers didn't seem to have picked up. I would favor the SPEEL pronunciation because the English meaning of the word ('extravagant talk to lure a customer, etc.; pitch') is itself an innovation, the German and Yiddish meanings being the literal senses of 'play, game, gamble.'"
So here's my take on it: If you're Jewish and you've always said SHPEEL,or if you're gentile and you've always said SHPEEL with a straight face, I'mnot going to tell you to change your tune. But for everyone else — indeed, the great majority of us — SHPEEL is in fact mock-Yiddish and jocular, and SPEEL is the better choice. Of the six major current American dictionaries, two give only SPEEL and the other four list it first, and Lass & Lass (1976), the NBC Handbook (1984), and The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology (1988), for which Mr. Steinmetz was managing editor, all prefer SPEEL.

So we see from no less of an expert than Steinmetz that the pronunciation "shpeel" is from Yiddish - not German, and that the original (and "correct") pronunciation in non-Yiddish influenced English is "speel".

The question remains, though, why didn't the German "shpeel" remain in English? I think that part of the reason is due to the rarity (and perhaps difficulty) of pronouncing words beginning with the sound "shp". But I think another reason might be that since the spelling in English matched the German, and "s" is almost never pronounced "sh" - that people assumed this was the way to say the word.

I did a cursory search of words of German origin in the Online Etymology Dictionary, and I could not find a single word post 1700 from German that maintained an "s" spelling but a "sh" pronunciation. I did find a few words, however, that are pronounced "sh" in German, but "s" in English: spritz, strudel (unless the speaker is influenced by Yiddish), and streusel. Two other words - swindler and snorkel - also fit this category, although they were originally spelled with "sch" in German (schwindlerschnorkel).  So I think this is likely the case with spiel - it was pronounced shpeel in German, but spelled spiel, and so the initial English pronunciation was spiel - until the Yiddish influence began.

One more proof - two words related to spiel - bonspiel and glockenspiel - end with the pronunciation "speel" in English.

Okay - I'm done with my spiel. Do you buy it?

Thursday, February 12, 2015


I do a lot of walking, and over the past few years, I've really begun to enjoy listening to podcasts while I walk. There aren't any podcasts dealing with Hebrew linguistics as far as I know (although you download Avshalom Kor's radio bits here). I do listen to a few podcasts about language in English: Lexicon Valley, The Allusionist, The History of English, Grammar Girl, and The World in Words. But perhaps my favorite language podcast isn't officially about language at all.

I first heard about Mike Pesca's The Gist in August 2014 on an episode of  This American Life. The host Ira Glass introduced him as follows:

This new podcast isn't about sports. It's about everything. 20 minutes a day, often about the news, though just as often not. What makes it special is, I think, the sheer joy, the gleeful, articulate energy that Mike Pesca marshals in thinking about and dissecting the world around him.
The theme today on our radio show is magic words. And I thought of Pesca today, because when he is not explaining what poker can tell us about missile defense systems or filling us in the country in Africa that is doing really, really well, Mike Pesca is somebody who seems to take great pleasure in noticing words, how people use words, and especially the misuse of words.

That's really a great description. While Pesca doesn't usually deal with etymology or linguistics per se, the way he talks about words really makes the listener (at least me) appreciate the significance of language.

The Gist always ends with a segment called "The Spiel". So in appreciation of Pesca's love of words, I thought I'd look at the word "spiel". The most obvious question regards pronunciation. It's spelled "spiel", but Pesca pronounces it "shpiel". Why?

The answer goes back to the etymology. There are two proposed origins:

1. a usually high-flown talk or speech, especially for the purpose of luring people to a movie, a sale, etc.; pitch.
verb (used without object)
2. to speak extravagantly. 
1890-95; (noun) < German Spiel or Yiddish shpil play, game; (v.) < German spielen or Yiddish shpiln to play, gamble 

Both the German and Yiddish derive from an older German word spil.

Which is more likely the origin of our English word spiel? David L. Gold in his book Studies in Etymology and Etiology discusses the issue (pgs 563-570). On page 567 he points out that of the different meanings of the word spiel, they either date to pre-1859 American English, such as the sense "to gamble" (in which case a Yiddish influence is not possible since there were insignificant numbers of Yiddish speaking Jews in America at the time) or they are a usage of the word not found in Yiddish (such as the sense "to talk"). So Gold is convinced that the origin is German, not Yiddish.

So why does Pesca pronounce the word in the Yiddish form and not the German one? He does have Jewish background, so that could be an influence. But it's not just Pesca - the pronunciation shpiel appears much more prevalent in general.

I think what is happening here is a case of Yiddish (or Jewish) influence on American culture overall. In Yiddish, we find the word meaning "play, skit" and is perhaps most familiar in the Purim-shpiel that entertained Jews on the holiday. Jewish immigrants from Europe would have used that pronunciation, And since they had significant influence in the entertainment industry (Vaudeville, radio, etc), that is the way many people began to hear the word spoken (even if they continued to write it the traditional German way.)

A similar phenomenon can be found with the word "smear". Smear is a perfectly respectable and understandable English word, and when pronounced as such can either mean "to spread or rub something on something else" or "defame, slander". But the Yiddish "schmear" has a more specific meaning - to spread something on bread, or as a noun, something spread on food- like cream cheese on a bagel. As discussed in this Philologos column, this has become the more "authentic" way of pronouncing the word when talking about food, even if the spelling hasn't always been changed.

The Yiddish shpil also entered modern Hebrew slang as שפיל meaning "breathing space, latitude", Rosenthal writes that it can either refer to a more general sense of flexibility or freedom (as in a politician's wiggle room as to what choices he makes, or the forecast of a meteorologist), or it can be more physical and refer to loose parts of a car moving around undesirably. I suppose the connection here to shpil is a sense of "room to play". While I've found that usage by politicians such as Yair Lapid here, he felt the need to define the term after using it, and of Israelis I asked, the younger ones aren't familiar with the term at all. So it seems that shpil in Hebrew is on its way out.

That said, I would love for there to be an Israeli version of The Gist (HaIkar העיקר? BeEtzem בעצם?), and maybe that would return shpil to its rightful place in our language.

Due to comments from my readers about the fact that spiel is pronounced shpiel in German as well, I've written the following post.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

kahal and kehila

What is the difference between the similar words kahal קהל and kehila קהילה? Both can be defined as "assembly", "congregation" or "community" - but do they have different connotations?

Well, one difference is the frequency they are found in the Tanach. Kehila only appears twice (Devarim 33:4, Nechemia 5:7), whereas kahal appears 122 times. Both derive from the root קהל meaning "to assemble, gather", a verb that also appears frequently in biblical Hebrew. That root in turn derives from the word kol קול - "voice", and according to Klein originally meant "to call together" or "call to to an assembly". (The English word call does not appear to be related.) The two roots are occasionally interchangeable. In Yirmiyahu 51:55, we find the phrase kol gadol קול גדול meaning "large assembly", and there are those that explain the word kehila in Nechemiah as meaning "voice".

A similar case of a connection between "noise" and "group" is found in the word hamon המון. It originally meant "crowd" (and later took on the meaning "abundance"), and derives from the root המה, meaning "growl, roar".

One might think that the word makhela מקהלה  - "choir" is connected to kol, voice, but in its singular appearance in the Tanach (Tehilim 68:27) it also meant originally "assembly".

Let's go back to kahal and kehila. Rosenthal here (discussing the modern usage) says that kehila is a group of people with a common interest or goal ("community"), whereas kahal is only a group of people assembled together, and in modern Hebrew is usually limited to the sense of "audience", or the public in general, such as in the phrase daat hakahal דעת הקהל - "public opinion".

A much newer word is kehiliya קהיליה. Introduced by Ben Yehuda, who intended for it to be the Hebrew word for "republic", it has become a synonym for kehila. It is most commonly used when discussing a community of nations - so a good translation would be commonwealth or federation.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

netzach and nitzachon

Let's see if there's a connection between the words netzach נצח - eternity, minatzeach מנצח - a musical conductor, and nitzachon נצחון - victory.

The root נצח appears frequently in the Tanach. According to the Even-Shoshan concordance, as a verb it either means "to oversee, to command", or the related "to lead (in music), to conduct", and as a noun it means either "strength, endurance" or "eternity" (there are also two verses where it means "blood" - others translate "juice".). Klein takes a different approach. He says that the original meaning of the verb is "to make brilliant" (related to an Aramaic root, "to shine") and the noun means "glory". The sense of "to shine, to be bright" is also found in Gesenius and BDB, based on cognates with other Semitic languages.

The meaning of the verb "to conquer" (as found in the noun nitzachon) appears originally in Aramaic, and entered Hebrew in the post-biblical period. This article by the Hebrew Language Academy points out that "victory" could be either associated with "endurance in time" (eternity) or "power and strength". In this way, all three meanings are related to a concept of endurance, stability and strength.

But what about those that say the root originally meant "to shine"? The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament proposes the following path of development: from a) the basic meaning "to gleam", to b) "distinguish oneself" (found in Biblical Aramaic), to c) "to conquer", to d) "to be permanent", and then finally e) "to supervise, lead". (The entry discusses many additional theories as well).

In the commentary of Keil and Delitzsh, we find another reasonable suggestion:

The primary notion of נצח is that of shining, and in fact of the purest and most dazzling brightness; this then passes over to the notion of shining over to outshining, and in fact both of uninterrupted continuance and of excellence and superiority (vid., Ithpa. Dan 6:4, and cf. Ch1 23:4 with Psa 9:13; Co1 15:54 with Isa 25:8). Thus, therefore, מנצּח is one who shows eminent ability in any department, and then it gains the general signification of master, director, chief overseer. At the head of the Psalms it is commonly understood of the direct of the Temple-music.
It is therefore interesting to note that unlike the synonym olam עולם, which also means "forever", but as we showed here derives from עלם - "hidden", netzach actually comes from a root emphasizing visibility.

Friday, February 06, 2015

arak and orek

Reader David asked me if there is any connection between arak ערק - "deserted", orek עורק - "artery" (also in botany "vein") and the anise flavored alcoholic drink arak.

The first word he asked about is a little more complicated, so let's skip it for now. Actually, let's start with the last. The source of the name of the drink is from the Arabic araq - meaning "to sweat" or "to water" (as in to water down a drink). This also may be the origin of the name of the Mesopotamian country Iraq:

often said to be from Arabic `araqa, covering notions such as "perspiring, deeply rooted, well-watered," which may reflect the impression the lush river-land made on desert Arabs.

It also may be the source of the herb "borage":

flowering plant used in salads, mid-13c., from Anglo-French, Old French borage (13c., Modern French bourrache), from Medieval Latin borrago. Klein says this is ultimately from Arabic abu arak, literally "the father of sweat," so called by Arab physicians for its effect on humans.

(There are alternate etymologies to both words - see the links to the Online Etymology Dictionary).

Stahl (in his etymological dictionary of Arabic) says that this root also gives us the Arabic word 'irq, meaning vein or artery, since they transfer fluids in the body. The Arabic is cognate with the Hebrew orek,  of which Klein says also originally meant "sinew".

The difficult word is the one meaning "to flee" (in Modern Hebrew it came to mean "to desert", particularly from the army. I assume this is because there already was a word - barach ברח, meaning  "to flee"). Arak clearly had that meaning in Aramaic, where it was used to translate Hebrew words, as in Onkelos on Shmot 21:13). What's less clear is what it means in the two occasions it appears in the Tanach, both in chapter 30 of Iyov.

Verse three reads:

בְּחֶסֶר וּבְכָפָן גַּלְמוּד    הַעֹרְקִים צִיָּה אֶמֶשׁ שׁוֹאָה וּמְשֹׁאָה

And the JPS translates it as "Wasted from want and starvation, they flee to a parched land, to the gloom of a desolate wasteland."

And in verse 17 we find the same root:

לַיְלָה עֲצָמַי נִקַּר מֵעָלָי    וְעֹרְקַי לֹא יִשְׁכָּבוּן

Here the translation isn't as simple. The JPS has "by night my bones feel gnawed; my sinews never rest". This reading has orek in the sense of sinew that we saw above. Gesenius says that some, based on the Arabic, interpret the verse as talking about arteries instead of sinews - "my arteries (the pulsations of the arteries) are not quiet". An alternate translation (going at least back to the Vulgate) says that the word actually means "to gnaw", with the verse meaning "those that gnaw me (i.e. my pains) are not quiet). Kaddari extends this to verse 3 as well, saying it means "they were forced to live on eager means" (a borrowed sense, literally meaning "they bit into me, my flesh is consumed") Amos Chacham in the Daat Mikra commentary says that (unlike Stahl), this sense of "eating away" or "dissolving through" the flesh is how the word came to mean artery or vein.

The JPS translation is based on Rashi, who quotes Dunash as saying that based on the Arabic, the phrase should be understood as "my sinews never rest". However, Rashi also quotes Dunash's adversary and rival linguist, Menachem, who says that here too the root means "to flee", and says that the word has the meaning here:"my pursuers, who caused me to flee".

So is there a connection between arak - "to flee" and orek - "artery" (either from the root meaning "to transfer liquid" or "to gnaw")? I haven't seen anything to convince me there is. But while they might not have a common origin, all of these meanings meet up as possible explanations for two obscure phrases in the book of Iyov. While instances like this are much more confusing, if it wasn't for them, I'd have a lot less to write about.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015


In my previous post, I mentioned how the word for gate - בבא bava - derives from the root נבב meaning "hole" or "hollow". Another word from the same root is abuv אבוב. Ben Yehuda points out that this is the Ashkenazi pronunciation, the Sephardic version is avuv. He says that the manuscripts of the Mishna support "avuv", but the Aruch HaShalem says it should be abuv to make up for the dropped nun from the root. The word appears in the Mishna (Arachin 2:3) and meant a "flute, pipe, reed". The Arabic form is inbub (we can see the original root here), and the cognates in Aramaic and Akkadian are abuva אבובא and imbubu, respectively.

Abuva is how Onkelos translates the Biblical word for flute עוגב ugav (Bereshit 4:21), and Luncz writes here that with the growing influence of Aramaic in the Second Temple period, abuv came to replace ugav as the term used in Hebrew.

Luncz also points out that Bartenura in his commentary on that mishna translates the word chalil as "צלמילי'ש", which in Italian is cennamelle (Bartenura says that the chalil is the musical instrument, and the abuv is the thin reed at the head of the chalil). The singular form, cennamella, in English is known as "shawm", and was the older precursor to the oboe. Luncz goes on to argue, based on a number of sources, that the chalil of the mishna should be viewed as a type of oboe, not a type of flute (flutes do not have reeds, whereas oboes, and other similar woodwind instruments do).

In Modern Hebrew abuv has come to mean "oboe". It is not clear to me what influence Luncz had on that usage. In any case, it's likely that the similarity in sound between abuv and oboe also played a role. Ghil'ad Zuckermann, in this article, describes the phenomenon as "phono-semantic matching", which he defines as

multi-sourced neologism that preserves both the meaning and the approximate sound of the parallel expression in the source-language, using pre-existent target-language words or roots

In addition to abuv/oboe, he finds similar cases with the Hebrew words semel and yovel. Throughout the article, Zuckermann tries to show that many words whose meanings changed in Modern Hebrew were changed for ideological reasons - to secularize previously religious concepts. I'm not fully convinced - and I think we can see from this case that there often are reasons justified in the Jewish tradition for these newer usages. (I'll probably be discussing some of his examples in future posts). But what these examples do show is that we don't need to rush to judgement and assume that two similar sounding words have a common origin - it's just as likely that one influenced the other.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015


The Yiddish word for grandmother is "bubbe". (There are many alternate spellings - in my family, for example, we spell it "bobe" and my wife's family spells it "bubby". So both for shalom bayit, and because it seems to be the most popular spelling, I'll stick with "bubbe").

Where does the word come from? I found this William Safire column from 1990 (inspired by a question about the word bubba, which is unrelated.) He discusses the word bubbe, and offers two possible origins:

Buba is a Hebrew word for "little doll" and may have been the source of an affectionate term for a small grandmother; however, the similar baba is also used for "grandma" in Russian and other Slavic languages, which makes the origin uncertain.

Let's look at the first suggestion - that it derives from buba בובה - "doll". Mr. Safire was mistaken on this one (and I imagine heard about it from his readers). The word buba was coined by Ben Yehuda, together with a co-founder of the Vaad Halashon, Haim Kalmi, in a children's books published in 1904.  This certainly postdates the Yiddish bubbe. Klein writes in his entry:

Coined by Eliezer ben Yehudah as a Hebraization of Arabic bu'bu, bubbu' (=little child, doll). Compare German Puppe, French poupee.

Klein also connects the same Arabic root with the word bavuah בבואה - "reflection, image". He gives this etymology:

Related to JAram בוביא and perhaps also to Arabic babbat (=little child), understood as a reflection of a man.
This book provides another related Hebrew word: bava בבה - "pupil of the eye", used almost exclusively in the phrase בבת עין - bavat ayin, found in Zecharya 2:12 (babat also appears on its own in later Hebrew literature, like in the song Dror Yikra). It literally means "pupil of the eye", but like the English phrase "apple of the eye", has the sense of "something very dear and important". The authors say it is also related to the Arabic root we've seen earlier, and both derive from an Akkadian word "babu". meaning "child, baby". They point out it has a similar sense to the word for pupil in many languages, including English, which is related to the homonym meaning "student" and has the following etymology:

"center of the eye," early 15c. (in English in Latin form from late 14c.), from Old French pupille (14c.), from Latin pupilla, originally "little girl-doll," diminutive of pupa "girl; doll", so called from the tiny image one sees of himself reflected in the eye of another.
A Hebrew synonym that the authors don't mention is ishon אישון, also meaning pupil, and similarly is a diminutive of ish איש, and so literally means "little man".

Ben Yehuda quotes scholars that agree with this etymology of bava, He also quotes those who suggest that the word might be related to the Aramaic word for gate or entrance- baba בבא (which we see in the name of the Talmudic tractates Bava Kama, Bava Metzia and Bava Kama - the three "gates" of the order Nezikin) and the Arabic word for gate - bab. In the entry for the root נבב - "to make hollow", Klein writes that baba derives from the Akkadian babu (=door, gate) which is shortened from nebaba (literally: 'hole,aperture'), which is also from the base נבב.

We've jumped from buba and bavuah to bavat and baba. Let's get back to bubbe.

Safire's second suggestion - a Slavic origin - makes much more sense. We see it in the Russian word for grandmother, babushka, which is a hypocorism (a suffix added for endearment) of the word baba, meaning "old woman".

Ultimately, however, there might be a connection between the Semitic roots we saw earlier meaning a child, and the Slavic ones meaning an old woman. As the Online Etymology Dictionary writes in the entry for the English word "babe", the origin of the word is from baby talk, and so in some languages that comes out as a word for children, and in some as a word for older people (adults).

You might be familiar with the phrase bobe mayse - or the Hebrew derivative sipurei savta סיפורי סבתא- meaning a fanciful story, an old wives tale. What might surprise you, though, is that the phrase actually doesn't come from the word bubbe, but rather from the story of Bevis of Hampton. As Philologos writes:

As improbable as it may seem, the bobbe of bobbe mayseh comes from the name of the hero of the 15th-century medieval Italian romance “Buovo d’Antona,” a Tuscan adaptation of the Norman “Beuve de Haumpton” — known in its 14th-century English version as “Sir Bevis of Hampton.”

Read the Philologos article for more detail about the story (as well as this one by Ari Zivotofsky), but to sum up, the 15th century Hebrew linguist and grammarian Eliahu Bachur translated the stories from Italian in to Yiddish as Bovo-Bukh. (He chose the name Bova apparently as a play on the word bava we saw above, ending the poem with the words “This is the end of the tractate of Bova of Antona.”) The adventures of Bova were so fanciful that even after the stories themselves were forgotten, the name was forever saved in the phrase bobe mayse.

Don't believe me? Ask your bubbe!