Monday, October 09, 2006


Sargel סרגל in Hebrew means "ruler" (as used for measuring and drawing straight lines.) Klein offers the following etymology:

Probably Saph'el formed from Latin regula ( = straight piece of wood, ruler, rule) which derives from regere ( = to keep straight, lead, direct, rule) ... Some scholars compare Syriac מסרגדנא ( = ruler), a word derived from סרגד ( = he traced or wrote lines), which is dominated from סורגדא ( = line, verse).

In this article, Raphael Jospe discusses this issue and adds the following:

The identification of סרגל with regula appears first in Nathan ben Yehiel's Arukh, ed. Kohut 6:131-132. Avraham Even-Shoshan's המילון החדש (Jerusalem, 1967), 4:1843 lists regula as the probable derivation of סרגל , but posits the Aramaic root סגל as another possibility. Jastrow (Dictionary 2:1023) suggests that סרגל is the saf'el form of the root רגל (and thus means to lead the writer in ruling or drawing lines); this view is shared by M. Z. Segal in his note in Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, Dictionary, 8:4203-4204, n. 1, who adds "some derive it from the Latin regula." Samuel Krauss (Grieschische und Lateinische Lehnworter im Talmud, Midrash, und Targum 2:412b-413a) also derives סרגל from regula, but Immanuel Low rejects this view in his note and in the index (p. 683a) and posits instead a Syriac origin for the term. I have been unable to substantiate Low's view in the Syriac dictionaries which I consulted. Payne-Smith (Thesaurus Syriacus, pp. 2728-2729) offers "regula" as the meaning of מסרגדנא, but this has nothing relating to סרגל.

I certainly will not try to determine which expert is correct about the etymology of sargel. However, we can see from here the similarity between the Hebrew word regel רגל (as we discussed yesterday) and the Latin regula.

Jospe's article focuses on a famous story where the similarity between the two words comes to play. This is the abstract of the article:

The late Mordecai M. Kaplan suggested that the term רגל mentioned in the story in BT (bShab 31a) of Hillel's conversion of a Gentile to Judaism "while I stand on one foot" (על רגל אחת) may be a bilingual pun, if רגל is understood as the Latin regula, rather than literally as the Hebrew word for "foot." The term regula could have been known to first-century Jews through both Greek and Latin usage. Although a literal reading of רגל as "foot" here is certainly justified, and gives the story much of its charm, there are also literary, if not historical or etymological, grounds for Kaplan's reading of the story. First, the Latin connotations of regula might make sense to a Gentile speaker. Second, Hillel is associated in several rabbinic passages with formulating seven hermeneutic "rules" (מדות), and this association could underlie our story's portrayal of Hillel as interpreting the Torah in terms of one basic rule (regula) of behavior. Third, in addition to the metaphoric usage of "foot" as a principle or foundation of the Torah in our story, "standing" may also be employed metaphorically. Other rabbinic statements refer to basic principles on which the world "stands," i.e., the ethical foundations of the world. Fourth, our story clearly contrasts Shammai, who angrily rejects the challenge posed by the Gentile and pushes him away with his builder's cubit, whereas Hillel welcomed the challenge and employed his regula (= מדה = rule, ruler, or rod) to bring him to the Torah.

Again, I don't claim to know whether Kaplan's theory (or even Jospe's article) is based in fact or not. But Jospe does provide evidence that it was likely the Rabbis were aware of the word regula (perhaps via Greek, which borrowed it from Latin in some examples he provides.)

Could the Latin regula and the Hebrew regel have some common origin? Mike Gerver writes:

Although the l in regular and the ל in רגיל, meaning “customary,” are surely not related, the Indo-European root reg, meaning “move in a straight line,” seems like a good candidate to be related to Hebrew רגל, “foot,” which as a verb means “to go about,” as seen for example in the word מרגלים, “spies.” The meaning “to go about” is not a late derivative of the basic meaning “foot,” but is found also in Arabic words from the same Semitic root. The Indo-European and Semitic words do not have the right sound shifts to come from a common Nostratic root, but might represent an early loan in one direction or the other between Semitic and Indo-European. I have not seen this suggested anywhere, however.

And Steinberg writes that רגל is related to other words beginning with the same two letters: רגע , רגז , רגן and רגש ). But we're heading back very early in history, and aren't likely to find any solid proof one way or another.

However, in more modern times the association between regel, and its derivative רגיל ragil and regula and its derivative "regular" is very clear. As we discussed yesterday, ragil means "usual, common, customary, and also experienced, trained". But there is a difference between customary and "regular". And yet in Israel today people will order "plain pizza" as "פיצה רגילה" pizza regila. I am certain this is from the influence of the similar sounding, English word "regular".

No comments: