Monday, August 30, 2021

REVIEW: Insights into Hebrew, Holidays, History & Liturgy

Mitchell First is a scholar of Jewish history who, like me, has a fascination with the origin of Hebrew words and phrases.

He has published two books (Roots & Rituals: Insights into Hebrew, Holidays, and History, and Links to Our Legacy: Insights into Hebrew, History, and Liturgy) which have collected his columns on the subject, as well as other columns related to the history of the Jewish calendar, the prayers, and other topics of Jewish history.

I've reviewed the books on the Tradition website, and you can read my review here:

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Seville and Cordoba

When I was a young kid, I visited Spain. It was my first overseas trip, and I really enjoyed it. We drove all over the southern part of the country, visiting half a dozen cities in just a couple of weeks. I haven't returned since, but I still have strong memories from that trip.

One thing that I know know, but didn't know then, was how significant the Phoenician settlement was in that area. I've written about Semitic origins of the name Spain, and the city of Malaga. But I only recently discovered that two of the cities I visited on my trip also may have Phoenician origins as well.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the name of the city of Seville has a Semitic etymology:

inland port city in Spain, Spanish Sevilla, ultimately from Phoenician, from sefela "plain, valley."

That makes it cognate with the Hebrew root שפל - "to become or be low." The Hebrew word shefela שפלה is similar to the Phoenician sefela. It means "lowland." And if the theory we discussed here is true, then it is cognate with the English word "asphalt" as well, since it may have been named for a source of asphalt - the Dead Sea, which was possibly known as Yam Shafelet ים שפלת - "the low sea."

Another city I visited was Cordoba. There are a few theories as to the etymology, most of which offer a Semitic origin. Those include:

  • It comes from the Phoenician-Punic qart ṭūbah meaning "good town", which would be cognate with the Hebrew קריה טובה kirya tova. The city of Carthage, as we mentioned here, has a similar origin: Qart-Hadasht, related to the Hebrew kirya hadasha קריה חדשה - "new city".
  • Another theory also says the first half of the name comes from qart, but says that the second half derives from the name Juba, a Numidian general who died around 230 BCE in that area. So the town would have originally been known as the "City of Juba."
  • The Online Etymology Dictionary gives this origin: the name is said to be Carthaginian, from Phoenician qorteb "oil press." I've seen this theory mentioned in many books and websites (sometimes spelling it korteb or corteb). However, they're all fairly recent - from the last century, and it's unclear to me where it originated. More significantly, I can't find a word in any Semitic language that resembles qorteb and means anything like "oil press." The only word I could find even somewhat similar is kurtov קרטוב, which as we discussed here meant a volume of liquid, and came from Greek. I don't see how that would come to mean "oil press," and I don't know how likely the Phoenicians were to have borrowed from the Greeks at that time. If any readers can shed light on this question, I'd love to hear from them.
*** Update ***

Only a few hours after I posted my question, reader Y responded with an answer! Here's my summary of Y's theory (with some additions of my own):

The first to say that Cordoba came from Phoenician word meaning "oil press" was Samuel Bochart, who wrote an entire book discussing Semitic origins to place names, including those settled by the Phoencians: Geographia Sacra seu Phaleg et Canaan (1646). 

Bochart based his etymology on the word kotev קטב or kotbi קטבי. It appears in the Mishna (Sheviit 8:6), but the meaning isn't entirely clear. Rambam says it means an small oil press, which would support Bochart's etymology. However, Bochart actually quotes the Arukh, who says kotev refers to the wooden beam used to hold the millstone that presses the olives. (Certainly both explanations are related to the production of olive oil). In his expansion on the Arukh, the Arukh Hashalem connects this meaning of kotev to the homonym kotev meaning "axis, pole" as we've discussed here. Jastrow makes the same connection, but Ben Yehuda and Klein do not connect the two meanings.

The addition of the "r" to kotev, to eventually arrive at "Cordoba" was Bochart's conjecture. As Klein notes here:

ר often serves for the dissimilation of the reduplication of a consonant. So, e.g., דַּרְמֶשֶׂק is a dissimilated form of דַּמֶשֶׂק (= Damascus). In this way many bases and words have been enlarged into quadriliterals; cp. e.g. BAram. כָּרֽסֵא (= chair), which is prob. a loan word from Akka. kussu (= chair, throne), whence prob. also Heb. כִּסֵּא; base כרסם (= to chew, gnaw, devour), dissimilated from כסם (= to shear, clip); שַׁרְבִיט (= scepter), enlarged from שֵׁבֶט (of s.m.); סַרֽעַפָּה (= branch), enlarged from סֽעַפָּה (of s.m.); שַׂרְעַפִּים (= thoughts), enlarged from שֽׂעִפִּים (of s.m.).

So it's not unprecedented for a resh to be added to a Semitic word. And indeed, the name Cordoba in Hebrew was written as קורטבא (or קרטבא), the same spelling as קוטב, with only the resh added. You can see this spelling in the writings of the rabbis who lived in Spain (see here for example of a responsa by the Rosh, who also mentioned Seville). But I was surprised to find that the name appears even in the Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 115b:

יצחק ריש גלותא בר אחתיה דרב ביבי הוה קאזיל מקורטבא לאספמיא ושכיב

Yitzḥak the Exilarch, son of the sister of Rav Beivai, was walking from Cortva to Spain and died along the way. 

Jastrow claims that this was a Babylonian town, Kardu, also known as Karduniaš. But Steinsaltz, in his notes on Yevamot, writes that according to the context (which also mentions Spain), the town was likely Cordoba, which was an important city in Talmudic times. (Spain, or more precisely Hispania, did not always control Cordoba, so the trip from Cordoba to Spain could make sense depending on the time).

Ultimately, this was a theory by Bochart, writing in the 17th century, without access to modern research. Y comments:

Back to Cordoba, since Bochart's additional r is ad hoc, and since a city is unlikely to be named after a technical term referring to a part of an oil mill, the etymology can be rejected. The "Phoenician" part is also an unsupported speculative extrapolation.

While I'm certainly not fully convinced of the etymology, I'm a little more generous with the possibility than Y. If the kotev referred to the olive oil press in general, and since Spain has long been associated with olives and olive oil, it's not impossible that it was the source of the name. But whether Bochart was correct or not, I certainly appreciate the scholarship of my readers today, who are always ready to answer the questions that leave me puzzled.

Monday, August 16, 2021

katzin, qadi and alcalde

 A while back, I discussed Hebrew words that begin with the letters קצ. In that list I wrote:

קצה - cut, from it we have קצין, captain, judge. The word cut is figuratively used for deciding.

This was based on Horowitz's book. Klein has a similar entry for the biblical word katzin  קצין:

קָצִין m.n. 1 judge, prince, leader. NH 2 officer. [Derived from קצה ᴵᴵ and lit. meaning ‘decider’. Related to Arab. qāḍi (= judge), prob. part. of qaḍā(y) (= he decided). 

Stahl, in his Bilingual Etymological Dictionary of Spoken Israeli Arabic and Hebrew, in the entry קאדי, writes that the root קצה derives from קץ ketz, meaning "end", because the one who decides (in this case, the judge) puts an "end" to the disagreement. 

As Klein noted, katzin is also related to the Arabic qadi (sometimes spelled cadi), also meaning "judge." From Arabic, the word entered Spanish as alcalde, a term meaning "mayor", but one who also has a judicial role, like a "justice of the peace." It is used with that meaning in Spain and throughout Latin America.

Sunday, July 11, 2021


The last post was discussing the word dfus דפוס - "printing," and how it derives from the Greek typos, meaning "type." At the end, I noted that the verb hidpis הדפיס means (perhaps surprisingly) "to print", not "to type." So today let's look at the Hebrew word meaning "to type."

In Hebrew, hiklid הקליד means "he typed", haklada הקלדה is typing, and mikledet מקלדת means "keyboard." This root קלד, has a more interesting story than I expected.

To understand the background, we should focus on the last of the three words I mentioned above: mikledet. Even if you weren't familiar with the Hebrew word, did you ever wonder why a keyboard is called that? The buttons you press when you type aren't actually "keys"...

But if you think about a similar device upon which you press all your fingers, you might be able to understand the association better. That device is the piano, with its 88 keys. And in fact, long before a keyboard referred to a device for typing on a computer, it was used to describe the set of keys used to play pianos, organs and other similar musical instruments.

The word key originally meant "an instrument for opening locks," as it does today. So how did it come to be used for the levers of the piano?

There are a number of different theories. The Online Etymology Dictionary mentions has the following passage in their entry for key:

The musical sense originally was "tone, note" (mid-15c.). In music theory, the sense developed 17c. to "sum of the melodic and harmonic relationships in the tones of a scale," also "melodic and harmonic relationships centering on a given tone." Probably this is based on a translation of Latin clavis "key," used by Guido for "lowest tone of a scale," or French clef (see clef; also see keynote). Sense of "mechanism on a musical instrument operated by the player's fingers" is from c. 1500, probably also suggested by uses of clavis. OED says this use "appears to be confined to Eng[lish]." First of organs and pianos, by 1765 of wind instruments; transferred to telegraphy by 1837 and later to typewriters (1876).

We see from here that "key" developed into two different meanings. In addition to the mechanism in musical instruments, it also took another musical meaning: "a group of notes based on a particular note and comprising a scale."

What isn't clear from the Online Etymology Dictionary is if one meaning of key arose from the other. Some say that the earlier meaning, "tone, note" led to the sense of the mechanisms used to play those notes. They also point out that the tone was called a "key" because it opened the scale. The word "keynote" preserves this sense, as it is the first (lowest) note of the scale.

Others say that the two meanings arose independently, and that piano keys were so called because the way they were designed and assembled was similar to a lock and key. For example, this site shows how ancient organs were made by "adapting keys with levers."

Whatever the origin, the meaning stuck, and in English keys in that sense are used to refer the things pressed on both a piano and a typewriter (and keyboard).

As Yaakov Etsion points out in this article, Hebrew was also faced with the question of what to call the keys of a piano. That in itself isn't so remarkable - in Modern Hebrew there were multitudes of words that needed coining. What is uncommon here, is that Hebrew already had a word for keys of musical instruments. When David returned the Ark to Israel, the verse says:

וְדָוִד  וְכׇל־בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל מְשַׂחֲקִים לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה בְּכֹל עֲצֵי בְרוֹשִׁים וּבְכִנֹּרוֹת וּבִנְבָלִים וּבְתֻפִּים וּבִמְנַעַנְעִים וּבְצֶלְצֱלִים׃ 

Meanwhile, David and all the House of Israel danced before the LORD to [the sound of] all kinds of cypress wood [instruments], with lyres, harps, timbrels, sistrums, and cymbals. (Shmuel II 6:5)

The word translated here as "sistrums" (other translations have "rattles" or "coronets") is מנענעים mina'anim. At some point (and without any direct evidence to the contrary), the mina'anea became associated with the keys of the piano and organ. But this was a difficult word to pronounce, and in 1955 the Academy of the Hebrew Language came up with an alternate word for keys of the piano: klidim קלידים.

Why this word? Because it was based an archaic word for "keys" - aklida אקלידא. It is found in Talmudic literature, for example in Sanhedrin 113a:

בעי רחמי והבו ליה אקלידא דמטרא

[Elijah] prayed for mercy and they gave him the key (aklida) to rainfall

Of course, Hebrew already had a very common word for key: mafteach מפתח. But by adopting an obscure word instead, there would be no chance that someone might mix up the words for piano keys and house keys.

Klein points out that aklida, an Aramaic word, derives from the Greek kleida, accusative of kleis (= key). Those Greek words have given us a number of words in English, including "clavicle" (literally a "small key", based on the shape of the bone) and perhaps Cleopatra, which may have meant "key to the fatherland." The Latin cognate, clavis (also meaning "key") gave us words like enclave (enclosed, "locked in"), as well as the musical terms clef (parallel to keynote, as we discussed above) and clavichord (a medieval musical instrument, played with a type of keys).

The Academy's recommendation to use klid קליד for "piano key" was widely accepted, although not without opposition. The linguist Yitzchak Avineri wrote in a 1958 column, that while he did not object to adopting foreign words when necessary, this was not the case here, since Hebrew already had a word for piano key, the "biblical" mina'anea (in quotes because I haven't seen any proof that it was anything like a piano.)  Not only did klid have Greek origins (as compared to Semitic ones), even the loan translation was from English, a foreign language that invented the idea that pianos had 88 "keys." He concluded the column by saying that "this is not the way to expand the language."

However, language doesn't always listen to the experts. Klidim became the accepted term for piano keys, and a keyboard - both musical and for typing - is a mikledet. However, this new root did not take over fully. The keys of a piano are klidim, but the keys on a computer keyboard (and typewriter) are makashim מקשים (makash in singular, from the root נקש, "to strike.") And while one is maklid on a keyboard, that verb is reserved for typing. On the piano, one is poret al haklidim פורט על הקלידים (from a Biblical root meaning "to play a musical instrument", as found in Amos 6:5). 

So perhaps Avineri would have some comfort in the fact that at least in some contexts those ancient Hebrew roots persevered.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

dfus, tofes and tipus

As I've written before, I'm a major podcast listener, and am always looking for podcasts that discuss language, particularly the Hebrew language.

Recently, I came across a podcast devoted to the nuts and bolts of the Hebrew language, called Kululusha. It's in Hebrew, and the host, Yiram Netanyahu (no relation), interviews experts on Hebrew language and linguistics, including some people I've quoted here frequently. 

In the latest episode, he had a conversation with the linguist Dr. Gabriel Birnbaum, about the influence of foreign words on Hebrew. It was a very interesting discussion, and I recommend that any of you who can follow a talk like that in Hebrew to listen. 

A lot of the foreign words that Dr. Birnbaum mentioned will be familiar to readers of Balashon. But there was one that he mentioned briefly that I've been meaning to write about for a while - the Greek typos. As noted in the podcast, that one Greek word gave us three distinct words in Hebrew: dfus דפוס, tofes טופס and tifus טיפוס. Let's take a look.

The Greek word typos is the origin of the English word "type":

late 15c., "symbol, emblem," from Latin typus "figure, image, form, kind," from Greek typos "a blow, dent, impression, mark, effect of a blow; figure in relief, image, statue; anything wrought of metal or stone; general form, character; outline, sketch," from root of typtein "to strike, beat," from PIE *tup-, variant of root *(s)teu- (1) "to push, stick, knock, beat" (see steep (adj.)).

Extended 1713 to printing blocks of metal or wood with letters or characters carved on their faces, usually in relief, adapted for use in letterpress printing. The meaning "general form or character of some kind, class" is attested in English by 1843, though the corresponding words had that sense in Latin and Greek. 

As in English, the Greek typos had both the the sense of "to strike" and "a form, kind." (I would not have guessed, as I type on my keyboard, that the earlier meaning was to "to strike.") The Hebrew words reflect those different meanings as well.

Dfus is closest to the sense of a "dent, impression". It is found in early Rabbinic Hebrew, such as Mishna Menachot 11:1, where it refers to a baking mold that was used to prepare the offering of the shtei halechem (the two loaves of bread), brought on Shavuot. While many editions of the Talmud have the word written in the form familiar today - dfus דפוס, other manuscripts preserve what is likely the original spelling - tfus טפוס. The letters "t" and "d" both produce dental stop sounds, and just saying them out loud makes it understandable how tfus became dfus. After the Talmudic meanings of "form, model, mold", in modern Hebrew dfus took on the sense of "print, printing, press." The related verb, hidpis הדפיס means "to print" and a madpeset מדפסת is a "printer."

Tofes טפס, in Talmudic Hebrew, meant the standard, boilerplate lines in a document (in contrast with the toref תורף, which refers to the specific details of that document, like the dates, names, etc.) Today it means any kind of form to be filled out.

Tipus is the most abstract of the three, meaning "type, kind, class." In modern Hebrew, the adjective tipusi טיפוסי - "typical" (which also derives from typos) was added. In Hebrew slang, a tipus is an unusual character. 

Curious about the Hebrew word for the verb, "to type"? Then keep an eye out for the next post...

Monday, June 28, 2021


The English word tripe has two definitions:

1 : stomach tissue especially of a ruminant (such as an ox) used as food
2 : something poor, worthless, or offensive

For me, the second definition was more familiar than the first - but that may be because I don't eat red meat.

The Online Etymology Dictionary provides this origin for tripe:

c. 1300, from Old French tripe "guts, intestines, entrails used as food" (13c.), of unknown origin, perhaps via Spanish tripa from Arabic therb "suet" [Klein, Barnhart]. Applied contemptuously to persons (1590s), then to anything considered worthless, foolish, or offensive (1892).

This book gives it a similar etymology, saying it comes from the Arabic tharb, meaning a "thin layer of fat lining the intestines."

I haven't seen explicit proof, but I think tharb as "fat" may be cognate with the Hebrew root רבב, meaning "to become many, much, great." As we saw in our discussion of ribah, Klein notes that the related Arabic verb rabba means "to make thick or dense." 

The Arabic-English Lexicon, in its entry for the related Arabic verb taraba, says that it originally meant "the removing of the tharb, i.e. the fat that forms the integument of the stomach of a ruminant", and then associatively became "the act of blaming, reproving, and punishing or chastising for an offence or a crime."  As we noted in the entry for the Hebrew word chitui, sometimes a verb that derives from a noun refers to the removal of that noun. In this case, the verb taraba meant the removal of the tharb

While the fat itself might have had a positive association, the noun tharb also took on the negative sense of "blame, reproof, reproach." This may be the reason that Muhammad changed the name of the Arabian city Yathrib to Medina, as we mentioned in our discussion of the Hebrew word medina.

** Update:

Thank you to reader Shalom for pointing this out:

The Aramaic translation of the Biblical חלב (fat) is תרב.
He then shared Jastrow's entry for תרב, which gives examples of terav being used as a translation for chelev, and also provides a cognate with the Hebrew root רב, "to increase."

Monday, June 21, 2021

akhu and oasis

In Pharaoh's famous dream, he was standing by the river, 

"when out of the Nile there came up seven cows, handsome and sturdy, and they grazed in the reed grass." (Bereshit 41:2)

The word translated here as "reed grass" is akhu אחו in Hebrew. Other translations include "marsh grass," "marshland," or "meadow." The word only appears a few more times in the Bible - once later in the chapter, when Pharaoh retells his dream (41:18), and in Hoshea 13:15 ("For though he flourish among reeds" - in the plural form אחים achim) and Iyov 8:11 ("Can papyrus thrive without marsh? Can rushes grow without water?).

Due to its first appearance in Pharaoh's dream, it should not be too surprising that it has an Egyptian origin. R. Aryeh Kaplan writes, "Achu in the Hebrew, from the Egyptian Akhi." Sarna, in the the JPS commentary on Genesis, similarly notes:

Hebrew 'ahu, from an Egyptian loan word that originally meant the land flooded by the Nile, and then came to be used for pastureland in general. From Egyptian it passed into Hebrew and other Semitic languages.

From those other Semitic languages, we  may get a familiar word in English. Stahl, in his entry for the Arabic word waha, says that it also derives from the Coptic (Ancient Egyptian) word that gave Hebrew akhu. In Arabic waha means "oasis", which a lush meadow could would certainly have been seen as in the desert.

Stahl goes on to say that the word "oasis" itself also came from the same Egyptian root, via Greek. An early mention of the Egyptian origin of "oasis" can be found in the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus. A full etymology is offered by the Online Etymology Dictionary:

"fertile spot in a desert, where there is a spring or well and more or less vegetation," originally in reference to the Libyan desert, 1610s, from French oasis (18c.) and directly from Late Latin oasis, from Greek oasis, probably from Hamitic (compare Coptic wahe, ouahe "oasis," properly "dwelling place," from ouih "dwell"). The same Egyptian source produced Arabic wahah. Figurative sense of "any fertile place in the midst of a waste" is by 1800.

I found it interesting that today, Al-Waha refers to "an immersion-based Arabic-language camp for students." I suppose that's similar to the ulpan for learning Hebrew. I can certainly imagine that any place dedicated to learning a new language would be a kind of oasis...