Saturday, April 17, 2021

changes for email subscribers

Just a little maintenance here. Feedburner, the service that provided email subscriptions to Balashon, will be ending that service in a few months. So I am in the process of investigating new options and will hopefully migrate all subscribers soon. 

If you don't subscribe by email, you can ignore this message. Thanks!

Monday, March 29, 2021

mashal and moshel

The 929 Project, which covers a chapter of the Tanakh every day over a 3.5 year cycle, will be starting the book of Mishlei (Proverbs) soon. Since I write a weekly entry for 929, I thought I would take the opportunity here to look into the word mashal משל - the source of the book Mishlei.

In the Bible, the root משל has two meanings - "to rule" and "to resemble, to make like, to speak in parables." The first sense, to rule, appears 81 times as a verb, and also has noun forms, like moshel מושל - "ruler. governor" and memshala ממשלה - meaning "rule, dominion" in Biblical Hebrew, and "government" in Modern Hebrew.

The second meaning occurs 17 times as a verb, and an additional 39 as a noun, generally translated as "proverb" (giving the name to the biblical book.)

Is there a connection between the two meanings? Many older sources do make a connection. Here are a few examples:

Rabbi Hirsch, on Bereshit 4:9, writes that the basic meaning of mashal is "to declare what something is and should be, to give its character and designation. Hence: to command, to rule. […] Hence, also the Proverbs of Shlomo: saying which tell us what men and things are and should be. So in general. But hence mashal also means quite specially such a saying or sentence whose meaning refers not to the things actually described in it, but they are used metaphorically to refer to some general fact or teaching, to describe the character or designation of something else, i.e. a parable."

Jastrow has the original meaning as "to handle, to touch" (he brings the example of Yoma 46a - "the fire had taken hold of them.")  That sense developed into a) to attend, manage, control, and b) something tangible, substantial, plausible. From there it developed to "a truth substantiated by an illustration, wise saying, fable, allegory, example."

Steinberg suggests that the earlier, common meaning was "to straighten, to organize." This organization can both be done by a ruler, or by an orator, who arranges two concepts in a parable.

Gesenius, in his dictionary, writes: "Learned men have made many attempts to reconcile the significations of making like and ruling […] I have no doubt but from the signification of making like, is derived from that of judging, forming an opinion […] which is nearly allied to the notion of giving sentence, ordering, ruling."

However, more recent scholars have begun to doubt that the two meanings share a common origin. Klein, for example, lists them as two separate entries. For the meaning "to rule," he provides one cognate: the Phoenician משל. For the sense "to be like, resemble, to speak in parables," he offers a number of Semitic cognates:

Aramaic מְתַל (= was like, resembled), Syriac מְתַל (= he compared; he spoke in parables), Akkadian mashālu (= to be like), Arabic mathala (= was like, resembled, imitated), mithl (= a thing similar, resemblance, likeness), Ethiopian masala (= became like).

The substitution of the "sh" for "t/th" in many of these languages, but only for this meaning, could indicate a separate origin. (The Aramaic amatla אמתלא - "excuse, pretext" derives from the cognate מתל, and has entered Hebrew as אמתלה, with the same meaning.)

But as Prof. Chaim Cohen argued in this comprehensive article (English summary here, pp. 372-373), this may not be the case. He writes that "while a majority of Biblical scholars today derive the term משל from a primary verb מש"ל 'to be like' […] this view, despite many attempts to bolster it with additional evidence, has never been sufficiently compelling to win overall scholarly approval." He goes on to claim that the original meaning of the noun mashal is "saying" and the verb means "to express, relate." 

This understanding fits the book of Proverbs well. While many of the Proverbs are indeed parables - for example, "A passerby who gets embroiled in someone else’s quarrel is like one who seizes a dog by its ears." (Mishlei 26:17), others are simply sayings without a metaphor: "Do not envy evil men; Do not desire to be with them" (Mishlei 24:1). 

So it could well be that the original meaning of mashal was "saying" and then later developed to the more specific type of saying - the parable.

If that's the case, perhaps we can make a connection to "ruling" after all. I did not see this mentioned in the sources I read, but there are other words in Hebrew that connect ruling to speaking - see my posts on nagid נגיד and amar אמר. It would not surprise me if mashal is an additional example.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

sutro and tzair

I grew up in San Francisco, and anyone from there will recognize the name Sutro. 

Sutro Tower is giant radio and TV antenna that can be seen from most places in the city. It sits on a hill between Twin Peaks and Mount Sutro, another place with the Sutro name.

In the Sutro Historic District, on the Pacific coast, you'll find Sutro Heights Park, and it once included the Sutro Baths. And there are other places with the Sutro name in the area.

All of these places were named for Adolph Sutro (1830-1898), the first Jewish mayor of San Francisco1. He was a collector of books, and when I lived there I heard he had a manuscript with the signature of Maimonides (now housed in Sutro Library of course).  I never visited that exhibit - maybe I'll try on my next visit.

I recently learned that this pervasive word, Sutro, actually has Hebrew origins. According to this article, "the family name is probably a writing of the Aramaic zutra." And indeed, the Hebrew entry for the catalog of his books writes Sutro as זוטרא (zutra).

The Aramaic word zutra means "small." From it we get in modern Hebrew zutar - זוטר, an adjective meaning "junior" or "minor." Klein writes that the root of zutra - זטר - is related to the root זער - "to be small", which in turn is related to the root צער - also meaning "to be small, insignificant." This last root gives us the word tzair צעיר - "young" and tzoer צוער, which appears once in the Bible (Zechariah 13:7) as "shepherd boy," and today means "cadet."

Another meaning of the root צער - "sadness, suffering" only appears in post-biblical Hebrew. In the hitpael form - הצטער - it literally means "to feel pain, remorse", and is used to say "I'm sorry" - אני מצטער ani mitztaer.

According to Klein, the two roots are related. One who is treated caused to suffer, treated shamefully, is "belittled" or "made insignificant." Yaakov Etsion, in this article, agrees that the roots are related, but suggests instead that it's not others making the mitztaer feel small, but the one suffering acts as if they are contracting, reduced in size, as opposed to someone comfortable who can relax and spread out.

While Adolph Sutro's name may have meant "small," his legacy in San Francisco is anything but insignificant, and the landmarks bearing his name are the tallest in the city.

1 I have been informed that actually, the first Jewish mayor of San Francisco was Washington Bartlett. Bartlett later converted to Christianity, but was Jewish during his term as mayor.  

Monday, March 01, 2021

minaret and menorah

The word "minaret", meaning the tower of a mosque, is cognate with the Hebrew menorah מנורה. From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

"slender, lofty turret of a mosque," typically rising by stages and having one or more projecting balconies around it, 1680s, from French minaret, from a Turkish pronunciation of Arabic manarah, manarat "minaret," also "lamp, lighthouse," which is related to manar "candlestick," a derivative of nar "fire;" compare Hebrew ner "lamp" (see menorah).

Menorah was the term for the lampstand with seven lamps first established for the roaming Tabernacle, and then later in the Temple in Jerusalem. It was famously lit again by the Maccabees, when the Temple was rededicated, after the Greeks had defiled it. This is commemorated in the holiday of Chanukah. During that holiday, a lamp is lit with additional candles every night, reaching eight candles on the last night, plus one extra (ninth) candle used to light the others. 

To distinguish between the menorah used in the Temple and what was lit in homes on Chanukah, traditionally the latter was called menorat chanukah מנורת חנוכה, although some people used menorah for both. Sephardic and Balkan Jews used the term chanukiya חנוכייה (with the accent on the second to last syllable - chanuKIya), and that term was introduced into modern Hebrew by Hemda Ben Yehuda (Eliezer Ben Yehuda's wife). 

Today in Israel menorah refers to the lamp in the Temple, the symbol of the State of Israel (which was modeled on the biblical menorah) and for "lamp" in general. Chanukiya (with the accent on the last symbol) is used for the lamp lit on Chanukah.

Menorah derives from the root  נור, and other words related to lamps also come from the same source. Ner נר means "candle" and nurah נורה means "bulb."

Another related word is sanver - "to blind." It was back formed from sanverim סנורים - "blindness" (as found in Bereshit 19:11). Klein provides the following etymology for sanverim:

According to some scholars, euphemistic use of Akka. shunwuru (= to give light). According to others סַנְוֵרִים is formed from the Siph‘el of נור (= to give light), used euphemistically.

 A sister root to נור is נהר, meaning "to shine." It is found in only a few biblical verses (e.g. Yeshaya 60:5 and Iyov 3:4). But its use in Aramaic is much more common. And just as sanverim means blindness and may have euphemistic origins, the term used in Hebrew for "euphemism" also comes from a phrase meaning blindness: סגי נהור sagi-nahor. It literally means someone with "(more than) enough light", a euphemism for a blind person. That classic case of euphemism has been extended to all euphemisms, which are known as לשון סגי נהור lashon sagi nahor.

Monday, February 08, 2021

mafia and hiftzir

There are many theories as to the etymology of the word "mafia." One of the leading ones says it comes from the Arabic marfud - "rejected":

1875, from Italian Mafia "Sicilian secret society of criminals" (the prevailing sense outside Sicily), earlier, "spirit of hostility to the law and its ministers." A member is a mafioso (1870), fem. mafiosa, plural mafiosi, and this may be the older word in this sense. Arabic is often cited as the ultimate source (the Arabs ruled Sicily for more than two centuries in the Middle Ages), but which Arabic word is a matter of disagreement.

The immediate source of mafioso, then, would be 19c. Sicilian mafiusu, "signifying a bully, arrogant but also fearless, enterprising, and proud" [Gambetta], who favors as the Arabic source an adjective from marfud "rejected."

According to this sourcemarfud ("rejected") became the Sicilian marpiuni ("swindler") and from there to mafiusu

As often happens when I read etymologies of English words with Semitic roots, I wonder if there is a cognate in Hebrew. Well, this is one I would never have expected.


To find a Hebrew word related to marfud, we need to look a seemingly unrelated Hebrew root: פצר. It appears in the Bible seven times - six of which are in the kal form - patzar. In all of those cases it means "to implore, to beg earnestly." Modern Hebrew uses the hifil form of the verb, hiftzir, to mean "implore" as well. Klein writes that it is a secondary form of the root פרץ - "to push, to break through." That root can also mean "to spread, to extend."

This sense of "spreading, extension" is how classic commentators understood the use of פצר in its seventh use, in Shmuel I 15:23. The prophet Shmuel is castigating Shaul, the king, and says:

כִּי חַטַּאת־קֶסֶם מֶרִי וְאָוֶן וּתְרָפִים הַפְצַר

This is a notoriously difficult phrase to explain. It ends with the words utrafim haftzar (our root). Rashi says it means "an addition", and in that light, ArtScroll translates the phrase as:

"For rebelliousness is like the sin of sorcery, and verbosity [haftzar] is like the iniquity of idolatry"

However, modern translations, like the JPS have a different interpretation. They offer:

"For rebellion is like the sin of divination; defiance [haftzar], like the iniquity of teraphim"

Translating haftzar as "defiance" provides symmetry with the first half of the phrase, where everyone agrees that meri means "rebelliousness." And there is linguistic support for this translation as well. 

David Yellin wrote in an essay, "Forgotten Meanings of Hebrew Roots in the Bible" (published here, and quoted by Stahl in his etymological dictionary of Arabic) that this use of the root פצר is unrelated to the other six, and based on cognates with other Semitic languages should be translated as "defiance." One of those cognates is the Arabic rafad - "to reject," which is the source of our word marfud above. 

How did he get from fatzar to rafad? Through a number of phonetic shifts. First of all, the Hebrew tz sound can become d in Arabic (for example the Hebrew רמץ remetz becomes ramida in Arabic, the source of the month Ramadan.) And then through metathesis, fadar became rafad.


Quite a journey, no? So how can you remember that "mafia" and fatzar are cognate? Just think of a mafioso imploring someone to not be defiant...

Sunday, January 24, 2021


A Spanish word that has entered English slang is loco - "crazy." The Online Etymology Dictionary provides the following origin:

"mad, crazy," 1844, American English, from Spanish loco (adj.) "insane," of uncertain origin, perhaps from Arabic lauqa, fem. of 'alwaq "fool, crazy person."

The American Heritage Dictionary goes a bit further in their entry for the Semitic root lwq:

 Arabic root, to soften. loco, perhaps from Arabic lawqā, feminine singular of alwaq, bent, foolish, from lāqa, to soften.

Could this Arabic root have a Hebrew cognate? I believe there might be one.

Post-biblical Hebrew has the root לקה, meaning "to strike, to flog." The biblical equivalent is נכה - "to best, strike." The root לקה gives us the noun מלקות malkut (sometimes pronounced malkot) for "punishment by lashes," whereas the root נכה provides מכה maka, in plural מכות makkot. This last word is the name of the Talmudic tractate Makkot, which deals with the laws of punishment by lashes, and within it frequently uses the synonym malkot. (For more on the confusion between the two terms, see here.)

However, this is not the only meaning of לקה. Klein offers the following meanings: "to be stricken, be smitten, be flogged, be scourged; to be affected with disease; to be eclipsed." (This last meaning gives us the Hebrew term for "eclipse" - ליקוי likui.) 

In his Arukh HaShalem, Kohut writes that the essence of the root means "to be softened, beaten," and mentions the Arabic root that means "to soften." So it seems we have our cognate. As proof, The Arukh (the dictionary published about 800 years earlier upon which Kohut wrote his supplement) quotes a Talmudic passage (Yevamot 80b), which mentions someone who has שער לקוי se'ar lakui. The Arukh says that means he has "soft hair" (and Rashi agrees in his commentary.)

For some reason, there are many fast food restaurants called El Pollo Loco, including Israeli equivalents. While they say it means "crazy chicken," I think "softened chicken" actually sounds more appetizing...

Sunday, January 17, 2021


The word for gerbil, the small rodent, has Semitic origins:

1849, gerbile, from French gerbille, from Modern Latin Gerbillus, the genus name, from gerbo, from Arabic yarbu. Earlier English form, jarbuah (1660s), was directly from Arabic.

Another rodent that I hadn't heard of before also gets its name from the same Arabic word - the jerboa. They aren't from the same genus or even family, but because both are small desert rodents, the Arabic name was also used:

small desert rodent, 1660s, Modern Latin, from Arabic jarbu "flesh of the loins," also the name of a small jumping rodent of North Africa. So called for the strong muscles of its hind legs.

The Arabic Etymological Dictionary finds cognates in other Semitic languages:

yarbu‘ : a rodent, jerboa [Akkadian arrabu, Syriac yarbu‘a, Ebla arrabu]

Is there also a connection to any Hebrew words? 

One possibility is that it's related to akhbar עכבר - "mouse." We discussed akhbar a few years ago, relying on the theory that it derives from the root כבר - "great." Those that connect yarbu to akhbar take a different route. I found that theory mentioned here, here, and here. While they don't map it out directly, my understanding is that the "kh/k" sound dropped out (perhaps easier to imagine knowing that it was also pronounced/spelled agbaru in Akkadian, since the g sound gets swallowed in the b sound), and then through metathesis it became arrabu

And while the Online Etymology Dictionary says the name of the rodent came from the strong leg muscles, the first source (an essay by Prof. Richard Steiner) posits that the root first meant "mouse" and then later meant "muscle," particularly the Achilles tendon, or hamstring. He points out that in other languages we also find the word for muscles deriving from the word for mouse, including English:

"contractible animal tissue consisting of bundles of fibers," late 14c., "a muscle of the body," from Latin musculus "a muscle," literally "a little mouse," diminutive of mus "mouse".

So called because the shape and movement of some muscles (notably biceps) were thought to resemble mice. The analogy was made in Greek, too, where mys is both "mouse" and "muscle," and its combining form gives the medical prefix myo-. Compare also Old Church Slavonic mysi "mouse," mysica "arm;" German Maus "mouse; muscle," Arabic 'adalah "muscle," 'adal "field mouse;" Cornish logodenfer "calf of the leg," literally "mouse of the leg." 

Steiner then goes on to suggest that other Hebrew words for muscle might derive from the same root, including ekev עקב - "heel" and arkuv ערקוב - "knee joint, hock."

There is another small rodent, which like the gerbil, is often kept as a pet - the hamster. The word hamster doesn't have a Semitic etymology, but the hamsters we're familiar with today do have a connection to Israel. In 1930 in Jerusalem, the zoologist Israel Aharoni successfully bred a pair of Syrian hamsters, and the hamster pets found today worldwide are descendants of his efforts.