Wednesday, March 22, 2023

pakach and pikuach nefesh

In a recent episode of his great podcast Streetwise Hebrew, host Guy Sharett reviews words deriving from the root פקח. He discusses the meaning and usage of such words as:

  • פִּקּוּחַ pikuach - "supervision, inspection"
  • מְפַקֵּחַ mifakeach - "supervisor"
  • פַּקָּח pakach - "inspector"
  • פִּקֵּחַ pikeach - "sharp, bright (person)"
As always, Guy does a great job showing how the root is used in Modern Hebrew. However, he doesn't talk that much about etymology. So let's see what I can contribute.

From a quick look at the words above, it might seem that the root פקח is related to vision (or in its expanded senses of supervision and insight). While that is a common connection between these words, that isn't the original meaning. 

The verb פקח originally meant "to open", but and in Biblical Hebrew was always used to describe the opening of the eyes (and in one case - Yeshaya 42:20 - ears). This is preserved in the usage today in the phrases פָּקַח עַיִן / פָּקַח עֵינַיִם  pakach ayin / pakach enayim. Literally, they mean "to open one's eye(s)", but figuratively they can mean "to keep an eye on, pay attention, become aware."

From here the more abstract senses we mentioned above developed, which are related to oversight or insight. (Klein adds that the root פכח - "to be sober" is a secondary form of פקח.)

One other phrase that Guy mentioned doesn't seem to fit this rule. This is פִּקּוּחַ נֶפֶשׁ - pikuach nefesh. It means "saving a life" or "(the obligation of) preservation of life." Quoting Wikipedia, Guy said it literally means "'watching over a soul." That would make sense based on the cases we'd discussed previously. But this is not the case here.

As Avineri discusses in Yad HaLashon (p. 475), the term originates in the phrase מְפַקְּחִין עָלָיו אֶת הַגַּל mifakchin alav et hagal found in the Mishna (Yoma 8:7, Rosh Hashana 4:8). In these two cases it refers to clearing a pile (gal) of rubble (to save a life in Yoma, to uncover a buried shofar in Rosh Hashana). 

In these examples, the verb פקח goes back to its early meaning "to open" - in this case to open up the pile of rubble. But since the case in Yoma refers to clearing the rubble to save a life, the phrase pikuach nefesh took on the more general sense of saving a life under any circumstances. So in Tosefta 16:13, we read that pikuach nefesh takes precedence even over the serious rules of shabbat. 

When Rashi explains that Tosefta (as quoted in Shabbat 150a), he quotes the foreign דיקומבימונ"ט - which is the Old French descombrement - "to purge, clear out, remove". (See other cases where Rashi uses that word here and here). Examining descombrement, we see that it is cognate (although an antonym) with the English "encumber", whose etymology is particularly relevant:

early 14c., "burden, vex, inconvenience," from Old French encombrer "to block up, hinder, thwart," from Late Latin incombrare, from in- "in" (from PIE root *en "in") + combrus "barricade, obstacle," probably from Latin cumulus "heap" (see cumulus).
That "heap" is the same as our "pile" - an obstacle we must remove to save a life. Avineri concludes that today the original meaning of "evacuate" has been largely forgotten and we assume pikuach nefesh only means "saving a life", which is where the mistaken etymology in Wikipedia originated. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

cumin and kimmel

The connection between the English "cumin" and the Hebrew kamon כַּמּוֹן (often pronounced today kamun כַּמּוּן) is broadly accepted. 

Here's Klein's CEDEL entry for "cumin":

Middle English cumin, comin, from Old English cymen, cymyn, from Latin cuminum, from Greek kyminon, which is of Semitic origin. Compare Hebrew kammon, of same meaning, Aramaic kammona, Syriac kmmuna, Ugaritic kmn, Akkadian kamunu, Punic chaman

He notes that the word entered Mycenean Greek as early as the 15th century BCE.

We find the Hebrew kamon twice in the Bible, in two verses in the same chapter:

הֲלוֹא אִם־שִׁוָּה פָנֶיהָ וְהֵפִיץ קֶצַח וְכַמֹּן יִזְרֹק וְשָׂם חִטָּה שׂוֹרָה וּשְׂעֹרָה נִסְמָן וְכֻסֶּמֶת גְּבֻלָתוֹ׃

"When he has smoothed its surface,
Does he not rather broadcast black caraway
And scatter cumin,
Or set wheat in a row,
Barley in a strip,
And emmer in a patch?" (Yeshaya 28:25) 

כִּי לֹא בֶחָרוּץ יוּדַשׁ קֶצַח וְאוֹפַן עֲגָלָה עַל־כַּמֹּן יוּסָּב כִּי בַמַּטֶּה יֵחָבֶט קֶצַח וְכַמֹּן בַּשָּׁבֶט׃

"So, too, black caraway is not threshed with a threshing board,
Nor is the wheel of a threshing sledge rolled over cumin;
But black caraway is beaten out with a stick
And cumin with a rod." (28:27)

These verses also include the word ketzach קֶצַח - translated here as "black caraway". Other translations have "black cumin". In modern Hebrew, ketzach is identified with nigella.

We can see, therefore, that cumin and caraway can sometimes be compared to the same thing. This certainly isn't because of their flavors (which are very different), but because their seeds look similar. 

The confusion between the two spice seeds likely led to German taking their word for caraway, kümmel, from the Latin word for cumin - cuminum. In Yiddish this became kimmel, and in Hebrew it is the popular word for caraway: קִימֶל. (The official word for caraway in Hebrew is the similar sounding k'rav'ya כְּרַוְיָה, which goes back to the Talmud, but I've never heard anyone use it.)

And if you're wondering - the surname of the comedian Jimmy Kimmel has the same origin. He descends from German immigrants whose name was originally Kümmel.




Sunday, March 12, 2023

cadmium and kedem

The chemical element cadmium has an interesting etymology. Here's what the Online Etymology Dictionary states:

bluish-white metallic element, 1822, discovered 1817 by German scientist Friedrich Strohmeyer (1776-1835), coined in Modern Latin from cadmia, a word used by ancient naturalists for various earths and oxides (especially zinc carbonate), from Greek kadmeia (ge) "Cadmean (earth)," from Kadmos "Cadmus," legendary founder of Boeotian Thebes. With metallic element ending -ium. So called because the earth was first found in the vicinity of Thebes (Kadmeioi was an alternative name for "Thebans" since the time of Homer).

It then continues to point out that calamine - known from the calamine lotion used to treat itchiness - may get its origin from cadmium:

"zinc carbonate," also, confusedly, "zinc silicate," 1590s, from French calamine, from Old French calemine, chalemine (13c.), from Medieval Latin calamina, corrupted by alchemists from Latin cadmia "zinc ore," from Greek kadmeia

But lets go a little further. Where did the Theban king Cadmus get his name? 

According to Greek mythology, he was Phoenician, and according to Herodotus, he was the one that introduced the Phoenician alphabet to the Greeks. The Phoenicians used the same alphabet as the speakers of Hebrew, which is why the the two alphabets (names and shapes of letters) are so similar.

Cadmus coming from Phoenicia also likely explains the origin of his name. Many scholars say it derives from the root קדם, meaning "east." For example, in his CEDEL Klein writes that the name denotes "the man who came from the East." 

Hebrew also has kedem קֶֽדֶם  meaning "east." But the root קדם can also mean "be before, be in front", because at that time people oriented themselves towards the east. This sense of "before" was not only in space, but also in time, so קדם can also mean to precede. 

So if this is the case, cadmium and calamine are cognate with Hebrew words like:

  • קָדַם kadam - "to precede, to take precedence"
  • קְדָם kedam - "preliminary"
  • קֹדֶם kodem - "before, previously"
  • קִדֵּם kidem -  "to promote, advance"
  • קִדְמָה kidma - "advancement, progress"
  • קָדִימָה kadima - "forward, onward"
  • קַדְמוֹן kadmon - "ancient"
This last word, kadmon, appears only once in the Bible, in Yechezkel 47:8, where it means "east." Klein thinks that perhaps the original name of Cadmus was Kadmon, but the suffix was changed to "os" when the name was adopted into Greek.

Tuesday, March 07, 2023

another email test

Thanks again for your patience as I test the email subscriptions once again.

Since today is Purim, I thought you might enjoy a link to all of the Purim posts on Balashon:

Enjoy and happy Purim!

Monday, March 06, 2023

more changes for email subscribers

For those that remember, about two years ago I had to change the service to provide email subscriptions to Balashon. 

Well, it turns out that service also needs to be replaced. So I'm switching to MailerLite. Hopefully it will go smoothly, but expect a few test posts in the next several days so I can confirm that it works well.

Hopefully all existing subscribers have been migrated successfully, and there's a new subscribe button on the right for anyone who would like to start getting these posts by email.

If you have any issues with the transition, let me know. If you're not getting the posts, and you are subscribed, try checking your spam/junk email folders, and add the sender to your safe sender group.

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.)