Sunday, January 08, 2023


What is the origin of the Talmudic word דְּיוֹקָן deyokan? In rabbinic literature it meant "image, likeness", and today, in modern Hebrew, means "portrait, profile."

Steinsaltz provides two theories:
The origin of this word is not entirely clear. Some authorities state that it is derived from the Greek δείκανον, deikanon, which refers to a picture, especially an embroidered one. Others think that it is related to the word εἰκών, eikon, which means statue or picture, with the added Hebrew or Greek prefix d or diyu.

In his Hebrew commentary (Hullin, p. 389), he makes a similar statement, quoting both theories and noting that the second one is an explanation of the Geonim, who claim that the prefix means "two", and therefore the word means a duplicate of an image.

Let's expand on both possibilities.

The first theory says it derives from the Greek deikanon. That word is cognate with the verb deiknynai meaning "to show." There are a number of English words that ultimately come from that root, including these two:

  • paradigm: "an example, a model," from Late Latin paradigma "pattern, example," especially in grammar, from Greek paradeigma "pattern, model; precedent, example," from paradeiknynai "exhibit, represent," literally "show side by side," from para- "beside"  + deiknynai "to show"
  • policy: ["written insurance agreement"], 1560s, "written contract to pay a certain sum on certain contingencies," from French police "contract, bill of lading" (late 14c.), from Italian polizza "written evidence of a transaction, note, bill, ticket, lottery ticket," from Old Italian poliza, which, according to OED, is from Medieval Latin apodissa "receipt for money," from Greek apodexis "proof, declaration," from apo- "off" + deiknynai "to show"
The latter was interesting to me, since I didn't realize the other meaning of policy, "way of management", isn't related and has an entirely different etymology. It comes from the Greek polis - "city, state",  which has its parallel in the Hebrew מדינה medina.

As far as the second theory as to the origin of deyokan, Klein concurs:
Surely connected with Gk. eikon (= likeness; see אִיקוֹנִין), but the ד is of uncertain origin. According to some scholars דְּיוֹקָן is the contraction of דְּיוֹ (= Gk. dyo, ‘two’), and eikon, and properly means ‘a double image’.

The Greek eikon gives us the English "icon" as well:

"image, figure, picture," also "statue," from Late Latin icon, from Greek eikon "likeness, image, portrait; image in a mirror; a semblance, phantom image;" in philosophy, "an image in the mind," related to eikenai "be like, look like," which is of uncertain origin.

Both explanations seem reasonable to me. I'll leave it to you to consider which you consider either a paradigmatic example of a good etymology or an iconic one.

Sunday, January 01, 2023

persimmon and afarsemon

I was listening to an episode of The History of English Podcast, and I was surprised to hear "persimmon" included in a list of words originally from the Native American Algonquin language. I really enjoy eating the fruit persimmon, which goes by the name אֲפַרְסְמוֹן - afarsemon in Hebrew. Those two words are obviously connected, and I know that the word afarsemon appears in the Talmud. So how could persimmon be an Algonquin word?

Well, I decided to check my facts. First I confirmed that persimmon is a New World word:

the North American date-plum, a tree common in the U.S. South, 1610s, from Powhatan (Algonquian) pasimenan "fruit dried artificially," from pasimeneu "he dries fruit," containing Proto-Algonquian */-min-/ "fruit, berry."

And I was also right about afarsemon. However, in the Talmud it doesn't refer to a sweet, fleshy, orange fruit. Rather, it was a fragrant plant whose oil produced very valuable perfume. As noted here, the "afarsimon was considered so valuable that at one point it was literally worth its weight in gold."

Many scholars, such as the botanist Yehuda Feliks, identify the afarsemon with the shrub Commiphora opobalsamum. (Others say it was Commiphora gileadensis). It went by many different names (or may have been associated with various similar plants.) Many of them are listed in the Wikipedia entry "Balm of Gilead." 

Included in this list is the biblical term בֹּשֶׂם bosem, which appears 29 times in the Bible, or the variant בְּשָׂמִי (my basam) that appears once in Shir HaShirim 5:1 . We actually discussed bosem many years ago, when we noted that it eventually gave the English words "balsam" and "balm" - so it shouldn't be surprising that the term "Balm of Gilead" is related. (The variant basam may have been the one borrowed into Greek.)

According to Klein (quoting Loew), bosem and afarsemon may be related as well. Here is his entry for afarsemon:

balsam tree; balm. [According to Löw a blend of Gk. balsamon (see בָּשָׂם) and Aram. אֲפוּרְסְמָא Syr. אֲפוּרְסֶמָא (= balsam tree, balm), which is a loan word from Armenian aprsam.]

Feliks, in his book Plant World of the Bible (Hebrew), in the entry for bosem, writes that while in Biblical times bosem referred specifically to Commiphora opobalsamum, in Talmudic times bosem took on the general sense of "scent, fragrance" leaving more specific words, like afarsemon, to refer to the expensive balm. (He also mentions the Talmudic terms אפורסמא, בלסמון and אפובלסמון).

So when and how did the confusion between afarsemon and persimmon begin? I couldn't find an exact date or a specific person who started calling the persimmon as afarsemon in Hebrew. But it seems to have happened in the mid-20th century, and the general consensus is the reasonable conclusion that it was due to the similarity between the two words. Feliks notes (in 1968) that in Israel there is no remnant of the original afarsemon orchards that grew in Jericho and Ein Gedi. So although afarsemon had a rich cultural heritage, it was available for public use by that time.

I have a theory that may give an additional reason. While the word "persimmon" is Native American, related species grew elsewhere in the world, particularly in East Asia. In Japanese the word for persimmon is kaki, and that is the adopted word used in many European languages, like French, Spanish, and German. But that word couldn't be adopted in Israel, since in Yiddish, kaki means "poop" (related to farkakte - lousy, literally "full of crap.") It has the same meaning in Modern Hebrew. (I've seen European speakers here refer to an afarsemon as kaki, and believe me, that raises some eyebrows.) So there was no way that would be the word used in Israel. So why not adopt the available, and similar, afarsemon?

But this would not be the only creative Israeli take on the persimmon. According to the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food (entry "persimmon"), Israelis developed a hybrid of the American and Japanese persimmons, which have "no seeds, no core, and even more importantly, no bitter taste even when unripe." Sometimes called "Sharon fruit", it is exported all over the world, and at least for me, is something I look forward during its season - every winter. It might not be worth its weight in gold, but I wouldn't trade it for any perfume.

** Update:

I just thought of one other reason why modern Hebrew may have been comfortable with adopting afarsemon for persimmon. They already had a fruit that began with a similar sound: afarsek אפרסק - "peach." So for speakers of Hebrew, who never witnessed afarsemon as a perfume, may have easily begun using it for a fruit based on the similarity to afarsek.

** Update to the update:

The great blog Language Hat recently shared this post, and as often happens when that occurs, there are great comments by very knowledgeable people. One of them noted:

The afarsek connection makes sense to me, as I had always (until looking it up a few years ago and finding the Algonquin connection) folk-etymologized afarsemon as a blend of afarsek and rimon “pomegranate”, on the model of afarshezif “nectarine” < afarsek + shezif “plum”.

I completely missed mentioning אֲפַרְשְׁזִיף afarshezif. And certainly that additional fruit name would encourage people to think afarsemon had a similar origin. But in my defense, I did look at a few lists of fruits in Hebrew and afarshezif wasn't there. While I definitely know the word, I guess it skipped my mind. But interestingly, it doesn't appear in either Klein or Even-Shoshan. The latter is more surprising, since it includes plenty of slang and colloquialisms. But as these pages point out, it's a mistake to call it an afarshezif, since nectarines aren't a crossbreed of peaches and plums, but their own fruit. Therefore, they say it's proper to call it נֶקְטָרִינָה nektarina, and I suppose that's why it didn't enter the dictionary (or any of those lists I looked at.)

Monday, December 26, 2022

hedyot and idiot

What is the connection between the Hebrew hedyot הֶדְיוֹט - "layman, layperson" and the English "idiot"?

They share a common origin, but in this case the Hebrew is closer to the original meaning than the English is. 

Hedyot entered Hebrew in the rabbinic period, being borrowed from Greek. It was used in phrases like כֹּהֵן הֶדְיוֹט kohen hedyot (as distinguished from the High Priest), or in this mishna, discussing permitted work on the intermediate days of the festivals:

הַהֶדְיוֹט תּוֹפֵר כְּדַרְכּוֹ, וְהָאֻמָּן מַכְלִיב

A layman, who is not a skilled tailor, may sew in his usual manner if necessary for the Festival, whereas a craftsman may form only temporary stitches. (Moed Katan 1:8)

Klein notes that its original meaning of hedyot was "a private man, a layman, a common person" and provides this etymology:

Gk. idiotes (= private person, one not holding office; layman; an ignorant), from idios (= one’s own, private, personal, separated, distinct)

The same idios gave us two other English words that preserve that original sense of "separate, private":

  • idiom: "phrase or expression peculiar to a language"
  • idiosyncrasy: behavior or thought particular to an individual
But what about "idiot"? That seems to have a different meaning than the words we've mentioned so far. Well, it took a longer journey:

early 14c., "person so mentally deficient as to be incapable of ordinary reasoning;" also in Middle English "simple man, uneducated person, layman" (late 14c.), from Old French idiote "uneducated or ignorant person" (12c.), from Latin idiota "ordinary person, layman; outsider," in Late Latin "uneducated or ignorant person," from Greek idiotes "layman, person lacking professional skill" (opposed to writer, soldier, skilled workman), literally "private person" (as opposed to one taking part in public affairs), used patronizingly for "ignorant person," from idios "one's own"

So like hedyot, it originally meant a private person (as opposed to a ruler like a king) or a common soldier (as opposed to a military officer). Only later did it come to mean someone uneducated, then a more "technical" term for someone mentally deficient, and eventually in our day simply an informal term for a foolish or stupid person. 

That last meaning exists in modern Hebrew as well - as אִידְיוֹט (borrowed from European languages). Despite their similarities, it's important for any speaker of Hebrew today to not use them interchangeably.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

choref and cherpa

A reader recently asked if I've explored the words חֹרֶף choref - "winter" and חֶרְפָּה cherpa - "shame." I know that I wrote about choref. It's a post I go back to often, since it's a quick way of explaining how words can change over time (stav used to be the later season, and choref the earlier one.) In fact, I revisited it in a recent column in HaMizrachi Weekly (see page 28 here).

However, to my "shame" I never thought to write about a connection to cherpa. Perhaps that's because Klein doesn't suggest one, and back in 2007 when I first wrote that post, I relied on him even more heavily than I do now.

So I thought of writing an update to that post, exploring the possible connection to those two words. But as it happened, Mitchell First beat me to it. He recently sent me a copy of his latest book, Words for the Wise. As with his previous books, it includes many interesting short essays on history, liturgy, and of course the history and meaning of Hebrew words. (For the latter topic, you'll often notice credit to Balashon, which is always appreciated).

Mitchell wrote a truly comprehensive review of the root חרף and at this point, I don't feel that I have much to add. His original column on the topic can be viewed here, although the book has an expanded version (pp. 167-174), so if you can, it's worth taking a look there.

Happy winter everyone!

Sunday, November 20, 2022

pulmus and polemic

The connection between the English word "polemic" and the Hebrew פּוּלְמוּס pulmus seems fairly obvious. They both mean "controversy, dispute, debate" and both ultimately derive from the Greek polemos. Cased closed, right?

Well, I, for one, was surprised to learn that while what I wrote above is true, they each shared an earlier meaning, no longer in use. The Greek polemos meant "war", and that was the original meaning of both pulmus and polemic. 

Here are the Online Etymology Dictionary entries for "polemic" both as noun and adjective:

polemic (n.)

1630s, "controversial argument or discussion, a controversy," from French polémique (16c./17c.), noun use of adjective meaning "disputatious, controversial" (see polemic (adj.)). From 1670s as "a disputant, one who writes or argues in opposition to another."

polemic (adj.)

"of or pertaining to controversy," 1640s, from French polémique "disputatious, controversial," or directly from Greek polemikos "of war, warlike, belligerent; skilled in war, fit for service; like an enemy, stirring up hostility," from polemos "war," a word of unknown origin. 

And here is Klein's entry for pulmus:

פּוּלְמוֹס, פֻּלְמוֹס m.n. (pl. פּוּלְמוֹסִים, also פּוּלְמוֹסִיּוֹת) PBH 1 war. NH 2 polemic. [From Gk. polemos (= war), which is related to pelemixein (= to shake, cause to tremble), from IE * pelem–, enlargement of base *pel– (= to shake, swing).] 

We find the meaning "war" in a number of Talmudic sources, such as Mishna Sotah 9:14:

בַּפֻּלְמוֹס שֶׁל אַסְפַּסְיָנוּס גָּזְרוּ עַל עַטְרוֹת חֲתָנִים, וְעַל הָאֵרוּס. בַּפֻּלְמוֹס שֶׁל טִיטוּס גָּזְרוּ עַל עַטְרוֹת כַּלּוֹת, וְשֶׁלֹא יְלַמֵּד אָדָם אֶת בְּנוֹ יְוָנִית. בַּפֻּלְמוֹס הָאַחֲרוֹן גָּזְרוּ שֶׁלֹּא תֵצֵא הַכַּלָּה בָּאַפִּרְיוֹן בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר, וְרַבּוֹתֵינוּ הִתִּירוּ שֶׁתֵּצֵא הַכַּלָּה בָּאַפִּרְיוֹן בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר:   

In the war [pulemus] of Vespasian the Sages decreed upon the crowns of bridegrooms, i.e., that bridegrooms may no longer wear crowns, and upon the drums, meaning they also banned the playing of drums. In the war of Titus they also decreed upon the crowns of brides, and they decreed that a person should not teach his son Greek. In the last war, meaning the bar Kokheva revolt, they decreed that a bride may not go out in a palanquin inside the city, but our Sages permitted a bride to go out in a palanquin inside the city, as this helps the bride maintain her modesty. 

We have a citation above as to the earliest appearance of "polemic" meaning dispute in English. When did the meaning change in Hebrew?

Kutcher (Milim V'Toldotehen, 31) writes that the change from "war" to "war of words" was a result of influence from European languages like German and English. However, he doesn't say exactly when. 

Ben-Yehuda has no entry for pulmus in his dictionary at all - which isn't surprising since he avoided including in it words that he considered "foreign."

The Historical Dictionary Project of the Academy of the Hebrew Language has the earliest "modern" meaning in a 1911 work.  That surprised me, since I assumed that the polemics written in the Middle Ages to defend Judaism were known as pulmusim, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

So as so frequently happens, even the most obvious words leave much for me to discover. 

Monday, November 07, 2022

chesed and chasid

There are some words in Biblical Hebrew that are difficult to interpret because they only appear once in the entire Tanakh. We've discussed plenty of those. However, there are other roots that are so common, and have such variety of meaning, that it can be just as difficult to pin down the "main" sense (if there even is one.) The root חסד is certainly one of those cases.

Its two main forms appear frequently: חֶסֶד hesed (246 times) and חָסִיד hasid (32 times). But what do they mean? Hesed can be easily defined as "kindness" (or an act of kindness), "grace", or "mercy." The related hasid is either an adjective, hesed-like, or a noun, "one who does hesed." But that doesn't make its translation any simpler - it can mean (one who is) pious, devout/devoted or kind. 

So lets look at some different explanations of these words and how scholars have tried to interpret them.

Klein has both words representing kindness. He defines hesed in this order:

1 kindness, goodness, mercy. 2 affection. 3 lovely appearance.

And hasid, according to him, has a similar development. In Biblical Hebrew it means "kind, benevolent", and only in Modern Hebrew does it gain the sense of "pious, godly, devout."

The BDB entry (note the new Sefaria BDB resource!) goes further than Klein. They also have the root starting with "kindness", but note that both words can refer to piety in the Tanakh as well (e.g, hesed - Yeshaya 57:1; hasid - Tehilim 4:4). 

Gesenius says the root has a different original meaning: "to love, desire." This "desire" comes to mean "zeal" or "love" for anyone - expressing itself in kindness or mercy. In other contexts, it can reflect piety (towards God) or the grace of God toward humans. That sense of grace is expanded, in some cases, to beauty in general (as in Esther 2:9,17).

The Ben Yehuda dictionary entry for hesed begins with the translation "grace" and explains it as something "beyond the requirement of the law, not done out of obligation but because of love." In fact, this is the only translation offered by Ben Yehuda. As far as hasid, he initially defines it as "one who acts with hesed," then "one who acts with tzedek," and only in the third definition offers the translation "pious" (for which he does provide biblical sources.)

Steinberg goes in a different direction. He says that the root חסד means "diligent." When diligent in the positive sense, that can lead to generosity, kindness, love, and devotion. Perhaps this sense of devotion can explain how hasid came to mean someone devoted to God (i.e., devout, pious) more than just someone who is kind.

From the sense of "pious ones", the term was adopted by those opposing Hellenistic Jews in the Second Temple period, and later following this, by an Ashkenazi religious community in the 12th and 13th centuries, and the Jewish spiritual movement begun in 18th century Europe. Today, in secular Hebrew, a hasid, can be a devotee or follower of any movement or individual.

There are two related terms to חסד that we have not yet discussed. One is the surprising use of hesed in a negative context. It is not common - only appearing in Vayikra 20:17 where it means "disgrace" and Mishlei 14:34, where it means "reproach" (as well as in the verb form in Mishlei 25:10). How did it obtain this opposite meaning to all else that we've seen?

Klein gives two possible answers. One is that they come from different roots. He writes for this meaning of חסד:

he insulted (a hapax legomenon in the Bible, occurring Pr. 25:10). [Aram. חֲסַד (= was put to shame), Aram.-Syr. חַסֵּד (= he reproached, reviled), Aram. חִסְדָּא (= shame), Syr. חֶסֽדָּא (= shame, reproach, ignominy), Arab. ḥasada (= he envied). Some scholars connect Arab. ḥasada with MH חָשַׁד (= he suspected). See חשׁד. See also חֶסֶד ᴵᴵ.

But he also offers the suggestion that this is a case where one root can contain two opposite meanings. For his second definition of hesed, he notes:

According to some scholars חֶסֶד ᴵᴵ and חֶסֶד ᴵ are of the same origin. For the ambivalence of meaning cp. בֵּרַךְ (= he cursed), which is ult. identical with בֵּרַךְ (= he blessed)

Perhaps this is a case of a contronym, which we have discussed several times. The BDB, for example, writes that the same "eager zeal or desire" which led to kindness, can also lead to envy, shame, and reproach.

The other word which may be related is the Hebrew word for "stork", חֲסִידָה - hasida. In his entry, he defines it as:

lit.: ‘the pious bird’; so called in allusion to its love for its young

He notes that the Latin word for stork, pietaticultrix, had the same meaning - representing its dedication to both its young and its parents. When the hasida is mentioned in Vayikra 11:19, Rashi, quoting Hullin 63acomments:

Why is it called hasida? Because it acts kindly with its fellows in respect to food.

However, a question remains: if the stork acts with hesed, why is it listed as a non-kosher bird?  An answer offered in the name of various Chassidic (!) rebbes is that the stork is devoted only to its own kind. That may be a sign of piety, but it is not a sign of kindness - and so the stork is not kosher. In our review of the various meanings of hesed, this is a very important lesson to remember.

Monday, October 31, 2022

chok and chakika

The Hebrew word for "law, statute" חֹק chok, derives from the root חקק. That root can mean "to decree, legislate", but it can also mean "to engrave" or "to carve (out)."  What is the connection?

Before researching this question, I would have assumed that the laws were originally engraved in stone or clay, and that would explain the development. But that doesn't seem to be exactly the case.

Klein provides the following entry for חקק:

Aram. חֲקַק (= he engraved), Arab. ḥaqqa (= was right, was obligatory), ḥaqq (= justness, truth, necessity, obligation), Ethiop. ḥeq (= moderate, sufficient).

 (While he mentions here the Arabic haqq "truth", there is also an Arabic cognate, huqq, meaning "a hollow place". This developed into huqqah - "a small box, vessel", which eventually entered English as "hookah".)

Klein also notes the related root חקה, which while also meaning "to engrave," more commonly means "to imitate." One definition that Klein provides for this root is "to trace," which seems to be the bridge between engraving and imitating. 

However, regarding חקק, the cognates from the other Semitic languages imply that the development went from "engraving" to "set in place." This led to the Arabic "truth" and eventually to the Hebrew chok as well. This also can be seen from the progress of the word chok itself. Note the order of definitions in Klein's entry:

1 something prescribed, enactment, decree, statute, law, rule. 2 prescribed portion, prescribed due.

It didn't originally mean "law" but rather a set portion, a prescription. We see that usage in this verse, describing the portion the Egyptian priests received from Pharoah:

רַק אַדְמַת הַכֹּהֲנִים לֹא קָנָה כִּי חֹק לַכֹּהֲנִים מֵאֵת פַּרְעֹה וְאָכְלוּ אֶת־חֻקָּם אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָהֶם פַּרְעֹה עַל־כֵּן לֹא מָכְרוּ אֶת־אַדְמָתָם׃

"Only the land of the priests he did not take over, for the priests had an allotment [chok] from Pharaoh, and they lived off the allotment which Pharaoh had made to them; therefore they did not sell their land." (Bereshit 47:22)

It is easy to see how the word for a prescription can turn into a word for a law or rule. 

In the Tanakh, we also find the related word חֻקָּה chuka. In Biblical Hebrew it is essentially synonymous with chok. But in Modern Hebrew chukah got a more specific meaning - "constitution."