Wednesday, May 31, 2006


In honor of Shavuot, lets look at a staple dairy food: chemah (or chem'ah) - חמאה. In Modern Hebrew this always refers to butter, but in Biblical times that wasn't necessarily the case. In Bereshit 18:8, Avraham is going to serve chemah to his guests. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, in The Living Torah, translates chemah as "cottage cheese", and writes:

Chemah in Hebrew, usually translated as curd. It is something that can be eaten alone; see Isaiah 7:15, 7:22; cf. Proverbs 30:33. Others interpret it to denote a kind of leben or yoghurt. According to Rashi, the word chemah denotes cream. (cf. Targum and Judges 5:25). The Septuagint, on the other hand, translates it as butter. Indeed, in Middle Eastern lands, it was the custom to eat butter alone.

So we see a pretty wide range of dairy products as possible translations. Klein says that the word chemah is related to the Arabic hami'a - "it was turbid". According to this site:

As the word chemah, here translated butter, signifies disturbed, agitated, probable that buttermilk is intended. The Arabs form their buttermilk by agitating the milk in a leathery bag

This fits in well with the parallel given in Mishlei 30:33 -
כִּי מִיץ חָלָב, יוֹצִיא חֶמְאָה-- וּמִיץ-אַף, יוֹצִיא דָם;וּמִיץ אַפַּיִם, יוֹצִיא רִיב.
"'The churning of milk brings forth butter, the wringing of the nose brings forth blood, and the forcing of anger brings forth strife"

The connection of "turbid", "agitated", and "anger" may give us a clue to the origin of the word. It may be related to the Hebrew chema חמה - "anger". (There is also likely a connection between both חמה and חמאה and the word for heat - חום chom. When one is angry, he is "heated up". But it does not seem to be that chemah חמאה directly derives from "heat".)

This gives an etymological connection to a strange association I have every year at Purim. When I hear Ester 3:5 -- וַיִּמָּלֵא הָמָן, חֵמָה, I can't help thinking of Haman (maybe hamantaschen?) filled with butter....

The Hebrew word for compliment - מחמאה machma'ah, derives from chemah. However, there's more to it than just a parallel to the English "butter up". As this article explains, the word machma'ah was formed from a misreading of Tehillim 55:22 -

חָלְקוּ, מַחְמָאֹת פִּיו-- וּקְרָב-לִבּוֹ:רַכּוּ דְבָרָיו מִשֶּׁמֶן; וְהֵמָּה פְתִחוֹת.
The translation of the verse should properly read "his talk was smoother than butter", which is parallel to the second half "his words were more soothing than oil". In this case, the mem in machmaot indicates "greater than". But if one were to think that the mem was used in the sense that forms abstracts nouns (like מדע, מערכה) then it might seem that the opening phrase meant "distributed compliments" or "the compliments were smooth". (This is further complicated because of the use of the mem's use of the vowel patach instead of tzere).
In any case, Blue-Band took advantage of this play on words, and created a margarine that tastes like butter, calling it מחמאה machma'ah:

Tuesday, May 30, 2006


While there are those who believe that perhaps the Phoenicians discovered the New World, I don't think anyone thinks they came up with the name America. Yet perhaps, just perhaps, there might be a Semitic connection to the name.

Many years ago, I wrote to the columnist Cecil Adams:

We all know that America was named for Amerigo Vespucci. What does Amerigo mean in Italian?

He replied that:

Since you asked, there are a couple of theories on the name's origin. One is that it is a variant of Enrico, the Italian form of Henry, and derives from the Old German Haimirich (in later German Emmerich, in English Americus), from haimi, home, plus ric, power, ruler. Alternatively, it may come from the old German Amalricus, from amal, work, plus ric. (Amalricus the foreman? Beats me.)

Amal means work in Old German? It means the same in Hebrew! However, I have never been able to find any connection, or even an etymology of the German amal (perhaps to an earlier Indo-European root.) Maybe a reader knows or can find something out?

In any case, besides meaning "work, labor", the Hebrew word עמל amal, has a number of different meanings in many various locations in the Bible. Its meanings include: wealth, sin, suffering, trouble, oppression, mischief and pain. I have not found one unifying theory that explains all appearances of the word. It will often have different meanings in the same book. (See Robert Gordis, "On the Meaning of עמל in Koheleth" in Koheleth - The Man and His World, page 418).

In Arabic, the related words amil and amala mean "he did, acted". In Medieval Hebrew we first see the word amil עמיל - "agent, broker" from the Arabic. As far as I know, this word is not used much today, but in Modern Hebrew we find that the Arabic amala has been adopted into Hebrew - עמלה - as "commission, fee". This I hear all the time, especially at the bank...

Another derivative is ta'amula תעמולה - "propaganda". According to Klein, this word is also from the Arabic amil (business representative, agent.) Ta'amula has somewhat of a negative connotation, and therefore often it will be someone else's ta'amula, but your hasbara הסברה - "explanation, advocacy". That's what we need in America these days...

Monday, May 29, 2006


One of the theories as to the origin of the name of the continent Africa is from the Phoenician afar, which is identical to the Hebrew עפר. It will often be translated as "dust", but can also refer to "earth" or "soil". According to Take Our Word For It:

The -ica ending in those words comes from Latin -icus/-ica, and the Romans got that suffix from Greek -ikos, as in such words as komikos, grammatikos, and poetikos. The suffix -ikos was apparently one of the most frequently used in Greek, and it formed adjectives, making poetikos mean "in the manner of a poet". In general, -ikos meant "in the manner of", "pertaining to", or "of". Therefore, Africa, which came from Latin Africus, meant "of the Afro", the Afro being an ancient people of North Africa. Adrian Room, in Placenames of the World, suggests that Afro applied to the people of what is now Tunisia, and that the term derives from Arabic afar meaning "dust, earth", so that the Afro were etymologically "people of the desert".

I think that the authors are likely mistaken when they ascribe the origin to Arabic - I haven't seen that mentioned anywhere else.

Another meaning of afar is ashes. A word with similar sound and meaning is efer אפר, also "ashes". Klein writes:

According to Zimmern [Heinrich?], אפר is possibly a loan word from Akka. epiru(=earth, dust), hence properly identical with עפר (=dust).

Both efer and afar give root to the same color as well - עפור and אפור - afor, meaning gray. According to Steinberg, the gray color is where the Hebrew word for lead - עופרת oferet, gets its name.

When the founders of Modern Hebrew were looking for a word for "pencil" they looked at the European words bleistift (German) and mine de plomb (French) - both deriving from the original material used - lead. On this basis they (Ben Yehuda according to Stahl, Klausner according to Klein) coined the Hebrew word for pencil - iparon עפרון. I doubt either Ben Yehuda or Klausner would anticipate the urban legend known as Ani Iparon (quoted here, scroll down, and view the comments for more references.)

I have not seen anyone make a connection between afar and ofer עופר - meaning "young deer". The etymology of the town Ofra עופרה is also not clear - perhaps from one of the roots mentioned above. The Daat Mikra explains that the Arabs renamed Ofra as Taibe (from tov, good) because ofra means a demon in Arabic.

One name that certainly is not connected to afar is Oprah - as in Oprah Winfrey. She was given the name Orpah (Rut's sister-in-law) but it was mispronounced as Oprah, and the name stuck. So while the talk-show host may have her origins in Africa, her name and the continent's are not related.

Sunday, May 28, 2006


Previously, we discussed the etymology of Europe, and how it gets its name from erev ערב - which means "to enter", based on the idea that the sun enters its "tent" in the evening. Well, the same concept may lead to the name of Asia as well.

According to Klein (and others) the name Asia derives from the Akkadian asu, which is cognate to the Hebrew yatza יצא, and means "to go out". So just as the sun enters its tent at sunset, it goes out of it at sunrise. And so Asia can mean "the Region of the Rising Sun".

Yatza is a very simple Hebrew root, and is one of the first verbs learned by children. Some of its derivatives include tzetza צאצא - descendant, and totza'ah תוצאה - result.

Unlike the connection between erev and maarav מערב - west, which is used until today, yatza is not associated with a word for east in either biblical or later Hebrew. The two terms used in the Bible are קדם kedem and מזרח mizrach.

Kedem, which is not used in Modern Hebrew, means forward or front. For those of us accustomed to seeing maps with north on top, it sounds strange to have east be in front. But as the English word "orient" attests, finding one's bearings was done when facing east.

Mizrach comes from זרח - "to shine, to rise", and of course is connected to the sun rising in the east. The Religious Zionist movement Mizrachi is actually an acronym for merkaz ruchani מרכז רוחני - Spiritual Center. However, certainly the name was also chosen for its association with the direction mizrach, which for centuries had been identified with the Land of Israel (even when most Eastern European Jews lived more north than west of it...)

Friday, May 26, 2006


In our discussion about erev, we discussed how one original meaning was "to enter", and the place where the sun enters in the evening is maarav - west. Not surprisingly, compass directions feature prominently in many place names - North Dakota, South Africa, East Timor and West Indies.

The Hebrew word for west מערב becomes magrib in Arabic. (The "g" switch for ayin is common in Semitic languages - e.g. Gaza for Aza, Gomorrah for Amora.) That is the source of the name of the region of Western Africa known as the Maghreb. The most Western of these countries is Morocco. Morocco gets its name from the city Marakesh. The native name "Al Maghreb al Aqsa", means "the Farthest West".

As we saw in the history of the names Gibraltar and Spain, the Phoenicians and other ancient Semitic peoples preceded the Arabs in giving Semitic place names in the Mediterranean area. Klein, along with many others, states that the name of the continent Europe derives from the Akkadian erebu, which is cognate to the Hebrew erev. Klein writes:

Accordingly Europe orig. meant 'the Region of the Setting Sun'. cp. Hesychius who renders Europe with the words chora tes duseos (=the Land of the Setting Sun.) cp. also Erbos (= place of nether darkness), which derives from Heb. ערב.

We'll take a look at the Semitic origins of the names of other continents in the posts to come.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


After writing about בוקר boker, it makes sense to write about ערב erev. However, while we presented a number of different derivatives of בקר, the root ערב has far more.

For those that don't know, the Academy of the Hebrew Language is working on a historical dictionary:

It aims to encompass the entire Hebrew lexicon throughout its history; that is, to present every Hebrew word in its morphological, semantical, and contextual development from its first appearance in written texts to the present.

This will be a great tool for anyone interested in researching the history of Hebrew words, like, for example, me.

As an example of the scope of the dictionary, they write:

Let us consider for example, the Hebrew root ערב.
A seventy-five-page-long sample of the projected dictionary entry for this root
appeared in Lesonenu Vol. 46, 1982 (excluding indexes and statistical data).

That's quite a few pages. So I don't expect to cover ever meaning and derivative of the root. (Actually, I haven't even seen the article.) I very well may come back to this root in the future to discuss further developments.

Luckily, Kutscher has a chapter in his book that discusses the root. His important premise is that one of the meanings of ערב is "to enter". This is based on the similar meaning in Akkadian - erebu. The other major meaning he provides is "to mix" - ערבב. According to Kutscher, it is not clear if there is a connection between the two roots. His article was written in 1958 - perhaps more research has been done since.

Let's look at some words with the root ערב and see if they're related to "enter", "mix" or something else.

ערב erev - evening: Kutscher quotes Dr. Benjamin Klar as writing that: "Early man viewed sunrise as 'leaving' and sunset as 'coming'. Even though normally we'd think it should be the opposite, they had the view that the sun slept in a 'tent' every night. It would leave the tent in the coming, and enter it in the evening." This is described in Tehilim 19:5-6:

בְּכָל-הָאָרֶץ, יָצָא קַוָּם, וּבִקְצֵה תֵבֵל, מִלֵּיהֶם;לַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, שָׂם-אֹהֶל בָּהֶם. וְהוּא--כְּחָתָן, יֹצֵא מֵחֻפָּתוֹ; יָשִׂישׂ כְּגִבּוֹר, לָרוּץ אֹרַח.

"Their voice carries throughout the earth, their words to the end of the world. He placed in them a tent for the sun, who is like a groom coming forth from the chamber, like a hero, eager to run his course."

מערב maarav - west: Therefore maarav is the "entering place of the sun".

ערב שבת erev shabbat: Kutscher quotes the linguist Meir Medan (father of Rav Yaakov Medan, Rosh Yeshiva of Har Etzion) as saying that erev shabbat means "the entering of Shabbat", in the same way that מוצאי שבת motzaei shabbat means "the leaving of shabbat". This also helps explain the apparent redundancy between the terms erev shabbat and ליל שבת leil shabbat.

ערבון eravon - a pledge: According to Kutscher, the pledge "enters the house of the loaner". From here we get the verb ערב "to guarantee". This is the source of the famous phrase:
כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה / זה בזה - "All Jews are responsible for one another". Another derivative of this form of the root is התערב hitarev - "to bet" (i.e. "to exchange pledges".) The English word arbiter derives from eravon, as does one of the meanings of the word earnest - "money paid in advance as part payment to bind a contract or bargain".

ערב erev - woof (the threads that run crosswise in a woven fabric) - While Klein (and others) say that the word derives from "to mix", Kutscher says it is clear that it comes from "to enter" - the threads that enter under the threads of the warp.

ערב רב erev rav: This is generally translated as the "mixed multitudes" that went up from Egypt (Shmot 12:38). The association with "mix" is clear, but Kutscher agrees with Onkelos who translates it as "foreigners". Erev means foreigners in Nechemia 13:3, and there is a cognate word in Arabic meaning the same.

ערוב arov: The wild animals of the fourth plague in Egypt (Shmot 8:20). Kutscher says the origin is unclear, but Klein associates it with "to mix".

ערב arev "pleasant, sweet": Again, Kutscher says it is hard to determine the connection, but Klein writes that it perhaps means "to be well mixed, duly arranged".

Neither Kutscher nor Klein connect any of the following words with either the meanings "to enter" or "to mix":

  • aravi ערבי - Arab: Klein associates it the term with arava ערבה - desert plain, but see here for many more theories.
  • orev עורב - raven
  • arava ערבה - willow

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


Many years ago, when I was touring Israel with a group, we were going to visit Ben Gurion's residence on Kibbutz Sde Boker. While discussing the upcoming visit with a friend, I said the word בוקר boker with the accent on the first syllable, as in the Hebrew word for "morning". He corrected me and told me that the accent should be on the second syllable - which makes it the Hebrew word for "cowboy". What is the connection between the two terms?

Apparently, the original meaning of the root בקר is "to cleave, to split" (and is related to the similar בקע). Boker meaning morning derives, according to Klein, from "the breaking through of daylight".

As far as boker meaning cowboy, the root is in the Hebrew word for cattle, בקר bakar. I had always assumed that bakar got its name from the cloven hooves (which make them kosher.) However, from all the sources I've seen, the word actually derives from the function of the animal; as Klein defines - "the plowing animal".

As a verb, בקר means "to examine, to scrutinize, to criticize." This leads to two very similar nouns: bakara בקרה - control, and bikoret בקורת - inspection. Even native Hebrew speakers have difficulty distinguishing between the terms at times, and this site tries to point out the differences.

Lastly, בקר can mean "to visit", as in bikur cholim ביקור חולים - "visiting the sick". At first glance, perhaps nothing seems more Jewish than having the same root mean both "visit" and "criticize". However, according to Even-Shoshan, this sense of the word appears only once in Tanach, in Tehilim 27:4 --

אַחַת, שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת-השם-- אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ:שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית-השם, כָּל-יְמֵי חַיַּי;לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם-השם, וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ.
"One thing I ask of the Lord,
only that do I seek;
to live in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord,
l'vaker לבקר His temple."

There are many translations for l'vaker here, but "visit" does not seem to be correct. The parallel word in the verse is "to gaze", and that should be reflected in the understanding of l'vaker. So how do we get from there to bikur cholim?

According to Amos Chacham in his Daat Mikra commentary to Tehillim, the original meaning of bikur cholim meant "observation and concern for the needs of the sick". Over time the meaning drifted into "visiting". I can't say whether the shift was etymological, or perhaps in the actual performance of the act...

Monday, May 22, 2006


Every now and then I'll find a word that really surprises me that it has Semitic origins. Mattress is one of them.

From the Online Etymological Dictionary:

c.1290, from O.Fr. materas, from It. materasso, from M.L. matracium, borrowed in Sicily from Ar. al-matrah "the cushion" (cf. Sp. almadraque "mattress"), lit. "the thing thrown down," from taraha "he threw (down)."

What is not surprising is that the Arabic root has Hebrew and Aramaic cognates. The parallel Hebrew root is טרח - which originally meant "to throw, put". This developed into the sense of "to take pains, to take trouble", and gives us words like tircha טרחה - "trouble, bother".

Klein connects טרח with another root - טרה. In Aramaic this root means "to take" and is the source of the phrase shakla v'tarya שקלא וטריא - the "give and take" that we find in Talmudic discussions.

Jastrow also associates טרח with another similar sounding root - טרד. This makes sense both in terms of sound, as well as meaning, for טרד, like טרח, means "to trouble". He says that all three roots are have the meaning of "to set in motion, to shake". According to him, both טרד and טרה (or טרי) have the meaning "to drip" in the Babylonian Talmud (see Niddah 49b, Bechorot 44a, Tamid 32b, Shabbat 108b.)

According to both Jastrow and Steinberg, this meaning - "to drip" - is the root of the word matar מטר - "rain". From this source, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda coined the Hebrew word for umbrella, מטריה mitriya. (Matara מטרה, however, meaning target, comes from נטר - "to guard".)

The Hebrew word טרי tari - "fresh" in Modern Hebrew - may be connected as well. Even-Shoshan in his Concordance defines tari as "wet, dripping". Klein, however, disagrees, and claims it is related to the word terem טרם - "before".

As a side note, two other uncommon words in English have their root in the Arabic taraha.

Tare means "the difference between gross and net weight". What is left is "deducted, rejected" and the word taraha can also mean "to reject".

The fortune telling cards known as Tarot are said to have the same source as well. Taraha here gives us the "discarded" pile of cards.

Saturday, May 20, 2006


The Jewish custom of saying LeChayim (or lechaim/ lekhayim/ lekhaim/ l'chayim/ l'chaim/ l'khayim/ l'khaim) לחיים is very well known, and popularized by the song from Fiddler on the Roof "To Life. " What is the origin of the phrase?

It is common among Sefardi families (and now more and more amongst Askhenazim) that before the blessing on the wine during kiddush, the person making the blessing will say סברי מרנן "savri maranan" and those listening will respond lechayim. Some people will confuse savri with another introduction to similar blessings - b'rshut ברשות - meaning "with [your] permission". However, savri has a different meaning altogether. It comes from the root סבר, which means "to think, be of opinion". This is the also the root of the verb l'hasbir להסביר - to explain and svara סברה - logical argument. Therefore, the phrase savri maranan actually translates to "Gentlemen, what is your opinion?" What does this have to do with drinking wine?

We find the answer in Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Pekudei (Siman 2) . It is discussing the procedure of interrogating and potentially executing someone accused of a capital crime.

וכששבין מלחקור, אומר להם, סברי מרנן. והם אומרים, אם לחיים לחיים, ואם למיתה למיתה. אם הוא מחויב סקילה, מביאין לו יין טוב וחזק ומשקין אותו, כדי שלא יצטער מן הסקילה.
"After they return from the investigation, one says to them 'savri maranan (have the gentlemen formed an opinion)?' And they say, if to life lechayim - to life, and if to death, lemavet - to death." And if he is sentenced to stoning, they bring him strong good wine to drink, and have him drink it, so he won't suffer during the stoning. "
After this vivid picture associating wine with capital punishment, one can understand how there would be a need to put a more positive spin on wine. And so we see the continuation of the midrash:
וכן שליח צבור כשיש בידו כוס של קדוש או של הבדלה , והוא אומר סברי מרנן, ואומר הקהל לחיים, כלומר כי לחיים יהא הכוס.

"And so also the Shaliach Tsibur (= cantor) when he has a cup of kiddush or havdala in his hand and he says 'savri maranan', and the congregation says lechayim - to life, as to say that the cup will be to life."

(For an extensive survey of the halachic history of the phrase savri maranan and its association to kiddush, read this Mail-Jewish post from 1995.)

Friday, May 19, 2006


One of the weird things to happen when learning a language is when you think a word means one thing, and you find out it means something else.

For example, I bet I'm not the first immigrant to do a double take when he heard an Israeli refer to a marker as a טוש toosh. Even the most assimilated Jews in America know that tush is Yiddish for buttocks. So what's the connection?

Well, first of all, there is no connection - the words are just homonyms. Let's look at each part.

Tush comes from the Yiddish tokhes, from the Hebrew תחת tachat - bottom. The transformation does not seem to be a natural one. I found two postings on the Mendele list that gave theories as to its development.

In 1995 Zellig Bach wrote:

The accepted substitute in English for "tokhes" has been _tushie_ or_tushy_, apparently formed, according to Steinmetz, on the basis of a baby-talk diminutive. This word was then shortened to "tush," as in Mel Brooks' classic movie "Blazing Saddles," where a women bar singer by the name (I believe) of Von Push, in a satirical spoof of a Marlene Dietrich seductive song, rhymed "push" with "tush."

And in 2004, Enrique E. Gildemeister wrote:

"Nebbish" is the Western Yiddish pronunciation of "nebekh". But, could it be that, like "tush" for "tokhes", "nebbish" is used by East European immigrants' children because _kh_ does not exist in American English? Maybe the similarity with Western Yiddish is just a coincidence.

And what about the marker known as toosh? It comes from the German tusche:

NOUN: A black liquid used for drawing in lithography and as a resist in etching and silk-screen work.
ETYMOLOGY: German, back-formation from tuschen, to lay on colors, from French toucher, from Old French tochier, touchier, to touch. See touch.

The two other common terms for marker in Israel are לורד lord (originally a brand name) and מרקר mahrker - most prominently seen in the Israeli business publication TheMarker (pronounced in Hebrew as de-marker and written דהמרקר).

Another meaning of toosh in Hebrew is shower head. Another pronunciation is doosh, and according to this site, both are correct. They both originate in the European word douche, which is related to the Italian doccia meaning "shower," and is a etymological cousin of aqueduct.

Thursday, May 18, 2006


I've already mentioned here how the Phoenician colony of Carthage has a Semitic etymology: "Qart-Hadasht, related to the Hebrew kirya hadasha קריה חדשה - 'new city'."

Well, Carthage had an older sister, the colony of Utica, also in modern Tunisia. It was settled about 300 years before Carthage, around 1100 B.C.E. A number of sites mention that just as Carthage means "new city", Utica means "ancient city". But unlike Carthage, no one conjectures as to the etymology. Well, that's what I'm here for.

There are two words for ancient or old in Hebrew which could have led to Utica. I supposed that the source could be either atik עתיק or vatik ותיק. But while atik appears in the Tanach, vatik only began to mean "veteran" in modern Hebrew. In its earliest sources (post-Biblical), it meant "straightforward, reliable".

I recognized Utica having grown up in Upstate New York - there's a town with the same name in the area. Many towns in Upstate New York have Greek origins - Troy, Syracuse, even Greece. But one other town actually sounds a lot like Utica - Ithaca, the home of Cornell University. And according to this site, one of the theories as to the origin of the name of the Greek Ithaca is "Utica". Cornell claims that it is "the first American university". That title is debatable, but the name of the hosting town may very well mean "ancient" in one of the most ancient languages on Earth.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006


I love puns. They're great fun, and word play often shows a sophisticated grasp of language. The comic strip Pearls Before Swine is a master of puns. Above is a recent one (click on it to enlarge):

Coincidentally, the same day I was reading Kutscher's article on "anemone". It's another word that I didn't know has a Semitic origin. Here is its story:

In Yeshayahu 17:10 we find the following:

כִּי שָׁכַחַתְּ אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׁעֵךְ, וְצוּר מָעֻזֵּךְ לֹא זָכָרְתְּ; עַל-כֵּן, תִּטְּעִי נִטְעֵי נַעֲמָנִים, וּזְמֹרַת זָר, תִּזְרָעֶנּוּ.

"Truly, you have forgotten the God who saves you
And have not remembered the Rock who shelters you;
That is why, though you plant a delightful sapling,
What you sow proves a disappointing slip."

What the JPS translates as a "delightful sapling" in Hebrew is נטעי נעמנים - nitei na'amanim. The identification of namaanim as delightful derives from the Hebrew word noam נעם - pleasant. But what is the connection between the na'amanim plants and the idol worship described in the prophecy?

As described in depth here and here, there were spring and summer Caananite rituals in honor of the god Adon. This worship was common all over the Middle East. In Babylonia, the god was known as Tamuz (see Yechezel 8:14), and from his name we get the name of the summer month. The Greeks, who adopted many things from the Phoenicians (including of course the alphabet), also took on a number of their gods. They took the god Adon and he became Adonis.

Part of the ritual involved the red flowers known in English as anemones. According to Kutscher, the Greek word anemone does not come from the Greek anemos meaning wind, but is actually an adaptation of the Hebrew na'amanim. Support for this theory comes from the fact that the Arabic name for anemone is shaka'ek al-No'man - which in Arabic preserves the root נעמן.

In modern Hebrew the flowers are known as כלניות - kalaniot, meaning "little brides".

For some great photos of a field of kalaniot, go here.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


It is very common around the Lag B'Omer bonfire to have a sing-along called a kumzits (also spelled kumzitz or kumsitz). As this article describes, kumzits is an unusual word. On the one hand, it is widely known that the origin is from Yiddish for "come [and] sit". However, the word does not appear in Yiddish dictionaries. Why is that?

It turns out that kumzits is a Yiddish word that exists only in Hebrew. It was adopted by the early pioneers in Israel, despite the establishments opposition to use of Yiddish words. Hebrew replacements were suggested such as shevna שבנא - "please sit" and the Talmudic tozig טוזיג. But nothing ever managed to displace kumzits from its place beside the fire.

Sunday, May 14, 2006


Lately in my area of Israel there's been a lot of complaints about traffic. In general, when I have to wait in long lines in Israel - in traffic, at a government office or at the bank, I try to recall this verse from Yeshayahu (49:20) -

עוֹד יֹאמְרוּ בְאָזְנַיִךְ, בְּנֵי שִׁכֻּלָיִךְ: צַר-לִי הַמָּקוֹם, גְּשָׁה-לִּי וְאֵשֵׁבָה.
"The children you thought you had lost shall yet say in your hearing, 'The place is too crowded for me; Make room for me to settle"

The idea here is that just 100 years ago who would have believed there would be so many Jews in Israel that we would have traffic jams!

Only recently did I discover that the English word "traffic" has a Semitic origin. Klein writes in his CEDEL:
MF, trafique (F. trafic), fr. It. traffico, which prob. derives fr. Arab. tafriq, "distribution," verbal noun of farraqa, "he distributed," II (= frequentive or intensive conjugation) of faraqa, "he split, divided"; influenced in form by assumed L. traficere (for *transficere), "to make over" (see trans- and fact). Arab. faraqa is rel. to Heb. paraq, "he tore away (esp. the yoke), he rescued," peraq, "he tore off," Aram. peraq, "he rescued," Syr. peraq, "he withdrew (intr.); he redeemed, rescued," Ethiop. faraqa, "he set free". Derivatives: traffic, intr. and tr. v. (= F. traffiquer), traffic-able, adj., and traffick-er, n.
The root he is referring to is פרק. In addition to the verbs that Klein lists, we also have the word perek, meaning chapter ( from division), which can also mean "crossroads", which leads to such phrases as omed al haperek - עומד על הפרק - "to be on the agenda". We also find the word purkan פורקן - "salvation, redemption", which is known from the prayers על הניסים ועל הפורקן "Al HaNisim V'Al HaPurkan" and יקום פורקן "Yekum Purkan".

So I guess my association between traffic and redemption goes has an etymological connection as well...


The Yiddish term for "chicken leg" or "drumstick" is pulke (פולקע), and it has entered Hebrew as well (פולקה). Stahl writes that the origin is in the Russian word pol, meaning half or side. This root is found in a number of Slavic languages, including Czech, where it appears as pul. This is the source of the dance Polka - which according to this site, is Czech for "half-step", referring to the rapid shift from one foot to the other.

On this site we find that pul derives from a more ancient Indo-European root meaning "split or half", which leads to many words in the various languages of the Indo-European family, including such words as split and splice.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


The Hebrew word for ten is eser עשר (and the masculine form is asarah עשרה). Does this number derive from an earlier word?

Klein follows the BDB, and writes about the root עשר:

The orig. meaning of this base prob. was 'gathering, collection, union'. cp. Arab. 'ashara (= he formed a community), 'ashirah ( = tribe), ma'ashar (=a group of ten men). Accordingly, Heb. עשר (eser), Arab. 'ashr, etc. prob. meant orig. 'a group collection', whence 'a group of ten', and ultimately 'ten'.

Rav Hirsch (Bereshit 14:20) follows the same line of thought, and mentions that other similar sounding roots also have related meanings: אסר, אצר, עצר, אזר, עזר.

Steinberg, in Milon HaTanach, has a different theory. He says that עשר is related to עצר, meaning "to stop". He therefore writes that eser got it's name because it is where you "stop" counting (when you're counting on your fingers.)

Strong takes a slightly different approach. He writes:
A primitive root (ident. With ashar); to accumulate

Should we accept the connection with the words ashir עשיר - wealthy, and osher עושר - riches? At first we might reject this approach because one has the letter sin and the other has the letter shin. But we can see here that many Semitic languages have the "sh" sound in their word for ten: esher in Akkadian, `asharah in Arabic.

So to determine if there is a connection, we should use Horowitz's advice (and Lonnie's Biblical Hebrew teacher's), and see how each term is used in Aramaic. Ten in Aramaic is עסר (asar), where rich in Aramaic is עתיר (atir) - a term still used in Modern Hebrew.

So it would seem that Strong's theory is hard to accept. However, the Rabbis did make use the similarities between "ten (or tenth/tithe") and "riches" to provide a play on words.

Jastrow provides two examples. One is from Shir HaShirim Raba:
אם זכיתם תעשירנה ואם לאו תעשירנה - "If you deserve well 'you make her rich', if not 'you reduce her to one tenth'.

The other source, from Shabbat 119a and Taanit 9a would seem to provide an opposite message:

עשר בשביל שתתעשר - "Give tithes in order that you become rich".


The Hebrew word for nine is tesha (pronounced more like "taysha") תשע, and the masculine form is tisha תשעה (as in Tisha B'Av). Philologos discusses the masculine / feminine forms here, along with a joke about:

newly religious Israeli who informs his boss that he isn't coming to work the next day because it's "Tesha be'Av."

He (who is he? she?) uses this column to present a theory about why numbers have a different gender pattern than nouns, verbs and adjectives:

The reason for this odd turnabout, which exists in Arabic and other Semitic languages as well, is obscure and goes back to the prehistory of the Semitic family. A hint can perhaps be found in certain languages of the Cushitic group, a large family in the Afro-Asiatic phylum to which Semitic belongs. There are some Cushitic languages in which nouns have the gender of their adjective reversed when they go from the singular to the plural. Thus, for instance, in Sidamo, a language spoken in the highlands of East Africa, the adjective ko, "this," is used with a singular masculine noun and te, "these," with a masculine plural, whereas the order is reversed with feminine nouns, te modifying the singular and ko the plural. Something similar seems to have affected the numbers in proto-Semitic.

I have to admit, I don't entirely understand it myself.

As I've mentioned earlier, I don't think that the words for most numbers in Hebrew derived from earlier sources. But Strong does provide an interesting theory:

perhaps from sha'ah through the idea of a turn to the next or full number ten

I suppose this would be similar to the Roman numeral IX being nine - almost ten. According to Steinberg שעה sha'ah has it's roots in the word תעה, meaning to become lost. He defines שעה as to look around, turn from place to place. Steinberg says it is the source of שעשע - to take delight (although Klein does not agree.) In modern Hebrew, we have the derivative hashaya השעיה - "suspension, temporary removal".

Sha'ah meaning "hour" is unrelated.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


The Hebrew word for the number eight is שמונה - shmoneh. A word that might seem to have the same root is shemen שמן - "fat, oil". Are they connected?

Strong seems to think so:

apparently from shamen through the idea of plumpness; a cardinal number, eight (as if a surplus above the "perfect" seven);

I suppose the idea here is similar to the slang phrase in English - "everything else is gravy".

And there are no shortage of drashot about Chanuka that connect the number eight (the days of
Chanuka) with shemen (the oil used in the miracle.)

But I'm inclined here to accept Horowitz's opinion. He writes:

Two different sounds are represented by the Hebrew letter ש (shin). One is originally and really ש (shin); the other is a "th" sound that coalesced into ש (shin) in Hebrew. Scholars write this second sound ת (tav). Here, if you have studied a little Talmud, you will be familiar with many Hebrew words that Have ש (shin) in them but in Aramaic are written with a ת (tav) ... So, therefore, don't try to connect the following roots that have ש (shin) in them ...

שמן (shamen) - fat
שמונה (shmonah) - eight. The ש here was originally a "th". In Aramaic the word eight is תמני.

By the way, according to Klein, the Hebrew word for octopus, tmanun תמנון - derives from the Aramaic tmanya תמניא (eight) and nun נון (fish).

Monday, May 08, 2006


The Hebrew number for seven is שבע - sheva. A homonymic root is שבע - "to swear, to take an oath". Is there a connection between the two? There seems to be. Klein says the verb derives from sheva (seven) and "prob. meaning lit.: 'to bind oneself by seven things, or by seven oaths'." Steinberg writes that the number seven was holy to the ancient peoples, based on their view that there were seven planets (they included Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn). The connection between "seven" and "oath" becomes clear in the stories relating to the founding of Beer Sheva, both with Avraham and with Yitzchak. The name appears both as meaning "Well of Seven" and "Well of Oath".

Of course a major derivative of sheva is shavua שבוע - meaning week. R' Hirsch goes so far as to say that the connection mentioned above between seven and oath is also related to shavua: "An oath thus obligates a person through everything that was made in the seven days of creation " (Bereshit 21:31).

One last note: an occasional error (found here for example) is to think that the mourning period known as shiva derives from the Hebrew root for sitting - ישיבה. The actual root is the masculine form of the number - שבעה - shiva, for the "seven days of mourning."


The Hebrew word for six is shesh שש (masc. shisha שישה). The Hebrew and English words sound similar, and in other languages there is even a greater resemblance - seis in Spanish, sheshi in Lithuanian, and shesh itself in Persian.

(Persian is the origin of the shesh in shesh-besh, the Hebrew term for backgammon. Besh is five in Turkish, and according to Stahl, those two numbers are used because they are the highest ones on the die, and are taken from two separate languages because of the rhyme.)

Is there a connection between the Semitic languages and the Indo-European ones here? There are those who use this to prove their theory that Hebrew is the source of all languages, but most find the general theory far-fetched, and it is included here in a list of "false cognates". This article , from the 1911 EncylcopediaBritannicaa claims that:

Six is in Hebrew shesh, almost exactly like the Sanskrit and modern Persian shash, the Latin sex, &c. But the Indo-European root is sweks, or perhaps even ksweks, whereas the Semitic root is shidth, so that the resemblance is a purely accidental one, produced by phonetic change.

However, in the sci.lang newsgroup there was a serious discussion about the development of shesh. One poster claimed there that Indo-European borrowed the word from Semitic. But haven't we said earlier that words for numbers should be so basic that no borrowing would be required? His response is that perhaps the original Indo-European counting system was base 5 (the number of fingers in the hand), similar to Roman numerals. I have no conclusion one way or another. Perhaps a reader has access to further research on the subject?

Two homonyms that aren't related to the number six are shesh (the fabric) and shayish שיש(marble). Shesh the fabric refers to white linen, and despite the drasha in Yoma 71b that connects it to the number six (a six ply linen thread) - Klein and Steinberg point out that both shesh (linen) and shayish are originally Egyptian words. (Perhaps related to each other, both being white?)

One interesting possible derivative of shesh is the Hebrew word for lily - שושנה / שושן shoshana (or shoshan). This is a common name for women in Hebrew, and is the source of the English name Susan. Ibn Ezra connects shoshana to shesh in his commentary on Shir HaShirim 2:2 -

It is a white flower of sweet but narcotic perfume, and it receives its name because the flower has, in every case, six [shesh] petals, within which are six long filaments.

Klein backs up this theory, tracing shoshan to the Akkadian shushu - six-sided.

From this picture (click for larger version) we can see exactly where the name came from.

Sunday, May 07, 2006


The Hebrew word for the number five is חמש - chamesh. Another set of words that would seem to have the same root are chamush חמוש - armed and tachmoshet תחמושת - ammunition. Is there a connection between them?

The earliest source that might provide an answer is Shmot 13:18 - וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. "Bnei Yisrael went up, chamushim, from the land of Egypt". Most translators and commentaries explain chamushim here as meaning "armed". (There are some exceptions. The Septuagint translates chamushim as "the fifth generation", despite translating chamushim in Yehoshua 1:14 as "armed". Apparently the unusual translation is due to the difficulty explaining the source of the armaments. And as far as the midrash that Rashi quotes, that only one fifth of Bnei Yisrael left Egypt, it is appropriate to quote Ibn Ezra's response: "We have enough trouble explaining to the Arab scholars how 55 males could have 600,000 males over the age of 20 within 210 years - and there's even more when you include women and children!")

So is there a connection between the two meanings of חמש? Klein believes that there may be. In his entry for חמוש, he writes:

Of uncertain origin. It is possibly related to חמשה (= five), and refers to the division of the army into five parts: van, body, rear and two wings. Hence related to Arab. hamis (= army; properly 'army divided into five parts') from hams (= five.)

Steinberg, in his Milon HaTanach, says that חמש in Arabic means "collection and connection", and this is the source of the number chamesh, which means "clenching of the five fingers". He gives examples from other languages where the same word means hand and five, for example piast' and piat' in Russian. He therefore explains the meaning of chamush as armed, because the soldiers are gathered and collected together. (We saw something similar in our explanation of the connection between lechem and milchama.)

I thought perhaps there was a similar development in English, between arm (limb) and arm (weapon), but although they come from the same Indo-European root, there doesn't seem to be the same type of sense development as in Hebrew.

Friday, May 05, 2006


The Hebrew word for four is arba ארבע (masculine arba'ah ארבעה). The root of the word is רבע, which leads to such words as reva רבע - quarter, rvi'i רביעי - fourth, and m'ruba מרובע - square. This is fairly straightforward.

However, as we progress in our discussion of numbers, many words for numbers will appear to be very similar to other Hebrew words. In some cases it is just a coincidence, and we will be able to prove it. In other cases the connection is much more strong. There are those that claim that the words for numbers derive from these other roots. In general, I am not inclined to accept these theories - although I will present them here for you to view for yourselves. If anything, I think it is more likely that the words for numbers came first. Hebrew is an ancient language, and it seems very unlikely that Hebrew would lack such basic words as the numbers from one to ten, and need to borrow them from other words.

Arba is a good example of this discussion. There is another meaning for the root רבע - to lie down, mostly for animals and as Klein writes "in Heb. it usually refers to copulation, mostly unnatural." Its cognate is the root ravatz רבץ (the ayin and tzadi switch in Hebrew) - also meaning to lie down or to crouch, generally for animals. Klein makes no connection between "to lie down" and "four", but others do. Steinberg, in the Milon HaTanach, writes that ravatz means to lie on hands and feet - on "all fours".

Strong (or is it the BDB?) writes that רבע is:

A primitive root (rather identical with raba' through the idea of sprawling "at all fours" (or possibly the reverse is the order of deriv.).

As I mentioned earlier, I think it is much more likely that "sprawling on all fours" derives from the number than the other way around.

Another meaning of רבץ / רבע is "to irrigate, to sprinkle". Klein does not appear to connect this root with either previous meaning. Jastrow does connect "to lie with" and "to inundate for the sake of improving the soil" - both have the meaning "to cover". From the meaning "to irrigate", Jastrow derives the term to teach Torah - מרביץ תורה - marbitz torah. This is the origin of the name of the prestigious Biblical studies journal, Tarbiz.

In colloquial Hebrew, marbitz also has the meaning "to hit, to spank", I assume because it may cause someone to lie down on the ground. In even more recent slang, marbitz means "to really do or make something". Rosenthal includes such entries as:

הרבצנו מיץ תפוזים - we drank a lot of orange juice
הרביץ הופעה - dressed very impressively
להרביץ קפה - to make coffee
נרביץ תמונה - let's take a picture

I suppose the best slang equivalent in English would be "knock". To "knock out" can mean "to hit" or "to exert or exhaust (oneself or another) to the utmost" and "to produce in abundance".

Thursday, May 04, 2006


The feminine form of three in Hebrew is שלוש shalosh, and the masculine form is שלושה shlosha. All the numbers from three to ten follow this pattern, where the masculine ends in ה ָ (ah) and the feminine does not. This is the exception to the general trend - with most nouns, verbs and adjectives the feminine ends in ה ָ (ah) and not the masculine. What's the story here?

As of now, the only explanation I could find is in Steinberg's Milon HaTanach (in the entry for ארבע). He says he discusses it more in מערכי לשון עבר - Maarchei Lashon Avar 127, 28 - which was published in 1884. He claims that originally the suffix ה ָ (ah) was used for both masculine and feminine numbers. He gives examples from Melachim I 7:30, Yechezkel 7:2 and Yirmiyahu 36:23. In time when they began differentiating between genders for numbers, they dropped the last syllable in the feminine form. He says a similar development occurred with the male word for "you" - אתה atah, and the feminine את at.

A derivative of shalosh is shalish שליש. This word has three meanings:

a) A dry measure of volume (found in Tehilim 80:6, and Yishayahu 40:12). Klein states it is likely a third of an ephah.

b) A musical instrument, as mentioned in Shmuel I, 18:6. This was either three-sided (like the triangle in English) or three-stringed.

c) An officer in the army, first used in the Torah to describe Egyptian officers, and still used today in the IDF. There are those who claim that the word is not connected to the number three (Onkelos, Rashi on Shmot 14:7) and the Daat Mikra mentions that shalishim in Ugaritic refers to soldiers who were trained to shoot arrows from a moving chariot. However, there are two other theories that do connect shalish to shalosh. One claims that the shalish was third in command, and another theory states that there were three soldiers in every chariot.

Another derivative of shalosh is shilshom שלשום - the day before yesterday. Klein says it literally means "three days ago".

Monday, May 01, 2006


The Hebrew word for two is shnayim (shnaim) שניים. The feminine form is shtayim (shtaim) שתיים, and just like with the switch between echad and achat, we need to explain this one as well.

I have seen two explanations as to how the gender transformation developed. According to Steinberg in his Milon HaTanach, the original form was shintayim שנתים, but as we've seen before, the nun has a tendency to drop out of the middle of words.

Klein, however, writes that:

According to the opinion of several scholars, שתים is the abbreviation of אשתים. If it were really so the 'daghesh' in the ת of שתים would be accounted for. I am convinced that שתים is really the shortened form of אשתים and owes its form to the masculine equivalent שנים. I am of the opinion that אשתים is nothing but the dual form of עשתי, אשתי (=one), related to Akka. ishten (=one). אשתים as the dual of אשתי, accordingly lit. means 'two ones' (i.e. 'one taken twice'). cp. מאתים (=two hundred), אלפים (=two thousand), etc.

I have to admit that I'm not sure I follow Klein's entry, and I believe there might be a typographical error. Is he convinced that shtayim comes from eshtayim or not? If not, then perhaps he does agree with Steinberg.

The "several scholars" that he quotes likely includes Ibn Janach. According to this site, back in the 11th century, Ibn Janach noticed that shtayim is the only word in Hebrew that has a dagesh kal after a shva nach. (For more information about these terms, look at the Wikipedia article on Hebrew vowels.) He therefore concluded that the original form of the word was eshtayim, but the alef dropped off with time. (See also the Radak on Shoftim 16:28). The author of this essay (unfortunately I don't know who it is), mentions two other terms where the alef dropped off an original term, and the shva nach remained in place:
אשמורה > שמורה
אתמול > תמול

Steinberg also noticed this anomaly, but explains that because people were accustomed to saying shintayim, the dagesh remained in place.

Klein claims that shnayim derives from שנה - "to repeat", which also means "to teach". From here we get the word mishna משנה , and from the Aramaic cognate תנא - the Tanaim תנאים (the teachers of the Mishna.)

The Hebrew word for second (1/60th of a minute) - shniya שניה - is a loan translation from the Latin pars minuta secunda (= second small part of an hour).

The homonymic root שנה meaning "to change" is not related. According to Horowitz's approach, we can see this because of the transformation from Hebrew to Aramaic. Where שנה meaning "to repeat" becomes תנא, the root meaning "to change" maintains the shin. According to Klein, the word for year, שנה shana, originally meant 'change; period of changing seasons'.

And lastly, the word for sleep, shena שינה, derives from an entirely different root - ישן.