Tuesday, May 03, 2016


The Hebrew root עבר is extremely common, and in general means "to pass" or "to pass over". (Despite the similarity to the English word  "over", there is no etymological connection). There are a number of related terms that derive from this meaning:

  • עבר can also mean to impregnate (from the sense of "to pass the seed"). From here we get the word עובר ubar - "fetus" and a leap year is known as a שנה מעוברת - shana meuberet.
  • עברה evra means "anger", and Klein says it's related to עבר in the sense of "carried away by anger". He also provides two alternative etymologies- from  Arabic gharb (passion, violence) or Arabic ghabira (=he bore ill will).
  • עברי Ivri  and עברית Ivrit mean "Hebrew". While there are many theories as to the etymology of Ivri (and because it's a proper noun it's more difficult to track), one of them derives it from the related ever עבר - "side", and therefore literally means "one from beyond (the Euphrates)". Perhaps I'll do a more extensive post on this some day.
The root can have a positive connotation, such as over mivchan עובר מבחן - "pass a test". But today I want to focus on the negative sense - "to transgress". It appears 18 times in the Tanach (a small fraction of the over 500 appearances of the verb alone), and generally refers to a transgression against God. Even-Shoshan in his concordance says it is related to the meaning "pass" in the sense of "avoid, evade", and frequently means "did not fulfill or keep" (the covenant or God's command). The BDB has the passing in a different direction, and says it meant "overstep". This would give a similar sense to the English word "trespass", and in fact the word "transgression" itself has a similar etymology:

late 14c., from Old French transgression "transgression," particularly that relating to Adam and the Fall (12c.), from Late Latin transgressionem (nominative transgressio) "a transgression of the law," in classical Latin, "a going over, a going across," noun of action from transgressus, past participle of transgredi "step across, step over; climb over, pass, go beyond," from trans- "across" + gradi (past participle gressus) "to walk, go"

In Biblical Hebrew, we don't find this root in a noun form. There are other words for sin, such as chet חטא, pesha פשע and avon עון. However, in Talmudic Hebrew, we are introduced to a new noun - aveira עבירה. Avera can also mean "sin", but has a more general sense of "transgression or offence" as in averot between a person and his fellow עבירות בין אדם לחברו. In modern Hebrew it can mean "crime or violation", as in a traffic violation עבירת תנועה - aveirat tenua.

I recently read a fascinating book by Ruth Gruber - Ahead of Time, My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent. Ruth, the Jewish daughter of European immigrants in New York, describes her travels to Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. These were captivating accounts, but one particular passage in her home in Brooklyn in the 1930s caught my eye. She describes the loft, over the garage, that her father suggested she move in to. It had been previously occupied by her brother Harry (a  doctor). She writes:

You entered the loft by climbing a ladder inside the garage and pushing up a latch-door. Once hay had been hoisted up through the big front hatchway for the horses quartered below. Harry had turned part of the loft into his operating lab, the rest was the avayra room

When I first read this, I stopped midsentence (as I'm quoting it to you here). What exactly took place in an "avayra room"? What sins? What crimes?

But then she continues:

for things that were an avayra, a shame to throw out—family portraits, diplomas, clothes to be sent to the relatives in Europe.

After taking a breath of relief, I suddenly realized that I knew this particular sense of aveira already. My great-aunt Mollie, who was born just a few years before Ruth (also to European immigrants, but to Boston instead of New York), used to talk about "aveira fat". This meant the fat you gained by eating things that were a shame (an aveira) to throw out. I'm certainly familiar with this type of weight gain, but I always thought that was a strange turn of phrase (particularly considering that I rarely heard Mollie use any Hebrew or Yiddish words). But now it seems that this was a particular sense of the word aveira, perhaps even specifically used by immigrants to the United States. I'm going to continue using the phrase "aveira fat". It would be a shame to let it go to waste!

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