Sunday, June 13, 2021

kriyat yam suf

I recently came across an early draft of the speech my son prepared for his bar mitzva, ten years ago this month. It was rather nostalgic to see it again. And while I enjoyed hearing his points, I was actually more fascinated with the typos and misspellings in this first draft. On the one hand, they prove that he actually wrote the speech himself, which was impressive for a 13 year old. But it also was cute to enter the mind of a kid who grew up in Israel, spoke English at home, and tried to straddle both worlds when writing his speech.

One of the most curious phrases he used was "the tearing of the Red Sea." Normally, in English we say "the splitting of the Red Sea." But he directly translated the Hebrew phrase kriyat yam suf קריעת ים סוף. The verb kriya, from the root קרע, means "to tear" and so in the literal sense, his translation to English was logical.

But this actually brings us to a more substantial question. Why do we call it kriyat yam suf? In the Bible, the verbs used to describe the splitting of the sea are baka בקע (as in Shemot 14:16, 21, Tehillim 78:13 and Nechemiah 9:11), or less frequently, gazar גזר (as in Tehillim 136:13). Both roots mean to split, with various nuances. So why did Rabbinic Hebrew (like in the Dayenu song found in the Haggadah) prefer a different Biblical root: kara?

I found a detailed discussion of the question in this article

"'קריעת ים סוף' כמשקפת תהליכי לשון" מאת ציון עוקשי פורסם בכתב העת דעת לשון – מחקרים בלשון העברית לתקופותיה, מכללת אפרתה, ירושלים תשס"ח

The author, Tzion Okashi, focuses primarily on the distinction between baka and kara, and suggests two possible reasons for the later use of kara. One might be from Aramaic influence, as is frequently found in words adopted in Rabbinic Hebrew. He point out that the Aramaic translations of the Bible use the root בזע to translate both בקע and קרע, which may have led to the shift of one usage to the other.

The other answer I found more interesting. He says this is due to a change in the perception of the nature of the event. While the Torah uses the word baka, that is generally applied to the splitting of a solid, hard object, like a rock or a block of wood. That type of splitting can not be repaired or restored. The action of kriya, however, is associated with the tearing of softer items like garments (as is practiced, for example, in Jewish mourning.) According to this theory, those who preferred to refer to kriyat yam suf visualized the sea closing up on itself after the split. The split was not permanent, just as clothing can be repaired, or a zipper can close the opening in a garment. Okashi writes that the Tanach chose to focus on the force of the miracle, which split the sea as one would break open a block of wood, while the Sages preferred the image of the water letting Israel pass through, only to close upon the pursuing Egyptians.

So it seems that even at that early age, our son somehow picked up on the same message the Sages did when they chose their phrasing. Quite impressive, I must say!

Sunday, May 23, 2021


The Hebrew word for jam or jelly, ribah ריבה, was coined by the father of modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. On that, everyone agrees. However, there has been debate over how he came up with the word, and if it was a good choice. Let's look at its history.

As Elon Gilad writes, the first mention of ribah was in a column by Ben-Yehuda in his newspaper, HaZvi, in 1888. To show that this was not a coinage out of whole cloth, he titled his piece "A new word that is old." Gilad summarizes Ben-Yehuda's justification for choosing the word:

In the article Ben-Yehuda set out to show how he found the word riba in the Jerusalem Talmud (Shekalim 7:9) in a passage concerning the frying of a dish call tofini. What exactly this tofini is is not at all clear, but that’s besides the point. We find a bunch of rabbis seemingly debating the recipe, when one of them says tofinei riba. Ben-Yehuda acknowledges that commentators wrote that this was a copying error and that originally the text said raka, which means “soft” - meaning that the dough was half done.

Ben-Yehuda concludes that the word riba comes from the root r-b-b and that this root means, as it means in Arabic, something condensed by heating. It's a root that gave Arabic the word murabab - jam. “Thus, we gained a new word that is old for a kind of sweets, for the kinds of fruit cooked in sugar, in honey, and it is riba,” Ben-Yehuda concluded.

However, looking at the original text of Ben-Yehuda's column (page 4), I think Gilad's explanation could use some clarification. Here's what Ben-Yehuda wrote:

My understanding is that Ben Yehuda claimed that those who felt the text should read raka רכה were in error. He relies on the parallel text in the Babylonian Talmud (Menachot 50b) which has the word with a bet - raba רבה. He relies on Rashi's explanation on the passage in Menachot, which says that raba means "a lot", so it should be baked more than once.

But then he goes on to reject that approach as well, and says that the word should be read as riba ריבה, not raba, according to the the text in the Jerusalem Talmud. And for this he quotes the Arabic cognate. 

As Klein writes, the Arabic verb rabba means "he reared, increased, originally 'he made thick or dense,'" and rubb means "thickened juice of fruit", which led to mirabb - "jam, preserved fruit."

And so Ben Yehuda concludes that this is how he understands the Talmudic passage - the tofini is not repeatedly cooked, but rather made thick by cooking. 

Ben-Yehuda's coinage, and particularly his interpretation of the text in the Talmud, aroused the ire of another pillar of modern Hebrew - the writer S.Y. Agnon. In his 1943 novel Shevuat Emunim ("Betrothed"), Agnon writes about pre-World War I Jaffa, and says that in the evenings they would drink tea and eat preserves, and then adds:

If some intellectual were present, he would make fun of the hotel-keeper who had misunderstood a Talmudic word, and called fruit preserves 'jam.'

This was clearly a jab at Ben-Yehuda. Not only does Agnon say that it is a mistake to call preserves (for which he uses the older word mirkahat מרקחת), but he refers to him as a "hotel keeper." In the Hebrew, that phrase is baal hamalon בעל המלון. Ben-Yehuda was the author of the first modern Hebrew dictionary, and so could have been known as the baal hamilon בעל המילון (literally, "master of the dictionary.") But Agnon rejected Ben-Yehuda's switching raba for riba in the Talmudic passage, and made the same vowel switch back from milon to malon.

Many have also criticized Ben-Yehuda's rejection of the scholars who claimed that the word in Shekalim should be read raka. According to them, that word represents the more accurate texts of the passage (as well as the text in Menachot). And perhaps for that reason, when Ben-Yehuda's dictionary was published after his death, neither the entry for riba, nor the notes by Tur-Sinai mention the Shekalim passage at all, but rely entirely on the Arabic cognate, and other medieval Hebrew words based on the same root:

We've now shown Ben-Yehuda's original justification for choosing riba for jam, and the revised explanation in his dictionary. A third report, found often in Ultra-Orthodox circles (who in his lifetime and even today don't have much respect for Ben-Yehuda), attributes Ben-Yehuda with a poor understanding of basic Talmudic terminology. There are a few different versions, but they generally say that he read a passage like this:

"מאי ריבה? מיני מתיקה"

Mai ribah? Minei metika.

and from it coined the word ribah. If that were so, it would indeed be a gross misreading of the text. The phrase mai ribah is found in a number of Talmudic passages (for example Sotah 16b), and means, "What does it include?" This is because ריבה riba in this case literally means "an extension of scope, widening qualification". So while the passage really meant "What does [this case] include? Sweet things", Ben-Yehuda thought it meant "What is riba? Sweet things", and so used it to refer to jam.

The problem is not only as we've seen did Ben-Yehuda not use that passage as his reason for the coinage, but there is no such passage anywhere in Talmudic literature (nor is there for any of the variants of this story). It's rather ironic that people who are trying to make fun of Ben-Yehuda for not understanding the Talmud are actually proving their own ignorance instead. They should really leave the satire to people like Agnon...

Sunday, May 16, 2021

cameo and kamea

I was recently asked if there is a connection between the English word "cameo" and the Hebrew word קמיע kamea - "amulet." 

If that seems like a strange suggestion, perhaps you aren't familiar with the background of "cameo." While today it usually means "a small theatrical role usually performed by a well-known actor and often limited to a single scene," that's not the original sense. (Modern Hebrew also has hofa'at kamea הופעת קמע meaning a "cameo appearance, but that is a much more recent usage.) The original sense can be found in this entry from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

early 15c., kaadmaheu, camew, chamehieux and many other spellings (from early 13c. in Anglo-Latin), "engraving in relief upon a precious stone with two layers of colors" (such as onyx, agate, or shell) and done so as to utilize the effect of the colors, from Old French camaieu and directly from Medieval Latin cammaeus, which is of unknown origin, perhaps ultimately from Arabic qamaa'il "flower buds," or Persian chumahan "agate."

In 19c. also used of other raised, carved work on a miniature scale. Transferred sense of "small character or part that stands out from other minor parts" in a play, etc., is from 1928, from earlier meaning "short literary sketch or portrait" (1851), a transferred sense from cameo silhouettes. A cameotype (1864) was a small, vignette daguerreotype mounted in a jeweled setting.

Since cameo originally meant a type of jewelry, that's much closer to the sense of "amulet." Yet, none of the suggestions mentioned in this entry can be connected to kamea. (I haven't been able to find any Hebrew cognate to the qamaa'il referenced above. In fact, the claims is disputed entirely in this article, saying that qamaa'il is not found in Arabic dictionaries.)

However, that doesn't mean a connection isn't possible. Let's first look at the origin of kamea, to see if it can bring us closer to cameo. (Ben Yehuda points out that the original pronunciation was kamia, but the transition to kamea may have been from the Italian "cameo.") Here's Klein's entry:

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

email subscriptions update

As I mentioned in an earlier post, FeedBurner, the service that provided email subscriptions to Balashon, will be ending that service in a few months.

I've set up a new service with Mailchimp, to provide the same option of receiving Balashon posts by email. 

If anyone would like to subscribe that way, you can easily do so by entering your email address in the box on the right margin of this page, under Subscribe to Balashon by email.

For those who were already subscribed via FeedBurner, I've migrated your subscriptions to Mailchimp. If you do not wish to receive those emails, you can easily unsubscribe by clicking the unsubscribe from this list link at the bottom of every email.

Thanks for your patience during this transition, and I hope to have some new posts with regular Balashon content up soon!

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

still working on the email subscriptions

I'm still working on getting the new email subscription service working, so I need to do some additional test posts.

To make this a little more interesting, I'll provide some links about other things I've been working on.

For over a year, I've been writing for 929 - the project that studies a chapter of Bible each day. 

You can read my posts, which generally talk about words, here.

I also write for HaMizrachi, a magazine with articles about Torah and other subjects, printed around the holidays. Again, I write about words, and while there isn't an index of all my articles, my latest one - for Yom HaAtzmaut - is here.

Aside from writing about words, I also like to write about the Bible and Jewish thought. I've published in Tradition, Lehrhaus, Hakirah, and JBQ. I've put everything I've published on my profile. Feel free to browse and let me know what you think.

Ok, that's good for now, I probably should save some more in case I need additional posts like this...

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.