Friday, April 28, 2006


Many people who don't know Hebrew find it hard to imagine reading a language without vowels. Yet young children master it easily and adult students of Hebrew also find it not terribly challenging after some study. However, there are still some occasions where I end up misreading a word due to the lack of vowels.

For example, yesterday there was a headline in the newspaper that read:

כל גרוש שלישי מתחמק ממזונות

I first thought it meant that "every third coin (grush) escaped alimony". Only after a second reading did I realize that it meant "every third divorcee (garush) avoids paying alimony".

For some reason this root - גרש - leads to occasional misunderstandings, and that's what I would like to explore today.

The Hebrew root גרש means "to expel, to drive away". An related meaning is "to divorce". Divorce is gerushin גירושין and a divorcee is a garush גרוש. The connection between expulsion and divorce led to some humor during the protests over the Gaza disengagement. A popular bumper sticker read: יהודי לא מגרש יהודי - "A Jew does not expel another Jew". But someone read the sticker to me and said, "I thought it was the Catholics that don't divorce..."

Another connected term is migrash מגרש - a plot of land. Klein explains the origin as "orig. meaning 'pasture land', i.e. 'the place whither cattle are driven'." Evyatar Cohen has a different explanation. He points out the verse in Moshe's blessing of Yosef (Devarim 33:14):

וממגד תבואת שמש וממגד גרש ירחים "With the bounteous yield of the sun, and the bounteous crop (geresh) of the moons"

Geresh here is a hapax legomenon - it only appears once in the Bible. Therefore the meaning of the word is hard to define, and the translation of "crop" is based on the parallel tevuah תבואה - yield. Driver defines geresh as "that which the earth thrusts forth or tosses up". Cohen sees a parallel between tevuah and geresh - what is brought in (תבואה from בוא) and what goes out (גרש). He therefore concludes that the root גרש can mean both coming in and going out. This provides him with a different explanation as to the origin of migrash. A migrash is the area near a city or a house, also known in Hebrew as a mavo מבוא - entrance, deriving from the root בוא, coming in. (We used the fact that migrash and migaresh are homographs to make an Emily Litella type skit in a Purim play last year.)

Another meaning of geresh is apostrophe; gershayim גרשיים is two, and means quotation marks. While in modern Hebrew they are used as punctuation marks, their origins are in the taamei ha-mikra, the Biblical cantillation marks. While the origins of some of the teamim are clearly due to their shape or their sound, Klein says the etymology of geresh is unknown. While I could not find any other explanation, the etymology of the English word apostrophe might be helpful:

from M.Fr. apostrophe, from L.L. apostrophus, from Gk. apostrophos (prosoidia) "(the accent of) turning away," thus, a mark showing where a letter has been omitted, from apostrephein "avert, turn away," from apo- "from" + strephein "to turn"

Certainly the Hebrew meaning of גרש - to turn away is rather similar. It is also important to note the difference between gershayim and merchaot מרכאות. Both refer to the punctuation mark ", but according to this Hebrew expert:

Don't confuse Hebrew gersayim and merchaot - they have different meaning, different uses, and when using high quality typesetting - look differently. Gershayim is used for acronyms. Merchaot is used for quoting sentences. Similarly, geresh and single quotes aren't the same thing. Geresh is used for abbreviations, single quotes are just a typographical variant of merchaot (used when you have merchaot inside merchaot, for example).

So geresh is used only to break up a word or indicate an abbreviation. Therefore apostrophe is an appropriate translation, and perhaps the etymology is the same. I'd be happy to hear from anyone who can confirm (or deny) this theory.

What about the term grush that I quoted in the beginning of this post? A grush is a very small coin, but in modern Hebrew slang doesn't refer to any specific denomination. Ein lo grush אין לו גרוש - means he has no money at all, and shaveh kol grush שווה כל גרוש means worth every penny. The term originates in Yiddish, but there are cognates in many European languages - Russian groš, Polish grosz, the Czech grosh, and more. This site gives the following etymology:

The word is adopted from Latin (Denarius) Grossus: lit. "A thick coin" where grossus being "thick"

You can find additional discussion about the nature of the term grush here.

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