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.

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