Sunday, June 21, 2020

baba ghanoush

Over the past few months, I've been primarily using questions I received by email as inspiration for my posts here. While the volume of mail I get prevents me from responding to everyone, I do appreciate the messages you send. They often send me on quests that I wouldn't have thought to investigate on my own, so they are a benefit to all of us.

Today I got to the earliest post in my inbox. I'm a little embarrassed to say that it is actually from 2008. Here's the question, from the inimitable Benji Lovitt:

Question:  this one I'm dying to figure out.  Only a few years ago did I realize that "babaganush" was not Hebrew or even an Israeli name.  Americans think it's Israeli, Israelis have no idea what we're talking about.  What in the hell is this word and where did it come from?

Any ideas?  : )


It's important to note that none of the other questions in the queue were anywhere near that old. I think I must have kept it there because I didn't have an answer then that had a connection to Hebrew etymology. 

Well, now I do.

To answer the first question, it's true that baba ghanoush isn't a Hebrew word (or technically a Hebrew phrase). It comes from Arabic, and it refers to an eggplant salad that is similar, but not identical with the common eggplant salad found in Israel. Here's how the baba ghanoush Wikipedia entry describes the two:

Baba ghanoush, also spelled baba ganoush or baba ghanouj,is a Levantine appetizer of mashed cooked eggplant mixed with tahini (made from sesame seeds), olive oil, possibly lemon juice, and various seasonings. [...] The traditional preparation method is for the eggplant to be baked or broiled over an open flame before peeling [...] In Israel, it is also known as salat ḥatzilim. Unlike baba ghanoush [however], it is made with fried or grilled eggplants mixed with mayonnaise, salt, lemon and chopped fried onions.

So Americans - likely ones who've visited Israel - conflate the baba ghanoush they find in their supermarkets with the salat chatzilim סלט חצילים they tasted here. That is the source of the confusion (and the fact that the Israeli brand Sabra calls their eggplant spread in English "babaganoush" doesn't help either.)

Now what about the second question - where does the word come from?

There are a number of theories out there. Most agree that the word baba means "father" and ghanoush means something like "pampered" or "flirtatious." This leads to the following suggested etymologies:

  • This site quotes the Oxford English Dictionary as saying that it was named “perhaps with reference to its supposed invention by a member of a royal harem" - the sultan being the "pampered daddy." Although since we're talking about a harem, it could be referring to a "flirtatious papa" or "father of coquetry" as these sites suggest.
  • The Etymology Nerd gives two possibilities:
    • One is similar to the previous idea, saying that it was "invented by a concubine in one of the historical sultans' harems for her master."
    • Another idea references "the old folk tale about a toothless father who had to be fed premasticated food, something that no doubt looked like eggplant puree." This site has a similar theory, saying the dish was from a loving daughter to her pampered father (although she said the eggplants were mashed, not "premasticated.")
  • The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food says that perhaps the "father" wasn't a person, but the eggplant itself, "which is considered the most important (big daddy) of vegetables."
So now we've discussed the origin of the phrase, but as I mentioned earlier, I waited 12 years until I found a connection to a Hebrew word. The cognate word is oneg עונג - "exquisite delight, pleasure" (as well as the practically synonymous ta'anug תענוג). Klein, discussing the root of oneg, ענג, writes that it is cognate with "Arab. ‘anija (= he was coquettish, was amorous)."  The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament concurs, writing that the cognate Arabic verb means "adorn oneself, flirt" and occasionally also "pamper, be ingratiating." So to be a little closer to that Arabic origin, the spelling baba ghanouj is a little better (and it helps to remember that Arabic has a hard ayin that sounds like a "g", giving us Gaza for עזה Aza. So an accurate Hebrew spelling would be באבא ע'נוג'.)

The association of eggplants with culinary delight began in earnest during the "austerity" period at the founding of the State of Israel. Eggplants became a common meat substitute, and remained very popular even when meat became available again. 

However, some prefer a vegetarian lifestyle for ideological, not economic, reasons. One of those, was Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who served as the chief rabbi of the IDF and later chief rabbi of Israel. In the 1980s, he visited Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi, which is a major processed meat manufacturer and also breeds fish. I spent time on Tirat Tzvi in the early 1990s, and have the book Dmut V'Koma, by resident Efraim Yair, who describes Rabbi Goren's visit:

The truth is, that the Shabbat meal on Tirat Tzvi is quite full, with meat and fish, and other delights [as mentioned in the shabbat song, Mah Yedidut], l'hit'aneg b'ta'anugim, barburim u'slav v'dagimלְהִתְעַנֵּג בְּתַעֲנוּגִים בַּרְבּוּרִים וּשְׂלָו וְדָגִים "to savor the delights of fowl, quail and fish" ... [But in the family of Rabbi Goren] they instead sang l'hitaneg b'ta'anugim, chatzilim v'kishuim להתענג בתענוגים חצילים וקישואים "to savor the delights of eggplant and zucchini"...

So we can see that the connection between ta'anug and baba ghanouj runs deep. 

Hope this answers your question, Benji!

Monday, June 15, 2020


I've written about many of the words for directions in Hebrew, but I realized I never wrote about darom דרום - "south."

Darom appears in the bible 17 times. That's less than its synonyms negev / negba נגב / נגבה, which appear around 50 times and תימן teiman (24 times), but more than ימין yamin, which although appears 139 times, but only 8 of those mean "south" (the rest mean "right").

We discussed yamin / teiman here, and the origin of negev is fairly straightforward. Klein writes that it comes from the root נגב meaning "to be dry", so it literally means "the dry land" (which makes sense looking at the Negev desert in the south of Israel. But regarding darom, Klein says that it is "of uncertain origin." Are there any theories we can discuss?

The one serious suggestion I found for the origin of darom is by Gesenius. He suggests that it comes from a root, דרר, "unused as a verb." This root, as explained in the BDB, means "to stream, flow abundantly." This meaning is found also in the Arabic cognate darra - "it ran swiftly." This gives us the word dror דרור, which has three meanings: "sparrow" (since the bird flies quickly), flowing (found in the phrase מר-דרור - "fine flowing myrrh"), and "freedom, liberty" (which the BDB says is like "free run.")

Another related word is דהר dahar - "to gallop". It originally referred specifically to horses, but is also now used metaphorically to describe anyone hurrying or going fast.

And as I mentioned, it also is suggested as the origin of darom. From "flow" it also is said to have the meaning "to give light, shine", presumably from the way light flows. Dar דר  (Esther 1:6) means "pearl" - a shiny stone. So too darom, according to Gesenius, means "the bright region", which makes sense, since in the Northern Hemisphere the southern exposure gets more sunlight, due to the tilt of the earth's axis

This also fits our explanation of tzafon צפון - "north" as the "hidden or dark region."

The English word "south" has a similar etymology:

Old English suð "southward, to the south, southern, in the south," from Proto-Germanic *sunthaz, perhaps literally "sun-side" (source also of Old Saxon, Old Frisian suth "southward, in the south," Middle Dutch suut, Dutch zuid, German Süden), and related to base of *sunnon "sun" (from PIE root *sawel- "the sun").
I would not be surprised if this was the case in other languages as well, but probably only those in the Northern Hemisphere.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

shechinah and scene

The Hebrew word for the Divine Presence is shechinah שכינה.  It derives from the root שכן, meaning "to dwell, settle down," so the shekinah is literally "the dwelling place (of God)." That same root gives us the words shachen שכן - "neighbor", shechuna שכונה - "neighborhood", mishkan משכן - "tabernacle, sanctuary", and maskhanta משכנתא - "mortgage" (from mishkon משכון - "pledge", since a pledge or deposit was "set down.")

Klein writes that the root is the Shaph'el form of the root כון - "to be, set up, be established." In this post we discussed that earlier root, and we also discussed here a possible connection between שכן and the word sochen סוכן - "steward, agent."

But I realized that there was one additional connection that I did not discuss. Nicholas Oster, in his book Empires of the Word - A Language History of the World (which I've recommended before) quotes the scholar C. F. D. Moule, who writes here that the Greek skēnḗ - "tent" may have been influenced by the Hebrew root שכן meaning "dwelling." 

Now that doesn't mean that this is a direct etymology. The Online Etymology Dictionary provides a different derivation:

related to skia "shadow, shade," via notion of "something that gives shade" 

But that doesn't contradict Moule's theory. He writes of "Greek words whose use, or at least frequency, may have been suggested by a certain (perhaps fortuitous) similarity of sound or spelling to certain Semitic words." That certainly could be the case here, and we've discussed many times how this has worked in the other direction - some modern Hebrew words were adopted because of the similarity of sound to foreign words (even if they have ancient Hebrew roots - take maksim מקסים meaning "great" and influenced by "maximum" as just one example.)

As the same OED entry quoted above mentions, the Greek skene gave us the English word "scene":

"subdivision of an act of a play," also "stage-setting," from Middle French scène (14c.), from Latin scaena, scena "scene, stage of a theater," from Greek skene "wooden stage for actors," also "that which is represented on stage," originally "tent or booth"

Scene has expanded its meaning beyond just the acts of play, and can now mean "a place or representation of an incident" or "a specified area of activity or interest." Those meanings aren't actually so far away from our understanding of shechina...

Sunday, May 24, 2020

shevet and matteh

There are two Hebrew words that are very similar: shevet שבט and matteh  מטה. 

They both have the same two non-synonymous meanings: stick (or staff) and tribe. And they both appear in parallel in Biblical Hebrew. How is that so?

Let's first take a look at the etymologies. The origins of shevet and matteh are actually very different, which contributes to the mystery.

Shevet comes from a root meaning "to strike."  It has cognates in other Semitic languages, including the Akkadian shabatu (= to beat, kill, destroy). That, according to Klein, is the root of the Hebrew month of Shevat - literally the "month of destroying rain."

Matteh comes from the root נטה meaning "to stretch out" or "to bend down." That root also gives us such words as mita מיטה - "bed" and mata מטה - "down" (as we discussed here.) Perhaps this is either how a stick or branch stretches out (or comes down) from a tree, or because a stick or a staff is brought down on the ground when walking or pointing.

As I mentioned, both appear in Biblical Hebrew. While they each appear more frequently in some books than others, they do appear in the same books, and sometimes even in the same verse, such as this one:

וְגַם אֶת־אַחֶיךָ מַטֵּה לֵוִי שֵׁבֶט אָבִיךָ הַקְרֵב אִתָּךְ וְיִלָּווּ עָלֶיךָ וִישָׁרְתוּךָ וְאַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ אִתָּךְ לִפְנֵי אֹהֶל הָעֵדֻת׃

You [Aharon] shall also associate with yourself your kinsmen the tribe [matteh] of Levi, your ancestral [literally father's] tribe [shevet], to be attached to you and to minister to you, while you and your sons under your charge are before the Tent of the Pact. (Bamidbar 18:2)

In his JPS commentary here, Milgrom writes that "synonyms are used to avoid monotonous repetition." But he adds, referring to this more detailed article of his, that matteh is more precise (referring specifically to one of the 12 tribes), whereas shevet can be also a smaller group (like in this verse, Aharon's father's family) or to the entire nation of Israel (like in Tehilim 74:2). 

How did these two words with distinct origins come to mean both stick and tribe? And why did "stick" develop into "tribe" (twice)?

There are a number of theories:

  • Some say that between "stick" and "tribe" the term meant "scepter." (The Hebrew word for scepter - sharvit שרביט - may have derived from shevet  as well.) That symbol of leadership became associated with the leader of the tribe itself, and then to the tribe he led. This intermediate stage is found in Bereshit 49:10, for example. Based on how he presents the order of the definitions of shevet, I think this is Kaddari's approach. Since he presents that development for shevet, and not for matteh, perhaps he holds that matteh was influenced by shevet in that regard. (For more detail about how the meanings of the words developed, see this Hebrew article by Athalya Brenner. She finds the "missing link" of shevet referring to the actual leader, but that link is not found with matteh.)
  • Stahl has a similar approach, and points out that the the shevet as a scepter signified the leader's power to beat and punish, which connects back to the etymology of the root.
  • Ben Yehuda says that shevet (as stick) became "tribe" in the way a branch splits off from the main part of a tree. In the same way multiple tribes would be divisions of a single nation.
  • Radak takes a different approach. He says that the "original" word was matteh. He writes that one leans (relies) on a matteh (as implied by the root of the word), and both shevet and matteh as "tribe" refer to something you can rely upon. Perhaps he means that in tribal group everyone helps one another.
  • Gesenius combines some of the above approaches, saying that shevet came to be tribe from the authority of the scepter, and matteh represents the branching out (as Ben Yehuda wrote about shevet). I suppose he viewed the developments of shevet and matteh as parallel, but independent.
Before researching this, I thought that there was a parallel development in English, with the word "staff" meaning both "stick" and "group (of people employed by an organization.) But that was a very late entry into English, first appearing only in 1702. It originally had a specifically military sense, as it came "from the notion of the 'baton' that is a badge of office or authority." 

The early Zionist leader and Hebrew linguist Nahum Sokolow adopted this meaning of staff as a group of military officers, and adopted the word matteh for that purpose. So today, the commander in chief of the Israeli army is the rosh hamatteh haklali ראש המטה הכללי - "the Chief of the General Staff" (frequently abbreviated to רמטכ"ל Ramatkal.)

And while in Modern Hebrew matteh has a primarily military connotation, shevet has much more of a civilian tone, used either for groups in youth movements, or to represent an ethnic or large family group (sometimes in a derogatorily way, similar to the English "tribal.") 

As I've said before, Hebrew just can't handle synonyms...

Sunday, May 17, 2020

yom huledet

The Hebrew phrase for "birthday" is יום הולדת yom huledet. While it's certainly a familiar phrase, it's actually kind of a strange construct. Huledet is the hufal (passive and causative) form. Why not use the simpler יום הלידה yom haleida - "day of birth"?

The phrase yom huledet appears three times in the Bible. The first is in Bereshit 40:20 after Yosef deciphered the dreams of his servants (the other two are in Yechezkel 16:4,5). Here is how the phrase appears in Bereshit:

וַיְהִי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי יוֹם הֻלֶּדֶת אֶת־פַּרְעֹה וַיַּעַשׂ מִשְׁתֶּה לְכָל־עֲבָדָיו וַיִּשָּׂא אֶת־רֹאשׁ שַׂר הַמַּשְׁקִים וְאֶת־רֹאשׁ שַׂר הָאֹפִים בְּתוֹךְ עֲבָדָיו׃

On the third day—his birthday [yom huledet]—Pharaoh made a banquet for all his officials, and he singled out his chief cupbearer and his chief baker from among his officials. 

On this verse, Rashi asks our question above, and mentions the other occurrences of  yom huledet:

יום הלדת את פרעה. יוֹם לֵידָתוֹ, וְקוֹרִין לוֹ יוֹם גֵּינוּסְיָא. וּלְשׁוֹן הֻלֶּדֶת, לְפִי שֶׁאֵין הַוָּלָד נוֹצָר אֶלָּא עַל יְדֵי אֲחֵרִים, שֶׁהַחַיָּה מְיַלֶּדֶת אֶת הָאִשָּׁה, וְעַל כֵּן הַחַיָּה נִקְרֵאת מְיַלֶּדֶת, וְכֵן וּמוֹלְדוֹתַיִךְ בְּיוֹם הוּלֶּדֶת אוֹתָךְ (יחזקאל ט"ז) וְכֵן אַחֲרֵי הֻכַּבֵּס אֶת הַנֶּגַע (ויקרא י"ג), שֶׁכִּבּוּסוֹ עַל יְדֵי אֲחֵרִים:

יום הלדת את פרעה HIS (PHARAOH’S) BIRTHDAY. It is called (Avodah Zarah 10a) “The birthday festival”. The causative passive form (הלדת) is used because the infant is born only by the assistance of others, for the midwife delivers the woman. On this account a midwife is called מילדת a Piel form “one who brings to birth”. This passive form occurs similarly (Ezekiel 16:4) “And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born (הולדת אתך)”. A similar passive form is used in (Leviticus 13:55) “after the plague (הכבס) is washed away”, because the washing is done by others). 

In other words, a better translation for yom huledet would be "the day [he] was delivered" instead of "birthday," even though both phrases refer to the same date. (An alternate suggestion, by Radak and Rabbeinu Bachye, is that this was the day a son was born to Pharaoh.) This can also help us understand why the phrase is yom huledet et paro, where Pharaoh is the object of the phrase, instead of yom huledet paro, which is how we would say it today. Pharaoh was the object - he was delivered on that day. According to this article, the verse describes the historical record of  "a ceremony at which the Pharaoh was born again as far as Egyptian protocol was concerned." 

So this usage could explain why yom huledet is the phrase we use for "birthday." However, there are other phrases used to describe birthdays in the Bible:

  כְּיוֹם הִוָּלְדָהּ k'yom hivalda - "as on the day she was born" (Hoshea 2:5)

 מִיּוֹם הִוָּלְדוֹ - m'yom hivaldo - "than the day of his birth" (Kohelet 7:1)

And in the mishna (Avoda Zara 1:3), we find yom haleida יום הלידה. 

So why didn't any of the above become the standard term for "birthday"?

I couldn't find an proven answer to this question. However, it seems that birthdays weren't a big deal in Judaism until recently. And so there wasn't need for a standard Hebrew phrase for the concept. I didn't find yom huledet mentioned in Rabbinic sources that weren't discussing the verses in Bereshit or Yechezkel until relatively recently.

We can see the trends even better, by looking at this chart of appearances of the phrase yom huledet (with both spellings) in Hebrew books over the last few centuries:


The usage (of the full spelling) really starts spiking around the 1960s. I assume that most of the earlier occurrences were discussing the biblical examples.

But as we saw, there were other choices - yom hivaldo or yom haleida. Why not them? My guess is that people were very familiar with the yom huledet of Pharaoh, due to the weekly Torah reading. And although Rashi gives it a slightly different explanation than "day of birth," that wasn't enough to prevent it from becoming the popular phrase.

Monday, May 11, 2020

po and kan

 Is there any difference between the two Hebrew words for "here" - po פה and kan כאן?

They originate in different strata of Hebrew. Po is of biblical origin, and kan starts appearing in Rabbinic Hebrew. (It derives from a Biblical word, ko כה, which means "so, thus" and can also mean "here.")  They each are part of words meaning "where" - the biblical eifo איפה and the rabbinic heikhan היכן.

What about the meanings? They both mean "here" and are often viewed as complete synonyms, even being the most popular example of two Hebrew words with the same meaning, and define each other in dictionaries. While in English having two synonymous words might not be remarkable, as we pointed out recently, "Hebrew has a hard time hanging on to synonyms."

And yet, a closer look does show differences in uses, even though the translation to the English "here" remains in place. This book does a good job of capturing those differences:

There is, however, a very basic semantic distinction between po and kan which — in my experience — most people take for granted but immediately recognize when it is pointed out to them. The word po is limited to the realm of space on the spatio-temporal-existential cline. It always refers to a specific and concrete place in the immediate or proximate vicinity. The word kan, on the other hand, has gone beyond the realm of space in the universal spatio-temporal-existential cline and may also be used for temporal and existential messages as well. The word kan may refer to specific places and immediate or proximate vicinities (like po), to the present time (the here-and-now), and to general relevant issues and situations (leadken - 'to bring up to date') (lit. 'to-until-here-now'). 

In other words, po is almost always talking about a physical place. Kan, on the other hand, can be about place - but can also be about time (like how far along you are in process), or even purely abstractly (like your understanding of an issue). "Here" captures all of those in English, but the difference in nuance in the Hebrew words are real. If you would say (without context), kan chashavti lehitpater כאן חשבתי להתטפר - "here I thought of resigning", it could mean "in this place" or "at this point in my life." But if you used po instead of kan, it would likely mean "in this physical place."

All that said, this article seems to show a trend in the opposite direction. Collecting examples of spoken Hebrew in the 1980s and 1990s, it found that po was used in the vast majority of cases. And while it recognizes the trend we mentioned above in "classical" Hebrew, it says that in the usages they studied, po actually was used in more varied circumstances than kan. This is how the English abstract describes the study:

The paper traces the fine distinction between two adverbs of location — פה and כאן — frequently regarded as an example of exact synonyms. Data based on a recorded corpus of native speakers are analyzed quantitatively and qualitatively, namely, using semantic and functional methods of sign-oriented linguistics. The findings show פה to be the dominant, unmarked term of the pair, found in 97 percent of the cases. Unlike in their classical use, פה may designate not only location but also temporal concepts, whereas כאן is restricted to locational concepts. Although their denotation is the same, the marginal field of their meaning differs. In certain lexical phrases, כאן carries a submeaning of 'border' or 'end', whereas פה has a submeaning of 'now', and functions as a half-empty prosodic or emotive filler, mainly in the existence (יש) sentence pattern.
While I don't challenge the scholarship of the study, the results have not been my experience. When it comes to a word describing the "physical" here, I haven't noticed a preference for po or kan. And I haven't seen po being used to designate "temporal concepts." It could be that my ear isn't that sensitive, or I'm not in the same social groups as the study, or that things have changed in the past 30 years. I'm happy to hear your experiences as well.

One word I didn't mention was hinei הנה which can also mean "here," but isn't interchangeable with kan and po. As this book puts it: 

It might be translated as "here," but unlike the Hebrew synonyms for "here," "kan" and "po," it cannot occur in a mere descriptive proposition. "Hine" is used only presentationally; that is, I can say "hine hameil," here is the coat, when I point to the coat (hence the translation: "Behold the coat!"), but I cannot say, "Etmol hameil haya hine" (Yesterday the coat was hine) to mean "Yesterday the coat was here"; I have to say "Etmol hameil haya po" or "Etmol hameil haya kan." Thus hine performs the speech-act of calling attention to, or presenting, not describing. 

So now I can state: hinei, the post about the Hebrew words for "here" is kan. (Or should I say po?)

Sunday, May 03, 2020


I've discussed a few times in the past that the root חרט means "to engrave", as in the word charita חריטה - "engraving, chiseling." But I didn't answer the question: is that root related to the words charata חרטה - "regret, remorse" and hitcharet התחרט - "to regret"?

This meaning isn't found in the Bible, but first appears in Rabbinic Hebrew. Jastrow makes the fanciful suggestion that "to regret, feel sorry" is to "scratch one's self."  Ben Yehuda says that the etymology of charata (and the related verb) is unknown and no cognates are found in Semitic languages.

However, Klein does provide an etymology. He has two distinct entries for חרט. After the entry for חרט - "to chisel, engrave", he has חרט as "to repent", and says that it comes from  the Arabic inḫaraṭa  - "he did ignorantly."

This would make it cognate with a common word in Israeli slang - kharta חרטה. It means "nonsense, rubbish", and I actually thought it was a rude word with scatological origins. But no, it just comes from the same Arabic root meaning "lies, nonsense." Related slang words are kharta barta חרטה ברטה - "nonsense, make-believe, baloney" and the verb khirtet חרטט - "to make up nonsense."

Going back to the original question, I expected some linguistic proof that the two forms of חרט are unrelated. This happens not infrequently with words including the Hebrew letter chet. While Hebrew has only one chet, the cognates in Arabic have two different letters - like a hard chet and a soft chet. So sometimes two words in Hebrew will seem to be homonyms, but when compared with Arabic, they will be shown to be unrelated. This was the case, for example, with the words for fat and milk - chalav and chelev. They are spelled the same in Hebrew - חלב - but are unrelated.

But both meanings of חרט have Arabic cognates, and both are spelled with the hard chet. So that can't prove they aren't related.

And in fact, while I don't have direct proof, I think that perhaps they are connected. Let's look another Hebrew root with similar meanings - פסל.

One meaning is "to hew, hew out, carve." From here we get such words as pesel פסל - "carved image, idol" and pesolet פסולת - "chips, stone dust."

The other meaning is "to disqualify, declare unfit." This meaning gives us pasul פסול - "disqualified, defective, unfit." For this sense, Klein provides this etymology:

Aram. פְּסַל (= he disqualified, declared unfit), Arab. fasala (= was ignoble, was valueless). According to several scholars פסל ᴵᴵ represents a special sense development of פסל ᴵ (as if פסל ᴵᴵ would have meant orig. ‘was cut away’, whence arose the meaning ‘was considered useless’). They refer to the sense development of פּֽסֹלֶת (= chips, stone dust), whence ‘worthless matter’. However, according to others פסל ᴵ and פסל ᴵᴵ are two different bases.

So according to the first explanation, which seems reasonable, there was a development from "carving" to "worthless matter." Could the same have happened from charita - "engraving" to kharta - "nonsense" to charata - "regret"?  Doesn't look like kharta barta to me...

Saturday, April 25, 2020


I recently wrote an essay for the journal Tradition entitled "Words of Ailing, Words of Healing" where I discussed the origins of Hebrew words relating to illness and health, in the light of the current pandemic.

One of the words I mentioned was dever דבר - "plague." After discussing the word for pandemic, magefa מגפה, I continued:

A more common Biblical word for plague is dever. This word does not appear to be related to the very common word devar meaning “word, speech.” More surprisingly, it is not cognate with the word hadbara – “extermination.” That word comes from a third Hebrew root, which meant “to follow behind” or “to push forward.” This meaning led to the word midbar – “desert,” which was a place where cattle were pushed forward to graze. In the more intense hifil form of the verb, hidbir, “pushing forward” became “subdue, overwhelm,” and from there came the meaning “to eliminate, exterminate.” (“Yadber sonenu,” we recite in the Prayer for the I.D.F., asking God to “subdue our enemies.”) 

I wrote that midbar מדבר in English is "desert". But another common translation is "wilderness." Which is correct?

Well, in some ways, this is more a question about English semantics than Hebrew. Let's look at what the two English words mean.

Today most people would say that desert is a barren land, likely arid, and probably hot and full of sand. A wilderness, on the other hand, is full of wild vegetation, but not settled by humans.

However, these were not the original meanings of the words. "Desert" was an abandoned place (think of the verb "to desert" = "to abandon".)  Only in the 20th century did desert become associated with aridity. Before that there are many examples of desert being used in places that were clearly not arid (think of "desert island", which was the original phrase, not "deserted island", despite the increase in use of the latter recently.)

Wilderness also meant something similar - an uninhabited or uncultivated place. So while there may have been differences in nuance between desert and wilderness, until relatively recently, they were pretty much synonyms.

So if both words are used to translate midbar, that shouldn't concern us too much. But that said, what was the nature of the biblical word midbar?

The answer is found in what I wrote above, that midbar originally meant "a place where cattle were pushed forward to graze." This meaning is evident in Shemot 3:1 -

וּמֹשֶׁה הָיָה רֹעֶה אֶת־צֹאן יִתְרוֹ חֹתְנוֹ כֹּהֵן מִדְיָן וַיִּנְהַג אֶת־הַצֹּאן אַחַר הַמִּדְבָּר וַיָּבֹא אֶל־הַר הָאֱלֹהִים חֹרֵבָה׃
Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the midbar, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 

If Moses drove his flocks there, the land was not entirely barren (but not settled). As Sarna in the JPS commentary writes, midbar is "a region of uninhabited and unirrigated pastureland." Cassuto, following Onkelos (who interprets it as "choice pasture") , goes so far as to translate the word as "grassland." This may seem strange, but verses like this one show that a midbar did not have to be arid at all:

Fear not, O beasts of the field, for the pastures in the midbar are clothed with grass. The trees have borne their fruit; fig tree and vine have yielded their strength. (Yoel 2:22) 

The Sinai midbar that sustained the Israelites for 40 years also fits the definition - it was uninhabited, but could support the nomadic tribes (with some help from above.) The focus on "uninhabited" is captured in the midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7) which writes:

Anyone who does not make themselves ownerless like the midbar cannot acquire the wisdom and the Torah. Therefore it says, "the midbar of Sinai."

There are however, other words to describe a particularly barren land in biblical Hebrew - arava ערבה and yeshimon ישימון.  Those words are offered as synonyms for a midbar that is particularly desolate, in Devarim 32:10 and Yirmiyahu 50:12.

So a midbar can be a desert - even according to the contemporary meaning. It can also be a wilderness - although a midbar in the Middle East is not likely to look like a wilderness in other parts of the world. As often happens, there is not a perfect translation. Just one more reason to try to read the Bible (or any book) when possible in the original language... 

Sunday, April 19, 2020


One of the most popular words in Israel slang is stam סתם. It means "just kidding." How did it come to mean that?

In Biblical Hebrew, the verb satam סתם means two things: a) to literally stop up or close up (wells) and b) to hide, conceal (to close up in a metaphorical sense).

Today the first meaning still exists. A blocked pipe is satum סתום, and a rude way of telling someone to shut up is stom et hapeh סתום את הפה - literally, "close your mouth." A valve is a shastom שסתום. It is a blend of the similarly words with opposite meanings - satam (to close) and shatam שתם (to open).

The metaphorical sense developed further. Under Aramaic influence, the word stam came to mean "a vague or indefinite expression", "an anonymous opinion" or "in general." Klein writes that these senses developed from "something stopped up", "something closed", "something unknown." In Medieval Hebrew the adjective stami סתמי came to mean "vague, indefinite, uncertain." In Modern Hebrew, stami means "neutral", and has been used in attempts to replace the Yiddish pareve, but without much success.

The Aramaic form of stam, סתמא stama, also meant "anonymous opinion," but also meant the related "without qualification." A form of that word in Talmudic literature is mistama מסתמא - "of a general nature." In Yiddish this became mistome and in Modern Hebrew - min hastam מן הסתם. The more recent sense is "likely, probably, predictably" - since as this book puts it, "what is generally applicable is most probably applicable in a more specific case."

The meaning "without qualification" brings us closest to the current meaning in modern Hebrew slang. Another way to say "without qualification" is "just is, merely." It had that sense in Yiddish, and entered Israeli slang with the same connotation.

So stam could mean "nothing fancy." How was the meal? "Stam, nothing special." Or, "that was no stam vacation, it was amazing."

But it can also mean "for no particular reason." Why aren't you coming to the party? "Stam, I don't feel like it." Or, "I just stam called to say hi." And while that sense of stam sounds rather apathetic, the just kidding version has a very different tone. As Shoshana Kordova wrote here:

Let’s say your Israeli colleague wants to pull your leg. When you get into the office your coworker, ever a kidder, announces that the computer system is down and no one will be able to do any work until the tech people fix it. He watches as you get excited (“Yes! I get to play hooky without having to take a sick day!”) or upset (“Now I’ll have to stay longer to finish the project I need to get done today!”), and then breaks in to let you know it was all a joke. The word he reaches for could well be “stam,” but in this context the “a” sound is usually drawn out, sounding something like “Staaaaaaaaaahm!”

Or a different example here:
-That dress looks terrible on you.
-Stam! It looks great on you.

Even more samples of its use can be found here.

I think this is an interesting example of a word that meant "closed up" and "concealed" and ended up meaning "probably" and "for no reason at all." And the most fascinating bit of trivia? The English word stem - as in "to stem the tide" - actually derives directly from the Hebrew satam!


Sunday, April 12, 2020

tzedek and tzedaka

In modern Hebrew, tzedek צדק and tzedakah צדקה have very different meanings. Tzedek is "justice, which is obligatory and compels all. Tzedaka is "charity", which is praiseworthy, but voluntary. (In Jewish law, giving charity in general is obligatory, but the amount given and the intended recipient is left to the donor's discretion.)

Both words are found in biblical Hebrew. Tzedek is found 119 times in the Bible, and tzedaka appears 157 times. In the Bible, they are essentially synonyms. They both refer to righteousness and justness. Nissan Netzer, in his book on Bereshit (p. 47), points out that there are synonym pairs in Biblical Hebrew where one word ends with the letter heh and the other doesn't. He brings the examples of otzem עוצם and otzma עצמה - which both mean "force, might", and shir שיר and shira שירה - which both mean "song."

This article by the Academy of the Hebrew Language points out that there is a slight difference between the two words in biblical Hebrew. Tzedek more often refers to the concept or value of justice, whereas tzedaka is more frequently found referring to the act (or acts) of performing justice. Evidence to this difference can be found by the fact that tzedek is only found in the singular, but tzedaka can have a plural (tzedakot צדקות).

Hebrew seems to have a hard time hanging on to synonyms. These differences in nuance, through a process known as "semantic shift", led the two words to diverge fully. Starting in Rabbinic Hebrew, they ended up as "justice" and "charity to the poor" (as an expression of justice). (The same phenomenon can be found with shir and shira. Today shir still means song, but shira refers to poetry.)

From the same root we get other Hebrew words. A tzadik  צדיק is a righteous person. And it also provides the verbs tzodek צודק -  "to be correct" and matzdik מצדיק - "to justify." These words seems to have echoes in other Semitic languages, as seen in the etymology Klein provides for the root:

Aram. צְדֵק (= he was righteous), Syr. זָדֵק (= it is right; for the change of צ to ז see the introductory article to letter ז), Ugar. ṣdq (= reliability, virtue), Arab. ṣadaqa (= he spoke the truth), Ethiop. ṣadaqa (= he was just, was righteous)

The connection between "correct" and "justice" can be found in English as well, in the related words "right" (correct) and "righteous."

Monday, April 06, 2020


The Haggadah opens up with a song, to help the participants remember, via rhyme, the various actions they need to perform throughout the seder. The last section, however, is not an instruction per se - but more of a description of this final stage. This is the Nirtza נרצה section, which is followed by various songs after the seder is completed.

What does nirtza mean? I've seen it translated as "(all is) accepted" or "acceptance." The source appears to be this verse in Kohelet, which in a number of older haggadot opens the Nirtza section:

כִּי כְבָר רָצָה הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת־מַעֲשֶׂיךָ׃...
...  for your action was long ago approved by God. (Kohelet 9:7)
And so Nirtza is a time where after all of the Pesach service is completed, we can enjoy the fact that God approved our actions.

This understanding reflects the fact that in Biblical Hebrew, the verb ratzah רצה meant "to be pleased with, to be favorable to."  That is the most common meaning. There are also verses where it means "to like" or "to appease." Similarly, the derivative noun ratzon רצון means "goodwill, favor."

However, Fox, in his JPS Commentary on Kohelet writes that this is not the best translation for that verse. He says the phrase should be instead translated as "for your action was long ago desired by God." This sense of ratzah is the one commonly used today - "to want." This sense is very common in Rabbinic Hebrew, but is rarely found in Biblical Hebrew. If Fox is correct, this is probably due to Kohelet frequently using Hebrew that reflects later usage. 

Despite ratzah meaning "to want" being one of the first words learned in Hebrew (either by young children or new speakers), strangely neither Ben Yehuda nor Klein mention it in their dictionaries, rather providing only the biblical meanings.

Ratzon also changed meanings. While as we said, in Biblical Hebrew it meant "favor", in later Rabbinic writings it came to mean "will" (this is also likely the meaning in later books of the Bible, such as Esther 9:5)  In the Medieval period, much ink was spilled by rabbis who debated the nature of God's will. The rationalists, like Maimonides, much preferred to speak of God's will than His favor.

Inspired by ratzon meaning "will" (as in persistence), Eliezer Ben Yehuda took the Arabic word razin ("grave, serious") and coined the word retzini - רציני - "serious."

The sense of ratzah meaning "to be pleased" still has footing in Modern Hebrew. The related word merutzeh מרוצה means "satisfied." 

The Hebrew words for "lecture" - הרצאה hartza'ah and "lecturer" - מרצה martzeh also share the root רצה, and are related to the words we discussed above. Klein says that secondary meaning of the root meant originally "to count, enumerate, pay off" and later "to recount, narrate, deliver a lecture." He provides this etymology:

For the sense development of הִרְצָה cp. סָפַר (= he counted), סִפֵּר (= he recounted, told, narrated); Arab. manā, manā(y) (= he counted), mānā(y) (= he paid); Gk. arithmein (= to count; to pay); Eng. to tell, which means both ‘to count’ and ‘to recount’, Eng. re-count and recount; Fren. compter (= to count), and conter (= to tell, recount, narrate), which both derive from L. computāre (= to count), and It. contare, Sp. contar, which are of the same origin, and mean both ‘to count’, and ‘to tell, relate’. JAram. אַרֽצִי (= he counted, enumerated). According to several lexicographers רצה ᴵᴵ properly represents a special sense development of רצה ᴵ and orig. meant ‘to satisfy the creditor’. 

 So now perhaps this can give us another feeling when we arrive at Nirtza. We've counted (so many plagues!) and recounted the story of the Exodus. The "creditor" is indeed satisfied!

Sunday, March 29, 2020

karov, korban and kerev

The Hebrew word karov קרוב means "near." All the verbs that derive from the root of that word - קרב - mean "to come near, approach". In Biblical Hebrew, we find that meaning in the kal (karav), piel (kirev), and hifil (hikriv) forms. The hitpael form - hitkarev התקרב - only appears in Hebrew literature after the biblical period.

 The form hikriv has an additional meaning. Rabbi Amnon Bazak, in his book Nekudat Peticha (p. 219) points out that for the first two books of the Torah, hikriv means "to approach" (e.g. Bereshit 12:11, Shemot 14:10). However, in the beginning of the book of Vayikra, we find a new meaning:

דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם אָדָם כִּי־יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם קָרְבָּן לַיהוָה מִן־הַבְּהֵמָה מִן־הַבָּקָר וּמִן־הַצֹּאן תַּקְרִיבוּ אֶת־קָרְבַּנְכֶם׃

Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them: When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the LORD, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock. (Vayikra 1:2)
Here hikriv means "bring an offering" and we also find the first mention of the nouns korban קרבן - "offering, sacrifice." Bazak points out that there were many sacrifices earlier in the Torah, but they always use other words like mincha מנחה (Bereshit 4:3), olah עולה (Bereshit 8:20) and zevach זבח (Bereshit 46:1). So why did the Torah start using the word korban only now?

He says that this is due to the meaning of the verb hikriv. Since previously it meant "to draw close to", he claims that only in Vayikra, when God established a permanent location in the Sanctuary, could these sacrifices be considered a way to become near to God. Previously, there might have been a spiritual closeness in sacrifices. Now, when one could actually approach the sanctuary, there was a physical dimension that expressed itself in this new word - korban.

In his book Midabrim Besefat Hatanach, Rubik Rosenthal notes (p. 140-141), that in Modern Hebrew, the words hikriv and korban have left that earlier meaning regarding ritual sacrifices, and split into two different meanings. The verb hikriv means sacrifice in the secular sense: to give up something important for a higher purpose (and the noun form of this verb is hakrava הקרבה - "self-sacrifice."). Korban, however, refers to someone harmed or killed by someone else's action - i.e. a victim. So for example, victims of terrorism are korbanot hateror קרבנות הטרור. There were those that opposed such usage, because the religious sense of korban would seem to instill a higher purpose to those who perpetrated the crimes. But as we've seen many times before, language has a path of its own, and that usage stuck.

A word that derives from this root is krav קרב - "battle." Klein says it probably originally meant "hostile approach." In Israel, a combat soldier is called kravi קרבי - "ready for battle."

A different word that at first glance looks like it should be from the same root, but perhaps isn't is kerev קרב - "midst, interior." The Ben-Yehuda dictionary provides three possibilities:

a) That kerev derives from karav. If this is the case, kerev originally meant something like "drawn close, closeness."

b) They could be from entirely different roots. This what Klein suggests:

1 midst, interior. 2 inward part, bowels, intestines. [Related to Moabite בקרב (= in the midst of), Ugar. qrb (of same meaning), Akka. qirbu (= inward part, interior), qirib (= in). These related words show that the orig. meaning of קֶרֶב was ‘midst, interior’, and that the meaning, ‘inward part, bowel, intestines’ is secondary. However, according to several scholars, Heb. קֶרֶב is related to Arab. qalb (= heart); see קבל ᴵ. 
His reference to קבל (to be opposite, which we've discussed before) brings us this entry:

BAram. לָקֳבֵל, JAram. קְבֵל, לִקְבֵל (= in front, before), Syr. מֶן קֽבוֹל (= opposite); whence Aram.–Syr., also BAram. קַבֵּל, Heb. קִבֵּל, ‘he received, accepted’), Arab. qabila (= he received, accepted), OSArab. קבל (= to receive, accept), Ethiop. qabala (= he went to meet, encountered), Akka. qablu (= battle; middle of the body, middle). However, according to some scholars Akka. qablu in the meaning ‘middle’ is related to קֽרָב (= battle). According to other scholars Akka. qablu in the meaning ‘middle’ is related to Arab. qalb (= heart; see קֶרֶב)

So according to Klein's approach, the Arabic word qalb - "heart" - developed into two different meanings. One developed into the Hebrew kibel - "to receive, accept" and the other kerev - "interior, inner part." Neither are related to karov - "near."

c) The third possibility mentioned in Ben Yehuda is that one root split into two meanings. This seems to be the approach of Gesenius, whose entry for kerev mentions the Arabic qalb but says that here the "r" softened into an "l" - i.e. the Arabic meaning came later. This understanding would allow that even qalb is related to karov.

Saturday, February 29, 2020


A reader asked about the origin of the Hebrew word for diagonal - אלכסון alakhson. It first appears in Rabbinic Hebrew (also as lokhsan לוכסן). Klein provides the following etymology:

PBH diagonal (line). [Borrowed from Greek. Lixon, neuter loxos (= standing crosswise, oblique)]

In his CEDEL, in the entry for "lekane" (a large dish or bowl), Klein says it derives from the Greek lekose (a dish, pot, pan), and that word is probably cognate with the loxos mentioned above, due to the way the sides of a dish or bowl bend inwards.

A Latin cognate of lekose is lanx, and that provides us with two English words that I would not have thought were related.

One is "balance." This is the entry in the Online Etymology Dictionary:

early 13c., "scales, apparatus for weighing by comparison of mass," from Old French balance "balance, scales for weighing" (12c.), also in figurative sense; from Medieval Latin bilancia, from Late Latin bilanx, from Latin (libra) bilanx "(scale) having two pans"

The other is even stranger - it was originally part of the phrase that became the word satire:

late 14c., "work intended to ridicule vice or folly," from Middle French satire (14c.) and directly from Latin satira "satire, poetic medley," earlier satura, in lanx satura "mixed dish, dish filled with various kinds of fruit," literally "full dish"

Interesting, no?

Sunday, January 26, 2020

erusin and eres

I was recently asked if there was any connection between the root of the Hebrew word for engagement (i.e. betrothal) - ארוסין erusin (the root being ארס) and eres ארס - "venom, poison."

Even before I could look at a dictionary, I told him that it wasn't likely, since I remembered that while erusin  with the letter samech is the form in Rabbinic Hebrew (and followed in Modern Hebrew as well), in Biblical Hebrew it is spelled with the letter sin - ארש.

But when I looked at Klein's entries for the two of them, I discovered some information I did not know previously.

Here is what he writes for ארש (having noted in the entry for ארס that these are variant spellings), with the meaning "to betroth":

Among the many attempts to find the origin of this word the most probable is the one which connects it with Akka. ērishu (= bridegroom), irshitu (= betrothal), which, according to Haupt, derive from Akka. erēshu (= to desire) ...  cp. also Arab. ‘arus (= bridegroom).

He then connects this root to the word areshet ארשת. I knew the word areshet well from the prayers on Rosh Hashana, sung after the shofar is blown. But I'm a little embarrassed to say I didn't actually know what it meant. Here's what Klein writes:

expression (a hapax legomenon in the Bible, occurring Psalms. 21:3 in the phrase אֲרֶשֶׁת שְׂפָתָיו, which is usually rendered by ‘the request of his lips’. Most Jewish commentators, however, render אֲרֶשֶׁת שְׂפָתָיו by ‘expression of his lips’. [Prob. related to Akka. erēshu (= to desire), erishtu (= desire, request).] 
While erishtu meaning "desire" is similar to the Greek erasthai meaning "to love, desire", and is the origin of the word "Eros", I have not found any sources that connect the Greek and Akkadian words. I also have not found any sources that connect the root to the Arabic ars, which meant "pimp", and entered Hebrew slang as a derogatory term meaning someone low-class and sleazy.

Stahl, in his Arabic etymological dictionary, in the entry for arus (bridegroom) says that this root might be related to arisut אריסות - "tenant farming, sharecropping" and aris אריס - "land tenant", since the transactional nature of leasing land was similar to the dowry involved in marriage. However, Klein provides a different etymology, connecting it to the Akkadian erēshu (= to till the soil). That makes it cognate with the Hebrew kharash חרש -  meaning "to plow."

And what about eres meaning venom or poison? Here is Klein's interesting entry. He says it was a post-biblical word:

From earlier אִירָס. Of uncertain origin. Perhaps, together with Syr. ‘irsā (of s.m.), a blend of Gk. ios (= poison) and L. vīrus (= poison).

Eres and "virus" are so similar, I'm surprised I never thought of a connection before.

Sunday, January 19, 2020


Today I was thinking about the word teiva תבה. In the entire Bible, it only appears twice: as the word for Noah's ark and for the baby Moshe's basket.

Here is Klein's entry for teivah:

1 ark, box. 
NH 2 Holy Ark (in the synagogue). 
PBH 3 word. 
[Prob. a loan word from Egypt. tbt (= chest; coffin). Arab. tābūt (= box, case, chest, coffer), is a Heb. loan word.]

I can easily understand how the word progressed from meaning 1 ("box") to meaning 2 ("Holy Ark in the synagogue" - although the word for the Ark that carried the Tablets of the Law in the desert is aron ארון.)  But how did teiva come to mean "word"?

This was surprisingly difficult to research. First of all, the dictionaries that I thought would help me - Ben Yehuda, Jastrow, Klein, Even-Shoshan - all mentioned the various meanings, including "word", but didn't explain the shift in meaning.

Secondly, since the meaning is "word", searching online is really challenging. If I'm looking for a web page or article, I often search for the the term and include the various meanings. That will usually pull up something helpful. But since the meaning is "word" - well, that appears on probably every page. Not really beneficial.

So I had to try a little harder. I did find some discussion of it in the dictionary Aruch Hashalem by Alexander Kohut. He says that some claim that teiva meaning "word" comes from a different source - an Arabic root meaning "to cut." And therefore, teiva means a word "cut and separate" from other letters in the text.

He then compares teiva to a common word for "word" - mila מילה.  This word is familiar from the phrase brit milah ברית מילה - "circumcision." So according to this theory, both teiva and mila come from the sense "to cut."

However, this theory is problematic. From their uses in Rabbinic Hebrew (where teiva first means "word"), mila refers to spoken words, and teiva to written words. This also fits the etymology of mila.  Klein points out that mila meaning circumcision comes from the root מול - "to circumcise", whereas mila meaning "word" comes from מלל - a root meaning "to speak, to say."

So while "cut" could be still be an origin of teiva, the parallel to mila doesn't hold up.

Kohut then provides a second theory, saying that in a teiva, the letters are connected as if they were in a box. This seems like a more reasonable theory - it keeps the various meanings of teiva with the same origin, as all of the dictionaries I checked claimed.

A further expansion on this idea is found in the Hebrew Wiktionary entry for teiva. The entry provides five meanings found in Biblical and Rabbinic sources:

  1. boat (Bereshit 7:13, Shemot 2:3)
  2. box (Mishna Tahorot 8:2)
  3. ark (closet) that holds the Torah scrolls (Mishna Taanit 2:1)
  4. a rectangle or square; the rectangle that one word is written in (Talmud Yerushalmi Eruvin 5:1, Talmud Bavli Menachot 30a)
  5. a word with a space before and after it (Talmud Bavli 30a)
There is a note there saying that meaning 5 derived from meaning 4. This works well with Kohut's second theory. The only issue is that neither example provided in 4 are particularly convincing. The source from the Jerusalem Talmud says, "How did did the Israelites march in the desert? Like a teiva." This means they formed a square (in contrast with the other opinion, which says they marched in a column, like a beam.) That doesn't really mean that teiva meant "rectangle", but only that a rectangle is like a teiva, because of the shape. 

The second example, from Menachot 30a says that when writing a Torah scroll, the space between one teiva and another teiva must be the size of one small letter. While I suppose it's possible that teiva there could mean the rectangle that contained a word, the simpler meaning is that it just meant the space between one word and the following word. And the Wiktionary entry itself provides a quote from the same page in Menachot where teiva clearly means "word"!

Now, if I could find some evidence that all words were enclosed in rectangles, there would be more support for this theory. I'm not a scribe, so I can't speak from personal experience, and I couldn't find any mention of that in the sources I checked. And the nature of Wiki editing prevents me from contacting the person who wrote this theory. But if any of you out there have any proof, or even suggestions, one way or another - please let me know!

Sunday, January 12, 2020


Chafifa חפיפה can mean both "shampooing" and "overlapping" (often used when two people are overlapping at a job, and one needs to train another). Is there a connection between these two Hebrew homonyms?

From every reliable source I've seen, they come from two homographic, but distinct, roots: חפף.

Let's look first at the root that gives us "overlapping." In this case, חפף means "to surround, cover." By extension, it can also mean "to protect" or "to be congruent" (this is the sense that leads to "overlap.") A related root is חפה.

From this root we get a number of familiar words:

  • chupah חופה - the wedding canopy (which covers the bride and groom)
  • chof חוף - "coast" (which surrounds the land)
  • chipui  חיפוי - covering (or suppressive) fire, used in a military context to prevent an enemy from attacking
The other meaning of חפף is "to rub." From there developed the sense of "to cleanse the head by rubbing", i.e. shampooing.  This type of cleanliness is extended to a general sense of being clean, pure - and so it also gives us the word חף chaf - "innocent", often used in the phrase chaf m'pesha חף מפשע - "innocent of crime."

According to some sources, the word yachef יחף - "barefoot" also derives from a cognate of this root. The idea is that removing shoes is like rubbing or peeling them off. 

All of the roots above have Arabic cognates as well. Ruvik Rosenthal points out that there are two more Arabic roots, which have similar spellings, but aren't cognate with the ones we've discussed before. They gave us two Hebrew slang words (and I haven't been able to find any earlier Hebrew cognates).

One is the word chafif חפיף. In Arabic it means "light", "nimble" or "agile." When it entered Hebrew it came to mean "lightweight", "wishy-washy" or "sloppy", and a chafifnik is a "slacker." 

The other word is a verb - התחפף hitchafef. When talking in the past tense it means "took off", and in the imperative, it means "scram" or "get lost." While Rosenthal says it is a fourth, distinct root, this Wiktionary entry says it comes from the same root as chafif - something light as air can easily "disappear", "go away."

Monday, January 06, 2020

pelishtim and palash

I've discussed previously how I like to listen to language podcasts, particularly those with a focus on etymology. One that I somehow forgot to mention is Words for Granted by Ray Belli. The podcast usually deals with the history of a particular English word, telling its story.

Recently, he dealt with the history of the word "Philistine." Here's his abstract of the episode:

In common usage, a "philistine" is a derogatory term for an anti-intellectual materialist. The word derives from the ancient Middle Eastern Philistines, a people best known as an early geopolitical enemy of the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible. The historical Philistines were far from "philistines" (note the lowercase P). The circumstance by which the latter derives from the former can be traced back to a murder in the 17th century German city of Jena. (Yes, actually.)

I recommend giving it a listen. In it, he describes how the Philistines went from being a people living on the southern Mediterranean coast of Canaan, with uncertain, but probably Aegean origin, to the enemy of the Israelites, and eventually disappearing after the Babylonian conquest. The Greek historian Herodotus called the region previously under Philistine control Palaistinē, and then after they conquered the entire area, the Romans called it Palestine. He does his best to avoid the political discussion of the name "Palestine", and then moves on to the interesting story of why "philistine" became a term to describe a person who doesn't appreciate arts and culture.

The one point that I would like to add on to was his brief discussion of the origin of the name Philistine itself. He claimed that derived from whatever name the Philistines called themselves. Since the Philistines likely were of Greek origin (as we discussed here when talking about the origin of the Hebrew words seren and lishka), that name would not have Semitic roots.

However, I always assumed that the name actually came from Hebrew. In Hebrew the people are called Pelishtim פלשתים and the land is known as Peleshet פלשת. These words would appear to come from the root פלש palash - which in Modern Hebrew means "to invade." As the Philistines were considered to be invading sea-peoples (in both Biblical tradition as well as according to recent scholarship), I thought that this was one of those frequent cases where the name of a people was given to them by others (an exonym).

Well, first of all, my understanding of palash wasn't entirely accurate. It did take on the meaning of "invade" in post-Biblical Hebrew. But in the Bible, it meant "to roll (in dust)". That said, Klein connects the two meanings. He says the original meaning of the Biblical usage was "to burrow into", and so is ultimately identical with the other meaning - "to open through, penetrate, invade." And he brings a number of cognates from other Semitic languages where it has that meaning, including Ethiopian, which gave the word falasha for the Ethiopian Jews. (But since that term - whether it meant "wanderer" or "invader" is considered derogatory, the term Beta Israel is preferred.)

And yet, Klein doesn't claim Peleshet comes from palash. I did find some sources that do make that claim, but from what I can see the question remains unanswered (probably due to the lack of written material from the Philistines). Maybe the people called themselves something like Pelishtim or maybe it was an exonym.

However, I do think that an association between the two terms was likely understood even back in the times of the Israelites - even as a folk etymology. And this could help explain something Belli mentioned in the podcast.  He pointed out that in the Septuagint (the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), some occurrences of the word Pelishtim was translated not as "Philistines" but as allophuloi - "foreigners." This translation may very well be from an ancient understanding that Pelishtim derived from palash.