Thursday, March 30, 2006


Today is the first day of the month of Nisan, which in the Torah was known as the month of Aviv (sometimes transliterated as Abib.) For example, Shmot 13:4 states "This day you are going out in the the month of the Aviv": הַיּוֹם אַתֶּם יֹצְאִים בְּחֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב

While in modern Hebrew aviv means spring, in the Bible it meant young barley. We see this in the plague of hail (Shmot 9:31) "the barley was aviv": כִּי הַשְּׂעֹרָה אָבִיב

Additionally, in VaYikra 2:14 we read about the Omer offering, which was barley poached in fire: אָבִיב קָלוּי בָּאֵשׁ. Since the Omer offering began in the month of Nisan, the barley connection to the original name is very logical.
Yet if we dig a little deeper, we see that aviv comes from the root אבב meaning to bring forth shoots, or to be fresh. For example, in Job 8:12 we have a related word: עֹדֶנּוּ בְאִבּוֹ - "while yet in its freshness". So the connection to spring is not only due to the barley harvest, but because of the general renewal of the season.
Two well known cities derive their name from the root aviv. Of course you will recognize the connection to the Israeli city of Tel Aviv. In 1910, Nachum Sokolow took the name - meaning "hill of spring" from the book of Yechezkel (3:15), where it actually refers to a Babylonian location.
The other city? The Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, meaning "new flower" or "new blossom". Addis comes from the same Semitic root as חדש chadash (new) and Ababa derives from the same root as aviv.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006


Well, after the elections in Israel I guess it makes sense to relate to a political term - kadentzia קדנציה. This is the Hebrew term for "tenure" or "term of office". If you're guessing it doesn't sound like native Hebrew - you're right.

It originates from same root as the English word cadence, meaning "The patterned, recurring alternation of contrasting elements, such as stressed and unstressed notes in music". The root is in the Latin cadere - to fall (as in falling notes of music.) It's easy to see how a term meaning rhythm could refer to a regular cycle like a term in office, but it's not entirely clear to me how it entered Hebrew. Cadence means term of office in French, and cadencia has that meaning in Spanish. French and Spanish aren't common sources for Hebrew words, so there's probably another stop along the way - but Klein doesn't mention it, and I haven't seen anyone else do so either.

Another term with a similar musical origin is trop (or trope)- the Yiddish term for the cantillation marks used in reading from the Torah. This site does a good job of describing the etymology of the term:

But one of my favorite not-exactly-Hebrew words is "trupp," simply because I spent years thinking to myself, "that doesn't sound like Hebrew" before I finally went and looked it up. It's not, of course; it's a slightly Germanicized pronunciation/transliteration of a Hebraicized version ("trop") of the Greek word tropos, "turn," which was adopted wholesale into Latin as tropus and from which we get English "trope" and a bunch of words ending in "-tropy."

"Trope" in English mostly means "a figure of speech," although those of my readers familiar with early music may also remember that a trope is a musical "turn," a cadence at the end of a melody.

So whether the election results are music to your ears or not, remember that it's part of a rhythm that will repeat itself every so often...

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


In yesterday's post, I discussed the Greek name of Gibraltar, Calpe. Today we'll travel across the sea in our exploration of Hebrew and its related languages.

When we look at the transfer of words between the Semitic languages and the Indo-European languages, we can notice two trends. The Jews were a minority in many lands, and adopted numerous words from their host countries. On the other hand, there were nations from the Semitic family who gave their names to locations, either as sea explorers like the Phoenicians or empire builders like the Arabs.

So to return to Gibraltar, the name comes from the Arabic Jebel el Tarik "the Mountain of Tarik." Jebel derives from the Semitic root גבל - the same as the Hebrew word גבול gvul - meaning border.

Far earlier, the Phoenicians (also known as Punics) explored the Mediterranean and gave many distant places Semitic names. Perhaps the most famous Punic colony was Rome's rival Carthage, whose name in Phoenician was Qart-Hadasht, related to the Hebrew kirya hadasha קריה חדשה - "new city".

According to a theory in the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Phoenicians gave the name to Gibraltar's neighbor Spain (Hispania) as well. One theory claims that the name derives from tsepan - rabbit or hyrax (in Hebrew shafan שפן) and so another name could be "The Land of Rabbits". Another theory posits that Hispania comes from sphan - north (tzafon צפון in Hebrew) due to Spain being north of Carthage.

The Jews had a different way of exploring the world - they did not by ships, but by the text. The 20th verse of the Book of Ovadia states that the exile of Jerusalem in Sefarad (or: Sfarad) will inherit the cities of the Negev:

וְגָלֻת יְרוּשָׁלִַם, אֲשֶׁר בִּסְפָרַד--יִרְשׁוּ, אֵת עָרֵי הַנֶּגֶב

Researchers (D. Neiman, E. Lipinski) have suggested that Sfarad may have been Sardis (capital of Lydia in Asia Minor), suggested by a Lydian-Aramaic bilingual inscription that refers to Sardis as S-p-r-d in Aramaic. But as this article describes well, over time, Sefarad began to be associated with Spain. Targum Yonatan translated the term Sefarad in Ovadia as Espamia, and later the Radak explicitly identified Sefarad with Spain. Now of course, Jews whose families originated in Spain are known as Sefardim.

Monday, March 27, 2006


On Tuesday, Israelis will be going to the ballot box - or as they say in Hebrew, the קלפי kalpi. This word has been in Hebrew since the times of the Mishna. According to Klein, it originates in the Greek kalpe, the collateral form of kalpis, meaning "pitcher, box or urn for drawing lots." Klein states that the origin of kalpis is unknown, and I have not been able to find any thing online discussing its etymology.

I have however found some sites that discuss the exact nature of the kalpis. In Greek times there were two types of urns used also as ballot boxes - the hydria and the kalpis. This site describes the differences between the two, and has illustrations as well. According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, the kalpis "was curved at the shoulder and had a smaller vertical handle" (than the hydria).

Interestingly, the Greek name for Gibraltar was Calpe or Kalpe. This site claims they named the "Rock" after an urn because of the similar shape, and even more detail is given here.

Thursday, March 23, 2006


Well, you certainly wouldn't want to have any strudel (or shtrudel in Yiddish) in your house before Pesach, would you? Well, if you use a computer in Israel, you just might.

In Hebrew, the "at sign" - @ - is called a shtrudel שטרודל. While in English it is known for its function, in many languages it gets its nickname from its shape. Here are some other examples:

  • Czech/Slovak: zavinac "rollmops (a rolled fillet of herring)"
  • Danish: snabel-a "a with an elephant's trunk" or, less common, grisehale "pig's tail"
  • Dutch: apestaart/apestaartje "monkey tail" (the -je form is diminutive)
  • Finnish: kissanhäntä "cat's tail"
  • German: Klammeraffe "spider monkey (literally "clinging monkey"), Ohr "ear", Affenschwanz (Zurich) "monkey's tail"

While it might seem just cute that the Hebrew term comes from a word for apple pie, there's actually more to the word - and perhaps it's one of the most accurate. What is the origin of the word strudel?

The German word strudel literally means whirlpool - which is a very accurate description of the @ symbol. It derives from the Indo-European root *ser - "to flow". What other words have the same root? Serum (originally from a root meaning "watery fluid" or "whey" in Greek) and samsara (the eternal cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth in Hinduism and Buddhism).

As an aside, the Academy of the Hebrew language has given the official name כרוכית kruchit to both strudel the pastry and the @ sign in Hebrew.


Well, going through the pantry, we've found our next source of chametz: itriyot איטריות - noodles or pasta. This term goes back to the Jerusalem Talmud (Hallah 57d, Beitza 60d), which according to food historian Charles Perry, is the first clear Western reference to boiled noodles. The word itriya (or itrija) is not unique to Hebrew. It is also found in Arabic, and from Arabic it made its way into Italian (trii or tria) and Spanish (aletria). Perry also notes that:

By the tenth century, it appears, itriyah in many Arabic sources referred to dried noodles bought from a vendor, as opposed to fresh ones made at home. Other Arabic sources of the time refer to fresh noodles as lakhsha, a Persian word that was the basis for words in Russian, Hungarian, and Yiddish. (By comparison with these words, noodle, which dates from sixteenth-century German, originated yesterday.)

What's the origin of itriya? There are a few theories.

The most common is that it comes from the Greek word itrion, meaning a thin cake of sesame and honey. (The development of the word is discussed here.) Both Stahl and Klein accept this origin.

Another theory is that it comes from a Persian word meaning "shoe laces" or "string in quantities". I have not found anything to confirm or deny this.

Jastrow's approach is the most interesting in terms of Hebrew etymology, although I fear it may be the least likely. He says the word literally means "something preserved", "dough preserved" from the root נטר - to guard, to preserve.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006


“Man cannot live on bread alone” - כי לא על הלחם לבדו יחיה האדם (Devarim 8:3)

While it is clear from the verse that there are more important things in life than lechem (or lehem/lekhem) לחם bread, by its placement it is also clear that lechem is of very high significance. What is the meaning of this staple word?

Well, first of all, it's not clear that it originally meant only bread. In Arabic lahm means meat, and as Ruth Almagor-Ramon points out here:
lechem meant "the main food". When flour was the basis of the main food, then lechem meant bread; for those who relied mainly on meat, then the same root took on that meaning.

Stahl explains the term similarly. He points out that Hebrew also preserves some of the non-bread meaning of lechem, as in the verse from Tzefania 1:17: וְשֻׁפַּךְ דָּמָם כֶּעָפָר, וּלְחֻמָם כַּגְּלָלִים - "their blood will be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung". Here l'chum refers to flesh, to meat.

In Hebrew, Bethlehem derives from Beit Lechem - the House of Bread. In Arabic, they call it Beit Lahm - House of Meat. (The English word bedlam derives from a London mental hospital called "Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem".)

What about two other words that share the same root with lechem - מלחמה milchama - war, and הלחמה halchama - welding? Both Stahl and Almagor explain that they are all connected. Welding brings things closer, and in war in ancient times, the combatants were very close to one another. And what about lechem? Almagor claims that man feels very close to lechem (food), whereas Stahl says that the flesh association is earlier, and explains that lechem (flesh) is very close to the bone.

Monday, March 20, 2006


Today's post is about charedim חרדים - the "ultra-orthodox" Jews. Aha, you think, he's got no more chametz words? Have some faith.

From what I've been able to see, the charedim took their name from the quote: "חרדים לדבר השם" - "tremble at the word of the God". Only thing is, I can't find a verse that exactly matches it. From Yishayahu 66 we have וְחָרֵד עַל-דְּבָרִי (verse 2) and שִׁמְעוּ, דְּבַר-השם, הַחֲרֵדִים, אֶל-דְּבָרוֹ (verse 5). I don't know when they first began using that term, but it does seem clear that the original singular was chared חרד, not charedi חרדי, and charedi חרדי was a later back formation of charedim חרדים.

What other group took their name from the same source? The Quakers. George Fox admonished his followers to "tremble at the word of the Lord". (Interestingly, the Online Etymology Dictionary states that "the word was used earlier of foreign sects given to fits of shaking during religious fervor". Perhaps the charedim were called such because of their shuckeling?)

Back in 1901, the Quaker Oats company was founded in America. It wasn't founded by Quakers, but rather they chose the name because of its association with honesty and integrity. They are one of the main manufactures of oatmeal, and when Israelis first saw oatmeal, they gave it the nickname based on a transliteration of the label on the box - kvaker.

You can now found 14,000 hits on Google for קווקר - but I wonder how many Israelis think of charedim when they eat their oatmeal...

Saturday, March 18, 2006


Let's take a look at the type of bread commonly eaten on shabbat, challah.

Philologos does a good job of explaining the background of the word here. To sum up the points of the article:

  • The root of the word is חלל - which can mean either round or hollow
  • Challah is part of the biblical commandment of hafrashat challah הפרשת חלה - separation of the challah

But there's more to it than that. Stahl brings up both the theory that challah comes from the roots meaning "round" (the shape of the loaf) or hollow (the form of the loaf). He adds another possibility - that the bread was sweet, and therefore received its name from the same root as the Arabic hilu (from which the sweet sesame paste halvah derives.)

Stahl also expands on the connection between the Shabbat bread challah and the obligation to separate challah. He quotes Rav Shmuel Gelbard in the Otzar Ta'amei Haminhagim, who explains that during the week, people would buy bread from the baker, who would perform the mitzva of seperating the challah. But before Shabbat, the women would bake the bread themselves, and in order to remind themselves to seperate challah - the bread itself began to be called challah.

Friday, March 17, 2006


The etymology of idkunim עדכונים - updates isn't that complex. It comes from the phrase ad kan עד כאן - "until here" or "so far". It's a recent word, as is the English update, which first appeared only in 1948. I guess it makes sense for idkun and update to be of modern coinage...

Anyway, that term was just an excuse to let you all know of a few updates.

a) In my post about choten and chotenet, I mentioned an article that criticized Jastrow's definition of chatan. Well, thanks to Menachem Butler, I received a copy of that article. It was by Rabbi Salomon Alter Halpern, published in the journal HaMoreh in 1970. The part I remembered read as follows:

Rabbi Halpern is referring to Jastrow's example of chatan in Pesachim 113a, where advice is given to a husband to prevent contact between his wife and her first chatan. Jastrow seems to indicate it means a fiance, while Halpern claims that chatan always refers to a husband after the wedding.

b) Back in my post about teruma, I quoted the Rambam's introduction to Masechet Terumot, where he defends linguistic innovation. I did not, however, translate the quote into English. Well, Zackary Sholem Berger did the job for me, here. Thank you Zackary.

c) I will be traveling for most of the next 5 weeks. I do plan on continuing to add new entries here, but I obviously won't be carrying my entire library with me. So while the information might be less comprehensive than usual, I'm sure I can rely on the readers here to let me know if I've forgotten an important fact.

Thursday, March 16, 2006


Well, Purim is over, and in my house that means it's time to start getting rid of the chametz. So in that vein, I'll try over the next couple of weeks to clear out some good chametz words.

Last year, Lethargic-Man wrote:

The Collins Concise English Dictionary gives the etymology of "pitta" as a Greek word for a cake; Jastrow's Dictionary of the Talmud (etc) gives פיתא pita as the Aramaic of Hebrew פת pat, a piece of bread (and the Encyclopaedia Judaica gives פַת becoming פִיתָה as an example of vowel transformation in Hebrew). The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology has nothing to say on the subject, neither does the Oxford English Dictionary (first edition).Can anyone resolve this conundrum and tell me whether the English word really does come from Hebrew, or Greek, or the Greek from the Hebrew, or whether we're looking at two unrelated words that just happen to sound the same and have similar meaning?

Well, I think I may be able to help. Stahl writes that פת pat appears in the Tanach and comes from the root פתת - meaning "to break into pieces, to crumble". This is the source of the modern Hebrew פתיתים petitim (small orzo-like pasta) and the Yemenite fried bread dish - fatut.

As far as pita, Stahl quotes David Gold, the editor of the Jewish Language Review and the University of Haifa. Gold claims that despite the common approach that pita comes from פיתא, there's more to the story. In Greek, the word pit meant "bran" as discussed here:

The two main variants of the Italian (and now international) term, pizza and pitta, correspond to two Greek names for 'bran bread', pētea and pētítēs, recorded by Hesychius, Latinized as *pittja and (with haplologic shortening) *pitta. The root morpheme is pit/pet 'bran'; the words are of Doric provenience and spread as Doricisms in southern Italy; the pizza was originally, in full accord with its Spartan Background, the poor man's bread.

Stahl goes on to claim that the Greek pitta was adopted by the Sefardic Jews living in Greece, and when they came to Israel, the Ashkenazi Jews adopted it as well. He says that pita should really be spelled in Hebrew with a "tet", but because people associated it with the Aramaic פיתא - the "tav" was used instead.

So when you eat your pita, think of pizza, not pat...

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


As we've discussed in the past, there are a number of Hebrew words that have made their way into Indo-European languages such as English. Since the passage of words from one language to another often happened thousands of years ago, it is difficult to authenticate any particular claim. Today I'll bring up one that I find interesting - and I'd like to hear from the readers whether they agree, and particularly if there are any sources that back them up.

The English word asphalt comes from the Greek asphaltos. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary:

c.1325, "resinous mineral pitch found in Biblical lands," from L.L. asphaltum, from Gk. asphaltos, probably from a non-Gk. source, possibly Semitic.

Horowitz (p. 285) has an interesting theory. He claims that "an ancient name for the Dead Sea was 'Yam Shafelet' from the Hebrew word שפל shafel meaning 'low'."

He then continues: "Along the shores of the 'Yam Shafelet' was a tough, sticky, substance useful in road building. The Greek who dug it out called it 'asphaltos'. The Greek language has no 'sh' sound. This becomes the English word 'asphalt'."

There is no question that the Dead Sea is associated with asphalt. The Jewish Encylopedia gives the sea the following names:

The Dead Sea, known at present as "Bahr Lut" (Lot's Sea), is called in the Old Testament "Sea of Arabah" (R. V. Deut. iii. 17; Josh. xii. 8), "East" or "Eastern Sea" (Ezek. xlvii. 18; Joel ii. 20; Zech. xiv. 8). and "Salt Sea" (Gen. xiv. 3). The Talmud refers to it as "Salt Sea," or the "Sea of Sodom"; and Josephus and Pliny call it "Lake Asphaltites." The name "Dead Sea" is used by Pausanias, Justin, and the Church Fathers.

So we see that even in ancient times it was known as "Lake Asphaltites". And it's true that shafel means low and that Greeks replaced "sh" with "s". But I can't find any source that called the Dead Sea "Yam Shafelet". So where does this leave Horowitz's theory?

Sunday, March 12, 2006


It's well known that there is an obligation to get drunk on Purim. The source is the gemara in Megila (7b):

מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי

Interestingly, the verb for intoxication isn't from the root שכר, but rather l'besumei לבסומי. This word comes from the same root as perfume or fragrance - בסם or בשם - bosem. This is an ancient word in Hebrew, and appears in the description of the incense brought in the Temple. It is also familiar to us from the besamim we smell at Havdala, after Shabbat.

The root bosem made its way into English as well. The balsam tree got its name from the Greek balsamum, which derives from the Hebrew basam. Later, balsam led to the word balm, and balmy - fragrant or mild weather.

What about the other meaning of balmy - insane or foolish? There seem to be a few theories. One theory claims that it is a corruption of the name of a lunatic asylum by the name Barming Asylum in Kent, Britain. A different approach is that it comes from the word "barm"- the frothy, foamy head found on a glass of beer or ale, which derives from the Old English word "beorma." "Barmy" first appeared in the 16th century in a literal sense meaning "foaming," and by 1602 was being used to describe someone acting in an excited or irrational way whose head seemed to be filled with froth.

So while you might be feeling balmy while you are m'vusam - there might be a connection, but it's not etymological.


The etymology of hamentaschen is fairly well known. They did not originally refer to Haman (and therefore the Hebrew אוזני המן oznei haman - came much later.) These pastries were originally called "mahn-taschen". Mohn means "poppy" in German, and tasch is a pocket. When you add the Hebrew definitive article ha, they become ha-mahn-taschen, which is easy to associate with Haman. Of course there are many "midrashim" (really Purim torah), that expound on the connection: that Haman had three-cornered ears like the pastry, or had a three cornered hat, or a new one for me, that it refers to המן תש - "Haman became weak."

But here at Balashon, we go deeper. What is the origin of tasch and mohn?

From here we see that tasch from comes from Middle High German tasche, and earlier from Old High German tasca. Tasca is related to the English word "task", and both are related to "tax". What's the connection between task, tax and pocket? The Online Etymology Dictionary explains as follows: "amount of work imposed by some authority," to "payment for that work," to "wages," to "pocket into which money is put," to "any pocket." (A connection between Haman and taxes can be seen in the more recent custom to boo at the reading of the word mas מס - tax in the Megila, the same way as Haman is booed.)

Mohn in German is related to the Dutch maan, and has a number of related words in Indo-European languages, including the Greek mekon.

Friday, March 10, 2006


An interesting phrase appears in Megilat Esther: רוכבי הרכש - rokhvei harekhesh - translated as "riding steeds" (Esther 8:10). Rekhesh here certainly seems to be referring to a type of horse. But what is the connection between rekhesh and rekhush רכוש - property?

Horowitz points out (p. 61), that cattle and horses were among the most common forms of wealth. Besides rekhesh and rekhush, we have the following:

  • mikne מקנה - cattle has the root kana קנה - acquire
  • segula סגולה - property comes is related to the Akkadian word sugullu - herd of cattle
  • nekhesim - נכסים - property is related to the Aramaic root for killing נכס - and meant "cattle to be slaughtered"

The word rekesh is also related to the root רכס - "to bind, to fasten", which was of course done to cattle, horses and camels. We see the verb in this weeks parsha (Tetzaveh) וירכסו את החושן - "the breastpiece shall be held in place" (Shmot 28:28). This root gives us the word rekhes רכס - for mountain ridge (the mountains are fastened together), and rokhsan רוכסן - zipper.

There is one more related word that is used so frequently in modern Hebrew that I would guess most of you would assume it has ancient roots - I know I did. The word merkaz מרכז - center only entered Hebrew in the Middle Ages. According to Klein, it derives from the Arabic markaz - meaning foothold, stand, center, which in turn comes from the Semitic root רכס - to bind. The root רכז came later, as a back formation of מרכז.

Thursday, March 09, 2006


As we've discussed before, while in some ways both modern English and modern Hebrew are very new languages, they both draw their roots from much more ancient sources. English is a child of the Indo-European language family that produced Persian, Greek, Latin and German. And of course Hebrew is related to the other Semitic languages.

It does not appear to most linguists that Indo-European and Semitic have a common ancestor. But many words are borrowed from one family to the other. Much of this may have been through trade between nations - that is how the Semitic alphabet passed on to the Greeks. Another interesting way that some Hebrew words entered Greek (and later made their way to English) was by the translation of the Bible into Greek. When the translators could not find an equivalent Greek word, they would transliterate from the Hebrew.

In Hebrew, the word שכר shekhar - refers to an alcoholic beverage that is not wine. (It is often paired with wine, as in Numbers 6:3.) The Akkadian cognate sikru referred to beer, but it later came to mean liquor also formed from corn, apples, honey or any other fruit. This same root led to the words for intoxication - שיכור, השתכר. (Any connection between this post and Purim is purely circumstantial.)

When the Greeks came to translate shekhar, they created the word sicera (or sikera?). The same word was used in Latin, and in Old French was called cisdre. Over time the "s" was dropped, and the word was spelled cidre in French, and "cider" in English. By this time the word cider only referred to an alcoholic beverage made from apples, but gradually it began to include non-alcoholic drink as well. (For the difference between cider and apple juice, read Cecil Adams' column.) Hebrew readopted this word - and you can find סיידר in all supermarkets here, and even visit the factory of "Cider HaGalil" in Kiryat Shmona:

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


In Megilat Esther there are a number of words that are mentioned first in Akkadian, and then in Hebrew - pur and goral, and the names of the months, for example. The heroine's name is also given twice - Hadassah and Esther. In this case Esther is not a translation of Hadassah of course, but rather the Persian name she went by.

The name Esther - אסתר - is connected to the Babylonian deity Ishtar (yes, the same name as the notoriously unsuccessful movie.) They both derive from the Indo-European root ster, and the related Semitic root ctr which gave us the Greek goddess Aphrodite and the Phoenician goddess Astarte עשתרת. That same root gives us the English words star, astral, stellar and disaster (not in the stars.)

The rabbis in Chullin 139b say that there is a hint to Esther's name in the Torah:
ואנכי הסתר אסתיר - And I will surely hide (Devarim 31:18). The idea that God is hidden in the story of Purim is well known. But were the rabbis unaware of the original etymology of the name?

Rabbi Josh Waxman in Parshablog has a good explanation:

"While Esther and Mordechai are indeed the names Ishtar and Marduk, that does not (nor should not) preclude the name Esther having Hebrew connotations.

It is only if you think that pshat means that a word can have one and only one meaning that you would think it could not have another connotation. Let me give an example. Say I were writing a story about a creative type and called him Art. It is a perfectly normal American name, but that should not stop someone from analyzing my story and (correctly) concluding that I intended a pun."


Today is 7 Adar - the day that Moshe Rabeinu died. We don't know the location of his grave, and in that spirit, my story today will include a number of items whose precise location is hidden...

After discussing teruma last week, Parshat Tetzaveh includes the concept tenufa תנופה. (Shmot 29:24,26,27). The meaning of tenufa is debated - some say it means "raised up" (similar to teruma, and the Aramaic translation uses the same root), others say "waved".

The root נוף (or נפנף) as "wave" leads to the word for banner, according to Klein "that which is moved to and fro". Horowitz points out an interesting development here. In both English and Hebrew, when "N" is the second letter of a syllable, it is difficult to pronounce and often dropped. Therefore in English we say "illegal" and not "inlegal", "irreligious" and not "inreligious". In Hebrew the letter nun is known as a "weak letter", and falls out of many words - nofel נופל in the future becomes e'pol אפול. Horowitz gives a long list of words where the nun falls out (How the Hebrew Language Grew, pgs 32-38). One of the examples he gives is the word for banner. If the root is נוף, the noun should be manpa מנפה. But the nun fell away (our first hidden item), and we're left with the word מפה - mapa. Mapa can mean banner, and also map and tablecloth.

Horowitz points out that "because maps were painted on cloth, mappa in Latin came to mean map. In French the word became nappa, that gave rise to our word napkin." In English the word became napron, and one was called "a napron". But the N fell out again, and instead of calling it "a napron", we began to call it "an apron". (There are a number of cases like this: "an ewt" became "a newt", "an ickname" became "a nickname".)

The third hidden item isn't etymological, but just a funny story. I started researching this entry after coming home late last night from work. I tried looking for the root נוף in my Hebrew Concordance and couldn't find it. Over and over again I looked, and thought my failure was due to my exhaustion. Turned out that my book was missing the exact page of that root...

Sunday, March 05, 2006


The word dat -דת appears approximately 20 times in Megilat Esther. The meaning in the megila is "law" or "custom". Over time the word was adopted into Hebrew as "religion", as discussed here. In modern Hebrew we have dati as religious, and the Ashkenazic pronunciation gives us dosim, which has a derogatory tone in secular Israeli culture.

Everyone agrees that the word dat comes from a Persian word - data. (In the Book of Ezra the word appears as such - דתא). Horowitz claims that the Iranian data led to our English data, as well as the English word date. While no one denies that the English words data and date are connected, is there really a connection between dat and data? Just how redundant is the site DosiDate?

Since Horowitz did not provide sources for his theory, I'm going to rely on Klein's research. Klein claims that the Persian word data derives from the Indo-European base dhe. This root means "to put, to place" or "to do, to make" and gives us such words as deed, the suffix -dom, edify and many more.

On the other hand, the English word data derives from the Indo-European root do, meaning "to give". From here we get the words date, doron (Greek for gift, later migrating into Hebrew), donate, dowry and dose.

Saturday, March 04, 2006


B'diavad (alternatively spelled bidiavad)- בדיעבד literally means "after the event", and in Latin "post factum" or "post facto" (I know no Latin grammar so I can't tell you the difference.) It generally refers to a situation where a less than ideal action has occurred, and there is a need for a halachic decision.

The Eastern European pronunciation is "b'dieved" (or bidieved), and while I don't have anything to add on the etymology of the word, it's Adar, so I thought this was a good opportunity for a joke (thanks RL):

A man proposes marriage to a woman.
Woman: Look, you're an ok guy, but I'm quite lazy and I don't like housework. I'll marry you on condition that you provide me with a servant that will be at my beck and call, to perform all the housework and do my every wish.
Man: As you wish.
They marry, and when they arrive home the man introduces his bride to her new servant, who is quite well-mannered and courteous, but also happens to be 3 feet tall.
Woman: You call that a slave? I've been deceived -- I want a divorce.
They go to the rabbinical court, and the woman explains that her marriage was on false premises -- a mekach ta'ut -- and thus it is invalid.
The rabbi examines the servant -- all 3 feet of him, strokes his beard utters a few "hmm"s and "aah"s, and says:
"Look, it's a little bitty eved, but the marriage is valid."

Friday, March 03, 2006


Commenter Avi Shmidman mentioned an interesting point about the language of Chazal:

For instance, take the famous example of the mishnaic term להתרים, which was decried by all of the 18th and 19th century Biblical language purists - since the root תרם does not exist in Biblical language; rather, the Biblical term would be להרים תרומה, where the ת in תרומה is no more than a grammatical prefix. Yet, in our language, we have maintained the 'newfangled' chazali root of תרם as an upstanding member of the language. Biblical purism is no longer in fashion.
This is a very important point, and what better time to remind you all then on Parshat Teruma. I'd just like to add that the Rambam brings up the same point in the introduction to his commentary on Masechet Trumot. He's not worried about "18th and 19th century Biblical language purists", but the author of the Machberet, Menachem ben Saruk (920-970) - who he calls the "בלשנים החדשים" (new linguists)! The Rambam writes:

"אמרם בכל המשנה תרם ותורם ויתרום מקשים עליו הבלשנים החדשים, ואומרים שהעיקר הרים ומרים וירים. ואינו קשה באמת, כיון שהעיקר בכל לשון חוזר למה שדברו בו בעלי אותו הלשון ונשמע מהם, ואלו בלי ספק עבריים בארצם, כלומר בארץ ישראל, והנה נשמע מהם תרם וכל מה שהופעל ממנו. וזו ראיה שזה אפשרי בלשון, ושזה מונח מכלל המונחים העבריים. ועל זה הדרך תהיה תשובתך לכל מי שחושב מן החדשים שלשון המשנה אינו צח ושהם עשו פעלים שאינם נכונים באיזו מלה מן המילים. והיסוד הזה שאמרתי לך נכון מאוד אצל המלומדים השלמים המדברים על העניינים הכלליים הכוללים כל הלשונות כולם".

Zackary Sholem Berger provided the following translation here:

"[The rabbis] said, throughout the Mishnah, 'taram', 'veturam,' 'veyitrom' [all forms of 't.r.m.', 'to make a contribution']. But modern linguists have difficulties with this, saying that the true words [lit: the basic thing, ha-ikkar] are 'heyrim,' 'meyrim', and 'yarim'. [all forms of a different root, 'to lift up']

"Really though there is no difficulty. The basic expressions of every language always derive from what was spoken by the people of that language and what was heard from them. [In this case}, these are without a doubt the Hebrews in their land, that is to say the Land of Israel -- for from these people one hears "t.r.m." and all the verbal conjugations derived from it. This then is a proof that [such a thing] is possible in this language, one of the terms proper to those in Hebrew.

"This should be your answer to anyone who thinks, according to the moderns, that the language of the Mishnah is not eloquent, and that [the Rabbis of the Mishnah] created verbal forms that are not correct by using some word and not others.

"This principle I have told you about is quite well-founded among all established scholars who discourse on general matters pertaining to all languages."
To summarize, the Rambam is stating that linguistic innovation is legitimate, by saying that all languages change naturally by the people speaking them.
By the way, Klein calls this type of transition (from הרים to תרם) a "secondary base formation". Other examples he gives are:
  • תחל from תחילה
  • תרע from תרועה
  • תנב from תנובה
  • תנע from תנועה

Thursday, March 02, 2006


A friend recommended that another Purim related topic would be the word masecha מסכה - mask. He pointed out that it is related to the word masechet מסכת - tractate (of the Talmud.)

(Don't you love English words that are only used for Hebrew concepts? Tractate means treatise, and they both come from the Latin tractare, meaning "manage, handle, deal with" and originally meant "drag about" and therefore is also the source of the English words tractor, trace, train, retreat and extract.)

According to Klein, masecha and masechet are related - both come from the root נסך - to weave. Masechet originally meant a "web of the loom". Klein points out that in English there is a similar development from the Latin texere (to weave, and the root of the word textile) and textus (meaning structure, and the root of the word text.) He claims that נסך is related to the root סכך - the source of the words sukkah and musach מוסך - garage.

Interestingly, Klein writes that there is another meaning to the root נסך - to pour out, and it is not related to the root meaning to weave. This is the root of the words ניסוך nisuch - libations, נסיך nasich - prince, and מסכה - masecha, but this time meaning "molten images" - as in the prohibition of "elokei masecha" or the עגל מסכה egel masecha- molten calf.

What about the word mask? It sounds similar to masecha. Well, it doesn't come from the same Hebrew root (although Klein claims that while masecha originally meant "covering", the modern meaning of mask was influenced by that English word.) What is the origin of the word mask? Most sources say it (and the word mascara) comes from the Arabic maskhara meaning "clown or buffoon", from sakhira "to ridicule." With clowns wearing masks or make-up, this is a logical development. From what I've managed to find on the web, sakhira also means "to falsify" - so I'm going to guess that it's related to the Hebrew root שקר sheker - to lie.

There is another theory as to the root of the word mask - in the root סקר - to paint red. I was able to find the first page of this article, but only the first page, so I can't fill you in on all the details. Does anyone happen to have the entire article?