Monday, July 31, 2006


The Book of Eicha contains two related words, which are unique in the Tanach:

צָעַק לִבָּם, אֶל-אֲדֹנָי; חוֹמַת בַּת-צִיּוֹן הוֹרִידִי כַנַּחַל דִּמְעָה, יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה--אַל-תִּתְּנִי פוּגַת לָךְ, אַל-תִּדֹּם בַּת-עֵינֵךְ.

"Their heart cried out to the Lord. O wall of Fair Zion, shed tears like a torrent day and night! Give yourself no respite, your eyes no rest" (2:18)

עֵינִי נִגְּרָה וְלֹא תִדְמֶה, מֵאֵין הֲפֻגוֹת

"My eyes shall flow without cease; without respite" (3:49)

Both words derive from the root פוג, and there is much discussion as to the meaning of the word. Much of the debate surrounds the description of Yaakov's reaction to being told that Yosef was still alive -vayafog libo וַיָּפָג לִבּוֹ (Bereshit 45:26). What exactly happened to Yaakov's heart?

Rashi writes (as translated here):

Vayafog libo - his heart was changed so that he could not believe. That is to say that his heart could not take notice of the things (that Yosef's brothers had spoken). The usage is similar to that which is stated in the Talmud Tractate Beitza 14a (concerning the permissibility of grinding spices on Yom Tov in the usual fashion) that spices lose their flavor ("mefigin ta'aman") if ground ahead of time. It is also similar to the verse in Eikha 3:49 that "my eye(s) shall flow (tears) and not cease, without respite ("hafugot"). Also, note the Aramaic translation of the verse in Yirmiyahu 48:11: "Moav is complacent from its youth and settled upon its lees; it has not been poured from one vessel to another nor gone into exile. Therefore, its fine flavor abides and its bouquet has not dissipated." Concerning this undissipated bouquet, the Aramaic translation renders "lo fug" .

However, the Ramban disagrees (same source):

…Rashi's derivation is incorrect, for the matter of "fuga" is cessation and cancellation…Here too, the expression means that his heart stopped beating and his breathing ceased. The action of his heart stopped and it was as if he was dead. This phenomenon is well documented in situations where sudden and unexpected joy occurs. The medical literature relates that the old and the weak cannot bear unexpected joyous news, for many of them faint away under such circumstances. Their hearts are suddenly expanded and opened and the body's natural heat is transferred to the extremities, leaving the heart with insufficient warmth. The old man (Ya'akov) fell down as if dead.

Although the Ramban does not mention it directly, his mention that the heart is left without sufficient warmth, connects with the Arabic meaning of the root, as quoted by Klein:

Aram. פוג (=to cease, be helpless), Syr. פג (= was cold), Arab. faja (= grew cool.)

Shadal (quoted here) rejects the definition of "cold" (he brings it in the name of Rosenmuller and Gesenius) - would Yaakov remain "cold" to the news about Yosef? But he claims it means "to become weak". He connects the root פוג to the root פוק - also meaning "weak" as in Yirmiyahu 10:4, Yishayahu 28:7. Shadal derives the words safek ספק - doubt, and pikpuk פיקפוק - doubting from the same root.

Kaddari writes that פוג means "to become numb, without feeling". This connects well with the meaning of "become cold" (Ramban), as well as "become weak" (Shadal, Radak), or "to cease" (Rashi, Ibn Ezra). In fact, all three explanations are brought by Amos Chacham in the Daat Mikra to Tehillim 38:9.

The sense of weak, ceased is likely the origin of the word pag פג, meaning "unripe fig". Klein claims that the Latin words for fig - ficus, fica (and from them the English word "fig") - derive from pag. Today the word pag refers to a premature infant.

Steinberg mentions that a number of words beginning with the two letters פג may be related, and I'm inclined to believe him. Many of them seem mean weak:
  • פגם - to render defective (verb), flaw (noun)
  • פגר - to be backward, to lag behind
  • פגע - to harm, to insult
  • פגל - to spoil, to foul

Sunday, July 30, 2006


In Gittin 57b, we read the moving story of the mother of seven sons, each of whom is willing to sacrifice his life instead of worshipping idols. When the last son came before the Emperor, the emperor offered him a chance to save himself: "I will throw my signet ring in front of you so that you can bend down to pick it up. Then people, thinking you bowed to me, will say that you have accepted my authority." The boy responded: "Woe (chaval) to you, Caesar, woe (chaval) to you, Caesar! If your own honor is so important to you, how much more so the honor due the Holy One, Blessed is He!"

The word chaval (or haval / khaval) חבל is familiar to anyone speaking Hebrew in Israel today. Jack Moline in Growing Up Jewish wrote:

An expression which, depending on how it is used, can mean "I'm so sorry" or "Tough cookies." For example, say to an Israeli, "I had a relative who died in a terrorist attack," and he will say, "Chaval." Or, say to the clerk at the Jerusalem Plaza, "Leona Helmsley would never issue such thin towels," and he will say, "Chaval."

In addition, Hebrew slang has the expression "chaval al hazman" חבל על הזמן - meaning "a waste of time" (sometimes abbreviated as חבל"ז chavlaz). It can refer to something that's so bad it's a waste of time "חבל על הזמן לנסות לדבר איתו" - "it's a waste of time trying to talk to him". But just as often it has a positive connotation; it's a waste of time trying to tell you how good it is. "How was that movie?" "Chaval al hazman!"

What is the origin of the word? The sense of "waste" comes from the verb root חבל, meaning loss damage or ruin. A terrorist is a מחבל mechabel, and a police sapper (who destroys the bombs) is a chablan חבלן.

Another meaning of חבל is "to pledge". According to Klein, some scholars connect this meaning with the earlier meaning "to destroy", while others see it as a separate root, connected to yet another meaning - חבל can also mean "to bind". From here we get chevel - "rope", and later "measured portion, region", chavila חבילה - package, and chovel חובל - sailor (lit. one who binds). Kutscher writes that there are those that claim that the English word "cable" derives from the word chevel, but points out that there are those who disagree.

Yet another meaning of חבל is "to writhe, travail", which, according to Klein, derives from the Aramaic חבל "to conceive, bear", and is related to the Arabic habilat ("was or became pregnant") . From here we get the term chevlei leida חבלי לידה - labour pains, and חבלו של משיח - the sufferings which precede the coming of the Mashiach.

Thursday, July 27, 2006


Many Israeli pundits have said recently that the conflict between Israel and the Hizballah cannot end in a teiku - למדינת ישראל אסור להפסיק בתיקו (this version by Uzi Dayan.) In modern Hebrew a teiku תיקו refers to a tie in a sporting match, but many of us are familiar with it as the term describing an unresolved dispute in the Talmud (more about that here).

A very popular etymology for the term claims that the word is an acronym for "תשבי יתרץ קושיות ובעיות" - "Tishbi (i.e., Eliyahu HaNavi) will answer challenges and problems". (This creates an interesting mental image for some new immigrants here who see Eliyahu determining the winner of all the soccer matches ending 1:1.) However, this is a relatively late midrashic etymology.

The word actually comes from the Aramaic teikum תקום (or תיקום) - meaning "it (the question) will stand (and not be resolved)". What happened to the final letter mem? It is fairly common for words in Aramaic to lose the last letter. Almagor-Ramon gives the example of תו לא (no more) originally being תוב לא (in Hebrew שוב לא). In this online article, Kutscher gives more examples, and explains that this phenomenon is due to the influence of Akkadian (the language spoken in Babylonia/Iraq before Aramaic took over).


Due to fierce battles taking place there, the news has been filled with reports from the Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil (alternatively spelled Bint Jbail / Bint Jubayl / Bint Jubail). We have seen the etymology of the Arabic jabal, meaning mountain (and how it is connected with Hebrew gvul גבול). But what does bint mean?

Bint in Arabic means "daughter" (and woman in British slang). As we've seen earlier this week, Hebrew words have a tendency to drop the letter nun. The word for son in Hebrew is ben בן. So the word in Hebrew for daughter should have been bint בנת as well, but the nun dropped out, and we were left with bat בת. We still see traces of the "original" form in the plural - banot בנות. We see a similar phenomenon in Aramaic, where bar בר means son (as in "bar mitzvah") and ברת berat means daughter.

What about the expression b'vat achat בבת אחת - "simultaneously, all at once"? Klein explains that it derives from a different meaning of bat. A bat (often rendered "bath") also was a liquid measure equal to one ephah איפה. Therefore, the expression originally meant "with one measure".

(There is a silly joke told of someone who wants to electrocute his enemy. He goes to an electrician for help, who asks kama vat כמה וואט? (How many watts?). The guy replies b'vat achat בבת אחת...)

Lets pray for a speedy and full recovery for those soldiers injured in the fighting in Bint Jbeil, and condolences to those families who lost loved ones...

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


In this week's parasha (Devarim), Moshe quotes the spies as saying (1:28), "We saw the Bnei Anakim" - וְגַם-בְּנֵי עֲנָקִים, רָאִינוּ שָׁם

Who or what are the Anakim mentioned here? Is it simply "giants" as the term means in Modern Hebrew?

Tigay, in the JPS Deuteronomy, writes:

The exact meaning of "Anakites" is uncertain. Some take it as an epithet meaning "long-necked ones," based on Hebrew 'anak, "necklace," and its Arabic cognate meaning "neck". Others relate it to names of people or places in Canaan or across the Mediterranean containing the element 'anak or to Greek anax, "nobleman".

Lets look at each of these two theories. Klein says that anak ענק originally meant either a necklace for women, or a necklace for camels (Steinberg connects ענק with חנק - "to strangle, choke"). From this word we get the verb להעניק, which first meant "put something on one's neck" and later became "he loaded with gifts, presented." This verb only appears in Devarim 15:14, and indeed, Rashi and Ibn Ezra connect it there with the meaning of necklace. In modern Hebrew, a ma'anak מענק is a grant.

As far as the Greek anax (or wanax), we find that Homer frequently used the term in the Iliad, for example in the name Astyanax - meaning "prince of the city".

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


The seventh letter of the Hebrew alphabet is zayin. The original shape is variously described as a sword, a weapon, an axe or here as a hoe.

The sense of "derives" from the Aramaic meaning of zayin זין as "arms". Klein says that meaning is probably borrowed from the Avestic zaena.

According to Klein the root זון - to feed - is not related. He claims it derives from the Akkadian zananu - "to feed". This is the root of the words mazon מזון - food and tezuna תזונה - nutrition. Steinberg, however, points out that there are many examples in Semitic languages where the same root refers to both war and food: זן, לחם, טרף , צידה (we've discussed the lechem connection here.) If we say that the letter zayin was originally a hoe, then we can see how a tool like that could be used (or reformed to use) as a tool of war.

There are a few other apparently unrelated words with the same root:

The root זין also can mean "to adorn, ornament". Klein writes that it is borrowed from the Arabic zana, zayyana, meaning "he adorned, decorated". The root זנה - "to be a harlot" is also not connected (more on that root here).

Zan זן meaning "sort, kind" is, according to Klein, borrowed from the Old Persian zana. There is debate about the word miznon (or maznon) מזנון - meaning cupboard, or cafeteria. Klein writes:

Most scholars - on the basis of Rav Hai Gaon's derivation - connect it with זן (= kind). Others suggest to see in it a loan word from Gk. mazonoios ( = a wooden trencher for serving barley). Greek mazonomos is compounded of maza (= barley meal) and nomos, from the stem nemaen (= to deal out, attribute).

The letter zayin alternates with tzade and samech: עלז/עלץ/עלס and with dalet and tet: זבח/דבח/טבח.

Monday, July 24, 2006


In this weeks parasha (Devarim) we find that Moshe claims that God was angry at him:

גַּם-בִּי הִתְאַנַּף

What is the meaning of the root אנף? Here is another example of a "dropped nun" (more here, here and here). We are more familiar with the dropped form - af אף, meaning "nose" and "anger", I suppose due to heavy breathing during anger. (By the way, it is important to distinguish between אף - "nose" and עף - "fly". For years I thought that kadur-af -- volleyball -- was spelled כדור-אף, and couldn't understand why Israelis played it with their nose.)

Arabic has anf for nose, and in Aramaic, anaf אנף also means "face". Kutscher writes that in Lashon Chazal there are very few examples of af meaning "nose", and instead chotem חוטם was more popular. His explanation for the switch is a phenomenon where one word in Biblical Hebrew has two meanings (here both anger and nose), in Lashon Chazal, one of the meanings sticks (in this case "anger") and the other is replaced. (Another example of this is עץ and אילן - but I'll save that for a later post).

A derivative of אנף meaning "anger" is the bird anafa אנפה - "heron", which according to Klein originally meant "the quarrelsome bird".

Sunday, July 23, 2006


In this week's Shabbat B'Shabbato Eliyahu Netanel discusses the origin of the word סרן seren (army captain in Modern Hebrew). He mentions that it appears 22 times in the Tanach - once as an axle (Malachim I 7:30), and the remaining times as Philistine princes. He quotes the Ben Yehuda dictionary as saying that there are those who say the origin is in the Greek Turannos, and that the Targum translates the term as טוּרְנֵי פלשתאֵי.

He goes on to quote Kutscher's chapter on the word, where he claims that it derives from the Greek tyrannos - meaning "lord, master", and gives us the English word tyrant. Kutscher points out that there seems to be much evidence that the Philistines were connected to the Greeks. However, in his book (not quoted by Netanel) Kutscher writes that the word tyrannos is not likely of Greek origin, but borrowed by the Greeks (and the Philistines) from one of the languages spoken in Asia Minor.

Of course there are other opinions. Klein says that seren is "perhaps a dialectal of שר (prince in Hebrew)". Steinberg says that the meaning "axle" is related, for the princes are the axles upon which the kingdom revolves. And Yehuda Kil, in the Daat Mikra commentary to Shmuel I 5:8, says that perhaps seren is related to the Hittite SER, meaning "superior".

Thursday, July 20, 2006


A number of puns and plays on words are being passed around dealing with the current situation. One is a poster that says:

לא לעולם חסן

This is a play on words on Mishlei 27:24, which translates as "riches (khosen) are not forever" but the poster reads "Hassan (Nasrallah) is not forever".

Another slogan says: חסן לא חסין - "Hassan is not immune, protected".

Is there any connection between the various meanings of this root?

I would like to preface my answer by saying that there is a wide range of opinions and theories in regards to this root. I will try to present many of them, but I can't guarantee one unified theory.

In Biblical Hebrew, the root חסן appears in words with two basic meanings: a) something stored or protected, and therefore also riches, treasure and b) strong, strength.

In Aramaic, starting with the book of Daniel, and continuing to Talmudic Hebrew, we find a number of additional meanings. It can mean to take possession of, to inherit (or to bequeath), and that is the translation used often by Onkelos to translate the Hebrew נחלה nachala - inheritance. It can also mean "to strengthen one's self, to control one's emotions" and appears in the Targum for התאפק.

Steinberg connects all these meanings under a general sense of "to close, to stop, to hold tightly". From here he derives the meanings of "strong and strength", and "inheritance" has the sense of "closing in his possesion". And the meaning of storage - something closed away from others.

Klein, however, says that the meanings "to be strong" and "to store" have different etymologies. The first has cognates in Aramaic and Arabic, where as the second - "to store" - is connected to the Akkadian hasanu (= to comprehend, shelter) and is probably connected to אסן (stored, piled up).

Our Hebrew word machsan מחסן - storeroom - actually comes to us via Arabic, although of course derives from the same earlier root we've been discussing so far. The same Arabic word gave us the English word magazine:

"place where goods are stored, esp. military ammunition," from M.Fr. magasin "warehouse, depot, store," from It. magazzino, from Arabic makhazin, pl. of makhzan "storehouse," from khazana "to store up."

(This site also describes the etymology of "magazine", and connects the meanings of storage and strength.) According to Kutscher, the Hebrew word machsan not only derives from the Arabic, but actually was "inspired" by the European languages using the word "magazine".

Kutscher also provides an interesting cognate. We are all familiar with the word chazan חזן - meaning a cantor, a leader of prayer. However, the original meaning was an officer, a superintendent. Kutscher finds a number of examples in the Talmud where a chazan meant a guard - for example Bava Metzia 93b, where it mentions חזני מתא, which Rashi explains as "guards of the city". This would seem to be similar to the Arabic machzan. However, there is an opinion (Barth, Geiger) that machzan is actually of Persian origin, and Kutscher writes that if this is true, then the connection between chazan and machzan is just a coincidence. He continues by saying that the origin of chazan may be from חזה - he saw, making a chazan an overseer. But there are theories that contradict this as well. In the end, he writes that we simply don't know if there is a connection between חזן and חסן - and provides a Rashi (Makkot 22b), where Rashi admits he also doesn't know the origin: ולא שמעתי שום משמעות "I have not heard any explanation (for the word חזן)."

Returning to machsan, Stahl quotes the French linguist Guillaume (not sure who exactly) as saying that the root חסן meaning "store" is related to the ערי מסכנות - cities of storehouses - mentioned in Shmot 1:11, with some switching of letters.

What of the name Hasan (Hassan)? This is a very common Arabic name, and we also find the similar names Hosni and Hussein. All of these derive from the Arabic hasuna - "was beautiful" and husn - "beauty". I don't know if this Arabic root is related to any of the previously mentioned meanings of חסן.

There is one theory that the origin of the English word "assassin" comes from the name Hassan - the leader of a Muslim sect known as al-Hassan ibn-al-Sabbah. Another theory is that it derives from the word "hashish" - read more about that here and here.


A recent headline read:

ישראל פיזרה כרוזים בביירות - "Israel dropped flyers (kruzim) over Beirut".

What is the origin of this word? There are a number of related words. Kruzim כרוזים are proclamations, announcements. Karozot כרוזות are those that make the announcements - heralds, criers. And the verb is להכריז - to announce, proclaim. An example of a sentence with all three words:

הכרוזות הכריזו כרוזים

The etymology of the root is in dispute. It first appears in the Aramaic section of the book of Daniel (3:4, 5:29).

Klein writes that it is "probably borrowed from Old Persian krausa (= caller)."

Kil and HaCohen in their introduction to the Daat Mikra Daniel write that in addition to those who feel it derives from Persian, Kutscher believes it is an Aramaic root. But the most popular approach (including the Daat Mikra commentary, and Steinberg) seems to be that the word derives from Greek.

We indeed find a very similar set of words in Greek. A herald, a proclaimer was known as a keryx (karyx), and his message was the kerygma (kerugma). The verb "to proclaim" was keryssein. The herald's staff was called karykeion, and Latin converted the Greek into the word for the winged staff with two snakes: caduceus.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


Today's word isn't Hebrew, but is heard over and over again in the media. The infamous Katyusha rocket that is terrorizing the lives of the residents of the north of Israel, has its origins in Russia during World War II. From Wikipedia:

The 132mm BM-13, 82mm BM-8, and 300mm BM-31 Katyusha (Russian "Катюша") multiple rocket launchers were built and fielded by the Soviet Union in World War II (BM stands for for Boyevaya Mashina, 'combat vehicle'). These launchers acquired this name, unofficial but immediately recognized in the Red Army, from the title of a popular Russian wartime song, "Katyusha". The song is about a girl longing for her beloved who is away from her while serving in the military. Katyusha is a tender Russian diminutive of a female name: Ekaterina

From Katherine we got another name of a destructive force: Katrina - the deadly hurricane that hit the Gulf Coast of the United States in 2005.

Going back further, we see that the name Katherine has Greek origins:

From the Greek name Αικατερινη (Aikaterine). The etymology is debated: it could derive from the earlier Greek name ‘Εκατερινη (Hekaterine), which came from ‘εκατερος (Hekateros) "each of the two"; it could derive from the name of the
goddess HECATE; it could be related to Greek αικια (aikia) "torture"; or it could be from a Coptic name meaning "my consecration of your name". The Romans associated it with Greek καθαρος (katharos) "pure" and changed their spelling from Katerina to Katharina to reflect this.

And to give this some Hebrew connection, we see that in the Septuagint the word ekateros appears often as a translation for שניהם - "both" as in Bereshit 40:5. There are even those (if I understand correctly) who translate ekateros as "one and another", which connects it to the Sanskrit eka meaning one, and the Hebrew אחד echad.

Monday, July 17, 2006


Good old vav. Vav ו is the 6th letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It derives from the Hebrew word vav וו, meaning hook or peg. The letter looks like the word (the letter in ancient script - and ancient hooks - looked more like a letter Y, or as Rashbam on Shmot 26:32 says, "a fork"), the word is made up of only that letter, and it's practically the only Biblical Hebrew word that begins with that letter. What a great package. Does everything have to be complicated?


Whenever Israel enters a military conflict, a common word heard is הבלגה havlaga. It means restraint, and להבליג is to restrain oneself. The word only appears a few times in Tanach: Amos 5:9, Tehillim 39:14, Eyov 9:27 and 10:20, and Yirmiyahu 8:18 (according to some opinions).

What is its etymology? (And, no, it's not from "blog" - blogs aren't exactly the source of self-restraint.)

In his entry, Klein writes:

Base of uncertain origin and meaning: usually rendered by 'to restrain oneself'. Most scholars connect it with Arab. balija ( = he gleamed, smiled), however, the verb הבליג could hardly have this meaning in the verses in which it occurs in the Bible.

However, in the verses themselves, it didn't mean "restraint" either. The Targum consistently translates הבליג as גבר, and Kaddari writes that it means to overcome someone else. The classical commentaries also explain הבליג as "becoming stronger".

It is beyond the scope of this blog to explain the Jewish concept of heroism, but we see also with the root גבר that it can mean both to "become strong" and "to overcome (oneself)".

An interesting source in Shabbat 77b is both related to this root and to today's situation. The gemara lists a number of cases where small animals can scare larger ones, and the proof of this is the pasuk from Amos 5:9 - הַמַּבְלִיג שֹׁד, עַל-עָז "Who sends forth destruction against the strong".

So after all this, our conception of havlaga and who is strong and who is weak is more confused then ever. Maybe my next entry will have more clarity...

Sunday, July 16, 2006


I'm not the only one who noticed the pasuk in the haftara:

מִצָּפוֹן תִּפָּתַח הָרָעָה, עַל כָּל-יֹשְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץ

"From the north shall disaster break loose upon all the inhabitants of the land!" (Yirmiyahu 1:14)

What is the etymology of tzafon צפון - north?

Related to J Aram. צפונא, Ugar. ( = north). Prob. derived from צפן and lit. meaning "the hidden or dark region". Several scholars derive צפון from צוף (= to swim), so that צפון would properly mean "the maritime land".

Kaddari points out that it refers to a number of enemies from the north.

The Assyrians:

כִּי מִצָּפוֹן עָשָׁן בָּא, וְאֵין בּוֹדֵד בְּמוֹעָדָיו (Yishayahu 14:31)

The Babylonians:

כִּי רָעָה, אָנֹכִי מֵבִיא מִצָּפוֹן (Yirmiyahu 4:6)

The Medes (against the Babylonians):

כִּי עָלָה עָלֶיהָ גּוֹי מִצָּפוֹן (Yirmiyahu 50:3)

The Hebrew word for "compass" מצפן matzpen - derives from tzafon as well. Klein writes that the word was coined by David Yellin (1864-1941), and literally means "that which points north". We also find the expression in Hebrew לאבד את הצפון - l'abed et hatzafon -- "to act without discretion, without reason", literally "to lose the north (direction in a compass.)

The word מצפון matzpun - conscience in Modern Hebrew - is indirectly related, as it also derives from the root צפן - to hide. Klein has two meanings, one biblical, and one modern:

1. hidden treasure (a hapax legemenon in the Bible, occurring Ovadia verse 6 in the phrase נִבְעוּ מַצְפֻּנָיו 'his hidden treasures were sought out').

2. conscience. מצפון is a loan translation of Arab. damir (= conscience), from damara (he hid, concealed, kept secret).

To end on a more positive note, north has a good connotation as well. In Bava Batra 25b, Rabbi Yitzchak says: הרוצה שיחכים ידרים, ושיעשיר יצפין "He who desires to become wise should turn to the south, and he who desires to become rich should turn to the north"...

Thursday, July 13, 2006


One of the most popular words used by the Israeli media today is הסלמה haslama. As of this writing, it appears more than 300 times in the Hebrew Google News. It means "escalation" - although an escalator is not a מסלים maslim, but is either דרגנוע dragnoa or מדרגות נעות madregot naot (Alcalay offers masak מסק, but I haven't seen that anywhere else.)

The word derives from sulam סולם - Hebrew for ladder. I was surprised to find out that sulam was a hapax legomenon - it appears only once in the Tanach, in Bereshit 28:12 - in Yaakov's famous dream. Therefore, it is not surprising that there is more than one opinion as to the meaning and etymology of the word. Nahum Sarna writes in his commentary:

The Hebrew term sullam, here rendered "stairway", is unique in the Bible; its etymology is uncertain. It may derive from the stem s-l-l, "to cast up a mound," or may be connected with Akkadian simmiltu, "steps." Sullam could therefore be a ladder or a stairway ramp.

There is an extensive article here describing the word sulam, its meaning and etymology.

We find that the ancient name of Rosh HaNikra, on the Lebanese border was סולמא דצור - "The Ladder of Tyre" - for it led up to the mountains of Lebanon.

Klein accepts the opinion that sulam derives from סלל, which he translates as "to lift up, to cast up", and connects to the Akkadian sullu - highway. One of the derivatives of סלל is the interjection סלה - "Selah". It appears often in Tehillim and in the book of Habbakuk as well. Klein says it is "probably a musical direction to raise the voice and derived from סלל (= to raise, to lift)." (See also Daat Mikra on Tehillim 68:5).

Another derivative is סוללה solela, which originally meant a raised mound of earth, primarily placed around the walls of a city for defensive purposes. According to Almagor-Ramon, Rashi (where?) explains the word as a catapult used to launch large stones. In the 17th century, the word solela was used in the sense of artillery. From here the word took on the meaning of an electrical battery - and indeed, the English word battery followed a similar path, first meaning a "unit of artillery" and then later meaning "an electrical cell."

So we've read about escalation, the entrance to Lebanon, and batteries of artillery. It's hard to tell whether we're discussing etymology or the news...

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


Previously we discussed the etymology of the English word carob and how it derives from the Hebrew חרוב haruv. The Greeks also had a word for carob - keration, literally meaning "little horn", from keras, horn. This eventually led to the English word carat as described here:

A carat is a weight. A small weight. Very small... there are 150 to the ounce. Well, at least, there are these days. In days of yore there might have been 144 or even 24 carats to the ounce. Obviously, in those days it paid to keep abreast of the local conversion rates. Carat comes from the Greek keration "little horn" and refers to the fruit of the carob (Ceratonia siliqua) tree. Let us, who have seen their withered brown pods littering the sidewalks of Santa Clara, assure you of the accuracy of that description. Originally the seeds themselves were used as weights and their use was adopted by the Arabs who traded all over the Mediterranean. They pronounced keration as qirrat and it was this Arabic word which entered Italian as carato and French as carat.

Kutscher points out that the Jews also used carob seeds as a measurement of weight as well as a monetary value. He quotes Lazar ben Yose from the time of the early Arab conquest of Eretz Yisrael as writing that he paid with "27 haruvin." Ibn Ezra on Shmot 30:13, explains that weight gera גרה is referring to carob seeds (גרגרי חרוב).

Kutscher writes that from Greek, keration passed into Aramaic, and appears in Yerushalmi Peah 21a: חד קרט. He claims that the term entered Arabic via Aramaic.

Kutscher writes that there are those that say that keration has a Semitic origin, but he believes it is originally Greek. I assume he might be referring to the similarity between the Greek keras and the Hebrew קרן keren - both meaning horn. In any case, Klein does not buy into the widely accepted approach, and writes:

But the Greek word itself is a Semitic loan word; it is borrowed either from Aram.-Syr. קרטא (= pod, husk), or Arab. qaraz (pods of the acacia tree). Gk. keration in the above sense is a folk-etymological alteration of the Sem. word and has nothing in common with keration (= small horn), dimin. of keras.

Related words in Hebrew are koret קורט - meaning "a particle, a grain", and Almagor-Ramon connects kurtov קורטוב, a small liquid measure in Talmudic Hebrew, and today meaning "a pinch" (Klein does not make a connection between the two, and Jastrow says that koret comes from קרץ, pinch.)

Monday, July 10, 2006


Kutscher (pg 28-9) brings up some interesting points about the carob tree - חרוב (haruv/charuv/kharuv). He writes that it appears nowhere in the Bible; this is particularly striking considering there are those that claim that the haruv originated in Eretz Yisrael. He quotes Immanuel Loew as saying that this word is proof that there are words that were used in Biblical times but don't appear in the Tanach, but show up in Tannaic times.

He writes that the etymology of the word is from the sword shaped pod - herev חרב is sword in Hebrew. (Jastrow claims it comes from חרב meaning dry - perhaps due to the dryness of the fruit, or the climate it can grow in). The word passed from Hebrew to Aramaic חרובא, and from Aramaic to Arabic harrubah. In the Middle Ages, it passed from Arabic to the European languages - caroube in French, carruba in Italian and carob in English.

More about other etymologies related to the carob plant (but not the word haruv) tomorrow.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


A couple of years ago, I was in a beit knesset in Israel and they had a list of objects that one could donate money for. I recognized all of them but one - the נברשת nivreshet. The closest Hebrew word I knew was mivreshet מברשת - meaning "brush", and I couldn't imagine why anyone would want to donate thousands of dollars towards a brush for a shul.

Turns out that nivreshet means chandelier or candelabrum in Modern Hebrew. The term first appears in Daniel 5:5, where it is generally translated as a menora מנורה - lamp. The fancier meaning of chandelier probably comes from a description of the nivreshet in the Second Temple in the third chapter of Yoma, as described here:

"Heleni HaMalka, Queen Helena, set a golden Nivreshet over the door of the Heichal…" (Yoma 3:10). I wrote that the Nivreshet was actually a rather unusual timepiece. "When the (rising) sun shined on it, it sparkled (from the reflected light) and then everybody knew that the time had arrived for K'ri'at Shema. (Yoma 37b).

What is the etymology of the word? Klein writes only that it is "of uncertain, prob. foreign origin" and that the similar Arabic nibras "is an Aramaic loan word".

Rav Saadia Gaon in his commentary on Daniel writes that the lamp was lit yearly, and therefore derives from the Aramaic ner bar shta נר בר שתא - "yearly lamp".

Steinberg provides a different combination: nevar-eshta נבר-אשתא - "a light of fire".

However, my favorite explanation comes from Stahl, following Jastrow. He writes that the Aramaic form of the word - נברשתא - was originally נבלשתא nevlashta. Therefore the root of the word is בלש - to search (guessing why I like this theory?). Stahl points out that on the verse in Tzephania (1:12) - וְהָיָה בָּעֵת הַהִיא, אֲחַפֵּשׂ אֶת-יְרוּשָׁלִַם בַּנֵּרוֹת "At that time, I will search Jerusalem with lamps", is translated by the Targum as: כמא דבלשין בנברשתא. He therefore thinks that נברשת and נבלשת are connected, and perhaps the word developed because one uses a lamp to search for things in the darkness.

And what of the mivreshet I spoke earlier? It turns out it wasn't a coincidence it was so familiar to me. Klein writes that it was:

Coined (in the form מברשה) by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) from corresponding words in non-Sem. languages (Ger. Burste, Fren. brosse, Eng. brush, etc.)

So I guess sometimes you have to "search with candles" to find an etymology, and sometimes it's right in front of your nose...


In this week's parasha (Pinchas) we have the description of the daily offering - the תמיד tamid (Bamidbar 28:2). This week, on the 17th of Tammuz, we commemorate the discontinuation of the tamid offering. What does the word tamid mean?

In modern Hebrew tamid is generally translated as "always". And in fact, most of the translations translate the term as a "continuous offering." However, Jacob Milgrom in the JPS Numbers translates it as "regular burnt offering" and writes "Tamid means 'regular,' not 'perpetual, eternal'." In a footnote he continues:

Just as aruhat tamid (2 Kings 25:29-30) refers to food regularly served on the king's table, 'anshei tamid (Ezek 39:14) means "men in regular employment" (N. H. Snaith, Leviticus and Numbers) and ner tamid (Exod. 27:20) refers to the regular lighting of the menorah each evening.

However, Milgrom's colleague in the JPS series, Nahum Sarna, is a little more flexible in his commentary on ner tamid in the JPS Exodus. He translates להעלות נר תמיד as "for kindling lamps regularly", and in his commentary writes:

Hebrew tamid may mean "with unfailing regularity" or "uninterruptedly." Thus, the olat tamid refers to the burnt offering brought twice daily, while esh tamid is the fire that burns perpetually on the altar and is never extinguished. Regarding the present case, verse 21 and Leviticus 24:3 explicitly state that the lamps are to burn from evening until morning. Further I Samuel 3:3 mentions that "the lamp of God had not yet gone out" in the sanctuary at Shiloh. Accordingly, as Rashi and Ibn Ezra recognize, ner tamid means a lamp kindled on a regular basis each evening. However, Josephus, referring to the Second Temple, records that on the lampstand "there is a light which is never extinguished by day or night". Ramban is of the opinion that the ner tamid is indeed a perpetually lit lamp from which light was taken at dusk each day to kindle the menorah.

Cassuto also agrees with Rashi. On Shmot 27:20 he writes:

The word tamidh is intrinsically capable of two interpretations: it can mean 'continuously, without interruption' - that is, the lamps would never be extinguished, either by day or by night; or it can signify 'regularly' - that is the lamps would burn every night; on no night would its light be wanting - as in the expression עלת תמיד olath tamidh ['continual burnt offering']. According to the plain meaning of the text, the second sense is more probable, for in v. 21 it is stated: 'from evening to morning'; so, too, in Leviticus 24:3; compare, further, Exodus 30:7-8, and also I Samuel 3:3 'And the lamp of the Lord had not yet gone out.' During the day there was no need for the light of the candelabrum, since sufficient light from without entered through the screen; moreover, the priests could lift up the screen and illumine the interior
of the holy place.

Just as there is disagreement as to the meaning of tamid, there are a number of opinions as to its etymology. Klein lists several:

Probably derived from base מוד, which is related to Arab. madda (= he stretched, extended; he prolonged, made to continue), lit.: "he measured" (= Heb. מדד 'he measured'). According to Hommel, תמיד is related to Arab. ta'mid (=fixing, establishment), inf. of 'ammada (= he fixed, established). Geiger and Perles see in תמיד a contraction of תעמיד, from עמד (=to stand.) Driver derives it from base מוד appearing in Arab. mada (=he increased).

Friday, July 07, 2006


When I was a young kid, maybe third grade, someone gave me The Aleph-Bet Story Book, by Deborah Pessin (JPS, 1946). It is a children's book with 22 chapters - each about one of the letters of the alphabet. All the letters take anthropomorphic forms and get their own story. Many of the letters are associated with the etymologies of their names: Gimel becomes friends with Gamal the camel, Dalet helps Adam invent the door, etc. Pessin has Hey invent the first window - for Hey "looked like a window". That always seemed strange to me - since hey does not look that much like a window to me.

Fast-forward to earlier this year. My father brought me Letter Perfect by David Sacks. Another book about letters in the alphabet; just as enjoyable, but without the cute stories. In his chapter about the letter E, Sacks describes how it developed from the Hebrew hey. He writes:

"What the he meant - and this is no kidding - was "Hey!" The letter's name indicated a shout of surprise. And the letter's shape illustrated it strikingly. The earliest surviving example of a written he appears oldest known alphabetic writing, carved into limestone in Central Egypt around 1800 BCE. The letter shape is a human stick figure, half crouching, perhaps leaping upward, arms raised at the elbows. The person is probably meant to be shouting, in an ancient Semitic expression that by coincidence resembles our "Hey!". "

You can see the development from the "hands-up" guy here to our current hey on the e-hebrew site.

There are those that say that hey actually refers to the Hebrew word הלל - hillul or hallel, meaning jubilation. I'm not so sure. While hey does start the word hallel, it isn't actually the make up of the word. In any case, I'm not sure we need to look so far. In Hebrew and Aramaic the words הא and הי (hey and ha) mean "behold". Klein says that הי, meaning "lo", "behold" or "here is" works as a prefix in the words הילך, היכן and הינו.

Interestingly, to return to Pessin, there are those that say that while the character originally meant hillul, it followed a similar transformation as we've seen in other letters, and later took on the meaning - and pronunciation - of "window". I don't think that this is referring to chalon חלון, since there isn't much of a similarity. Perhaps there was a Phoenician word hey meaning window. Anybody know?

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


Ashkelon has been in the news recently, so I thought I'd write a post in honor of the town in their difficult time.

Ashkelon was one of the five Philistine cities, and sits on the Mediterranean coast. Being on the coast, a lot of produce traveled through it. Of the vegetables that Ashkelon was widely known for included types of onions. It is debated whether the onions originated in Ashkelon, or were exported/imported via the city. In either case, from the name Ashkelon came two English words for those onions:

scallion: c.1300, from Anglo-Fr. escalone, O.N.Fr. escalogne, or O.Fr. eschaloigne, all from V.L. *escalonia, from L. (caepa) Ascalonia "(onion) from Ascalon".

shallot: 1664, from Fr. échalote, from M.Fr. eschalotte, from O.Fr. eschaloigne, from V.L. *escalonia

As this site writes:

The shallot (Allium cepa, var. aggregatum) is also listed in older works as Allium ascalonium after the town of Ascalon, Syria where it is said to originate. Theophrastus (372 - 288 BCE) describes the "Askolonion krommoon" which may or may not be a reference to the shallot. Pliny (23 - 79 CE) describes "the Ascalon onion, named for a town in Judaea" in the Natural History, Book XIX but this seems to be in reference to a different Allium, because it is propagated from seed rather than divisions.

Ashkelon was also described by the Greek historian Strabo:

The country of the Ascalonitae is a good onion-market, though the town is small.

In Hebrew these types of onions are known today as betzal yarok בצל ירוק - "green onion", as they are also known in parts of America. This site writes that:

Immanuel Loew, the German-Jewish scholar who pioneered the study of plants mentioned in ancient Jewish sources, designated the בצלצול betzaltzul as A. ascalonicum.

I find this interesting, mostly since we use betzaltzul as a nickname for our son Betzalel...

As far as the etymology of Ashkelon אשקלון, there are those that feel it comes from שקל shekel, but I haven't seen an explanation other than the appearance of that root in the name.


The Hebrew word for "attic" is boidem (or boydem) - בוידם. Actually, it's more of a crawl-space, as described here: "created by a lowered ceiling usually running along the corridor, with an opening in the bathroom, above the door".

The word entered Hebrew via Yiddish, but originated in German as dachboden. Dachboden literally means "floor (boden) of the roof (dach)".

Dach comes from a root meaning "to cover" and is related to the English words thatch and stegosaurus.

The word boden derives from an earlier sense meaning "ground, earth, soil" and is connected to the words bottom and embed.

Monday, July 03, 2006


Earlier, we listed a number of roots beginning with either קצ or קט - all of whom mean "to cut". I have since discovered another root: קסם, where the samech replaced the tzadi in the previous pattern.

Klein writes that קסם originally meant "to cut, break, divide, distribute" as in Arabic qasama ( = he divided, distributed, apportioned). Jastrow says that a kasam קסם means "a carver", and gives an interesting interpretation to the Mishna and Gemara in Sanhedrin 81b:

והמקלל בקוסם: תני רב יוסף יכה קוסם את קוסמו

This is generally translated as "He who curses by enchantment: He curses thus: 'May the charm [the idol] slay its enchanter' ". However, Jastrow translates it as "He that curses (his neighbor) invoking God as 'a carver' (instead of creator ex nihilo): may the carver strike his carving."

From this meaning, we get the word kesam קיסם, originally meaning "chip, carving" and now meaning "toothpick" as well.

Klein continues his etymology as follows:

'he divided by drawing lots at the sanctuary', istaqsama ( =he got a part allotted to himself), aqsama (= he swore), qismah (=portion, lot, fate), whence Turkish qismet

This is also the source of the English word kismet.

From the meaning of קסם as divination, enchantment, magic, we get the Hebrew adjective maksim מקסים - which means enchanting, and has nothing to do with "maxim" or "maximum".

One little story related to the two meanings of קסם: When I first went to the well known Jerusalem restaurant Marvad HaKesamim I wasn't aware of the significance of the name. (It means "magic carpet", and was also the name of the operation that brought Yemenite Jews to Israel at the founding of the state.) At the end of the meal, they served us toothpicks, which only then I learned were called "keisamim". I couldn't understand why they'd name a restaurant after toothpicks, even of the highest quality...

Sunday, July 02, 2006

moten and matun

A friend of mine recently asked me if there was any connection between the following words:

  1. מותן moten - hip, loin, waist
  2. מתון matun - moderate
  3. המתין himtin- he waited
  4. מתנה matana- gift
First of all, we can safely say that #4 is not related to the first 3. The original form of the word of the word was מנתנה, but the nun dropped out (as we've seen here for example). The root of the word is therefore נתן - not connected to the other three.
As far as #2 and #3, everyone agrees they are related. Klein says the root מתן means "to slow down, act slowly". Matun means he was moderate, patient and himtin means he waited (a sign of patience.) From what I can see there is no difference between להמתין and לחכות - both mean wait, but לחכות is used in the Tanach, and להמתין appears first in Lashon Chazal. In fact, when the verb חכה appears in Iyov 32:4, the Targum translates, and Rashi explains it as being המתין.
So what about moten? Any relation to matun? Klein does not suggest a connection, but Steinberg does. Steinberg says that the root מתן means "was long, was stretched" (Jastrow does as well.) He says this is the source of motnayim מתניים (the word always appears in the plural in the Tanach.) He doesn't exactly explain the connection between "to stretch" and "waist, hips", but I bet many of us could look at our belts and begin to associate...
Steinberg goes further and connects this root with a number of other words beginning with the same two letters. The verb מתח is fairly easy to connect - it means "to spread out, to stretch".
He also connects them to the word matai מתי - which besides meaning "when?" also means "a length of time" (see Yirmiyahu 13:27). He gives a number of additional examples (Habbakuk 2:6, Tehillim 80:5) and says that it is an error to always explain there matai as being part of a question.
Another related word, according to Steinberg is mavet or mot מות - death. He explains the idea of a dead person "lying down, stretched out".
Lastly, he connects the word metim מתים - meaning people, as in ויהי מתיו מספר - (Devarim 33:6) - "and let not his men be few". However, he doesn't explain the connection, so I can't write it here...

Saturday, July 01, 2006


Last week we discussed how the word "zenith" derives from the Latin semita. According to Klein, semita is also the origin of the Hebrew simta סימטא (also סימטה, סמטה) - alley or lane. He writes:

From L. semita, which of compounded of se and meare (=to go, pass).

Jastrow has a different opinion. In the introduction to his dictionary, he writes:

Take e. g. the word סיטמא and its dialectic equivalent איסמטא, which means (a) a recess, an alley adjoining the market place to which the merchants retire for the transaction of business, also the trader's stand under the colonnade, and (b) an abscess, a carbuncle. The Latin semita, which since Musafia has been adopted as the origin of simta, offers hardly more than an assonance of consonants: a footpath cannot, except by a great stretch, be forced into the meaning of a market stand; and what becomes of simta as abscess? But take the word as Semitic, and סמט , dialectically שמט, offers itself readily, and as for the process of thought by which 'recess', 'nook', goes over into 'abscess' in medical language, we have a parallel in the Latin 'abscessus.'

In a footnote he adds:

In fact where Pesahim 50b has תגרי סימטא , Tosefta Biccurim end, in Mss. Erfurt and Vienna,reads תגרי שמיטה, which is obviously a corruption of שימטה, the pure Hebrew form for the Aramaic סיטמא.

A few notes of explanation:

a) Musafia refers to Rabbi Binyamin Mussafia (1606-1675), author of Musaf HaArukh, a commentary on the Talmudic dictionary, the Arukh. According to the bibliography of The Living Torah:

The author made use of the Lexicon Chaldaicum Talmudicum by Johannes Buxtorf (Basle, 1604) to show how many Talmudic words are derived from Greek and Latin.

As in this example, throughout his dictionary Jastrow tries to show how Talmudic words derive from Semitic sources. Therefore he had much cause to disagree with Mussafia.

b) For Jastrow's examples of simta meaning "abscess, carbuncle", he quotes Avoda Zara 28a, and Shabbat 67a. However, Klein, who translates it as a furuncle (another kind of boil), gives a different etymology:

From Aramaic סימטא, which is of uncertain, perhaps Greek, origin. cp. Gk. semation dimin. of sema (= mark) and semasia ( = mark in the skin).

c) Later in the dictionary, Jastrow defines שמט as "to slip, to loosen, detach, to carry off, steal".

Klein was familiar with Jastrow; in fact he includes him in his bibliography. Perhaps he rejected Jastrow's approach because more research had been done in the decades between the publication of each dictionary. But it also seems that Klein was cautious of any "agenda" when it came to etymology - either that of Mussafia or that of Jastrow. This is an important lesson to any of us today when studying the etymology of Hebrew words - be careful of those with "agendas" - and there are many of them out there.