Saturday, January 31, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Lashon Hakodesh

I recently received the book Lashon Hakodesh: History, Holiness & Hebrew by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein. I honestly wasn't sure what to think of the book at first. The author and I come from very different worlds - or at least very different world views (we actually both come from California and now live in Israel). Klein has a strong yeshiva background, whereas while I learned in a yeshiva (and in fact learned much more there about Hebrew than I did in university), my approach is much more "academic" (a term he uses frequently throughout the book). But Klein does show respect and openness to the academic approach, even when he doesn't agree with it (and that's a path I try to follow as well).  Another difference between us is that he prefers to reconcile different approaches, whereas I like to accentuate them. But there’s certainly a tradition in that going back to the Talmud (see for example Steinsaltz's Reference Guide to the Talmud, where he writes (page 6) that "in seeking to understand the words of the Mishnah or of the Amoraim one should always seek elements that reconcile the parties to the dispute and not those that divide them. Many of the most searching and significant questions and discussions in the Talmud derive from the desire to resolve differences.)  Klein also did a tremendous amount of research, with extensive footnotes to allow the reader to continue investigating on their own. So in general, I found the book a pleasant and interesting read.

The first four chapters deal with the Jewish (Rabbinic) view of the history of the Hebrew language (Klein consistently refers to the language described in the book as Lashon Hakodesh, partially as a polemic device to distinguish it from Modern Hebrew / Ivrit. While I understand his choice, I still prefer to use "Hebrew".)  He discusses the language spoken by Adam after Creation, how the languages were split up at Migdal Bavel, what language Avraham spoke both before and after his migration to Canaan, and what the Jews spoke in Egypt. I found those chapters interesting on a personal level (particularly for my ongoing Avraham project), even though they’re not as relevant to what I write about on this site.

Chapter five deals with the change of speech from Biblical Hebrew to Mishnaic Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Page 115 deals with borrowing words from other languages, which is much more relevant to Balashon. The second half of the chapter deals with Jewish languages in exile – lots of interesting material that I didn't know previously.

I suppose the most controversial chapter is chapter six - The Language Wars. Here Klein's own views come out more – and while I disagree with them personally, I still think it was helpful to read a detailed summary of what “the other side” thinks.  He does bring some rabbinic sources that support speaking modern Hebrew, but not many (and clearly there are many Religious Zionist ones that did.)

On page 136 of that chapter, he claims that the meanings of some older words were changed in Modern Hebrew with the intent to make them more secular and remove the historic religious sense. This is strange to me, for I have not heard that claim before. I'll need to investigate the examples word for word, and I will try to address them on future posts here. A few I've already discussed – tarbut, bilui, achuz, and reviewing what I wrote there, I don't find evidence of the "ideological secularization of Hebrew terms" that Klein describes.

He continues in chapter six, and quotes the Satmar Rebbe (page 142) as saying that Ben Yehuda died on Shabbat night with a pen in his hand. Klein says that whether or not it’s literally true is irrelevant, Ben Yehuda died an unrepentant sinner. But if he’s already talking about legends, there are other stories as well that emphasize that in response to Rav Kook's prodding, Ben Yehuda repented before his death. I don't find either set of stories particularly moving or significant (and in fact, I believe that Ben Yehuda's legacy should be viewed as secure from a religious standpoint as well, considering how much easier he made it for all Jews in Israel to study traditional texts), but I think more balance would have been appropriate here.

Chapter seven – like chapter five – also deals with foreign influences on Hebrew. I've written about two of the terms he mentions: gematria and afikoman (the ones I haven't written about might serve as future posts here).The actual etymologies are less relevant – even folk etymologies are interesting, for they show how people viewed languages. (We see the same biases with non-rabbinic scholars such as Jastrow, Kohut, etc). He brings examples of rabbis who claim that there are not really foreign words in the Bible, or all words derive from Hebrew, Again, you don't need to accept the approach to find something interesting in seeing how the issue was viewed over time.

The book ends with sections dealing with the religious status of Aramaic and the rabbinic views of the Ktav Ashuri and Ktav Ivri scripts (I personally enjoyed his quote on page 192 of the Rambam's commentary on Mishna Yadayim 4:5, who says that it was called Ashuri (fortunate) because each letter is distinct from each other, unlike the cursive languages where each letter runs into each other, causing confusion. Klein doesn't mention it, but I assume the Rambam was referring to Arabic, and I definitely find myself confused with aspect of the Arabic script).

Judging a book by its cover, I can say that I found the cover design very attractive, and the book's overall layout and typesetting rather pleasing. While the book include a detailed biographical index, I would have appreciated a more traditional index of topics with page numbers.

A book of this nature, in English, is long overdue for the traditional Orthodox reader. I hope it inspires more interest in the history of the Hebrew language.

Friday, January 30, 2015

modern Hebrew or Modern Hebrew

If you haven't noticed I tend to jump between capitalizing the "m" in the phrase "M/modern Hebrew". In some ways I think that Modern Hebrew should be considered a separate language - certainly compared with Biblical Hebrew. On the other hand, some times I just want to emphasize a word's more recent appearance in the continuum of the language, so I don't capitalize modern.

The regular Google search isn't case sensitive, so I couldn't find results there, but in their Ngram viewer which searches books, you can do that kind of search:

The results are not conclusive. So what do you readers think? Is there some style guide that can help me?

Thursday, January 29, 2015

puzmak, anpila and dardas

After discussing the modern word for sock - גרב gereb, let's take a look at some of the more archaic ones.

In the previous post, we mentioned magafayim מגפיים - leg armor, as found in the Mishna (Shabbat 6:2). The gemara on that mishna (Shabbat 62a) identifies magafayim as puzmekei פזמקי. In this context they also mean leg armor, but in other locations (Shabbat 10a, Shevuot 31a), puzmak פוזמק means fine shoes.

Klein gives the following etymology:

Of Turanian origin. Russian bashmaku  (=shoe), Med. Greek pasmazes and Arabic bashmaqji (=shoemaker) are of the same origin.
Stahl says the word has a Persian origin (Jastrow spells it pageng, but I couldn't find any sources online confirming that) made up of two parts - pa meaning "leg" (and is part of the word pajama) and jang - "to hold", so it was something that holds the leg.

How did it come to mean sock? Stahl says he's not sure, but I'm guessing that it might be due to Rashi's commentary on the gemara, where he identifies puzmak as "anpilaot אנפילאות of iron". What is an anpila אנפילה? It meant a felt shoe or slipper, and comes from the Greek empilion. Klein says that word is

formed from en ( = in) and pilos ( = felt), which is prob. cogn. with L. pilleus ( = felt cap), pilus (=hair).

That's certainly closer to a sock than a metal shoe.

There's one more old fashioned term for a sock - dardas דרדס. Klein said it also originally meant slipper, with Aramaic origins and probably deriving from the root דרס, meaning "to tread". They appear in Talmudic literature  (Yerushalmi Kilayim 9, Bereshit Rabba 100) However, you might be more familiar with dardasim דרדסים as the Hebrew word for The Smurfs. What's the connection between socks and smurfs?

In the book Higiya Zman Lashon, Avshalom Kor interviews Yechiam Padan, who gave the Smurfs their name in Hebrew. Padan says that the name was based on the sock that they wear on their heads. He might have also been influenced by the fact that the original name for the Smurfs in French was "Schtroumpf", which is very similar to the German word "Strumpf" meaning "sock" (although the French creator says that's not where the name came from). But when Kor asked him why he didn't call them the "Puzmakim", he said there was another advantage of the name Dardasim - it recalls two words: dardak דרדק - "young child" and kundas קונדס - "mischief". Perhaps the best proof that it was a good choice for a name is that today no kids in Israel associate the word with its less fun origin.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

magafayim and garbayim

Gita asked if the word for boots - מגפיים magafayim is related to the word for plague - מגפה magefa. Well, Gita, they aren't related. As you noted, magefa comes from the root נגף, meaning "to strike, smite." Magaf מגף (the singular of magafayim) originally meant an armored legging worn by soldiers, and in Modern Hebrew came to mean "boot". Klein says that he's unsure of the origin of the word - it perhaps came from either the root גוף (=to close, shut), or the related root גפף (= to enclose, cling, embrace). These roots do not appear to be related to the word guf גוף - "body" or gaf גף - "back" (the rear part of the human torso). They come from the word gav גב - also meaning back.

That was almost the end of the story, and this would have been a nice quick post. But I was curious as to the earlier meaning of the word magaf, so I found it used in the Mishna (Shabbat 6:2). The mishna is discussing various items that are forbidden to be worn on shabbat, and it mentions magafayim. Kehati (in the English version) defines them as "the high metal boots worn in war", but translates the term as "greaves". I had never heard that word before (and in fact my spell checker right now also doesn't seem to be familiar with it). Well, it does mean "leg armor", and it has its own Wikipedia page, with nice pictures. But what caught my eye, was the etymology. Here's what the Online Etymology Dictionary has to say:

c.1300, from Old French greve "shin, armor for the leg" (12c.), of unknown origin. [Klein suggests it ultimately is from Egyptian Arabic gaurab "stocking, apparel for the leg."]

The Arabic word here looked familiar, and in fact, it is also the origin of the Hebrew word for "sock" - גרב gereb. In his entry for gereb, Klein writes that it is borrowed from the Arabic jawrab (=socks, stocking).

Now who did the borrowing? None other than Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who first used the term in an advertisement in his newspaper HaZvi in 1885. Ben Yehuda commonly used Arabic terms when no Hebrew one was available (although in his dictionary he also quotes the Aramaic word gorba גורבא - a garment for the leg, mentioned in the Halachot Gedolot and Aruch). The origin of the Arabic term is debatable. Some, like Stahl, say that it comes from Persian jorab. Others say that Persian actually borrowed from Arabic as well. In the book Rega Shel Ivrit, Anat Shpitzan writes that we find in the Mishna (Terumot 10:8) the word garab meaning "bottle" or "jar" to hold wine or oil, but also referred to a leather sack used to hold clothes or other items (see Ibn Janach here). From here, apparently, the Arabic word for sock developed, for in Literary Arabic the word also means sack or bag.

The mishna in Terumot vocalized the word as garab (which is how Ben Yehuda also vocalizes it), but since the plural was garbayim, and socks are frequently found in pairs (but not always!) it was easy to assume that the singular was gereb, based on similar singular/plural matches as ערב/ערביים - erev/ arbayim.

The last question remaining about garbayim is - are they masculine or feminine? While today's dictionaries say that it is masculine, there was some debate a few decades ago. Avineri in Yad Halashon (page 99) has an interesting entry, based on articles he wrote from 1946-1950.  He disagrees with Ben Yehuda's spelling of garab and garbayim, for if the singular is garab, the plural should be gerabayim (like כנף/כנפיים). According to Avineri, Ben Yehuda knew that people said garbayim in the plural. He therefore says we should recognize gereb as a new word (not based on the garab) of the mishna, and since it comes from the Aramaic, we can use the pattern of berez ברז coming from birza ברזא and selek סלק coming from silka סלקא.

Once he established that the singular should be gereb, Avineri (after some discussion) concludes that the word should actually be considered feminine, in the same way similar vocalized words are: even אבן, eretz ארץ, beten בטן, etc. Two other reasons he gives for this conclusion are that the word for shoe - naal נעל is feminine (and it would be easier to have both words of the same gender) and that almost everyone both writes and says gereb in the feminine. "Since the usage has both a grammatical and a psychological reason - it should not be forbidden," he writes.

And it seems Avineri knew what he was talking about, since despite the dictionary's decision that gereb is male, there's still a lot of confusion among Hebrew speakers. A great example is this funny story told by my friend Rachel a number of years ago:

For Chanukah, all the parents in my son's gan were asked to send "garbayim lebanot".
My husband and I read the note he brought home and quickly realized that we didn't need to do anything - only the girls needed to bring a pair of socks.
The next day at the gan I was reprimanded for not sending socks with my son to gan - Oh, I quickly realized, all the kids needed to bring in a pair of girl's socks.
So I sent my son to gan with a pair of pretty pink socks with lace around the top.
When I picked him up the next day, I was again reprimanded - "the socks have to be white so they glow in the dark - why did you send pink?"
"Oh garbayim LEVANOT" How was I supposed to know?
I told the story to a friend of mine who is an ulpan teacher, whose son is in the same gan and she said that it was a natural mistake - socks are masculine so they should have asked me to send "garbayim levanim". I'm not sure that this would necessarily have helped me - I would probably have sent a pair of blue tube socks the first day.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

sechvi

Recently, I've been asked by a few people about the Hebrew words for rooster. There are three such words: tarnegol תרנגול, gever גבר and sekhvi שכוי. I've discussed tarnegol here, and Klein writes that a rooster is called a gever because it is a male chicken. But sechvi is a much more complicated word.

Many of us are familiar with the word sechvi from the morning blessings, where we thank God אשר נתן לשכוי בינה להבחין בין יום ובין לילה - "who gave the sechvi understanding to distinguish day from night". In the Koren siddur, Sacks translates sechvi here as "heart", and in the footnotes writes that "this is the translation according to Rabbeinu Asher (Rosh); Rashi and Abudraham read it, 'the cockerel." How did sechvi come to mean either heart or rooster?

The blessing (first mentioned in the Talmud in Berachot 60b) was inspired by a verse in Iyov (38:36), the only time the word sechvi appears in the bible, making it difficult to clarify the meaning. The verse reads:

מִי-שָׁת בַּטֻּחוֹת חָכְמָה    אוֹ מִי-נָתַן לַשֶּׂכְוִי בִינָה

The JPS translates it as "Who put wisdom in the hidden parts? Who gave understanding to the mind [sechvi]?", but in a footnote writes that sechvi could also be translated as "rooster", and concedes that the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain.

Klein has an explanation that can answer why these very different terms were the two options for translating the word. He writes:

Of uncertain etymology and meaning. Usually rendered by 'cock', but also by 'mind' or 'understanding'. In the Talmud and the Midrash שכוי [sechvi] is also rendered mostly by תרנגול [tarnegol] (=cock), but in some passages by בינה or בינתא (=understanding). The word שכוי [sechvi] probably derives from the base שכה (=to look, see), from which both meanings can be derived.

The idea that both meanings can come from a root meaning "to see" is found in many sources, both older (such as Radak's Sefer Hashorashim) as well as more modern ones. Kaddari, in his dictionary writes that if the root is Hebrew (שכה), then the meaning is "likeness, vision in the heart" (based on a similar phrase in Tehilim 73:7), but if it comes from the Aramaic root שכא, "to see", then the options of mind, or possibly rooster come to play.

After all this, I think two primary questions remain. The first is, why is the heart associated with vision? I would think that the mind would be better (we think there, and it is adjacent to our eyes), and in fact we've seen that some translations offer "the mind". But why do others say "the heart"? For this, I highly recommend reading this set of articles about the word lev לב by Ethan Dor-Shav (a four part series, appearing in reverse chronological order). He points out that:

Though the Ancient Hebrew word lev is normally translated as “heart” (like its modern use), not once - in over 850 biblical appearances - does it mean the physical blood-pump muscle. While other body parts are dissected, for instance, in sacrificial animals ("Take the fat of the ram, the fat tail, the fat that covers the entrails, the fatty lobe attached to the liver, the two kidneys and the fat on them, and the right thigh..." Exodus 29:22), an anatomical organ called "heart" is nowhere to be found. Likewise, contrary to what we would expect from the anatomical heart, lev is never associated with blood! At most it is used to depict the chest (where the high priest's breastplate was placed, Absalom was stabbed, and Jehoram got shot through. See entry in Encyclopaedia Biblica, The Bialic Institute). Hosea, too, talks about the whole ribcage as a "heart-cage," or - read much more aptly - the "breastcage" (13:8). That is as close as it gets.


I did a very simplistic search of Talmudic literature, using Jastrow's dictionary, and while the results are clearly not comprehensive, he also does not give any examples where the Talmud or Midrashim use lev or levav לבב as referring to the physical organ. Dor-Shav instead proves that the lev is viewed as the seat of wisdom and understanding - what we would call "the mind". Again, please read his posts, and I think you will also be convinced that at least biblically, lev has all the functions of the mind, and so vision and understanding can easily be associated with it. Clearly, that isn't as much the case in English, so translating sechvi as "heart" can be a little confusing, but it is faithful to the original Hebrew.

My other question is, of all birds, why is the rooster associated with wisdom? And if we follow the expansion of the idea in the morning blessing - how hard is it really to see the difference between day and night?

Ben Yehuda in his dictionary (although since it is in the footnotes, probably Tur-Sinai) discusses this question. He suggests that if sechvi does refer to a bird, perhaps the original meaning was not a rooster, but rather a bird of prey. Hawks are associated with wisdom (Iyov 39:26) as well as eagles/vultures in Mishlei 23:4-5. Certainly if sechvi referred to them, the connection to vision would make sense, as they can see great distances when searching for food.


Daat Mikra on Iyov 38:36 quotes Feliks as writing (based on Gittin 68b) that the wild chicken was likely the duchifat דוכיפת - the hoopoe (now the national bird of Israel), and was known for its wisdom. Wisdom was also associated with the ability to fly - something certainly lacking from today's chickens.

The rabbis mention in a number of locations (Vayikra Rabba 19:24, Yerushalmi Berachot 9:2) that people called the rooster a sechvi. Ben Yehuda suggests that perhaps this was simply a linguistic observation, maybe underlying the fact that a sechvi isn't technically a rooster. However, as we often see, in language, common usage wins out.


Monday, January 26, 2015

hachlata

Bernard asked me about the etymology of the Hebrew word for decision - החלטה hachlata. This is actually kind of tricky.

The word itself is from Modern Hebrew, but the root חלט is biblical. The difficulty, however, is that the root only appears once in the Tanach - in Melachim I 20:33 - and the meaning there is not clear. The verse is describing a conversation between the king of Israel and the servants of the king of Aram. In response to a question from the king of Israel, it is written about the servants

   וְהָאֲנָשִׁים יְנַחֲשׁוּ וַיְמַהֲרוּ וַיַּחְלְטוּ הֲמִמֶּנּוּ 

The JPS translates this as: "The men divined his meaning and quickly caught the word from him [ויחלטו]". They translate the root חלט here (in the kal form - vayachletu, unlike the hifil form we use in modern Hebrew) as "caught". This fits the Aramaic translations of the verse, who use the verb חטף - "to seize". Kaddari suggest that perhaps the verb means "to accept as certain". Daat Mikra on the verse quotes Rashi, who says that they wanted to make what the king said permanent, so they "cut off his words", so he could not change his mind. Rashi's word for permanent is tzmitut צמיתות, which he derives from Vayikra 25:23. There Onkelos translates לצמיתות latzmitut as לחלוטין lachalutin. and Ibn Ezra says the that the root צמת also means "to cut off" (as also found in Tehilim 94:23). So if we accept this meaning of the root, then there is a similar development to the English words "decide" and "decision", which also come from a root meaning "to cut off" (found also in such words as excise, circumcise, and incision).

In post-biblical Hebrew we see the root חלט used more frequently, meaning "to decide", but also "determined", or "absolute", as in the expression lechalutin or the synonymous phrase from the same root - muchlat מוחלט. In Modern Hebrew we also have the expression be'hechlet בהחלט - "certainly, without doubt".

An unrelated root also spelled חלט means "to mix, knead with hot water." In the Talmud we find this verb used to describe mixing boiling water with flour to make dough, or mixing food with vinegar to preserve it. Today it the word is primarily used to describe making tea - chalita חליטה is a tea infusion. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

am and amum

Sarah asked if there's a connection between the word am עם - nation, and the root עמם, as found in the word amum עמום, meaning "dim" or "dark".

While they look similar, they're not related. As I quoted from Horowitz in the discussion about the letter ayin:

Ancient Hebrew had two different ayin sounds. These sounds were represented in our alphabet by the letter ayin. One was a harsh, heavy ayin. This is now lost, and no longer used in Hebrew. The other was a soft, mild ayin. When the Greek Jews translated the Bible into Greek, they had to transliterate Hebrew names having the harsh ayin in it. They used the Greek letter gamma for it - so you can imagine how hard a sound it must have been.

So we can see from Klein's etymology of the two words that they each come from a different "ayin".

Regarding the root עמם meaning dark or dim, Klein writes that it is cognate with the Arabic ghamma, meaning "he covered, veiled, concealed."

As far as am, Klein says it comes from a distinct root עמם, meaning "to join, connect", and is cognate with the Arabic verb 'amma. Am meant "those united" or "those related". A related word is im עם - meaning "together with".


Thursday, January 22, 2015

sechus

This time I got a question about a word that I wasn't really that familiar with. A reader asked about the etymology of the word sechus סחוס - "cartilage", and correctly pointed out that this is not a biblical word (and was curious what the biblical word was).

Klein, in his entry for sechus, writes:

This word arose through a misreading of חסחוס as הסחוס, whose ה was mistaken for the article and was consequently dropped. For a similar misreading see דות.

Before we get to chas'chus חסחוס, let's look at the misreading he mentions. In this case, the word chas'chus was read as has'chus, meaning "the sechus". The second example he gives, dut דות - "pit, cistern", was a misreading of the word chadut חדות as hadut הדות. A slightly different example that Klein doesn't mention, but might be more familiar to us, is the misreading of the word for sunrise, הנץ hanetz (a verb meaning he - the sun - shone) as "the netz", and therefore saying things like a "netz minyan" (with 690 hits on Google, compared to 20 for "hanetz minyan").

Now to chas'chus itself. Klein doesn't really give an etymology, but just says that it has related words in Aramaic, Syriac and Akkadian (hasisu), and that it should be compared to chasa חסה - the Hebrew word for lettuce, deriving from the Aramaic חסא - for which he says the etymology is unknown. He gives no clue as to why words for cartilage and lettuce would be connected, but Jastrow says that chas'chus might derive from the root חוס meaning "protection", and as I mentioned in the comments on this post, the leaves of the lettuce surround the core in a somewhat protective way. So maybe, but otherwise your guess is as good as mine.

This book points out that other Akkadian words for body parts have a similar feature of reduplication, and some of the examples he gives have Hebrew cognates. So the Akkadian word for skull, gulgullatu, is cognate to the Hebrew gulgolet גלגולת, and the Akkadian word for "head", qadqadu, matches the Hebrew kodkod קודקוד.

However, Klein's is not the only theory for etymology of chas'chusHolma's Physiological Words in Assyrian-Babylonian writes that the Akkadian and Syrian words (kaskasu, kuskasa) for cartilage could derive from kasasu, "to gnaw," which would make it related to the Hebrew root כסס, also meaning "to grind, chew, gnaw." If so, it would be related to the word couscous as well, which has the following origin:

from French couscous (16c.), ultimately from Arabic kuskus, from kaskasa "to pound, he pounded."


Now to the writer's question as to the Biblical word for cartilage, I wasn't able to find one. However, the Aramaic translations to the Torah, and the Talmud identify chas'chus with the Biblical tenuch תנוך. That word, as part of the phrase תנוך אוזן - tenuch ozen - means "earlobe", and while the earlobe itself does not contain cartilage, other parts of the outer ear do. As discussed here, "the has'hus refers to all parts of the ear that are thicker than ordinary skin". So this is probably as close to a biblical word as we're going to get...

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

hagun and hogen

I'm continuing to go over the email questions I received in my absence, and today I'll answer a question about the word hagun הגון. Before I get to the etymology, I'd like to compare hagun with the very simliar word hogen הוגן.

They both can mean "worthy", "proper" or "suitable". However there is a difference between them. Hagun has more of a connotation of "appropriate", whereas hogen is more synonymous with "just" or "fair". (In fact, Israelis will often say the more slangy ze lo fair זה לא פייר , but when they want to be formal, they'll substitute ze lo hogen זה לא הוגן - "that's not fair".)  Hagun is usually used for a person who acts appropriately (although it can also be used for other things), but hogen is never used for people, only more abstract things like situations, salaries or verdicts.

Klein points out that both words derive from the root הגן - hogen is the active form and hagun is the passive form, although in the original Talmudic usage there wasn't a difference in meaning between them. Both meant worthy, and we can see that they were interchangeable from such examples as this one from Avot DeRabbi Natan 23:4 - שהיא הוגנת לו, הוא הגון לה  - "she is suitable [hogenet] for him, and he is suitable [hagun] for her".

As far as the root of הגן, Klein provides the following etymology (which clearly has somewhat of a sordid past):

Related to Arab. hajuna (= was white), hijan (=white race), hajin (=descendant of a father of noble birth and a woman slave; the best of its kind; excellent), hajinah (=dromedary), JAram הוגנא (= young camel). Krauss and several other scholars dervie הגן from Gk. eugenes (=well born)

And the Online Etymology Dictionary explains the origin of eugenes:

"well-born, of good stock, of noble race," from eu- "good"  + genos "birth" 

One misconception I found online was that the words hogen and hagun are related to the word for logic, higayon הגיון. That word has gone through some major jumps in its history. In biblical Hebrew, it referred to music, song or other vocal expression (often prayer). It could also mean musing or meditation. In Talmudic Hebrew it came to mean reading, and only in Medieval Hebrew did the meaning of "logic" arrive. The root of higayon is הגה, and Klein says the original meaning was "to hum, murmur, ponder", and that the verb was used to describe the cooing of a pigeon or the growling of a lion. He writes that the origin was probably imitative -i.e. that was the sound those animals made. Later, in post-biblical Hebrew the verb also began to referring to pronouncing, spelling and editing words.

In this fascinating Hebrew article, Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun bemoans the transformation of higayon from song to logic (he says the same phenomenon applied to the root שכל). He puts the onus for this change on the Rambam, saying in doing so he made our focus on God much more sterile, intellectual and philosophical, and abandoned the traditional emphasis on faith and prayer. I'll leave it up to you if that is a hagun or a hogen conclusion...

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

hatchkunim

Reader Leslie asked me about the origin of the Hebrew term for acne - hatchkunim חצ'קונים. Both Even Shoshan and Rosenthal say that it likely comes from the word cheshek חשק - meaning "desire" or "passion" - since acne is associated with adolescence, the "age of passion". (In fact some people claim to have heard acne called חשקונים, which is closer to the original spelling).

In addition to "desire", the root חשק also refers to binding, joining or attaching together. For example, a chishuk חישוק is the Hebrew word for "hoop", whose primary purpose was to bind the parts of a barrel together.

Klein says both meanings come from the same root, with the verb meaning "was attached to, loved, desired." Even Shoshan and others seem to indicate that the two meanings come from separate sources. The entry for heshek here, points out that

unlike dabaq (דבק), hasaq (חשק) always has a positive sense, never a hostile sense like "stick to in pursuit".

I think that positive association doesn't apply to acne...

Monday, January 19, 2015

nachat and nachas

When I wrote about korat ruach קורת רוח, I sort of assumed that the synonymous phrase nachat ruach נחת רוח (literally "resting/quietness of the spirit", but also meaning satisfaction or pleasure, was of a similar construct. So I thought that the first word of the phrase - nachat - was detached from the construct phrase. But I was mistaken - the word appears on its own a few times in the Bible (Kohelet 4:6, 6:5, 9:17; Yeshaya 30:15; Mishlei 29:9). There are of course plenty of other nouns ending in the letter tav that aren't part of a construct phrase - tzalachat צלחת - "plate" and mitpachat מטפחת - "kerchief", to name two. And Klein points out that nachat comes from the root נוח - "to rest", just as shachat שחת "pit, grave" - comes from the root שוח - "to bow down, bend".

As you might imagine, the Yiddish word nachas (or naches) is closely related to the Hebrew nachat. In Yiddish it has taken on a slightly more specific meaning - often referring to the joy parents get from seeing their children's accomplishments. (As a kid in Jewish day schools, my friends and I would often have fun looking at the school yearbooks, and reading the dedications that parents wrote. We would substitute the word nachas with "nachos", leading to ridiculous phrases such as "You are a great source of nachos for your family...")

In this 2005 column, Philologos makes an interesting connection between the early use of the phrase in Kohelet 4:6 and the Yiddish expression "shep nachas". He writes (I've added the Hebrew text in brackets):

Where does the expression shepn nakhes actually come from? As often turns out to be the case with Yiddish expressions, the answer probably lies in the Bible. Yiddish nakhes comes from Hebrew nahat [נחת], “tranquility” or “contentment,” words with only a few biblical occurrences. One of these is in the verse in Ecclesiastes, Tov m’lo khaf nah.at mim’lo h.ofnayim amal u’re’ut ru’ah. [טוֹב מְלֹא כַף נָחַת מִמְּלֹא חָפְנַיִם עָמָל וּרְעוּת רוּחַ], “Better a handful of tranquility [nah.at] than two hands full of toil and vexation” — or, to paraphrase it in contemporary English, “Better to relax and enjoy life than always to strive and be frustrated.”
The image of a “handful” and “two hands full” on which this verse is based suggests the act of reaching into something — a sack of wheat, a pot of food, a bucket of water or whatever — and scooping up, or trying to scoop up, its contents. It’s wiser, the Bible tells us, to scoop up less and get pleasure from it than to scoop up more and have to struggle to keep it.

The Yiddish shepn, means, and is cognate with, the English "scoop" (note the very similar Dutch scheppen).

Sunday, January 18, 2015

korat ruach and kor ruach

Reader Gershon asked me about the meaning and origin of the phrase korat ruach קורת רוח. I thought this would be one of those easy and shorter posts I told myself I'd start writing when I renewed Balashon. But it turned out there was much more to the phrase than I thought.

The meaning of korat ruach is fairly simple - satisfaction, tranquility, or even bliss. But there's another very similar phrase - kor ruach קור רוח, meaning levelheadedness, and is associated with an unflappable person, who acts with composure in difficult circumstances. Kor means cold and ruach means spirit - so how did essentially identical phrases end up with different meanings?

Let's look at kor ruach first. This origin of this phrase is easier to understand. Someone who doesn't get heated up - a nonchalant person - will be more likely to maintain their composition. While Even Shoshan only provides modern examples of the term (and no origin), the phrase actually appears in Mishlei 17:27

חוֹשֵׂךְ אֲמָרָיו יוֹדֵעַ דָּעַת    וקר- (יְקַר-) רוּחַ אִישׁ תְּבוּנָה

The JPS translation is: "A knowledgeable man is sparing with his words; A man of understanding is reticent." Koren translates the second half as "a man of understanding is slow to anger." The difference between the two is whether they translate according to the kri (יקר - yakar) or ktiv (קר - kar). Yakar - literally "precious" - is something sparingly used, so "reticent" is appropriate. The ktivkar, means "cold", so "cold of spirit" fits "slow to anger". Ben Yehuda, in his entry for kar, mentions the phrase kar ruach, points out that although the phrase originates in this verse, the kri is probably the preferable reading - as it also fits better with the first half of the verse.

Korat ruach is a different story. We find it first in Avot 4:17 (or 4:22 in other editions) in the expression - יפה שעה אחת של קורת רוח בעולם הבא, מכל חיי העולם הזה - "Better one hour of bliss (korat ruach) in the World to Come than the whole life of this world." Rega Shel Ivrit says that it might be influenced in form from the biblical phrase morat ruach מורת רוח - meaning bitterness (of spirit), as found in Bereshit 26:35. There is a phrase similar to korat ruach found in the Yerushalmi (Berachot 7:4) - קרת נפשנו - korat nafshenu (from korat nefesh קורת נפש).

How did these phrases come to mean pleasure or satisfaction? Ben Yehuda in his entry for קרה discusses korat ruach, mentions that there are parallel phrases in Syriac and Arabic, and sends us to his entry for the hitpael form of the root קרר. In that section, we find a number of phrases describing someone who was נתקרר דעתו nitkarer daato - meaning that the heat of their anger had passed, and therefore they were happy again.

So kor ruach describes a person whose passion is cool, and korat ruach describes a state where the anger has cooled. I think we see here a linguistic phenomenon which has its roots in geography. In the Middle East (where Hebrew originated), heat is associated with anger and uncontrolled passion, whereas cold is a more positive state of calm. On the other hand, in the European language of English, cold has the negative connotations of distant and unemotional, but "warm" expresses affection and enthusiasm. I think it's not unlikely that each language gave a positive association with the more rare temperature in their climate, and found the more frequent one to be annoying and negative.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

tachlit and tachlis

Today one of Israel's politicians began his election campaign using the word tachlis תכל'ס. Let's take a look at the history and meaning of the word.

Tachlis (or tachles) תכלס is the Yiddish form of the Hebrew tachlit תכלית. Tachlit comes from the root כלה - "cease" - and in the Bible meant "end" or "limit" (Iyov 26:10, 28:3, Nechemiah 3:21), "completeness" (Tehilim 139:22), and "purpose" (Iyov 11:7). The last meaning became the primary meaning in post-biblical Hebrew, with the additional connotations of "aim" and "intention". However, we do see the meaning of end used in poetry, such as the prayer Adon Olam, where God is described as being בלי תכלית bli tachlit. Clearly that doesn't mean that God is without purpose, but rather He is without an end or a limit. (That phrase is the punchline to one of my favorite Jewish jokes. Q: Who are the three cowboys in Adon Olam? A: Billy Reishit, Billy Tachlit and Kid Ruchee...)

Yiddish took the word tachlit and ended up with a different pronunciation than used in Sephardic and later modern Hebrew. The accent moved from the second to first syllable, and the dagesh-less tav was pronounced as "s" instead of "t". In Yiddish, the word might have still been spelled the same as in Hebrew, but in Modern Hebrew slang it took on its own identity by having a samech replace the final tav.

The meaning also changed. From the sense of "purpose" or "aim" in Hebrew, the Yiddish form tachlis started to mean "the main point" - and then took on the meaning "practical details", "bottom line", or "brass tacks". It even can have a more general sense of "true" or "actually". So you might say in a business meeting, "Let's talk tachlis", or if after trying to figure out what restaurant to go to, you might confess that, "Tachlis, I'm not that hungry." More recently, I've heard it used on it's own, as an expression of agreement (similar to the English "true that" or "right on!").  If one person said at a party, "It's pretty boring here" another might respond, "Tachlis".

While the word is slang in modern Hebrew (and there isn't even full agreement as to whether there's an apostrophe before the samech or not), it is rather ubiquitous in spoken Hebrew. The word tachlit is still used (something multipurpose is רב-תכליתי rav-tachliti), but many Israelis - particularly those who've never heard Hebrew spoken with the Ashkenazic pronunciation  - are actually surprised to hear that tachlis derives from tachlit. Other slang words that have gone through the Hebrew -> Yiddish -> Hebrew conversion, like chevra חבר'ה - "group of friends" and maiseh מ'עישה "story" - would be easier for Israelis to trace back, because the spelling has been more closely maintained.

Did I get to the tachlit of this post? Tachlis, I guess I did.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

mazal tov and besha'a tova

We recently discussed the concept of fate and destiny in our post about bashert - let's take a look at few other phrases that also relate to that topic.

I don’t want to get in to philosophy, but there are debates in Judaism about what controls our future. There are many factors: our decisions and actions, external elements (the stars, environment, heredity), random chance, and God – either due to His will or in response to our deeds.

Mazal מזל originally referred to stars and their positions - i.e. astrology. The Zodiac constellations are called mazalot מזלות in Melachim II 23:5 (we discussed how mazal is possibly related to mezuza מזוזה here.) There are debates in the Talmud (see Shabbat 156a and Moed Katan 28a) and with later theologians and philosophers about the influence of the stars. Even the Rambam, who opposed astrology, believed that the stars influenced our world greatly – he just didn't think they controlled people.

Within these debates you find a mix of reference to and reliance on Jewish sources, concerns about idol worship and the influence of other religions, the philosophy and science of the times, as well as folklore and superstition that may have been supported by the masses even if some rabbis opposed. We can’t aim to say what the Jewish position on mazal is – it’s certainly beyond the scope of this blog, but it’s not honestly possible in general.

Mazal progressed from the original meaning of constellations, to a more general sense of an appropriate time (the stars were “in position” at certain days and times), and occasionally to external factors in general - fortune or luck. (See the Tiferet Yisrael commentary to Mishna Kiddushin 4:10 for a further discussion of this expansion of meaning).

Therefore, mazal tov מזל טוב originally had the literal meaning of a “good star/constellation” or what we might better understand as an “auspicious omen”. (The phrase itself first appears in Rashi's commentary on Bereshit 30:11, as well as in a number of locations in his commentary on the Talmud.) A modern equivalent would be to say that someone was “born under a good sign”.

It progressed from there to a wish – your event (birth, marriage, etc) should be at this good time. This phrase was often written on ketubot, wedding rings and other ritual objects. Regarding ketubot, Joseph Gutmann writes in The Jewish Life Cycle:

Sefardim preferred to place the words siman tov (good omen) top of the text, while Ashkenazim used mazzal tov (good constellation).

At this point it was equivalent to its literal translation in English – “good luck”. We also find a fuller version of this wish סימן טוב ומזל טוב יהא לנו ולכל ישראל אמן - siman tov u'mazal tov yihe lanu u'lkol yisrael amen - "siman tov and mazal tov should be for us and all of Israel, amen" - in the Kiddush Levana prayer (although in the earlier source, Masechet Sofrim, there is no mention of mazal tov). Since the prayer is about the moon, perhaps some of the astrological significance of mazal tov is implied.

During the Middle Ages, we see that in many cases there was still a strong astrological association with saying (or writing mazal tov). Sefer Hasidim writes (see this interesting article by Yaakov Etzion about mazal in general) that when a woman is about to give birth, we should pray that the child be born b'mazal tov (at the auspicious time). And there are sources that say that Jews would marry under the sign of Jupiter, the star also known as "mazal tob". But as I mentioned in the beginning of this post, there were competing ideas in Judaism - those that deferred or rejected astrology and following the Talmudic claim - אין מזל לישראל ein mazal l'yisrael - "the Jews are not subject to the stars", claimed that our prayers or meritorious actions would determine our fate. So perhaps they were the ones wishing mazal tov after a birth or a wedding, regardless of the position of the stars at the time of the event, as a prayer that the true fate was yet to be determined, and it should be good. 

And because it became associated with happy events like marriages and britot, it eventually transformed into a general phrase of congratulations. So you could say to someone mazal tov on something that had occurred entirely in the past. If someone won a contest – you could say to them “mazal tov”, even though there was no wish for the future. On the other hand, to say to someone who is about to take a difficult test or have a job interview “mazal tov” would be considered strange (even though you would say to them “good luck” in English.) Regarding the difference between the senses of "good luck" and "congratulations", Leo Rosten in The New Joys of Yiddish writes that "the distinction is as important is it is subtle." Both the Hebrew and English Wikipedia entries for "mazel tov / מזל טוב" claim that the phrase as "congratulations" originated in Yiddish and from there entered both English (with an early first use in 1862) and Modern Hebrew.

In the Sephardic tradition, siman tov was said for boys and mazal tov was said for girls. The Ben Ish Chai writes in his book Malach HaBrit, page 41, (and a disclaimer – I don’t identify with these sentiments), that the main hope after a girl’s birth is for her wedding, so the wish for mazal tov (said) at her wedding is mentioned then, whereas the boy's birth was already viewed as a good omen (siman tov).

So as people came to believe in astrology less and less, the meaning of mazal tov retained less and less of its original meaning (and the word mazal itself has transformed from the heavy "fate" to a more abstract, or even random, "luck"). Today even those who fully oppose astrology on religious grounds will have no qualms about saying mazal tov to someone on a happy occasion.

Since mazal tov was said at weddings (usually after the breaking of the glass), today it’s not uncommon that if someone breaks a glass or dish, people will say “mazel tov” – which works well for breaking the tension. And for some reason, Israelis are more likely to wish (at least on Facebook) mazal tov for someone's birthday than the Hebrew translation of "happy birthday" - יום הולדת שמח yom huledet sameach. We don't usually wish someone "congratulations" on a birthday, but perhaps the general association with happy occasions is retained here.


After mazal tov made the transformation from wish to congratulations, a linguistic vacuum was created. That gap was eventually filled by the phrase “be’shaa tova” בשעה טובה, which really has the same meaning as mazal tov (literally "at a good hour"), and is used for something up and coming (like a pregnancy or engagement), but doesn't have the “evil eye” aspect of congratulating on something that’s already happened (which isn't an issue after a birth or marriage). It sometimes appear in a longer form - בשעה טובה ומוצלחת - be'shaa tova u'mutzlachat. While the phrase be'shaa tova does appear in Medieval sources, the earliest uses I could find in the sense we've been discussing - an upcoming event - appear in the 20th century.

This site mentions parallel phrases in Yiddish and Ladino, and says the ultimate origin is the French phrase a la bonne heure - "a good hour".While this is a literal translation, it doesn't carry any astrological connotations or even relating to "fate" in general. It's more of a general wish that something occur at an appropriate or opportune time. Many languages have variants on this phrase - English has "at the right time" and Hebrew has בעתו be'ito. I'm not convinced that this is the origin of besha'a tova, although since it is often used today specifically about pregnancies, the wish that the birth be at an opportune time does make sense.

So to sum up - for an event that's already occurred, like a birth or a marriage, say mazal tov. If it hasn't happened yet - like to a pregnant woman - then b'shaa tovah. But one piece of advice - if you're not 100% sure - then even be'shaa tova can be a mistake...

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

bashert

Today I was asked about the word beshert (often spelled bashert). Let's take a look.

This Yiddish word entered the Oxford English Dictionary as both an adjective - "predestined, ideal", and as a noun - "soulmate". The sense of soulmate shows the association with a marriage partner - a "match made in heaven", but in Yiddish the sense was more general and referred to "fate" or "destiny" in a wider sense. An interesting explanation of the more recent prominence of the term (and concept of soulmate as a whole) can be found in this article:

The term beshert found deeper resonance after the 18th century, when romantic love and compatibility began to replace marriages arranged on the basis of money and social standing.  
So if the parents or matchmakers weren't setting up the marriage - then perhaps it became more clear that God was.

What is the origin of the word? There are two primary theories. One says it comes from the German bescheren - "to give, to bestow - usually as a gift" (which has the third-person singular simple present beschert, past tense bescherte, past participle beschert). This root is cognate with the English word "share".

The other theory is that it derives from the German bescheren - "cut, clip", cognate with the English "shear" (which ultimately has the same common ancestor as "share"), and related to upsherin - the Hasidic practice of cutting a boys hair at three years of age. (The claim that it is related to the Hebrew באשר ba-asher - "in that" is a folk etymology.)

Those who accept the first etymology explain that the destiny described is allotted (given) by the providence of God. Some add that

 "Beschert" is often used to mean Christmas and New Year presents, which according to folklore are divine gifts, hence the connection to beshert.

On the other hand, in Fields of Offerings: Studies in Honor of Raphael Patai, Robert Gordis thinks that the origin from the sense of "shear" is more likely. He quotes Isaiah 38:12 and Job 7:6 as using the theme of "the thread of life", and from Greek mythology through Milton and Shakespeare we find examples of fate cutting that thread. Gordis writes, "that it is within this conceptual framework that the etymology of bashert is to be sought."

He brings both theories and then writes:

In favor of relating the Yiddish bashert to "shear, cut off," rather than to "share," are several considerations.
(1) The meaning "share" does not occur in Yiddish, while the verb sheren, "cut, clip," does.
(2) The Modern German root bescheren is used in a favorable sense, "give as a share or present." On the other hand, the Yiddish bashert generally carries a negative connotation, "predestined to trouble, disaster or sorrow."
(3) The theme of "determine, decide," as these very words indicate ("determine," make an end, de-cido, Latin "cut off") is generally expressed by the idea of cutting off. Hebrew offers a wealth of examples in every period of the language. For biblical Hebrew, we may note haratz, gazar, hatakh. The two latter roots continued to be used in rabbinic Hebrew. Most common of all is the root pasaq, "cut," from which is derived the basic term p'saq, "decision," frequent in rabbinic Hebrew and Yiddish (p'saq din).
(4) The ubiquity of the figure of the shears of fate supports the view that the Yiddish locution means "determined, predestined, foreordained."

But if the idea of bashert as a bad thing is confusing, he adds the following clever, if cynical, footnote:

The negative connotation is not absolute. The substantive basherte is used of one's (predestined) bride. I hesitate to suggest that this use carries an ironic nuance.

I have a feeling that the romantics will probably prefer the alternate etymology.

Monday, January 12, 2015

fanfare and parpar

I would never have guessed that the word "fanfare" might have Semitic origins, but the Online Etymology Dictionary has this entry:


c.1600, "a flourish sounded on a trumpet or bugle," from French fanfare "a sounding of trumpets" (16c.), from fanfarer "blow a fanfare" (16c.), perhaps echoic, or perhaps borrowed (with Spanish fanfarron "braggart," and Italian fanfano "babbler") from Arabic farfar "chatterer," of imitative origin.

Now while the source might be from Arabic, if farfar is only of "imitative origin" (i.e. that's what chatter sounds like), there's not much more of a story to tell. But as with much of what we discuss here, there's more than one opinion.

Prof. Reuben Ahroni, in his book The Jews of the British Crown Colony of Aden: History, Culture, and Ethnic Relations, includes a glossary of Arabic words and writes the following regarding farfar:

farfar, mifarfar, to crush into small pieces (probably derived from Heb. porer, to crumble, shatter, smash)

And then with a footnote, includes this addition:

Ar. farfara "to flutter (of a bird)"


So now we have a Hebrew connection. Klein provides three related roots for פרר:


  • to crush, crumble, break into crumbs
  • to break, violate, annul, frustrate (this is the source of הפרה hafara - "violation")
  • to shake, shatter

And he also mentions two forms of the pilpel form of the root, פרפר

  • to break, crumble, crush
  • to shake, shatter

And from this sense, Klein derives the modern Hebrew word for butterfly - parpar פרפר (flutter is related to shake). Klein doesn't say who coined parpar, but other linguists point to Eliezer Ben Yehuda. For example, this article by Shoshana Kordova:

This is another one of the slew of words the Ben-Yehuda family coined in the early 20th century.
At the time, Hebrew writers used the word "tziporet" (from the word for bird) or "tziporet kramim" (tzi-po-RET kra-MIM, meaning vineyard bird) [ציפורת כרמים] for butterfly. Tziporet appears in the Mishna, but there it means generic "flying insect" -- most likely the original reference was to the locust. But since Hebrew had other words for locust ("arbeh"[ארבה]), and none for butterfly, it was appropriated for that use.
...
They [Eliezer and his son Itamar] chose the word based on this verb [pirper פרפר - to flutter] -- and on the name of a Biblical river: “Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?” (2 Kings 5:12)
It had the additional appeal of sounding (a little…) like the French word for butterfly, papillon.
The word parpar itself first appears in a poem written by Ben-Yehuda the younger in 1910 titled “Parpar.”  

A commenter on this page says that the French papillon is less likely the inspiration, and suggests the Italian *farfare. I did not find that word in Italian (at least not meaning "butterfly"), but there does exist the similar farfalla, and there certainly are precedents of Ben Yehuda using Italian as an inspiration for new Hebrew words (there are those that make the claim that his glida גלידה for "ice cream" was influenced by the Italian gelato). So while the origin might be Hebrew, the similarity to French or Italian could have played a role.

And one last note. While there is an Italian butterfly shaped pasta - farfalle - Gil Marks points out that is not the origin of the egg noodle "farfel". That comes from the German word for noodles, varvelen.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

alcatraz, albatross and kad

The Online Etymology Dictionary gives the following etymology for albatross:

1670s, probably from Spanish or Portuguese alcatraz "pelican" (16c.), perhaps derived from Arabic al-ghattas "sea eagle" [Barnhart]; or from Portuguese alcatruz "the bucket of a water wheel" [OED], from Arabic al-qadus "machine for drawing water, jar" (from Greek kados "jar"), in reference to the pelican's pouch (compare Arabic saqqa "pelican," literally "water carrier"). Either way, the spelling was influenced by Latin albus "white." The name was extended, through some mistake, by English sailors to a larger sea-bird (order Tubinares).
Albatrosses were considered good luck by sailors; figurative sense of "burden" (1936) is from Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1798) about the bad luck of a sailor who shoots an albatross and then is forced to wear its corpse as an indication that he, not the whole ship, offended against the bird. The prison-island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay is named for pelicans that roosted there.

The connection to the Arabic and Greek words for "jar" is interesting. We're familiar with the Hebrew word kad כד - also meaning jar, going all the way back to Bereshit 24:46, in the story of Rivka and the well. Is there a connection - and which came first?

Klein, in his entry for kad (jug, pitcher) says that the Greek kados (and following that, the Latin cadus - "jar") derive from the Hebrew. Other sources seem to agree, and while stating that it's hard to trace the roots of such old words, the likelihood of Greek borrowing from a Semitic root is higher than the other way around.

So we see here a Hebrew (or other Semitic word) being borrowed into Greek (and later Latin), and from there to Arabic, from there to Spanish and Portuguese, ending up in English. And if we want to go one step further - the modern Hebrew word for albatross - אלבטרוס - is borrowed from the English. Quite the journey.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

cholent

A number of years ago, when discussing the origin of the word daven, I said that in the future I would explain the origin of another early Yiddish word - cholent. Well, the future is now.

In the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Gil Marks provides the following background for "cholent":

Cholent is a slow-simmered stew, often based on beans, that is served hot for Sabbath lunch.
Origin: France
Other names: Alsace and southern Germany: schalent; Austria: scholet; Hungary: sholet, solet; Lithuania: chulent; Poland: cholent; tshholnt
Sometime after the First Crusade, around the late twelfth or early thirteenth century, the Sephardic Sabbath stew, hamin/adafina, probably traveling by the way of Provence, eventually reached the Jews of France to become an indelible part of their Sabbath... From France, the stew moved eastward to southern Germany and later to eastern Europe. Among the French Ashkenazim, the stew received a news name, spelled schalet in Western Yiddish and tsholnt in Eastern Yiddish, probably from the Old French for warm, chald/chalt (chaud in modern French) or some contend, from chald-de-lit (warmth of the bed), Alternatively, some insist that the dish flowed to France directly from Spain, the name emerging from the Spanish escallento (warm).

In Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food (page 106), John Cooper quotes Max Grunbaum as saying it could also derive from the Spanish escalentar, "kept warm". Both the French and the Spanish derive from the Latin calentem - "that which is warm". This in turn comes from the Latin calere - "be hot". You can probably already guess that calere is the origin of word calorie (used to measure heat). Other heat related words sharing the same root include scald, cauldron, chowder (named for the pot it was cooked in), and my favorite: nonchalant - literally someone who doesn't get heated up.

Marks dismisses the folk etymology of cholent deriving from "shul ende", reflecting the time of day when the dish was eaten, because the name emerged in France before the development of Old Yiddish.

The Wikipedia article for cholent offers a few more folk etymologies:

One widely quoted folk etymology, relying on the French pronunciation of cholent or the Central and Western European variants shalent or shalet, derives the word from French chaud ("hot") and lent ("slow"). Another folk etymology derives cholent (or sholen) from the Hebrew she’lan, which means "that rested [overnight]". This refers to the old time cooking process of Jewish families placing their individual pots of cholent into the town baker's ovens that always stayed hot and slow-cooked the food overnight. Yet another etymology is Old French chaudes lentes hot lentils.


A similar dish to Ashkenazi cholent is shkanah - which Marks defines as "a dish of baked beans cooked overnight for Sabbath lunch." He writes that it originated in Spain, and the Jews expelled from there brought it with them to the Netherlands. In an interesting twist, he points out that the Pilgrims spent time in the Netherlands after they left England but before going to America. These Puritans tried to take the bible much more literally than other Christians at the time, and so they were eager to adopt this Sephardic dish, allowing them also to eat hot food on the Sabbath. This dish, when they came to America, became known as Boston baked beans (the British had no previous tradition of baking beans). And from there came Boston's nickname - Beantown.

I imagine many of my readers today would like an nice warm dish, and where I am the forecast for Shabbat is particularly cold. So enjoy your cholent!

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

lion

The English word "lion" may have Semitic origins. Klein, in his Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, writes that lion comes from the Latin leo and Greek "leon" which

is of uncertain, possibly Semitic, origin; cp. Heb. labhi, Akkad. labbu 'lion'

And in his Comprehensive Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, under lavi לביא (a term for an older lion), he says that it is also related to the Ugaritic lbu and Arabic labu'ah - all meaning "lion".

However, Hebrew has more than one word for lion. Let's look at them.

Perhaps the most familiar term (in Modern Hebrew at least) is ari ארי or aryeh אריה. Klein writes that ari is related to Ethiopian 'arwe (=wild beast), Akkadian aru (= eagle) and Arabic 'arwa ( = ibexes). A post on the forum here quotes the HALOT entry for ari, mentions some additional Semitic language with other cognates and animal terms, and writes that the word originally meant "wild animal."

Klein also writes that the word ariel אריאל, which he defines as "hero" and appears only once in the Bible (Shmuel II 23:20), literally means "lion of God" (as does אראל erel - a term for an angel).

Aryeh, Ari and Ariel are all common Hebrew names. The phenomenon of naming people after lions is very widespread as we'll continue to see. The German word for lion, löwe, is cognate with the English, and led to the Yiddish loeb or leib. In Yaakov's blessing to his son Yehuda, he compares him to a lion (Bereshit 49:9). So the names Yehuda, Aryeh and Leib became somewhat interchangeable. In fact, I've seen my great-great-grandfather on gravestones (of his children) mentioned as Yosef Yehuda, Yosef Aryeh and Yosef Leib.

Other biblical names for lions are kfir כפיר and shachal שחל, which along with lavi, are popular Israeli first and last names. Perhaps they gained popularity because aryeh was viewed as old fashioned. Klein writes that kfir - a young lion - might derive from the root כפר, to cover (see this post), and is "properly denoting a lion already covered with a mane".

Two other Hebrew terms for lion are layish ליש and shachatz שחץ, but I have not seen them used for names. (For more discussion of lions in the Bible and in Judaism, see this Encyclopedia Judaica article).

Arabic uses lion terms for names as frequently as Hebrew does. This article discusses the practice, and we'll look at a few examples that have Hebrew cognates.

assad - The Assad family from Syria get their names from the Arabic word for lion, and Hafez al-Assad was known as the "Lion of Syria". (His first name, hafez means "guard or protect" - cognate with the Hebrew חפץ. I recall that in about 1999 a clever Israeli columnist pointed out that the then Director General of the President's Residence, Arie Shumer אריה שומר had a Hebrew name that matched up exactly with the then president of Syria). The Arabic assad is cognate with the Hebrew אשד - a root meaning "to pour" and the source of the words eshed אשד - waterfall and asheda אשדה - slope and waterfall. Klein says the connection to the Arabic word for lion is due to the original meaning of the root being "he rushed, plunged" which became "he pursued" - reflecting the actions of lions

osama - The article gives the following explanation as to the origin of osama:

Meanwhile, the root of Osama/Usama is wasama, which is to brand or stamp (eg, cattle). By extension, wisaam is a mark of distinction or honor and wasaama is grace or beauty—both things that lions have, even if the late Mr bin Laden was sorely lacking in either.

We looked at the same root in our discussion of the etymology of the word monsoon, where we saw that wasama is cognate with the Hebrew shem שם - "name".

abbas - this name for a lion comes from an Arabic root meaning "strict or stern". The Arabic word abasa means "he frowned" (see more discussion here). In A Comparative Lexical Study of Qurʼānic Arabic, Martin Zammit provides us a Hebrew cognate:

Arab 'abasa - 74:22 "Then he frowned and he scowled!": Heb. 'abas: The primary sense is connected with 'contracting' and 'shriveling', with Arab. restricting the usage to the human face and Heb. applying the root to grains.
He is referring to the Hebrew root עבש - to shrivel, to grow moldy. This is used in Modern Hebrew in the word עובש ovesh - "mold".

So admiring lions seems to be one thing Arabs and Jews can agree on. Sadly, the Asiatic lion, formerly found in this region, went extinct at the time of the Crusades.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

al panav and al hapanim

Here are two Hebrew expressions that sound very similar, but have very different meanings.

"Al Panav" על פניו  - literally means "on it's face", and can be translated as "apparently".

"Al Hapanim" על הפנים -  literally means "on the face" and is a slang term meaning "the [situation/thing] is terrible."

The origin of al panav is easier to determine. It comes from the English "on the face of it", which likely originates in the Latin prima facie (at first face). It's not an ideal Hebrew phrase, as there is an existing word in Hebrew with the same meaning - לכאורה lichora. However, as this site points out, if you really want a similar sounding phrase, then al pnei hadevarim על פני הדברים is closer to being correct.

Al hapanim is a harder one to crack. According to the same article I quoted above, it doesn't appear in the older slang dictionaries. All I've seen so far are speculations, but they all seem reasonable.

In Rosenthal's Dictionary of Hebrew Slang, he suggests it comes from the English "to fall flat on your face" (an expression which fully translated into Hebrew made it into Yehudit Ravitz's 2000 song געגוע - which contains the lyrics איך לא ידעתי לא ליפול על הפנים).

Nissan Netzer in his Hebrew in Jeans - the Image of Hebrew Slang, says the origin might be from Yiddish, which also have expressions meaning "to fall on the face".

This article (not sure who the author is) has a few more suggestions. They quote another Yiddish phrase meaning "his face fell", which is similar to the biblical נפלו פניו naflu panav (see Bereshit 4:6). They also mention that Yiddish, Russian and English all have phrases meaning "a slap in the face" - so perhaps one of them influenced the Hebrew.

Monday, January 05, 2015

kasha, kishke and kutach

In my last post on Balashon a few years ago, I noted that I was more or less suspending my writing here due to another project I've been working on. Well, the project is still going on, but I think I'd like to return to updating this site as well.

When I originally started Balashon, I would write short pieces, almost daily. But as time went on, my library - both physical and virtual - got much bigger, and I often felt that if I didn't come up with some original insight in my research, it wasn't worth posting anything. While that might have led to some posts I'm rather proud of, it became fairly intimidating to start anything new, particularly if I didn't have the time required to work on something so big.


So now, I think I'd like to return to my original format. I'll try to write frequently, and often I'll just quote one or two sources. I'll be much more willing to return to a topic later if I don't have everything in front of me when I'm writing. So Balashon will be less comprehensive, but hopefully still accurate and interesting. We'll see how it goes.


For today's post, I'd like to quote from a fascinating book -the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks. Gil was a brilliant food writer, who sadly passed away last month. His book is full of interesting information about the history of food - as well as great recipes - and I hope to refer to it frequently in the future. May his memory be a blessing.


In an earlier post, I wrote extensively about the etymologies of both the English word "buckwheat" and the Hebrew kusemet. Many of us know the term for cooked buckwheat by the Slavic or Yiddish form of "kasha". Here's a part of the entry for "kasha" in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food:


Cooked cereals subsumed under the term kasha were once served at all Slavic feasts and important occasions ... By the second century CE, a standard Persian dish was kashk (kutach in the Talmud and later kishk in Arabic), originally denoting a porridge made from cracked grains fermented with whey, then dried. Later, some Middle Easterners began using keshek or kishk to denote any type of cooked cereal. The Persian name eventually travelled to eastern Europe, becoming the Slavic kasha and encompassing all grain porridges - fine and coarse, thick and thin, sweet and savory. Incidentally, when leftover kashk was stuffed into animal intestines, the dish became kishke (stuffed derma). .... The Slavic word for buckwheat became grechka or grecha ... Consequently, buckwheat porridge is grechnevaya kasha.... Among eastern Ashkenazim, who were not prone to making hot cooked cereals, kashe or kasha in Yiddish took on the meaning of "husked and toasted buckwheat groats."
For those who can't imagine kasha without noodles - kasha varniskhes - Marks provides a brief origin of that term as well. He begins by describing a Russian and Ukrainian dish from the 16th century of meat or cheese filled pasta. 
Ukrainians took to calling these filled pasta vareniki (little boiled things), from the Slavic var meaning "to boil" ... Pasta stuffed with this [buckwheat] filling was known as kasha vareniki. Eventually, cooks figured out that it was easier to simply mix the kasha with some cooked noodles than to go through the tedious process of filling the pasta; the resulting dish was called kasha varnishkes.
As I've written frequently in the past, food etymologies are among my favorites. Culinary terms are easily borrowed between cultures and lead to stories that are both fascinating and relatively easy to trace. I had read the word kutach כותח many times in the Talmud but would never have guessed it was related to kasha or kishke.


In his entry for kashk/kutach (now that is a comprehensive dictionary!), Marks defines it as "dried balls of fermented cracked wheat or barley and yogurt whey that are usually simmered with water into a thick soup", and points out that "Kutach ha'Bavli is among the most commonly mentioned foods in the Talmud", and the fact that the "citation of kutach in the Mishnah, at least four centuries before the earliest record of kashk in a non-Jewish source, reveals that it was well established by 200 CE."

While kutach was loved by the Jews in Central Asia, Marks writes that it "merited extreme scorn among the residents of Israel." I've personally never tried it - but it does sound interesting. Kasha, on the other hand, is one of my family's favorite comfort foods.
 

kasha, kishke and kutach

In my last post on Balashon a few years ago, I noted that I was more or less suspending my writing here due to another project I've been working on. Well, the project is still going on, but I think I'd like to return to updating this site as well.

When I originally started Balashon, I would write short pieces, almost daily. But as time went on, my library - both physical and virtual - got much bigger, and I often felt that if I didn't come up with some original insight in my research, it wasn't worth posting anything. While that might have led to some posts I'm rather proud of, it became fairly intimidating to start anything new, particularly if I didn't have the time required to work on something so big.


So now, I think I'd like to return to my original format. I'll try to write frequently, and often I'll just quote one or two sources. I'll be much more willing to return to a topic later if I don't have everything in front of me when I'm writing. So Balashon will be less comprehensive, but hopefully still accurate and interesting. We'll see how it goes.


For today's post, I'd like to quote from a fascinating book -the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks. Gil was a brilliant food writer, who sadly passed away last month. His book is full of interesting information about the history of food - as well as great recipes - and I hope to refer to it frequently in the future. May his memory be a blessing.


In an earlier post, I wrote extensively about the etymologies of both the English word "buckwheat" and the Hebrew kusemet. Many of us know the term for cooked buckwheat by the Slavic or Yiddish form of "kasha". Here's a part of the entry for "kasha" in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food:


Cooked cereals subsumed under the term kasha were once served at all Slavic feasts and important occasions ... By the second century CE, a standard Persian dish was kashk (kutach in the Talmud and later kishk in Arabic), originally denoting a porridge made from cracked grains fermented with whey, then dried. Later, some Middle Easterners began using keshek or kishk to denote any type of cooked cereal. The Persian name eventually travelled to eastern Europe, becoming the Slavic kasha and encompassing all grain porridges - fine and coarse, thick and thin, sweet and savory. Incidentally, when leftover kashk was stuffed into animal intestines, the dish became kishke (stuffed derma). .... The Slavic word for buckwheat became grechka or grecha ... Consequently, buckwheat porridge is grechnevaya kasha.... Among eastern Ashkenazim, who were not prone to making hot cooked cereals, kashe or kasha in Yiddish took on the meaning of "husked and toasted buckwheat groats."
For those who can't imagine kasha without noodles - kasha varniskhes - Marks provides a brief origin of that term as well. He begins by describing a Russian and Ukrainian dish from the 16th century of meat or cheese filled pasta. 
Ukrainians took to calling these filled pasta vareniki (little boiled things), from the Slavic var meaning "to boil" ... Pasta stuffed with this [buckwheat] filling was known as kasha vareniki. Eventually, cooks figured out that it was easier to simply mix the kasha with some cooked noodles than to go through the tedious process of filling the pasta; the resulting dish was called kasha varnishkes.
As I've written frequently in the past, food etymologies are among my favorites. Culinary terms are easily borrowed between cultures and lead to stories that are both fascinating and relatively easy to trace. I had read the word kutach כותח many times in the Talmud but would never have guessed it was related to kasha or kishke.


In his entry for kashk/kutach (now that is a comprehensive dictionary!), Marks defines it as "dried balls of fermented cracked wheat or barley and yogurt whey that are usually simmered with water into a thick soup", and points out that "Kutach ha'Bavli is among the most commonly mentioned foods in the Talmud", and the fact that the "citation of kutach in the Mishnah, at least four centuries before the earliest record of kashk in a non-Jewish source, reveals that it was well established by 200 CE."

While kutach was loved by the Jews in Central Asia, Marks writes that it "merited extreme scorn among the residents of Israel." I've personally never tried it - but it does sound interesting. Kasha, on the other hand, is one of my family's favorite comfort foods.