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."

Sunday, October 02, 2022


I was recently asked about the etymology of the word סְנִיף snif  - meaning "branch," as in the branch of a bank or the local branch of a youth movement.

Klein provides some information. For snif, he writes:

PBH 1 attachment, addition. NH 2 branch of a school or of a business institution. [From סנף.] 

But in his entry for the root סנף, he doesn't have much to offer regarding the origin. He defines the verb as "to add, join, insert" (with some forms also meaning "to annex"), but leaves the etymology as "of uncertain origin." This is actually surprising, since he tends to rely heavily on the Ben Yehuda dictionary's etymologies. 

In this case the entry for סנף in Ben Yehuda suggest that סנף may be the ספעל (saf'el) verb form of the Hebrew root ענף, also meaning "branch." (Saf'el is similar to shaf'el, which we saw here, and is more likely to be found in words wtih Aramaic influence.) So the meaning would be "to cause to become a branch." Even-Shoshan expands on this, implying that the original form was סענף, but the ayin dropped out, leaving סנף.

In this essay, Yaakov Etsion notes that in Talmudic Hebrew, snif referred to wedges or beams that were attached to larger pieces. From there it was later borrowed into the more abstract sense of any type of attachment. And in the end, Etsion notes that it was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda himself who gave snif the modern meaning of "branch, affiliate."


Sunday, August 21, 2022

taar and morah

In the Tanakh, there are two words for razor for shaving. The more common one, תַּעַר ta'ar, is found in five verses: Bamidbar 6:5, 8:7; Yeshaya 7:20; Tehilim 52:4,  and Yechezkel 5:1. (In Yirmiyahu 36:23, it refers to a scribe's knife.) 

The less frequent word, מוֹרָה morah, only appears three times: Shoftim 13:5, 16:17; and Shmuel I 1:11. All of these mentions of morah refer to nazirites (Shimshon and Shmuel). 

The laws of the nazirite are found in Bamidbar, and that is where ta'ar appears. The phrasing of the verses is very similar. Bamidbar 6:5 says תַּעַר לֹא־יַעֲבֹר עַל־רֹאשׁוֹ "no razor [ta'ar] shall touch his head." Of both Shimshon and Shmuel the verses say וּמוֹרָה לֹא יַעֲלֶה עַל רֹאשׁוֹ "and no razor [morah] shall come on his head." This would seem to indicate that the two words are synonymous - referring to the same object, first in the law of the nazir, and then in the stories of two nazirites.

This understanding is reflected in the etymology of the two words. Many recent scholars say that they share a common origin. For example, Klein writes in his entry for morah:

Of uncertain origin; possibly contraction of מַעֲרָה, from ערה ᴵ (= to lay bare), whence תַּעַר (= razor).

The root ערה, "to lay bare, strip" (the source of arom ערום - "naked") therefore led to both words. Morah was a contraction (the ayin dropped out) of ma'areh (meaning an open, bare place - see Shoftim 20:33), and ta'ar was a different way the noun was formed.

Kaddari also accepts this theory, and expands it by noting the connection between the root גלח - "to shave" and גלה - "to uncover, expose."

This same root - "to reveal" - can explain another usage of ta'ar in the Tanakh. It can also mean "sheath (of a sword), scabbard" (Shmuel I 17:51; Shmuel II 20:8; Yirmiyahu 47:6; Yechezkel 21:8,9,10,35). As Klein points out:

Prob. from ערה ᴵ (= to lay bare, uncover), whence also Ugar. t‘rt (= sheath of a sword); hence of the same etymology as תַּעַר ᴵ.

Gesenius says that ta'ar as sheath, "perhaps so called from emptiness." 

Today, morah is almost never used for "razor" (probably because its other meaning, female teacher, is much more prevalent). Ta'ar is used for razor, although the phrase סַכִּין גִּלּוּחַ sakin giluach is also common. As far as sheath/scabbard, I guess I never had a reason to use the word, since the current word surprised me: נָדָן nadan. But it too is biblical, found in Divrei Hayamim I 21:27. However its origin is Persian (see a discussion here).

Monday, August 08, 2022

gazam and higzim

'When discussing hiflig, I mentioned that while one definition is "exaggerate", that's not a use common in Hebrew today. 

I've now given it a bit more thought, and I think the reason is perhaps the popularity of the word higzim הגזים for "exaggerate." With a word that pervasive, there wasn't need for a synonym, which left hiflig as "exaggerate" an archaic usage.

That got me wondering about higzim. It is the hifil form of the verb גזם. That verb, in its kal form, means "to cut", or more specifically "to prune, trim." (We've already noted that it fits the pattern of roots beginning with *גז meaning "to cut.") How did a root that means "to prune" (the process of shortening) come to mean "to exaggerate" - which is making something bigger than it really is?

Klein notes that in addition higzim meaning "to exaggerate", it also means "to threaten." While not in common use today, that sense is found in Talmudic Hebrew. Jastrow provides a few such cases in his entry. For example, he quotes Shevuot 46a:

עביד איניש דגזים וכ׳ a man frequently threatens mischief and does not do it. Ib. הכי נמי ג׳ וכ׳ .. in this case, too, he may have threatened and not done it.

The English Steinsaltz translation is slightly different than Jastrow's:

אלמא עביד איניש דגזים ולא עביד הכא נמי דגזים ולא עביד

Evidently, a person is prone to bluster without acting on his threat. Here, also, it could be that he was blustering about seizing collateral, but did not act on it.

The choice of "to bluster" as the translation of the Aramaic cognate גזים was a clever choice. Meaning "to talk or act with noisy swaggering threats" and "to utter with noisy self-assertiveness", it encompasses both the sense of "to threaten" and "to exaggerate." This is appropriate for the case above, where the person doesn't carry through with his threat.

But not every threat is a bluster. For example, the midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 14:6) refers to the story of Joseph and Potifar's wife, saying that if Joseph did not acquiesce to her request, she threatened to tell her her husband that Joseph assaulted her. And yet Joseph did not give in to her, despite what she threatened to do to him - שֶׁהָיְתָה מַגְזֶמֶת לַעֲשׂוֹת לוֹ. And as we know from the biblical story - she did indeed tell her husband that Joseph assaulted her - she carried out her threat.

One word can't therefore contain all the meanings of higzim. So we need a different explanation as to the different meanings of the verb גזם. Klein provides just such an explanation. After providing an initial definition of גזם meaning "to cut down, hew down," in his explanation of the second meaning ("to exaggerate, to threaten"), he writes:

This base is prob. identical with גזם ᴵ. The phases of sense development prob. are: cut; ‘to speak in a cutting or sharp manner; to exaggerate; to threaten’.

It seems to me that "to threaten" probably preceded "to exaggerate", but his connecting of "to cut" and to speak in a "cutting or sharp manner" makes sense to me.