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!