Sunday, November 10, 2019

tzion

I'd like to discuss the etymology of Tziyon ציון (Zion in English). But before I get to that, I have to answer a more basic question. What is Tzion?

In the Bible, the name first refers to the fortress of Jerusalem, conquered by King David, as in this verse:

וַיִּלְכֹּד דָּוִד אֵת מְצֻדַת צִיּוֹן הִיא עִיר דָּוִד׃
But David captured the stronghold of Tzion; it is now the City of David. (Shmuel II 5:7)

It has that limited sense in three other verses. However, in the other 150 occurrences in the Bible, it refers to either all of Jerusalem or the entire Land of Israel.

Its meaning was always more poetic or symbolic than a specific place name. I think, perhaps, it could be considered more of a concept than a location.  I particularly identify with Ruvik Rosenthal's description in his (Hebrew) book, Old Language, New Language: The Biblical Foundations of Modern Hebrew, where he writes (page 283) that Tzion "is a dream that desires to become reality." This is the sense found in the famous verses in Tehilim that describe the songs of Tzion (137:3) and the future return to Tzion (126:1).

The longing for this idealized Tzion was captured beautifully in Hebrew poetry of the Middle Ages, particularly by Ibn Gabriol and Yehuda HaLevi, in their poems known as Zionides (tzionim ציונים).

Their desire for Tzion likely inspired the groups in 19th century Europe, such as Hovevei Tzion (lovers of Tzion) who promoted immigration to the Land of Israel. Later they coalesced into a political movement, known as Zionism (tzionut ציונות). That term was coined by Nathan Birnbaum in 1890. And of course, the Zionist movement eventually led to the founding of the State of Israel.

Considering the centrality of Tzion in Jewish thought and prayer, it is surprising that the etymology is so unclear. Klein offers the following:

Of uncertain etymology. Some scholars derive it from צוה in the sense ‘to erect’ (cp. צִיּוּן). Others connect it with base צין, appearing in Arab. ṣāna (= he protected), so that צִיּוֹן would lit. mean ‘fortress, citadel’. Scholars, with reference to Syr. צֶהְיוּן (= Heb. צִיּוֹן), derive these words from base צהה or ציה; according to them the orig. meaning of צִיוֹן would be ‘bare hill’. Other scholars regard Syr. צֶהְיוּן as the older form.
His first theory connects tzion with the Hebrew word tziyun ציון - "monument, landmark." Tziyun has a verb form - צין - "to make a note, make a mark", from which we get the word metzuyan מצוין - "distinguished, excellent" (the positive connotation here apparently inherited from Yiddish and German.) Klein's connection of this root to צוה - "to command, to order", would make Tzion cognate with mitzva מצוה - "commandment."

I'm not aware of any other Hebrew cognates to the Arabic ṣāna, but his third theory, that tzion ultimately derives from the roots ציה or צהה meaning "dry, drought," has two possible outcomes. One is that, as he said, that the original meaning was "bare hill" - and Jerusalem is on the border of the Judean desert, so that name could be fitting. Another possibility (mentioned here) is that tzion was named for the wild cats that were present there - the tziyim ציים, whose name Klein writes elsewhere also derives from ציה meaning "desert, dry." While we don't find wild, desert cats in Jerusalem today, it certainly has plenty of stray cats - so that origin is perhaps still relevant.

It does seem somewhat mundane to end a discussion of such a lofty concept as Tzion by describing wild cats. But this has always been the reality of Jerusalem and Tzion - trying to find a connection between the corporeal and the spiritual...

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